Radio – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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 2) Fri, 24 Oct 2014 12:57:24 +0000 Serial episodes, let's explore the podcast's use of temporality.]]> serial1

Previously on “Downloading Serial

I raised the concern that information was being withheld from us listeners to make for a more engaging narrative, and suggested that such withholding makes for great storytelling, but problematic journalism. After two more episodes, I’ve found that the question of withholding information has receded in my thoughts about Serial, replaced by another more complex (and I think interesting) question: when are we?

Before diving into the “when” of this question and tackling the topic of temporality, let me first ruminate on the “we”—who is being situated in Serial’s complex timeframes? Recent episodes have cemented my sense that Sarah Koenig is our protagonist and first-person narrator, and she is hailing us to join her in this story. Early in episode 4, Koenig makes this address clear: “If you want to figure out this case with me, now is the time to start paying close attention because we have arrived, along with the detectives, at the heart of the thing.” This moment stood out for me, evoking the kind of direct address common to 19th century literature, the first golden age of seriality—it is Koenig saying “Dear Reader” to us, a phrase that Garrett Stewart frames as “the conscripted audience,” taking us into her confidence and accessing her subjectivity.

So Koenig is a surrogate for “we,” and like with most first-person narrators, we have access to her perspectives and experience, and lack access to anything beyond her knowledge. But she is also the text’s author, possessing a broader knowledge of the case than she is sharing with us—Koenig asks for our trust, assuring us that the details she leaves out (like the late night cell phone timeline) are irrelevant, and that loose threads (like the call to Nisha) will be addressed in due time. And still I cannot stop from wondering what she knows and isn’t sharing with us (yet). This tension is productive in fiction, as we wonder about the knowledge and perspective between narrator and author; in documentary, we are to assume there is none, or at least it is irrelevant.

But Serial relies on the tropes and styles of serialized fiction enough that I did start to think actively about that gap at one moment in episode 5: Koenig is driving and monologuing, deep in the weeds about reconstructing the post-murder timeline, and her fellow producer Dana Chivvis says, “There’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib”; Koenig deadpans in reply, “Sometimes I think that Dana isn’t listening to me.” If this were fiction, I would seize this moment to explore the possibility of an unreliable narrator, where the investigator’s obsessions start overtaking her rationality and sense of perspective on the case, coloring our own attitudes and perceptions, with Chivvis signaling that we maybe shouldn’t listen to her so intently. Maybe that is what is happening, and the narration is clueing us in to Koenig’s growing immersion and personal involvement, but as of yet, her presentation seems to clearly earn our trust and confidence more than our doubts and reservations.

So if “we” are Koenig’s conscripted audience, riding alongside her as she works the case, when are we as the podcast unfurls? Temporality is central to any medium with a fixed presentational timeframe, as filmmakers, radio and television producers, and game designers all work to manage the temporal experience of audiences more than writers can do with the more variable process of reading. But serial structure is wholly defined by its timeframe, constituted by the gaps between installments that generate anticipation and insist on patience, where that time is used to think about, discuss, and participate in the web of textuality that seriality encourages—see for instance the robust Reddit thread about Serial, complete with fan-generated transcripts and timelines evocative of the “forensic fandom” I have studied concerning television serial fiction. So the consumption of a serial always foregrounds its “when” to some degree.

A listener-created timeline shows forensic fandom at work, but in the realm of actual forensics

A listener-created timeline shows forensic fandom at work, but in the realm of actual forensics

Serial explicitly foregrounded its “when” this last episode, as Koenig works to walk us through the presumed timeline of Hae’s death and the alleged actions of Jay and Adnan. As she does this, the podcast constantly toggles between multiple timeframes: the possible events of January 13, 1999, the testimonies and interviews recorded throughout 1999 and 2000 as part of the investigation and trial, Koenig’s interviews with Adnan and others over the course of the last year, and the current weekly production of the podcast. This question of temporality is clearly on the mind of many listeners—Chivvis responds to listeners wanting to binge listen to the whole season by noting that they are still producing each week’s episode, thus “when you listen each week, the truth is that you’re actually not all that far behind us.” So we are situated at a similar “when” to the producers in terms of final product, but they are clearly far ahead of us in terms of the process of reporting, researching, and knowledge. (Chivvis’s post also highlights a dangling thread that I may pick up in a future installment, as I believe the rise of binge-watching in television via Netflix-style full-season releases actually removes the seriality from serial television, whereas Serial aggressively foregrounds its seriality. But that’s for another when…)

While I raised the question in my last post about the lack of clear structure, I feel like that structure is now becoming clearer. Each episode, aside from the first which has a more sprawling focus, takes a step forward in the basic timetable of the case: the relationship between Hae and Adnan before the murder, the discovery of Hae’s body, the police arresting Adnan, and now the reconstruction of the alleged events per the police’s case—next week is called “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” suggesting that the prosecution will soon rest. But the storytelling is not limited to this 1999 progression, as Koenig interweaves her own contemporary reporting, interviews, and reconstructions into the recordings and documents from the past. So we are always in multiple timelines, even as the core case unwinds with some structuring chronology. But given that we are left to live in the contemporary serial gaps each week, our anticipation becomes restless, knowing that the producers have more of the past spooled up to reveal, even if we are “actually not all that far behind” them in the present. I, for one, grow impatient to know what is already known about the past, even if we are not too far behind the process of audio reconstruction.**

So as I wait out another week to try in vain to catch up to the producers, one thing I will be ruminating on is the role of characters beyond Koenig. We are invested in learning the events of the murder and trial, but perhaps even more so, in trying to get a sense of who these people are and why they did what they did. Obviously we’ve learned a lot about Adnan, even without a definitive sense of what we know is true or not, but what about Jay? We still don’t know much about who he was before the events (not even his last name), and unlike nearly everyone else we’ve encountered, we know absolutely nothing about what has happened to him after the trial. Why haven’t they revealed that part of the story? Are they trying to protect potential twists in the story still to come, or to protect an innocent person who might be wrongly attacked by an angry listenership? Has Koenig talked to him, or has he not consented to this story? And what do we have the right to know as listeners riding alongside Koenig’s journey?

Next time, on “Downloading Serial”…


** And in a clear case of dueling authorial “whens,” after I finished the first draft of this post, I read Hanna Rosin’s excellent post about the latest episode, which raises many points similar to mine concerning Koenig’s role as narrator and journalist, as well as her timeframe in relation to the reporting process. But I assure you, Dear Reader, I wrote the above before reading Rosin, even as I write this addendum after.




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AT&T’s Branded Entertainment, Present and Past Mon, 07 Jul 2014 13:30:36 +0000 AT&T’s teen reality program, @summerbreak, is back for a second season. It’s not on TV and if you’re not subscribing to its Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, or YouTube feeds, or if you’re not already following key social media “influencers” who are “seeding”  material about the summer adventures of a group of Southern Californian teens, you may not have heard of it. AT&T is not concerned about audience members who are over the age of 25. Teens are the targeted audience; why “waste” program exposure on older audiences?

@summerbreak Instagram

Rather than interrupt the program with commercials extolling AT&T’s mobile phone services, @summerbreak simply integrates mobile phone usage into its scenes. The teen performers talk, text, photograph, and take selfies. They use video, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, and so on. Not only do they model ideal device usage, they also comment on each other’s usage: “You’re such a social media diva!” exclaims one teen to another who is tweeting their shopping expedition.

All this stands in stark contrast to AT&T’s past branded entertainment programs. From 1940 to 1958 on radio, from 1959 to 1968 on television, The Bell Telephone Hour offered classical music and musical theater performances. AT&T’s film Rehearsal (ca. 1947) simulates the program’s rehearsal process for a live radio performance of excerpts from operas such as Don Giovanni by the Bell Telephone Orchestra and guest singers. As the conductor stops and instructs the orchestra and the director in the control booth prompts the announcers, the film shows the hard work that goes into successful performances of highbrow culture.

However, despite the radical differences in style, content, and substance in AT&T’s branded entertainment past and present, @summerbreak and The Bell Telephone Hour share some goals.

In the past, advertisers assumed that media like radio had direct and powerful effects. They used radio to educate consumers either about products or about a corporation itself, assuming a powerful tool like radio should be used for the public good. In sponsoring programs of classical music, opera, and legitimate theater (instead of popular music, say), some radio advertisers hoped to instill gratitude in audiences and to polish an image of themselves as models of good taste, beneficent patrons, and technological innovators.

Rehearsal Bell Telephone HourIn the middle of the Rehearsal (at about 15:50) an announcer explains how AT&T has improved on long distance communication through a short history, beginning with bonfires on hilltops, proceeding to audion tubes and radio relays, and culminating in a couple’s earnest long distance phone call. Cultural uplift and technological progress dovetail so beautifully we may forget about the corporation’s monopoly profits.

Today, advertisers like AT&T have come to doubt the power of a direct pitch; they believe instead in associational messages and images. AT&T, no longer a paternalistic monopolist, is now only one of many companies competing in emerging media, and its success with youth markets will most likely shape its future. Brands like AT&T no longer use advertising as a business form of “education,” which might alienate their teenage audience. Instead, they seek to integrate their brand messages smoothly and subtly into youth culture.

Nonetheless, @summerbreak arguably retains the overall educational goal of The Bell Telephone Hour: by featuring attractive Southern Californian teens modeling mobile service usage, the program implicitly educates viewers on current cool teen behaviors, lingos, and social media trends. And it retains the goal of association with aspirational culture—not highbrow music but cool teen behavior. AT&T hopes its teen audience feels validated by the representations of cool teens doing cool things with their phones. By reminding teens that AT&T knows teens are cool, AT&T can hope teens will reciprocate the validation and believe AT&T is cool too.


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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.


Let’s talk about search: Some lessons from building Lantern Wed, 14 Aug 2013 18:32:09 +0000 This week, LanteScreen Shot 2013-08-14 at 1.27.58 PMrn reached its first wide public.

Lantern is a search and visualization platform for the Media History Digital Library (MHDL), an open access digitization initiative that I lead with David Pierce. The project was in development for two years, and teams from the MHDL and UW-Madison Department of Communication Arts collaborated to bring version 1.0 online toward the end of July. After a whole bunch of testing, we decided that the platform could indeed withstand the scrutiny of the blogosphere. It’s been a pleasure to see that we were right. We’re grateful for supportive posts from Indiewire and David Bordwell and web traffic surpassing anything we’ve experienced before.

I will leave it in the capable and eloquent hands of David Bordwell to explain what the searchability of the MHDL’s 800,000 pages of books and magazines offers to film and broadcasting historians. In this Antenna post, I wanted to more broadly touch on how the search process works. I will address visualization more fully in another post or essay.

We run searches online all the time. Most of us are inclined to focus on the end results rather than the algorithms and design choices take us there. Cultural studies scholars such as Alexander Halavais have offered critical commentary on search engines, but it wasn’t until I began developing Lantern in 2011 that I bothered to peek under the hood of a search engine for myself. Here are five lessons I learned about search that I hope will prove useful to you too the next time you search Lantern or see a query box online.

