Friday, February 25, 2011

How the US Government Paid to Help Create Fox News

As conservatives make yet another attempt to convince Congress to shut down public broadcasting I believe it is worthwhile to revisit the history of broadcasting and the development of broadcast media and technology.

We will see that, in fact, the United States Government helped pay for the creation of Fox News and other modern media outlets by paying for the development of the technology they use and by providing preferential treatment in issuing licenses for the broadcasting frequencies they use.


About 30 years ago I wrote a college paper that explored some of the history of modern telecommunications and broadcasting technology. Although the paper isn't well written (I had no computer or the inclination in those days to do edits and re-writes) it does show us how these technologies were all developed by private companies originally funded by the Federal government. First came the telegraph, then the telephone, then radio and television. The paper was written before it's creation but most people today know how government funding helped create the Internet.


The basic story is that the government needed new communication technologies to assist them in various war efforts. Federal funding paid companies like Western Union, Westinghouse, General Electric, Western Electric, and American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) to develop these new technologies.

It all began in 1844 when Congress authorized $30,000 to build the first telegraph line between Washington DC and Baltimore, MD.

Once the government decided it didn't need to develop the technology further these companies had opportunities to develop commercial uses for the newfangled communication devices. At first it was difficult to figure out how to make money selling radios and eventually televisions. What would people do with them?

Westinghouse realized if they provided something for people to listen to there was a possibility that they would purchase radios. Thus it was the need to sell radios that helped to jump start the modern broadcasting industry around 1920.

"From there the beginning of sponsored (radio) programs came about" I wrote in 1980, "with 'brand name' programs such as the 'Browning King Orchestra.' After AT&T's decision to start what they called 'Toll Broadcasting' in 1922 such programs became the order of the day." The shows, paid for by a company or store, carried the name of the sponsor but didn't mention specific products. Also known at the time as "ether advertising," the development of radio programming centered on corporate willingness to allow this sort of indirect and eventually direct advertising which would be used to pay for the cost of production and broadcasting facilities.

With the formation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), consolidation and cooperation within this new industry was achieved. Western Electric controlled the manufacturing of transmission equipment while General Electric and Westinghouse controlled the production and distribution of radios. All were sold under the RCA trademark. They built transmitting stations all over the USA and thus controlled both ends of the broadcasting industry -- production and sale of receivers and the production and transmission of programming.

There were attempts to put non-commercial broadcasting on the air but in general they failed. Not only did non-commercial broadcasting prove to be economically infeasible but the tremendous economic success of advertising based programming left few people calling for any sort of non-commercial programming.

One such call was the Wagner-Hatfield amendment to President Roosevelt's Federal Communications Act of 1934 which created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This amendment would have provided 25% of all radio frequencies for educational programs to promote public interest content and civic engagement. The Wagner-Hatfield amendment was defeated. There were components of the  Communications Act of 1934 that did require companies to broadcast public interest material but those requirements (including what became known as the Fairness Doctrine) were removed during the Reagan Administration.
Edward R. Murrow

Commercial broadcasters did try to provide news and information for it's viewers. But most of those efforts didn't last long. Alcoa sponsored the CBS program "See It Now" which was a groundbreaking news and documentary program featuring Edward R. Murrow. Alcoa eventually withdrew sponsorship for this program and CBS was hard pressed to pay the $90,000 per episode to keep the program on the air. See It Now went off the air in 1958.


It was almost 10 years later that Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. In his remarks at the public bill signing ceremony President Lyndon Johnson said "Today our problem is not making miracles -- but managing miracles. We might well ponder a different question: What hath man wrought -- and how will man use his inventions?"

Johnson continued: "The law that I will sign shortly offers one answer to that question. It announces to the world that our Nation wants more than just material wealth; our Nation wants more than a 'chicken in every pot.' We in America have an appetite for excellence, too."

"While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man's spirit. That is the purpose of this act."


"It will give a wider and, I think, stronger voice to educational radio and television by providing new funds for broadcast facilities. It will launch a major study of television's use in the Nation's classrooms and their potential use throughout the world."

"Finally -- and most important -- it builds a new institution: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting." Unfortunately it was already too little, too late. More than fifty years of commercial broadcasting success meant it would be an uphill battle for public broadcasters to win viewers and the revenue it needed to succeed.


Today, the federal government allocates about $430,000,000 annually to the CPB. 95% of the federal dollars are allocated directly to public broadcasting stations with television and radio stations splitting this money 75% and 25%. House Republicans hope to slash all of this money from next year's budget in order to address skyrocketing federal deficits.


The federal allocation equals about 10% of the total budget for National Public Radio. The rest is paid for by viewer membership fees and corporate sponsors. By comparison, in 2011 the Fox network received over $270,000,000 in advertising revenue for the Super Bowl broadcast alone. With these kinds of numbers it is no surprise how difficult it is for public broadcasting to compete for viewers with the financial support they get.

Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn of Colorado told NPR that public broadcasting provides a valuable service and that "No one's talking about eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or NPR. We're just saying let's not have the taxpayer subsidy. The taxpayers just can't keep paying for everything."


