The Short Happy Life of Free Broadcasting in Italy

A common assumption among many people, included many of those who describe themselves as libertarians, is that we live in a free market world. That the market is free and dominated by freely exchanging actors seems a given. Every “market failure” is commonly seen as a market flaw that needs be corrected by the action of the state.

Only it’s not so.

The market is not free at all. It’s rigged. And all the rigging is done by the corporate-state alliance. This has been going on since the very inception of the so-called industrial revolution, about two centuries ago. To understand how deeply state power and corporate power are entangled see how stock markets reacted to the recent Brexit. This system of state-corporation revolving doors is today the norm all over the world. What remains of the free market, i.e. the black market, is condemned by all, many libertarians included.

And it was black market actions (illegal at first, then tolerated) that gave rise to the liberalization of radio broadcasting in Italy in the 1970s. In a few years, literally hundreds, if not thousands, of broadcasting stations popped up all over Italy. All of a sudden everyone was free to broadcast with a simple, easily available, authorization from the state. Most of those “free stations”, as they were promptly called, were very small, broadcasting on a few towns, and based on voluntarism. Many were hosted in empty apartments, dusty garages and attics. Funding was provided by voluntary donations and, generally, local advertising.

They were free, in a way. But that freedom didn’t last for long. More on that later.

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi built his broadcasting empire with the help of the state. Berlusconi is the typical example of an entrepreneur whose success depends heavily on a state-corporate power system of mutual help and advantage, or fascism. Bettino Craxi, socialist prime minister in the 1980s, helped Berlusconi build Fininvest, the biggest “private” broadcasting company in Italy. That made of him the most hated/loved person in Italy.

As if to prove how corporate business and political power are deeply enmeshed in each other, Berlusconi ran for the 1994 general elections and won. Absent Craxi, the socialist party in shambles, he ran to keep his own empire undisturbed and going.

In the meantime, radio stations were decimated by the so-called Legge Mammì (Mammì Act, after the name of Oscar Mammì, its first proponent.) Article 1 of the Act states that any broadcasting station must be intended of primary general interest. This meant the stations had to broadcast radio news and any other thing the politicians deem of public interest. Needless to say, this needed an editorial staff. Italian law states that an editorial staff must be headed by a member of the journalist guild, in Italian “ordine dei giornalisti”, created by Mussolini in 1925 to control the news world. A journalist costs a lot of money if only to overview and sign a few scraps of paper once in a while. Most stations, based on volunteering and local advertising, and with barebones organizations, did not survive.

(Disclosure: at that time I was registered with the guild. I came out of it in 1996 when I realized the guild was a useless scam.)

This simple Act killed hundreds of broadcasting stations. Not by chance, broadcasting today is in the hands of very few, powerful stations backed by big money and broadcasting on a national or regional level. Local, small-town stations have all but disappeared. In my hometown (population of about 10,000) their number dropped from four to zero.

Absent the state, wouldn’t many of the broadcasting stations have perished anyway? Maybe. But the market, i.e. the audience, the customers, would have done the sifting. Not the state. Small stations would have joined forces. Think of cooperative stations.

In a really free market everyone can start any business, for profit or for simple fun, based on voluntarism, donations or what have you. Everyone is free to broadcast music, news, poetry, etc. so long as he feels like it. It’s not up to the state to declare winners and losers.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory