I wrote the first half of the following two years ago for a name-brand Web magazine that decided not to run it. You can guess why. I later turned it into a shorter piece for Wharton‘s Future of Advertising collection. For this post I took out some cruft and added a new second half. As usual, if I had more time, I could have made it shorter. But I’m in a hurry between meetings in London and want to get something up.


For most of its history, we knew what advertising was. As a metonym, “Madison Avenue” covered the whole thing.

Madison Avenue’s specialty was brand advertising: big companies (Coca-Cola, Kodak, Shell Oil, Procter & Gamble) hiring big agencies to familiarize consumers by the millions with their brands. While most advertising didn’t come from Madison Avenue, or practice big-budget branding methods, it was still simple and straightforward: companies buying time and space to send messages across to target groups. As consumers we knew that too. Here’s the key thing to remember today: none of it was personal.

The personal stuff was called direct marketing. In The Economics of Online Advertising, Magid Abraham, Ph.D., the co-founder and CEO of comScore, respects the distinction this way: “while the Internet may have been a boon for direct response advertisers, it has been a mixed blessing for brand advertisers…” (The bold-face is mine.)

If the taxonomy of business were like that of biology, direct response and brand would not only be different species, but different classes under the marketing phylum. Yet Dr. Abraham, along with everybody else today, calls both advertising. Thus the original distinctions are lost.

To find them again, let’s start by giving respect to the elder species: advertising itself.

“The great thing about advertising is that no-one takes it personally,” Richard Stacy says. Direct response, on the other hand, wants to get personal. And, because it values response above all else, it has been data-driven ever since it started out as direct mail. (Or, in the vernacular, junk mail.)

The holy grail of direct response has always been perfect personalization: getting the right message to the right person at the right place at the right time. Back in the offline world that wasn’t possible. Online, at least conceivably, it is. Thanks to tracking and big data analytics, individuals can be understood to a high degree of specificity, in real time, and addressed accordingly. This is the boon Dr. Abraham is talking about.

Yet this boon comes with costs that are hard to see if your view is anchored on the supply side. If you look at it from the receiving end, all you know is that the ad is there, and that maybe it’s meant to be personal (or even too personal). How it gets there is a mystery for the recipient and often for the medium as well. For example, the ad for SmellRight deodorant placed next to a story on a newspaper’s website may not be placed by SmellRight, its ad agency or the newspaper. It may have arrived via some combination of ad networks, ad exchanges, demand side platforms (DSPs), dynamic auctions with real time bidding (RTB), supply side platforms (SSPs) and other arcane mechanisms of the new direct response advertising business. And, in many cases, none of those entities has the whole picture of how any given ad gets placed.

In The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth, Joseph Turow says direct response advertising today is “increasingly customized by a largely invisible industry on the basis of a vast amount of information that we likely didn’t realize it is collecting as a result of social profiles and reputations it assigns us and never discloses, and about which we are largely ignorant.”

And yet the ironic purpose of these mechanisms is to make the ad personal — just for you — even if all they know about you is some unique identifier, or a combination of them. Confusing? Of course. But then, it’s none of your business. Neither is brand advertising , but at least you’re not ignorant about the system, or why the brand thought it was important to advertise.

That’s because brands and brand advertising send what economists call signals. Each signal is a sign of substance that says much without saying anything at all. The feathers of a peacock send a signal. So do the songs of birds, the antlers of an elk, your haircut, your college degree, your jewelry and the clothing you wear. So think of brand advertising as clothing: something a company wears, just like it wears buildings.

Like clothing and buildings, advertising’s brand signal is impersonal and non-conversational, by design. It is pure statement. In “Advertising as a Signal” (Journal of Political Economy, 1984) Richard E. Kihlstrom and Michael H. Riordan explain, “When a firm signals by advertising, it demonstrates to consumers that its production costs and the demand for its product are such that advertising costs can be recovered.”

Direct response advertising does little if any of that. But, because we call it advertising, we need to look at the trade-offs. Don Marti has done a lot of that. He writes, “as targeting for online advertising gets more and more accurate, the signal is getting lost. On the Web, how do you tell a massive campaign from a well-targeted campaign? And if you can’t spot the ‘waste,’ how do you pick out the signal?”

In fact, the main signal sent by direct response advertising is personalization itself. By being different for everybody, all the time, there’s not much “there” there, besides the ad. There’s not even an obvious “platform” for the ad, since it could have come from anywhere.