1. The collection of content you are searching matters a lot.

It would have been great if the first time Carl Hagenmaier, Wendy Hagenmaier, and I sat down to add fulltext search capability to the MHDL’s collections we had been 100% successful. Instead, it took a two year journey of starts, stops, and reboots to get there. But in other ways, it’s a really good thing that we initially failed. If we had been successful in the Fall of 2011, users would have only been able to search a roughly 100,000 page collection comprised primarily of The Film Daily, Photoplay, and Business Screen. Don’t get me wrong, those are great publications. And we now have many more volumes of Photoplay and The Film Daily than we did back then. But over the last two years, our collections have boomed in breadth and diversity along with size and depth. Thanks to our partnerships with the Library of Congress Packard Campus, Museum of Modern Art Library, Niles Essasany Silent Film Museum, Domitor, and others, we have added a tremendous number of magazines, broadcasting, early cinema journals, and books. In 2011, a search for “Jimmy Stewart” would have probably resulted in some hits from the fan magazine Photoplay (our Film Daily volumes at that time didn’t go past 1930). Today, the Lantern query “Jimmy Stewart” yields 407 matching page hits. Take a look at the top 10 results ranked by relevancy. Sure enough, 5 of the top 10 results come from Photoplay. But there are also matching pages from Radio and TV Mirror, Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin, and International Projectionist — all sources that a James Stewart biographer probably would not think to look. And who would guess that International Projectionist would refer to the star with the casual “Jimmy”? These sorts of discoveries are already possible within Lantern, and as the content collection further expands, there will only be more of them.

2. Always remember, you are searching an index, not the actual content.

This point is an important caveat to the first point. Content matters, but it is only discoverable through an index, which is itself dependent upon the available data and metadata. A search index is a lot like the index at the back of a book — it stores information in a special way that helps you find what you are looking for quickly. A search engine index, like the open source Solr index that Lantern uses, takes a document and blows it apart into lots of small bits so that a computer can quickly search it. Solr comes loaded with the search algorithms that do most of the mathematical heavy lifting. But as developers, we still had to decide exactly what metadata to capture and how to index it. In my “Working Theory” essay co-written with Carl and Wendy, I’ve described how MARC records offered insufficient metadata for the search experience our users wanted. In this post, I want to emphasize is that if something isn’t in the index, and if the index doesn’t play nicely with the search algorithms, then you won’t have a happy search experience. Lesson #3 should make this point more clear.

3. Search algorithms are designed for breadth and scale, so don’t ask them to search in depth

Open source search algorithms are better at searching 2 million short documents, each containing 500 words of text, than at searching 500 very long documents containing 200,000 words each. I learned this lesson the hard way. At the Media History Digital Library, we scan magazines that have been collected and bound together into volumes. So in our early experiments with Lantern, we turned every volume into a discrete XML file with metadata fields for title, creator, date, etc., plus the metadata field “body” where we pasted all the text from the scanned work. Big mistake. Some of the “body” fields had half a million words! After indexing these XML documents, our search speed was dreadfully slow and, worse yet, the results were inaccurate or only partially accurate. In some cases, the search algorithms would find a few hits within a particular work and then time out without searching the full document. The solution — beautifully scripted in Python by Andy Myers — was to turn every page inside a volume into its own XML document, then index all 800,000 MHDL pages as unique documents. This is the only way we can deliver the fast, accurate search results that you want. But we also recognize that it risks de-contextualizing the single page from the larger work. We believe the “Read in Context” option and the catalog descriptions offer partial answers to this challenge of preserving context, and we’re working on developing additional methods too.

4. Good OCR matters for searchability, but OCR isn’t the whole story

You don’t need OCR (optical character recognition) to search a blog or docx Word file. Those textual works were born digital; a computer can clearly see whether that was an “a” or “o” that the author typed. In contrast, Moving Picture World, Radio Mirror, and the MHDL’s other books and magazines were born in the print age. In order to make them machine readable, we need to run optical character recognition — a process that occurs on the Internet Archive’s servers using Abbyy Fine Reader. Abbyy has to make a lot of guesses about particular words and characters. We tend to scan works that are in good condition at a high resolution, and this leads to Abbyy making better guesses and the MHDL having high quality OCR. Nevertheless, the OCR isn’t perfect, and the imperfections are immediately visible in a snippet like this one from a 1930 volume of Film Daily: “Bette Davis, stage actress, has been signed by Carl Taemmle. Jr.” The snippet should say “Carl Laemmle, Jr.” That is the Universal executive listed on the page, and I wish our database model enabled users to log in and fix these blemishes (hopefully, we’ll get to this point in 2014). But — you may have guessed there was a but coming — our search algorithms use some probabilistic guessing and “stemming,” which splinters individual words and allows your query to search for related words (for instance, returning “reissue” and “reissuing” for a “reissue” query. The aggressiveness of stemming and probabilistic word guessing (aka “fuzzyness”) is something that developers can boost or turn down. I’m still trying to flavor Lantern’s stew just right. The big takeaway point, though, is that you’ll quickly notice the OCR quality, but there are other hidden processes going on shaping your results.

