technology – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 As Seen on Shark Tank: Tech Entrepreneurship’s Portable Aesthetics Tue, 03 Mar 2015 15:00:02 +0000 Shark TankInternational CES, the massive consumer electronics trade show that takes over Las Vegas convention halls every January, offers a plethora of opportunities to young tech companies looking to expand their business ventures. CES 2015’s offerings included a Google keynote on branding, an Indiegogo panel on crowdfunding, and multiple venues in which to pitch products—including an open casting call for ABC’s Shark Tank, the American iteration of the international Dragon’s Den franchise, which places aspiring entrepreneurs of all stripes in front of a panel of prospective angel investors.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that shortly before its open call at the world’s largest consumer technology show, ABC aired an episode of Shark Tank (Season 6, “Week 4”) that devolved into a debate over what a technology is. The company that prompted the debate, called Reviver, makes a fabric wipe that masks odors when rubbed on clothing. Company founders, brothers Ben and Eric Kusin, of Dallas, Texas, pitched the show dressed in the Silicon Valley uniform of jeans and candy colored company t-shirts: in their case, light blue tees with their company name screen-printed across the front in lower case, white, sans serif letters. “I think you’ve got a good product,” entertainment mogul and Shark Tank judge Mark Cuban tells the brothers midway through the segment, “but first, you’re not a technology.” The soundtrack’s stock music swells, then turns ominous. The brothers counter that they’ve spent $150,000 on custom machinery; Cuban insists that machinery does not a technology make. “It’s not a technology!” he repeats as the shot closes in on Ben Kusin’s stunned expression. Dramatic twist achieved, ABC cuts to commercial.

Shark Tank plays by the reality TV rulebook: editors cut hour-long sessions into scenes lasting minutes, splice in reaction shots out of sequence, and post-zoom wide shots into close-up for dramatic effect. Ben Kusin’s slack-jawed stare, broadcast as his response to Cuban’s pronouncement, may well have come from a different moment in the shoot. Yet the tension cultivated by the TV show comes as much from the producers’ editing suite as from the judges’ ability to fast-track products and fund fledgling companies. In tech industry parlance, Shark Tank’s objective is monetization, not innovation; the argument between Cuban and the Kusins stems less from disagreement over the nature of a technology than over its association with market value. After the commercial break, Eric Kusin defends Reviver’s technological status based on its multiple applications. “We just started thinking of ourselves as a technology because the manufacturers are telling us what this can do,” he explains, and begins ticking potential features off on his fingers—but Cuban cuts him off immediately, at “mosquito repellent,” noting that talcum powder also has a lot of uses. To Cuban, it seems, technology means digital, or at least electronic, whereas to the Kusins, technology means machinic and scalable.

ReviverDespite their quarrel over the ontological status of odor masking wipes, however, Cuban and the Kusins alike define technology as a means of accruing venture capital. For the Kusins, both the uniqueness of their formula and its potential for further applications, which they see as technological properties, indicate the desirability of their product to prospective investors. Although Cuban rejects the Kusins’ assertion that the wipes are technological, he perceives the brothers’ insistence on calling themselves a tech company as a reuse for acquiring funding—from their father, founder of the video game corporation GameStop, from whom they received a two million dollar investment to start their venture. (“You only call it a technology because that allows you to go to dad and say, dear dad, we have a technology!”) Cuban may or may not be correct that the elder Mr. Kusin restricts his interest in his children to their interest in the tech sector, but entrepreneurial calculation undoubtedly led the brothers to adopt the language and aesthetics of Silicon Valley. Describing their “freshness revolution” while dressed in t-shirts that Reviver (which, like Twitter, Tumblr, and Uber follows a tech industry naming trend), the brothers emulate celebrated CEOs of the digital economy: usually, like the Kusins, young white men in jeans and t-shirts (Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick are exemplars), whose products promise to revolutionize something. Contra Cuban, it seems to me that the Kusins frame their product as a technology in the hopes that doing so will attract investors other than their father; they look like hundreds of aspiring tech entrepreneurs roaming the exhibition halls at CES.

Self-presentation is always part of pitching prospective funders. When the pitch is broadcast on national TV, performance plays an even larger role. Shark Tank contestants frequently dress according to a theme, and it’s easy to imagine introducing a similar product with entirely different stylistics. Another set of contestants, pitching a product that freshens clothing, might put on, say, aprons or athletic wear—especially if those contestants are women. Interestingly, the Kusin brothers avoid feminine associations with cleaning or clothing, distance bolstered by coding their product as a tool of technology rather than domesticity.