Brand advertising doesn’t do that. Nor does Main Street or a shopping mall. When you go into a store, it doesn’t shape-shift to put hats in front of you because you glanced at hats in a store window you passed on the street a minute ago. Yet shape-shifting is now standard with online retailing, with search, and with every site and service that works to “deliver a personalized experience” in real time. The result is a virtual world that is made to look different all the time for everybody, based on surveillance and data-driven guesswork. It’s also creepy, because you don’t know what’s personal and what’s not, or what’s based on surveillance of your activities and what’s not. And opt-out “solutions” from the industry, such as AdChoices only serve as a paint job over the surveillance required to make ads personally relevant (which, nearly all the time, they are not).

The historic shift we’re experiencing here is one from the static Web to the live one — a development I visited in a 2005 essay in Linux Journal titled The World Live Web. It begins,

There’s a split in the Web. It’s been there from the beginning, like an elm grown from a seed that carried the promise of a trunk that forks twenty feet up toward the sky. The main trunk is the static Web. We understand and describe the static Web in terms of real estate. It has “sites” with “addresses” and “locations” in “domains” we “develop” with the help of “architects”, “designers” and “builders”. Like homes and office buildings, our sites have “visitors” unless, of course, they are “under construction”.

At the time (see herehere and here) I saw the Live Web as a branch off the static one, starting with RSS and real-time search of RSS feeds, which at the time was done only by Technorati and its competitors. (The only survivor in that category is Google blogsearch, which lets you isolate postings in the past ten minutes, the past hour, the past 24 hours and so on.) What I didn’t expect was for the Live Web to become pretty much the whole thing. But that’s where we’re headed today. Except for domain names, logos and other persistent, impersonal graphics and structures, the Static Web is becoming a lost signal as well.

And yet “brand” and “branding” are hot topics on the live Web, and have been ever since marketers began advancing on the Internet’s wild frontiers. (This Google Ngram graph traces the popularity of the word “branding” in books from 1900 to 2008. Note how the word starts to hockey-stick in 1995, when the commercial Web was born.)

Back in early 2000, when The Cluetrain Manifesto came out, among the first companies we heard from were Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and other established consumer goods companies that had actual “brand managers.” They bought the premise that “markets are conversations” (Cluetrain‘s first thesis, and the title of one of its chapters). But they were flummoxed by the oxymoronic challenge of making a brand talk. Why should it? They were also baffled by first-generation Net-native marketing types talking about “brands” and “branding” as if these concepts translated easily and instantly to the networked world. Real brand managers knew, in their bones, that the solid and durable substance of a brand wasn’t personal. It was pure signal.

I think this is one reason Dr. Abraham calls the Internet a “mixed blessing” for brands. The static and durable substance of a brand can still be communicated on the Web the same old-fashioned way it is in print and on radio and TV, but the temptation to get personal with advertising irresistibly high, especially since there are now hundreds of companies and countless experts and technical means for doing that.

So the new stuff is marginalizing the old stuff in a huge way. For a crash course on how this is going, read Bob Hoffman’s Ad Contrarian blog, watch this speech, and read this one. From the latter:

First, that an astounding amount of what the experts, the pundits, and the geniuses have told us about advertising and marketing and media in the past 10 years has turned out to be bullshit.

And second, that the advertising industry has become the web’s lapdog – irresponsibly exaggerating the effectiveness of online advertising and social media… glossing over the fraud and corruption, and becoming a de facto sales arm for the online ad industry.

The online advertising he’s talking about here isn’t traditional brand advertising, but the direct response stuff that wants to get personal with you.

But, because brand and direct response advertising are now fully conflated, the brand baby gets thrown out with the direct response bathwater. That’s why we have, for example, Ethan Zuckrman‘s The Internet’s Original Sin. Writes Ethan, “The internet spies at us at every twist and turn not because Zuckerberg, Brin, and Page are scheming, sinister masterminds, but due to good intentions gone awry.” The good intentions were around making advertising better — something Ethan himself worked on, back in the last Millennium.

But Ethan’s main issue is with the whole business model of advertising on the Web, which includes both the brand and the direct response stuff: “20 years into the ad-supported web, we can see that our current model is bad, broken, and corrosive. It’s time to start paying for privacy, to support services we love, and to abandon those that are free, but sell us—the users and our attention—as the product.”

But the ads won’t go away, because the Web will always be a wide open publishing space. So the question becomes, What’s best?

After Ethan’s piece came out, Don posed Ethan’s position against Bob’s and looked for a solution that respects what both bring to the table:

But Hoffman and Zuckerman are both right. Web advertising has failed. We’re throwing away most of the potential value of the web as an ad medium by failing to fix privacy bugs. Web ads today work more like email spam than like magazine ads. The quest for “relevance” not only makes targeted ads less valuable than untargeted ones, but also wastes most of what advertisers spend. Buy an ad on the web, and more of your money goes tointermediaries and fraud than to the content that helps your ad carry a signal.

