in defense of broadcasting

One of the things I have said over the course of nearly 40 years in news – and most of it in tv – is that I don’t care how people at home get to see me, meaning I don’t care whether it’s by an antenna or a cable or satellite.

That used to make sense to me; now, late in the game I’m developing an attachment to the idea of broadcasting, in all its low tech glory.

I’m set off by a line from one of William Gibson’s essays, in which he writes “Indeed, today, reliance on broadcasting is the very definition of a technologically backward society.” (The essay is “The Road To Oceania,” originally written for the New York Times in 2003 and now collected in the wonderful ‘Distrust That Particular Flavor,’ which you should immediately buy.)

Gibson writes in the context of Orwell, ‘1984’ and the generational understanding that dictators used the levers of big broadcasting to stay in power, and that the weak but quick mammals of Twitter and YouTube and the rest have done a fine job of gutting those same dictators. Broadcasting, in this sense, is as dated as Hitler barking into a microphone and weird martial music pouring out of overdriven speakers as black and white missiles go by.

All of which is true, but incomplete. Broadcasting does some things really well, and more important, the alternative may not work.

The first thing it does well is reach people who are otherwise too expensive to reach. You may see this as an artifact of the age we’re leaving, a temporary condition, but if it is we’ve been in it for a long while. In a poor rural area, cable companies have no interest in running lines down sparsely populated roads. Satellite is an alternative, but it rules out people who can’t afford the $30 a month.

Broadcasting doesn’t care where you are. The cost of getting to the last house on the road is exactly the same as feeding a dense city area. True, you can reduce power, still serve the city and save money by not broadcasting out as far. But the ‘per unit’ cost doesn’t change.

Broadcasting is ‘inefficient’ in terms of bandwidth use, the government will tell you, but as far as I know that focuses only on how much bandwidth it takes to deliver a given message, and ignores the number of people reached.  Why should you care? Because for all the build out of broadband, there’s no evidence that broadband scales well. In other words, in an earthquake you are more likely to get vital information from your radio than from, say, Facebook.  And I’m suspicious of the ‘just give use this additional spectrum and we’ll be ok’ argument. It reminds me of Robert Moses thinking he had solved New York City’s traffic problems every time he built a new road, only to have it quickly clog up.

Broadcasting is weirdly resilient. We love the idea of the internet because it is somewhat distributed, expressed in old and not especially true statements like ‘The net views censorship as damage and routes around it.’ But the net also has a lot of moving parts, in terms of gear and protocols. Old fashioned transmitters, especially radio, use technology that is de facto open source – it’s widely understood, relatively easy to build and maintain. Yes, the transmitter is a central point of failure, but you achieve the same thing in 21st century terms by cutting a few fiber optics lines, something that happens in my neck of the woods a couple times a year.

Finally, the fact that broadcasting grows a little more archaic every year works in its favor, I think. As long as the government doesn’t take the bandwidth away, the possibility exists for something interesting to happen on all those a.m. (and maybe soon f.m.) stations that are only marginally in business. I’m hoping that’s one of the great hacks of the next decade, the return of the a.m. station, late at night, whispering very modern mysteries.


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