Identifying Radio’s Digital Dilemma
Radio broadcasting is the last bastion of the traditional analog mass media to negotiate the communicative phenomenon known as convergence-the ongoing evolution of media technologies toward a universal digital communications language and platform, presently best exemplifi ed by the Internet. 1 Convergence is itself a phenomenon governed by three factors: the development of new technologies, industry strategy, and public policy. 2 Although most analyses of convergence focus primarily on its technological aspects, the phenomenon is more often than not “the product of political will, rather than inexorable logic.” 3 Those involved in the crafting of communications policy often promise us that new media technologies will make our media environment fundamentally more democratic-but in many respects, convergence has opened up the potential for potent unsettlement, especially with regard to how the phenomenon shapes legacy media systems. 4 Unfortunately, corporate interests have skewed the regulatory development of our convergent media environment to entrench the priorities of commerce above all others; from the perspectives of industry strategy and public policy, convergence is a convenient vehicle by which to bring the “entire ‘ideological’ sphere of society” into the orbit of a hyper-capitalist political economy. 5
Changes taking place in the realm of radio broadcasting are quite illustrative regarding the perversely negative effects that convergence can have on a medium undergoing a digital evolution. On one hand, as discussion of media digitalization gained steam during the 1990s and the commercialization of the Internet engendered the formal study of convergence itself, the U.S. radio industry-and the Federal Communications Commission that oversees it-remained surprisingly insular in their outlook for the medium’s future. The 1990s were a decade of consolidation and the reconfi guration of radio relative to its mission to serve “the public interest, convenience, and necessity” into a fully entrenched marketplace paradigm. In simple terms, many involved in radio broadcasting have conceptualized convergence as a tool that allows the programming of multiple stations from one location and has been utilized more for cost-savings than for the creative or communicative expansion of broadcasting itself. By the time regulators, media professionals, and scholars began to grapple with the implications
of convergence, the radio industry as a whole wasn’t even fully aware that the phenomenon was underway, much less what its implications for the medium itself might be. 6
The sheer expansiveness of the Internet and the introduction of digital satellite radio broadcasting served to change this ignorance, and the need for radio to address convergence became a growing topic of debate within the U.S. broadcast industry around the turn of the twenty-fi rst century. However, broadcasters initially defi ned digitalization as convergence, when in reality digitalization is only the fi rst step in navigating the phenomenon. To be sure, it is an important step, and David Sedman has identifi ed four criteria necessary for the adoption of any new radio service: “(1) Approval by a governing body (such as the FCC in the United States); (2) Acceptance by the broadcast station; (3) Consent from the consumer electronics industry to design and market a new technology; [and] (4) Adoption by the mass buying public.” 7
Unfortunately, the technology developed by the U.S. radio industry and sanctioned by the FCC actually represents one of the worst possible iterations of digital radio, and does more to fragment the medium’s participation in the convergence phenomenon than it does to embrace it. Only one of Sedman’s four criteria (regulatory approval) has been met, primarily due to the fact that the FCC didn’t even bother to examine the real-world implications of radio’s digitalization. Instead, the nation’s most economically powerful broadcast incumbents sold radio’s digital transition as an evolutionary necessity, trusting in the “market exchange ethic” of neoliberal ideology to govern all aspects of digital radio’s development and proliferation. 8 Thus, the policy and technology of digital radio in the United States were essentially crafted to serve selfi sh needs that fall far short of serving the public interest.