Aging into TV News
Deborah L. Jaramillo / Boston University


COVID-19's impact on age groups
COVID-19’s Generational Gaps in the United States

We are currently living through a pandemic, and even in this moment, generational differences are a source of both identity and tension. On Twitter, in the early days of the quarantine, Gen Xers displayed their self-isolation skills with pride. Millennials and Gen Xers expressed concern for aging parents and grandparents.  Many directed their ire at Gen Z for continuing to party. Old age is a key factor in the lethality of COVID-19, so it had not escaped anyone’s notice that Fox News—presumed to be the channel for older, conservative Americans—downplayed the threat. By March 15th, Fox walked it back. Suddenly, the threat was real.

Usually,
complaints against Fox News center on the political health of the nation; in
this instance, the issue was the physical health of its viewers. The stereotype
of the white-haired Fox News viewer is pervasive. A much-tweeted prank around
holiday season is the blocking of Fox News on older relatives’ television sets.
Grandma and grandpa will be apoplectic that their cherished news source has
disappeared, and they further will not have the technical know-how to restore
it. The political impetus for the prank is this: older Americans vote in
greater numbers than younger Americans, and Fox News has a fiercely loyal
audience for its Trumpist agenda. The older audience is, in fact, sizable (as
ratings for news programming go), but the full picture is a little more
complicated than that.

A 2018 Pew survey found that people over 50 get their news primarily from television.[ ((Shearer, Elisa. 2018. “Social media outpaces print newspapers in the U.S. as a news source.” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/10/social-media-outpaces-print-newspapers-in-the-u-s-as-a-news-source/.  Accessed March 12, 2020.))] 65% of people aged 50-64 typically flock to TV, and 81% of people over 65 do the same. While younger people favor social media, they pull from various sources; as the Pew study states, “No more than half of [people 18-49] get news often from any one news platform.” Age—as a marker of identity and a demographic variable attached to specific television genres and, when applicable, to the consumer products that advertise within those genres—has been on the radar of television scholars using diverse frameworks and pursuing diverse research agendas. But, as I noted in my 2019 column, TV news is frequently absent from our field’s conversations altogether. So, let’s dive into prime-time cable news and see who is watching what.

TV tends
to follow the young, but news has very rarely jumped on that bandwagon (one
recent exception is the concerted tilt toward True Crime in network news
divisions). As we know, the measurement of television audiences isolates
particular age ranges that carry value. For many shows, a certain rating or
share “in the demo” refers to how well that program performed among 18-49 year
olds. For news, “in the demo” refers to 25-54. It’s not an enormous jump up
from 18-49, but it is an admission that news operates according to a different
set of expectations in the market for audiences. A news channel isn’t punished,
in other words, for flourishing among 49-54 year olds. 

In 2013 I wrote a piece for Antenna discussing a pattern of contemporaneous programming strategies on two of NBC Universal’s cable channels, one of which was MSNBC. MSNBC’s aspirational strategy evinced a dissatisfaction with the dominant (read: older) viewership. The shuffling of hosts to different time slots, the hiring of young hosts, and especially the slotting of then-thirtysomething Chris Hayes into prime time signaled a leaning into, or, rather, a gazing dreamily into the eyes of young viewers. Now, by young, I don’t mean tweens. MSNBC’s placement of Radiohead’s “National Anthem” in their pro-resistance promos after the 2016 presidential election may give you a general sense of the audience MSNBC was targeting.


Jon Stewart and Tucker Carlson
Jon Stewart humiliating Tucker Carlson on Crossfire in 2004.

A quick look at the cable news primetime competition paints an interesting picture of a television genre splintering according to age in some unexpected ways. At 8pm, the competition for under-50s is a bit surprising. As recently as March 9th, Tucker Carlson Tonight (Fox News) outperformed All In with Chris Hayes (MSNBC) among 18-49 year olds and 25-54 year olds by a ratio of 2-to-1.[ ((Metcalf, Mitch. 2020. “SHOWBUZZDAILY’s Top 150 Monday Cable Originals & Network Finals: 3.9.20.” ShowBuzzDaily, March 10. http://www.showbuzzdaily.com/articles/showbuzzdailys-top-150-monday-cable-originals-network-finals-3-9-2020.html. Accessed March 11, 2020.))] Older viewers may remember Carlson from such TV moments as his humiliation by Jon Stewart on Crossfire in 2004 and, well, just his decision to wear bow ties on screen. That’s the guy with a larger number of younger viewers than Chris Hayes.

Even though Anderson Cooper 360 (CNN), the other 8pm competitor, had the fewest total viewers of the three, it outperformed All In in the 18-34, 18-49, and 25-54 demos. Crucially, it also had the fewest viewers over 50. For the legacy cable news channel to skew younger than MSNBC, which has worked to align itself with youthful progressive politics, may be one indication that MSNBC can’t shake its own legacy of being an also-ran. But for Fox News, the long-dominant, right-wing channel, to skew so much younger than its pop culture reputation lets on is an invitation to question dominant narratives about conservative TV news viewers.  

At 9pm the primary competition is more evenly matched. Hannity (Fox News) beat The Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC) by only two hundredths of a rating point among 18-49 year olds, and it beat her in the 25-54 category by six hundredths of a point. Soak that in. Sean Hannity has cultivated a larger young(ish) audience than Rachel Maddow. Ultimately, fighting for younger viewers belies the fact that the bulk of all of these shows’ audiences is over 50. While Hannity earned a .46 rating in the key 25-54 demo, the program earned a 2.74 rating among viewers 50+. Similarly, Maddow saw a .40 in the key demo and a 2.35 in the 50+ demo. Which audience carries more value to the channel, to advertisers, and to our political parties, and can that value be consistent across all three entities? If the game is to skew younger, then Maddow may have an edge overall with slightly fewer younger viewers and not quite as large of an older audience.


Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity
Two major cable news competitors: MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Fox News’ Sean Hannity.

Of course, prime time ratings offer just a snapshot, but the bigger picture is not much different. Fox News ranked 19th on the list of the top 20 basic cable channels of 2019 among 18-49 year-olds. To see it sitting there between Freeform and Lifetime gave me pause. How has Fox News tried to appeal to 18-49 year olds? MSNBC, for its part, has made some adjustments to no avail. The energy Hayes brings to his show via some of his guests, his hipster-adjacent vibe, and his pre-quarantine Friday format—live in front of a studio audience—failed to elevate his show to Maddow levels. And what of Hayes’ lead-in?

For reasons at least partially tied to his history of generally disgusting behavior toward women, long-time Hardball host Chris Matthews opened his 7pm show on March 3rd, announced his retirement, and split. Youthful, energetic mainstay Steve Kornacki—ever the team player—appeared in Matthews’ seat after the commercial break with no preparation. Kornacki’s emotional farewell to Matthews at the conclusion of the show may well have been a wave goodbye to the tradition of an older, white male host in the 7pm slot. In the meantime, the 7pm slot is in limbo as special pandemic coverage has upended business as usual.  One hopes that, when the crisis abates and the channel casts a permanent host, its decision will acknowledge how age intersects with a number of other crucial variables, especially in this political moment.



Image Credits:

  1. COVID-19’s Generational Gaps in the United States
  2. Jon Stewart humiliating Tucker Carlson on Crossfire in 2004 (author’s screengrab)
  3. Two major cable news competitors: MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Fox News’ Sean Hannity (author’s screengrab)

References:




Manufacturing Consent in the Digital Music Industries
Brian Fauteux / University of Alberta


The Creative Independent logo
Logo for The Creative Independent.

Forbes recently published an interview with Spotify’s Head of Music Jeremy Erlich on the subject of how artists can get their music on playlists. Given the interviewee, it’s not surprising that the article frames the streaming music service in terms not unlike a public relations narrative. According to Erlich, Spotify is democratizing the music industry. As he convincingly explains, “I think we show it through songs that have gone to #1, whether it’s Arizona Zervas or Tones and I. No one was pushing those songs. They organically raised their hand and rose to the top. It’s just a testament to the democratization of playlisting.” With further conviction, he claims that “everyone who has functioning ears” will be streaming in 20 years’ time” and “artists who couldn’t make a living before will be able to. That’s the ambition.” An interview featured in a major American business magazine has the strong potential to convince the public of the corporate streaming service’s self-proclaimed virtues. 

In my previous Flow column, I indicated that an imbalance of power between creators and big businesses is one of the largest factors that prevents fair remuneration for artists. Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall recently shared (via Twitter) a breakdown of how many streams it takes to earn a dollar on a variety of platforms. Her post was in response to news that Spotify, Google, Pandora, and Amazon were appearing before the U.S. Court of Appeals to argue against a songwriter streaming royalty rate hike of 44%. The chart indicates that it takes 229 streams on Spotify to earn a dollar and 336,842 to earn a monthly minimum wage in the U.S. 

In coverage of the pressing issues facing artists in the streaming music economy, news media perpetuate this imbalance of power through privileging industry perspectives over that of artists. What readers most regularly encounter are articles and interviews on or about the digital music industries that quote from industry representatives. 

Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model argues that “the societal purpose of the media is to manufacture consent for elite policies and decisions” (MacLeod 3). In part, this is accomplished through a reliance on information provided by government, business, and “‘experts’ funded by the powerful.” In an era of digital and social media, according to Chomsky, sources of news and information are still largely controlled by major media institutions (MacLeod and Chomsky 14).

Erlich’s account of his own company is a common one; “new” digital media services or companies “revolutionize” or “disrupt” the status quo to the benefit of all. An emphasis on and fascination with the new has been described, as Charles Acland does in the introduction to Residual Media, as tied to the production (or overproduction) of material goods and market forces. “An economic and cultural orientation toward novelty and innovation…helps sustain a gargantuan accumulation of materials” (xv).  

Overwhelmingly positive narratives of industry and technological trends persistently encourage ears and eyes to flock to where development and investment are most pronounced. Of course, new media companies benefit from convincing the public of the perceived superiority and dominance of their products and services. However, in this dire moment of pandemic and isolation that has disrupted live music industries across the globe, it becomes all too clear all too quickly that the minimal per-stream rate paid by Spotify is in no ways revolutionizing an artist’s ability to make a living


Sean Parker, Lars Ulrich, and Spotify CEO, Daniel Ek
Sean Parker, Lars Ulrich, and Spotify CEO, Daniel Ek.

As part of The Cultural Capital Project (introduced in my first column), we set out to compile a list of news articles that profile issues facing artists in the streaming music era. The initial focus was on taking note of the number of times that artists were mentioned in news coverage. However, it became our priority to get a sense of how often news articles include an artist’s perspective. We also made note of each time an article included a quote by an industry representative (an executive, a record label employee, a tech worker, and so forth). 

The resulting spreadsheet includes 359 news articles between the years 2009 and 2019 (with most falling after 2014, when Spotify launched in Canada and as streaming became a dominant mode of listening). The number of bands and artists referenced by these articles totals 1072 (this includes artists who are mentioned multiple times across the selection). From Canadian sources like The Globe and Mail, the CBC, and Winnipeg Free Press, to others like Forbes, Music Business Worldwide, Variety, and Billboard, a range of issues facing artists are apparent, including topics like “playola” and questions about how Canadian musicians are making money on streaming services. 