Shark Tank castPartnership offers the Kusins receive from Shark Tank judges at the end of the segment underscore the domestic and technological duality of their product: one from Robert Herjavec, who made his fortune in the IT industry, and another from Lori Greiner, of the QVC home shopping network. That the brothers opt to partner with QVC, drawn in part to the exposure afforded by the TV network, suggests how the entrepreneurial aesthetics of digital technology transcend industrial sectors.

The Kusins’ dispute with Cuban gets no further attention. Their post-pitch interview, a confessional clip that Shark Tank usually devotes to rehashing contestants’ perceived slights at the hands of judges, focuses on Barbara Corcoran, founder of Corcoran real estate. Upon learning that their father has already given them two million dollars, Corcoran declines Reviver on the grounds that she doesn’t invest in rich kids. “We’re not rich!” Ben Kusin tells the camera after the segment, “That’s an unfair characterization of how they made it out to be, because of our father’s success.” Blindness to privilege isn’t restricted to Silicon Valley either.


Experts, Dads, and Technology: Gendered Talk About Online Music Fri, 06 Feb 2015 17:49:38 +0000 This post is part of a partnership with the International Journal of Cultural Studies, where authors of newly published articles extend their arguments here on Antenna

Werner-Image2At the moment, the Internet is overflowing with new music streaming services. Spotify, Wimp, Beats Music, and Deezer are only a few examples from a popular media format for finding and listening to music. The business idea is to sell subscriptions for the services, containing a large selection of music. The person subscribing can then personalize the collections by making their own playlists and saving favorites on the streaming service. No files are downloaded, but the data is streamed and if payment stops, the access to music will disappear. At the same time, music blogs and file sharing are still available sources of music online, complementing rather than competing with the streaming services.

While young adults participating in interviews about their music use online are overwhelmingly positive regarding the availability of music on the internet today, they also argue that it can be hard to find the music they want to listen to since the amount of music online is endless. The role of guidance—through the streaming services’ interfaces as well as by named experts, music nerds, and persons knowledgeable about technology—is therefore perceived as important. Perhaps the experts take on an even more important role today because of the enormous access to all kinds of music?

Expertise in the area of music and technology has often been ascribed to men and understood as being something masculine. Through the history of popular music artists, producers, journalists, and listeners, those valued as good and important have often been men. Roles as experts like talent scouts and music journalists who have influenced what can be labeled ‘good music’ have contributed, through their positions, to symbolically rule the taste of the music industry. To fill these roles, persons have often been men/masculine and expected to be men/masculine. While women and femininity—especially sexy femininity—has always been used to sell records, music promoted with femininity has often been devalued. So has, often, music defying gender binaries in different ways. This can also be said about music by racialized others and music loved by the working class—music that has not been considered ‘good’ by contemporary critiques. Many devalued genres have been reconsidered and reevaluated in a later historic time, such as jazz and Motown. Much like the role of the music expert or music nerd, the technologically savvy person is often understood as man or masculine. In the area of music, the high fidelity lover building his own speakers as well as the home producer, using computers or a home studio to produce his own music, are known figures—figures that combine technological skills with masculinity and music knowledge.

Thus, when the expert with particular and technological competence in general is regarded as important in order to find and listen to music online today, the field of music consumption is gendered. It is not gendered in a simplistic way—not all experts and technologically savvy persons are men—but when young music consumers talk about music listening online, they understand expert roles and technological competence as something masculine. Interviews show that the persons ascribing technological knowledge to themselves, and using specialist jargon when discussing hardware and software for music listening, were mostly, but not only, men. Also, when asked who had influenced their music taste or who gave them music, dads were mentioned in many interviews, and many young women referred to boyfriends, while moms were less frequently brought up, and girlfriends were not mentioned as musical influences at all.

On streaming services that are presently popular, there may be named and appointed experts fore-fronted in the interface. But there are also algorithms recommending music to listeners and these are not neutral engines. The services are often connected to other social networks (such as Facebook) where your friends may pose as experts. What may at first seem like vast libraries of music are really services spreading opinions, pictures, sounds, and ideas collected from other media, software, and famous, as well as ordinary, people.

It is beyond doubt that women today use the internet for all purposes, including music consumption and gaming (another form of popular culture associated with masculinity). Still experts, music nerds, dads, and boyfriends are points of reference when it comes to good music and technological knowledge. How can this contradiction be understood? The idea that equality is promoted automatically in online cultures—since everybody has access and thus the ability to reach the same position—is clearly incorrect. While digital media permeates our society in new ways, the power imbalances in terms of who is considered an expert in online music use seem familiar. I would even take this reasoning one step further: the expert plays a highly central role for music consumption online, as the interviewees believe. Experts guide others by recommending new music, creating playlists, and writing music blogs. Could the expert be getting even more important in digital music use? If that is the case, and experts are still in different ways perceived as masculine, then guidance for music-use online may be doing the opposite of promoting equality: reinforcing differences.

