October 18, 2018

The Decline of Localist Broadcasting Policies

Public policy, in the U.S. at least, has favored localism in broadcasting: programming on TV and radio stations is supposed to be aimed, at least in part, at the local community. Two recent events call this policy into question.

The first event is the debut of the Pandora application on the iPhone. Pandora is a personalized “music radio” service delivered over the Internet. You tell it which artists and songs you like, and it plays you the requested songs, plus other songs it thinks are similar. You can rate the songs it plays, thereby giving it more information about what you like. It’s not a jukebox – you can’t find out in advance what it’s going to play, and there are limits on how often it can play songs from the same artist or album – but it’s more personalized than broadcast radio. (Last.fm offers a similar service, also available now on the iPhone.)

Now you can get Pandora on your iPhone, so you can listen to Pandora on a battery-powered portable device that fits in your pocket – like a twenty-first century version of the old transistor radios, only this one plays a station designed especially for you. Why listen to music on broadcast radio when you can listen to this? Or to put it another way: why listen to music targeted at people who live near you, when you can listen to music targeted at people with tastes like yours?

The second event I’ll point to is a statement from a group of Christian broadcasters, opposing a proposed FCC rule that would require radio stations to have local advisory boards that tell them how to tailor programming to the local community. [hat tip: Ars Technica] The Christian stations say, essentially, that their community is defined by a common interest rather than by geography.

Many people are like the Pandora or Christian radio listeners, in wanting to hear content aimed at their interests rather than just their location. Public policy ought to recognize this and give broadcasters more latitude to find their own communities rather than defining communities only by geography.

Now I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be local programming, or that people shouldn’t care what is happening in their neighborhoods. Most people care a lot about local issues and want some local programming. The local community is one of their communities of interest, but it’s not the only one. Let some stations serve local communities while others serve non-local communities. As long as there is demand for local programming – as there surely will be – the market will provide it, and new technologies will help people get it.

Indeed, one of the benefits of new technologies is that they let people stay in touch with far-away localities. When we were living in Palo Alto during my sabbatical, we wanted to stay in touch with events in the town of Princeton because we were planning to move back after a year. Thanks to the Web, we could stay in touch with both Palo Alto and Princeton. The one exception was that we couldn’t get New Jersey TV stations. We had satellite TV, so the nearby New York and Philadelphia stations were literally being transmitted to our Palo Alto house; but the satellite TV company said the FCC wouldn’t let us have the station because localist policy wanted us to watch San Francisco stations instead. Localist policy, perversely, pushed us away from local programming and kept us out of touch.

New technologies undermine the rationale for localist policies. It’s easier to get far-away content now – indeed the whole notion that content is bound to a place is fading away. With access to more content sources, there are more possible venues for local programming, making it less likely that local programming will be unavailable because of the whims or blind spots of a few station owners. It’s getting easier and cheaper to gather and distribute information, so more people have the means to produce local programming. In short, we’re looking at a future with more non-local programming and more local programming.

Comments

  1. It seems to me that there’s a fundamental difference between Pandora/Last.fm and Christian radio stations: the former are indeed not restricted by locality, while the latter are.

    Inasmuch as a media source isn’t restricted by locality, it’s easy to see that that requiring that source to be influenced by locality doesn’t make sense. But I don’t see how that reasoning then can be extended to a media source that is restricted by locality.

    Also, the issue of anti-competitive rules seems to me to be orthogonal to the above issue. That is, while I’m not convinced the FCC should be allowing prohibitions on injecting non-local content into communities, I don’t see how that applies to rules designed to ensure that sources available only locally _do_ serve the local community.

    Bandwidth in a local geographical area is in fact limited, and it seems to me that the FCC has a vested interest in ensuring that the locally-used bandwidth is serving the local community appropriately.

  2. Disclosure: I’m a DJ on Ed’s local radio station, WPRB.
    Ed’s points are well taken, but there’s still plenty of room for local programming. I believe that ‘Local programming’ is a 2-way street. If I consistently choose music that bores my audience, I won’t last. But my proper goal is not just to figure out what my listeners want; it’s also to find new experiences that my listeners would not have thought of, that they will enjoy. As a human being, I take a different approach to this than Pandora. And unlike Pandora, I’m there to talk to about my choices, person to person.
    – “Tobias” “MasterClassics

    http://RavensGift.com

  3. Pete,

    These days, fewer and fewer media sources are restricted by locality. When they are restricted, it’s often because of regulation rather than an inherent limitation of the technology. I’d bet that most of the Christian stations at issue either are or want to be available everywhere via the Internet.