Out of the 359 articles, 88 feature a quote from an artist, or 24.5% of total articles. This number includes articles that use quotes from outside sources, like press conferences or earlier interviews. Artists such as Taylor Swift, Thom Yorke, and Zoe Keating are featured multiple times. These are artists who made notable statements about streaming services that provided easy quotables, such as Yorke proclaiming that Spotfy is the “last desperate fart of a dying corpse” in 2013 or Keating being open and public about the royalties she receives from various streaming services. More striking is the fact that just over 50 articles include an interview or quote that was directly sourced for the article in question (15% of the total).

By comparison to the number of times an artist is quoted or interviewed, 194 articles (54% of the total) include a quote from an industry representative. Some of the most frequently featured perspectives are from high-ranking executives like Spotify founder and CEO Daniel Ek. Evidently, there is a significant divide between the percentage of articles that feature an artist’s perspective. While our selection of articles includes many that critically evaluate the status of an artist’s livelihood within the streaming music era, the prominent inclusion of industry voices has the tendency to weather any resistance to an imbalance of power between artists and big businesses. 


Caribou's recent album, 'Suddenly'
Caribou’s recent album, Suddenly.

So why might it be important to feature artist perspectives in news coverage of the music industries in the streaming era? In Playing to the Crowd (2018), Nancy K. Baym explains that musicians are being asked to do more work that involves relational and entrepreneurial skills, but musicians are not being asked about what these relationships and interactions involve or mean for them (6-7). Musicians hold valuable insight into the intricacies of work and labour because, as Baym says, “Musicians are cultural forerunners…the strategies they devise to manage these tensions, have implications for workers in countless fields as they strive to build and maintain markets for their work” (7). 

In other words, how do we understand the full picture of significant shifts in the music industries without hearing from the musicians working within them? Outside of mainstream journalism, some sources have become excellent and accessible resources for hearing the perspectives of artists. One great example is The Creative Independent, published ad-free by Kickstarter, which regularly shares interviews with a variety of musicians. Lately, I’ve been listening to and loving the new Caribou album, Suddenly. I enjoyed reading an extensive interview with Dan Snaith about the album, one that sheds light on the creative process. On the subject of age, inspiration, and creativity, Snaith explains, “‘I’ve made music for 20 years…have I run out of ideas?…I’m always enjoying it, but I think the drive to not be complacent or to meet my own standards is really the thing that drives me on and on.” Or, take this great quote from interdisciplinary artist, YATTA, who says that “Just because a person or an institution takes an interest in you, it doesn’t mean that you have just become interesting. You’re interesting, period, and they are not, which is why they are seeking you out.”

Featuring the perspectives of artists helps to bring listeners and readers into the mechanisms and machinery behind the songs we hear and love and which become an integral part of our everyday lives. 


Notes: “The Cultural Capital Project: Digital Stewardship and Sustainable Monetization for Canadian Independent Musicians” is a SSHRC-funded research project led by Brian Fauteux, Brianne Selman, and Andrew deWaard, with research assistance from Dan Colussi, Anna Dundas-Richter, Maria Khaner, and William Northlich.


Image Credits:

  1. Logo for The Creative Independent.
  2. Sean Parker, Lars Ulrich, and Spotify CEO, Daniel Ek.
  3. Caribou’s recent album, Suddenly.


References:

Acland, C. R. (2007). Introduction. In C. R. Acland (Ed.), Residual Media (pp. xiii-xxvii). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Baym, N.K. (2018). Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, audiences, and the intimate work of connection. New York, NY: New York University Press.

MacLeod, A. (2019). Introduction: Propaganda in the information age. In A. MacLeod (Ed.), Propaganda in the information age (pp. 1-11). New York, NY: Routledge.

MacLeod, A., & Chomsky, N. (2019). Still manufacturing consent: An interview with Noam Chomsky. In A. MacLeod (Ed.), Propaganda in the information age (pp. 12-22). New York, NY: Routledge.




At the Scene of the Crime: Podcasting and Placemaking
Helen Morgan-Parmett / University of Vermont


crime scene photo overlain with Serial's logo
Serial highlights the places that are central to the narrative in this crime scene photo overlain with Serial’s logo.

…we have to drive back out to Woodlawn drive, turn onto Security Boulevard, which does have some big intersections you have to get through. Again, we’re trying to get to Best Buy, it’s still there today, in twenty-one minutes… We’re at seventeen minutes, we’re just crossing under the beltway… (Serial, Season 1, Episode 5: “Route Talk”)

Perhaps this quote reads familiar, if you, like me, are one of the 175 million listeners of the world’s most popular podcast, Serial. It is the episode where Sarah Koenig, Serial’s narrator, and her producer, Dana, drive the suspected route Adnan Syed drove on the day he supposedly murdered his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Sarah and Dana drive the route to determine if the state’s timeline is possible. As listeners, we move through Baltimore County along with them, listening to the sounds of traffic and the hum of the car’s engine, as they make the turns necessary to arrive at their final destination—a Best Buy parking lot where Syed is suspected of committing the murder. Although I have not personally driven the route, apparently lots of other people have, and not just on their daily commutes, but in a purposeful attempt to recreate the route themselves as amateur sleuths or as tourists looking for a Baltimore excursion off-the-beaten-path.


Best Buy parking lot
The Best Buy parking lot, pictured here, has become a tourist site of sorts after the Serial podcast and was featured as one of many series-related locations in The Guardian to give fans a better idea of what these sites looked like. Many other media outlets along with fans on social media participate in sharing these kinds of images as well.

