On Radio – Antenna http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 Low Power FM Radio: A Conversation with Christina Dunbar-Hester and Sanjay Jolly http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/11/06/low-power-fm-radio-a-conversation-with-christina-dunbar-hester-and-sanjay-jolly/ Fri, 06 Nov 2015 17:45:46 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=28742 cover_finalThe following is a dialogue between Christina Dunbar-Hester and Sanjay Jolly about the state of radio activism and Dunbar-Hester’s recent book, Low Power to the People: Pirates, Politics, and Protest in FM Radio Activism (MIT Press, 2014). 

Christina Dunbar-Hester (CDH) researches the politics of technology in activism. She will join the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California in spring 2016.  Her book, Low Power to the People, is an ethnographic account of radio activism. 

Sanjay Jolly (SJ) was formerly the policy director at the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based media advocacy organization that, as stated in its mission, “builds participatory radio as a tool for social justice organizing and a voice for community expression.”

SJ: Why did you choose to study the Prometheus Radio Project and radio activism?

CDH: My initial motivation for research on radio activism was not mainly due to an interest in radio, per se—I was interested in discourses about digitality and the Internet being “all new,” with which the 1990s were saturated. When I found out about people advocating for radio even though they were highly sophisticated about technology–in other words who were not Luddites–I thought that would be an interesting site to interrogate the interplay between “old” media and “new” media. I was interested in ideas about how communication and technology might be changing, but I did not want to look at those topics in a novelty-focused vacuum.

SJ: What was the political situation around community radio activism at the moment of the book?

CDH: The period of my fieldwork was the mid-2000s. The earliest LPFM stations had been on the air a few years at that point, so LPFM was no longer brand-new, but advocates were still pursuing changes in policy that would allow many more LPFMs to be licensed. That goal was met in late 2010 with the passage of the Community Radio Act, finally. But those middle years were challenging—advocates approached Congress several times, in a variety of ways, but the legislative change to allow more LPFMs was slow and elusive. This was frustrating in certain ways because the introduction of LPFM in 2000 was a high point for media democracy activism, and advocates wanted to see that momentum carried forward.

SJ: Why did you choose to do an ethnography?

CDH: I have always been interested in how people make meaning out of their activities—what motivates any of us to do the things we do? How does meaning for individuals and at the level of groups get shaped, or change? These are extremely important questions for activism, I think: with limited resources of time (among other things), how do people choose which issues are important, and what strategies to pursue in order to enact social change? A question in my research is, what role does technology play in activist imaginaries, and why? Also, a lot of radio studies work is historical, and I wanted to complement and extend that work with contemporary research.

SJ: What surprised you most as you were conducting your research?

CDH: One of the things that surprised me was how much the activists struggled with preexisting cultural notions surrounding technology. Radio activists themselves were very enthusiastic about promoting tech skills and DIY to all kinds of different people. They had a strong and sincere egalitarian bent, and trying to teach tech skills to people who had traditionally been excluded from this domain was presented as a radical opportunity to change those power relations. But what often happened was that the activists were swimming upstream to promote tech skills and DIY across gender, race, and class lines. I wound up writing about the persistence of these difficulties, which was in some ways unexpected because of how sincere the activists were about demystifying technology “for everyone.”

Prometheus-sponsored "barnraising" at WRFN-LP in Nashville, TN, in 2005. (Photo: Prometheus Radio Project)

Prometheus-sponsored “barnraising” at WRFN-LP in Nashville, TN, in 2005. (Photo: Prometheus Radio Project)

SJ: Discuss how your activism played a role in your research.

CDH: As I write in the book, I don’t need convincing that a lot of the claims of media democracy advocates are right—a media system built around profit motives is missing a lot of what a media system can potentially do. I think articulating and building alternatives (building policies and building technologies themselves) are very important. But my goal is more one of critique—here, what are consequences of approaching the problems of the media system with one set of priorities, versus another set of priorities? I often wind up in a space where I’m thinking about that. It’s not quite “what could activists do to be more effective”—I don’t presume to have those answers, and I have tremendous respect for a lot of the efforts made by activists. It’s more, what do various proposed solutions solve, and what do they miss or foreclose? And, how does the lifeworld of activists shape the objectives they pursue?

CDH: Also, Sanjay, can I invert the question and shoot it back to you? What is the value of participation in research for activists?

SJ: I think there are really two aspects to that question. First, what is the value for social activists of being part of a research process? And second, what is the value of being subject to academic analysis and/or critique? I wasn’t around Prometheus at the time you were conducting your research, nor can I speak on behalf of activists in general. But having known most of the Prometheus folks featured in the book, I know that in your particular case there was really no downside for them to having an intelligent, thoughtful, down-with-the-cause young person hanging around their work. It’s unremarkable to say that it’s a good thing to have good people around. As I understand it, your methodology was more participant observation – i.e. you hung out and joined in on the work where appropriate – than it was traditional ethnography, so in a way it was kind of a collaboration. My sense as an outsider from the academic world is that when social science research isn’t about collaboration, participation, mutual respect, etc., the alternative often takes the form of appropriation and fetishization. With respect to that second question, I think social activists generally have a responsibility to be self-critical, and academic analysis can and should be a tool in shaping and reshaping activist practice.

SJ: “Boundary work.” What is it and how did it apply to your research?

CDH: What I mean in the book has to do with how activists drew boundaries between themselves and other groups with whom they shared certain goals, especially in terms of legislation to expand LPFM. What is of interest here is not that there were differences between the activists at Prometheus and other groups working on media democracy issues—we would probably expect this—but how Prometheus activists framed those differences to themselves, and how they tried to keep their mission and goals centered around values that were important to them as activists.

I borrow my notion of boundary work from scholarly research in social studies of science, such as Thomas Gieryn’s article on boundary work in science and Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer’s “boundary objects” (which I import to studying “localism” in media policy here. I also write about boundary work as it applies to the similarities and differences between activism, policy work, and academic work here).

CDH: Sanjay, I don’t know if you have comments about this issue?

SJ: I had never heard the term “boundary work” before reading your book, but yeah, it’s right on. Especially in our policy advocacy, Prometheus has always had to confront tensions with other media justice allies and even those folks we call “frenemies,” referring mainly to community radio supporters on the religious or libertarian right. One example of this is how we’ve had to negotiate a common language to build consensus. If you read Prometheus material advocating for LPFM, you’re bound to find the word “localism.” It’s a term we rarely use to contextualize our work in private, but it was a more or less accurate principle of LPFM and it appealed across ideological positions.

Prometheus radio workshop. (Photo: Prometheus Radio Project)

Prometheus radio workshop. (Photo: Prometheus Radio Project)

SJ: Describe the history of the Prometheus Radio Project and the community radio movement since the book was written.

CDH: When I started research with Prometheus, they were not too long out of the microradio movement of the 1990s (and some of the members had been involved in pirate radio). They were delicately balancing a history of and commitment to political radicalism and their mainstream advocacy/reform work. They were focused on a combination of building radio stations, working on policy, and dipping their toes into spectrum/platform issues that weren’t about FM, such as community and municipal broadband.

CDH: But Sanjay, I would love to hear from you on both of these questions! You can describe the movement since the period of the book better. I’d also be interested in how you might add to or correct what I characterize as the most important aspects of the history.

SJ: Of course, the biggest thing that happened was the victory of Prometheus’s legislative campaign. In 2011, President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act, and almost 3,000 community organizations applied for LPFM licenses. By 2016, more than half of them will be on the air. As far as I know (though I haven’t confirmed), it’s the largest single expansion of community radio anywhere in the world. What happens now is an open question. For Prometheus and the community radio movement, the legislative/regulatory expansion of LPFM is only a starting point. The work now is focused on how to translate local infrastructure into local power, how to realize LPFM as a democratic project beyond the abstract.

SJ: Do these victories matter today? Is radio still an important medium?

