Public Radio Redux

NPR DJs

NPR DJs

Someone once described the period between completion of an academic book and its publication as “the calm before the calm.” In late 1999, my first book was published with the less-than-felicitous title of Conflicting Communication Interests in America: The Case of National Public Radio. The book was an institutional analysis of National Public Radio, focusing specifically on how NPR had configured the “public” throughout its history. Writing the book was like cutting stone; after publication, it promptly sank like a rock from sight. I posted a notice to the public radio listserv with a link to the first chapter, and the only comment came from the fundraising director of a public radio station in New Hampshire: “Jeez, I couldn’t get past the tortured fire metaphor on the first page.” One of the three published reviews referred to it as a “rant.” Subsequent books about NPR ignored it altogether. So much for fortune and fame.

So I left the study of public radio for other endeavors. However, recent rumblings in the popular press regarding flat station revenues and audience growth, political machinations and listener discontent (as well as deadline pressures) have led me to re-examine my predictions for National Public Radio and its affiliated stations. On the whole, my predictions were fairly accurate. NPR’s occasionally tenuous finances were stabilized when it received a $236 million windfall from the widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc in 2003, as well as a recent $7.5 million grant from the Ford Foundation. Yet NPR has been extremely hesitant to share its good fortune with stations. Instead, the network has been pouring more and more money into its news operations, and news continues to trump cultural programming at the local level. Classical music, the traditional mainstay of local station schedules, continues to slide in importance. Washington’s WETA went all-news in 2005 and Detroit’s WDET followed in 2006 (the latter move triggered a class-action suit from listeners against the station).

Predictions for regional consolidation have been borne out. Iowa public radio now operates as an umbrella, rather than as separate stations; other regional powerhouses, such as San Francisco’s KQED and Austin’s KUT, have engaged in aggressive land grabs by acquiring additional stations. Minnesota Public Radio, which introduced winner-take-all economics into public radio, split off from the distributor it co-founded, NPR’s arch-rival Public Radio International (PRI), and, true to form, began jacking up rates for its programming. Overall, the rich got richer, and the poor simply vanished. NPR currently operates two channels on Sirius satellite radio, but the “tent poles” of Morning Edition and All Things Considered remain firmly staked to terrestrial broadcasting. Stations, which purchase programming from NPR and other suppliers, would never allow their two chief moneymakers to bypass them. Local programming is largely an afterthought at the station level (and NPR, to its eternal shame, worked in conjunction with the NAB to hobble the low-power FM movement). NPR also offers streams of canned programming to stations for rebroadcast on their web sites, but the results, as far as I can tell, have been underwhelming in terms of both carriage and listenership.

NPR Ipod

NPR Ipod

The wild card, which virtually no one could have predicted seven years ago, was the advent and popularity of podcasting. The audience research gurus who essentially set NPR and station policies throughout the ’80s and ’90s based their embrace of commercial programming strategies on the belief that listeners approach radio passively, listening to stations rather than discrete programs. However, a director at Boston’s WGBH found that Morning Edition was downloaded approximately 14,000 times a week in December, 2005 despite no promotion whatsoever. In contrast, the program’s RealAudio stream drew less than 50 listeners a week. Yet podcasting is no panacea, either. A micropayment system, implemented for station non-members, may discourage use, and producers may provide their programs through other venues. The economics also are problematic, since stations must add server capacity as they draw new listeners. The existence of a “digital divide” ensures that substantial portions of the population will lack access to broadband technology in the foreseeable future (although NPR historically has had little use for the folks on the other side of the tracks). Most importantly, the local stations that form the core of the public radio system do little more than vend the programs – they don’t create them.

Blaming NPR for the malaise that afflicts public radio is akin to blaming the victim, since it is a membership organization that must follow the directives of its affiliates. And that is where the principal problem lies – at the station level. I’m still convinced that locally produced radio programming remains the key way to reach the “public” NPR was chartered to serve. In 1999, discussing the adaption of “seamless” formats and syndicated program advocated by consultants, I wrote, “Given the development of diverse delivery systems . . . local stations will not be able to survive if they continue their present practices.” In fiscal year 2003, nearly half of all public radio stations in the U.S. operated in the red. A year later, the New York Times noted that “To remain viable, many managers say that their local stations must gain more leverage vis a vis NPR by producing and promoting more of the kind of distinctive, localized programs and segments that help shape public radio’s eclectic character.” Radio is uniquely suited to fill the role of a public medium. Its low cost and mobility afford a sense of immediacy and flexibility that make it ideal for reflecting a community’s history and constructing a community’s possibilities. At the risk of invoking another tortured metaphor, public radio must go back to the future if it is to survive.

Mike Janssen, “Jacking Into Podcasts.” Current, January 31, 2005, p. 1
Lynette Clemetson, “All Things Considered, NPR’s Growing Clout Alarms Member Stations.” The New York Times, August 30, 2004, p. E1.

