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Re: <nettime> Users are the Real Media Masters
Ognjen Strpic on Mon, 23 Jun 2003 15:25:43 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> Users are the Real Media Masters


This particular loss of the commons is, I believe, underway not only in
US. I'm afraid that FCC's rulings and US communications/media policy have
quite tangible global impact.

But first of all, let me say that I tend to read Cato Institute report not
primarily as an odd rightie mumble-jumble, but more as a signal that
mediacorps are getting nervous. Why so?

geert lovink <geert {AT} xs4all.nl>:
> Protests not only came from
> usual liberal-left suspects but also mainstream conservative organizations
> and celebrities.

One "celebrity" revealed some of the consequences of this ruling very
clearly. This is Ted Turner's comment in Washington Post:

     The new, relaxed rules would ``stifle debate, inhibit new ideas and
     shut out smaller businesses trying to compete,'' Turner wrote in
     The Washington Post on Friday. ``If these rules had been in place
     in 1970, it would have been virtually impossible for me to start
     Turner Broadcasting or, 10 years later, to launch CNN.''
     (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A1424-2003Jun1.html?
     nav=hptop)

If read in context of what is now 70 years old American tradition of
decision-making in broadcasting without any public discussion (see e.g.
R.W. McChesney's "Political Economy of Radio", in Seizing the Airwaves, AK
Press, 1998, [http://www.infoshop.org/texts/seizing/toc.html]), this sort
of reaction from this kind of guy is quite encouraging, and may be a
promise for second front of battle against total commercialization of
airwaves (first being free/micro/community radio movement, see Seizing the
Airwaves, ibid.). And there's a lot to react to:

FCC Chairman Michael Powell apparently doesn't even take his job to be a
question of public policy and thus susceptible to public interests;
instead, FCC acts as a kind of intermediary between interested parties,
ie. media mogules. The excuse (or support, as they probably see it) for
this latest maneuver seems to be FCC's "diversity index", which measures
number of TV and radio stations in a given "market". The numbers show the
increase, of course. What numbers don't show is that there's been a
corresponding increase of concentration of media ownership, and here's
when Cato Institute comes into play, telling us that it doesn't matter,
because the audience is really in control. The logic is clear, if not
impeccable.

It's not just small or mid-size broadcasting that is under threat.
Probably the most dangerous consequence of FCC's " slightly loosened"
restrictions is allowing for broadcast media owners to control newspapers
in the same "market". TV spectrum is quite visibly shared between a few
major networks, but this goes to radio, too: Clear Channel corp's 1000+
radio stations are presently as US-wide as they can be. One can only
imagine how would (or will) this monolythic structure of ownership impact
printed media.

				* * *

Now, I'm not writing this primarily out of concern for American public. As
I announced, my itch is that US media policy is being exported elsewhere,
and with considerable success. Some of what follows may sound a bit like
conspiracy theory, but I mean it. You have been warned.

IREX (International Research & Exchanges Board -- could you think of more
uninformative name?) is US government funded organization for worldwide
promotion of "independent media". (By the way, Irex's field offices are
usually appropriately named ProMedia. Contact addresses by country are
given at [http://www.irex.org/programs/location.asp]) In Irex,
independence of media is understood typically FCC-style: keyword for
independence is "sustainability".

Every year, a report called "Media sustainability index" is published by
Irex for nothing less than regions of Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia and
Western Eurasia, and Southeast Europe at
[http://www.irex.org/msi/index.asp]. MSI is by itself an interesting
reading, even more so because it employs a peculiar rhetoric of supremely
democratic neutrality to talk about growth of media business.

Here's how Irex is supporting independent media in Croatia. (I glanced
through some of other countries' reports, but I'll talk about Croatia
because I'm much more familiar with local situation; other South-Eastern
Europe reports seem to be quite similar, however.)