[For the full article, see Ann Werner and Sofia Johansson, “Experts, Dads and Technology: Gendered Talk About Online Music,” forthcoming in International Journal of Cultural Studies. Currently available as an OnlineFirst publication]

Ann Werner is Senior Lecturer at Södertörn University, Sweden


Only Marginally More Unreal: Reconsidering CNN’s Coverage of Malaysia Airlines 370 Mon, 12 May 2014 13:30:14 +0000 Although the disappearance of the March 8 flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was extraordinary, the initial coverage of it was not. All the major news outlets began with lavish reporting, becoming briefly and predictably singular in their focus on the missing plane. If the story had ended conventionally—perhaps with recovery of the plane, identification of a mechanical malfunction that had sent it fatally awry, or revelation of some incontrovertible evidence that the pilot or the crew had acted deliberately—the coverage would have found its way to denouement. But the story did not end conventionally, and in the absence of this, most popular media attention has merely drifted in other directions, without resolution. Updates on the search still merit passing mentions, but the biggest story about the missing plane has now become the meta-story of its coverage, and specifically CNN’s persistent and often journalistically questionable work.

While the criticisms of CNN’s approach to Malaysia Airlines 370 are by now familiar, I want to explore the possibility that CNN’s coverage is actually—albeit unintentionally—meaningful. With its reliance on speculation, dependence on simulation, and occasional swerves into absurdity, it indexes the incomprehensibility of this disaster, marked by the failures of so many systems that seemed to promise safety, visibility, and order. To be clear, I do not mean to exonerate CNN, which is rather unabashedly utilizing this as a ratings grab. Nonetheless, their coverage vividly captures the essence of this disaster.

Some measure of qualified guessing is expected, even necessary, in any coverage of an unfolding disaster; CNN’s coverage is distinguished by its continued recourse to hypothesizing, but also the amount of latitude it gives to conjecture, as when it reported, in a way that many found insufficiently incredulous, that some people believed zombies had hijacked the plane. Criticizing such reportage is important, surely, but also eclipses its significance, as CNN’s speculation starkly illuminates the enormous epistemological gap created by the plane. It also reflects the failure of the rational and technologized systems designed to track aircraft during flight or locate them afterward. The imagined world governed by those devices (organized into grids of latitudes and longitudes, synchronized time zones, and orderly networks of predictable flight paths) cannot countenance the possibility of something like this.  But CNN’s coverage shows us how far we have strayed from that map.

toy plane

This departure is amplified by the visual elements of its coverage. The now-infamous use of a toy plane as a prop surely risked trivializing the disaster; likewise its reliance on flight simulator cockpits and computer-generated images that hover around its “virtual studio.” Even as it spectacularizes the disaster, however, simulation also resonates uncannily with it. All the visual modes of searching have failed to locate the plane: satellite images, aerial surveillance, maps of ocean topography. The utterly perplexing and apparently absolute disappearance of the plane, whereby all that is solid does not melt into air but vanishes into the sea, is the sort of thing that we, with expectations that our most advanced machines will function perfectly and our acculturation to being monitored at all times, can scarcely imagine. In that context, a holographic plane is only marginally more unreal.

The only signature element of CNN’s coverage that has not yet been widely lampooned is its attention to the stories of bereaved families and friends, many of whom give interviews in which they profess hope that their loved one will be found alive. Stories like that of the daughter who has been devotedly tweeting her crew-member father, steeped in poignant absurdity, would not find much purchase in a more staid outlet. One man, Pralhad Shirsath, in an April 23 interview, asserted that the paucity and poor quality of the information from the Malaysian government indicates that they do not have enough “data” about what happened, and, by extension, to convince him that his wife is truly lost. Necessarily, the journalist pressed him, citing conclusive evidence about the fate of the plane, but the potential widower remains undaunted. CNN, by creating this universe that defies the conventions of journalism (and the sometimes cruel boundaries of common sense), has provided these mourners with a space where their bewildering grief might be articulated. Given the likelihood that it will be months, or years, or longer before the plane is found (if it is found at all), CNN’s lingering on the story mimics the looping returns of sadness in the perseverating endlessness of grief.


Although CNN’s vigil is often self-interested and carnivalesque, the clamor against it is problematic, too. It endeavors to sanitize our visual field by expunging the traces of the logically unknowable, the empirically invisible, and the affectively unpalatable in defense of all that they threaten to destabilize. To partake of CNN’s vision of the disaster is to acknowledge that it was, and remains, both tragic and incomprehensible, and to allow those two dimensions of the event to dictate the disorderly and unpredictable terms by which it appears.