  4. Tobias,

    I didn’t mean to suggest that Pandora is the be-all and end-all of music recommendation. Whatever your source of recommendations, whether an algorithm or a person or an algorithm synthesizing the tastes of select people, it can be delivered at a distance, and Pandora on the iPhone demonstrates that it can be personalized (if desired) and can fit in your pocket.

  5. Ed,

    “When they are restricted, it’s often because of regulation rather than an inherent limitation of the technology”

    I’m not sure what you mean. Maybe I don’t understand the FCC regulations at hand here, but my impression is that they apply to terrestrial over-the-air radio. The use of the bandwidth most certainly is “an inherent limitation of the technology” in that scenario.

    If the stations wish to distribute their content via other, non-localized means, I agree that the content distributed thusly shouldn’t be regulated by the FCC. But inasmuch as the FCC has a duty to ensure that the finite resource of bandwidth is used in a way that serves the local community, I don’t see what’s wrong with their imposing certain requirements on _that_ use.

    Now, it’s true that as with other media, there probably aren’t many (or any?) truly “local” Christian radio stations. But as the local community member, that’s not my problem. I still have radio bandwidth being used in my local vicinity that should be serving my needs, not the needs of someone somewhere else who can’t receive that particular signal (even if they can receive the exact content). If the station isn’t willing to ensure that the _signal_ they broadcast in my local vicinity is tailored to my needs, they need to give up that frequency to someone who will. As you say, they already have plenty of other options for reaching people in a non-localized way.

    In other words, this isn’t about the content. It’s about the delivery mechanism. And as long as the delivery mechanism is something that _is_ fundamentally limited by the technology, the FCC has a valid interest in regulating it. That’s their job.

  6. This article reads like a sience fiction novel about some other world out there in the universe. It’s 2008, out here in the middle of the corn fields in north-central Iowa. There are expensive options ( think fixed income ) for DSL, wireless, or satellite connection. Local stations are up to 50 miles away, or more. The small town I’m in has a local radio station owned by some regional owner. The local tv stations report on activities in an area reaching several hundred square miles ( that’s a lot of small communities ).

    The small town I live in has two public access tv stations, for the moment, at least. In April, the state took over franchise negotiation, and there’s reason to believe this option will disappear in February, if not before. However, because there’s no budget to support local involvement, the public is severely restricted from using one of the channels, and the other is rarely, if ever, used to broadcast city official events.

    Is it your position that the country should be taking charge of localism issues by just starting a blog on the Internet, and maybe uploading video that individuals contribute?

    So, to help you answer the question: Many months ago, I approached the public access station manager, and was summarily rejected, as there would be no way for residents to use the station facilities, unless the residents were locally well-connected, and willing to support a staff. I then approached the mayor, Jim Erbs, and suggested a community initiative to use open-mesh technology to create a local broadband infrastructure, establish a community virtual world, and integrate the public access station into that network. He sent a letter cautioning me not to do anything illegal, as Qwest won’t permit it. I then sent our state governor, Chester Culver, the same proposal to be implemented across all communities in Iowa. He sent me a letter, cautioning me not to do anything illegal

    OK. I’ve now provided you with a singular experience, which easily fits many, many communities across our country. Please reread your article, in light of this information, and let your readers know you are really sorry for spouting off about your elitest view of our country. 🙂

  7. Even in the “internet” world there are still attempts to control locality of access. The BBC website attempts to restrict video content to UK residents (by selecting IP addresses). This makes some sense since the BBC is funded by a tax on TV sets. The NBA website is even more localized: it restricts access to certain live game feeds as a way to support local TV stations: if they believe that the game is available on your local TV station (based on your IP address) then they won’t show you their on-line feed. They probably do this so they can charge the local TV station more for the rights, but I wonder how long they’ll be able to keep this up.

  8. Tom,

    Your story is a good argument against the current policy. If this is the result of the current policy, shouldn’t we try something else?

  9. I see several things in the comments that don’t make much sense, as well as some things that should have been mentioned but got omitted.

    #1: Satellite is, by its nature, not local; it’s regional, with reception footprints intrinsically thousands of km wide. So it should not be bound by localist regulations.

    #2: “He sent a letter cautioning me not to do anything illegal, as Qwest won’t permit it.” Since when is Qwest a branch of government rather than a private business with no authority to legislate? It seems like there’s some kind of questionable protectionist policy being implied here, a de-facto “you’re not allowed to cut out the middlemen” rule with no basis in legal theory. Stand up and challenge this!

