The radio broadcasting spectrum is viewed as a natural and scarce resource available to all nations. Even though the rules establishing the allocation of bandwidth and assignment of frequencies vary, common principles apply to all countries. The legal rationale for controls over licensing is generally based on four principles: (1) recognition of spectrum as a valuable resource; (2) conservation of bandwidth due to spectrum scarcity; (3) prevention of technical interference between channels; and (4) radio broadcasting’s potential to influence society. These general principles serve as the starting point for regulating ownership, technology, and programming content.
Global History and International Action
Before radio’s ship-to-shore communication evolved into broadcasting early in the twentieth century, nations recognized the imperative of using wireless telegraphy at sea to save lives and cargo. The International Radiotelegraph Convention of 1906 established policies that held radio frequencies should be registered, signal interference prevented, and proprietary restraints against sending and receiving signals lifted.
Nations began drawing up rules beyond maritime services in the 1920s, and eventually formed an international body to oversee radio regulations. The agreement of 1927 allocated the middle frequency band (MF = 10 kHz to 30 MHz) for broadcasting, maritime communications, land mobile radio, and amateur services. In 1932, the Madrid General Radio Regulations Conference established the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). From its base in Geneva, Switzerland, the ITU today is an arm of the United Nations and effectively manages radio traffic across borders while settling international disputes. A select comparison of countries will show how legal systems contrast both in terms of radio ownership and content restrictions.
US and Europe
The origin of radio-broadcast regulation in the US was prompted by a treaty dispute with Canada, which US Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was powerless to resolve under existing law. Congress consequently moved to grant his office more power under the Radio Control Bill of 1927, and in 1934 it established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in order to protect the “public interest, convenience and necessity” of broadcasting. Those terms continue to guide American radio regulations, and in the decades since it was created, the FCC has enforced a wide variety of rules from restricting indecent content to limiting the numbers of stations one group can own. In 1996, the Telecommunications Act was passed to allow more competition in radio and to deregulate other elements of the law (see https://www.fcc.gov/wireless/bureau-divisions/technologies-systems-and-innovation-division/rules-regulations-title-47).
In Britain, the British Broadcasting Corporation is an independent public organization, which for 80 years was run by a board of governors, who were replaced in 2007 by a trust of 11 members. Britons support the BBC through license fees, and in return the “Beeb” has supplied domestic and global audiences with a wealth of radio programs, but private stations now compete with the BBC under the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA). The 1990 Broadcasting Act created licenses rather than franchises for British broadcasters, yet, unlike the US model, private radio stations had to gain approval for programming formats. When radio groups began taking over multiple stations, the UK devised a system of ownership points to prevent any one group from reaching too wide an audience. Britain also adopted a new technical standard for radio digital broadcasting, Eureka 147.
The Association of German Broadcasters (ARD) became the organizing agency for radio in West Germany following the fall of the Third Reich. The ARD was modeled after the British public service system, which afforded independence from the government without reliance on advertising revenue. It was originally comprised of nine independent broadcasting corporations covering various regions of the country. After the fall of the Berlin wall the newly founded public broadcasting stations in East Germany were incorporated into the system. Boards of representatives from political parties, industrial unions, religious groups, and other associations monitor the independent public channels. German households support public radio with a fee, but advertising also generates revenue. One of the key principles of broadcasting in Germany is the freedom from governmental interference in terms of program content. No public official can control or censor German programming, but the Federal Constitutional Court has ruled that public radio must give voice to a variety of opinions. That protection corresponds with the European Convention on Human Rights, which has influenced radio broadcasting in other countries as well.
France moved from a public monopoly operated under the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (ORTF) to both a public and a private system of licensing in the early 1980s. In 1984, France adopted its first commercial radio law allowing private stations to seek advertising for support. Today, private-sector radio attracts more than two thirds of the listening audience in France, but Radio France continues to operate seven public channels as well.
Radio is the dominant medium for African countries, and the majority of systems reflect their colonial fathers. France used radio as a means for disseminating its language and culture among Africans. Britain encouraged natives to preserve their culture and language by radio after years of using the medium exclusively for its colonists rather than natives. The Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) stands as an example of the British model since it became the first country to gain independence in 1957. Ghana’s state-run radio system fell victim to political patronage, however, and failed to realize the BBC ideal of broadcast independence. Following deregulation in the 1990s, private stations replaced the GBC as the most popular channels for Ghanans.
African countries tend to rely primarily on national broadcasting systems with studios located in the capital or the nation’s largest city. Nigeria and South Africa’s broadcast systems stand apart among those on the continent for their development of regional systems of radio. Following widespread deregulation, hundreds of independent or community radio stations sprung up across Africa. Legal structures vary, but governments generally apply stricter controls over broadcasters than western powers. Zambia, for example, licenses private radio stations, but forbids news bulletins on them. Clandestine radio channels assumed an important role in African broadcasting during the 1990s. The infamous Radio des Mille Collines (Radio of a Thousand Hills) in Rwanda enflamed genocidal hatred contributing to the mass murder of millions in 1994. As a result, humanitarian stations were established by the United Nations to broadcast messages of peace to Africa’s war-torn regions.
Two key distinctions in radio regulation are the extent to which the government applies legal controls over content, and the measure to which privatization of radio ownership has occurred. Radio Singapura of Singapore for example was originally government operated but became privatized in 1994. Radio Singapura is still subject to government censorship ostensibly to protect the multicultural population from offensive and violent content. Singapore law forbids the denigration of races or religions in addition to banning pornography or violence “contrary to the public interest.” The Media Development Authority of Singapore exercises censorship whenever it detects programming that might put the public at risk. In Japan, Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) operates three radio services required by law to elevate cultural values for both national and community interests. Article 44 of the Broadcast Law of Japan requires NHK to conduct research and development in radio, and serve foreign countries with Japanese programming that will contribute to international understanding.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea operates a government-run system of radio connecting Pyongyang by radio wire to more than 4,000 “broadcasting booths” located in farms, factories, and other public places. The government forbids reception of foreign channels on any North Korean radio receiver. South Korea’s National Security Law prevents its citizens from listening to Pyongyang’s radio propaganda if the government in Seoul determines that they are doing so to help North Korean efforts. In addition to South Korea’s 100-plus radio stations operated by two networks, American Armed Forces radio is popular, and internet-based radio stations are cropping up on broadband websites. One independent Internet radio station operated by North Korean defectors was forced to vacate its offices following a protest from the Pyongyang government, but continued webcasting from private offices.
Shanghai signed on to the first American radio station in China, but the Minister of Communications established the first Chinese public radio channel in 1927. The Chinese Communist Party established its first radio station, New China, in 1945, in the southern province of Yunin, and took over nationalist transmitters in 1949. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, China used a three-tiered broadcasting system based on geography – municipal, regional, and national networks – funded by governments at each level. Radio in China remains a state-run system with no private ownership but with some competition among individual stations and networks.
The rule of law in Latin America is by no means airtight and the politicization of radio airwaves is a defining factor. In Mexico, a privatization bill was enacted in 2000 over the loud protests of government-run radio stations, which charged that political patronage was involved in the new law. In Venezuela, the 1999 constitution introduced by President Hugo Chavez promised freedom of expression for broadcasters, but human-rights groups observed prior restraint was ordered by judicial fiat, and more recently a widespread suspension of radio and television stations critical of the Chavez administration was ordered.
In Brazil, privately owned radio stations are required to carry government-sponsored programs including a one-hour evening newscast produced by the government, Hora do Brazil. Community radio stations have reached listeners in rural areas of the country, but not always legally. ANATEL, Brazil’s telecommunications regulatory agency, has shut down renegade community stations broadcasting without a license.
Radio stations in Chile were nationalized under Salvador Allende’s regime in the early 1970s, but eventually were sold to political groups representing the Socialists, Communists, and Christian Democrats. Today, the Roman Catholic Church also broadcasts over a radio network in Chile.
In Colombia, the National Institute of Radio and Television offers program content for both private and government-owned stations. The two largest networks are required by law to broadcast shortwave for Colombian interests outside the country.
The international scope of foreign investments in radio systems and the extent to which countries legally restrict foreign ownership for reasons of national security, culture, or economy has changed in recent years. Brazil opened its cable television industry to foreign ownership, but not its radio stations. Chile, on the other hand, applies no restrictions to foreign investments in radio, and India recently raised its limit to over 70 percent to attract foreign investment.
Only American and Puerto Rican citizens were allowed to hold US radio licenses until 1996 when a cap was placed on direct foreign investments of 20 percent for private firms, and 25 percent for holding companies. Following September 11, 2001, a select committee of government agents was authorized to approve foreign ownership in US radio licenses on a case-by-case basis.
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