Image Credits:
1. NPR DJs

2. NPR Ipod

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The Cost of Not Selling Out

Old Radio

Old Radio

Radio? What’s that?

I recently discussed radio in a media technology class and found that it was largely irrelevant to my students, all of who were between the ages of 19 and 21. I asked them how they discovered new music, aside from the recommendations of friends. Many of them said through advertisements or placement on television shows. How is that, I asked. They replied that when they heard an intriguing song in an ad or program, they would catch a snatch of lyric and “google” the phrase to determine the title of the song and artist. In fact, they actually preferred to hear music in ads rather than on the radio: “You can hear the best parts of the song sooner that way.”

At the next meeting I distributed an article from the Los Angeles Times describing former Doors drummer John Densmore’s refusal to allow “Break On Through” to be used in a campaign for Cadillac Escalades, although his surviving bandmates had agreed after GM dangled $15 million in front of them. “Artists and corporations working together, that’s the 21st century. That’s the true Age of Aquarius,” said keyboardist Ray Manzarek. Densmore countered, “On stage, when we played these songs, they felt mysterious and magic. That’s not for rent.”

What did the students think? The students (including several aspiring musicians) all thought Densmore was a chump and a fool. And why should they believe otherwise? They’ve been steeped in an economic fundamentalism all of their lives, a fundamentalism in which virtually everything they see and do has been subsumed to the logic of the marketplace, a logic in which society serves the needs of economics rather than vice versa. They’ve never known anything else. If it makes money, it’s good. There’s nothing wrong with selling out; indeed, there’s no such thing as selling out, since no alternative exists.

So I went home that evening and listened to a compilation of unreleased live performances by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Peter Green founded Fleetwood Mac in 1967 as a straightforward blues band. I always thought that the notion of “virtuosity” in playing blues was essentially meaningless, akin to “virtuosity” in saying Mass, but these recordings go a long way toward proving otherwise. Although Green trafficked in the traditional braggadocio of a bluesman, his work was marked by an understated power and otherworldly lyricism. Green may have been an unschooled musician, but he was innately aware of a principle in Indian music called the “unstruck,” in which the note you don’t play is as important as the note you do. Like Miles Davis and a few others, Peter Green knew that one note can speak as much as 20, that silence can say as much as sound. On one of these recordings, Green begins a song with five notes, as soft and dexterous as a lover’s caress, that summon a collective, involuntary gasp of pleasure from the audience.

But blues is more than a series of notes; it means accepting a life that you cannot escape, a life for which you are only partially responsible. Growing up poor and Jewish in the East End of London, Peter Green understood the blues better than most of his colleagues. His best work had a stoic sweetness streaked by a blade-cold despair. You can hear it in the loving bite of “Need Your Love So Bad” and so many others, but you hear it best in the terrible, shattered peace of “Love That Burns,” which conveys a heartbreak so devastating that it edges into nihilism.

By late 1969, Fleetwood Mac was hugely successful in Britain and making inroads into America. That year they won Melody Maker’s listener poll as the most popular band in England, edging out the Beatles. And then the clouds rolled in. Confused by the contradiction of sudden wealth and a working-class background, Peter Green grew increasingly disillusioned with success. He became obsessed with religion and began appearing onstage bedecked in long white robes. Green donated all of his money to charity and tried to convince the other band members to follow suit, but they refused. A bootleg tape from this period features a coda to perhaps his best-known song, “Black Magic Woman,” and it is the most terrifying music I have ever heard. Green races ahead of the band, his guitar screaming in rage and pain, until the band gradually drops out. Green plays a simple line high in the register over and over, an icy, spectral phrase that shimmers like the Aurora Borealis, until it too fades away. Five seconds of silence follow, the audience too stunned to respond.

Peter Green

Peter Green

Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac in May 1970 for life as a solitary ascetic, giving away his possessions and laboring as a gravedigger and hospital orderly. He was institutionalized in 1977 for jokingly threatening to wield a rifle against his one-time manager in an attempt to stop royalties from his former life. By the early ’80s Peter Green was living as a recluse in West London. He had grown four-inch fingernails to ensure that he couldn’t play, paying penance for his stature as the greatest bluesman of his time. A decade later he made a brief comeback. I saw him perform in Chicago. He shuffled onstage (a writer later described him as “Dickensian”) and was greeted by a standing ovation. He left most of the solos to his colleagues, still uneasy with his talent. At the end of the beatific instrumental “Albatross,” however, he allowed himself a shy, quiet smile.

Eric Clapton, not a man noted for his loquaciousness, once said about Jimi Hendrix,

“I think that that is probably the curse of genius, you know, that you are alone . . . Nobody can understand the depths that you go to when you reach down inside yourself to play or to express — you can’t take anyone with you to these places, and sometimes you find things that are very scary. And I think you have to survive that on your own, and that’s a very lonely experience and it’s not something you choose. It’s not something you would necessarily go after, it’s something you inherit with your gift . . . ”

Like Hendrix, Peter Green had this gift in abundance; like Hendrix (and Kurt Cobain), it was his undoing. I’ve been listening to Peter Green’s recordings for over 30 years now, and I still listen to them at least once a week, and I’ll do so for the rest of my life. And every time I listen to them, I remember how much it can cost to not sell out.

