Larry Josephson

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radiofavesThe great — to me the best radio host ever (he was real and honest and funny and groundbreaking and smart long before was the same, and I am a serious Howard fan too) — once explained his radio philosophy to me in two words:

It’s personal.

From the beginning we have regarded broadcasting as a one-to-many matter, even though the best broadcasters know they are only talking to single pairs of ears, and usually act the same way. Yet stations, programmers and producers put great store in numbers, also known as ratings. Stations, even public ones, lived and died by “The Book” — Arbitron’s regional compilations of results.

At this point something like 2.5 million Public Radio Players — radios for the iPhone — have been downloaded. To the degree that the PRP folks keep track of how much each station and program gets listened to, the results are far different than what Arbitron says. See here for the results, and see here for one big reason why.

At this point Public Radio Player (with which I have some involvent) and other ‘tuners’ for the iPhone (such as the excellent WunderRadio) are my primary radios. I use them when I’m walking, driving, or making coffee in the kitchen at home. I listen to KCLU from Thousand Oaks/Santa Barbara here in Boston, I listen to WBUR, WUMB, WERS, WEEI (Celtics basketball) and other Boston stations when I’m in California. My list of “favorites” (such as the list above, on Wunderradio) runs into the dozens, and includes programs as well as stations. Distinctions between live, podcast, on-demand (podcasts served by stations, live) and other modes are blurring.

Three things are clear to me at this point. First is that it’s very early in this next stage of what broadcasting will become. Second is that it’s more personal than ever. Third is that the time will come when we’ll shut down many (if not most or all) terrestrial transmitters.

On this last topic, a number of landmark AM stations that I grew up listening to — CBL/740 from Toronto, and CKVL/850, CBF/690 and CFCF/940 from Montreal — are all gone. The last two of those went off in January. Those were “clear channel” powerhouses, with signals you could get across the continent at night. I could even get CKVL in the daytime in New Jersey. Now: not there. But the decendents of all those stations are available on the Net, which means they’re available on smartphones with applicatons that play streams. While it’s still not easy to serve streams to thousands (much less millions) at a time, it’s also cheaper than running transmitters that suck 100,000 watts and more off the grid and take up large amounts of real estate (including open land for AM and the tops of mountains and buildings for FM). Not to mention that broadcast towers (which run up to 2000 feet in height) are hazards to aviation, bird migration and surrounding areas when they collapse, which is often.

Anyway, I’ve always thought the ratings were good for the mass-appeal stuff, but way off for stations and programs that appealed to many — but not to enough to satisfy the advertising business. Personal listening is much more idiosyncratic, but also much more interested and involved, than group listening, which actually doesn’t happen.

Therefore I expect radio, or its next evolutionary stage, to be more personal than ever — and therefore better than ever.

Bonus link: JP Rangaswami’s Death of the Download. His closing lines:

And what if the customers have given up and moved on, from the download to the stream?

It was never about owning content. It was always about listening to music.

It was never about product. It was always about service.

The customer is the scarcity. We would do well to remember that. And to keep remembering that.

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I love this:

despair_socialmedia

… and I hope the good (or evil, depending on your perspective) folks at Despair.com don’t mind my promoting their best t-shirt yet. (If it helps, I just ordered one.)

You’ll notice that blogging isn’t in the diagram (though Despair does feature it in four other purchasable forms). I bring that up because I think there is a difference between the social media in the Venn diagram and blogging, and that difference is akin to that between weather and geology.  The former have an evanescent quality. I’m still haunted by hearing that users get a maximum number Twitter postings (tweets) before the old ones scroll off. If true, it means Twitter is a whiteboard, made to be erased after awhile. The fact that few know what the deal is, exactly, also makes my point. Not many people expect anybody, including themselves, to revisit old tweets. The four names in the diagram above are also private corporate walled gardens. Blogging itself is not. True, you can blog in a corporate walled garden, but blogging is an independent category. You can move your blog from one platform to another, archives intact. Not easy, but it can be done. More importantly, your blog is yours. That’s why I dig Dave’s Scoble, your blog still loves you post. And why in the comments I said,

FriendFeeds and Facebooks and Microsofts will come and and go. They can be bought and sold, because they’re not human. Robert is human. Companies can’t be charming and lovable. They can, sometimes, for awhile. Ben & Jerrys did. Zappos did. But they got sold. You know, like slaves.

The only publication on Earth that’s all Robert’s is his blog. That’s where his soul is, because he can’t sell it.

It was while pondering the difference between social media and blogging that I posted this tweet today:

Thanks, @dnm54 But I still feel like my posts lately have the impact of snow on water. Too wordy? Not tweety enough? Not sure.