Like Serial, many podcasts, especially (but certainly not limited to) the true crime genre, have a strong sense of and connection to place. The Gimlet produced Crimetown podcast, for example, has dedicated its two seasons to Providence and Detroit respectively. Studio recordings are supplemented with on-location work that details in multisensory fashion not only the stories of the cities’ crime histories, but also the cultural and social geographies that provide the contexts for those crimes. In the Dark’s second season takes us to Winona, Mississippi to investigate the possible innocence of Curtis Flowers, exploring a racist and classist criminal justice system inasmuch as how race and class biases manifest in the places essential to life in small-town America.[ (( Interestingly, in Episode 2, listeners are enjoined to explore the route, much like in Serial, Flowers allegedly walked the morning of the murders. ))] Similarly, the wildly popular S-Town, from the makers of Serial and This American Life, is ostensibly a character study of John B. McLemore, but undoubtedly the “shit town” for which the podcast is named, Woodstock, Alabama, is as much under study as McLemore.

I could name many other podcasts, both within and beyond the true crime genre, that work to produce a very specific and intimate sense of place for listeners. Yet little scholarship has addressed podcasting’s production of place. Instead, most scholars emphasize the space- and time-shifting capabilities of the medium, as it enables listeners to download and listen when and where they want.[ (( See, for example, Berry, Richard. “Will the IPod Kill the Radio Star? Profiling Podcasting as Radio.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 12, no. 2 (May 2006): 143–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856506066522; Funk, Marcus. “Decoding the Podaissance: Identifying Community Journalism Practices in Newsroom and Avocational Podcasts.” International Symposium on Online Journalism 7, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 67–87; Llinares, Dario, Neil I. Fox, and Richard Berry. Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media, 2018. Jan Lauren Boyles case study of how digital news in post-Katrina New Orleans created fields of care that facilitated urban attachment is an exception, as they explore various podcasts that connect people of New Orleans to each other and who use podcasting as a means of digitally connecting to place and constituting place identities. However, Boyles’ exploration is less about podcasting per se and more about digital journalism more broadly, though I am interested in how these insights about urban attachment might speak to the specificity of podcasting’s spatial practices. See  Boyles, Jan Lauren. “Building an Audience, Bonding a City: Digital News Production as a Field of Care.” Media, Culture & Society 39, no. 7 (October 2017): 945–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443716682073. ))] A core component of this discourse ties podcasting’s mobility to its potentially democratizing and empowering capabilities, as it “puts the onus on the listener, whose jurisdiction over the when, where and how of podcast engagement…suggests a highly liberated, even democratized consumer experience.”[ (( Llinares, Dario. “Podcasting as Limited Praxis: Aural Mediation, Sound Writing and Identity.” In Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media. Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, 127. ))]

This understanding of podcasting’s relationship to space and place follows a well-trodden discourse of media space, which overwhelmingly theorizes media as a space-compressing or despatializing technology.[ (( See, for example, Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford [England]; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 1989. ))] However, as I have argued elsewhere, this view obscures the ways media produces both symbolic and material spatialities. Although podcasting does produce space- and time-shifting, these shifts are less a matter of compressing space or evacuating place than they are a means of creating new relationships to place and new forms of emplacement.


maps of the locations in Baltimore Country central to Serial
Reddit users produced numerous maps of the locations in Baltimore County central to Serial, including this comprehensive map that identifies sites on the map for reader-listeners to visualize distance, how places interconnect, and connect to the state’s timeline and theory of events.

Podcast emplacement is especially constituted through its sensorial, affective intimacy in conjunction with its multiplatform convergences. For example, while Serial’s popularity demonstrated some of the core aspects of the time- and space -shifting potentials of the medium, the podcast was also inconceivable without its deep ties to the spaces and places of Baltimore County, giving listeners an intimate feeling of “being there.” As Sarah and Dana drive the route, the on-location recording affectively connects the past of the crime to Sarah’s and Dana’s present through a soundscape that brings listeners to the site of the crime. Aural cues are accompanied by other sensibilities of place that can be accessed through multi-modal, interactive, and convergent media, whether through social media and endless Reddit threads that meticulously map and annotate the crime scene, Serial’s website’s maps and documents, YouTube videos of fans driving the infamous route, taking your own tour or following someone else who did, amongst many, many other intermediations of the podcast. Some scholars have argued that podcasting’s intimate and deep listening creates a detachment from the place of listening, arguing, for example, “It would be difficult to navigate city streets, or busy traffic, and not fall into ‘rabbit holes.’”[ (( Hancock, Danielle, and Leslie McMurtry. “‘I Know What a Podcast Is’: Post-Serial Fiction and Podcast Media Identity.” In Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media. Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, 90. ))] But listening to the podcast at the place of production and at the site of the narrative—a kind of media pilgrimage[ (( Couldry, Nick. The Place of Media Power Pilgrims and Witnesses of the Media Age. London; New York: Routledge, 2001. ))] —can actually increase intensity in ways that further connect the listener to place, rather than disconnecting them. The podcast is the map that guides the listener’s navigation of the city street rather than the rabbit hole.

Although emplacement might be an unintended effect of most podcasts, there are also more explicit attempts to use the sensorial, affective, and convergent capabilities of podcasting as a purposeful means for connecting listeners to place. In the case of the performative podcast Wandercast, artist Robbie Z. Wilson “invites listeners to take it on a wander. It employs podcasts’ portability and aural intimacy to unearth playful affordances inherent in our surroundings and to encourage enaction of those affordances as a means of rediscovering one’s environment.”[ (( Wilson, Robbie Z. “Welcome to the World of Wandercast: Podcast as Participatory Performance and Environmental Exploration.” In Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media. Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, 274. There are numerous other examples of podcasts aiming to either connect listeners to their surroundings, direct them as tourists, or explore the idea of the sense of place. ))] This performative playfulness depends on a lack of site-specificity on the part of the narrator, but their displacement is aimed to provide an embodied and site-specific experience for the listener.


logo for Vermont Public Radio's Brave Little State podcast
Logo for Vermont Public Radio’s Brave Little State podcast, which connects listeners to a sense of local community.

