Category Archives: radio

howling in the wilderness

Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” in Washington Square in 1966. (Associated Press)
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the famous court ruling in defense of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” against charges of obscenity, citing the poem’s “redeeming social importance.” The Times reports how New York radio station WBAI had the idea of airing a recording of Ginsberg reading his poem to commemorate defense, but was ultimately dissuaded by its lawyers, who feared that an increasingly zealous FCC could fine the station out of existence. The poem did end up airing freely online on, where where the FCC stormtroopers have no jurisdiction. There, under the banner “Howl Against Censorship,” you can still hear it with comments by Lawrence Ferlingetti and other sages of the Beat era (there’s also a link to a full online text of the poem). Worth checking out.
What’s funny and more than a little sad about this story is its utter banality. This isn’t a drag-out battle against the thought police – ?it’s censorship drained of meaning. Because Janet Jackson accidentally let a boob fly at the 2004 Super Bowl, and a few others’ assorted lewd utterances on live TV, the humorless puritans at the FCC have knuckled down into zero tolerance mode. A few incidental curse words, not the actual substance of “Howl,” seem to be at issue here, and that’s what’s truly worrisome.
In ’57, there seemed to be something real at stake concerning free speech: not in the surface indecency of Ginsberg’s language, but in the heart of his protest and lament at the whole of American civilization. The Times quotes Ferlingetti:

Mr. Ferlinghetti, 88, who owns the landmark City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, said that when “Howl” was labeled obscene, first by United States Customs agents and then by the San Francisco police, it “wasn’t really the four-letter words.” He added, “It was that it was a direct attack on American society and the American way of life.”

If anything, this latter-day episode demonstrates how our culture is on auto pilot, that we’ve become so perfunctorily litigious in the mediation of language and symbols, that the masterpiece “Howl” might as well have been a recipe for pancakes or a wall message from MySpace. The poem’s gorgeous threat has been dulled by a larger and pervading numbness. Kudos, of course, to Pacifica for trying valiantly to break through it, but even if the poem had transmitted uncensored on FM radio, or had it been some other work, ten times as damning but without a trace of profanity, would anyone have even been awake enough to receive it?

bob on the air

Yesterday Bob did a radio interview on “The Speakeasy” on WFMU, almost certainly the most interesting (and one of the few) independent radio stations in the New York area. I highly recommend giving it a listen. It’s always nice to hear Bob tell the story of the Institute and the decades of work, collaboration and experience that led up to where we are today. Things tend to get caught up in the rhythm of the day to day on the blog so here’s a nice antidote — a big picture moment.
You can get the podcast from the Speakeasy archive in either RealAudio or m3u format (which will play on iTunes or whatever your default media player is on your machine). Heads up: there are a few minutes of jazz music before the interview gets started. The whole thing’s about an hour.

three glimpses at the future of television

1. When radio was the main electronic media source, families would gather around the radio and listen to music, news, or entertainment programming, not unlike traditional television viewing. Today, radio listening habits have shifted, and I only hear the radio in cars and offices. Television viewing (if you can even call it that) is experiencing a similar shift, as people multitask at home, with the television playing in the background. With the roll out of Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB) in South Korean last year, the use of television is starting to resemble radio even more. DBM is a digital radio transmission system which allows television signals to play on mobile devices. Since its 2005 debut, a slew of DMB capability devices, such as GPS units and the PM80 PDA from LG have been released in Korea. DBM systems are being planned throughout Europe and Asia, which may make mobile television viewing ubiquitous and the idea of a family sitting in front of a television at home seem quaint.
nbc_logo.jpg2. I recently posted on a partnership between youtube and NBC, which will create a channel on the video sharing site to promote new shows from NBC this autumn. NBC seems to have taken the power of youtube to heart as is producing new episodes of the failed WB pilot, “Nobody’s Watching,” which never aired. The pilot was leaked to youtube and viewed by over 450,000 people. I’m waiting to see how far NBC is willing experiment proactively with youtube and its community to create better programming.

3. In the US, the shifting of television from large boxes residing in living rooms to desktops, laptops, and portable media players, has often meant viewing pirated programming uploaded onto video sharing sites like youtube or downloading files from bit torrent. For those who don’t want to break the law, Jeff Jarvis reports that legal streamed and downloaded content will be helped by an announcement by ABC that 87% of viewers of their streamed video were able to recall its advertising, which is over 3 times the average recall of standard television advertising. While legal content is important, I hope it doesn’t kill remix culture or the anyone can be a star ability that youtube provides.

reading fewer books

We’ve been working on our mission statement (another draft to be posted soon), and it’s given me a chance to reconsider what being part of the Institute for the Future of the Book means. Then, last week, I saw this: a Jupiter Research report claims that people are spending more time in front of the screen than with a book in their hand.