     Developing Networks and Associations
   
     IREX is providing training, consulting, and grants to private,
     independent television and radio networks. Both the Croatian
     Commercial Network (CCN) and the Association of Independent Radio
     (AIR) share objective news programming and provide a national
     alternative to the state-controlled media. The AIR project is
     unique as the radio news is produced by the BBC World
     Service-Croatian Section. IREX also supports the Croatian
     Journalists Association.
   
It gets better:
                                   
     Improving Business Management
   
     IREX works with media outlets in Croatia to develop improved
     business and marketing practices. This assistance helps independent
     media obtain a larger share of advertising revenue, utilize optimal
     management techniques, and ultimately become competitive,
     sustainable businesses.

One recent local development is bound to be included in next year's MSI in
bold face: Croatian parliament passed the law which slightly loosened (pun
indended) the provisions of Croatian Telecommunications Act regarding the
range of what used to be nation-wide public radio stations. What the new
amendment amounts to is that law doesn't guarantee it any more.

First victim was, naturally, the weakest: few months later (March 12th,
effective May 30th, 2003), Third Program of Croatian Radio (HR3),
advertisment-free public service which broadcasts classical and other not
pop music, drama and essays, lost its central frequency to privately owned
Radio 101. In return, HR3 got two channels which cover the capital, city
of Zagreb, and has so far retained three other transmitters at the
periphery.

There were two arguments for this decision by Croatian Telecommunications
Commision: The frequency in question is 101 MHz and Radio 101 was named
after that channel, where it used to broadcast from 1985-1987, back then
when it was "socially-owned". Hence the channel was "given back" to them,
even though the signal covered the area of Zagreb when it was "taken
away", and now it covers almost half of the country.

The other, less ridiculous and more dangerous reason was that it had
higher ratings. Now, the fact is that HR3 used to have 5-6% ratings, which
is considered quite good among this type of stations in Europe. Radio 101
broadcasts mainly pop music and news, so their ratings are bound to be
much higher.

The other fact is that there's no way that this kind of service will be
provided by profit-driven station. I have collaborated with HR3 from 1997
to 2003, during which time it was about the only medium beside magazines
Arkzin, and later Zarez, which have regularly given voice to people like
Slavoj Zizek, Boris Buden, Michael Hardt, for example, not to mention a
number of nettimers (you know who you are :-). Series of essays were
broadcast by and about Guy Debord, Michel Foucault and others, about
antipsychiatry, about copyleft, ... you get the picture. Admittedly, it
was largely due to one single editor, theorist-philosopher-writer Ljiljana
Filipovic, but still indicates a level of opennes and thoroughness of HR3,
unparalleled by other public media and commercial mainstream media in
Croatia.

The flipside is that it was also used to give "intellectual" backing of
Tudjman's regime during his reign, although much less then most of the
other Croatian media at the time, public or private.

That second fact is in my view a clear counter-argument against the ideal
of commercial (de)regulation of airwaves. If this goal of legislation in
telecommunications, to clear the terrain for media corporations, is to be
accomplished, this will be the end of all or most not-for-profit
broadcasters, which provide useful services that cannot be substituted by
commercial stations. As for Croatia, it goes without saying that there's
no initiative here to provide a piece of spectrum for community radio or,
horribile dictu, TV.

But for whom, really? "Our" Radio 101 got "its" channel back, it is
proclaimed in unison, including an independent journalism award winner,
Feral Tribune. Not even HR3 staff said a word against this swap, and
official joint statement of Croatian radiotelevision and Radio 101 called
it "a friendly exchange".  We don't need a Cato Institute to defend
corporate media because nobody complains, anyway. Or, perhaps, we are all
Cato Institute. As it is, FCC/Irex/ProMedia agenda here passes
unchallenged, sometimes even unnoticed.

				* * *

Although there might be no center to Empire, I think neo-liberal media
policies are clearly broadcast globally, and that transmission is
initiated by FCC and other US agencies. The biggest mistake we could make
is to take FCC rulings as a matter of US interior policy. Irex's overt
worldwide agenda and its indices are at least an indicator of their global
trajectory.


Hoping to be proved wrong
Ognjen

* thanks to Maple Razsa for giving me a hint about ProMedia's background




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