THE DIGITISATION OF FRENCH RADIO:
DEMASSIFICATION OR HYBRIDISATION?
(University of Newcastle upon Tyne)
Digital broadcasting in France has nearly two years advance on the UK. French digital satellite television has about a million and a half subscribers - the biggest of the three programme providers, CanalSatellite, has viewers in over one million households, who have access thereby to a series of thematic channels, plus some premium channels for extra subscription, plus pay-per-view (paiement à la séance) and extra radio and interactive services - in all CanalSatellite offers 112 different channels or services. The ten percent of homes subscribing to cable TV also have potential access to digital channels and services as the major cable companies are rapidly switching to digital following the digital satellite developments. What is happening to radio in the midst of this change in the consumption of home audiovisual services? Is it being swamped in the explosion of new TV channels and services? In this review of recent changes I shall describe four new types of radio broadcasting, and argue that digitisation is, as for TV, having a demassification effect on the consumption side, and, much more so than for TV, causing a hybridisation of the medium in terms of the product or its programmes and services. In order to put the current transformation in context and to give an idea of its scale, I shall first review the changes to radio broadcasting in the 1980s.
1. The 1980s
The earlier period (1981-1986/7) is characterised by five interlinked changes: it saw (1) a massive increase in supply of FM radio stations and a doubling of terrestrial television channels, which (2) fragmented the national audience through a policy of formatting; (3) it saw the withdrawal of the state from its quasi-hegemony over broadcasting media; this (4) took the economy of broadcasting into the market place, thus (5) turning the listener-viewer into a consumer. These changes eroded the legitimacy of the public service model of broadcasting.
During this period, technological innovation was not as important a driving factor for change as were political and ideological factors, and then commercial factors.
1.1 Increase in supply of radio stations and television channels:
The legislative changes of 1981-1982 on freedom of broadcasting allowed an explosion of radios libres, on the FM band, of which about 1800 are still operating, only 300 or so as non-commercial or community stations. The increase in number of programme suppliers was accompanied by a diversification of types of programme or format: targeting stations by age group more strictly than by interest group (youth music stations), and by locality (local stations : - les stations décentralisées de Radio-France, independent local radios). In the same period the main increase in supply of television came through the creation of new national terrestrial stations, a subscription channel Canal Plus (1884), the commercial 5th and 6th channels (1985). Cable and satellite TV, although starting in the 1980s with the creation of thematic channels, did not really take off in audience terms until the mid-1990s.
1.2. Fragmentation of the national audience:
Before the 1980s the dominant model of both radio and TV station was the 'generalist' model, offering something for every part of the national audience, and derived from the original public service model of broadcasting. The hegemonic dominance of the generalist model was quickly eroded in the 1980s in favour of targeted and formatted stations. With national television going from 3 channels to 6 and then slowly into the 1990s, via cable and satellite, to 30 or more for the privileged viewer, and radio stations increasing from a choice of 7-8 for a given listener to double, treble and quadruple the number depending on the size of the conurbation, new radio and TV channels have sought to win an audience by targeting selected listener-viewer groups by offering a specific format (narrowcasting): thematic channels and stations include all news radios (France-Info and BFM), and an all news TV channel (LCI), children's TV channels (Canal J), and pop music radio stations aimed at the under 25s (Fun, Skyrock), the 25-50s (RFM, Europe 2) and the over 50s (Radio Bleue, Radio Montmartre). Major community groups have their own radios : religious groups (Radio Notre Dame), ethnic groups (Beur FM), and sexual minorities (Fréquence gaie).
1.3. Withdrawal of the state from its quasi-hegemony over broadcasting:
Mitterrand's presidential election campaign of 1981 included a promise to liberate the broadcasting media from 'la mainmise de l'état', and to cut the umbilical cord that bound broadcasters to the government of the day. Additionally the rising tide of economic liberalism proved unstoppable even for the socialists, and commercialisation of the radios libres and the creation of new commercial television stations and of Pay-TV by Mitterrand was followed by the privatisation of the main audience TV channel TF1 by Chirac, as the dominance of the public service model of broadcasting lost its legitimacy. The symbol of the withdrawal of the government from control of broadcasting and indeed its practical replacement in terms of the day-to-day management of the PAF, was the new national regulatory body or licensing authority (Haute autorité 1982, CNCL 1987, CSA 1989).