5. The search experience has become increasingly visual.

As my colleague Jeremy Morris pointed out to me during one of our food cart lunches outside the UW Library, the search experience has become highly visual. Googling a restaurant now renders a map within the results page. Proquest queries now return icons that display the format of the work — article, book, etc. — but not an image of the actual work. I’d like to think Lantern’s results view one-ups Proquest. We display a full color thumbnail of the matching page in the results view, not simply an icon. The thumbnail communicates a tremendous amount of information very efficiently. You quickly get a sense about whether the page is an advertisement or news story, whether it comes from a glossy fan magazine or a trade paper published in broadsheet layout. Even before you read the highlighted text snippet, you get some impression of the page and source. The thumbnails also help compensate for the lack of our metadata’s granularity. We haven’t had the resources to generate metadata on the level of individual magazine issues, pages, or articles (it’s here that Proquest one-ups us). By exposing the thumbnail page image, though, you visually glean some essential information from the source. Plus, the thumbnails showcase one of the strengths of the MHDL collection: the colorful, photo rich, and graphically interesting nature of the historic magazines.

Ok, now it’s your turn to think algorithmically. When you search for a movie star and sort by relevancy, why is it that the most visually rich pages — often featuring a large photo — tend to rank the highest?

The answer is that those pages tend to have relatively few words. If there are only eight words on a portrait page from The New Movie Magazine and two of them are “Joan Crawford,” then her name occupies a far higher word frequency-to-page percentage than a page from Variety that is jam packed with over 1,000 words of text, including a story announcing Joan Crawford’s next picture.

Should I tweak the relevancy algorithm so that image-heavy pages aren’t listed so high? Should I ascribe greater relevancy to certain canonical sources, like Photoplay and Variety, rather than magazines outside the canon, like New Movie and Hollywood Filmograph? Or should we weight things the other way around — try to nudge users toward under-utilized sources? I would be curious to know what Antenna readers and Lantern users think.

There are advantages and disadvantages no matter what you choose. The best approach, as I see it, may just to be to let the ranking algorithm run as is and use forums like this one to make their workings more transparent.


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The Velvet Light Trap CFP: On Sound (New Directions in Sound Studies) Tue, 05 Mar 2013 14:00:39 +0000 HearingThe medium of sound, long placed in a secondary position to the visual within media studies, has experienced a considerable increase in scholarly attention over the past three decades, to the point that “sound studies” is now a distinct field of scholarship. Within media studies, sound-related research today expands well beyond the film and television score or soundtrack to include a broad range of scholarship on radio and popular music. And while sound studies still tends to cohere around media studies departments, an increasing amount of sound media research is interdisciplinary in nature. A “sonic turn” is under way across the humanities and social sciences with sound studies work coming out of philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, science and technology studies, cultural geography, American studies, art history, and cultural studies. Recent issues of differences (2011) and American Quarterly (2011) and anthologies like The Sound Studies Reader (Jonathan Sterne, 2012) are just a few examples of this expanding range of interest.

Issue #74 of The Velvet Light Trap aims to build upon many of the new lines of inquiry that are coming out of this intersection between sound media and various other scholarly perspectives. In that spirit, we are seeking essays for an issue on the research and study of sound in and across a range of media.