CDH: The question of whether “radio is still an important medium” is itself too narrow. First, what do we mean by “radio”? It’s a combination of technical artifacts and social practices, but to me the more interesting questions are how those boundaries get drawn—does “radio” have to be FM or AM? Probably not. Is all telecommunication in the electromagnetic spectrum “radio”? Probably not, either. But arguably all spectrum allocation has something in common with the issues that matter in “radio”—who owns and controls platforms, who has the right to speak on them.

This is why I think that radio, and LPFM in particular, is extremely important symbolically. There is not really an equivalent online space to LPFM—a portion dedicated to noncommercial use, on a platform owned by “the people.” Even platforms treated like they are commons—particularly social media—are not actually controlled by the people who use them.

SJ: Is there a connection between LPFM and the other major communications issues of today – net neutrality, Comcast mergers, etc.?

CDH: As you might suspect from my answer above, yes!! The re-interpretation of broadcasting and contestations–amongst activists, regulators, corporations, and users/audience members–that led to the creation of LPFM are hugely relevant as we consider how to carve out media justice on any platform, past, present, or future.

CDH: Sanjay, what do you think? What do you see as conceptual connections, and how do they relate to specific activist campaigns or policy issues?

SJ: Prometheus was never just about radio – that is to say, never about radio for radio’s sake. It was constructed as a political project in the broader struggle for democratic participation. In the case of radio, public policy was (and still is) oriented so that corporate interest trumps public interest. The FM band came to be dominated by a handful of media corporations, plus NPR. They controlled the infrastructure, they controlled the information, they dictated the narratives of political and cultural life, and that all came at the expense of democratic representation, especially of poor people and people of color. That’s the context for LPFM. But that’s also fundamentally the context for a host of other communications and technology issues – net neutrality, prison phone rates, media mergers, the surveillance state, etc. All of these, just like the fight over community radio, come down to the question of whether technology is to be appropriated for the sake of social control and elite interest, or to reclaim a modern democratic commons.


What I Learned at Podcast Movement 2015 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/09/01/what-i-learned-at-podcast-movement-2015/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/09/01/what-i-learned-at-podcast-movement-2015/#comments Tue, 01 Sep 2015 13:00:24 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=28020 pm15-1Post by Jason Loviglio, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

I promised the Antenna editors an account of the Podcast Movement 2015 conference, held last month at the Omni Hilton in Fort Worth, Texas. But that was before I actually got there and realized what I had signed up for: It was a massive and elaborate event, composed of podcasters, would-be podcasters, and an army of sponsors with elaborate electronic kiosks, booths, and high-tech swag. The conference room stages had been decorated in a detailed brick and metal motif meant perhaps to evoke a trendy re-tooling of an earlier industrial moment, but which actually put me in mind of the brick ovens of Bertucci’s Pizza. A young woman I met at the conference, an aspiring educational podcaster, suggested a darker historical reference point for the ovens, which due to the spatial constraints of the stages did have a vaguely cramped, carceral appearance. I arrived on a Friday morning and rather than interrupt the pre-conference sessions that were already underway, I walked through the sun-blasted downtown, past stately Art Deco towers built with petroleum money, to a local café where I found air conditioning, the free city weekly, and a thin roast beef sandwich.

The opening plenary session of the conference took place later that first evening, a presentation of awards by the “Academy of Podcasting.” And while there is much to deride about any awards ceremony and perhaps little sport in doing so, it’s worth mentioning that this one lived up to its aspirational peers in several ways: the absurd, grueling duration of the ceremony; the execrable play-on, play-off music; and a loyal adherence to the conventions of the acceptance speech. (Yes, the winners actually said “I’d like to thank the Academy.”) The ratio of annual prizes to Hall-of-Fame inductees was about even, an interesting fact for an industry so young and for a conference only in its second year. The ceremony was as much about writing the history of podcasting as creating its future. I was struck most of all by the sheer scale of the podcasting universe represented: there were nine awards categories, including “Business,” “Food and Drink,” “Lifestyle and Health” and “Society and Culture,” the latter of which Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible won. Mars also won the “People’s Choice Award,” which the audience selected in real-time on their phones. Mars gave a keynote too; in that and in my conversation with him on the last day of the conference, he modestly and thoughtfully conveyed the sense that podcasting had been a refuge from the disappointments and challenges of public radio.

Roman Mars at Podcast Movement 2015. Photo from http://podcastmovement.com/photo-gallery/

Roman Mars of 99% Invisible at Podcast Movement 2015.

The next two days’ sessions were replete with variations on similar nuggets of wisdom. Attendees were exhorted to “listen” many times, typically in sessions that permitted very little time for panelists to hear the questions and comments from the audience. Advice typically came in lists; it was all I could do not to write this up as “Seven Things I Learned at the Podcast Movement. Number 1: Listen!” Almost every session combined inspirational buncombe with a genuine desire on the part of the presenters to help the attendees, who paid nearly $500 for the conference registration, to figure out how to be successful. Two delightful exceptions to the formulaic, numbered bits of advice were Nikki Silva’s expertly produced presentation of The Kitchen Sisters‘ lost sound recordings, and Lea Thau, who led about 50 of us thru a storytelling workshop complete with Moth-like presentations at the end.

For most of the time, I felt as if I were at two conferences in one, a trope I tried out several times during the short Q&As, hoping it would catch on. One conference was filled with recognizable types: public radio veterans and those who aspired to make podcasts with the public radio sensibility, grouped loosely around the PRX’s “network” of podcasts, Radiotopia. These include Criminal, Strangers, 99% Invisible, and Fugitive Waves. The other, bigger conference was composed of entrepreneurial podcasters and their great hero, John Lee Dumas, a youthful entrepreneur whose membership organization Podcasters’ Paradise commanded the enthusiasm typically reserved for pyramid schemes, motivational speakers, and returned messiahs. Despite their zeal, members of Podcasters’ Paradise were easy to talk to and taught me a lot about how to think about the podcasting platform, industry, and community, which I heard many of them refer to as “this space.” I met one on the bus-ride to the Stockyards, a hulking retro-cattle industry entertainment district, who described the split in the conference between “Pro-casters” (professional broadcasters), almost exclusively from the public radio sector, for whom podcasting was merely another way to distribute and actual “Podcasters,” the scrappy amateurs with start-up ambition and moxie. Sure enough panelists in the Radiotopia sessions (Pro-casters all), avoided the term podcasting in favor of terms like “public media” to describe their platform-straddling work, and the word “shows” to talk about their own work.

John Lee Dumas at Podcast Movement 2015. Photo from http://podcastmovement.com/photo-gallery/

John Lee Dumas of the “online community” Podcasters’ Paradise at Podcast Movement 2015.

And it was true that the members of Podcasters’ Paradise that I met were all amateurs to audio production. I learned at some point that the average number of downloads for podcasts was 158, a far cry from the tens of millions that Serial commanded. John Lee Dumas’ daily podcast Entrepreneur on Fire, however, was the lodestar towards which all the amateurs navigated. His hundreds of thousands of dollars in monthly income (updated regularly on the front page of his website) represented far more meaningful numbers to the podcasters than any dreary audience averages. Dumas’ appeal lay more in his humble backstory and exuberant message. An Iraq War army veteran, law school dropout, and Wall Street washout turned podcasting millionaire, Dumas exudes the optimism and charm of someone who can’t quite believe how well things have turned out. For his podcast, Dumas interviews equally exuberant young entrepreneurs, many of whom echo his rags-to-riches narrative, keywords (“bootstrapping,” “journey”), and variations on the metaphor of “on fire” to signal inspiration. The sound design and vocal performances of Entrepreneur on Fire, like that of Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Money, another podcaster luminary, owe more to AM talk radio’s thin, digitally compressed sound than to the lush, artful sound of This American Life and Radiolab. Dumas’ interview style is rat-a-tat; there’s even a lightning round, which doesn’t sound much different from the rest of the program. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of the probing, allusive style made famous by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. If Dumas is “listening” to his guests, there’s no evidence of it. I will spare you a full accounting of Dumas’ message, which involves keywords whose first letters spell out the word “SUCCCCEESS.” Boiled down to its essence, Dumas exhorted his audience to “Invest, Learn, and Teach.” “Teach for Free,” Dumas advised. His free webinars on how to get started in podcasting are hugely popular loss leaders for Podcasters Paradise membership, which people pay $1,100 to join.

The “give it away” ethos and model seemed to be the golden thread running through the two parts of the conference. It was difficult to find a podcast of any kind that didn’t operate on the free distribution model, though some sold access to their full archives. Others tried fundraising in the public radio podcast model, simply asking listeners to “chip in a few bucks.” For the most part, the podcasting movement has been brought to you by corporate sponsors like Audible and MailChimp on the public media side and by subscriptions to additional services, books, “solutions,” CDs, and memberships on the business-oriented side. Some of the very popular business-oriented podcasts, like Entrepreneur on Fire, also include a spasm of super short ads from small business services like BrainTree and LegalZoom at the top of the podcast, at the “mid-roll,” and at the end. One vendor and conference sponsor, PodClear, offered high-quality internet voice service that podcasters could use to conduct long distance interviews more cheaply than ISDN lines and more reliably than phone lines or VOIP, a sign that public radio’s high-quality sound, rather than AM’s scratchy, populist immediacy, might be the emergent standard for the new medium.

Marc Maron at Podcast Movement 2015. Photo from http://podcastmovement.com/photo-gallery/

Marc Maron at Podcast Movement 2015.

Marc Maron’s keynote (he was a late replacement for Glenn Beck) also represented a point of conjunction. Like Roman Mars, Maron’s work was universally known and admired. Like Dumas, he framed the success of his WTF podcast as a late reprieve from a life of failure and heartbreak. Broke, in the throes of a painful divorce, and a stalled career in comedy, he turned his garage into a studio, in part, he joked, because the ceiling was too low to hang himself from. Podcasting as a form of last-minute salvation was another uniting theme, giving the conference a tent-revival vibe. Even Lea Thau, the Peabody Award winning co-founder of The Moth, frames the success of her Radiotopia-backed Strangers show as salvation from a devastating career and personal reversals. Perhaps the purest articulation of the podcast-as-rebirth formula appeared on the back of a tee-shirt worn by one of the attendees that read “From Brain Tumor to 1 Million Monthly Downloads.” I had scoffed at the use of the word “Movement” in the conference title when I first heard of it, but now I understood a bit better the affective economy the conference was tapping into. Even Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters described the conference as a “festival” that reminded her of the early, pre-NPR days of community radio in Santa Cruz.

Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters at Podcast Movement 2015.

Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters at Podcast Movement 2015.

The gathering was big and the number and kind of podcasts represented was impressive. But I was surprised to hear speakers gushing about the conference’s “diversity.” It was, to all appearances, a very white Anglophone group, though there was at least some gender diversity, with women making up a bit less than half the gathering. The smallest session I attended, in a cramped, remote room hard by the restrooms, featured Carolina Guerrero of Radio Ambulante, the Spanish-language, pan-American podcast whose global audience grew fifty-fold in 2014 alone. Guerrero explained the meteoric growth in audience as a function of demographic changes, the show’s pan-American reach, and partnerships with BBC Mundo and radio stations in Latin America, as well as English-version appearances on Radiolab, Reply All, and This American Life. It was surprising that so little was said in the rest of the conference about the growth potential of Spanish-language programming.

By Sunday, the Stockholm Syndrome had set in and I began to identify with my captors, and to love my fellow conference-goers and the blank anywhere/nowhere of the conference hotel. Even the vendors, who lined the hallway of the meeting room level had become, if not friends, then at least familiar denizens of our temporary village. I collected lanyards, tee-shirts, and phone chargers in my tote bags and signed up for special offers. Conversations with familiar strangers became easier, as if in fulfillment of Lea Thau’s injunction that we be “Strangers No More.” People exchanged business cards with abandon, as if they genuinely hoped to stay in touch. Small confidences and bits of advice and email addresses were exchanged. We found it easier to pipe up during the sessions, despite the brief time allotted for Q&A. In a session on “Creativity and Storytelling,” the audience erupted 20-minutes in, protesting good naturedly the fact that the moderator had yet to address a question to the only woman panelist.

Serial's Sarah Koening at Podcast Movement 2015.

Serial‘s Sarah Koenig at Podcast Movement 2015.

The conference concluded Sunday afternoon with a final keynote, this one by Sarah Koenig of the podcasting’s game-changing hit, Serial. Like Serial, Koenig’s talk was exquisitely produced and disarmingly personal. After nearly a year, she still manages to seem genuinely staggered by the podcast’s runaway success. And yet somehow she knows exactly which sorts of behind-the-scenes tidbits about the reporting, production, and post-fame spin-control we’re desperate to hear. Perhaps most valuable was her candid presentation of an early draft of the first episode’s script, followed by the much-improved final version, a rare moment in the conference when the work of making good audio was shown more than merely celebrated or advertised. Koenig credited producer Julie Snyder with providing some of the most important improvements draft to draft, a valuable lesson about the importance of collaboration, another point often lost in the highly individualistic, “bootstraps” narratives and underfunded business model of the business podcasters. She also played bits of taped phone calls between herself and Adnan Syed, in which she gamely revealed her manipulations of Syed and his flirtations with her. Koenig projected the exact same uncertainty about Adnan Syed’s guilt that suffused the entire podcast without seeming the slightest bit less fascinated by the case. Koenig closed by taking questions, and yes, she really did seem to listen.

All photos from Podcast Movement


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Podagogy, a Word I Didn’t Make Up http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/06/25/podagogy-a-word-i-didnt-make-up/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/06/25/podagogy-a-word-i-didnt-make-up/#comments Thu, 25 Jun 2015 13:00:06 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=27305 Microphones

Post by Neil Verma, Northwestern University

In her 2013 book Listening Publics, Kate Lacey points out a contradiction in listening habits arising out of the proliferation of podcasts and other programs born in the digital space. On the one hand, listeners experience radio in perhaps more personalized ways than they did in the past, listening to what they want and when they want, often in the micro-airspace of a personal device. On the other hand, these same listeners represent their acts of listening to others through social media much more readily and broadly than did listeners in the past (p. 154).

Our listening acts are thus simultaneously both less “in public” and more so, while becoming far more available to monitoring by a variety of entities clamoring for every crumb of data on audience preferences and behaviors.

The good news is that this contradiction suggests that despite the insularity of their sonic lives, there remains a persistent desire within many people to listen together, if only virtually. Lacey points to the rise of curated listening events, which have expanded quite a bit in the years since her book was published. Note the upcoming Cast Party bringing podcast shows to film theaters, recent RadioLoveFest at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and the ongoing events of the Third Coast International Audio Festival. Although it’s not really new, listening together without visual stimulus still feels unusual, like an experiment in experience. By liberating publics and concentrating them, providing a paradoxical collectivity and anti-sociality at once, group podcast listening is full of possibilities, although it is unclear what they are and how to harness them.

Poster for the RadioLoveFest at BAM.

Poster for the RadioLoveFest live radio series at Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In this post, I’d like to think about the classroom as a space in which to find out more about that. While we have opportunities to use public and virtual spaces to promote collective listening (this was the premise of my #WOTW75 project in 2013), and some of the most experimental thinking about podcasting is taking place online (see Sounding Out!’s Everything Sounds piece, Cynthia Meyers’s study of podcast business, and Jason Mittell’s coverage of Serial), it’s in classrooms where we can really “do” collective listening in a unique way. Unlike listeners in online groups, movie theaters, museums, and festivals, those in classrooms host critique without seeming to undermine community. Moreover, they benefit from a tremendous power that even educators themselves often undervalue: by meeting again and again, classroom listening enables conversations to grow, as the listening we do alone becomes the listening we do together.

According to this reasoning, teaching classes on podcasting isn’t just a new idea to attract students – although it does – but also a way of knowing the form of the podcast anew. In other words, podagogy (a word I didn’t make up, swear) is just as necessary to the current task of inventing podcast studies as it is to the task of applying it.

I recently had a chance to experiment with this in a course I taught on “Podcasting and New Audio,” which focused on narrative-driven podcasts in historical context. Broken into three sections – “What is a Podcast?,” “Possible Histories the Podcast,” and “Formal Problems / Critical Strategies” – the course gave opportunities for complicating student understanding of shows that many already knew well. By teaching Radiolab’s “Space” alongside a week on the history of sound art, for instance, we could rethink this show on discovery along lines suggested by conceptual art. Combining Serial with Carlo Ginzburg’s essay on the history of conjecture, we dug into the show’s hermeneutics, considering the way the narration approaches “evidence” with boundless suspicion while also providing listeners with sonic details that work as “clues,” offering seemingly privileged windows into meaning, like tracks in the snow.

I found the historical classes – highlighting the hidden legacy of radio drama, documentary, and the radio “feature” on podcast formulas – especially gratifying. Even the most ardent podcast fans know few masterpieces of the past. Want to blow the mind of a lifelong devotee of This American Life? Assign The Ballad of John Axon. Trust me.

Cover for a 1965 LP edition of The Ballad of John Axon by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, and Charles Parker.

Cover for a 1965 LP edition of The Ballad of John Axon by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, and Charles Parker.

I added two podagogical (there it is again) features to the architecture of the class, both of which involved listening to our materials as a collective, in the room.

In the first, I asked students to work in groups to produce recordings as responses to the reading, creating a quasi-podcast of their own. Prompts included: after reading Nancy Updike’s manifesto for radio, create a 1 minute “manifesto” using only sound (I got a great one based on Russolo); provide the shortest possible piece of audio that tells a “story” whose structure responds to how podcasters like Alex Blumberg and Ira Glass understand that term (the snap of a mousetrap, two seconds flat). Listening to these in class gave each group a chance to talk about their thinking, emphasizing sound as not just a vehicle of response but also as a way of knowing. Indeed, the very anticipation of being asked to create audio made them listen differently, tuning their receptors and making them as detail-oriented in the study of podcasts as many already are when it comes to TV and film.

That’s the same idea behind the second experiment in the course. In each meeting, one group would take the task of devising and leading a “Guided Exercise in Collective Listening.” To explain, I gave an example. On the first day, I broke the group into thirds and assigned them each one of Michel Chion’s “Three Listening Modes” (semantic listening for language, causal listening for sources of emanation, “pure listening” for sound objects) to shape how they listen to The Truth’s “The Extractor.” Then we listened to the whole piece and had a discussion about how it was different depending on our mode, and what points in the piece cued us to shift from one mode to another. In another case, I instructed them to make a four frame “storyboard” for Sean Borodale’s A Mighty Beast while we listened to it together, later asking what choices we have to make in “translating” from sound to a constrained number of visuals, as a way of troubling our lazy notions of the relationship between sounds and mental images.

Soon the students took over directing our listening activities. That became the richest part of the course, particularly for difficult episodes. Listening to Love + Radio’s brilliant but disturbing story “Jack and Ellen” encouraged us to look at how editing constructed the complex reliability – and the complex gender identity – of a blackmailer. A group that undertook Radiolab’s controversial “Yellow Rain” segment instructed us to listen for moments of shifting allegiance, an idea that sharpened our appreciation of the rhetorical use of silence in that piece, along with its bearing on questions of race and power.

Art from the “Jack and Ellen” episode of Love + Radio.

Art from the “Jack and Ellen” episode of Love + Radio. Image: Cal Tabuena-Frolli.

Another value of listening together in class was more ineffable. Getting podagogy out of the pod, it became clear that these pieces simply hang in the air differently among other people than they do in the ear and alone, carrying discomfort, mortification and identity more heavily when they fill a room. By having both experiences, class listening introduces sequence to Lacey’s contradiction. Students begin with private listening on their own, have a second experience informed by peers as a group, and then explain their experiences and their discrepancies to one another. The rhythm moved from the public to the private and back again, something that a one-time collective listening event alone does not accomplish.

Curated listening in public is a laudable and exciting development, I hope we see more of it. I hope it gets even weirder. But in the classroom, collective listening can be a way of teaching the ear to be more critical, more aware of its own comportment and aesthetic responses, as well as of the habits of attention and social dynamics that underlie those responses, the very matters that podcast scholarship ought to be after.


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#SaladGate: When Social Media Disrupts an Insular Media Culture http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/06/16/saladgate-when-social-media-disrupts-an-insular-media-culture/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/06/16/saladgate-when-social-media-disrupts-an-insular-media-culture/#comments Tue, 16 Jun 2015 13:00:09 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=27041 hill

Post by David Crider, State University of New York at Oswego

As someone who has previously written for Antenna about country music radio’s gender problem, I have been following the “#SaladGate” situation pretty closely. For those who are not familiar, longtime radio consultant Keith Hill was recently explaining his winning strategies in Country Aircheck Weekly. Hill stated that one way to improve ratings is to decrease the number of females on the playlist to around 15-percent. He concluded, “They’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.” Well-known female country artists Miranda Lambert and Martina McBride took umbrage to Hill’s comments, and their fan bases followed suit, attacking Hill via e-mail and social media.

Hill has been on the defensive ever since, falling back on his 40 years of experience with music programming and consulting. He addressed many of his detractors directly via Twitter, and then appeared on the Radio Stuff Podcast to explain his strategy and his side of the situation. At one point in the interview, Hill noted that he had created a Twitter account during a convention panel six years ago, then never used it again until recently when the angry #SaladGate tweets started coming in. He added that the country radio audience is 55 to 65 percent female, and until now they were happy with what they heard. It was only when they were exposed to the internal data that they started to think the format was biased.

mcbrideIt seems to me that this is a classic case of disruption brought about by digital and social media and greater media literacy. Radio is a very insular media culture, driven by the same research metrics that have been used for decades. The Keith Hills of the world fall back on what has always worked because they see no reason to change. Fear drives their programming decisions; if they try something new or different, they could lose listeners. Until recently, they were immune from direct criticism because they worked behind the scenes and had much more anonymity than on-air personalities, who serve as the public voices of the industry. The rise of Twitter and Facebook has brought listeners to the gates of this insular radio industry, allowing them to shout, “Listen to us!” When listeners don’t like something, they can let radio management know, immediately and directly. Naturally, this development will knock a practitioner of ingrained methods off his/her axis.

Another potential disruption is the shift in how we receive our music. The advent of streaming has already broken down barriers of genre for many listeners; they now base their playlists not on whether it is Country or Rock, but instead by context or mood. Rock journalist Alan Cross points out that for Alternative Rock listeners, the gender of the singer does not matter like it did 15-20 years ago. The day may be coming soon when Keith Hill can no longer fall back on saying, “Women like male artists” simply because they had in the past, especially in a format where the majority of the audience is female.

The push toward greater media literacy has been underway for several years, and social media allows inside information to be spread much more quickly. More people are questioning the framing of media content and the media ecosystem in which it is created; in so doing, they discover patterns of bias. In short, as more people find out how the sausage (or in this case, salad) is made, it is likely that more people will find fault with the practices of Hill and others who shape the content. As the pushback grows, the radio industry will be forced to make changes because the fear of keeping things as-is will outweigh the fear of change.

lambertThe down side of this disruption is it also begets the “Twitter mob.” Hill received messages using every nasty name in the book, as well as a handful of death threats. He became the latest “target of the week” for those who enjoy tearing someone down. These people may be very passionate about their social beliefs, but they can also forget that everything they say via social media affects how people see them. In this case, as someone in a management culture that struggles to understand social media, Hill’s treatment on Twitter prompted him to call the site “a cesspool that overflows.” In a separate interview, Hill also stated that when he gets one of these angry tweets, “I know it doesn’t represent the mass Country audience.” The problem here is that when it’s Miranda Lambert or Martina McBride’s fans sending those tweets, it may not represent the audience as a whole, but it does represent some of the most passionate listeners. When it comes to social media, you ignore these motivated listeners at your own peril. However, when too many of them cross lines of decorum, they become easier to dismiss.

During his Radio Stuff Podcast interview, Hill acknowledged that there is a degree of sexism within radio and country music, but not by design: “Its outcome is sexist, but that’s because it’s simply responding to the market.” For those of us who study radio from a social-science viewpoint and wish to teach the next generation how to succeed in this or any other entertainment medium, it poses an interesting conundrum: How do we reconcile the imperative to “give the people what they want” with the fact that from a sociological standpoint, we disapprove of what they want? Continuing to improve media literacy certainly helps, as we teach our students to pay closer attention to the ever-changing needs of the current audience, instead of falling back on decades of outdated trends.


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On Radio: The Influence of Comedy Podcasts on TV Narrative, Production, and Cross-Promotion http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/04/29/the-influence-of-comedy-podcasts-on-tv-narrative-production-and-cross-promotion/ Wed, 29 Apr 2015 12:00:04 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=26230 maron-tvPost by Mark Lashley, La Salle University.

If you’ve been enjoying television comedy over the past several years, you likely owe a debt of gratitude to a wholly different production form: the podcast. 

Podcasts have existed in their current form for well over a decade now, and have been much discussed as a technological form and an industrial challenge. Last year the format got perhaps its largest mass exposure ever, with the success of the docu-series Serial, an absolute sensation that was influenced by some of the finer elements of true crime TV and long form radio production techniques. There have been a number of popular podcasts in many other genres, like sports (The B.S. Report), technology (TED Radio Hour), and business (Planet Money), each of which can be found tucked into its little niche on the iTunes charts.

But I would argue, the unbridled cachet of something like Serial excepted, that the biggest cultural impact of the podcasting revolution, such as it is, has come from comedy. A cursory glance at the iTunes charts in the comedy category reveals a host of comic talent that would be familiar to nearly every TV fan in 2015: Marc Maron, Aisha Tyler, Bill Burr, John Oliver, Chelsea Peretti, Dan Harmon. These comics are joined by other comedy podcasters who have made their bones in screenwriting, local radio, improv theater, and even YouTube. While the technological ease of podcasting has allowed inroads for all kinds of talent to reach increasingly segmented audiences, comedians have reaped the greatest televisual benefits in a media landscape that we have come to accept as both post-television and, almost unquestionably, post-radio.

MaronTake Maron as an example. The 51-year-old standup has widely credited podcasting (in his act, his book, and his podcast itself, WTF With Marc Maron) with saving his stagnant career. Cable network IFC developed a starring sitcom vehicle for Maron (cleverly titled Maron), which features the comic as a fictionalized version of himself, a comedian and podcaster, and which draws heavily on personal stories Maron had shared with his WTF audience. The show has been successful enough to advance to a third season, which premieres in May. Maron was certainly a known commodity as a comic before he began his podcast in 2009, but Maron is undoubtedly a career zenith, and owes its existence to the podcast’s success. In other cases, like in the case of Joe Rogan’s The Joe Rogan Experience (routinely near the top of the iTunes’s rankings), the podcast’s success owes far more to its host’s TV credits. And Rogan has plenty of those, from Newsradio, to Fear Factor, to his current role as UFC commentator.

What I think is most fascinating about this reciprocal influence between the arenas of podcasting and television are the narrative challenges (and opportunities) that come from translating one to the other. And on this count there are several podcast-to-TV properties that have had both critical and commercial success. In the case of Maron, the writing staff has whittled down years of Maron’s musings about his personal life, personal history, and personal neuroses (delivered in an extemporaneous monologue in the first ten minutes of each WTF episode) to a series of fairly average, wholly recognizable 22-minute sitcom episodes. WTF listeners know more about Maron’s outlook on the world than they probably ever cared to hear. In the resulting television product, Maron’s perspective is acted out and contextualized with re-enacted versions of those rants serving as de facto narration. It’s a far different approach to the same material. Some of the 200,000 regular WTF listeners may feel that the sitcom format neuters Maron’s delivery or diminishes the parasocial effect of engaging with the host’s current life crises twice a week for years on end; others may feel the sitcom effectively cuts Maron’s ranting off at a more appropriate juncture (it’s not uncommon for fans or other comedians to profess to loving WTF “except for the first ten minutes”).

comedybangbangAnother of the most popular comedy podcasts, Comedy Bang! Bang!, has also made the transition to television (also on IFC, now in its fourth season). Unlike WTF, which is primarily an interview show outside of Maron’s monologue, the podcast version of CBB is essentially an improvisational showcase for comedians of various backgrounds. Framed as an interview program, CBB typically begins with host Scott Aukerman talking with a celebrity guest. Soon enough, the show is interrupted by at least one other guest, a skilled improviser performing in character in an attempt to derail the proceedings. Very little about the character’s personality is known to the other participants ahead of time. The results are often very funny, sometimes fall flat, and are never in any way constricted; the format of the show is incredibly loose with episodes stretching from 45 minutes to upwards of two hours, depending on when Aukerman decides to rein things in. In 2012, the IFC version of the show was developed, and included major celebrity guests (some of whom had appeared on the podcast), along with recurring characters from the audio version. The CBB television show faces significant narrative challenges in its adaptation, especially considering the fact that a typical episode must be delivered in under 25% of the podcast’s running time. In the adaptation, Aukerman has tried to remain true to the improvisational roots of the podcast. Clearly the appearances of the celebrities and guest characters are edited down from longer, looser improv sessions, but the show has taken advantage of the televisual format to include produced sketches, narrative framing devices, and musical elements (featuring comedian and bandleader Reggie Watts).

nerdistIn addition to these more direct adaptations (of which I could also mention TBS’s failed, though critically well-received Pete Holmes Show), podcasting’s influence on television comedy is felt in more subtle ways. Lost in the recent shuffle of late night Comedy Central hosts is the continued success of Chris Hardwick’s @midnight, a panel show meant to skewer web culture that features three comedian guests each night, many of whom (like Hardwick himself) have had a great deal of success in podcasting, and who use the show’s promotional opportunity to drive traffic to their online offerings. Some of the most frequent guests on @midnight include Doug Benson, Nikki Glaser, Paul Scheer, and Kumail Nanjiani, who have all promoted their popular podcasts on the show (Doug Loves Movies, You Had to Be There, How Did This Get Made?, and The Indoor Kids, respectively). The ABC-Univision collaborative cable venture Fusion has had modest success with one of its first original series No, You Shut Up, featuring comedy podcast all-star Paul F. Tompkins (CBB, The Pod F. Tompcast, Spontaneanation, among others) improvising with fellow comedians and puppets from Henson Alternative (an offshoot of the Jim Henson Company). Comedy Central’s popular Review stars comedian Andy Daly, who is well known among podcast fans for his improvised appearances on dozens of shows. USA’s Playing House features comedians Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair who honed their skills through character work on scores of podcast episodes. The list could go on.

The influence and overlap between the worlds of podcasting and television (and live comedy) is expanding as visual and audio media continue to fragment. Issues of narrative construction and narrative influence are ripe for questioning, as are issues of economic viability and the longevity of both of these forms as the landscape continues to change. Additionally, the cross-pollination of talent between these forms could lead to interesting transmedia inquiries. To my mind, it’s heartening that, in just the past half-decade or so, many more prospects have developed for varied comedic voices, and that a burgeoning format like the podcast has incubated many of those opportunities.


