Radio – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Peabody Awards and Dialogic Declarations of Value Fri, 24 Apr 2015 14:20:31 +0000 peabody-advisory-board

Post by Jonathan Gray, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

This year’s Peabody Awards are “new and improved” in many ways. The awards ceremony will be televised, for one (hosted by Fred Armisen, on Pivot); the screening committees were overhauled to draw on the expertise of media and journalism studies scholars nationally; judging made use of an online streaming platform, thereby giving Board members easier access to everything; and announcements have been spread out over two weeks (to give various winners their due, rather than have them hidden behind the more prominent Entertainment awardees). Less monumentally, it’s my first year on the Board. In this post, I thought I’d reflect a little on the process, especially on what it’s like to be on a Board charged with determining value, for a media and cultural studies scholar when we’re often uncomfortable with declaring value, saying this is “better” than that, or establishing hierarchies of worth.

First, though, it’s worth noting two of the ways in which the Peabodys are different from many other media awards. There are no categories with single winners for each. Ostensibly, everything competes against everything. We seek “excellence on its own terms,” and thus being on the Board means constantly shifting one’s frame of value. Paired with this, to receive an award, an item must ultimately receive a unanimous vote from the Board of seventeen members. This means that all decisions are made following a highly deliberative process, and if even just one member doesn’t vote for something, it won’t win. Rather than simply vote on what one thinks is excellent, therefore, one must communicate that excellence, and convince one’s colleagues on the Board that it is worthy of an award.

It’s this deliberative process with which I fell in love. It’s an impressive Board, marked currently by fellow academics Henry Jenkins, Barbie Zelizer, and the Director Jeffrey Jones, but also by television critics, the curator for the British Film Institute, and past or present journalists, producers, creators, and media execs. Everyone’s used to being listened to in their job, yet we’re all thrown into a room and made to talk it out. Simply dictating that this or that has value is meaningless, as one must instead think carefully about what sort of value something has, and to whom, and then communicate that thoughtfully. Each of us came into the process with our own passions, but one can never assume that those passions are shared by others. This could be a recipe for bland, middle-of-the-road fare, if everyone simply yielded on the most unobjectionable texts. Instead, though, the deliberative process was exhilarating, as everyone seemed to accept that the awards are more meaningful if we try to understand others’ passions and criteria for excellence, and if we found ways to precariously balance them out with each other.


Exciting for me, therefore, were the moments when I found new appreciation for something that on first viewing or listening meant little to me. At times, I’d enter a discussion skeptically, yet either be schooled on why something mattered to people other than me, or – even cooler when it happened – be led into liking it myself. Similarly, it was energizing to sit down and think through some of my passions, and work out how best to communicate their value to others: when we can’t simply pound a fist on the table and insist that something is good dammit, it challenges us to really explore what it is that we love so much about it, why it has value, and why we want others to experience it as do we. The process “stretched” me, both in terms of getting what other people like and why, and getting better what I like and why.

It’s this process that also makes the Peabody Awards quite unique, and that lead to their value to those who win. Walter Cronkite famously quipped that one counts one’s Emmys, but cherishes one’s Peabodys. Indeed, this would be a retort to those who question the point of the whole endeavor. Awards like this can matter, we’re aware: many veteran Board members told me of one-on-one conversations with documentarians, writers, or newscasters at previous awards dinners who’d spoken of how much an award like this means to them. The new mantra is that we award “Stories that Matter” (while being openly reflexive in asking who they matter to, how, and why), and I like the idea of celebrating those who have contributed meaningfully to the public sphere. Just as it’s always a pleasure for me to sit down and write a reference letter for a truly spectacular student or colleague applying for a job, award, or grant, since I want to stop and pay respect to their awesomeness, so too is it refreshing that we find ways to say not just, “your show was engaging, interesting, and/or amusing,” but “your show matters and makes a difference.”

I’m very proud of this year’s slate of winners. It includes things I adored and/or admired before the judging process, such as Inside Amy Schumer, Fargo, Serial, Doc McStuffins, Cosmos, Jane the Virgin, and Last Week Tonight. I gained new obsessions and passions along the way, to State of the Re:Union, The Honorable Woman, Adventure Time, The Americans, Black Mirror, Richard Engel’s reporting, Vice Media’s access and new approach to news, all things Grace Lee Boggs, and many other documentaries, news reports, radio shows, podcasts, websites, and entertainment shows that didn’t get awards but that won me over all the same. And I had confirmed for me why it can be valuable, and transformative, to have discussions and debates about what is worthy of commendation, what is special, what is unique. Media and cultural studies is right to be concerned about singular, monologic declarations of value, but there’s something to be learned from the Peabodys’ mode of deciding upon value dialogically.


Downloading Serial (part 4) Fri, 19 Dec 2014 04:45:52 +0000 Serial concludes, what does its successes and shortcomings teach us about the possibilities of podcasting?]]> serial1

Previously on “Downloading Serial

… was more than a month ago. Why the delay? Partly it was personal circumstances: a dead hard drive, family commitments, end of the semester craziness. But more it was because I didn’t quite have enough to say to warrant an installment, as many of my thoughts were only partly formed, or contingent on how future Serial developments would play out before I wanted to commit to an analysis. My abiding sense that Serial itself was in flux as a cultural object made it difficult to write an analysis that could avoid its own wavering and uncertainty.