From Zuckerman’s point of view, advertising is a problem, because advertising is full of creepy stuff. From Hoffman’s point of view, the web is a problem, because the web is full of creepy stuff. (Bonus link: Big Brother Has Arrived, and He’s Us )

So let’s re-introduce the web to advertising, only this time, let’s try it without the creepy stuff. Brand advertisers and web content people have a lot more in common than either one has with database marketing. There are a lot of great opportunities on the post-creepy web, but the first step is to get the right people talking.

Can we make that happen? Or do we just have to wait for the creepy bubble to burst? I predicted the burst in The Intention Economy, which came out in May 2012. It hasn’t happened yet. But it’s looking a lot closer since PageFair published 2104 Report: Adblocking Goes Mainstream last week. Summary findings:

  • There are about 144 million active adblock users around the world.
  • Adblock usage grew by nearly 70% between June 2013 – June
  • Growth is driven by Google Chrome, on which adblock penetration nearly doubled between June 2013 – June 2014.
  • Adblock usage varies by country. In some countries nearly one quarter of the online population has it installed.
  • Adblock usage is driven by young internet users. 41% of 18-29 year olds polled said they use adblock.
  • Adblock usage is higher with males, but female usage is still very significant.
  • A majority of adblockers expressed some willingness to receive less intrusive ad formats (however they strongly rejected intrusive ad formats such as interstitials and popovers).

Often we hear it said that we have made a “deal” with online advertising, trading our privacy for advertising that pays for the content we consume. We didn’t. (As I said here, four years ago.) We just put up with it.

But we actually do make a deal with the brand advertising that supports the print and broadcast content we also consume. We give them time and space in our lives. Sometimes we skip over ads on our cable DVRs, or page past the ads in magazines. But we are conscious of the good those ads do, even if some of the ads annoy us. They support the paper, the magazine, the radio or television program, and the creative people behind them.

It should be the same on the Web. But it’s not, because an unknown but obviously high percentage of the ads we see are aimed by unwelcome spying on our personal lives. If Don’s right, and we subtract the creepy stuff out, and respect brand advertising for the good it does (while putting up with the annoying stuff, which will probably never go away), we might keep the free stuff we like, or at least reduce the price of it.

 

 

sb-radioWhen we moved to Santa Barbara in 2001, the public radio pickings were pretty slim:

  • 88.3 KCLU, a faint signal from Thousand Oaks.
  • 88.7 KQSC, a strong local station on Gibraltar Peak carrying the classical music programming of Los Angeles’ KUSC. Santa Barbara also had classical KDB on 93.7, an equal-sized signal on Gibraltar Peak.
  • 89.1 KCRU, a weak signal from Oxnard carrying Santa Monica’s KCLW.
  • 89.5 KPBS, San Diego’s public station, which came and went depending on weather conditions over the 200 miles of Pacific Ocean it crossed on the way.
  • 89.9 KCBX from San Luis Obispo, via a 10-watt translator on GibraltAr Peak
  • 102.3 KCLU’s 4-watt translator on Gibraltar Peak

So Santa Barbara had two strong local classical stations and no local public station, other than KCLU’s translator. Credit where due: KCLU devoted a large percentage of its local news coverage to Santa Barbara. Also, in those days, KEYT, the TV station, also had a local AM news station on 1250am, with Morning Drive held down by local news star John Palminteri.

In the years since then, the following happened:

  • KEYT disappeared on 1250am, which became a Spanish station.
  • KCLU bought 1340am, which radiates from downtown, and cranked up local coverage for Santa Barbara, in effect becoming Santa Barbara’s first real public radio station. They used John Palminteri a lot too.
  • KCBX left its translator on 89.9 and started a repeater station, KSBX, on 89.5, a signal with 50 watts to the west and south about 10 watts to the east, from Gibraltar Peak. The old 89.9 signal went to a religious broadcaster. Local Santa Barbara coverage was minimal.
  • KCRW got a translator on 106.9, to reach Goleta and the western parts of Santa Barbara from a site on West Camino Cielo radiating 10 watts toward town and as little as 1.35 watts in other directions.
  • KDB got saved when it was bought by the Santa Barbara Foundation, and converted to a noncommercial station.
  • Bob Newhart sold his station at 1290am, effectively, to the Santa Barbara News-Press, which made it KZSB, A 24-hour local news and talk station. At just 500 watts by day and 120 watts at night, it’s small but covers the city itself just fine.