On Radio: Authenticity and Sincerity in Podcast Advertising http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/02/19/on-radio-authenticity-and-sincerity-in-podcast-advertising/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/02/19/on-radio-authenticity-and-sincerity-in-podcast-advertising/#comments Thu, 19 Feb 2015 15:00:26 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=25494 3.2 Typeface A

This 1938 trade press article argues that choosing the announcer to voice the commercial is similar to choosing the correct typeface for a print ad.

As podcasters draw larger audiences, they are experimenting with business models, especially with advertising.

Like many media historians, I’ve been struck by the parallels between 1920s-30s radio and 2010s podcasting. Despite obvious differences between podcasting and early radio—such as asynchronous reception, niche rather than mass audiences, global rather than local distribution—podcasters hoping to support themselves by advertising share many of the opportunities and difficulties faced by the producers of Jack Benny and Kraft Music Hall.

When radio emerged in the 1920s, its boosters promised it would be an effective advertising medium because, instead of inert printed text, it used the human voice, which “tug[s] at heartstrings,” according to Radio Showmanship, and “affects the heart, mind, and soul,” according to a 1929 CBS pamphlet. Podcaster Alix Spiegel (Invisibilia) has recently made a similar claim about the emotional information carried in voices.

Early radio advertising proponents noted that audiences experienced radio as individuals rather than as masses, in the intimacy and privacy of the home, making it feel like a more confidential and personalized medium than, say, films in theaters. Likewise, some podcasters today note the high “engagement” they enjoy with their audiences, many of whom, listening on headphones or earbuds, are far more attentive than audiences for whom radio or television is sonic wallpaper. Advertisers who fear television audiences have strayed to other screens may find podcast audiences more appealing. As one podcaster explains, “People really pay attention to the ads,” so advertisers may pay very high prices (CPMs) to reach them.

Announcer cartoon

The cartoonist H. T. Webster poked fun at announcers perfecting their commercial delivery.

Early radio proponents, such as a NBC time salesman, noted radio’s “pseudo-friendship” effect, when audiences’ parasocial relationships with radio personalities spilled over into their perceptions of whichever products those personalities endorsed. Likewise, some podcasters today, such as Mark Maron and the hosts of Men in Blazersare asked by advertisers to promote products by integrating endorsements or uses of products into their podcasts, allowing brands to leverage the audience’s good will toward the host. Such “testimonials,” an established strategy in print advertising before the radio era, also had a long history in radio and television, as hosts such as Mary Margaret McBride and Arthur Godfrey integrated product endorsements into their talk shows.

However, advertisers do run some risks when closely tying the commercial message to the host or announcer’s personality. In early radio, some suggested that announcers delivering advertising messages must sound “sincere” or risk losing audience trust. The commercial’s words, according to Norman Brokenshire, a well-known announcer, must be “felt as well as spoken.” Likewise, StartUp podcaster Alex Blumberg, who uses first-person narratives and interviews in both his program and advertising, has insisted that he selects his advertisers carefully so that any implied endorsement by him is sincere and authentic.

In the 1930s the ad agency J. Walter Thompson would sometimes, instead of professional announcers, have an amateur or “man on the street” speak the commercial message; this, the ad agents believed, could make the advertising sound “more sincere, frank, and open.” Likewise, podcaster Roman Mars (99% Invisible) often uses soundbites of his own child speaking about his advertisers, and the producers of Serial, most famously, use “man on the street” interviews for their commercial for MailChimp. The interviewee who notoriously mispronounced the name as “Mail Kimp” reinforced the authenticity of the ad.

In 1920s radio, producers worried at first that audiences would turn off the radio if the program were interrupted by ads. Today audiences can easily avoid interruptive ads, and so podcasters feel a special need to keep them listening. Blumberg’s ads in StartUp, for example, resemble the rest of the show; as he interviews his documentary sources about his topic, so he interviews his sponsors about their business, with no change in style or tone. The similarity is so close, in fact, that he employs a special music cue so that listeners won’t confuse the ad with the program.

This integration of format or style between program and commercial was routine in 1930s-40s radio. Comedian Fred Allen made jokes with announcers about sponsors, and Jack Benny famously integrated humorous references to Jell-O into his comedy. The intention was not to confuse audiences but to smooth out any disjunctures and keep audiences listening.

Alex Blumberg

Alex Blumberg of Gimlet Media & the StartUp podcast (Image: The Wolf Den/Midroll Media)

Blumberg has already confronted one of the pitfalls of such integrations. For his company’s other program, Reply All, the producer used an interview with a young boy about his use of the web site provider Squarespace as an advertisement for that site. The boy, and his mother, thought the interview was for the program, not an ad, and the mother’s sense of offense was rapidly transmitted via social media. In a perfectly reflexive and reflective episode about this event, Blumberg interviewed the mother, who noted that her son, unlike a hired performer, was offered no compensation for his testimonial. So Blumberg’s production of authentic ads via documentary-style soundbites has to gain the trust not just of the audience but also of the documentary subjects.

In some ways, then, podcasting is where radio was in the late 1920s, promising to be a new medium but like old media simultaneously. Advertisers’ need to reach attentive audiences has increased as audiences have been unshackled from linear media’s schedules and forced exposure to advertising. As podcasters try to monetize programming, maintaining their audiences’ trust and attention will be crucial to their success, and that, in turn, will depend in part on how they handle their advertising.


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On Radio: Surprise! Radio Needs More Female Singers http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/02/18/on-radio-surprise-radio-needs-more-female-singers/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/02/18/on-radio-surprise-radio-needs-more-female-singers/#comments Wed, 18 Feb 2015 15:32:56 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=25480 Mickey Guyton (Image: KMLE/CBS Local)

Mickey Guyton (Image: KMLE/CBS Local)

I recently read a piece on All Access (a radio/music industry website) by R.J. Curtis, trumpeting 2015 as a possible “Year of the Woman” for country music and country music radio. As various country music programmers trumpeted the up-and-coming female country acts poised to break through this year, many of them scratched their heads as to why they have to try so hard to push female artists to the forefront. It’s a question I found myself asking when I was in their shoes in a similarly male-dominated music radio format.

The year was 2003, and I was the Program Director/Music Director at Revolution 103.7, an Alternative station in Chambersburg, PA. “Why Can’t I,” the lead single from Liz Phair’s self-titled album was going for adds, and remembering the important place Phair’s work held in 1990s indie rock, I added the song without hesitation. I immediately got pushback from my general manager and others whose opinion I trusted. Granted, many music critics decried Phair’s move toward “pop-rock” status, but it shouldn’t have mattered. Ask anyone who owns a copy of Exile in Guyville if Liz Phair could ever be considered a “Pop” artist. Still, it was a time when I was expected to play Godsmack or Slipknot instead. Concerned about losing the coveted Male 18-34 listeners to the newer, testosterone-heavy Active Rock format, we Alternative programmers were supposed to mimic them as much as possible.

In the R.J. Curtis piece, Lisa McKay, a Country program director in Raleigh, states that their sister Pop station has a rule about playing no more than three females in a row, while she works to force three females into an hour. My first reaction to this statement is that it shouldn’t need to be forced. Country is a radio format that appeals equally to males and females, and the sales data backs this up. Yet in research that I presented at last April’s Broadcast Education Association (BEA) conference, Country playlists skewed 83% male, and it is apparently getting worse. Curtis pointed out that just two of the 30 most played songs at the Country format right now are sung by women. Two. Thus making the current national Country playlist a staggering 93% male. These are numbers I would normally expect in the alpha-male-driven Rock formats, but in a climate where “bro-country” is considered the prevailing trend today, perhaps we should not be surprised.