Potential areas of inquiry may include, but are by no means limited to:

  • analysis of music, voice, and sound effects in film, radio, television, video games, podcasting, and other digital or “new media,” including significant developments in audio aesthetics and style
  • convergence of sound and visual media
  • sound art and experimental forms of sound media
  • materiality of sound, including sound reproduction and other technologies of sound
  • media industries, production cultures, and issues related to sound labor, audio production practices, or the commodification of sound
  • histories of audio media and archaeologies of mediated sound
  • aural representations of identity, power, difference and the politics of sound media
  • mediation of voices and language, noise and silence, and muteness, deafness, and other issues of the body and disability
  • listening practices and sound media in perception and everyday life
  • psychoacoustics and cognitive studies of sound media
  • architecture, acoustics, and space, including “soundscapes” and sound media in relation to public health and public policy
  • theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of sound media

Submissions should be between 6,000–7,500 words (approximately 20-25 pages double-spaced), formatted in Chicago style. Please submit an electronic copy of the paper, along with a one-page abstract, both saved as a Microsoft Word file. Remove any identifying information so that the submission is suitable for anonymous review. The journal’s Editorial Board will referee all submissions. Send electronic manuscripts and/or any questions to All submissions are due August 1, 2013. (Update: deadline has been extended to September 1, 2013.)

The Velvet Light Trap is a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal of film, television, and new media studies. Graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Texas-Austin coordinate issues in alternation. Our Editorial Advisory Board includes such notable scholars as Charles Acland, Richard Allen, Harry Benshoff, Mark Betz, Michael Curtin, Kaye Dickinson, Radhika Gajjala, Scott Higgins, Barbara Klinger, Jon Kraszewski, Diane Negra, Michael Newman, Nic Sammond, Jacob Smith, Beretta Smith-Shomade, Jonathan Sterne, Cristina Venegas, and Michael Williams.


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Radio at SCMS 2013 Fri, 01 Mar 2013 15:00:53 +0000 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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New Directions in Media Studies: The Aesthetic Turn Mon, 11 Feb 2013 14:00:34 +0000

Image: James Turrell, Dhatu, 2010

A year ago, Neil Verma and I assembled a panel for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference titled, “The Aesthetic Turn in Radio Studies,” aimed at mapping renewed engagement by radio scholars with concerns traditionally classified under the heading of “aesthetics”: among them, analysis of narrative structure and broadcast genres, methods of spatial and temporal representation, styles of vocal performance, and experiential qualities of radio listening. This turn to questions of aesthetics has also swept the field of television studies, with a proliferation of work on narrative complexity, TV genres, visual style and sound style, performance studies, and viewing experiences engendered by television’s changing technological interfaces. Yet, despite its prominence in contemporary media research, few efforts have been made to trace the origins of this aesthetic agenda or assess its current methods and goals. A genealogy of the aesthetic turn, I suggest, in fact reveals a return to and affirmation of core concerns extending back to the founding moments of American media studies. While recognizing this rich history, in assessing directions for future work on media aesthetics, I wish to argue the value of a specifically production-oriented approach, as an updated project of “historical poetics” that blends traditional tools of textual analysis with methods derived from current work in production studies.

An aesthetic agenda has, to some degree, been a part of the media studies project from the start, even in the “effects” tradition to which subsequent humanities-oriented approaches are commonly contrasted. Hadley Cantril and Gordon Allport’s founding 1935 study, Psychology of Radio, for instance, pursued a detailed investigation of radio’s distinctive modes of affective engagement (its “psychological novelty”) and the presentational styles needed to “conform to the requirements of the medium” (182). In their 1955 Personal Influence, Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld lauded this attention to the experiential qualities of different media, while reminding researchers that the “content analysis” on which effects research relied also required close attention to “form,” or the presentational techniques used to render content via particular delivery channels (22).  Lazarsfeld championed this same approach during his tenure at the Rockefeller-funded Office of Radio Research, warning against exclusive reliance on quantitative studies and courting figures such as Rudolf Arnheim to develop what Rockefeller staff described as a “positive aesthetics of mass communication” that employed humanistic methods to illuminate the communicative properties and possibilities of mass media.† A fully developed program of mass communication research, as Lazarsfeld understood it, would demand strategic forays into the field of aesthetics.

Fig. 1. In a move lauded by Katz and Lazarsfeld, Cantril and Allport’s Psychology of Radio (1935) delineates key differences between storytelling techniques for radio vs. stage and screen entertainment (228).

