PBS, Politics, Information, & Tweaks

In this month's "Letters," Donald Bisbee raises the subject of the government's proposed reduction in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), I agree with Mr. Bisbee that commercial radio broadcasting in the US is an intellectual desert. Music is narrowcast, with listeners' tastes bound into predigested categories. There is no depth or analysis to radio news programs, other than discussions by populist commentators who, no matter what you may think of their politics, usurp the ability of their audiences to think for themselves. As a regular listener to NPR and watcher of PBS, I feel that public broadcasting is an essential factor in American public discourse (footnote 1), but not for the reasons some might think.

When Adam Smith laid down the foundation of free-market economics in the late 18th century, he based his philosophy on two conditions: 1) that the marketplace alone should decide on commercial success and failure; and 2) that this mechanism could only operate in an effective manner provided that there was total and free dissemination of all relevant information. So-called conservatives remember the first but forget the second. As a part-time libertarian, I believe it's the role of centralized government—who is, in the last analysis, ourselves—to ensure that the playing field is level, to guarantee the free dissemination of information so that the free market can operate in the best interests of all of us.

This is how I see the role of the CPB. It makes sure that all voices could and would be heard, even if at any one time some of those ideas may be of sufficiently minority concern that they would not be commercially viable. The argument is not primarily about whether the Muppets could stand on their own financial feet to the same extent as the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers (footnote 2). Rather, the question is: Do we want our children to learn their mores from the Muppets or from the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers? If the forces of the market result in our children being subjected to a continuous diet of commercially viable TV violence, then I believe the government has a responsibility of arranging for an alternative to be available.

I can almost read the letters I'm about to receive, complaining that you don't read Stereophile to be lectured on political matters. But think on this: You presumably read this magazine because you value the ideas it promulgates and the opinions it publishes. We try to bring our readers what they need to know, regardless of the negative and positive effects that doing so will bring. In other words, this magazine subscribes to the second of Adam Smith's free-market principles: that of freedom of dissemination of information. We are also fortunate to be based in a country where the right to publish the truth is embodied (as the First Amendment) in its Constitution (footnote 3).

When you witness attempts to narrow the flow of information, no matter how well-argued and how reasonably presented, you're witnessing the beginnings of a process that might one day prevent this magazine or any other being able to say what needs to be said. Ideas should be free to fight it out in public. As they are in Stereophile's "Letters" column.

Stop! light!

In April's "Letters" (p.13), I commented rather negatively on CD Stoplight. Since penning that response I've done some more experimenting, and perhaps my dismissal of the green-ink tweak was too hasty. I took test-pressings of Stereophile's new Test CD 3 and greened the edge and inner depression of one. With my Mark Levinson No.31 transport feeding a Levinson No.30 (then not yet upgraded to '30.5 status) via a Madrigal AES/EBU link, the tweaked CD sounded "better" in that the walls to Stereophile's yard, where I recorded the spoken passages and burn-in noise, were clearly more audible. The difference between the treated and untreated CDs was much lessened when I put a Sonic Frontiers UltraJitterbug in the datastream, as it was when I used an Audio Alchemy DTI-Pro.

So, I think I should backtrack a little. CD Stoplight—at $14.95, for enough to treat a whole bunch of CDs—offers a clear improvement in sound quality that it takes the $695 UltraJitterbug or $1495 DTI-Pro to equal. The cost per disc of this tweak is almost zero, meaning that it offers a big bang for the buck and can be confidently recommended. But as to why CD Stoplight has any effect, don't ask!

Welcome, Michael

With this issue, well-known writer Michael Fremer makes his debut at Stereophile. An erstwhile stand-up comedian, radio personality, and film-sound producer—he supervised the soundtrack for the Walt Disney movie Tron, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best sound in 1982—Michael's contributions on music have been a strong point of the The Abso!ute Sound for the last eight years. Starting this month, Michael will be writing on things analog for Stereophile in a regular column—"Analog Corner." He will also continue to write and co-publish The Tracking Angle, a bimonthly magazine aimed at LP enthusiasts (footnote 4). Welcome, Michael.—John Atkinson

Footnote 1: It is also a bargain. The CPB's total budget for 1993 was around $1 billion, of which the cost to the taxpayer was just $319 million in fiscal year 1993. I think America has more important things to consider.

Footnote 2: It can be argued that they now could—although at the time of the Muppets' creation, Jim Henson had to go to England's Sir Lew Grade to get financing. He had been turned down by the US television networks, who still find it very hard to get advertiser support for programs aimed at viewers who don't have significant disposable income.

Footnote 3: At the time the Constitution was written, English law was that a libel being true was no defense. In fact, it was held to make the offense worse in that it weakened respect for authority.

Footnote 4: Which has since morphed into www.musicangle.com.