“the average online consumer spends 14 hours a week online, which is the same amount of time they watch TV.”

That is some 28 hours in front of a screen. Other analysts would say it’s higher, because this seems to only include non-work time. Of course, since we have limited time, all this screen time must be taking away from something else.
The idea that the Internet would displace other discretionary leisure activities isn’t new. Another report (pdf) from the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society suggests that Internet usage replaces all sorts of things, including sleep time, social activities, and television watching. Most controversial was this report’s claim that internet use reduces sociability, solely on the basis that it reduces face-to-face time. Other reports suggest that sociability isn’t affected. (disclaimer – we’re affiliated with the Annenberg Center, the source of the latter report).
Regardless of time spent alone vs. the time spent face-to-face with people, the Stanford study is not taking into account the reason people are online. To quote David Weinberger:

“The real world presents all sorts of barriers that prevent us from connecting as fully as we’d like to. The Web releases us from that. If connection is our nature, and if we’re at our best when we’re fully engaged with others, then the Web is both an enabler and a reflection of our best nature.”
Fast Company

Hold onto that thought and let’s bring this back around to the Jupiter report. People use to think that it was just TV that was under attack. Magazines and newspapers, maybe, suffered too; their formats are similar to the type of content that flourishes online in blog and written-for-the-web article format. But books, it was thought, were safe because they are fundamentally different, a special object worthy of veneration.

“In addition to matching the time spent watching TV, the Internet is displacing the use of other media such as radio, magazines and books. Books are suffering the most; 37% of all online users report that they spend less time reading books because of their online activities.”

The Internet is acting as a new distribution channel for traditional media. We’ve got podcasts, streaming radio, blogs, online versions of everything. Why, then, is it a surprise that we’re spending more time online, reading more online, and enjoying fewer books? Here’s the dilemma: we’re not reading books on screens either. They just haven’t made the jump to digital.
While there has been a general decrease in book reading over the years, such a decline may come as a shocking statistic. (Yes, all statistics should be taken with a grain of salt). But I think that in some ways this is the knock of opportunity rather than the death knell for book reading.

…intensive online users are the most likely demographic to use advanced Internet technology, such as streaming radio and RSS.

So it is ‘technology’ that is keeping people from reading books online, but rather the lack of it. There is something about the current digital reading environment that isn’t suitable for continuous, lengthy monographs. But as we consider books that are born digital and take advantage of the networked environment, we will start to see a book that is shaped by its presentation format and its connections. It will be a book that is tailored for the online environment, in a way that promotes the interlinking of the digital realm, and incorporates feedback and conversation.
At that point we’ll have to deal with the transition. I found an illustrative quote, referring to reading comic books:

“You have to be able to read and look at the same time, a trick not easily mastered, especially if you’re someone who is used to reading fast. Graphic novels, or the good ones anyway, are virtually unskimmable. And until you get the hang of their particular rhythm and way of storytelling, they may require more, not less, concentration than traditional books.”
Charles McGrath, NY Times Magazine

We’ve entered a time when the Internet’s importance is shaping the rhythms of our work and entertainment. It’s time that books were created with an awareness of the ebb and flow of this new ecology—and that’s what we’re doing at the Institute.

thinking about google books: tonight at 7 on radio open source

While visiting the Experimental Television Center in upstate New York this past weekend, Lisa found a wonderful relic in a used book shop in Owego, NY — a small, leatherbound volume from 1962 entitled “Computers,” which IBM used to give out as a complimentary item. An introductory note on the opening page reads:

The machines do not think — but they are one of the greatest aids to the men who do think ever invented! Calculations which would take men thousands of hours — sometimes thousands of years — to perform can be handled in moments, freeing scientists, technicians, engineers, businessmen, and strategists to think about using the results.

This echoes Vannevar Bush’s seminal 1945 essay on computing and networked knowledge, “As We May Think”, which more or less prefigured the internet, web search, and now, the migration of print libraries to the world wide web. Google Book Search opens up fantastic possibilities for research and accessibility, enabling readers to find in seconds what before might have taken them hours, days or weeks. Yet it also promises to transform the very way we conceive of books and libraries, shaking the foundations of major institutions. Will making books searchable online give us more time to think about the results of our research, or will it change the entire way we think? By putting whole books online do we begin the steady process of disintegrating the idea of the book as a bounded whole and not just a sequence of text in a massive database?
The debate thus far has focused too much on the legal ramifications — helped in part by a couple of high-profile lawsuits from authors and publishers — failing to take into consideration the larger cognitive, cultural and institutional questions. Those questions will hopefully be given ample air time tonight on Radio Open Source.
Tune in at 7pm ET on local public radio or stream live over the web. The show will also be available later in the week as a podcast.

