January 25, 2008

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Now hear these

NewsGang Lives.

It’s amazing to me that Microsoft doesn’t make live.com search any easier. Take the maps side of live.com. It beats the crap out of Google Maps in at least one hugely helpful area: “bird’s eye” views — from four different direcitons.

But man, what a frustrating UI. Maybe it’s better for Windows/IE users, but if so, why? (Except for lock-in, which lost the appeal it never had, a long time ago.) It can start vague (on which line do you enter… what?)…

… and get worse from there.

For example, if I plug 42° 15′ 27″N, 71° 01′ 44″W into maps.google.com, I go straight to a real x/y place on a map. Live Maps doesn’t know what to do with it. But If I use Google Maps to help guide me to the same spot on Live Maps, switch to Bird’s eye, and look at what’s there, I see what I’m looking for — WUMB’s transmitting antenna — and find it: a two-bay thing sitting atop a castle turret next to a ball field on Reservoir Road, near Furnace Brook Country Club in Quincy. (I guess the castle is actually a kind of water tower… clever.) I can even see the antenna itself, which appears to be a two-bay affair, encapsulated in radomes to keep ice off the elements. When I look at it from all four directions (N,S,E,W), I can make out lots of details on the tower, count the notches in the cornice, count the seats in the ball field bleachers, and make out features less than a foot across. It’s amazing. Here’s the Google Maps version. Doesn’t begin to compare. I’d show you the Live Maps views, but there’s no way to link to them. Not that I can find, anyway. Is that sucky or what?

The maps come from Microsoft’s Virtual Earth. For what that’s worth, which is a lot. Looking around the VE site, it seems far too deeply linked to Windows-only stuff. That’s retro, folks. Stop it.

Maps, and Geo in General, is one place where Microsoft could open up and leapfrog Google in features and usability. Hey, why not?

[Later...] I’m looking for a way to show the birds-eye view to another person here at the Berkman Center, and I’m failing to find it. So are they. And they’re using a Windows workstation, even. So we’ve got maps.live.com flunking not just the Obviouness Test, but the Easiness Test too.

Change is in the air at WUMB is a story ran ran in the Boston Globe yesterday, about trouble the U Mass Boston radio station is having with the label for most of its programming: folk. And perhaps the programming itself. It begins:

  Money changes everything, at least for WUMB-FM (91.9). Thanks in part to a recent grant that allowed it to evaluate its mission, the public station may well drop wide-ranging music programs “Mountain Stage” and “Afropop Worldwide” by March 1. The station may even end up dumping its identification as “folk radio.”

  But in exchange, say those in charge, listeners will be getting a station that is more responsive to the community’s needs.

  The impetus for these changes is a station-renewal grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. One of five awarded in July to stations across the country, the grant of approximately $500,000 has allowed WUMB, which is based at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, to poll listeners and conduct focus groups about what the station should be as it finishes its first 25 years on air.

Hey, WUMB: poll me. I like the station. I don’t have a problem with “folk radio” — although the label does call to mind an old Martin Mull line: “Remember the Folk Music Scare of the Sixties? That fiddle and banjo crap almost caught on.”

WUMB’s music isn’t even close to “all fiddle and banjo”. It’s an artfully eclectic mix of what might better be called “traditional” or “americana”. But how do you draw a categorical line around the Subdudes, David Lindley, Shawn Colvin, Goeff Muldaur, JJ Cale, Dolly Parton, Sleepy John… except to say you can’t. You’ve gotta listen to tell.

I started listening on line (in Santa Barbara) before I got to town, and on the radio ever since I moved here in September. My car radio has a button on WUMB, and my Webio runs its streams.

Hope they don’t give me a reason to change that.

[Later...] Actually, the station’s main problem is really its signal. The transmitter puts out only 660 watts at a height of just 207 feet above average terrain. It also doesn’t come from the campus on the shores of Dorchester Bay, but rather from the corner of a golf course in Quincy, a few miles southeast of town. Its signal to the northwest (say, Cambridge and beyond) is too weak to stop “scan” on a car radio. At my house I need the hands of a safecracker to tune it in on our kitchen radio dial.

As an old radio engineering type, I know the dial is too packed with existing signals to offer much if any elbow room for moving the transmitter or raising the power or antenna height; but I’d suggest putting some of that new money toward, say, a booster transmitter on one of the downtown buildings currently shadowing the signal. Or toward buying one or more other stations around the edge of the market. I’ll bet that some of the AMs would come for a bargain. And with “HD” radio coming, some of those signals could carry music at sound qualities that are higher than the current legacy technology allows. In any case, it’s worth some study (if that isn’t happening already).

To its credit, WUMB has a bunch of other signals (actually, stations), two others of which are also on 91.9. That helps. But with money perhaps more could be done.

As for “the community”, I have some other thoughts about that, which I’ll link to here after I put them up.

[Later still...] This morning’s Guest Set features bassist John Troy, providing faves from the Pousette-Dart Band, Little Feat, NRBQ, Tower of Power, Chris Smither, Sal Baglio… Wow. Great, great radio.

Back to the Globe article…

  “There is a definite call to replace some of the syndicated programs with live shows,” says Pat Monteith, general manager of the station, which also broadcasts at 91.7 FM in Newburyport and 1170 AM in Orleans. “Some shows,” she learned, “people want more of.”

  Perhaps most startling, she said, was the reaction to the station’s ID. “Several people [said], ‘I hadn’t listened before, because I really don’t like “folk” music, but when I listen to your station I like it,’ ” Monteith explained. “Even our heaviest listeners find the word ‘folk’ very challenging.”

Hence the headline above.

Here’s a terrific post by Rex Hammock, explaining our common cause in a losing battle against the eggregious overuse of the word “content”.