And that was the status quo until just recently, when all this happened:

  • KCLU cranked up the power of its 102.3 translator to 115 watts toward downtown, with nulls to the east and west (across hills and mountains) of 5.4 watts, which is still better than the old 4-watt signal.
  • KPCC, Los Angeles’ main all-news/talk public station from Pasadena, displaced the religious broadcaster on the 89.9 translator. It puts out 10 watts to the west from Gibraltar Peak, and less in other directions.
  • A set of deals went down (see links below) by which KDB’s staff got fired and programming replaced by KUSC’s, which moved up the dial to 93.7 from 88.7, where KCRW appeared with the call letters KDRW. The KQSC call letters were dropped, so the call letters on 93.7 are still KDB, but the station is really KUSC.

As a result, Santa Barbara now has all three main Los Angeles public stations — KUSC, KCRW and KPCC — along with KCLU and KCBX. And that’s in addition to a pair of non-NPR public stations: KCSB/91.9 from UCSB (radiating from Broadcast Peak west of the city, home of nearly all the locals that aren’t on Gibraltar Peak), and a 10-watt translator for KPFK, the Pacifica station from Los Angeles, on 98.7 from Gibraltar Peak.

As Nick Welsh asks in the Independent, NPR Saturation in Santa Barbara?

As a listener, I’m glad to have so many choices. (Even the mostly-news-talk stations are hardly clones of each other; and KCRW is heavily into music and a younger demographic slant.) But if I were KCLU or KCBX, I’d be pissed to find my stations playing Bambi in a fight with three big-city Godzillas.

So here’s a bunch of additional stuff you probably won’t read anywhere else.

First, Santa Barbara’s terrain is weird for FM. There is no perfect transmitter site.

At our house, on the city side of the Riviera, we have line of sight to none of the local stations, which is what you need for a clear signal. So they all sound like crap there.

The Gibraltar Peak site is good for covering most of the South Coast, but is well below the crest of the mountains, block signals toward the Santa Ynez valley. They all sound awful there, or are gone completely.

Power matters less than line-of-sight. This is why KCLU, with just four watts on 102.3fm for all those years, did very well in the ratings I’ve seen for it.

The Broadcast Peak site is much higher (over 4000 feet high, with a view from San Luis Obispo to Ventura. Signals from there are advantaged by the elevation, but its distance from Santa Barbara is also a factor. It’s way out of town. The killer signal there, by the way, is KVYB on 103.3fm. It’s 105,000 watts, making it the most powerful FM station in the whole country. KYGA, a noncommercial Christian rock station on 97.5, is also huge with 17,500 watts. KCSB is just 620 watts up there, which is why it’s strong in Goleta but on the weak side in Santa Barbara. KFYZ doesn’t do much better from the same site, with 810 watts. KCBX also has a 10-watt translator on Broadcast Peak on 90.9, but it’s only full-power south toward Gaviota Beach and northwest toward Solvang and Los Olivos.

These FM issues are why, in my opinion, KCLU’s AM signal on 1340 is a big winner. Its signal isn’t big (only 650 watts), but AM waves flow over terrain that messes up FM. A transmitter site near salt water does wonders for AM signals as well. (KCLU radiates from a red and white pole standing in the city equipment yard on Yanonali Street, a few hundred feet from the ocean. That’s it in the picture above.) So there are no “holes” in its coverage, from Carpinteria to Capitola Beach.

The big loser, hate to say, is KCBX. Their old Santa Barbara signal on 89.9, now occupied by KPCC, had the advantage of nobody else on that channel that could be picked up in the area. By moving to 89.5, their signal had to compete with KPBS, which since then has moved closer to Santa Barbara and raised its power. At our Riviera home on KPBS blows KCBX away on 89.5, nearly all the time. KCBX knew they had problems after they moved, and tried to move back to 89.9 with a bigger signal, but that fell through.

I expect the result will be a lot more public radio listening in Santa Barbara, with KCLU remaining the local favorite, simply because it remains local.