google print on deck at radio open source

Open Source, the excellent public radio program (not to be confused with “Open Source Media”) that taps into the blogosphere to generate its shows, has been chatting with me about putting together an hour on the Google library project. Open Source is a unique hybrid, drawing on the best qualities of the blogosphere — community, transparency, collective wisdom — to produce an otherwise traditional program of smart talk radio. As host Christopher Lydon puts it, the show is “fused at the brain stem with the world wide web.” Or better, it “uses the internet to be a show about the world.”
The Google show is set to air live this evening at 7pm (ET) (they also podcast). It’s been fun working with them behind the scenes, trying to figure out the right guests and questions for the ideal discussion on Google and its bookish ambitions. My exchange has been with Brendan Greeley, the Radio Open Source “blogger-in-chief” (he’s kindly linked to us today on their site). We agreed that the show should avoid getting mired in the usual copyright-focused news peg — publishers vs. Google etc. — and focus instead on the bigger questions. At my suggestion, they’ve invited Siva Vaidhyanathan, who wrote the wonderful piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. that I talked about yesterday (see bigger questions). I’ve also recommended our favorite blogger-librarian, Karen Schneider (who has appeared on the show before), science historian George Dyson, who recently wrote a fascinating essay on Google and artificial intelligence, and a bunch of cybertext studies people: Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, N. Katherine Hayles, Jerome McGann and Johanna Drucker. If all goes well, this could end up being a very interesting hour of discussion. Stay tuned.
UPDATE: Open Source just got a hold of Nicholas Kristof to do an hour this evening on Genocide in Sudan, so the Google piece will be pushed to next week.

flushing the net down the tubes

Grand theories about upheavals on the internet horizon are in ready supply. Singularities are near. Explosions can be expected in the next six to eight months. Or the whole thing might just get “flushed” down the tubes. This last scenario is described at length in a recent essay in Linux Journal by Doc Searls, which predicts the imminent hijacking of the net by phone and cable companies who will turn it into a top-down, one-way broadcast medium. In other words, the net’s utopian moment, the “read/write” web, may be about to end. Reading Searls’ piece, I couldn’t help thinking about the story of radio and a wonderful essay Brecht wrote on the subject in 1932:

Here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers….turning the audience not only into pupils but into teachers.

Unless you’re the military, law enforcement, or a short-wave hobbyist, two-way radio never happened. On the mainstream commercial front, radio has always been about broadcast: a one-way funnel. The big FM tower to the many receivers, “prettifying public life,” as Brecht puts it. Radio as an agitation? As an invitation to a debate, rousing families from the dinner table into a critical encounter with their world? Well, that would have been neat.
Now there’s the internet, a two-way, every-which-way medium — a stage of stages — that would have positively staggered a provocateur like Brecht. But although the net may be a virtual place, it’s built on some pretty actual stuff. Copper wire, fiber optic cable, trunks, routers, packets — “the vast network of pipes.” The pipes are owned by the phone and cable companies — the broadband providers — and these guys expect a big return (far bigger than they’re getting now) on the billions they’ve invested in laying down the plumbing. Searls:

The choke points are in the pipes, the permission is coming from the lawmakers and regulators, and the choking will be done….The carriers are going to lobby for the laws and regulations they need, and they’re going to do the deals they need to do. The new system will be theirs, not ours….The new carrier-based Net will work in the same asymmetrical few-to-many, top-down pyramidal way made familiar by TV, radio, newspapers, books, magazines and other Industrial Age media now being sucked into Information Age pipes. Movement still will go from producers to consumers, just like it always did.