In addition to performance art, community journalism is an area ripe with podcasts whose explicit aim is to connect listeners with place-based communities. Brave Little State, a podcast produced by Vermont Public Radio in my own place in the state of Vermont, enjoins listeners to pose topics related to Vermont that they are interested in investigating, and all listeners get to vote on what topic they want the podcast to explore.[ (( Brave Little State was influenced by a very similar podcast out of Chicago, titled Curious City. ))] The listener who posted the question then joins with the host to investigate, on-location, the answers to their question. Topics include questions like “Why is Vermont so white?” and “Those aging hippies who moved to Vermont…where are they now?”

I contend podcasting produces a kind of “atlas of emotion,” what Guiliana Bruno refers to as a haptic mapping and a “phantasmatic structure of lived space and lived narrative; a narrativized space that is intersubjective.”[ (( Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film. New York: Verso, 2011, 65. ))] Bruno is referring to cinematic mapping, but there is much to be gleaned about podcasting from her groundbreaking work on cinematic history and its production of new forms of “emotive, embodied and visceral engagement with space.”[ (( Mazumdar, Ranjani. “The Mumbai Slum: Aerial Views and Embodied Memories,” Mediapolis, Vol 4(3), https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2019/11/the-mumbai-slum/. ))] While podcasting’s intimacy and connectivity is often theorized as an effect of its space compressing or mobile practices that collapse distances between producer and listener, I suggest we might instead consider how podcasting’s connectivities and intimacies are forged out of the production of emplacement in a variety of forms. We then might explore how podcasts, in their multisensorial, convergent engagements produce new forms of interacting with, embodying, living, understanding, and navigating the spaces and places of our everyday, mediated lives.



Image Credits:

  1. Serial highlights the places that are central to the narrative in this crime scene photo overlain with Serial’s logo.
  2. The Best Buy parking lot, pictured here, has become a tourist site of sorts after the Serial podcast and was featured as one of many series-related locations in The Guardian to give fans a better idea of what these sites looked like. Many other media outlets along with fans on social media participate in sharing these kinds of images as well.
  3. Reddit users produced numerous maps of the locations in Baltimore County central to Serial, including this comprehensive map that identifies sites on the map for reader-listeners to visualize distance, how places interconnect, and connect to the state’s timeline and theory of events.
  4. Logo for Vermont Public Radio’s Brave Little State podcast, which connects listeners to a sense of local community.


References:




Gay Democratic Socialist Disruption on Television in 1971
Finley Freibert / University of Louisville


watching tv
Gay disruption on Chicago TV, 1971

Consider the following quote:

Because capitalism in America is proven to be exploitative on a vast and growing scale (the 1% of American families at the top get twice the income of all 20% at the bottom), I advocate making America socialist and redistributing the national wealth equitably. I advocate democratic socialism.[ (( Tip Hillan, “Letter to the Editor,” Vector, February 1972, 7. ))]

The quote seems contemporary.[ (( That is, aside from the exponential increase in the wealth gap represented by this quote’s percentages, which reflected the 1970s. ))] It sounds like someone talking about current economic inequalities exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and continuing to spiral out of control. It uses “the 1%” in the sense that it was employed by the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. It identifies and condemns the grotesque consolidation of wealth by the few at the expense of the rest of us. It sounds like something Bernie Sanders would say.

The quote is from a gay democratic socialist speaking nearly fifty years ago. It is representative of a gay democratic socialist branch of gay liberation that expanded across the US from 1969 to the mid-1970s. While the nuances of the definition of democratic socialism depend on the contexts of its use, its associated rhetoric and emphasis on egalitarianism—precisely antithetical to authoritarian socialism—remain strikingly constant.

Reverberating the critical sentiment in the quote is the above image, a contemporaneous televised moment of chaos.[ (( The presence of sporadic circular banding, blurred movement, rounded rectangular masking, and slight non-rectilinear perspective typical of a convex screen all suggest the image is not a photograph of the scene, but a still capture of a televisual image and meant to be understood as such. ))] In the image, an alleged gay democratic socialist (the bespectacled youth with a mop top) confronts Dr. David Reuben, an author (the central foreground figure) who grossly misrepresented gay men for monetary gain. Thinking through this gay democratic socialist disruption of televisual flow provides a historical avenue for approaching recent considerations of what constitutes a gay politics.

Dr. David Reuben’s bestselling non-fiction book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) was first published in 1969. The book capitalized on the sexual revolution and was intended for the mass market in the vein of popular texts on sexuality from the time.[ (( The focus on pathology and sensationalism in Reuben’s chapter on homosexuality is more in line with the phobic and conformist position of popular psychology. For a differentiation between the popular psychological and sociological mass market genres see Jeffrey Escoffier, American Homo: Community and Perversity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 86–93. ))] Feminists criticized the book for the author’s sexist discussions of women’s bodies and sexualities; gay men criticized it for outrageous speculations on gay male sexual experiences.[ (( Representative reviews in the feminist and gay press respectively include “Amazon’s Eye View,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 11; E.L. Sutton, “Mailbag: Reuben Peddles Baloney,” Advocate, February 3, 1971, 23. ))] The book’s popularity and Reuben’s frequent presence on talk shows to promote the book were indicative of an emergent monetizable form of self-help that Elena Gorfinkel calls “a developing literature of sex-help” wherein “the private sphere of sexuality could be accessed and become an object of consumption.”[ (( Elena Gorfinkel, Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 170. ))] Gay liberation activists were not solely outraged by his false claims about gay life but above all the profit-oriented capitalization on those claims.