Democrat Earl Blumenauer of Oregon disagrees and introduced a resolution to stop the proposed cuts. "There's a reason there isn't a commercial entity that provides local programs the way that NPR does, it's not commercially viable." Small towns and rural areas would be hit hardest.

Tracy Rosenberg, Executive Director of Media Alliance notes that Public Radio has been trying to address this issue for about a decade now through the Station Resource Group which created a plan to accumulate capital if the industry is to expand and remain competitive in an increasingly complex media environment. However, the amount of money and the number of frequencies they have to work with pales in comparison to the amount of money and media outlets commercial broadcasters own.

And then there is the Internet and how it's affecting all broadcasting outlets. NPR.org and PBS.org are amazing sites with tremendous valuable content published and growing each day. But again, how will they compete for viewers and listeners without the revenue necessary to keep the ship afloat?

Why should you care about public broadcasting? Let's let President Johnson have the last word:

"In 1844, when Henry Thoreau hear about Mr. Morse's telegraph, he made this sour comment about the race for faster communication. 'Perchance,' he warned, 'the first news which will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.'"

"We do have skeptic comments on occasions. But I don't want you to be that skeptic. I do believe that we have important things to say to one another -- and we have the wisdom to match our technical genius."

"In that spirit this morning, I have asked you to come here and be participants with me in this great movement for the next century, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967."

We have indeed reached that next century. It is upon us to decide whether we want that century to be as brilliant as Johnson hoped and envisioned it would be.


If you want to have a say in this matter join millions of Americans in a Response to the call for the end of federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

For the Record

Driving to Davis a few weeks ago I popped a tape into the audio cassette player in my 1999 van and played Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come. After it was finished playing my son Noah said "Dad, you used to have good taste in music."

Forgetting about the jab at my personal music choices and focusing on the music and the media I thought about that "old" van I drive with 170,000 miles on it, the cassette player, and the cassettes I have from back in the day. How much longer would I be able to play those tapes? Do I need to start purchasing digital versions of this music? Most of these cassettes were created by transferring albums and CDs to tape during the 1980s. Who has the time (and the equipment) to do any of that anymore? Maybe I can get a better price for the van when I decide to sell it if I offer the cassettes as part of the deal!

About that same time I heard the Library of Congress announced the largest donation of audio recordings in its history. The Universal Music Group donated thousands of "master recordings -- the final metal discs used to press commercial releases; lacquer discs that were cut in the studio to capture full takes of tunes; and reel-to-reel tapes." 

The entire collection dates from about 1930 to 1950 and includes about 200,000 metal masters, 10,000 reel-to-reel tapes, and about 15,000 lacquer discs.

This material is considered so valuable it will be stored underground in facilities once run by the Virginia Federal Reserve and now is the Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

exterior view of the National Audio Visual Conservation Center
National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

The metal plates have ridges instead of grooves. They require a special stylus to play the sound. After about four months of shipping these materials via tractor-trailer the staff will begin the process of finding out what they have and eventually digitizing it all. 

What could be so valuable there and why would we want to preserve it? One example was the SECOND master recording of Bing Crosby's White Christmas. This recording from 1947 had to be created because Crosby's rendition of the song was so popular the record company was no longer able to make copies from the original 1942 recording. It was worn out.

What could be even more exciting is what we do not know is in this collection says Gene DeAnna, head of the Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress. "There is so much possibility here of discovery of recordings that have been off the sonic landscape of America. It's gonna be a treasure to mine for many years for the archive."

You might ask why should the United States government fund the storage, restoration, and eventual publication of material that a large corporation like Universal Music Group no longer values. According to DeAnna "90% of what we're taking in here is not commercially viable." In a recent study the Library of Congress found that only 14% of recorded music from between the 1890s to the 1960s is  commercially available to the public.

Perhaps that's just this issue. The Library of Congress isn't interested in making money. They are in the business of archiving, preserving, and providing access to the wealth of information that makes up the American Memory. If businesses come and go this material can go along with it . . . if we don't preserve it.

And this is true of our own personal treasure trove of images and sounds. Here is a picture of my Mom's elementary school class in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. 



Besides me, and my family, who else cares about this image? What makes it valuable and why and how would someone want to archive and preserve it? I'll talk more about that in future articles.


Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Yad Vashem Partners with Google to Publish Shoah Documents

As you all know Google is fast becoming a major player in publishing digital books. Add that to their stranglehold on the basic web information resource search mechanisms. Google seems to think it's going to be a one stop shopping center for digital information resources and ideas.

Google has announced a new partnership with Yad Vashem, the Jewish people's living memorial to the Holocaust, to archive and publish the world's largest historical collection on the Holocaust including 130,000 full resolution photographs.  Yad Vashem already publishes a number of it's resources online including the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names. Two years ago Google and Yad Vashem partnered in the creation of a YouTube channel which publishes survivor testimonies and other materials in several languages.

This new partnership is designed to develop better methods of bringing this large amount of data available and searchable to the widest possible audience. In a press release from Yad Vashem, Yossi Matias, Google's R & D Director in Israel says, "(we are) working to bring the world's historical and cultural heritage online. The Internet offers a great opportunity to preserve and share important materials stored in archives."