Meanwhile, some other moves on the South Coast:

  • 106.3, which radiated from Gibraltar Peak for many years with different call letters and formats, moved to Ventura, where it is now a country station.
  • KSBL/101.7, which moved from Gibraltar Peak to West Camino Cielo a while back, and dropped its power in the process to 890 watts (a bad move, in my opinion), has a construction permit to move the transmitter to Santa Cruz Island. This involves a raise in the class of the station, meaning technically it’ll be bigger. Santa Cruz Island has great line-of-sight to all of coastal Southern California, but the station will now be more than 30 miles from town. And the signal is directional, mostly to the west, meaning it will only be full power toward the islands and the coast west of Santa Barbara. Toward the east it will be way less. (I’m also not sure how they’ll get electric power to the site, which is on a remote peak of what is also a nearly uninhabited national park.)
  • KRZA-LP is a new 100-watt station on 96.5. The construction permit is licensed to La Casa de la Raza, and will broadcast from downtown Santa Barbara. Says the site, “The mission of La Casa de la Raza is to develop and empower the Latino community by affirming and preserving the Latino cultural heritage, providing an umbrella for services and by advocating for participation in the larger community.” So: a true community station. Says here the transmitter will be at the corner of Montecito and Salsipuedes Streets.
  • KTYD/99.9, which has the biggest signal on Gibraltar Peak (34,000 watts), is getting a new 250-watt translator in Goleta on 104.1, radiating from Platform Holly, off the coast of Isla Vista.

Christopher Lydon at the AthanaeumThere’s a challenge going around Facebook: to name ten books that have changed your life.

So I’ve thought about my own, and kept a running list here in draft form. Now that it’s close enough to publish, methinks, here they are, in no order, and not limited to ten (or to Facebook) —

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstloy. I’ve read and re-read it many times, though not in the last two decades. I got turned onto it by this broadcast on WBAI in New York, back in 1970.
  • Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. I sound my barbaric yawp across the roofs of the world. More here.
  • Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee, who gets my vote for the best nonfiction writer of all time. I’ve read and love all of McPhee’s books, but his geology series — Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising From the Plains and Assembling California — turned me on in a huge way to geology, the Earth and the long view of time. All are collected, with one more added, in Annals, which won a Pulitzer in 1999. The best of the series, by the way, is Rising From the Plains, just for the stories of its lead characters, geologist David Love and his parents, living the pioneer life in central Wyoming early in the last century. Great stuff.
  • Rabbit Run and the rest of the Rabbit series, by John Updike. While many of Updike’s subjects bore or annoy me (and his frequent descriptions of sex, all as clinically detailed as a Wyeth paintings, fail as porn), the quality of his writing is without equal, imho.
  • The Bible. I was raised on it and read lots of it, back in my early decades. So I can’t deny its influence. The King James is my fave, having a beauty that others lack.
  • Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy, by Michael Polanyi. Less famous than his brother Karl, and nearly quote-proof. (The one exception: “We know more than we can tell.”) But deep. Studied the crap out of him in college, thanks to the obsessions of one philosophy professor.
  • Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff. All of George’s books changed me. My vote for his best is Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Explains convincingly a shitload about politics and much else.
  • The Book of Knowledge and Grollier encyclopedias. We had those in our house when I was a kid, and I read them constantly.
  • Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. Call me hooked. Typee rocks too.
  • Nature and other essays (notably Self-reliance) by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hit me between the eyes in my college years. Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events… Without Emerson, there would have been no Linux for me. Also no ProjectVRM, and probably no Cluetrain either. Also from that century, Hawthorne and Poe.
  • Websters New Collegiate Dictionary. Meaning the one my parents gave me when I went away to high school at age 15 in 1962. It’s one of the most worn and marked up books I have.
  • Huckleberry Finn, and many other works of Mark Twain. Read most of them in my teens.
  • Our Dumb World, by The Onion. The funniest book ever written. Please update it, Onion folks.
  • Dave Berry Slept Here: a Sort of History of the United States, by Dave Barry. His funniest book.
  • Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow. My vote for Bellow’s best. Conquered people tend to be witty.
  • Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. Blew my mind.
  • How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand. Explains so much I never saw or knew before, especially about infrastructure and code.
  • Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. I also saw him speak when I was in college. Very moving.
  • Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin.
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert. I like the original better than any of the later sequels and prequels.
  • The Foundation Series, by Isaac Azimov. I only like the original trilogy, which blew my mind when I read it, many years ago. Likewise…
  • The entire James Bond series, by Ian Flemming. Knocked them off in a college summer session. Pure escapism, but it helped my writing. Flemming was good. Bonus link: Alligator, a parody of Bond novels by Christopher Cerf and Michael Frith of the Harvard Lampoon. In it MI5′s front is a car dealership. If any actual customers show up, they are taken to the back and then “politely, but firmly, shot.”
  • The Cluetrain Manifesto. Co-writing it changed my life. Simple as that.
  • Many books by Thomas C. Hinkle, which I read as a child hiding away from the bitter and humiliating experiences of failing to compete in academics, sports and everything else at school. The books weren’t great literature, but they were great escapes. All were adventures involving heroic animals on the prairie, where both Hinkle and my mother grew up. (He was from Kansas and she was from Napoleon, North Dakota, about which it was said “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.”) When I got older my interest in prairie settings transferred to…
  • Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas and Cheyenne Autumn, by Mari Sandoz, who wrote in the anglicized idioms of Sioux and Cheyenne. Amazing stuff. Honorable mentions in this same vein: Black Elk Speaks, by John Niehardt and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. Not sure why, but there has always been a warmth in our family toward native Americans. And maybe that’s why I also like…
  • The Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card. The natives in this one have a heroic transcendence (as do others). Got turned on to these by our youngest son, who has read at least ten times the number of books in his short life than I’ve read in my long one.
  • The Poltergeist, by William G. Roll. I worked for Bill at the Psychical Research Foundation, which hung off the side of Duke in the late ’70s. His work opened my mind in many ways. Great times there too.
  • Other authors that run in the credits of my life: Camus, Sartre, Malraux, Conrad, Yates, Kipling, Tennyson, Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Rilke, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, Hesse, Wallace Stevens, Jeffers, Steinbeck, Delmore Schwartz, Card, e.e. cummings, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, E.L. Doctorow, Stanley Elkin, William F. Buckley, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Salinger, Mailer, Barth. (Thanks to Interleaves and Robert Teeter for listing Harold Bloom‘s Western Canon, which helped with the list above.)