Howard Miller and Chicago
Howard Miller and the logo for Howard Miller’s Chicago, 1971.

While Reuben was promoting the book during a taping of Howard Miller’s Chicago on February 14, 1971, a group of approximately fifteen gay activists interrupted him to contest his bizarre and bigoted claims about gay men. Gay activist Murray Edelman escalated the confrontation by storming the stage, demanding that Reuben answer. Edelman was intercepted by security, and the show’s host condemned Edelman as a member of the Red Butterfly, “a group of homosexuals with Marxist influence in politics.”[ (( William B. Kelley, “Gays Protest Reuben ‘Book,’” Mattachine Midwest Newsletter, February 1971, 1. The article went on to state, “Miller’s comment was the first hint that one [Red Butterfly group] might exist in Chicago.” In other words, given that the Red Butterfly was based in New York, even the gay press expressed surprise over the possibility that a new group had formed in Chicago. Indeed, by January 1972 the New York Gay Activists Alliance was listing chapters of Red Butterfly in both Chicago and Delray Beach. ))]

It is unclear if Edelman was actually a Red Butterfly, so it is plausible that Miller’s statement was anti-left red-baiting given Miller’s right wing affiliation.[ (( For the quintessential historical account of the lavender scare see, David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). ))] Yet rather than alleging Edelman was simply a gay communist, Miller’s statement displayed a surprising level of specificity and relative accuracy; the Red Butterfly was a gay Marxist group, which also self-identified as democratic socialist.[ (( See Image 3 for one of several places where the Red Butterfly self-identified as democratic socialist. “Red Butterfly,” Come Out, December 1970, 5. ))] Regardless of whether Edelman was a member of the group, the public identification of the disruption with the Red Butterfly and the action’s political and economic purpose align it with a gay democratic socialist imprint.

This protest on Chicago television was part of a tradition of gay liberationist zaps—confrontational direct action toward a public figure or institution with the aim of generating publicity. Gay zaps and other forms of gay media intervention and advocacy have been well-documented.[ (( Some key texts include Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1995), 181–245; Stephen Tropiano, The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV (New York: Applause Books, 2002); Steven Capsuto, Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2000); Matt Connolly, “Liberating the Screen: Gay and Lesbian Protests of LGBT Cinematic Representation, 1969–1974,” Cinema Journal 57, no. 2 (2018): 66–88. ))] While there has been acknowledgement of the economic interventions of gay zaps with tactics like boycotting, much of the literature centralizes representational concerns as the primary focus of gay media activism of the 1970s. While clearly part of gay liberationists’ quarrel with Reuben was his fabricated claims about gay men, I’d like to adjust the lens on this moment of gay liberation media activism to consider the possibility of socio-economic critique offered by groups like the Red Butterfly.

Rather than read this protest as exclusively a representational quarrel over what constitutes “authentic” gay cultural and sexual practices, what if we view it as a critique of media industries’ collusion with—and embeddedness in—fundamentally inequitable economic infrastructures? A reading of this action as informed by sexuality and political economy is in line with what Heather Berg writes of different yet intersecting contexts of feminist sex-work activism: “the point is not that there is an antipathy between radical sexual and radical anticapitalist politics—the battles are the same: capital despises both workers and sexual minorities who refuse to assimilate to the nuclear family it requires in order to reproduce labor.”[ (( Heather Berg, “Working for Love, Loving for Work: Discourses of Labor in Feminist Sex-Work Activism,” Feminist Studies 40, no. 3 (2014): 711. ))]


gay youth red butterfly pamphlet
A fused layout grid presents the Red Butterfly in solidarity with other key liberation groups, Gay Youth and S.T.A.R.

Congruent with democratic socialist emphases on collectivity and socio-economic critique, Edelman urged that his action should not be recognized because of the publicity that it garnered—i.e., the newspapers that sold it as a front-page story—but rather because it was a call to solidarity as “an action directly out of our felt oppression.”[ (( Murray Edelman, “The ‘Heavy-Set, Bearded Youth’ Responds,” Chicago Gay Alliance Newsletter, February 1971, 11. ))] Edelman later reflected on his motivations for spontaneously storming the stage. During the taping as he silently sat in the studio audience, Edelman envisioned Reuben’s books being sold and with the books’ circulation, he imagined the exposure of millions to Reuben’s ideas.[ (( Ibid. ))]

Edelman’s emphasis on solidarity in opposition to mass market product circulation is key to understanding how the zap was an economic intervention. While there is no doubt that public attention to the gay liberation cause was one objective of zaps, gay direct actions—rooted in the tradition of labor organizing and often themselves referred to as “gay strikes”—were nearly always intended to intervene in the flow of capital.[ (( [1] Examples include the gay strike of May 1969 initiated in the Bay Area to protest the police killing of Frank Bartley in Berkeley, and the National Gay Strike Day planned by the Gay Liberation Front at the 1970 meeting of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations. ))] Producers of the talk show invited members of the University of Chicago Gay Liberation group to the show’s taping of the interview with David Reuben because homosexuality was considered a “lucrative topic.”[ (( James Coates, “Miller Talk Show Ends in a Big Flap,” Chicago Tribune, January 15, 1971, 14. ))] However, upon learning of their invitation, Reuben refused to discuss the subject of homosexuality on the show for fear that it would diminish book sales.[ (( Ibid. ))] Following the confrontation, Reuben walked off the program and cancelled a future guest appearance on WLS. In sum, the Edelman-led zap disrupted both the local promotion of Reuben’s book and threw a wrench in the scheduling of two WLS shows. Further reflecting on the zap, Edelman linked the action to a broader gay liberation campaign in Chicago to prevent all advertising and sale of the book in the area.[ (( Fred Winston, “Gay Lib Member Confronts Sex Book Author on TV,” The Chicago Maroon, January 22, 1971, 4. ))]

Why does this matter?