1.4. Entry of the economy of broadcasting into the market place:
Initial non-commercial exploitation of new radios libres turned into commercial ownership in 1984, then into commercial national networks in 1986, which, through a process of economic concentration, has meant that a small number of companies now own the major radio stations. In fact, apart from the NRJ group, the other major networks are controlled by the old périphériques RTL and Europe 1, which are themselves owned respectively by the major cross-media companies CLT and Matra Hachette. Only a small sector of radio and a decreasing sector of television is now provided to all as a public service on a universal access basis. Whereas radio became almost exclusively financed by commercial advertising, television, on the model of the enormously successful terrestrial channel Canal Plus, started to move into the selling of cable or satellite subscriptions with access via decoders to encrypted channels.
1.5. Transformation of the listener-viewer into a consumer:
The emergence of a commercial sector in both radio and television and of subscription TV has changed the media culture and changed the relationship with this mass audience. The listener-viewer is seen as a consumer, and programmes and channels as commodities. Pay-TV is the clearest indication of a new philosophy of broadcasting, and takes it into the marketplace. It is claimed that by creating a direct contractual link between viewer and broadcaster, viewers have an ability to express their preference for the type of programmes they want in a way that, in a competitive environment, programme providers will act upon. It creates a "market for programmes". If there is a demand for a particular type of programme or station, then, so the argument goes, the market will provide it at a competitive rate. Indeed, as we have seen, into what was traditionally a state and public service monopoly until the 1980s have come major commercial firms intensifying competition for audiences and for advertising revenue. Indeed as happens in other fields of industry and commerce, several radio stations and one TV supplier, la 5, found the competition for audiences and advertising revenues too harsh and went bankrupt. Some might argue too that commercial pressures have tended in radio towards the supply of standardised, mass-market product in terms of programme. It took the public service Radio France to offer a 24 hour rolling news station for example, when all the other networks were offering basically formats of pop music. Nonetheless consumption of radio and TV has increased. Domestic spending on TV increased by 2.9 times between 1980 and 1993, to the detriment of spending on cinema going, one might add.
1.6. Technological innovation:
The major technological novelties introduced into French broadcasting in the 1980s were not really technological innovations in themselves. Encryption technology as used by Canal Plus in their decoders was not unique to France, and the universal adoption of FM radio technology by the new radios libres - FM giving significant improvement in quality of sound, especially important for music radio - was overdue for introduction into France. Two other technological leaps attempted in major state driven national plans were unsuccessful and costly. The Plan Câble with optic fibre cabling (for all kinds of interactive services) was not taken up to the extent expected by local authorities within the context of their new found decentralised autonomy; and the promotion of a European norm for High Definition TV technology (D2-MAC) through TDF satellites was overtaken as an intermediate technology by American digital compression techniques.
1.7. Political and ideological factors:
As we have seen, it was political and ideological factors (Mitterrand's desire for change, the advance on a global scale of free market economics and individualist social policies, adopted on both right and left by French governments) that led to deregulation of broadcasting (partial rather than complete), quickly exploited by commercial forces.
1.8. Economic modernisation:
Many of the politically led changes could be regarded as part of a voluntarist, wider modernisation programme. The technological grands projets of cable and satellite HDTV were two obvious examples. Neither the French state nor private enterprise could, from the 1980s onwards, any longer consider broadcasting policy as an autonomous sector of decision making and investment. Broadcasting is enmeshed into broader economic and industrial issues, not only at the national level - since it has also developed an irrevocably cross-national and European dimension. There has been an erosion of the boundaries between broadcasting and such sectors as press and publishing, advertising, and micro-electronics: important income for Aérospatiale and Arianespace, for example, derives from the launching of telecommunications satellites used for broadcasting. Modernising national communications systems using telematics (a combination of telecommunications and micro-computer technology) offered advanced economies like France in the 1980s an opportunity both to modernise broadcasting and to plan for what has been called the wired or interactive society. Such projects seemed all the more essential since communications policy has become of strategic importance in a European Union haunted by the prospect of growing American and Japanese domination of European information technology sectors. Thus broadcasting was only part of a wider national modernisation project.