Despite this early dalliance with humanities-oriented research methods, concerted development in this area was delayed until the television era. Beyond the initial flowering of more literary modes of narrative and genre study in the 1960s-1970s (see, for instance, Lynn Spigel’s discussion of this period), few movements did more to advance the aesthetic agenda than the cultural turn that followed in the wake of work by Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. As Jonathan Gray and Amanda Lotz note in elaborating the foundations of their own multimodal “television studies approach,” the cultural turn brought not only new methods for analyzing audience “decodings,” but also valuable tools for studying institutional contexts and the “encoding” strategies pursued by media producers. From John Fiske and John Hartley’s work on semiotics, to new models of genre study by Julie D’Acci, Robert Allen, and Jason Mittell, cultural studies scholars have encouraged close reading and critical interpretation of media texts, while working to situate these texts within their larger industrial and cultural contexts. Importantly, then, concerns with questions of aesthetics in contemporary media studies represent not a radical correction and repudiation of the cultural turn, but rather a strategic renewal and intensification of founding tendencies within this movement.

Fig. 2. Cultural Studies interventions: The “encoding” half of Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding model (1973) calls for combined attention to media texts and their underlying institutional contexts.

The rise of production studies in recent years has offered further opportunities for enriched modes of aesthetic analysis. From John Caldwell’s seminal work on production culture, to Havens, Lotz, and Tinic’s influential “mid-level” approach, production studies scholars have argued the need to supplement structural analyses of media ownership and regulation with detailed studies of craft practices – moving industry studies, in effect, from the corporate boardroom to the studio floor. When coupled with methods of close textual analysis, consideration of struggles on the set and the “self-theorizing talk” (Caldwell) of producers in interviews and trade journals offers valuable tools for understanding, as Havens et al put it, “in an aesthetic sense . . . how particular media texts arise” and achieve dominance (237) – illuminating, in other words, the processes through which particular sets of programming forms and production styles are consolidated, and connecting them to the larger modes of production of which they are a part.

Fig. 3. A production-oriented approach to media aesthetics: Applying new tools for industry analysis from contemporary production studies, while reintegrating close analysis of resulting textual forms.

While most production studies work has remained focused on contemporary media and has yet to fully cultivate the aesthetic component of its research agenda, a production-oriented approach to media aesthetics holds great promise and may be of particular value for historical work. As an updated project of historical poetics, this approach combines close analysis of surface-level textual phenomena (the “what” of media programming) with critical study of the production techniques and institutional logics behind them (their “how” and “why”), isolating privileged formal properties and possibilities of media while recognizing these as historically contingent products of industrial sense-making and consent-winning. However, such an approach remains every bit as much “aesthetics” as “industry studies.” In a field increasingly occupied with an aesthetic agenda, why not call this certain tendency by name and begin serious discussion of its nature and future?


† John Marshall, “Postwar Work in Film and Radio,” Memo to David H. Stevens, December 16, 1943, and “Interview with Rudolf Arnheim, January 3, 1944, Series 200R, RG 1.1, Rockefeller Foundation Archives. Thanks to Josh Shepperd for his assistance in procuring these documents.


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A Turf War at the Book Club: Considering the Cultural Work of Canada Reads Fri, 08 Feb 2013 19:10:34 +0000 This coming Monday, the 2013 edition of Canada Reads will kick off with its first roundtable discussion program. For five consecutive nights, five notable Canadians will convene to debate the merits of one of the five nominated books, voting one book off in the process. By week’s end, only one book will remain standing and that will be the title that ‘Canada reads’ this year.

Now in its 12th season, Canada Reads has been described as a national book club, a multi-platform media event, and a reality program, among other descriptors. Inspired in part by the rise of competition-based reality programs like Survivor and in part by book clubs like that of Oprah, the phenomenon is a reflection of the CBC’s middlebrow compromise position between the industrialized popular culture to which its audience often gravitates and the higher brow arts and literature material that this same audience typically holds in high regard, albeit often at a distance. Of course, literature has historically had a particularly close connection to nations and nationalism and the CBC has long been an ardent supporter of CanLit. In all of these respects, Canada Reads stands as a contemporary point in a much longer timeline.