Case Studies in Technological Change Mon, 10 Mar 2014 12:59:41 +0000 Apple II ComputerTo paraphrase Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery in Film History: Theory and Practice, media depends on machines. Technology contextualizes industrial and stylistic change, reveals and obscures sites of cultural negotiation and meaning, and enables new modes of media production, circulation, and reception. The significance of technology to media studies has only become more acute with the proliferation of digital technologies, which have changed the methods and tools of our scholarship—to say nothing of the object of that study.

Too often, however, scholarship relegates technology to the background, rendering it less an object of study in and of itself than a cause of, or context for, broader situations. While useful and often necessary, this tendency can have unintended consequences. It risks the assumption that technological changes automatically engender concomitant changes in our “real” object of study, when representations and practices that endure despite technological change offer equally important insight. Similarly, focusing on broader trends may steer us away from failed efforts at technological change, where entrenched structures of cultural or industrial design are exposed and tested, while treating technology as the agent of change can ignore the roles of cultural and industrial demands in technological advancement or stasis.

telephoneThese are the issues the editors of The Velvet Light Trap hope to explore in its upcoming issue. Seeking case studies of historical and contemporary technological change that privilege technology itself as the object of study, they hope to focus the issue’s attention on specific technological changes in context rather than theories that explore how technology in broad terms is changing media and culture. VLT welcomes submissions that reexamine accepted histories of technological change, reveal little-known changes worthy of attention, or show important continuities despite technological change. For those interested, please send  anonymous electronic submissions between 8,000 and 10,000 words in Chicago style along with a one-page abstract by August 1, 2014. To submit a paper or to learn more, send an email to


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What Are You Missing? Sept 16-29 Sun, 30 Sep 2012 14:31:47 +0000 Ten (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently:

1. In-flight airline entertainment is at a crossroads, as airlines decide between spending on wifi upgrades to let people use their own devices and on airplane entertainment technology like seat-back systems. JetBlue is going for the wifi option, and Boeing is upgrading wifi systems on their planes, while a few international airlines are passing out pre-loaded iPads to keep passengers entertained. In addition to the ever-rising costs to access in-flight wifi, there’s also the matter of it inevitably being slow.

2. Netflix has new competition to keep an eye on: Sky made a deal in the UK with Warner Bros., the new Redbox-Verizon service plans a Christmas debut, there’s word Disney could jump into the fray soon, UltraViolet might finally make some noise, and cable VOD stands to encroach further on Netflix’s territory.

3. Predictions are starting for the Foreign Language Oscar race, but you can take Iran off the table for the back-to-back win because it will boycott the Oscars due to outrage over Innocence of Muslims. Or at least that’s the reasononing Iran’s culture minister claims. Alyssa Rosenberg thinks there might be more to it. Either way, Iran won’t be thrilled to hear that more film projects about Muhammad are in the works.

4. Theaters continue to struggle, with the iconic Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco and the Roxy Theater in Philadelphia darkening for good. A pair of designers believe new design thinking can help turn theaters around. Theater owners might also follow the branding advice of AMC Theaters’ Shane Adams, who impressed many on Twitter last week. At least AMC and other theaters can continue to charge whatever high prices they want for snacks, thanks to a lawsuit dismissal.

5. There was a huge deal in the music business, as Universal Music Group finalized the acquisition of EMI Music’s recorded music unit following European Union and US approval, which was contingent upon the new combo selling off some assets, including the contracts of some prominent artists. Even after that, Universal will end up with control of about 40% of the US and European music market and immense power over the future direction of the industry.

6. Alyssa Oursler insists that Pandora and other music services have nothing to worry about from the Universal deal, and Pandora’s attention is elsewhere right now anyway, specifically on supporting a proposed bill called The Internet Radio Fairness Act that would lower streaming service royalty fees to put them par with what satellite radio and cable companies pay. Independent stations also support the bill.

7. There’s a redesigned PlayStation 3 coming out, but don’t expect to get a cheaper deal on a previous model. You can expect more mobile options from Sony, and Electronic Arts is also trying to take advantage of multi-platform gaming. You’ll be able to play multiple Hobbit games on multiple platforms, and Sesame Street is also pointing the way toward the future of gaming.

8. Wal-mart won’t be selling Kindles anymore. The stated reason why is somewhat vague, and it could just have to do with frustration with Amazon. Some readers are getting frustrated with higher e-book prices from Amazon, while Amazon will try to hook more with Kindle Serials. Amazon will have a new competitor thanks to a new e-book venture formed by Barry Diller and Scott Rudin.