This column was written during the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, wherein popular candidates included a gay man and a democratic socialist. Through his policies as a mayor the gay candidate enacted class war against the homeless and working classes. He has also red-baited the democratic socialist and enthusiastically displayed contempt for postwar activism. Concurrently, everyday people actively confronting their own conditions of impoverishment, such as graduate students in the University of California system, have been fired from their jobs and threatened with deportation. It is also a time when political affiliation with democratic socialism can lead to disciplinary career actions, such as for David Wright of ABC News, or even one’s personal information being cataloged on a public blacklist intended to incite harassment.

While certainly there have been conservative groups across the gay political spectrum, socialism has been a formative component to gay activist cultures and historiography.[ (( Numerous folks have contributed to the progressive historiography of gay politics including John D’Emilio, Lisa Duggan, Jeffrey Escoffier, Jonathan Ned Katz, Gayle Rubin, and Barbara Smith, among numerous others. For a general overview see, Jeffrey Escoffier, “Left-Wing Homosexuality: Emancipation, Sexual Liberation, and Identity Politics,” New Politics, Summer 2008, 38–43. ))] Revisiting televised gay democratic socialist outrage underscores how central socio-economic considerations have been to the gay liberation project.[ (( While liberationists diverged from the conservative ethic of sexual identity privacy generally ascribed to the earlier homophile movement, the dual commitment of both groups to socialist critique provides a throughline from the early communist-inspired homophile cells, into the gay Marxism of the Red Butterfly, and through to the intersectional, anti-racist, and internationalist coalitions expansively documented by Emily K. Hobson. Emily K. Hobson, Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016). For a key analysis of the radical left tendencies of early homophile groups, see Martin Meeker, “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10, no. 1 (2001): 78–116. ))] Reflecting on where gay politics has been can help us imagine an equitable horizon for its future.



Image Credits:

  1. Gay
    disruption on Chicago TV, 1971 (clipping from Mattachine Midwest Newsletter,
    February 1971, 18.)
  2. Howard
    Miller and the logo for Howard Miller’s Chicago, 1971 (author’s screen
    grabs).
  3. A
    fused layout grid presents the Red Butterfly in solidarity with other key
    liberation groups, Gay Youth and S.T.A.R. (clipping from Come Out,
    December 1970, 5.)


References:




“Forever Young”: Digital De-Aging, Memory, and Nostalgia
Kathleen Loock / Europa-Universität Flensburg


Digital de-aging allowed Robert De Niro to play the same character at multiple points in his life.
In The Irishman, digital de-aging allowed Robert De Niro to play the same character at multiple points in his life.

Digital de-aging, the process of making actors appear younger on screen than they actually are, is becoming the new normal in Hollywood. After first experimentations with computer-generated youthfulness in a flashback scene of X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner) in 2006, and—already much more refined—in 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Fincher), TRON: Legacy (Kosinski), which was released in 2010, had 60-year-old actor Jeff Bridges play opposite his digitally rejuvenated self, who looked like the 32-year-old Bridges from 1982’s TRON (Lisberger). Having an older character interact with his younger self in this manner pushed the boundaries of digital de-aging, which has since further advanced and become an increasingly more convincing and, overall, more common visual effect in Hollywood cinema. From Orlando Bloom as unaging elf Legolas in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Jackson, 2013) to Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym in Ant-Man (Reed, 2015) and Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018), from Robert Downey Jr., who plays a young version of Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo, 2016), to the de-aged Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017), Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Rønning & Sandberg, 2017), and Colin Firth in Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Vaughn, 2017)—(mostly male) actors are getting a digital facelift that erases their real age and chronology.


Over the past decade, digital de-aging has become increasingly more convincing and more common in Hollywood cinema, turning back the clock on (mostly male) actors.
Over the past decade, digital de-aging has become increasingly more convincing and more common in Hollywood cinema, turning back the clock on (mostly male) actors.

The practice has finally become so prevalent that 2019 has variously been called “a monumental year for de-aging in film” (Kemp), “a year haunted by the digital phantoms of movie stars as they once looked” (Dowd), and the year when “Hollywood has become unstuck in time” (Breznican). A total of six blockbusters—Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck), Avengers: Endgame (Russo & Russo), It Chapter Two (Muschietti), Gemini Man (Lee), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Abrams), and The Irishman (Scorsese)—de-aged their stars with the help of visual effects companies like Lola VFX, Weta Digital, and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). These companies have perfected their different techniques over the last few years, which involve “digital cosmetics” to smooth out wrinkles and remove blemishes with patches, blurs, glows, and digital paint, as well as tracking markers, scans, CGI models, performance capture technology, and reference material from past performances that is combined with the new footage. Considering the digitally edited faces of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci in The Irishman, director Martin Scorsese expressed worries about what he calls the “youthification” of actors he has known and worked with all his life (Rose). Digital de-aging is supposed to be an invisible effect in the service of unprecedented realism. But, as Scorsese’s misgivings and many critics’ voices show, it still remains a controversial filmmaking tool and one, I argue, that enters into competition with memory and nostalgia for the past.


Martin Scorsese relied on the digital de-aging of actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci to tell his character-driven, decades-spanning mob epic, The Irishman.