But now we are done, or at least the standard weekly release of the story of Adnan Syed on Serial has ended. His story is far from over, but the storytelling has stopped. And I’m left to reflect on what Serial was, and might have been, had it not been so wedded to its weekly release schedule and need to conclude before the holiday season kicks in. One of the most exciting elements of Serial is how it has seemed to be inventing its own structural conventions throughout its run, distinguishing itself from typical radio with variable episode lengths, and jumping onto the high wire act of simultaneously reporting and presenting astory. From the beginning, Sarah Koenig has said that we’ll be following along with her as she discovers the story, and that they did not know how exactly many episodes the first season would be. But the final month has felt like they were spinning their wheels, looking for material to structure each weekly episode (especially last week’s “Rumors” installment), even given the extra break for Thanksgiving, and finding ways to incorporate the miscellaneous new information that kept pouring in.

Despite its conclusive allusion to Dragnet, which made me smile, today’s final episode felt rather arbitrary, dictated by the desire to have a defined season of regular installments, and seemingly to avoid the counter-programming of Christmas and New Year’s. There is no resolution, with two court motions still in play but otherwise no change in Adnan’s status or compelling alternate suspects—the last minute identification of a serial killer felt underwhelming, making me yearn for an episode exploring that story and teasing out the many problems with that theory. Koenig ends by playing juror and acquitting Adnan, but even as bits of evidence may have swayed her opinions slightly throughout the series, I have no doubt that she has always held sufficient reasonable doubt. The ending of Serial, entitled “What We Know,” establishes that although we know a lot more about the case than when we began, the big picture is the same as established in the pilot: the prosecution’s case was not enough to warrant conviction, but no other explanation for Hae’s murder rises above the level of unsubstantiated speculation inappropriate for factual journalism.

I’ve been interested in how Serial draws upon conventions of serialized TV fiction, and there is no doubt that the podcast’s unprecedented popularity was fueled by those resonances. But in the end, I think those comparisons also highlight Serial’s greatest weaknesses. The producers fail to achieve the structural elegance that marks the best of serial storytelling, where each episode both stands on its own and as piece of a compelling larger whole. They tackled a genre of crime fiction where our expectations are always aimed at a revelation that will be satisfying and conclusive, answering the curiosity question of “what happened in the past?”, which is an unreasonable goal for an ongoing investigation to arrive at. They embraced a serialized form that has encouraged and even demanded forensic fandom to fill in the gaps between episodes, but did not account for how to deal with the ethics of fan investigation into an actual murder, and whether to integrate or ignore such fan practices. And by adopting the model of weekly episodes of a thematically unified season, they were forced to produce episodes without much new to say, and stop producing episodes before the story had finished unfolding.

None of these structural facets are essential aspects of a serialized podcast. Specifically, I wonder how Serial may have played out with a more flexible production and distribution schedule. There is no doubt that the weekly release creates a ritual of engagement that is hard to replicate, but after a few episodes establishing the hook, moving to a more sporadic release as motivated by the story and reporting could sustain that engagement. And why must the series end now, just because further weekly releases are untenable? Imagine that in two months you noticed there was a new episode of Serial waiting in your iTunes playlist, with an update on Adnan’s appeal, or an in-depth investigation into the possible guilt of Ronald Lee Moore. That would set Twitter ablaze, and renew interest in the series (and sustain engagement in anticipation of the next season). Unlike television or radio, there is no need for a podcast to follow regular schedules, as it can be updated and distributed more like software or blogposts. Fiction has long shaped crime stories to fit into the constraints of a book, a film, or serialized television—Serial has adopted those constraints for a new medium, rather than exploring how non-fiction audio might more radically reshape the serial form. Much has been said about how Serial’s success has made podcasting into a more legitimate and popular medium; I hope it can inspire more creative uses of the medium’s structure and serial possibilities.

I conclude here where I began as well—I think Serial is a remarkable achievement, and I found it truly compelling listening. And yet… I am left dismayed by the structural limitations it imposed upon itself, by the ethical considerations that it seemed unable to grapple with effectively, and the genre trouble stemming from marrying non-fiction content to fictional storytelling norms. I don’t find these flaws to be debilitating, or that my critiques are merely “concern trolling” (as I’ve been accused of doing). Instead, such dissatisfaction is the fuel that keeps me engaged—given the ongoing promise of seriality, we always hope for more, for different, and for better. While I doubt we’ll get more of Adnan’s story within Serial proper (although I assume there will be a This American Life episode in a few months following-up on the developing story), we will get another season. Hopefully Koenig and her team won’t try to recreate what worked this season, but rather explore a new story on its own terms, with new storytelling structures and less constrained possibilities for what podcasting may be. Regardless, I’ll be listening.


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Downloading Serial (part 3) Mon, 10 Nov 2014 13:30:47 +0000 serial1

Previously on “Downloading Serial

I peered down the rabbit hole of Serial’s Reddit board. Today I want to explore it a little more, raising the question of how people listen to Serial.

For anyone reading this without a media studies background, this might seem like a secondary digression for a critical analysis of the podcast itself. But one of the tenets of media studies is that any text (like a film or podcast) only matters through its consumption and cultural circulation. And I contend that a serialized text’s reception is even more essential, as the timeframe of production, consumption, and circulation is intertwined, and the gaps between episodes generate far more cultural material about the series than typically occurs in a self-contained text. Thus how we listen helps shape what it is.

Right now, how people are listening to Serial is the most interesting facet of Serial to me. This is not to say the last two episodes aren’t interesting—they definitely are, both in laying out the case against Adnan last week, and this week confirming my own sense that the case left “mountains of reasonable doubt” according to the experts in the law clinic. But together they feel like a transitional moment in Serial, moving from the first wave of establishing the facts as presented in trial, to the process of pushing back against that conviction and proposing alternate narratives. After all, we’re given a key clue as to where this might be going in this last episode: “As a legal question, Deirdre says they should only have to prove Adnan isn’t their guy, he’s not the killer. But as a practical matter, she said, their chances are much better if they can go a step further, and say to the state, ‘not only is this not your guy, we can tell you who is your guy.’” I assume Sarah Koenig says this knowing full well that offering a compelling case for an alternative perpetrator plays much better not only as a legal matter, but as a non-fiction narrative too. Whether that will be Jay, as teased for next episode, or someone else is still to be determined.

But one place where such questions are already being explored are on Serial’s many paratexts. The Reddit board is thriving, with more than 7,000 subscribers (and rapidly growing) and constant chatter between episodes. Slate started tackling Serial on their “Spoiler Special” podcast after the fifth episode, and they have now created a dedicated “Serial Spoiler Special” podcast that now ranks #7 on iTunes (Serial itself is #1). Serial is a popular topic on Twitter and many culture-centered websites, generating copious conversation and analytical attention. There is even a parody series, a sure sign of cultural importance in this day and age. What most interests me is how these paratextual practices fit with norms that have been well established over the past two decades for fans of fictional television series. I mentioned this briefly last post, with Reddit fans creating timelines, but it deserves more consideration.

As I have analyzed elsewhere, fictional television viewers have embraced forensic fandom for many series to try to parse out what is happening in a program and speculate what is still to come. Often times this involves gathering together evidence from interviews with producers, subtle clues within a series like freeze-frame images or intertextual references, and exploring official paratexts that point to broader contexts. Serial fans are doing all of these things, but with the added dimension that they are researching a non-fiction story, with much of the material in the public record. This creates a very strange differential of knowledge: some listeners want to only know what has been shared in the podcast (but still want to discuss that material and often ache with anticipation for the next episode), while others are looking into other sources of information, creating what we might think of as “reality spoilers” (in Myles McNutt’s phrase, as coined in a Twitter conversation).

As with spoilers of fictional series, the reasons why someone might seek to be spoiled are wide-ranging, including wanting to short-circuit anticipation, focusing more on how a story is told rather than what will happen, and hoping to thwart the producers. In the case of Serial, it seems that the nonfiction nature of the story, with much of the “action” occurring in the past, inspires forensic fans to do their own investigations into the case largely because that story information did not emerge from the creative impulses of producers—knowing that there are trial documents and news reports out there makes them irresistible paratexts for some listeners. In this way, fans become parallel investigators to Koenig, and I’m sure some of them are motivated by the competitive drive to “scoop” or at least equal the journalists. Of course, we have seen many cases in recent years of the dangers of online communities trying to be amateur cops, as with the wrongful accusations in the Boston Marathon bombing case and others; there have been ethical discussions on the Reddit board as to what information is appropriate to share versus withhold, given the potential recriminations that being linked to the murder might bring (as discussed in this Guardian piece on the fan phenomenon). And even parties who know more about the case can be respectful of Koenig’s storytelling imperatives to avoid spoilers, as with the fascinating blog of Rabia Chaudry, the lawyer who first brought the case to Koenig’s attention—she fleshes out lots of details and perspectives, but always in deference to Serial’s sequence of revelations.

Another key element of the forensic fandom involves the operational aesthetic, the focus on how a story is being told. As I’ve argued, this is a key element of contemporary serial television, both in fiction and reality television, and such attention to the mechanics of Serial’s storytelling are a central concern of both Slate’s podcast and the fan discussions. People parse out why Koenig makes the choices she does, what she’s omitting and including (like last names of key figures like Jay vs. Jenn), and the strategies the series seems to be following. The type of analysis I’m offering here on Antenna is widespread, both among the Redditors and journalists covering the series, as there seems to be an intense focus on where Serial is going and how it is being put together.

In thinking through the fan reaction and forensic attention the series has gotten, I’ve come to one conclusion: the ending of Serial will be regarded as a disappointment for a large number of listeners. As brought up by Cynthia Myers and Mike Newman in a Twitter conversation, Serial invites comparison to The Thin Blue Line, but it seems unlikely that the series ends with Adnan’s conviction being overturned. As Koenig has reasserted numerous times, she is still reporting the case (and seemingly the Innocence Project is also still working on it), and she doesn’t know where it will end. If fans are bringing expectations from well-crafted serial fiction, an ending that doesn’t resolve neatly or conclusively would seem to violate its assumed arc. Even the best fictional series rarely nail their endings, as expectations are too high and varied to please most viewers. Given that Serial’s ending is still a moving target, it’s hard to imagine how it will resolve in a manner sufficiently satisfying to match its hype. (This point is made more expansively and eloquently by NPR’s Linda Holmes, in a piece I read after drafting my column.)

And yet, even knowing that a satisfying ending is unlikely, and that elements of the reporting fill me with discomfort for rehashing a girl’s murder to prompt fans to debate the entertainment value of the series, I still listen, read, and write about Serial. What’s the draw of this format, this series, and this story? Next time, on “Downloading Serial”…


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A National Icon Deficit: What the Ghomeshi Scandal Illustrates About the State of CBC Radio One Fri, 31 Oct 2014 16:31:53 +0000 QimageGlobe & Mail television critic John Doyle makes some incisive observations about the Ghomeshi scandal in a recent column. He writes that the episode illustrates “how much CBC Radio and its personalities matter. Whether the anti-CBC factions like it or not, CBC Radio personalities become iconic, representative figures. A portion of the public invests heavily in them.” This is the problem that the Ghomeshi situation lays bare: CBC Radio lacks compelling personalities with broad inter-generational and international appeal. Too few of its current personalities have evolved into ‘iconic, representative figures.’ Thus, in the context of the CBC’s myriad recent difficulties, the public downfall of one the few prominent individuals associated with the cherished information radio service has occasioned a tremendous amount of grief and anxiety.

In fact, a closer look reveals the broader problem: once-innovative formats now seem tired as their defining personalities have moved on and the medium has evolved. CBC has long been a leader in the public service information radio genre and its personalities have always been significant part of that. CBC Radio contributed much to the development of the phone-out, information magazine, and audio documentary program formats, but listeners valued its most popular programs primarily for their personalities.

Internal documents reveal that administrators recognized their importance as far back as the ’60s, when the onset of television and FM radio necessitated the renovation of the radio service. Personalities were the anchoring force that unified the disparate elements of the long-form program formats that would come to define the national information service. Longtime morning host Peter Gzowski’s popularity was such that he came to known as “Mr. Canada,” while Barbara Frum’s hard-hitting and irreverent interviewing style defined As It Happens’ most successful period. The host of Frum’s program, Alan ‘Fireside Al’ Maitland, was an avuncular presence for a devoted audience base. In more recent decades, individuals like Shelagh Rogers and Mary Lou Findlay continued the tradition of skillful interviewing and insightful commentary.

But while daily stalwarts like As It Happens (1968-) and Ideas (1965-) march on, their formats have come to seem tired and their most cherished personalities have moved on. Ghomeshi was one of the few contemporary CBC radio personalities with the ability to appeal to a large, inter-generational audience comprised of both the CBC’s established boomer audience and their offspring. After some early hosting gigs for CBC TV and radio, he moved to the afternoon to stabilize things in the wake of the disastrous Freestyle experiment (2005-2007). Q debuted there and enjoyed some success before moving to the crucial national late morning slot vacated by the conclusion of Rogers’ Sounds Like Canada program (2002-2008). In this morning slot, the program has established itself as a premier popular arts and culture program with a broad reach in Canada and internationally (roughly 180 stations carry the program). With the former indie musician Ghomeshi as its anchoring force, the program executed a partial pivot away from higher-brow arts and literature and towards the popular arts (especially indie rock) and culture. It also moved towards more of a modular approach to content production with a mix of shorter and longer features. This positioned the program to do an exemplary job of establishing a digital, on-demand presence through its website and YouTube channel. In its modification of the now-classic magazine program format and its digital endeavors, Ghomeshi’s Q established itself as both a valuable property and a bridge between CBC Radio’s still all-too-present past and its uncertain future.

All of this made Ghomeshi into one of CBC Radio’s few contemporary icons. And now, little more than a week after he delivered an audio essay about the recent events in Ottawa, he has been scrubbed from the CBC’s website and headquarters. As information emerges, the CBC’s decision looks increasingly wise and conscientious. And the show goes on with several capable interim hosts including CBC veteran Brent Bambury. But these are difficult times for the CBC. The television service is reeling from the loss of hockey and the Radio Two recently began to air commercials for the first time in more than three decades. Radio One lumbers on with reduced budgets and many repeats in the schedule.

The Ghomeshi incident lays bare the need for a bigger stable of core radio personalities with broad appeal, further modifications to the long-form magazine format, and more stability within the radio service. The CBC must do more to develop personalities if it is to retain its audience and its influence. They’re out there – or perhaps they’re already inside the building. I suspect that the CBC has an abundance of talented hosts and producers working at its regional outposts who could do a great deal to rejuvenate the broadcaster on a national level. How much more talent is there in the more peripheral parts of the country and the institution? Similarly, how many producers are there in the ranks with innovative program ideas waiting to be developed?

CBC Radio’s history tells us that personalities and formats make one another in a reciprocal manner just as they did with Q. My hope is that Ghomeshi’s departure serves as a wake-up call to CBC Radio to focus more attention on the development of more national radio talent both on the mic and behind the glass. This would position the CBC to play a larger role in shaping radio’s future as it evolves beyond the formats of national public radio’s heyday to meet the challenges posed by the digital convergence era.


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Downloading Serial (part 1) Mon, 13 Oct 2014 22:39:43 +0000 serial1

I should preface this column by saying that I felt particularly hailed by Serial, the new hit podcast from the producers of This American Life. I have been an avid listener of TAL for more than a decade, shifting from weekly appointment radio to can’t-miss podcasts. I even remember the very first time I heard the program, as I was visiting a friend in Chicago in November 1998 and she suggested we tune in this fairly-new local public radio show on my car radio as we drove across the city—fortunately, the first story we heard was the unforgettable “Squirrel Cop,” so I was instantly hooked. Podcasts are my favorite thing to listen to while driving, mowing the lawn, or walking the dog, so it’s easy to fit a new one into my daily rhythms. And given that I have spent the last ten years focusing my academic research on understanding contemporary serial storytelling, this new podcast felt like it was made particularly for me.

And now that three episodes have “aired” (or whatever verb we use for a downloadable audio file), I think it’s great—each episode adds a new installment in the true crime tale of a high school murder in 1999 and the convicted killer who might very well be innocent. The structure maximizes intrigue as to what happened 15 years ago, and what might happen to potentially clear Adnan Syed from the murder charge. The production is as tight and smooth as TAL, making it sound like an established project that hits the ground running, rather than the typical startup choppiness of most new podcasts trying to establish a voice. So it’s definitely worth all the attention it’s been getting and you should certainly become a regular listener.

And yet…

I have some reservations that stem from its formal innovations. Serial’s titular use of seriality raises some interesting narrative wrinkles, as it applies the serial form to journalistic nonfiction in seemingly unique ways. There have certainly been journalistic series before, where a reporter stretches a story over multiple days or even weeks, but in such cases that I know of, it feels like the reporting is ongoing rather than segmenting a single story to maximize suspense and engagement. Likewise, documentaries like the 7 Up series or Paradise Lost’s sequels return to the story after new information or revelations develop during the serial gaps. And of course reality TV serializes nonfiction stories, but typically such narratives are contrived by design, rather than the high-stakes matters of murder and a life sentence. Serial producers report most of the story ahead of time, and serial their presentation of the material. (According to interviews, they are still producing episodes and doing more reporting as the podcast rolls out, but the bulk of the reporting was completed before launch.) And this creates some genre trouble.