Ah, and the photo at the top is of our good friend Christopher Lydon, taken while he was giving us newcomers a tour of the Boston Athenæum, which we immediately joined and will love forever. Besides being a great lover of books, Chris is a broadcasting legend whose Radio Open Source is a treasure that spills weekly onto the Net and WBUR.

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I couldn’t resist.

Our kid, a high school senior, gets pitch letters from every college and university in the U.S. Or so it seems. (Our sample size is 1, so wadda we know?)

Most of these pitches are talking brochures, but some are so packed with clichés that I couldn’t resist mocking the worst of them, one of which came today. I rewrote it enough to mask the source, which is actually a good college. (And hell, who knows… the kid might wanna go there.)

themodernA couple weeks ago I took a walk around the historic neighborhood in Fort Lee where my extended family had a home — 2063 Hoyt Avenue — from the turn of the last century into the 1950s. It’s where my parents lived when I was born, and where my aunt and grandmother sat for my sister and me (taking us often for walks across the George Washington Bridge, which my father helped build) and held big warm Thanksgiving dinners.

It was all erased years ago, and the parts that aren’t paved over are now turning into high-rises, starting with The Modern (there on the left), a 47-floor mirror-glass monolith that towers over the George Washington Bridge, and straddles what used to be Hoyt Avenue, exactly next door to the old house, which was paved over by Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. A twin of The Modern will go up nearby, as part of the Hudson Lights project. The whole thing is freaking huge and will change the New Jersey skyline and Fort Lee community absolutely.

It’s also where “Bridgegate” happened.

Anyway, I shot a bunch of pictures. More in the captions.

penrodI used to have an open reel tape of song I recorded off some New York FM station in 1970 or so. It’s long lost now. I didn’t know the artist or the title. It was was half talked, half sung, about a loser in Greenwich Village, “Junkie John,” coming down in a fleabag hotel. Very haunting, which is why I never forgot it.

I didn’t know what it was called or who did it. Every so often I’d ask people who knew music better than than I did, if they knew a song about “Junkie John.” A few said maybe it was a Blues Traveller thing, or John Mayall. But looking down those alleys went nowhere. I figured eventually that it was too obscure, and probably had a title that had nothing to do with what I remembered of it.

But a few weeks ago, at 1:30am here in New York, the song popped into my mind. So I looked up “Junkie John” on Google just for the hell of it, and… Wow:::: found this on YouTube, by Tim Dawe.

It’s the real thing. Amazing. Listen to it. Preferably on good headphones or speakers in a dark room.

Dawe starts the story over a plucked string bass. Very slow, laconic. About a minute in comes a Hammond organ with funeral chords. Then a haunting chorus. Gives ya chills. After about 5 minutes it digresses into a weird psychedelic jazz bridge with more instruments (it seems). Then the instruments drop out and it goes back to just the singer, the organ, the bass, and the end of the story, which seems to have no end, really. (Did Junkie John die, or just come down? Not clear.)

It’s very different listening with headphones today, maybe forty years after the first time I heard it, probably over speakers, probably in the dark, probably in a rural New Jersey house, with the kids asleep in another room.