9. Conditions at China’s Foxconn factory, which makes the iPhone 5, got even worse, with a riot temporarily shutting down production. This has come at a tenuous time for China’s corporate environment and raises larger questions about Chinese manufacturing, while Foxconn’s owner is looking to expand his business efforts beyond the country. Apple insists it is improving foreign factory conditions.

10. Some of the finer News for TV Majors posts from the past few weeks: Cheers Oral History, Live TV Controversy, Auction Plans, The CW Signs With Nielsen Online, Dish Talking Internet TV, Changing Households, Variety Buyer, Cable Battles Consoles, Emmys Coverage, Female Employment, Netflix & A&E, Measuring Social Buzz, Tweeting Isn’t Watching, Microsoft Hire, New BBC


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Liveness with a Lag: Temporality & Streaming Television [Part 2] Mon, 13 Aug 2012 13:00:53 +0000 In part one, I discussed how Roku changed my television consumption practices. But there is also a wide disparity between current content accessible via streaming technologies like Roku and that available via more traditional modes of consumption. I felt this pretty acutely upon “cutting the cord.” Many current series simply don’t appear on Hulu or Netflix—and when they do, it’s often early seasons and not the most recent ones. As a result, I started watching older content that was free and readily available on the Roku channels. (I couldn’t stomach the idea of paying for individual episodes through Amazon. I was supposed to be saving money, not spending it in different ways.) I fell into reruns of 227 on Crackle and The Twilight Zone on Netflix. I also got obsessed with Pub-D-Hub, which streams public domain films and television for digital audiences. One of the criticisms lobbed at cable TV is that it repackages too much old content—sometimes referred to as the “old wine in new bottles” phenomenon. Streaming television via Roku definitely has this feel to it. And as much as I tried to embrace it, I started to feel “left out” after a while. Friends and colleagues would be discussing The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and all I’d have to contribute would be a mildly amusing anecdote about a hygiene film from the 1950s. Interesting, perhaps, but it started to feel like the cultural forum constituted by contemporary television was going on without me.

One of the primary characteristics of television is its liveness, the ways in which the medium constructs a sense of presence and immediacy. McPherson adapts this idea for web environments by calling it “liveness with a difference,” highlighting how the web “structures a sense of causality in relation to liveness, [making it one where] we navigate and move through, often structuring a feeling that our own desire drives the moment” (462). She underlines the “volitional mobility” afforded by the Internet, the ways in which user experiences destabilize the orthodoxy of linearity and narrative that attend the consumption of other moving image media. That said, my experience streaming television feels more like “liveness with a lag.” Not only do I have to wait for clips to load before I can watch anything, but I am almost always watching dated content. And I can’t watch many of the things I want to because they are simply unavailable with the Roku technology—to say nothing of the frequency with which the device “freezes” when moving between channels. I am constantly rebooting it in an effort to get it to work properly and then waiting for the content to restart again.

Using Roku, it becomes clear that the liveness afforded by streaming television is hemmed in by the political economy of the medium. The industry practices that structure the experiences of streaming television are still in a state of “becoming.” Not everything streams, and when it does, it’s often older content re-circulated for this new platform. Moreover, devices that sync existing television sets with the Internet are imperfect technologies. The protocols for streaming television are tremendously in flux and seem to change with every corporate quarterly announcement and marketplace product launch. Nevertheless, the facts remains: there’s simply less contemporary television programming available via this new mode of distribution. In addition, it can involve the tricky enterprise of syncing an analog technology—my old, beloved TV set—with a digital stream. These two entities are not always a perfect match.

The moral of this particular story: be careful what you wish for. I saved money by cord-cutting and using Roku is, in many ways, similar to watching television as I always have. But it is different enough that I want to go back. I recently moved into a new apartment in a new state. Calling the cable company to set up service was at the very top of my “to-do” list. Of course, I need to wait nearly three weeks for installation. This seems especially cruel after a year that often felt like I was watching television on delay.


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Liveness with a Lag: Temporality & Streaming Television [Part 1] Thu, 09 Aug 2012 13:00:27 +0000 I am in the process of concluding a year-long experiment in cord-cutting. Upon moving into a new apartment in the spring of 2011, I wanted to reduce costs by streaming television over the Internet rather than paying for cable. I invested in a Roku box, which allowed me to connect the Internet directly to my television, and signed up for Hulu Plus and Netflix’s streaming service. My savings were immediate and dramatic; I saved nearly $60 a month by cutting the cable cord.

Mission accomplished? Kind of. This isn’t a story that can be boiled down to dollars and cents, though. Streaming television over the Internet involves many continuities with how I’d consumed TV for decades prior. But it also precipitated important changes in my consumption habits that warrant mention here. These continuities and differences are imbricated in developing industry practices related to the release of television content online, as well as technological developments in the convergence of television and the Internet via digital devices.

