Finally, a note on the great regeneration of the radio show that podcasting is enabling. This isn’t the disaggregated, disintermediated world that many foresee as the future of music or radio in some kinda post-broadcast world – but rather an extrapolation of that which makes radio great. Character, serendipity, personality, variety and vitality, the individual voice. An explosion of intermediaries. These are the principles that broadcast radio in many non-US markets has been thriving on for years, and now more so than ever.
Oh please excuse a quick moan here. I’m getting right royally pissed off with people making pronouncements about ‘radio in general’ while referring only to the US market. This is another aspect of what’s got Ben Hammersley’s goat in The Curse of the Missing Clause. (The clause being ‘in the US’.) And he’s bloody right. It’s particularly galling in the world of radio, where the disparity between the US market and the rest of the world (possible exception Japan) is so great. To be clear, radio elsewhere – particularly in the UK – is often thriving. Latest offender: someone who should know better quoted by something that should know better: "pop-culture expert" J.C. Herz quoted in The Economist.
"Traditional broadcast radio is a numbingly predictable heavy-rotation formula with too much blather and too many ads". The only reason people put up with it, she says, is the lack of alternatives."
Sigh. See above. In the US. Actually, even in the US there are many alternatives, as The Economist has the good grace to point out at the end of the article: "Over 35m American households—about half of those with broadband internet access—listen to online radio stations, according to Forrester, a technology consultancy. And some 7m Americans subscribe to ad-free satellite radio. Increasingly, satellite receivers are pre-installed in new cars, so that number should reach 20m by 2010, reckons Forrester. Its forecast for podcast listeners by 2010 is 12m American households. That estimate, however, was made before Apple stepped in."
You can only conclude that a good part of the excitement around podcasting is simply the American media re-discovering radio.
Still, I’ve every confidence that broadcast radio and podcasted radio will feed creatively off each other and positively reinvent what radio truly means. On the former, the UK iTunes Top 20 is littered with ‘broadcast’ radio, from our work at the BBC to Virgin Radio’s Pete & Geoff – for the moment. On the latter, the very word itself might prove to be as malleable as that which it describes. As a noun, ‘radio’ has a little more flexibility in it than television, whose twisted greek/latin roots show. Radio will continue to evolve over time, as it always has. Think of content radiating … Certainly, podcasts are so much like radio in form and content that I’d suggest they pose no great threat but an opportunity to keep on rethinking what radio means, over broadcast and non-broadcast distribution platforms …
A favourite author Garrison Keillor recently weighed in on the subject of radio and I’m going to do yet another ‘cityofsound-lengthy-quotation’, just so you get the heady flavour of it. Keillor is admittedly of the ‘nostalgia ain’t what it used to be’ school, but to me it’s a great encapsulation of the essence and power of radio, and particularly public radio:
"I love the good-neighbor small-town radio of bake sales and Rotary meetings and Krazy Daze and livestock reports and Barb calling in to report that Pookie was found and thanks to everybody who was on the lookout for her. Good-neighbor radio used to be everywhere and was especially big in big cities–WGN in Chicago, WCCO in Minneapolis-St. Paul, WOR in New York, KOA in Denver, KMOX in St. Louis, KSL in Salt Lake City–where avuncular men chatted about fishing and home repair and other everyday things and Library Week was observed and there was live coverage of a tornado or a plane crash and on summer nights you heard the ball game. Meanwhile lawn mowers were sold and skin cream and dairy goods and flights to Acapulco …"
"Clear Channel’s brand of robotics is not the future of broadcasting. With a whole generation turning to iPod and another generation discovering satellite radio and internet radio, the robotic formatted-music station looks like a very marginal operation indeed. Training kids to do that is like teaching typewriter repair. … After the iPod takes half the radio audience and satellite radio subtracts half of the remainder and internet radio gets a third of the rest and Clear Channel has to start cutting its losses and selling off frequencies, good-neighbor radio will come back. People do enjoy being spoken to by other people who are alive and who live within a few miles of you."
"The best of what you find on public radio is authentic experience. It has little to do with politics. The U.S. Marine just returned from Sudan with lots of firsthand impressions of the crisis there; the journalist just back from Fallujah, where he spent three months; a firsthand documentary about life aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Middle East–that’s what Edward R. Murrow did from London in 1940, and it’s still golden today. It’s the glorious past and it’s the beautiful future. (Thanks to the internet, the stuff doesn’t vanish into thin air. You can go to thislife.org and get the story of the Houston woman or the aircraft carrier documentary. You can find the Sudan and Fallujah interviews at whyy.org/freshair. More and more people are doing this. Nobody cares what Rush Limbaugh said two days ago; it’s gone and forgotten, but the internet has become an enormous extension of radio.) That’s why public radio is growing by leaps and bounds. It is hospitable to scholars of all stripes and to travelers who have returned from the vast, unimaginable world with stories to tell. Out here in the heartland, we live for visitors like those. We will make the demented uncle shut up so we can listen to somebody who actually knows something."
The challenge for professional radio, in a world of amateur voices, is indeed fascinating. I would suggest that there’s a vast range of opportunity in making the professional public radio that Keillor describes – as well as commercial radio and the amateurs – but I’m mainly interested to discover what Keillor would make of podcasting, as it’s exactly that kind of radio that those iPod listeners may be hearing. And he too may enjoy some of the voices he hears there. All these voices can coexist, as all these media forms aren’t mutually exclusive – one tends not to destroy or even dominate the other (cf. McLuhan, or most history of technologised media thus far. In today’s other news, vinyl sales in the UK this quarter are up 87.3% on last year. Seriously.)
As well as Keillor’s desire to hear voices from within a few miles – and how great to think of the audio from a city being enriched in this way? Mapping podcasts to cities mmmm – an additional benefit of the podcast revolution is the wondrous ability to hear radio – local or national – from other countries. For instance, on this very matter, the wonderful Australian broadcaster ABC’s Radio National had a show on the nature of radio. Or of course new variations on the ‘college radio’ which has been one of the few safe zones on the traditional US radio dial. These shows exhibit another basic tenet of good old music radio – an abiding passion for music engendering endless discussion thereof – so evident in podcasting.
To conclude, some actual shows to listen to (aside from the BBC’s current offering): Picking up on that music radio point, a current favourite example is Tracks Up The Tree, straight outta Brooklyn and hosted from his living room by a certain ‘Funtime Ben’ and his various mates. It’s a bit unremittingly indie – though does have the odd corking bootleg (e.g. ‘Crazy In Love’ laid perfectly over ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree’, or Art Brut collided with ‘My Sharona’) – but perfectly captures someone larking around in front of a mic while cueing up music you won’t hear any place else. Tellingly, in relation to the previous post, I discovered … Up The Tree through Odeo and not through iTunes (it’s not there). As Andrew Otwell notes, the iTunes podcast directory is not that hot on music podcasts – for obvious reasons. Andrew does also list a few good discoveries though: Momus radio [XML], On The Media and he discovers In Our Time. I’d add in Studio 360, which I’ve been wanting to follow properly for ages. While we’re in this more professional radio space, but returning to new music, you might want to check out the excellent CBC Radio 3 podcast. Any more suggestions?
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