1.9. Cultural sovereignty:
The issue of national cultural sovereignty (indeed national sovereignty tout court) became entangled with the issue of modernisation of broadcasting. In the 1980s French governments became acutely aware of threats to national sovereignty coming from two sides of the cultural industries sector. Firstly, America and Japan had not only established an unassailable lead in computing software and hardware, but by the mid-1980s Japan had also acquired a dominant world position in the field of audio-visual equipment (TV sets, video recorders, hi-fi) and seemed about to attack the market for satellite reception equipment and high definition television (HDTV). Secondly, the USA had the world's most powerful programme production industry, and was seeking overseas markets for programmes (like Dallas) which had achieved profitability on the home market and so, as exports, could undercut European products.
1.10 The state and broadcasting policy
French broadcasting policy was therefore made in the context of these industrial and cultural challenges to national independence. The problem was to be how to reconcile on the one hand the promotion of French industrial competitiveness in terms of equipping the nation with the most modern broadcasting and communications infrastructure (thereby creating a large market for programmes) with, on the other, the aim of protecting French cultural identity by preventing foreign programmes flooding onto French screens. The task was not made easier by the growing adoption of economic liberalism in the world economy, especially since the French tradition was voluntarist and protectionist. Certainly there has been a desire to create internationally competitive French broadcasting groups. The French state has helped Canal Plus's successful cross-national development (it became the biggest pay TV operator in Europe with the purchase of NetHold in 1997 - Le Monde 30-31.3.97, p.18). and supported Matra Hachette's ambitions to become a multimedia company of international proportions in publishing, radio, and television.
However the other strand of policy has been protectionist: to protect the French market from mainly English language imports particularly from America. In an era of global telecommunications, the new broadcasting media erode national cultural and economic sovereignty - the linguistic aspect of which has been a recurrent French preoccupation since the Second World War. Concerns have arisen in France to protect French language and culture by protecting the national programme-making industry. The Balladur government was successful in 1994 in excluding broadcasting and cinema products from the world-wide GATT agreement on free trade. Minister of Culture, J Toubon, continuing his socialist predecessor Jack Lang's approach, had argued for the necessary defence of French and European cultural interests against imports of American television programmes and films, (which of course is the second highest American export earner in Europe). The other strand of protectionist policy is implementing quotas of foreign material for example on music radio. The amendement Pelchat enforced a 40% minimum quota of French music on radio from 1996. As we shall see the voluntarist approach to the issue of cultural identity may not survive into the next century.
2. The digitisation of radio
Regarding the current period, I shall concentrate on technological change in radio, within the context of the digital revolution. I have discussed the digitisation of television elsewhere ('Towards demassification of French television in the 21st century?', Modern and Contemporary France, forthcoming Spring 1999). The communications revolution of the late 1990s combines changes in computing, telecommunications and broadcasting, which converge in the new digital communications media. Technological innovations in micro-electronics and telecommunications (broadband cable and satellite) have radically improved the transmission of information in the form of data, graphics, sound and vision, so that the same communications system may carry, for instance, telephone, FAX, videotex, computer data, as well as radio and television signals. Whatever the mode of transmission, and whatever the original data type (pictures, text, sound, or graphics) the important element of the new communications is that the signal is transmitted in digital form, that is in the same form that computers understand: a stream of digits (noughts and ones, or bits). Hence the notion of convergence of different media into one single computerised product using the same type of signal.
Digitalisation has already reached and radically transformed the global music industry with the innovation of the CD, destroying the market for vinyl records, and creating a whole new mass domestic market for CDs and of course CD players. The same revolution is beginning for radio and TV; it will change the nature of broadcasting as a mass medium, and modify our consumption of it. The following analysis contends that these technological changes are leading to a different kind of broadcasting characterised by individualisation of consumption and of interactivity (the idea of the demassification) and its hybridisation in terms of product.