Here’s the back story, from the CD re-issue liner notes. Funny to learn that the whole story of Dawe, the band, the recording, everybody involved with it, took place in Los Angeles and San Diego, not New York — and that it was a Frank Zappa production, on his Straight label (which had the bizarre stuff, as I recall), rather than his Bizarre label (which, again as I recall, had the straight-ish stuff).

The whole album is called Penrod (which may or may not be Dawe’s real name… also not clear). I bought it on Amazon for $9.49. Now I just need to rip it to the laptop.

Anyway, highly recommended.

Bonus links:

  • http://www.allmusic.com/artist/tim-dawe-mn0001559315/biography
  • http://www.allmusic.com/album/penrod-mw0000745016
  • http://badcatrecords.com/BadCat/DAWEtim.htm
  • http://www.amazon.com/Penrod-Tim-Dawe/dp/B00076Q006
  • https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/penrod/id432722101
  • http://www.ticketmaster.com/Tim-Dawe-tickets/artist/744342

I posted this to a list I’m on, where a long thread on Net Neutrality was running out of steam:doc036c

Since we seem to have reached a pause in this discussion, I would like to suggest that there are emergent properties of the Internet that are not reducible to its mechanisms, and it is respect for those emergent properties that drives NN advocates to seek policy protections for the flourishing of those properties. So let’s set NN aside for a bit, and talk about those.

For example, whether or not “end to end” is a correct description of the Internet’s architecture, that’s pretty close to how it looks and feels to most of its users, most of the time. By that I mean the Net reduces our functional distance from each other (as ends) to zero, or close enough to experience the distance as zero. There little if any sense of “long distance” — that old telco term. Nor is there a sense that it should cost more to connect with one person or entity than another, anywhere in the world (except where some mobile phone data plans leverage legacy telco billing imperatives).

And while the routers, CDNs and other smart things between the Net’s ends deserve respect for their intelligence, they still tend to serve everything that runs across the Net without much prejudice, and thus appear to be “stupid” in the sense David Isenberg visited in The Rise of the Stupid Network, which he wrote for his unappreciative overlords at (Ye Olde) AT&T back in ’97. In other words, users don’t sense that network itself wants to get in the way of its uses, or to bill for any one kind of use while not billing for another. (Yes, sites and services on the Net can bill for whatever they want. But they are not the Net, any more than a store on Main Street is the gravity that holds it there.)

While providers of access to the Net charge for the privilege, the Net itself — that thing made possible by its base protocols — has no business model. This is one reason it produces economic externalities in abundance beyond calculation. More than a rising tide that lifts all boats, it is a world of infinitely varied possibilities, all made possible by a base nature that no phone or cable company ever would have invented for the world, had the job been left up to them alone.

I remember, back in the 80s and early 90s, knowing that the Net was a genie still bottled inside universities, large companies and government entities — and that it would grant a zillion wishes once it got out. Which it did, starting in ’95. Ever since then I have devoted my life, one way or another, to understanding What’s Going On with the Net. I never will understand its inner workings as fully as … many others on this list. But I believe I do understand enough about the transcendent virtues of the Net to stand on their side and say we need to preserve and enhance them.

It is clear to me that there is a whole to the Net that is not reducible to any of its parts, any more than a human being is reducible to the body’s organic systems. And I believe it is easy to miss or dismiss that whole when insisting that the Net is only a “network of networks” or some other sum of parts.

When our attention is only on those parts, and making them work better for some specialized purpose, we risk compromising the general purpose nature of the Net… By serving the needs of one purpose we risk crippling countless other purposes.

I’d say more, but I have meetings to attend. This might be enough for now anyway.

The post only got one reply so far, from one of the Net’s founding figures. He approved. [Later... it's turned into a thread now.]

The problem for Net Neutrality is that the founding protocols of the Net are neutral by nature, and yet the Net is something we mostly “access” through phone and cable companies, which by nature are not. This tends not to be a problem where there is competition. But in the U.S., at least, there mostly isn’t, at least on the wired side. (The wireless side has some interesting rock and roll going on.) This also tends not to be a problem where carriers are just that: carriers, rather than content-delivery systems with a financial interest in favoring the delivery of one kind of content — or one “partner’s” content — over others.

But the Net is about “content” like water is about drinking. Meaning, it’s not. It’s about everything. That’s how it’s neutral.

Link pile

Closing some tabs here….

