Government-funded radio, U.S. versus Canada

Listening to music makes people happy.  Listening to news makes people unhappy.  Listening to fundraising drives makes people irritated and unhappy.

Let’s compare government-funded radio here in the U.S. and in Canada.

Public radio stations all over the U.S. have been cutting down on music and substituting news programs.  In the rare event that they still have a music or entertainment program, it will be interrupted every 10 minutes while they ask for money and tell you how great public radio is.  Their digital terrestrial stream (“HD radio”) will be 96 kbps and their Internet stream will be about the same.  Americans who are fed up with this and just want to hear music subscribe to Sirius or XM and pay $300+ per year to hear radio in their car and their house at… 64 kbps!  That’s the same as an ISDN telephone line!

Canada, by contrast, has public radio stations that live within their means.  Whatever they get from the government is what they use for their budget.  They don’t constantly ask listeners for money.  The Internet streams are 192 kbps, 1.5x the bitrate of the iTunes that Apple sells.  What do they play on these stations?  Music, interrupted very occasionally for station identification.  Check it out at http://www.cbc.ca/radio2/ (CBC Jazz has found much more favor in our household than Sirius jazz stations).  These streams work great throughout a house on a Sonos system.

As long as our government is spending another trillion dollars or two, would it be too much to ask for a few all-music free non-commercial radio stations?  Like the passengers on the Titanic, shouldn’t we have dance music right up until the ship sinks?

10 Comments

  1. Murali

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:07 am

    1

    Does one wrong justify others? One can argue that banks (and to a lesser extent, car companies) have a systemic effect on the economy. But too many taxpayers don’t care about and don’t listen to radio stations, so wouldn’t it be morally wrong to bill taxpayers for a service that not everybody uses?

    I am a big fan of NPR/KQED and I feel that their model of donation financing is the fairest.

  2. Roger

    December 10, 2008 @ 2:20 am

    2

    SiriusXM is doing its best to drive customers away. They cunningly merged several channels across the two services deleting many non-mainstream channels, increasing DJ chatter on some and making playlists more pop oriented – ie trying to make their service indistinguishable from the Clear Channel robo-stations on FM.

    Since cancelling their service I’ve found lots of podcasts all over the world for the kind of music I like (electronic/dance/trance). This means I now get exposed to more artists from all over world, recommend them to friends and spend money on downloading their music.

  3. Brian

    December 10, 2008 @ 4:41 am

    3

    wow, 64 kbps for Sirius? I wonder what Pandora is..

    ah, just googled, looks like 128, which is better.. still, I don’t even download/buy/take music from friends if the bitrate is that low, if it’s really hard to find I might settle for 192..

  4. philg

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:00 am

    4

    Murali: You might think it is immoral for taxpayers to pay for a radio station that not everyone listens to, but we’re already paying for NPR and KQED. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting alone gets about USD$400 million per year from the federal government. State and local funding is larger than this, according to Wikipedia. The total budget of CBC Radio is less than $350 million and they have to run stations in Nunavut. So… we pay more than the Canadians and we end up listening mostly to fundraising drives and/or news that will depress us.

  5. Bob

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:00 am

    5

    Look at Toronto’s Jazz.fm as a model of a public funded but not government funded radio station.

  6. philg

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:10 am

    6

    Bob: According to their Web site, jazz.fm has two annual on-air fund drives. I guess that makes them a lot less annoying than U.S. public radio stations, especially since they are not also getting taxpayer funds.

  7. philg

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:24 am

    7

    Bob: I’m listening to jazz.fm now. It started with a plea to donate. Then there was some talk about traffic on a highway in Toronto. Then there was an ad for Dell Computers. Then there was an ad for the Salvation Army. Now there is talk. They have a couple of other streams, but those require some sort of plug-in to play and they don’t say what software is required. Nor does Windows XP know how to find the plug-in. I’m switching to a jazz station from the Netherlands that is commercial-free (at least I think it is because they seldom talk and when they do it is a language that I can’t understand).

  8. Dave T

    December 10, 2008 @ 11:17 am

    8

    My favorite music radio station is Minneapolis’ 89.3 The Current, which is part of MPR/NPR: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/radio/services/the_current/.

    -Dave

  9. Luke

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

    9

    Does anybody know if research has been done about those bitrates? I thought that I learned many years ago in 6.003 that you only need twice the maximum frequency. Since the human ear can only hear up to 20 kHz, 40 kbps should be enough. Compact discs were 44kbps when they first came out. Can the human ear actually hear the difference between 64 kbps and 192 kbps?

  10. philg

    December 10, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

    10

    Luke: I hope that you didn’t spend too many tuition dollars on 6.003! The sampling frequency for a CD is 44.1 KHz, not kbps. There are 32 bits in each sample, 16 for each stereo channel. The total bit rate is therefore just over 1.4 Mbps from a CD, not that the CD is any kind of quality benchmark. The SACD, which is my favorite consumer audio format, is roughly 4X the bit rate of CD (i.e., about 5 Mbits/second).

    Can the human ear hear anything better than 64 kbps? Given that 64 kbps is a standard bitrate for telephone conversations, we could rephrase that as “Can you tell the difference between being in Boston Symphony Hall and being on the other end of a telephone connection with someone who is standing inside Symphony Hall?”

    [Folks: let’s not turn this into a debate about audio quality (easily settled; get yourself an SACD player and flip between SACD and CD on a dual-format disk, then compare to a few MP3 versions of the same track). The more interesting question is why we pay so much in taxes and yet can’t have some commercial-free music to soothe the sting of unemployment, economic decline, corrupt politicians, etc.]

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