Radio is taking various new forms that can be simplified by splitting them into four categories: RDS, satellite and cable subscription radio, DAB, and radio on the net. These new directions may be seen as renewing types of programme, the uses of radio and the modes of listening. Radio receivers are changing, radio will become more international as a medium, radio on demand is emerging, associated data services are being added to radio, and a more interactive consumption will modify traditional linear listening.
2.1 RDS (Radio Data System):
Digital compression was first applied to radio broadcasting as a tool to aid FM radio (Antennes, no. 100, p.16), and became available in the early 1990s. It uses subcarriers on the FM waveband (those parts of the signal that are inaudible to the human ear) to carry digital data that can be displayed on a liquid crystal display screen (LCD) on the radio receiver or may be used for other functions: each station broadcasting on FM transmits a unique Programme Identification Code on the subcarrier. This allows the station name to be displayed on the radio set's LCD. It also allows a car radio set to retune automatically to the best signal as the car leaves one transmission zone and enters another. It allows the user to set it to retune automatically to local traffic announcements whenever they might appear on a different station. A Programme Type code on the subcarrier allows the listener to ask the radio to search across the waveband to find a particular type of programme (pop music, sport, news or whatever) if one is already on or to switch when such a programme starts. Other functions to do with traffic control (radioguidage) are being developed (le visionaute). All the main Parisian FM stations now broadcast at least the station name in RDS for identification purposes on the LCD screen.
2.2 Satellite and cable radio:
Another new form of radio is already operating: radio channels on existing cable and DBS satellite services. Most cable and satellite TV systems offer 'robinets à musique', as Libération has called them. On Lyonnaise des Eaux cable systems, since January 1994, 10,000 or more subscribers have had access to Multiradio : nine thematic music stations with no adverts and no announcers. The references of each track and CD are displayed on screen, and CDs can be directly ordered from the FNAC via a videotex server. On another cable TV system in Annecy 30 music formats, similarly uninterrupted and with a screen display, are offered under the title Music Choice Europe (an American company). The system can be linked to a hi-fi. A further bouquet of radios are available on CanalSatellite. It offers Multimusic (run by P Bellanger of Skyrock and associated with Matra Hachette and Europe 1 Communications) ( Le Monde 13 juin 1996, & Lettre du CSA, July 1997, p. 13) offering a number of music radios (including a 100% French song music programme produced by Radio France - Elisa), plus 19 formats of music with the various details of performer, label, or other related information on screen. The formats, which add 30 francs per month to the subscription, include Grand Opera, Jazz héritage, Génération 60, Black and Blues (rhythm and blues and soul), la Guinguette, Planète Rap, etc. The TPS digital satellite bouquet also broadcasts a similar basket of music radios. The regulatory body, le CSA, has agreed that operators can respect the 40% of French music on the bouquet as a whole rather than for each format, which is an erosion of the standard policy on quotas.
Whether or not these services are called 'radios', they are offering a music service that many listeners get at the moment from FM radio. The difference is that listeners may compose their own programme schedules from the number of formats available to them, a major step to individualisation of consumption and interactivity. A 1997 advertising slogan used by one FM radio, 'Europe 2, ce n'est pas de la radio, c'est de la musique', suggest conventional radio is feeling the competition from new hybrid forms of radio that are raising the issue of what radio is.
The ability of these cable and satellite radios to transmit complementary or auxiliary information puts it into competition with a more exciting development: DAB.