Tech

Privacy and all that

Thinkings

Journalism

Radio

 

amradioThe BMW i3 may be the first new car to come without AM radio since cars starting coming with radios, way back in the 1930s. Meanwhile, Disney is unloading a big pile of AM stations carrying Radio Disney, a program service for kids focused mostly on “teen idols.”

In Disney’s Devastating Signal About Radio, Eric Rhoads of Radio Ink spoke Big Truth about the heft of the harbinger Disney’s move delivers to the media marketplace. In a follow-up post he defended his case, adding (as he did in the first post) that “radio is not dead.”

In Redefining “Radio” for the Digital Age,” Deborah Newman‘s proposed panel for the next SXSW, she begins with this question: Is radio a technology or a marketing term? Good one. I think “marketing term” is the answer — because the original technology, AM radio itself, is dead tech walking.

Here in the UK, for example, I am listening right now to Radio 4 on 198KHz, in the longwave (LW) band — one still used in Europe, because waves on frequencies down that low (below the AM band, called MW for Medium Wave) travel great distances across the land. I can also get LW stations from Germany (on 153) and France (on 162). All are doomed, because the required tubes (called valves here) are no longer made. When the last ones fail, Radio 4 is going off the air on LW. Most AM stations, which operate at lower powers (50,000 watts vs. 500,000 watts for Radio 4 LW), are solid state and don’t use tubes, so they lack the same risk of obsolescence on the transmitting side. But AM receivers tend to suck these days (manufacturers cheap out in the extreme), and transmitting towers tend to be sited on land that is worth more as real estate than the stations themselves. Environmentalists would also like to see towers sited in swamps and tidelands revert to nature. (The best sites for AM towers are on salt water or tideland, because the ground conductivity is highest there. This is why the Meadowlands of New Jersey are home to most of New York’s AM stations.)

The bottom line, as it always has been (at least for commercial radio) is ratings. Here are the latest from Radio-Info (sourcing Nielsen). In some markets, some AM stations do well. You’ll find an AM news, talk or sports station or two near the top of the list for Chicago, San Francisco, Baltimore, Cincinatti, St. Louis, Sacramento, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Memphis and Hartford. Elsewhere AM stations are way down the list. Most don’t make the listings at all. In Orlando, the bottom six are three AM stations and three “HD” stations (secondary streams carried by radio stations and audible only on radios that can decode them). Of the 29 listed stations for Washington, DC, only 3 AM stations make the cut. The top one of those, WTEM/980, is a sports station with a 1.5 rating. The next two are WSPZ/570 with an 0.4 and WFED with an 0.1.

History… WTEM was once WRC, NBC’s big station for the Capitol City. WSPZ was WGMS, an AM classical station. Its new tranmitter is way out of town for some reason and barely covers the metro at night with just 1000 watts. WFED was WTOP, a 50,000 watt powerhouse news station that dominated the market. The signal is still there, but the listeners aren’t. Back when those listeners started leaving, WTOP itself moved to WGMS’ old FM channel, where it went on to dominate the ratings again.

So the key for radio stations and networks is to re-base their mentalities and their work in the marketplace, where most receivers are now phones and tablets tuning in to digital streams on the Net, rather than to waves over the old broadcast bands. In the new digital world, native players such as Pandora have a huge advantage in not having their boat anchored to a transmitter.

More in this direction:

Bonus link: See how AM stations are doing in ratings for various cities.

 

I’m listening to WGBH on 93.7 from Boston on my kitchen radio, on the low floor of an apartment building in Manhattan, thanks to an atmospheric condition called tropospheric bending, or “tropo” for short. Here’s my section of the current map of tropo at work right now:

 

Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 9.28.58 AMThe same map shows bigger “ducts” running from Florida to Iowa and Missouri to California. The map is by John Harder, aka @ng0e. Other maps by meteorolgist William Harper abound here.

I would have loved the same thing back when I was (like John) a “DXer” who logged about a thousand different FM stations from my house in the woods north of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the late ’70s. “Tropo” showed up in the mornings, and another more dramatic form of long-distance propagation called “sporadic E” would appear in the afternoon and evenings, mostly in the late spring and early summer. Here’s a map source for that one.

One entertaining thing about sporadic E was how it affected channels 2-6 television. I picked up every Channel 3 in a circle that ran from Louisiana, across the prairie states, southeastern Canada, the Maritimes, and then around to Cuba. That whole band is now abandoned in the U.S. TV stations with those channel numbers actually radiate on other ones, while still occupying their old channels virtually. Also, we have the Internet, so watching and listening to faraway stations lacks the old thrill.

Still, it’s fun to hear that faraway stuff showing up every once in awhile.

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