To be sure, the increasingly realist aesthetic of digital de-aging has been lauded as a breakthrough for visual effects technology and storytelling. It has proven to solve problems with the rules about time and time travel in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and made it possible to realize the science-fiction premises of movies like TRON: Legacy, Terminator: Genisys (Taylor, 2015), and Gemini Man, where time warps and cloning drive the plots, as well as decades-spanning epics such as The Irishman, that center on the long-term development of (aging) characters, without layers of make-up, prosthetics, or casting different (i.e., younger) actors in the same roles. Advocates of the practice have pointed out how de-aging supports the suspension of disbelief as it allows filmmakers to create less disruptive links between the past and the present. “Youthified” actors have also commented on how de-aging might impact the longevity of their careers. In The Irishman: In Conversation, the Netflix special feature that has Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci talking about the production of The Irishman, De Niro weighs in on the de-aging technology, predicting that, “We’ll all be able to act for another 30 years.” At a screening of Gemini Man, Will Smith joked about the future use of his data and how he will no longer need to stay in shape: “There’s a completely digital 23-year-old version of myself that I can make movies with now. … I’m gonna get really fat and really overweight” (King).


In Gemini Man, 51-year-old Will Smith plays opposite a 23-year-old version of himself.

More skeptical observers of the trend have expressed their fears about the legal implications of digital de-aging technology and the data it amasses and about the diminishing prospects for young actors to land a breakout role. They are also worried about the gray area in which Hollywood’s de-aging efforts and inexpensive, accessible deepfake software seem to converge, arguing that “the drive to fool the viewer is the same” (King). Most notably, however, there is disagreement about whether the technology has sufficiently advanced so that de-aging does not have an “uncanny valley” effect (Masahiro). Despite the high degree of verisimilitude digitally rejuvenated faces have achieved in Hollywood, something seems to be off with “youthified” versions of familiar actors on screen that threatens to disturb audiences and cause discomfort. The uncanniness of a de-aged Will Smith or Robert De Niro can be located in the occasional weird sheen on their altered features as well as in the unnatural movements that either seem inhumanly fast and smooth (in the case of Gemini Man) or belong to an elderly, less intense actor rather than the one that digital de-aging technology has created. “You can make a seventy-something Robert De Niro look young (or at least, come somewhat close to it),” writes Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, “but you can’t really make him act young. Especially for an audience that remembers what a young Robert De Niro did look like, and sound like, and move like.” This observation is as important as the fact that Gemini Man’s young, muscular Will Smith is nothing like the lanky, mustache-wearing Will Smith audiences know from the 1990s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (NBC, 1990-1996).

I suggest that there is an alienating disconnect that has ultimately less to do with the technical perfection and realist aesthetic of de-aging and more to do with the ways in which the digital doppelgänger interferes with a star’s intertextuality (i.e., the ways in which an actor’s previous films and—aging—star persona determine readings of his or her performances) and, above all, with the memories, desires, and nostalgic longings that audiences associate with a familiar actor’s actual younger self. A de-aged Will Smith or Robert De Niro, in other words, may serve Hollywood’s storytelling purposes, yet the discrepancy between what audiences recall and what they see onscreen may pose an existential threat to how people understand (and remember) themselves and the world in which they live in relation to popular culture. By following an actor’s work over many years and decades, audiences synchronize their own memories and lived experiences with movies, TV shows, and career trajectories, often with a nostalgic glance backwards that helps to construct and maintain a coherent, consistent sense of identity in the present. If digital de-aging produces “youthified” versions of familiar actors as it helps aging performers to stay “forever young,” it produces alternate realities that threaten to overwrite audience memory and eventually detract from the illusion that de-aging technology seeks to create.



Image Credits:

  1. In The Irishman, digital de-aging allowed Robert De Niro to play the same character at multiple points in his life.
  2. Over the past decade, digital de-aging has become increasingly more convincing and more common in Hollywood cinema, turning back the clock on (mostly male) actors.
  3. Martin Scorsese relied on the digital de-aging of actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci to tell his character-driven, decades-spanning mob epic The Irishman.
  4. In Gemini Man, 51-year-old Will Smith plays opposite a 23-year-old version of himself.


References:

Breznican, Anthony. “The Irishman, Avengers: Endgame, and the De-aging Technology That Could Change Acting Forever.” Vanity Fair 9 Dec. 2019. Web. 9 Mar. 2020. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/12/the-de-aging-technology-that-could-change-acting-forever

Dowd, A. A. “Gemini Man Uses De-Aging Technology to Make a Case against De-Aging Technology.” AV Club 15 Oct. 2019 Web. 9 Mar. 2020. https://film.avclub.com/gemini-man-uses-de-aging-technology-to-make-a-case-agai-1839041610

Ebiri, Bilge. “So, How Is the De-Aging in The Irishman? Incredibly Impressive.” Vulture 27 Sept. 2019. Web. 9 Mar. 2020. https://www.vulture.com/2019/09/the-de-aging-in-the-irishman-how-bad-is-it.html

Kemp, Matt. “‘Holy
Grail’ Digital Effects Rewinding the Clock for Actors.” AP News 12 Jan.
2020. Web. 9 Mar. 2020. https://apnews.com/43f8ed7e9a753c2191c9af7f4754bd6c

King, Darryn. “The Game-Changing Tech Behind Gemini Man’s ‘Young’ Will Smith.” Wired 24 Sept. 2019. Web. 9 Mar. 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/game-changing-tech-gemini-man-will-smith/

Masahiro, Mori. “The Uncanny Valley.” Trans. Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki. IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine (June 2012): 98-100. https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=6213238

Rose, Steve. “Will Hollywood’s New Youthifying Tech Keep Old Actors in Work for Ever?” The Guardian 10 June 2019. Web. 10 Mar. 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jun/10/will-hollywoods-new-youthifying-tech-keep-old-actors-in-work-for-ever