2.3 Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB):
Those in the industry hail DAB as the herald of the 'third age of broadcasting' (radio - television - multimedia). It is already up and running. An international conference allocated band widths to different countries in July 1995 and the CSA allocated 3 DAB multiplexes to the Paris region and they have been broadcasting since 31 December 1996. One bloc (run by TDF) transmits public service radios (Radio France, RFI, BBC, Deutsche Welle), Bloc 2 (also TDF) transmits major private radio networks: (RTL, RTL2, Fun, Europe 1, Europe 2, RFM, Radio Classique, BFM, and other independent radios including Radio Notre-Dame) (Antennes Jan. 1997, p.4) The third block (Sogetec) transmits NRJ, Chérie FM, Rire et Chansons, 95.2 and Skyrock. Other DAB multiplexes are now also running in Lyon, Marseille and Toulouse. DAB sets are being manufactured initially for car radios. R&D work has been done by the Club DAB, chaired by Roland Faure (ex-head of Radio-France and until recently a member of the CSA) along with representatives of 15 major radio stations and several major manufacturers (Grundig, Philips, Blaupunct, Sony and others). DAB cannot be received on existing sets, so like CDs, DAB will entail a major renewal of home equipment. Faure claims that DAB will progressively replace FM radio as surely as CDs replaced vinyl. (Le Monde 29-30 Sept. 1996). In Britain, the BBC expects 40 per cent of households to have a DAB set within 10 years (Brown, 1997, p.8). Manufacturers are counting on the high turn-over and renewal of radio sets to ensure the rapid development of DAB. (Antennes March 1997). Remember that 10 million radio sets were sold in UK in 1996 (3 times more than TV sets). In France the average number of working sets per household is 6 (Antennes March 1997) and 76.8 % have a car radio. (Other types are the transistor, radio cassette recorder, radio alarm, walkman, hi-fi tuner.) 20% of all radio listening takes place in the car, and 'drive time' is very important for radio advertisers. Sony is concentrating its digital development on car radios and has no plans to market a domestic unit.(Brown, 1997, p.8).
DAB offers the functions that RDS offers, and more:
CD sound quality, and no interference or break-up of sound in bad weather or if the signal gets weaker, and equal quality reception on fixed, portable or car radios.
simplified frequencies identified by the name of the station, and automatic retuning to a stronger signal where necessary, so easier-to-use sets.
many more channels (since one frequency and one signal can broadcast a multiplex of 6 stations)
the ability to play an earlier news bulletin that you missed.
text and data services as well as audio: DAB has the technical potential to turn the wireless into something we watch or read as well as something we listen to. The new radios will incorporate mini LCD screens that can display graphical or textual or still-picture information accompanying the programmes being listened to (Télérama, 2439). Newspaper coverage has not yet concentrated on the potential traffic hazards of such screens.
The new functions this allows can use data associated with the programme or indeed data quite separate from it: :
music stations can display visual details of artist and track, CD identification, biographical details of the composer. News stations can display stock market rates or sports results. Other functions are very attractive to commercial stations since it allows advertisers to display additional information on screen, for example details of vehicles on a local car dealer's forecourt.
information dissociated from programmes can be to do with traffic conditions and route navigation. Europe 1 and certain taxi firms are setting up a system that could display on line the state of the main roads in Paris. The Lagardère group is selling (for 1000 Francs) a sun visor called le skipper (on the passenger side) that will show the city of Paris and the Paris region and current bottlenecks. NRJ is looking at the possibility of displaying availability of hotel rooms, or the availability of underground parking. Others are looking at automatic purchasing of CDs heard on the radio, or tele-paying of motorway tolls (Télérama 2439).
Associated with a satellite Global Positioning System, DAB can be used for radioguidage (Le Monde 29-30 Sept. 1996).
Dab can take 'smart cards' to allow pay-per-listen radio, which will eventually be attractive for the selling of over-subscribed pop concerts or distant sporting events. Pay-per-listen sets are predicted to be available by 2002 and portable DAB sets by 1999 (J Doward).
Finally since the new radio signal is the same as computer data, the radio can be used for access to the Web, and to receive email or faxes. World Space Inc. for example is having Alcatel Espace build three satellites to be launched by Ariane over the Caribbean, Africa and Asia to turn the radio into a multimedia instrument capable of being linked to a computer, therefore avoiding the transmission problems of low cable band width or modems. DAB will soon therefore be able to transmit the Internet. Radio-France spokesman said they did not want to get bogged down with short term difficulties but to aim at medium term services since 'le DAB est une composante du Web à part entière' (Antennes mars 1997).