I follow Tara McPherson’s lead in “Reload: Liveness, Mobility, and the Web” where she describes the experience of consuming media in digital environments. In that essay, McPherson is interested in “exploring the specificity of the experience of using the web, of the web as mediator between human and machine, of the web as a technology of experience” so that she may describe the phenomenology of using the Internet to screen moving image media (460). My focus is on one iteration of the activities she describes: watching television over the Internet via a Roku box. Like McPherson, I am interested in the ways that “new” technology both continue and confound the experience of “old” media: what feels different and what changes, but also what feels similar and what remains the same. More pointedly, I want to use McPherson’s thoughts to explicate the feelings of liveness that attend streaming television online.

Receiving a television signal over the Internet via Roku involves several residual elements of television practice. With a Roku box, the consumer browses from a menu, selecting which services to add: Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Crackle, and so on. This feels similar to picking service packages from a cable company: premium vs. basic, etc. Once these “channels” are chosen, Roku users can browse within them for content. This too is reminiscent of more traditional modes of television viewing; it’s like “zapping” until you find something you like—Roku even provides an “old school” remote. After a program is selected, the television screen goes blank and loads the program like an Internet clip, complete with a “Loading, Please Wait…” message. When this would happen, I felt as though I was waiting for commercials to end and “the real program” to start. Thus, protocols for TV distribution and reception developed in earlier contexts continue to shape viewers’ experiences with the medium in the instance of streaming TV online. Well-established paradigms for television spectatorship—changing channels, browsing for programs, waiting for a narrative to begin—still shape the practice of viewing television with a Roku box.

Yet for all of the continuities with prior modes of consuming television, my viewing experiences changed dramatically upon installing my Roku. By nature, I am a television grazer. I typically turn on the set and “zap” until I find something I like. But with the Roku, such grazing is more difficult. The technology’s design prevents users from simply turning on the television and finding programming already in progress. With Roku, every time you turn on the TV, you need to select content, wait for it to load, and only then can you actually watch anything. McPherson calls this the “scan and search” nature of web environments, the ways in which users can call up content at will. While this is characteristic of the ways that many people consume moving image media on the Internet, it isn’t characteristic of the way that I typically watch television. If “convergence” is often the term used to describe television practice in the contemporary moment, using a Roku box pointed to the divergence in the ways that I consume television vs. the ways I use the Internet. In part two, I will directly address issues related to available content and liveness.


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On Radio: Strange Bedfellows Mon, 26 Mar 2012 04:28:28 +0000

Photo credit: Houston Press

In the media policy wars of the early 2000s, when the Michael Powell-led FCC was hell-bent on eviscerating ownership restrictions, one corporate villain stood out for its egregiousness: Clear Channel Communications (Hissssss).

And deservedly so: as Exhibit A for the dangers of conglomeration run amok, Clear Channel and its 1,200 stations hit a kind of media-monopoly trifecta, bulldozing the values of diversity, localism, and market competition. They bought up all the stations they could in a given market, making sure to hit the maximum number of demographic niches, then programmed them centrally (and unimaginatively) from some computerized studio located in who knows where.

“Thank god,” both music lovers and radio fans said frequently during the Bush II years, “for college radio.”

Well, don’t look now, but guess who just went to bed with Clear Channel: college radio. Clear Channel – destroyer of adventurous playlists, scourge of the live local DJ – has now signed up more than a dozen top college stations for its iHeartRadio distribution service, including such esteemed stations as Radio DePaul, Seton Hall’s WSOU, and the terrific station at my own college, WDUB at Denison. Public stations are available through iHeartRadio too, such as New York’s WNYC, and more are on the way.

Clear Channel is bringing these local stations to the mobile space, competing with satellite radio’s national programming by offering a plethora of interesting local stations over cellular networks. Whereas Sirius XM often replicates the narrow market segmentation and tightly controlled playlists perfected by terrestrial broadcasters like, well, Clear Channel, iHeartRadio counter-programs them with “GOFR”:  good old-fashioned radio, with real DJs in real local studios producing real local programming. The only difference is that the GOFR is arriving through your cell phone instead of your radio antenna.

To be clear: exploitation is still Clear Channel’s game. The company sells ads against these college radio streams, and none of that revenue is going back to the students or their institutions. In other words, the great enemy of radio localism has now found a way to co-opt localism, using these quirky local stations to add value to its national offerings but offering no revenue-sharing or other financial support in return.

Although one station manager I spoke with welcomed the potential for new listeners and greater exposure that will come from partnering with iHeartRadio, the material benefit to participating college stations will be minimal at best. Maybe alumni in Boston or Boise will tune in and, somewhere down the line, write a slightly larger check to their alma mater, but that’s about it.