Serial’s storytelling owes to other genres besides journalism, with an embedded murder mystery at its core. In exploring this murder, the program functions as a crime procedural, detailing investigations by both the police and the lead reporter, Sarah Koenig. In television, we tend to equate “procedural” with “episodic,” as the bulk of crime programs that highlight investigations focus on stand-alone cases each week in a tradition dating back to Dragnet. But the serialized procedural has emerged recently as a hybrid, tracing the investigative process over time on police dramas The Killing and Broadchurch (innovated importantly by Twin Peaks, which I recently conversed about on this very site). I’ve studied the use of the serial procedural model on The Wire, which dramatizes and serializes procedures not only for police, but also for drug dealers, unions, politicians, teachers, and reporters. This last one is the vital link to Serial, as The Wire creates an interesting intertext: Koenig, like Wire creator David Simon, was a crime reporter at The Baltimore Sun before moving into electronic media, and this crime story takes place in Baltimore County. When I am visualizing the scenes described on Serial, I reference the visuals of The Wire to help set the milieu.

Koenig’s role is crucial here, as I would argue that she is the main character of Serial, and this is where my reservations emerge. Obviously there is the highly dramatic material around the murder case, but the podcast’s narrative arc is Koenig’s own process of discovery in investigating the case. The first episode highlights how she learned about the murder, why she began investigating, and her growing reservations about the conviction. I figured that we would trace her investigative process as it unfolds, providing the vector which the series would follow. However, the episodes are structured more topically, with each exploring a particular aspect of the case in depth—thus far we have delved into Adnan’s alibi, Hae and Adnan’s relationship, and the discovery of her body. This last episode raised my concerns about the podcast’s structure: the whole episode centers on “Mr. S” and his unusual stumbling across Hae’s body in Leakin Park (which is visited and referenced on The Wire as “where West Baltimore brings out its dead”). It’s an engaging episode with great twists—he’s a streaker?!—but I’m left wondering how it fits into the larger narrative arc. Is this just a red herring? Does it help us learn more about the core case of Adnan’s conviction, or is it just a colorful digression to flesh out the whole story? And most importantly, what does Koenig know when she’s presenting this facet of the story?

Since Koenig is both Serial’s lead character and the lead authorial figure (or more accurately, functions as the inferred author), her knowledge is crucial to our narrative comprehension. If we were following her process of discovery chronologically, we would share her amount of knowledge about the case—even though there would obviously be a delay in the production process so that the real person Koenig would know more than her radio character would in a given week, we would at least share a linear process of discovery with her. Instead, each episode compresses the discovery over the past year of reporting into a presentation of that aspect of the case. This is much easier to follow than the messy procedures of reporting, where she was certainly investigating multiple facets all at once and only could make sense of certain bits of evidence in retrospect. But by structuring it for both clarity and engagement, I feel like there is a bit of betrayal to the journalistic enterprise, as Koenig and her production team are seemingly presenting information that they know is not crucial to the case, or that later revelations will problematize.

What is their responsibility in telling us what they know upfront? As storytellers, withholding information about a story to maximize dramatic engagement is essential. As journalists, withholding crucial information about a story seems problematic at best, unethical at worst. This conundrum of narrative journalism is compounded by the serial form, as the structural need to withhold and defer story seems to run counter to the journalistic responsibility to inform listeners. While I do not think Serial aims to deceive or mislead us, it does strategically refuse to give us the full story—thus far, we have not been presented with any other viable suspects in the case, any exploration of the crucial witness Jay and his potential role in the crime, or considerations of alternative motives, all of which have been teased as still to come. And yet I assume that Koenig knew of such information and possibilities long before she investigated the burial scene and dived into Mr. S’s odd history. Such deferments make for truly compelling storytelling that I am enjoying, but they make me uncomfortable with the ethics of this format. I get frustrated that Koenig is keeping something from me, feeling like she’s not playing fair—even though I often feel similar frustration about a compelling serial fiction, that’s part of the game for fiction while it violates the rules of journalism. How will this strategy play out over the course of Serial’s many weeks? Will my feeling that information is being withheld get in the way of connecting with the shared experiences and conversations that makes TAL and other long-form audio journalism so powerful? Can I resist researching the case to discover yet-to-be-revealed details certainly lurking online as spoilers (a.k.a. real life)?

These issues are still to be resolved—and that is my motivating question for this series of commentaries on Serial. I’ll post to Antenna on a semi-regular basis (e.g. when I have something more to say), and analyze this new form of serialized audio journalism in terms of narrative, medium, and other issues as they arrive. I also hope to land an interview with Serial’s producers to get a sense of their own procedures and goals in crafting this experiment. Just as Serial represents a new form of serialized journalism, I’m going to try to serialize an essay about the series here, publicly drafting and revising arguments as the source material rolls out. Both are experiments with unpredictable ends. Stay tuned and join the conversation to discover where they might lead.


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Casey Kasem Signs Off (1932-2014) Tue, 17 Jun 2014 14:00:29 +0000 Casey KasemIt is easy to get swept up in the lurid details of Casey Kasem’s contentious final months. News items circulated last fall and into the following spring about the ongoing feud between his children and wife, Jean, about visitation rights and conservatorship following his diagnosis with Lewy body dementia. Speculation accelerated a month ago when daughter Kerri Kasem filed a missing persons report for him before it was revealed that his wife checked him into a Washington state hospital. Following these developments, Kerri received the right to visit her father, intervene in medical decisions for him, and ultimately confirmed his passing in a Facebook post on Father’s Day.