2.4 Radio on the Net
This links to the final aspect of new radio: radio-on-the-Net or Audio-on-demand, the new possibility of surfing the net and listening to radio originating the world over. Most major French stations now have their own Web page, offering textual and graphical information complementary to their broadcasts, as well as the possibility of interactivity and feedback for their listeners. Additionally, software (such as RealAudio) is now so cheap for programme providers, and generally free for listeners) that radios can offer live broadcasts or a stock of recorded programmes on their Web site, so that they can be accessed by users with a sound card in their PC. The most avid users of such services are , at the moment, 'les passionnés de l'info' and one of the earliest radios to have Web sound was France -Info. A smaller local radio, Witt FM, based in Bordeaux, boasts 3000 listeners among the Girondin diaspora spread across the world, notably in Quebec (Antennes, mars 1997, pp. 17-18).
Finally since the new radio signal is the same as computer data, the radio can be used for access to the Web, and to receive email or faxes. Radio France is assuming DAB will soon therefore be able to transmit the Internet (Antennes, March 1997).
3. Analysis of the changes in radio
The current transformations associated with digitisation have various effects, to do with renewal of consumer goods, of types of broadcasting service, and of modes of consumption. It also impacts on regulation.
To receive the new products and services and to gain the greater sound quality on offer radio receivers will need to be renewed, thus creating a new market for an audiovisual consumer product (just as happened with CD players). This has industrial consequences that can be perceived as an opportunity or a threat depending on how well European manufacturers can compete with South-East Asian companies.
Digitisation is also renewing types of programme, and renewing the uses of radio: associated data services are being added to radio; there is appearing what might be called a hybridisation of the medium: the convergence of radio and the net, and a convergence with TV (LCD screens, satellite TV music programmes). These technological developments in radio and in multimedia are offering new directions to news radio, to advertisers, and in particular to the music industry, which has been so reliant on radio for distribution and marketing.
As new forms of application are being invented for the new technology, radio consumption is becoming further individualised and interactive, as modes of listening evolve. Demassification of radio is being taken further than in the 1980s: radio on demand is emerging, and a more interactive consumption will modify traditional linear listening. Consumption of broadcasting on demand will accelerate this process, as will the multifunctionality of the new converged sets - being used to read (e)mail or read the daily press, find a parking place as well as to listen to music. The very nature of the new demand-led broadcasting system where supply far outstrips an individual's capacity to consume all that is on offer implies high selectivity. The arrival of radio formatting with the radios libres of the 1980s was a significant step in this direction. Digitisation takes it further. Central scheduling of radio programmes no longer fixes our daily timetable. Individual users, faced with a mass of supply, will have the possibility of constructing their own schedules with the aid of navigation and search software.
However an opposing force is also operating within this trend towards demassification: Le Monde is worried about the growing standardisation of programme supply and supplier on DAB - since only the existing major radio players are interested or have the R&D potential to get involved (Tromparent, 29-30 September 1996).
Finally, digitisation creates new problems of regulation. The regulation of supply to prevent monopolies is one issue. The other is the perennial French concern to protect the national language and culture. Is the 40% quota of French language songs still policeable as radio listening becomes more individual and interactive and new types of broadcasting format multiply, and as radio becomes more international as a medium via the net?
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The author would like to acknowledge the help of the following in the research for this article: Newcastle University Small Grants Committee, and the staff of the Centre de documentation of the Institut Français de Presse (Université de Paris II-Assas).
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTOR
Dr Geoffrey HARE, Senior Lecturer in French Studies, University of Newcastle. Main interests: French broadcasting and sport in French society. Publications include: Alphonse Daudet A Critical Bibliography (Grant & Cutler), Parlons Sciences Po and Parlons Sciences Po '89 (British Institute in Paris), (with A Chauveau) Media Studies in France A Guide to Sources of Information (Kingston Polytechnic), (with M Bate) Communicative Approaches in French in Higher Education (AFLS), (with 9 others) Le français en faculté (Hodder & Stoughton), (with H Dauncey) France and the 1998 World Cup (Cass, forthcoming 1999); contributions to France Today (ed. J Flower) and journals Francophonie, French Cultural Studies, and Modern and Contemporary France.