Noise wars

The boom boom began at about 8 p.m. At first, I thought I’d left a TV on in the basement. One step onto my patio revealed the true source of the racket. A neighbor two blocks away was having a pre-Halloween party, complete with an outside stereo and huge flashing lights. Although he hadn’t invited me to the party, I guess he thought I’d enjoy his party-level atmosphere.

Grudgingly, I waited until 10 p.m. to drive over to the guy’s house. By then, two police cars had arrived. Approaching one officer, I asked, “How much longer is this noise going to continue?” To which I received the typical Lenexa police officer’s arrogant response, “We’re dealing with it sir.” I turned and left.

Ninety minutes later the music stopped. Then started again. Fortunately, by midnight all was quiet — finally! Never mind it took the cops 90 minutes to “deal” with it. So much for “protect and serve!”

This is my space

The issue reminded me of how much of our lives are affected by the rudeness of others and the general intrusion of both noise and video flashing images being blasted into our personal space. Typical invasive noise sources may include the car behind you with multiple 12in subwoofers powered by 5kW amplifiers thumping out 100-plus decible music — er noise. It’s so loud your windows are vibrating!

Or maybe you’re unlucky enough to be staying in a downtown hotel, and there’s a flashing digital sign across the street. The strobing red, blue, white effect grates on your nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard.

The book “Noise Wars, Compulsory Media and our loss of autonomy” by Robert Freedman portrays the daily battle many of us face in simply trying to remain free from other people’s noise — be it aural or visual. The adage, “What’s music to you is noise to me,” applies both to audio and the new 10 billion lumen digital signs that are cropping up everywhere.

Freedman prefaces his book by relating a short story written by Ray Bradbury way back in 1953. Bradbury’s story is called “The Murderer.” It’s about a man living in a futuristic setting who’s being driven to the edge of insanity because he can’t escape the constant torrent of electronic media. No matter where he goes, his environment has been commandeered by some form of digital media. To preserve his sanity, he turns to figurative murder by attempting to destroy each and every media device in his path until he’s arrested and placed in jail.

Bradbury’s story was published just one year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a public transit agency that was piping in commercial radio to a commuter train. Some riders of the train complained until their legal battle reached all the way to the Supreme Court. Much like our murderer from above, those riders felt they were a captive audience and chose to protest.

You can’t get away

The book’s author and I agree on several points. The first is that participating in some venues carries with it the price of not being able to control the surrounding audio and video environment. If you don’t like television, you may find it impossible to enjoy your favorite beer in the neighborhood bar. Finding a gym that doesn’t have multiple TVs flashing at you may not be possible. Fitness centers even place individual TVs on the treadmills, rowing machines and other devices. These represent only two places you may have to avoid if you want control over your surroundings.

Televisions are now located in taxis, elevators, doctors offices, grocery stores and points of sale. Video is projected onto the side of buildings. There is gas station TV and restroom TV. The latter, called In Ad TV, is headquartered here in Kansas City. Do you really want to watch TV while in the restroom? And exactly what would be the advertisements?

Transit TV is operating television in buses in Atlanta, Chicago, Orlando and Milwaukee. As of 2008, BusRadio was playing in 10,000 school buses in 40 cities. Our school children are indoctrinated with commercials daily by Channel One, which reaches 30 percent of them every day.

Frost & Sullivan predicts that by 2011, 90 percent of all stores will have televisions playing in-store content. Nielsen has launched a division focused exclusively on out-of-home television viewing. NBC Everywhere predicts it will reach 3 billion viewer impressions annually. As of 2008, NBC Everywhere offered the following stats on its success:

Taxis: 5.88 million impressions per month in NYC

Gas stations: 8.64 million impressions per month in Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, Miami and Washington, D.C.

Supermarkets: 50 million monthly impressions in 1000 stores

Ballparks: 138 million yearly impressions

Maternity rooms: 3.4 million impressions a month

Schools: 6 million students see the ads per month

Gyms: 13 million members see the ads each month

CBS calls its video effort Outernet. President of CBS’ marketing group George Schweitzer said, “We’re looking for places we can be intrusive, where you can’t turn us off.”

Arbitron claims there is a daily out-of-home audience of 88 million. Jean Lotus, founder of White Dot, a responsible TV advocacy group said, “Perhaps soon the only location where we will have a choice not to watch television is in our home.” I find that really sad.

The issue isn’t just about a company’s ability to force both noise and visual images onto us, it’s about freedom. It is about the freedom to not be assaulted by noise and visual distractions in the form of commercial and government messages while we’re captive in public environments.

The issue of audience captivity was first addressed in “Public Utilities Commission Of The District of Columbia ET AL., v. Pollak, ET AL. 1952.” The lawsuit was over a utility commission’s decision to pipe in commercial radio on publicly-funded commuter trains. While the court decided in favor of the utility commission, two Supreme Court Justices did not agree.

Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas issued a strong dissent saying, “The case comes down to the meaning of 'liberty' as used in the Fifth Amendment ... The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom … One who hears disquieting or unpleasant programs in public places, such as a restaurants, can get up and leave. But the man on the streetcar has no choice but to sit and listen, or perhaps to sit and try not to listen … Once privacy is invaded, privacy is gone. Once a man is forced to submit to one type of radio program, he can be forced to submit to another. It may be but a short step from a cultural program to a political program."

Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter abstained from ruling on the case saying, “My feelings are so strongly engaged as a victim of the practice in controversy that I had better not participate in judicial judgment upon it.”

These two justices saw the installation of radios in buses not just one of commercial versus private interests, but of audience captivity and liberty. Once government opens the door permitting one media to be delivered to any captive audience, it has opened the door permitting the delivery of any media to a captive audience.

In Bradbury’s "Murderer," the convicted man is later interviewed in his jail cell. When asked why he committed the crime, he answers saying, “they went too far. If a little music and keeping in touch was charming, they figured a lot would be ten times as charming.”

Supreme Court Justices Douglas and Frankfurter saw the bus radio controversy in a similar light. If government permits the delivery of any content to a captive audience, it is no longer just about the freedom to do so. It’s about having the liberty to not be forced to endure that content. As Freedman said, “The issue at its core isn’t about noise; it’s about autonomy.”

If you are concerned about noise, visual pollution and personal rights, I highly recommend Freedman’s book. It’s replete with references, resource notes and appendices filled with useful data and actions citizens may take to regain the quiet and calm of their personal space. The name of the book is “Noise Wars, Compulsory Media, Our loss of Autonomy,” by Robert Freedman, Algora Publishing.