    #3: “The BBC website attempts to restrict video content to UK residents (by selecting IP addresses). This makes some sense since the BBC is funded by a tax on TV sets.” No, it does not make sense. It would if downloads were a finite resource, and every download by someone abroad meant one less available for local residents, but that is certainly not the case. The only reasonable argument then becomes because offshore downloaders would add to the server load that local taxes pay for. My response to that, assuming they aren’t charging money for these downloads, is that they should seed torrents. Then they can’t gatekeep them but they also don’t need to since the downloaders take up most of the burden of supplying downloads. Indeed, their server loads should drop this way, even while the downloads become available worldwide. That would then let them use the money in other ways, or even lower taxes. Everybody wins.

    #4: “The NBA website is even more localized: it restricts access to certain live game feeds as a way to support local TV stations: if they believe that the game is available on your local TV station (based on your IP address) then they won’t show you their on-line feed.” This is even sillier. It has nothing to do with localism and everything to do with force-feeding you advertising. Fortunately, you can just surf there through a proxy and avoid this particular bit of nonsense (and if you can find a proxy in the UK, the BBC’s silliness too).

  10. Spudz, I think you’re jumping ahead of yourself on point #3. Their server loads should drop if they were offering the files in a sensible way, but they aren’t. The BBC’s “downloads” are not standalone files such as you and I may be accustomed to getting via BitTorrent. They’re heavily DRMed to prevent you from keeping them more than 30 days, let alone passing them on to others. So one viewer can’t get the file and then share it further (at least, not in the *intended* operation of the system…); every copy does have to come from the BBC directly, and that means every offshore viewer served is one less local viewer they can serve.

  11. Ed, the fact that the first comment is from <a href=”Libertarians cheerleading this post should be a big red flag that something is wrong.

    I think the fallacy is right here:

    “As long as there is demand for local programming – as there surely will be – the market will provide it, and new technologies will help people get it.”

    This strikes me as naive cyber-utopianism. It’s wrong for a very specific reason – because it implicitly assumes technology is the sole, deterministic, variable. Now, I know, if I ask you, do you hold to technological determinism, you’ll say no. Because phrased that way, it’s obviously simplistic. But, per above, this the same technocentric view with vague handwaves to “the market” that drives a lot of problematic theorizing on the Internet.

    To perhaps explain by analogy – It is difficult to nigh-impossible to convince a Libertarian that racial discrimination can persist in a free market. They will bleat that it’s impossible, because their simple toy theory doesn’t give that outcome. They’ll say “As long as there is demand for good and services – as there surely will be – the market will provide it, and new technologies will help people get it.”. Attempting to explain that the real world refutes this, and just slightly more sophisticated market theory can explain why, doesn’t seem to do much good.

    Returning, it is entirely possible that increasing laissez-faire capitalism policies, and technology, combine to produce media consolidation which drives out local programming. Indeed, that pretty much seems to be happening realistically, despite the fantasy peddled by the bubble-blowers.

  12. supercat says:

    To perhaps explain by analogy – It is difficult to nigh-impossible to convince a Libertarian that racial discrimination can persist in a free market.

    Do they argue that it can’t persist at all, or do they argue that, in the absense of government protection, it will asymptotically decrease toward a low enough level that it will cause less harm than attempts to replace freedom of association with anti-discrimination laws and “affirmative action”?

  13. Ed:

    Great post; I like the way localist policies ended up keeping you away from your locale.

    But I am not sure this statement is always true:

    New technologies undermine the rationale for localist policies.

    Yes-to the extent that you shouldn’t be kept away from local programming of your choice.

    No–to the extent that legal rules-such as limitations on ownership–keep that local programming in existence in the first place. If that local programming ceased to exist, it wouldn’t matter what the network distribution rules were.

    It seems there is a balance that needs to be found.

  14. I’m against the current policies………we should look for other reasonable options.

  15. supercat: The Libertarian response varies somewhat. Some will say it’s all the government’s fault. Some will almost outright deny it. Some will say maybe it happened a long long time ago in the mists of history, but new technology means it’s impossible now (see a pattern?). These can be mixed together. The underlying thread is an utter refusal to admit the unregulated free market could produce a deleterious outcome, that their simple little model is wrong, that government action regulating business can result in a better society (the last being such an absolute anathema to them that they will go to any lengths to deny it).