It is also easy to read tragic irony into Kasem’s diagnosis, which took away his capacity to speak. Kasem’s smooth, imitable tenor brought him fame in 1970, when he began hosting the syndicated radio program, “American Top 40.” It ran until 1988 and tracked the shifting chart rankings of the upper echelon of Billboard‘s Hot 100 each week. As New York Times music critic Jon Pareles summarized in his obituary, the disc jockey:

didn’t invent Top 40 radio, the countdown show, the on-air dedication or the brief performer bio. But the weekly show he introduced on July 4, 1970—when the No. 1 song was ‘Mama Told Me (Not to Come),’ the Three Dog Night hit written by Randy Newman—brought those elements together in a design that was as much psychological as musical. Echoing the broad mass appeal of Top 40 hits, the show took pains to exclude no one.

Kasem’s program did not address the politics undergirding trade publications like Billboard and their influence to determine, codify, and redefine commercial musical genres. One might argue that Kasem’s show didn’t address anything; it simply plotted the American recording industry’s market fluctuations. His on-air persona eschewed controversy altogether. This gave electricity to recorded outtakes of the host contradicting his image with tirades against the show’s production process or specific recording artists. Sound collage outfit Negativland immortalized one such rant in their 1991 U2 EP, which poked fun at the Irish quartet’s earnest commercialism. They used a sample of Kasem saying “these guys are from England and who gives a shit?” This prompted litigation from U2’s label, Island Records.

As an indoor kid who came of age during the mid- to late 1990s in a rural suburb outside of Houston, I began taping Top 40 and Modern Rock radio programs, setting aside allowance money for my Rolling Stone subscription, and visiting the town and high school libraries to pore over back issues of RS, Spin, and Billboard. I also tuned in to 104.1 KRBE on Sundays to listen to Casey’s Top 40, a syndicated program that ran from 1989 to 1998 and relied upon charts from Radio & Records for its playlists. It was an important time for hip-hop—a genre that SoundScan and younger generations of musicians and producers helped make legible to the recording industry after years of omission, hesitation, and animosity.


On the air, Kasem treated the gradual inclusion of hip-hop artists on CT40 as a non-issue. Even though these songs were frequently edited for their lyrical content (though not targeted in isolation), they were never banned from the countdown. In addition, Kasem offered no justification for Warren G, Snoop Dogg, and Salt-N-Pepa, as well as hip-hop generation R&B acts like Tevin Campbell, Toni Braxton, and Zhané sharing a playlist with Madonna, the Gin Blossoms, and Richard Marx. Perhaps he was reporting the market back to itself. Perhaps as a first-generation American son of Lebanese and Druze immigrants who assimilated into radio with a stage name and non-regional dialect, he understood what it meant for the recording industry to include minority forms of cultural production. Either way, I wouldn’t realize the impact until much later.

Applying Jennifer Smith Maguire and Julian Matthews’ definition of cultural intermediaries, Kasem constructed value for media production and consumption by framing goods in particular contexts, demonstrating expertise of the recording industry and its output, and influencing music’s impact on consumers (2012). Before blogs, search engines, and social media, I needed resources to collect recording artists’ biographical anecdotes, understand the industry’s methods of quantitative analysis for itself, and situate my fan practices alongside the listeners whose dedications and letters Kasem read on the air. As a college radio deejay, I would renounce Kasem and his ilk, only to realize that he was part of why I made lists.

Pareles concludes his tribute by noting that the populist, omnivorous impulses of Kasem’s original program eventually gave way to niche marketing, narrowing demographics, and musical uniformity, claiming that it “started with a strong sense of ‘E pluribus unum.’ Since then, that messy, capricious but still culturally essential pluribus is what radio has been trying to tame.” Kasem’s career witnessed and was often complicit in this homogenization. Syndication was responsible for Kasem’s ascendance. It was a tool for regulation and deregulation. It also facilitates his reanimation.

Occasionally, I tune in to reruns of Top 40 on Magic 98 WMGN when I’m tending to weekend errands. I’m especially taken by those moments when Kasem frames selections from artists who charted on some random week in 1977 or 1982 or 1988 but eventually moved to the margins, footnotes, and clearance bins of pop music history. Kasem’s voice breaks introduce me to songs like Stephanie Mills’ 1979 post-disco hit “What Cha’ Gonna Do With My Lovin,'” which peaked at 22. They remind me of tracks that shade memory’s corners, like Swing Out Sister’s 1987 single, “Breakout.” They allow me to recognize the conversation (or competition) Tavares had with Hall & Oates in 1975, when “It Only Takes a Minute” cracked the top ten. Kasem helped put such commercial offerings in a context. In so doing, he provided a resource for listeners to recontextualize that music for themselves.


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On Radio: Live Music Festivals as Satellite Radio’s Premium Content? Tue, 10 Jun 2014 13:59:04 +0000 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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Exploding Trains! Coming to a city near you! Fri, 16 May 2014 14:27:47 +0000 North Dakota is often overlooked in media studies. We are a rural state in the middle of North America, and until the recent oil boom, far more people were leaving than moving here. The following post summarizes the research of one of my master’s students at the University of North Dakota, whose work shines light on what makes North Dakota interesting and why media scholars in other places should care about what is happening here. — Kyle Conway

In the wee hours of the morning on a cold January day in 2002, a train carrying anhydrous ammonia, commonly used as a fertilizer, derailed near the town of Minot, North Dakota. Hanging in the air was a dense cloud of hazardous gas, but when residents turned on their radios to find out what was happening, there was no emergency alert system (EAS) warning. What Minot residents heard instead was a syndicated program that was also heard in New York City at the same time.