In the meantime, the economic and policy supports for independent radio in the U.S. remain threatened, and ever more colleges and universities are selling off their radio stations. In fact, one of the college stations picked up by iHeartRadio, Rice’s KTRU, had its transmitter sold out from under it last year by the university; it has since streamed online and leased the local Pacifica affiliate’s HD radio capacity, which few can receive. In that specific case, distribution through Clear Channel seems like an improvement, but it is difficult to see how this deal does anything to preserve college radio nationally over the long term.

Be that as it may, the deal is further evidence that “radio” is undergoing more change, innovation, and excitement (for better and worse) than perhaps at any time since the 1920s.  All that talk of “convergence” and “revolution” in visual media?  As is often the case, it’s nothing compared to radio, which currently boasts more new platforms, technologies, business models, and programming forms than TV can shake a stick at.

Many people have a tendency to imagine, as they did in the 1950s, that radio is a dying form.  It’s easy to do: none of my students seem to listen to much traditional, over-the-air radio, and if it weren’t for NPR, neither would most of the adults I know. But if Arbitron’s latest survey can be believed, more than 93% of Americans age 12 and above still listen to some radio each week, and in some demographic segments (e.g. Hispanics) the radio market is positively booming as a growth industry.

In terms of infrastructure, you now have your choice of satellite, analog terrestrial, digital terrestrial, and internet distribution offering you local and national programming.  Sitting in your car, you can direct your own programming (e.g. Spotify and Pandora), choose your genre (Sirius XM and most terrestrial radio), listen to local stations from all over the country (iHeartRadio), or just plug in your phone or iPod and listen to your podcasts or your own music library.

We’re also seeing the effect on programming, such as the experimentation we’re seeing in the podcast space and innovative uses of audio in shows like 99% Invisible and Radiolab, and alternative business models such as “cottage networks” like TWiT and success stories like Jesse Thorn’s “Maximum Fun” podcast-based empire.

So while we continue to keep a wary eye on Clear Channel and the other behemoths in the radio industry, let’s also admit that, compared to a decade ago, it’s not the worst time to be a radio listener—or for that matter, a radio scholar.  I don’t heart iHeartRadio, but I still heart radio.


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DVR vs. Twitter Sat, 29 May 2010 15:00:48 +0000 iPhone as TV remote

iPhone as TV remote by flickr user nettsu (CC)

New media technologies introduce new temporalities of experience. Most recently, I am finding that the temporalities of two of my favorite new TV technologies are at odds with one another. The DVR is an anytime technology, dispersing the television audience by letting each of us plan our own schedule according to individual needs and desires. Twitter is a now technology, uniting us in a common media moment.

New technologies promising us increased agency in choosing what to experience and when and how to experience it have all nudged television away from “flow.” Remote control devices, cable and satellite, VCRs, DVDs, VOD, and Hulu, in addition to DVRs, have brought about a new kind of TV temporality cut loose from the broadcast schedule. In place of the old way of watching what’s on, when it’s on, we timeshift and binge. We watch our shows on trains and airplanes and at office desks while breaking for lunch. Technologies of agency have disrupted the collective experience of television by making our consumption more like that of movies and books: private, asynchronous, on our schedule. (Of course, “we” is a privileged minority. A sizable portion of the television audience still watches the old way.)

Twitter and other forms of online social media might not seem at first blush like new television technologies alongside iPods and Rokus. But if you have ever watched TV with a web-connected gizmo on your lap, checking in on real-time reactions and conversations, you probably know that watching among a network of online acquaintances adds value and interest, and enhances the communal experience of broadcast media. Even if, like me, you aren’t really into posting frequent messages with your own thoughts, keeping up with others’ conversations can be pretty fun — especially for “event” television like an election, Olympics, awards show, or Survivor finale. (I’m @mznewman on Twitter, btw.) But unlike technologies of agency, Twitter and other online networks bring everyone together at once and return us to the synchronous network-era temporality of a communal now. (Maybe in this sense — pardon the pun! — we can think of our current predicament as a new network era?)

I find myself more eager to watch “live” TV these days and one big reason why is the social experience of watching along with everyone else on the internet. But I also feel compelled to watch on the broadcasters’ schedule — TVittering certainly serves the interests of the broadcasters whose business model is threatened by technologies of agency — because I can’t stand to be spoiled. Now it seems the only way to safely keep yourself from being spoiled is just to stay off the internet, or at least the social web.

As an assistant professor and parent of two young children, I can’t find more than an hour or two most nights for watching TV, and TVitter has done nothing to make commercials more appealing, so some timeshifting will always be desirable. But if you don’t watch #glee when it’s on, it’s hard to avoid hearing all about the numbers. I find myself staying away from the internet for hours while timeshifting, thus denying myself all of the non-TV info I might have read about during that time.  Increasingly I’m wondering if I can live with both the DVR and Twitter, or if ultimately these rival new TV technologies will be simply incompatible. What do you think?