The program seeks to both associate particular works of fiction with the national project and to draw Canadians into a national conversation about those works is consistent with the CBC’s mandate. This mandate calls, in part, for the institution to facilitate inter-regional conversation, ‘reflect the multicultural and multi-racial nature of Canada,’ and ‘contribute to shared national consciousness and identity.’ A lot of this is about making Canada ‘small’; it is a bit of an enigma as a settler society with a massive landmass and a sparse population. The CBC is often lauded for its ability to bind the Canadian across that space, effectively reducing the size of the national community. CBC Radio, in particular, is often discussed in terms recurring tropes of smallness, whether it is considered to be a forum for the nation as a virtual village, conversation, or, in the case of Canada Reads, book club.

These notions are useful to many, but also potentially problematic. Questions concerning the precise nature of the cultural work performed by the program have attracted increased attention from scholars in recent years. For example, Danielle Fuller and DeNel Rehberg Sedo conceive of the program as a ‘reading spectacle’ that favors major Canadian publishers and dominant conceptions of Canadian literature and national identity. Although they acknowledge that the program presents opportunities for resistant readings and interjections, they contend that the program’s cultural work is essentially conservative in its limited vision of Canada as a diverse and multicultural country.

This argument, and the questions that precipitated it, suggest the need to revisit the question of ‘national consciousness and identity’. The CBC surely contributes to this, but for whom and on whose terms? The CBC’s radio services attract a dedicated audience that is interested in content framed in terms of the Canadian ‘nation’. For these listeners, this radio programming provides an opportunity to tap into a sort of shared national consciousness that exists in the space created by the radio, the culture this space supports, and the mythological material that has accrued around the CBC itself. Clearly, this ‘national consciousness and identity’ extends beyond the CBC’s airwaves, but to what extent is it shared? On the other hand, what about those who listen with hyphenated identities or social positions that preclude straightforward identification with normative values and ideologies? It has been suggested by many that agonistic debate over the nature of Canadian national identity might be the basis of the national culture in this settler society. With that in mind, to what extent might the CBC provide a space for the negotiation and contestation of values through its explicit orientation towards the Canadian nation-state and its myriad issues and themes? Conventional scholarly wisdom about the CBC allows for the potential for resistant readings of texts like Canada Reads, but too often seems to downplay the role or place of resistance within those programs and the discourse surrounding them. I want to consider the extent to which the CBC serves as a site of negotiation and contestation of the norms in Canadian society.

Canada Reads provides opportunities for its participants and listeners to meditate upon the issues that characterize debates about Canadian national identity. For example, this year’s theme is ‘Turf Wars’, a combative spin on the regional fissures that have themselves become something of a defining national quality. The five books and their advocates hail from five West-East regions: British Columbia and the Yukon, The Prairies and the North, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. The regional designations are themselves indicative: They reflect the influence of central Canada and the tendency to flatten the vast North into the more extensively-populated South. Having said all that, the notion of a literary turf war along regional lines seems likely to bring certain key questions pertaining to the intersectional nature of Canadian identity to the forefront of a widely-attended conversation. If the CBC can be said to reflect a broader Canadian ‘public’ in any meaningful way, it is surely through the sort of agonistic national deliberations that result from this sort of setup and the inevitable debates and pieces of commentary that will endeavor to make sense of it once it passes.

While one would need to do extensive ethnographic work in order to assess the actual cultural work performed by these programs, this year’s theme boasts the potential for a reflexive and meaningful conversation about Canada, albeit one that has been had before under similar circumstances. Regardless of how the conversation plays out, this ‘Turf Wars’ edition of Canada Reads is a timely reminder that the recent history of CBC Radio merits increased scholarly investigation if we are to develop a nuanced perspective on the cultural work performed by this national institution.


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