My second reaction to McKay’s lament was, “Why do we even need a rule about how many consecutive female artists is too many?” Curtis compared the Top 30 Country songs to the Top 30 at Pop radio and found that nine of the top Pop songs were sung by women. Better than Country to be sure, but still producing a national current playlist that is over two-thirds male, and in a format whose target audience is women. Would women really change the station if they heard too many female voices in a row?

In this same article, Los Angeles Country program director Tonya Campos stated that people want success for female artists, “but only for the really good ones,” adding that she cannot add female singers just for the sake of having more female singers. Quality should of course be the rule, but there is also the possibility that a stigma exists about the quality of female country singers. During my dissertation research, I sat in with a Country DJ who took a call from a female listener, complaining that Taylor Swift cannot sing. After politely handling the call, he turned to me and said, “And yet, we never get a call saying Toby Keith or George Strait can’t sing… We only pick on our female artists.” Stories like this probably make Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie nod knowingly at the way radio and the music industry justifies the marginalization of women.

Author Eric Weisbard recently wrote a piece for NPR, collaborating with such music journalism titans as Maura Johnston and Jason King to note how the splintering of music radio formats has caused each to begin dictating the terms by which a song could be classified as Alternative, Country, and so on. So it is that we have come to a point where the two major rock awards at this year’s Grammys were won by artists who many immediately claimed were “not rock.” Beck’s Morning Phase won Rock Album of the Year – a win that was apparently just as controversial as his upset win for overall Album of the Year – and Paramore’s “Ain’t it Fun” won Rock Song of the Year. The band Trapt, a hard rock group best known for the raging 2003 hit “Headstrong,” immediately claimed that these two selections were part of a larger establishment conspiracy to prevent “anything too threatening or in your face” from dominating the rock scene.

Hayley Williams (Image: Neil Roberson)

Hayley Williams (Image: Neil Roberson)

This complaint could not be farther from the truth when it comes to radio airplay. Although Trapt has not had a hit in years, the “aggro” brand of rock has become so dominant on Rock radio for so long that Grantland music critic Steven Hyden recently described the state of mainstream rock as “ossified.” In other words, an entire generation has been raised on male singers pairing aggression with perceived alienation, entrenching the angry white male aesthetic into a dominant position from which it cannot be pushed aside by newer trends. Formerly an Alternative mainstay, Beck’s lighter fare was immediately ticketed for Adult Album Alternative, and Paramore – fronted by one of the heretofore few acceptable female rock singers, Hayley Williams – was sent directly to Pop radio despite far more critical praise than Liz Phair received a decade ago.

At least Country is trying to stop the same thing from happening with the “bro-country” movement. At times like this, I am reminded of Honna Veerkamp’s terrific piece, “Why Radio Needs Feminism.” Perhaps at least one male-dominated radio format will see the light this year and recognize that women listen too.


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On Radio: Live Music Festivals as Satellite Radio’s Premium Content? http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/06/10/on-radio-live-music-festivals-as-satellite-radios-premium-content/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/06/10/on-radio-live-music-festivals-as-satellite-radios-premium-content/#comments Tue, 10 Jun 2014 13:59:04 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=24153 govball-9Subscription satellite radio is certainly not the most local form of radio. The majority of programming is produced in digital radio broadcasting facilities in New York City and Washington, D.C. and satellites are not entities that we encounter in our communities (let alone in our atmosphere). But as a subscriber and listener of Sirius XM, I am hearing the ways in which satellite radio has increasingly been offering musical programming and listening experiences that amplify aspects of radio’s past.

For one, I’m intrigued by the persistence of place, of musical “hotspots,” within the satellite radio universe. This carries on a long tradition of radio connecting listeners to musical and cultural centers. One notable and recent example of this was Sirius XM’s multichannel coverage of the fourth annual Governors Ball, which took place over three days in on Randall’s Island in New York City this past weekend.

“We’re excited that people across the U.S. will be able to experience the diversity and depth of the lineup on multiple channels across Sirius XM,” explained Yoni Reisman from Founders Entertainment, the company that produces the festival. A number of “marquee performances” were played over the weekend on channels including The Heat (Janelle Monae, Outkast), Outlaw Country (Neko Case), The Joint (Damian Marley), Hip-Hop Nation (Childish Gambino), BPM (Skrillex, Disclosure) and Sirius XM U (Damon Albarn). Performances were broadcast live and replays were scheduled throughout the weekend.


Listening from a kitchen in Toronto, Ontario, I could hear the noise of the crowd building as Janelle Monae’s set began with Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, known commonly as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. When festival-goers heard Monae introduce “Cold War” with a speech about discrimination, so too did Sirius XM subscribers.

Satellite radio is delivered to a private, personal space. Often within an automobile but also to laptops or smartphones for those who pay the added monthly fee of $4 for online access. Many listeners are connected to the internet and, thus, satellite radio fits nicely with Michele Hilmes’s characteristic of radio today as “soundwork,” in which, radio must now be understood as “the entire complex of sound-based digital media that enters our experience through a variety of technologies and forms.” As satellite radio becomes more mobile through the ability to listen via smart phones and laptops, programming extends into online spaces and listeners are presented with new visual platforms for interacting with DJs and content. Satellite radio moves with the listener and local boundaries are practically nonexistent. But even as Sirius XM operates on a transnational scale, beyond radio’s former borders, an essence of radio’s pre-digital identity is increasingly prominent in the satellite radio universe, that of providing a shared cultural experience.


Between satellite channels and mobile, individual listening practices, is the persistence of place and the transmission of musical performance sites. The Governors Ball broadcast constructs a radio experience that enables listeners to engage from a distance through new media, continuing the tradition of radio bringing music from centers to private spaces – from the home, the car, and now a mobile space within which one is bound to a smartphone or laptop.

However, we also hear how privatized spaces and experiences are transmitted, especially as music festivals are critiqued as focusing too heavily on branded experiences. Another important critique to raise in this instance is one of exclusivity. Festivals sell out, they cost a lot of money, and often require travel time and expenses. In a preview of the weekend’s musical offerings, Sirius XM explained that “the exclusive broadcast, showcasing a diverse line-up, will include Jack White’s performance, which comes days before the release of his anticipated second solo album, Lazaretto.” While satellite radio overcomes these obstacles to some extent, it also requires a subscription fee. Accessibility is limited, but as subscription television becomes increasingly watched and revered, premium content delivered by subscription radio is not a surprising development.

Given that music festivals are becoming a larger component of the music industries and a greater source of income and promotion, I am certainly interested to hear how satellite radio continues to transmit the sounds of live musical performances.


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The Best Show on WFMU: 2000-2013 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/12/12/the-best-show-on-wfmu-2000-2013/ Thu, 12 Dec 2013 17:49:53 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=23131 Best ShowTo my mind, Tom Scharpling belongs in the canon of great American broadcasters. In an era when, for better and worse, cheaply produced podcasts reign supreme, Scharpling continues to fly the flag for old-school, over-the-airwaves community broadcasting (even if most of the show’s latter-day listeners probably listen via internet stream or podcast). His Best Show on WFMU has been a going concern for thirteen years–since the Clinton administration, as Scharpling is fond of pointing out. On December 17, when Tuesday turns into Wednesday, that run ends. I’ve written about The Best Show here before, so in this post I want to celebrate the program as it ends. But rather than churning out a weepy eulogy, I simply offer a few scattered (and I do mean scattered) bullet points—some personal, some academic(ish), all in some way or another expressing what the program has meant to me over the years.


– The centerpiece of any given episode of The Best Show tends to be the phone call between Scharpling and comedy partner Jon Wurster (the drummer for Superchunk, The Mountain Goats, and Bob Mould) in character as one of any number of weirdos that populate fictional Newbridge, NJ. When it comes to world-building, the “Whedonverse,” such as it is, has nothing on Newbridge. If the construction of ambitiously fleshed-out narrative worlds has generally been considered within the realms of science fiction or fantasy, the collected works of Scharpling and Wurster remind us that world-building can pay dividends in comedy. Spending thirteen years building out a story-world deepens jokes, sustains long-simmering storylines, and offers opportunities to subvert well-built expectations.