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Record Store Day, or Vinyl Record Day? Sat, 17 Apr 2010 20:56:02 +0000

Amidst all the record industry’s doom and gloom over digital piracy and declining CD sales, there has been one largely overlooked area of the market that’s actually been experiencing tremendous growth in recent years, and that’s vinyl. That’s right: phonograph records, that analog sound recording format that has been declared dead more times than film criticism. The reality is that vinyl – the primary commercial music medium for most of the 20th century – never went away, even though it left the mainstream in the early 1990s, replaced by digital media (first CDs, then MP3s). It has remained a staple of the rock music underground, as well as the preferred format of most serious record collectors and audiophiles. The Internet-fueled “digital music era,” however, has sparked a new wave of interest in this old medium, some even predicting that vinyl will eventually replace CDs as the physical music media of choice.

According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales of vinyl albums in the U.S. increased by 33% in 2009, to approximately 2.5 million copies. The major labels have started pressing vinyl again for the first time in roughly a decade. It is estimated that half of all new albums are being released with a vinyl counterpart. Still, digital music dominates sales and vinyl remains a niche item: digital track and album purchases, which were also up in 2009, account for nearly 80% of total music sales, while vinyl represents less than 1%. In other words, no one is suggesting that vinyl is about to replace digital music, only the CD. But the record industry – by which I mean not only the record labels but also retailers, distributors, manufacturing plants, et al. – very much needs physical objects to sell, hence its renewed commitment to vinyl.

Enter Record Store Day, which is taking place today, April 17th, at indie record shops across the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and other countries. An annual “holiday,” now in its third year, RSD claims as its mission the “celebration of the unique culture surrounding over 1,400 independently owned record stores worldwide.” By all means this is an industry event, organized by the Music Monitor Network, a coalition of music retailers, labels, and distributors, and the Alliance of Independent Media Stores and the Coalition of Independent Music Stores. It is also sponsored by the music trade association NARM, consumer electronics manufacturer Crosley Radio, and the nation’s largest music distributors (RED, Fontana, EMI, WEA, Universal – all of which are attached to the four major labels: Sony, Universal, Warner, EMI). There are plenty of independent record labels throwing their weight behind RSD, too, ranging from big names like Sub Pop and Matador to smaller ones such as Jagjaguwar and No Idea. But it’s particularly interesting (to me, anyway) that the majors are so closely involved in an event that is designed to celebrate independent retailers and which, based on the artists participating in RSD live events and those issuing special RSD releases, centers almost exclusively around what would be broadly termed “indie rock” music and culture.

Indeed, the bait used to actually lure customers into shops on Record Store Day, apart from discounts in some venues, are in-store performances and exclusive releases. For instance, this year Smashing Pumpkins, Yo La Tengo, and No Age are among those artists performing in stores, while musicians including The Rolling Stones, Beastie Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Devo, Sonic Youth, and Pavement are offering special limited edition releases. The way these artists and record companies have rallied around RSD, though, seems to indicate that this phenomenon is less about record stores than it is about saving records, period. And not just any records, either, but vinyl records.

The “unique culture” that Record Store Day claims to be commemorating is, quite specifically, vinyl culture. The aforementioned exclusive Record Store Day releases – some 170 in total – are, with a few exceptions, all vinyl. Indeed, a trip this morning to some local participating record shops in Madison, WI, confirmed that a majority of the customers, at least in the opening hours, were dedicated record collectors quickly dropping in and out to pick up the limited edition vinyl pressings. Surely, the record stores are profiting from the increased traffic (at last year’s RSD, indie retail sales grew 21% from the prior year), but most of those sales would appear to be coming from already dedicated consumers  (read: record collectors) who are just looking to get their hands on exclusive releases (read: catnip for record collectors).

That is, stores are milking their base – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Record stores need to sell records – physical products – to stay in business, and record collectors, particularly those in the rock/indie/punk/whatever-you-want-to-call-it underground, buy lots of records and they mostly buy vinyl. This is hardly news to the mom-and-pop record shops, as it has been their primary market all along, nor is it news to the indie labels or artists. But the major record companies seem to finally be realizing the value of this niche audience, too. Indeed, the major labels (and their distributor subsidiaries, which handle loads of smaller indie labels) need more than anyone else for physical records to survive. And increasingly that means supporting vinyl culture: the vinyl format itself, as well as the independent shops that sell it and the small but committed audience that buys it. Record Store Day might just as well be called Vinyl Record Day.


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