  16. @Seth Finkelstein

    “Demonstrating that a set of government decisions would improve matters is not the same as demonstrating that actual government decisions would do so.” [Gary Becker]

  17. Chris Barts says:

    Seth Finkelstein: It’s really quite immature to base your opinion of something on what you think your opponents think of it. Given that you don’t even understand how your opponents think, your thoughts on this matter are even worse.

  18. Seth,

    Agreement from libertarians isn’t really evidence that I’m wrong. I’m quite sure that libertarians are right at least sometimes.

    You say that I assume technology is the only factor to consider. But I don’t assume that. What factors do you think I’m missing?

    You imply that too little local content is produced, or that too little will be produced if FCC policy becomes less localist. What’s the cause of the shortfall?

  19. “Returning, it is entirely possible that increasing laissez-faire capitalism policies, and technology, combine to produce media consolidation which drives out local programming. Indeed, that pretty much seems to be happening realistically, despite the fantasy peddled by the bubble-blowers.”

    Media consolidation that drives out local programming is seen when there’s a mixture of natural and artificial monopolies (the latter promulgated by the FCC, which the Libertarians would see gone in an instant if they could). The Internet has vertically layered things, so that a lot of media can reach homes from sources that don’t have any infrastructure or use airwaves. As a result there’s been an explosion of niche stuff (including geographically localized in interest) on the net. Without the former vertical integration commonly seen in older media forms, with a few suppliers mostly owning the distribution infrastructure or else competing for scarce bandwidth on same, a free market may not exhibit the failures you describe. Scarce and rigidly-allocated bandwidth in push media is being replaced by abundant, flexibly-allocated bandwidth in pull media.

  20. Matthew Skala, there is no reason for you to be rude and insulting. I have done you no harm.

    You are not seeing the big picture. The BBC has massively encumbered its videos to try to stop excessive costs from accumulating that come from their taxpayers’ pockets and end up mostly serving nontaxpayers.

    If they simply put the videos on torrent sites in common, open formats like mpg and avi, then they would see much reduced server costs as well as much greater viewership. Indeed, their level of influence and the strength of their “brand” worldwide would increase quite a bit.

    That way everybody wins.

    It is physically possible for them to do this. That they don’t is a sign that they are shortsighted and foolhardy.

  21. If you assume an effectively infinite supply of money, talent and attention, then the brave new world makes sense. Otherwise more non-local means less local, especially considering that any geographically local product is going to have a smaller resource base compared to many local-by-interest products. Which is a problem, because we live in our geographical localities.

  22. Paul,

    We don’t need to assume an infinite supply of anything.

    The cost of producing and distributing content is dropping. So, all else being equal, we should expect more content to be produced and distributed. It follows that the amount of local content can increase or stay the same, even if the amount of non-local content is increasing.

  23. You say that I assume technology is the only factor to consider. But I don’t assume that. What factors do you think I’m missing?

    I am not sure this statement is always true:

    New technologies undermine the rationale for localist policies.

    Yes-to the extent that you shouldn’t be kept away from local programming of your choice.

    No–to the extent that legal rules-such as limitations on ownership–keep that local programming in existence in the first place. If that local programming ceased to exist, it wouldn’t matter what the network distribution rules were.

    In other words, to the extent that policies restrict choice, they are wrong.

    But you have not demonstrated that policies designed to foster diversity and the existence of local programming, e.g.: ownership rules, are either wrong or ineffective.

    P.S.

    Seth is right to be skeptical if libertarians like something. Many of them are basically fronts for big corporations, but hey hide this through a layer of ‘think tanks’ and foundations. Why do they feel obligated to hide heir funding sources?

  24. > “Seth, Agreement from libertarians isn’t really evidence that I’m wrong.”

    I wrote: “Ed, the fact that the first comment is from Libertarians cheerleading this post should be a big red flag that something is wrong.”

    It’s a warning sign. An alarm bell. Not absolute proof. But something that should draw you up short, and make you think “Hmm, maybe my reasoning here is flawed”. In retrospect I should have written “may be wrong” rather than “is wrong”. It could be there’s nothing to it, like not every flag/warning/alarm indicates a real error. But if a group which is notoriously fond of simplistic theories that fundamentally serve plutocracy against people, starts praising your reasoning – well, maybe they see something in it you don’t, or you don’t see something in it that should be examined. Maybe you’re making the same thinking mistake which drives them.

    > “I’m quite sure that libertarians are right at least sometimes.”