That got some reassuring responses, several playing with the snow-and-water metaphor. That’s one I’ve used often ever since first hearing “Big Ted”, by the Incredble String Band (from their Changing Horses album), played by the great Larry Josephson on his morning show on WBAI, back in the earliest 70s. “Big Ted” was a dead horse, about which the band sang, “He’s gone like snow on the water. Good bye-eeee.”

For a long time I harbored a fantasy about writing a history of radio, titled “Snow on the Water,” because that was its self-erasing quality. It was like unrecorded conversation that way. You get meaning from it, but you don’t remember everything verbatim, for such is the nature of short-term memory. Eight seconds later you might remember what somebody said, but not exactly. Tomorrow you might remember nothing more than having talked to the person.

Now I’m thinking “snow on the water” applies to social media as well. They’re conversational in the literal sense. They’re weather within which tweets fly and fall like flakes, and disappear into the collective unconscious.

On the other hand, blogging is geology. A blog’s posts may be current and timely, and constitute one person’s contribution to conversation around a subject or two, but each post is built to last. It has a “permalink”. Over time posts accumulate like soil deposits. You can dig down through layers of time and find them. What do tweets have? Temp-o-links?

From the beginning I’ve thought of blogging as journalism in the literal sense: Blogs are journals. Yet much of traditional journalism seems to have, on the whole, not much respect for its archives on the Web. Editorial “content” scrolls behind paywalls, doesn’t keep durable URLs, or disappears completely.

Which brings me to this comment by Tom Matrullo, left under this post about advertising. It’s way too deep to leave buried there:

There is no question that advertising requires us to be in the here and now, and not in the there and then, because it seeks to influence our desires and actions. Active repression of time, history, the past is basic to most commerce and commercial speech.

But I’d go further, because this is a large and important topic. Broadcast itself as a medium tends to put the past at a distance, even when it is about the past, because it makes it into spectacle. Something we watch from our NOW, the big now of advertising and current media.

And yet further: no media are more dis-attuned to the past than news media. It is all about the next story. That one last week that was entirely wrong? Ancient history. To be current, in news-speak, is to develop a sort of targeted Alzheimer’s in a certain direction.

Maybe this is one reason why the news media — on the whole, seems to me — have embraced social media of the temporary sort while continuing to put down blogging. Yes, they’ll set up blogs for their writers, but there’s often a second-class quality to those blogs, and the blogs willl get erased after the writer leaves — or even while the writer is still there. Dan Gillmor’s blog at the San Jose Mercury-News disappeared a number of times. Now it’s gone permanently. Dan’s columns are there, if you’re willing to pay $2.95 apiece for them.

It still blows my mind that, on the Web, newspapers give away the news but charge for the olds. Why not charge for the news and give away the olds? That would be in alignment with what they do with the physical paper. People will pay a buck for today’s paper, and nothing for one three days old. In the physical world, old papers are for wrapping fish and house-breaking puppies. If papers gave every old story a true permalink, search engines would find them, could sell advertising on them, and progressively elevate the whole paper’s authority.

I think they don’t do it for two reasons. One is that they’ve always charged for access to “the morgue.” Another is that embalming old papers has always been expensive. For many decades they bound them up like books for storage in libraries. I still have three of these, each for a whole week of New York Times papers from the ’50s and ’60s. The library at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill sent them out for recycling in 1975. The whole huge pile was rescued by buddies of mine who ran the recycling operation. The newspaper and the library at the time were modernizing by putting everything on microfilm. At the “Will Newspapers Survive” forum at MIT a couple years ago, I asked the panel (which included Dan Gillmor) about why papers charge for the olds and give away the news. Ellen Foley of the Wisconsin State Joural replied,

Speaking for the nation’s regional papers, one of our biggest problems is that today’s issues are all on microfilm tomorrow, not online. It would cost more than a million dollars to digitize our archives. It’s hard for me to make this argument to our publisher, who is trying to make money and make ends meet.

It’s not in the transcript, but I recall her adding something about how storing archives on disk drives was also expensive. That didn’t sit well with the audience, which knew better.

Anyway, my point is that, on the whole news organizations don’t care much about the past. They care about the present. I think social media tend to do the same thing. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Nor am I trying to elevate blogging into the Pulitzer sphere. (But hey, why not?)  I’m just trying to get my head around What’s Going On.

Here’s my thinking for now. What I write on blogs isn’t just for the short term. I also have the long term in mind. I’m making geology, not weather. Both have their places. The more durable stuff goes here.

Bonus link.

[Later...] Joe Andrieu has a thoughtful response.

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