– More than pretty much anything else, The Best Show finally pushed me past my punk-influenced disavowal of many of the classic rock groups I grew up listening to. On a free-form radio station where you’re likely to hear James Chance instead of James Taylor, or Yoko Ono instead of The Beatles, what could be more subversive than playing a different Led Zeppelin song every week?

– As a matter of fact, The Best Show’s use of music has given me cause to think about the personal, individual nature of taste. While academics who study taste tend to follow Bourdieu’s lead and think of it as a social phenomenon informed by our stations in life, there can be dissonance between understanding that on an intellectual level and at the same time emotionally and affectively feeling like something was made just for you—as if it sprung from the cabinet of your brain that stores your feelings about the things you like. “Evan likes ‘60s garage rock, Julie Klausner, Ted Leo, Superchunk, free-flowing conversations about popular culture, Kurt Vile, Patton Oswalt, Aimee Mann, etc etc etc, so here—have this thing that pulls together all of that stuff.” Now, obviously, I know that habitus has much to do with why I like these things. Still, while the tensions between taste as individual experience and social/structural formation have been fundamental to much of the canonical writing on the subject, it can be a strange thing to experience them oneself.


– Focusing only on the Scharpling and Wurster bits threatens to elide that any given episode of The Best Show features at least two additional hours of comedy, conversations, and miscellany. These ingredients make the program fundamentally unpredictable—a capriciousness amplified by the live nature of the program. Now, I’m a sucker for liveness. It’s why I love watching sports, awards shows, and Saturday Night Live regardless of quality, and it’s why I watched NBC’s live Sound of Music last week in spite of that fact that I’m an avowed SoM hater. So, I do listen live whenever possible—and in an era where more and more of my media experiences are delayed, on-demand, or catch-up, I’ll miss the presence of one more live experience in my weekly media diet.

– Most of all, though, I lament the end of The Best Show because it’s truly singular: free-form conversations with callers and guests, occasional musical performances, puppets, sound collages, and other bits of randomness. It is to the call-in radio show what Late Night with David Letterman was to the late-night talk show: proof that well-established formats are still ripe for experimentation and can be opened up and toyed with. If we’re lucky, The Best Show will be just as influential on future generations of comedians.


Radio at SCMS 2013 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/03/01/radio-at-scms-2013/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/03/01/radio-at-scms-2013/#comments Fri, 01 Mar 2013 15:00:53 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=18811 SCMSNext week, Chicago will host a bumper crop of outstanding qualitative scholarship on radio. No fewer than 12 panels at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference will feature at least one paper centered on radio, up from nine in 2012. Additionally, Neil Verma will take home the “Best First Book” award for his outstanding book on radio drama, Theater of the Mind, and Johanna Zorn of the amazing Third Coast International Audio Festival will give a talk on Sunday morning to help launch the newly formed Radio Studies Scholarly Interest Group (regarding which I proudly declare my conflict of interest). Clearly, radio studies have found a firm and presumably secure place within the organization, making SCMS the place for humanities-based qualitative approaches to studying radio. Not bad given that, as far as anyone seems to remember, the very first radio panel at SCMS was only in 1986. I’ll leave aside the question of whether 27 years is a long or short time to reach this place, and just say that it’s nice to be here.

Why is this important to non-radio scholars? For one, we’re on ur panels, expandin ur themez. While there are still a fair number of stand-alone radio panels this year, SCMS in Chicago will be characterized by a greater number of panels on which radio is included alongside other media, such as Veronica Zavala’s paper on Spanish-language radio on a panel about Latina/o identity, or Chie Niita’s radio-themed paper on a panel about Japanese cinema. It will be as healthy for film scholars to hear a radio perspective on their panel topic as it will be for radio scholars to be more fully included in some of the broader transmedia scholarly conversations going on at the conference.

Second, it is becoming increasingly clear that what non-radio scholars think of as radio is probably wrong. Maybe radio studies is getting a little imperialistic, but one can now reasonably claim to be studying radio not just when the attention is on terrestrial radio, but also satellite radio, Spotify, PRX, Third Coast, Soundcloud, large swaths of YouTube, and much, much more. As with other media scholars, the object of study is constantly shifting and represents, even more than it ever did, structures and practices extending far beyond a specific technology or technologies. The distinction between a radio scholar and a new media scholar is, at this point, mostly just a sloppy shorthand. Experiments like this one demonstrate the power of refusing such distinctions.

1015000145-lThis leads to the third reason this is important: the possibility that the days of broadcast history as a structuring other of “new media” are finally coming to an end. At the risk of further reifying the highly misleading “radio = history” trope that I just spent two paragraphs refuting, it is worth pointing out the ways in which a specialization in media history can be a tough gig these days. The number of jobs for broadcast historians this year, for example, is dwarfed by orders of magnitude by job calls for new media or digital technology scholars. This isn’t merely departments wanting to keep up with the latest trends but in some ways is constitutive of divisions within the field itself. As a friend pointed out, there is a risk of relying on the otherness of old media to help define the newness of new media, a kind of exaggeration of  how different the present is from the past. In that sense, jobs, publications, funding, and more can come to depend on artificial temporal distinctions that map all too neatly (and problematically) onto technological forms.

As radio studies expands and becomes normalized within media studies, this dynamic increasingly loses force—and as that happens, the field as a whole gets stronger. It is with some optimism, then, that we can say the solidity of radio studies at SCMS this year portends a healthy decline in scholarly digital exceptionalism in the coming years. In the spirit of promoting that outcome, I’ll close with a public service announcement—a quick recap of where you are sure to catch radio scholarship and conversations next week:

Wed., 3/6, 10:00 (A12): Veronica Zavala on Spanish-language radio in the U.S.
Wed., 3/6, 4:00 (D12): Sindhu Zagoren on the struggle for airspace in early radio
Thu., 3/7, 11:00 (F22): Panel on Norman Corwin and transmedia authorship (papers by Jacob Smith, Mary Ann Watson, Shawn VanCour, and Alexander Russo; Neil Verma chairing)
Fri., 3/8, 9:00 (J21): Panel on gender and broadcasting (papers by Jennifer Wang, Kathryn Fuller‐Seeley, Catherine Martin, and Joanne Morreale)
Fri., 3/8, 12:15 (K14): Panel on the radio archive (papers by Katherine McLeod, Melissa Dinsman, and Ian Whittington; Debra Rae Cohen responding)
Fri., 3/8, 2:15 (L11): Chie Niita on Japanese cinema and radio
Fri., 3/8, 4:15: Neil Verma’s “Best First Book“ award
Sat., 3/9, 9:00 (M23): Panel on radio industries with Eleanor Patterson, Brian Fauteux, Jason Loviglio, Jeremy Morris, Elena Razlogova, and Alexander Russo
Sat., 3/9, 11:00 (N4): Panel on radio in transition (papers by Kyle Barnett, Cynthia Meyers, and Andrew Bottomley; Kathy Fuller‐Seeley responding)
Sat., 3/9, 1:00 (O14): Bill Kirkpatrick on disability and radio
Sat., 3/9, 3:00 (P18): Panel on economies in media industries (papers by Josh Shepperd, Colin Burnett, James Lastra, and Douglas Gomery; Brett Gary chairing)
Sat., 3/9, 5:00 (Q9): Isabel Huacuja Alonso on All-India Radio
Sat., 3/9, 5:00 (Q11): Kyoko Omori on radio satire in occupied Japan
Sun. 3/10, 9:00: Radio Studies SIG meeting (featuring Johanna Zorn of The Third Coast International Audio Festival)


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