If Brecht were around today I’m sure he would have already written (or blogged) to this effect, no doubt reciting the sad fate of radio as a cautionary tale. Watch the pipes, he would say. If companies talk about “broad” as in “broadband,” make sure they’re talking about both ends of the pipe. The way broadband works today, the pipe running into your house dwarfs the one running out. That means more download and less upload, and it’s paving the way for a content delivery platform every bit as powerful as cable on an infinitely broader band. Data storage, domain hosting — anything you put up there — will be increasingly costly, though there will likely remain plenty of chat space and web mail provided for free, anything that allows consumers to fire their enthusiasm for commodities through the synapse chain.
rad30cathedral10.jpg If the net goes the way of radio, that will be the difference (allow me to indulge in a little dystopia). Imagine a classic Philco cathedral radio but with a few little funnel-ended hoses extending from the side that connect you to other listeners. “Tune into this frequency!” “You gotta hear this!” You whisper recommendations through the tube. It’s sending a link. Viral marketing. Yes, the net will remain two-way to the extent that it helps fuel the market. Web browsers, like the old Philco, would essentially be receivers, enabling participation only to the extent that it encouraged others to receive.
You might even get your blog hosted for free if you promote products — a sports shoe with gelatinous heels or a music video that allows you to undress the dancing girls with your mouse. Throw in some political rants in between to blow off some steam, no problem. That’s entrepreneurial consumerism. Make a living out of your appetites and your ability to make them infectious. Hip recommenders can build a cosy little livelihood out of their endorsements. But any non-consumer activity will be more like amateur short-wave radio: a mildly eccentric (and expensive) hobby (and they’ll even make a saccharine movie about a guy communing with his dead firefighter dad through a ghost blog).
Searls sees it as above all a war of language and metaphor. The phone and cable companies will dominate as long as the internet is understood fundamentally as a network of pipes, a kind of information transport system. This places the carriers at the top of the hierarchy — the highway authority setting the rules of the road and collecting the tolls. So far the carriers have managed, through various regulatory wrangling and court rulings, to ensure that the “transport metaphor” has prevailed.
But obviously the net is much more than the sum of its pipes. It’s a public square. It’s a community center. It’s a market. And it’s the biggest publishing system the world has ever known. Searls wants to promote “place metaphors” like these. Sure, unless you’re a lobbyist for Verizon or SBC, you probably already think of it this way. But in the end it’s the lobbyists that will make all the difference. Unless, that is, an enlightened citizens’ lobby begins making some noise. So a broad, broad as in broadband, public conversation should be in order. Far broader than what goes on in the usual progressive online feedback loops — the Linux and open source communities, the creative commies, and the techno-hip blogosphere, that I’m sure are already in agreement about this.
Google also seems to have an eye on the pipes, reportedly having bought thousands of miles of “dark fiber” — pipe that has been laid but is not yet in use. Some predict a nationwide “Googlenet.” But this can of worms is best saved for another post.

speaking of aggregation, speaking of war…

Speaking of aggregating blog commentary on the Judy Miller intrigue, Open Source’s Monday podcast, “Getting Judith Miller” (listen), aggregates the bloggers themselves in a rigorous discussion of the “inexplicable gaps” in the Times’ self-investigation, placing it in the larger context of the war, the state of journalism, and American democracy in crisis. Guests include Jay Rosen (Press Think), Ariana Huffington (Huffington Post), Josh Marshall (Talking Points Memo, TPM Cafe), and Kevin Drum (Political Animal). A great example of the kind of triangulation Bob was talking about earlier, in this case, a radio show, drawing its material and voices from the web like a hurricane pulls its fury from a warm ocean.
(Drawing from the web to discuss the world is what Open Source is all about. Highly recommended.)

the database of intentions

Interesting edition of Open Source last week on “Google Sociology” with David Weinberger and John Battelle, author of the just-published “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture”. Listen here.
Weinberger has some interesting things to say about Google (and the other search engines) as “publishers.” I have some thoughts on that too. More to come later.
Battelle has done a great deal of thinking on search from a variety of angles: the technology of search, the economics of search, and the more esoteric dimensions of a “search” culture. He touches briefly on this last point, laying out a construct that is probably treated more extensively in his book: the “database of intentions.” By this he means the archive, or “artifact,” of the world’s search queries. A picture of the collective consciousness formed by the questions everyone is asking. Even now, when logged in to Google, a history of all your search query strings is kept – your own database of intentions. The potential value of this database is still being determined, but obvious uses are targeted advertising, and more relevant search results based on analysis of search histories.
As regards the collective database of intentions, Battelle speculates that future advances in artificial intelligence will likely draw on this enormous crop of information about how humans think and seek.

recommended podcast: “information as news”

Katrina blew through the news business just as furiously as it tore through the Gulf Coast. For a good discussion of this, I highly recommend last night’s podcast of Open Source, a great new program on public radio that is of, by and through the web, generating story ideas and discussion on its blog. The show operates in an exciting border zone, dealing with general interest stories while always keeping an eye on the changing communication practices that are affecting/chanelling them. Last night’s show – “Craigslist and Information as News” – deals with citizen coverage of Katrina and the big changes underfoot for professional journalism.
Host Christopher Lydon speaks, with the breathless excitement of a man watching his profession change before his eyes, about “changing terms of authority in the news business” after Hurricane Katrina. He has on as guests Craig Newmark of craigslist (New Orleans site), editor Jon Donley, and media critic/blogger/citizen journalism guru Jeff Jarvis. From the intro:

The best reporting in the world — no hyperbole, the best reporting in the world — this week came from the web division of the New Orleans Times Picayune, Information — missing person reports, safe and alive person reports — became news. And it became a source, even, for rescue teams, more accurate than anything else they had to go on.
Craigslist, after Katrina, became a forum for finding the missing and housing the saved, and what you find on Craigslist are stories as compelling as anything on CNN. Maybe what communities want in a time of crisis is good information, and maybe detailed, accurate information makes the best story. Craig and Jeff helped invent two new ways of collecting and distributing information; Jon is perfecting it right now in the Crescent City.