It’s hard to believe that something like this could happen again, but it could. The concern has shifted from fertilizer to flammable crude oil from the Bakken formation in western North Dakota. In December of 2013, a train hauling Bakken oil crashed into a derailed train and caused a mushroom cloud explosion near Casselton, ND. In April 2014, another train transporting Bakken oil derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, resulting in oil spilling into the nearby James River. But the most dramatic train accident involving Bakken oil happened in July 2013 in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, and tragically killed 47 people. What would happen if a train exploded in places such as Fargo or the Twin Cities? Would the people in these cities hear about it right away or would there be a delay like in Minot all those years ago?

LacMeganticAs in 2002, one of the problems now, at least where the media are concerned, is absent owners who operate their stations from a distance. The consolidation of radio ownership in the largely rural state of North Dakota is especially acute. The center of the North Dakota oil boom is the town of Williston, where KEYZ-AM has long been a mainstay in the community. But contrary to popular belief, the station is not locally owned. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s ownership reports, which go back until 2001 for their electronic copies, KEYZ is owned by Arlington Capital Partners (Washington, D.C.) and is operated by its radio ownership subsidiary Cherry Creek Radio (Denver, Colorado). KEYZ flipped format from a country music station/farm radio to talk radio. The reason cited for the flip was the change in the type of economy in the area, from agricultural to oil-driven.

In Fargo, ND, the state’s largest city, the two competing radio station groups swapped radio station ownership with each other not once, but twice. The first time, in 1999, the purpose was to maintain balance in the market. The second time, in 2013, one local owner wanted to retain ownership of a particular radio station. The same owner sold one station group and purchased the competitor within a year. One reason the swap took place was that there was a distant owner involved who looked at the market solely from a business standpoint.

Both of these cases of ownership are symptomatic of the problems with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The passage of the Act lowered the standards broadcasters must meet when applying for and renewing their licenses, with a lot hanging on the ever-vague PICON standard. Radio is being treated as a business first and a public resource second – if that – more than ever before. With an increasing number of absentee owners there is little incentive to provide local news coverage of disasters – both natural and manmade – other than broadcasting an EAS. But even then there is proof that the EAS can fail people that are dependent of up-to-date information. When did making a profit become more important then public safety?

There is a need to study the dynamics of small, local, rural markets because little is known about them. As scholars, we have neglected them and focused on big markets. But there are more markets like Fargo (ranked number 204 by Nielsen Audio) than ones like New York City (ranked number 1). Fargo’s proximity to the Bakken oil fields makes the prospect of exploding trains even more real, but there is a greater concern. These trains are traveling throughout the US and Canada. Cities close to the railroad tracks are in danger of a train derailment that could be transporting hazardous materials. Regardless of the size of market, there still is a need to have access to radio’s EAS in times of disaster. Exploding trains are not the only risk we run, but they are a dramatic reminder that we need to study small radio markets because they show the flaws of current radio regulation.


Talk of The Nation Signs Off Mon, 01 Jul 2013 13:00:39 +0000 Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 11.36.18 PM

Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio’s (NPR) daily call-in program, broadcast its final show on Thursday, June 27th. Talk of the Nation (TOTN) has been a part of NPR’s programming bundle since 1992, and has been anchored by current host Neal Conan since 2002. NPR is replacing TOTN with an expanded two-hour version of the previously one-hour afternoon news magazine program Here and Now. Here and Now is produced by Boston public radio station WBUR and previously distributed by rival network Public Radio International (PRI). Apparently the TOTN Friday program, Science Fridays with Ira Flatow will be produced as a stand alone program and still distributed every Friday (flew!).

The Talk of the Nation studio last Thursday, June 27th. Photo by Kainaz Amaria, NPR multimedia staff.

The Talk of the Nation studio last Thursday, June 27th. Photo by Kainaz Amaria, NPR multimedia staff.

This change in programming at NPR is significant for several reasons. First, while NPR executives deny that cancelling TOTN is related to last year’s $7M budget deficit, replacing it by distributing a program made by a large local member station like WBUR relieves them of both the costs and risks associated with in-house production. Second, in collaborating with Boston’s local public radio station WBUR to expand and distribute Here and Now, NPR seems to be taking a page out of the PRI playbook–which reminds us that public radio’s institutional structures in the US are more complex than many realize. I wonder how many people understand the decentralized structure of public radio, wherein the very term NPR has become generic for all public radio, while in fact there are two competing public radio networks, NPR and PRI. These networks operate similarly to national commercial TV networks in that programming is sent to a network of local member stations (public radio lingo for affiliates).  However, other than the obvious difference of a non-profit production culture, public radio operates differently from national networks in that all programming decisions happen on the local level, and NPR member stations can also buy programming a la carte from PRI.  And unless you are streaming content directly from NPR or downloading a PRI podcast (like This American Life, Markeplace, or Prairie Home Companion) you are probably listening to NPR and PRI content via your local public radio station, where it is scheduled alongside local programming as well. This is Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) where I live in Madison, however, I was just talking with other parents at my daughter’s school PTA meeting who continue to call WPR “NPR” even after I correct them. FYI, this type of behavior will not endear you to other people on the PTA, although if it were me, I would want to know I was wrong.