Image Credits:
Old Radio
Peter Green

Image Credits:

1. Old Radio

2. Peter Green

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Soap in the Chocolate Bar

Ipod Nano

Ipod Nano

Apple unveiled the latest variation on its iPod portable music player on September 7, and techies could hardly contain their gadget lust. David Pogue of the New York Times hailed the iPod Nano as “gorgeous, functional, and elegant . . .to see one is to want one” (Pogue, C1). Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, usually sober-minded in his evaluations of hardware and software, gasped that the player, the size of five credit cards stacked together, was “gorgeous and sleek . . . beautiful and incredibly thin . . . I am smitten” (Mossberg, B1). Apple has always excelled at promoting fashion; early in its history, Steve Jobs suggested that its computers be encased in exotic hardwoods.

Apple dominates the on-line music market, selling nearly three-quarters of all “legitimate” music downloads. The profit margins on its 99-cent downloads are razor-thin, however. Essentially, iTunes serves as a loss leader for the sale of iPods, which continue Apple’s tradition of pricing its proprietary formats at a premium in comparison with its competitors. Much of Apple’s appeal is grounded in its signification of status and conspicuous consumption.

Yet despite its sleekness, the iPod is a less than accommodating companion. All audio files must be converted to Apple’s proprietary AAC format, based on its FairPlay digital rights management system. Although FairPlay was hailed as less restrictive than other DRM schemes, tracks from rival download services such as Napster or MSN will not play on iPods. In addition to tethering Apple users to its proprietary formats, the rights of users can be altered at any time, at Apple’s sole discretion. FairPlay initially allowed downloads to be burned onto ten consecutive CDs; after that, their order must be rearranged. In May 2004, Apple reduced the number of CD copies from ten to seven, while raising the number of playback devices from three to five. The system also detects and blocks similar playlists, and does not allow songs to be edited, excerpted or sampled except exclusively on Apple’s terms. The iTunes music store does allow visitors to sample 30-second song clips, yet the clips are arbitrarily chosen and provide little insight, aside from the most repetitive selections. A former iTunes user sued Apple in 2005, accusing FairPlay of violating his fair use rights, and the iPod-iTunes DRM linkage as an “unlawful bundling and tying arrangement” that violates federal and California state laws by “suppressing competition, denying consumer choice, and forcing consumers to pay supra-competitive prices for their digital portable music players”(Cohen).

Ipod Itunes

Ipod Itunes

Given the disadvantages in sound quality and fair use that surround existing forms of digital music, what are their advantages? First, the appeal of digital music is based in part on the ability to contain huge amounts of data in a small area — the “geek” thrill of massive storage. A second attraction is the possibility of immediacy, to sort and regroup files endlessly and summon a file quickly from the database. Third, customization via digital software is expedient, efficient, and accomplished at physical remove (although software nomenclature implies otherwise; we “grab” cuts and personalize collections via “drag and drop” applications). Greater possibilities for user programming result in music increasingly approached in terms of utility, rather than aesthetics (witness the popularity of ring tones, from which the recording industry derives revenue that surpasses downloads; never mind that the sound quality is akin to jamming a darning needle in one’s ear). Rather than songs themselves, play lists serve as a form of personal expression. In cyberspace, people collect lists rather than objects. ITunes features myriad play lists, although a cursory glance of celebrity play lists reveals their propensity for self-aggrandizement and self-promotion.

Through play lists and digital rights management, Apple and other companies attempt to construct a history for artifacts that have no history. Unless they are burned onto CDs, digital files have no physical manifestation. They consist of data, metadata, and a thumbnail, and therefore lack the “value” of a medium you can hold in your hands. When a product is delivered in a string of bits, rather than presenting itself in a physical form, it appears to have less value. Diminished or nonexistent physical presence undermines the notion of intellectual property; hence the widespread illicit copying of software and public support of file sharing. As goods lose their physicality, producers attempt to imbue them with greater and greater amounts of constructed value. This, ultimately, is Apple’s strategy: Sell sexy yet crippled hardware, make the content almost incidental, and let the users do the heavy lifting of promotion. For all of its style, the iPod is little more than an exercise in corporate bad faith. The chocolate bar is filled with soap.

Sources
Peter Cohen (2005). “iTunes User Sues Apple over FairPlay,” PCWorld.com, Jan. 7.
David Pogue (2005). “Defying Odds, One Sleek Ipod At a Time.” The New York Times, Sept. 15.
Walter Mossberg (2005). “Ipod’s Latest Siblings.” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 8.

Image Credits:
1. Ipod Nano

2. Ipod Itunes

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