    A stopped clock is right at least sometimes too, but that doesn’t make stopping a clock a good way of telling time.

    > You say that I assume technology is the only factor to consider. But I don’t assume that. What factors do you think I’m missing?

    Recall: “Now, I know, if I ask you, do you hold to technological determinism, you’ll say no. Because phrased that way, it’s obviously simplistic. But, per above, this the same technocentric view with vague handwaves to “the market” that drives a lot of problematic theorizing on the Internet.”

    And I go on to explain by analogy to the Libertarian error on racial discrimination, finally bringing it back:

    “Returning, it is entirely possible that increasing laissez-faire capitalism policies, and technology, combine to produce media consolidation which drives out local programming. Indeed, that pretty much seems to be happening realistically, despite the fantasy peddled by the bubble-blowers.”

    The problem is that the model you’re using assumes technology and the market interact in very very simple ways, that dropping cost for creation of content will automatically produce an overall outcome – this is what I mean by technological determinism. That we need ONLY look at technology and the most trivial economic model, case closed.

    > You imply that too little local content is produced, or that too little will be produced if FCC policy becomes less localist. What’s the cause of the shortfall?

    That markets are very complex matters consisting of business models, distribution arrangements, sometimes counter-intuitive economic incentives, and so on. Just for a small example, new efficiencies might lead to increased corporate consolidations where winner-take-all syndications have the impact of swamping any localism-promoting effects from cheaper production.

    And “produced” is an ambiguous word. As many a Z-list blogger has found out in the face of an A-list blogger elite, it’s very little comfort to “produce” your content IF NOBODY HEARS YOU (and then having patronizing blog-evangelists say in theory, you COULD be heard, so it’s no problem that a very tiny oligarchy dominates attention per-topic, makes it worse). Be careful not to equivocate that word “produced” between a connotation of content which is heard widely, and a formal definition of content which is made even if nobody ever hears it. More of the latter does not mean more of the former, and that’s the key fallacy.

  25. Prof Felten:

    Please note that there’s also the supply of attention, which is most definitely limited.

    But perhaps more important, the fact that the cost of producing content, period, is dropping does not mean that the amount of local content will increase unless there is more in it for the content producers and distributors than in producing non-local content.

    The christian radio example is perhaps almost exactly on point here: the broadcasters don’t care where their listeners are, they just care who they are. And if you look at the direction content on the internet has taken, it’s been very much about capturing communities of interest without regard to geography. Some location-based services have done very well, but in general I see neither producers nor readers of specifically local content in the way that I see producers and readers of interest-based content.

    In some ways, of course, this is a good thing. But it does still mean that people looking for attention paid to their geographical area effectively have to become their own aggregators.

  26. Interesting how this applies to stuff you can deliver in bits and bytes… but how the local tendencies of physical matter transmission (food, etc.) requires energy that is increasingly expensive (esp. in the environmental sense). ::)

  27. Bryan Feir says:

    @paul:

    Of course, a geographically-limited community often is a community of interest as well… especially in cases of a small town next to a larger one, where any news tends to get swamped by the news of the larger town, and the small town people want to know what is happening in their own town instead.

  28. Think glocal!
    It may be an ugly term but it fits.
    Globalization and localization happen at the same time. And these tools described by Ed are exactly in that movement.
    Location-based is becoming quite big, thanks in part to handheld devices like the iPhone. At the same time, local interest groups are finding globalist connections, thanks in large part to the ‘Net in general.

    One thing which tends to be left undiscussed is the clustering effects happening through glocalization. True, anyone can conceivably communicate with basically anyone else around the globe. But language barriers are in some ways more important than before and United States exceptionalism has consequences in the formation of online clusters. Giving us new geographical limits. They may not be “local” in the typical sense. But they’re as restrictive as the localist policies described here.
    In this case, Pandora is an excellent example. In large part because of outdated copyright policies, Pandora isn’t available outside the United States. The important point, here, is that people who discuss Pandora rarely mentions this U.S. exclusivity, let alone discuss the consequences. Also, people’s musical tastes are based on a number of things, including local culture. Sure, the exact same mainstream artists may have the exact same appeal in many parts of the United States. But many of the most interesting artists may have cult followings in two very distinct parts of the world. Not to mention that some artists are popular at home by virtue of local pride.

  29. ignorance says:

    Forgive my non-research, but wasn’t community review a part of the broadcasting licensing process before the FCC telecommunications act of 1996?