But back to Talk of the Nation. While denying that this change is a result of budget cuts, programming executives attempt to explain that member stations were hungry “for a stronger news presence in the middle of the day,” something almost exactly like Morning Edition  and All Things Considered  to bridge the gap between our morning and evening straight forward news magazines.  In a way, this brings NPR’s bundle more in line with their no-nonsense (aka no fun) brand of “hard” news. If you listen to TOTN, you know that Neal Conan covers breaking news by selecting callers who are speaking on emergent issues. However, using a terms like  “strong” or “hard” news to explain programming shifts works to masculinizes the objective, straightforward reporting style of shows like Morning Edition that seem to just let us hear world events by playing back actuality recordings coupled with terse journalistic verbal accounts. And feminize TOTN implicitly through contrast. Indeed, you might consider Neal Conan’s daily call-in program more feminine in its format that gives voice to the unwashed masses, what Stuart Hall called the true “other.” TOTN gave a voice to the average listener, not only reporting on current events, but through caller participation, engaging in contemporary issues in a more personal, intimate, and individualistic manner. And if you listen to TOTN, which is mainly formatted as long form interviews with political and cultural figure or journalists with calls and emails from listeners, callers are often emotive when they call in to discuss political issues, definitely more so than NPR’s trained emotionless robot lackeys, ahem, I mean reporters. Certainly, we must also admit that Talk of the Nation is at least somewhat responsible for the prominence of NPR distributed programs like On Point , Tom Ashbrook’s live roundtable discussion program, and the Diane Rehm Show, another  call-in show whose slogan is “One of her guests is always you.” This is in addition to the countless call-in programs your local public radio probably produces. And listeners responded to hearing untrained voices call-in to debate contemporary politics.

Indeed, TOTN ends in the midst of huge popularity, as it was broadcast by 407 stations and reached 3.53 M listeners every day. To put this in perspective, this is more than the 2.7 M viewers who tuned into Mad Men‘s season six finale last week.  There are 907 comments on the NPR page that posted their announcement cancelling TOTN, they range from outcry in support of a favorite program, to conspiracy theories about why NPR canceled the show, to fannish interpretations of Neal Conan as some sort of super human journalist, and more. I won’t get into the trollish badinage. Suffice it to say, TOTN is a cultural landmark that many listeners engaged with.

And they participated quite literally when they called or emailed in with questions or thoughts about the issues of the day that Neal was discussing with his guest(s). I feel that the call-in aspect of TOTN is the most significant loss from this show. And in removing TOTN, NPR removes a venue that allowed the “voiceless” that public radio is meant to serve and give access (albeit highly filtered access) to a public forum on the air. I, for one, am not sure I agree with Neal Conan, when he recently told listeners on the NPR program Tell Me More “Don’t Panic. Radio is gonna be fine” in reference to the demise of his own show. As NPR culls programs like Car Talk and Talk of the Nation from its line-up in order to distribute more news magazine programs to compliment its “hard hitting” brand, it begs the question of where the line between brand and public service exists.



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The Nostalgic Pleasure of Signing Off Mon, 07 Dec 2009 05:26:42 +0000 1550 AM Hit Radio

Broadcasting from sunrise to sunset

I have to admit, I listen to most of my “radio” online. Be it local community sponsored, pubic radio, college radio, or streaming commercial music stations from around the country, I listen to them all via computer, iPod, etc. However, the car seems to be the one place in which the radio waves, consumed the old fashioned way dominate.

But when my old standards failed me the other day (WSUM, WORT, oldies, and 93.1 Jamz if you’re curious. And yes, I’m one of the few people over the age of 14 that listen to that last station), I switched to the AM mode on my now outdated car radio and found Hit Radio WHIT — “The 50s, the 60s, every song’s a hit on Hit Radio WHIT” out of DeForest, WI. Aside from playing oldies you’d never hear on FM, at least not in Madison, WI anyway, the station only broadcasts from sunrise to sunset! I have yet to hear the sign on, but the experience of hearing a station sign off is actually amazing. As a media studies scholar, I almost feel like it’s blasphemous to say so, but dead air on the radio is fascinating!

At around 4.30pm, aka sunset during winter months, the song “Happy Trails” plays followed by a message from 1550 AM stating something along the lines of: “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, moms and dads; time for us to put the little tiny records in their little tiny beds. Tune in tomorrow. . .” And then dead air for about 2-3 minutes before an interfering signal kills the silence.

The absence of sound on an otherwise continuous stream is a bit jarring at first, but there’s also something almost pleasurable about it. And it’s unlike when your stream is re-buffering or cut out, the intentionality makes the silence completely different. When I thought about it though, it wasn’t the lack of sound, music, talk, coming from the receiver that was peaceful. It was what the silence signified that I appreciated.

Broadcasting from sunrise to sunset, in accordance with the presence of daylight, this is what I think I find attractive. The temporal coincidence of the signing off of a broadcasting station and the end of the day is something we rarely experience anymore. Let alone the day ending when the sun goes down! Both are nostalgic I think. I came across an HBO sign off from the 1980s recently that echoed the coincidence of signals ending when it was time to go to sleep.

Rarely, if at all do I hear aural cues from broadcasters telling listeners to end their day, go to sleep, eat dinner, and put the little tiny records in their little tiny beds. Yes, radio hosts sometimes make reference to morning and evening rush hours, and suppositions about what you might be doing at any given time, and might even beckon you to start and end your day with their station. But the act of starting and ending daylight hours with the start and end of a broadcast signal seems different.

The pleasure didn’t come from the fact that music wasn’t playing or the DJ wasn’t talking. Instead, that in the midst of the 24 hour, just in time labor, often non-local media landscape I often find myself enveloped in, there’s a place on the dial where the broadcasting day ends when the sun goes down. And my sun happens to be going down at the same time.

Have people encountered this part time model of radio broadcasting before? Or is this something exclusive to DeForest, WI?


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