Wednesday, March 12, 2008

State of Radio

My institution celebrated its bachelor's and master's in radio/audio-art program's 10th anniversary with a performance by Gregory Whitehead (Writing on Air, pictured above) and a day of masterclasses, lectures, and showcases.

Produced in conjunction with

Below please find the text of the 'State of Radio' that I was invited to present for the occasion. Those preferring the audio version, tune in to the podcast feed, or download the file here.
Delivered at Rits, Brussels, March 1st,2008.

Ladies and gentlemen
distinguished guests,
dear colleagues,

it is with great pleasure
and equal amounts of anxiety,

that I present to you my 'State of Radio'.

While preparing for this event,
I stumbled upon a quote that aptly describes
what it is
I will attempt to do here over the next 10 minutes or so.

I give it to you up front, so that I can make some smooth excuses afterwards,
in case I don't pull this off.

Talking about radio, so the quote goes,
"is rather like blind men touching an elephant", meaning they will each have a different grasp of the animal depending on the part they're fumbling with. The man feeling the trunk might think he's dealing with a snake, while the one holding the tail might think it's a paintbrush.

So it is with radio. The subject is enormous. There are many angles to the field, and many distinctions to be made, one invariably obscuring others and narrowing the perspective.

This said, allow me to be fully partial about our subject, and I will offer you three comments.

First of all,

I'm a child of the pirate radio age. And I was young enough to effortlessly buy into the promise of adventure that lay in broadcasting rock'n'roll (and, ok, granted, popmusic too) from a vessel bobbing around at sea, "in international waters".
No matter they had silly names like Del Mare, or Radio Mi Amigo... It was magical, as if the stations, and the grains of their voices hung suspended in infinity. As if they were sending signals from a parallel universe...
Of course, in reality they were transmitting just off the coast of Spain or Portugal, and already moored by commercial ties and intrests,
- but hey, I was still in shorts and didn't realize any of this.-

When pirate radio and its youthful energy came to land and metamorphosed into public radio shows such as Funkytown, and still later Studio Brussels, most of my generation saw this as a natural evolution. Along with ourselves, this kind of radio was coming into its own.
It was exciting, different, new, and served as the carrier for a vague notion of self-importance. Like us, radio was liberating itself from its instructive and educational role, to instead just 'BE' young and rebellious
gorgeous of course !

The move from sea to land, and from fringe to core, helped institutionalize a culture of youthfullness, characterized by irreverence, optimism, curiosity, imminence and a shameless talent for being 'wowed' by just about anything.
At the time, I was convinced that merely listening to the radio in fact turned me into the "rebel without a cause" that has always been youthculture's preferred role-model.
Sadly, many of the people occupying the better seats at the controlpanels of media today, are still caught in that mold. And they seem to be claiming ever better seats too...

They refuse to get old, and continue to whip everybody else into their frenzy...
So I refuse to admire their tragic perseverance and pezaz.
It makes for a tiring, botoxed, face-lifted kind of radio,
that is so sad for its happy upbeat self-delusion, that

to a grumpy old man like myself by now,

there is nothing to turn to than the dial,
and 'off'.

A second comment

concerns the future of radio.
Radioland hums with the buzz of 'digital'...
entailing the promise of a free, modular, mobile, enriched, spaceless, timeless, and even user-generated listening experience.
Digital radio means portable radio, both in terms of device and in terms of content. The radio-as-wallpaper is now addressable in segments, can be carried off in segments, and can be listened to whenever whereever, be it on your ipod, your phone, your portable radio device, your portable computer, or - most likely - any hybrid thereof.
Radio is supposedly : Out of the home, and out of the format. For people on the move.

For starters, let's ignore the fact that international findings state no clear and apparent change in listening habits, despite such new technologies.
While the use of text-based news and information websites has surged in recent years,
internet radio and its related shapes has been explored by many, but not consistently adopted. Many seem to drop non-linear/digital radio after the first date as it were. (Arbitron/Edison Media Research, 2003)

But, like I said, let's ignore that fact for a moment, and dream the dream of digital radio.
Why is it that we as a modest people of a land below sea-level, seem to consciously want to underachieve and underperform in that field ?
The first lines in every text about Digital Radio, invariably advertise the improved quality of the signal. No more noise. No more. That's the main thing about digital.

In the perfectly insulated, temperature and sound-proofed, cramped city rooms we will all soon be living in, the lack of noise will offer the ultimate experience for the afficionado of 'pure'.
That is all fine and dandy for sedentary, window-peeping, grumpy old people like me, but what about that hip, globe-hopping class of eternal youngsters that is raiding our cities ?

How come the implementation of a production and distribution structure for the non-linear seems to be dealt with half-heartedly at best ? Is it because we are

au fond,

a compromise loving bunch ?
Resulting in - for instance - a renewed, centralised crossmedial platform called, that actually delivers LESS radio than its predecessor ?

Where is the platform ?
Where is the vision ?
Or rather,
where is the money, Mr. Bourgeois ?

You state that Public radio should innovate, but must find its own funds to do that. At the same time, public radio is strictly prohibited from upsetting the market.

This feels like hot and cold to me.
And the disillusion is this :
your cabinet's cap on funding seems directionless and aimless
for built
neither on pragmatism with regard to old listening habits dying hard
nor on the conviction that innovation should be
demand and thus market driven.

And while we're at it, here's my third and last comment

the Flemish government and the public service signed a policy agreement for the period 2007-2011, that is built largely on the findings of audience/reception research called 'Driehoek'/Triangle.
The findings of Driehoek are impressive. Let me spell them out for you,
I should add : it is probably a good thing for me to call on your extra attention,

for this ain't easy :

Radio should
a) make life more agreeable
b) enrich our experience of life
c) keep life under control !!!!!

Now, it is probably any politician's concern to use the taxpayer's money in such a way that it keeps the taxpayer on a mild sugar high. It seems to never occur to people that the taxpayer's money could also be used for stuff that can't be bought on the market,

like TRUE INNOVATION, rather than mimickry..

The lack of such penetrating insights
in turn is most likely due to the fact that I have never been asked to participate in audience/reception research. Scout's honor : I have more often been checked for my ticket in the Brussels subway, than I have been polled about my media tastes and preferences
- and that is saying something !

Under current conditions, I would offer that often
a better way to make life more agreeable is to turn the radio off,
a better way to keep life under control is to dial the speaking clock,
and a deeper experience of life might be to use the quiet to talk to your partner

The official concern for 'inclusiveness' (also stipulated in the agreement) tends to result in the blandest commonalities
The best thing to do with public funding, is to give people something they wouldn't buy for themselves,
otherwise there's no use in taxing them !

And so, innovation should be
not in market strategies, segmentation, formatting and audience appeal,
but in the investigation of the medium itself,

and before I hand the torch to our guest Gregory Whitehead,
a man who has covered quite some ground with regard to the investigation of the medium of radio itself,

let me conclude with another quote,
from the best book I've read in a long time, called
'The World Without Us', by Allen Weisman

"In 1955, a little more than four years after leaving a TV studio in Hollywood, signals bearing the first sound and images of the I love Lucy show passed Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our sun.
A half-century later, a scene with Lucy disguised as a clown sneaking into Ricky's Tropicana Night Club was 50plus light-years, or about 300 trillion miles, away.
Since the Milky Way is 100.000 light-years across and 1.000 light-years thick, and our solar system is near the middle of the galactic plane, this means that around the year 2450 the expanding sphere of radio waves bearing Lucy, Ricky, and their neighbors the Mertzes will emerge from the top and bottom of our galaxy and enter intergalactic space."

Mister Whitehead, are you there ?

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