Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Al Jazeera Network

Al Jazeera has been trying to make real American inroads for almost five years now. last week I read an article in the Hartford Advocate that three non-commercial stations in connecticut were considering carrying Al Jazeera (AJE) news. This list included WPKN, WESU and WHUS. the network is owned and funded by the emir of Quatar and it's English language radio broadcast is already carried in at least three markets: Burlington VT, Toledo OH, Washington D.C.  All those are for TV News. For me this is pretty exciting. It brings a third big voice into a news arena that's presently totally dominated by NPR, with Pacifica playing a distant third following the BBC in it's total number of affiliates. More here.

Talks began in September and then by early December it was announced that Pacifica was adding news broadcasts from the Al Jazeera English TV news channel to Pacifica's five stations across the United States, including WPFW, KPFA, KPFK, WBAI, and KPFT. With that move, Pacifica became the second American Radio Network to air programming from AJE. The first was MHz Networks, an educational broadcaster based in Falls Church. They have carried AJE TV broadcasts since 2009.

Their pace is pretty impressive. The CBC, the government-funded network of our northern neighbors was founded in November of 1936 and barely has any presence in the United States at all. actually it's primary conduit into the US is on available on Sirius Satellite Radio channel 137.  A handful of CBC programs are carried on america radio stations. American Public Media has distributed "As It Happens" from CBC Radio One for years but few stations carry it. Only A handful of other CBC programs have crossed the 45th parallel:  Definitely Not the Opera, The Vinyl Cafe and Q I know have all recently aired inside the United States. But that's it. After 75 years their toehold remains tenuous at best. Pacifica by comparison has over 100 affiliates.
Nonetheless AJE has held onto it's toehold. In 2004 Vidéotron  applied to the the CRTC for permission to carry AJE programming. The request was met with opposition from Jewish and pro-Israel groups, including B’nai Brith Canada, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Christian Friends of Israel. The CRTC was not intimidated and granted the license with certain restrictions. 

Pacifica first added the programming in December but they just added AJE to their morning line up.  Yesterday KPFA dropped their Morning Show and split the 2-hour time slot between Democracy Now and Al Jazeera English which is produced in Washington, D.C. That move was less political and more abotu cost-cutting but it isn't helping AJE's awkward entry into the market.

Toledo got their first peek at AJE programming in March of 2007. Buckeye Cable in Toledo picked up AJE in and received mixed reactions. Buckeye serves approximately 150,000 people in northwest Ohio. Buckeye has described the feedback as "overwhelmingly positive."

In Burlington by May of 2008 Burlington Telecom was already openly discussing dropping AJE. They had received 200 complaint letters after 2 years of carrying the network. By a 7 to 0 vote (with three abstentions), their city council urged Burlington Telecom to keep AJE in it's channel line up. It was a bold move for the a small, publicly owned fiber optic network that at the time was only 3 years old. More here.

In Washington D.C. three networks carry AJE: Comcast - Channel 275, Cox – Channel 474, and on Verison FiOS it's on Channel 457. The last of these was in beginning in July 2009, when Fios began carrying their feed 24/7 via the through the MHz Network. Strangely in our Nation's capitol this barely generated a ripple of discomfort.  Personally I'm glad to see the conflict is petering out to a murmur.