Juxtaposition: Searls and Spears

I went to Barnes and Noble last night and saw the recent Britney Spears cover for Rolling Stone magazine and did a couple of double takes. What the hell is this picture trying to tell me? Does it say anything more than *#$%$ Britney? Every guy looking at that picture thought about sex. I certainly did.

Earlier in the day I read a story by Doc Searls about the decline of radio. In 1994-1995, the year after I came back to Minneapolis after college, there was a great, eclectic radio station that I listened to religiously. Rev 105 only lasted a year or two, it probably died just after the 1996 Telecommunications Act which led to the Clear Channel consolidation of radio. So it goes. Doc doesn’t have to convince me that radio today is blander, and more boring than it has been in some length of time. He does make some good points about the technical changes that have gone hand in hand with the decline in radio.

The truth is, licensed over-the-air broadcasting, which Michael Powell and the FCC made such a big deal about “saving” with their ruling to relax ownership rules in June, is slowly dying in the “marketplace” where users continue to have approximately zero influence on receiver design decisions. The radio manufacturers gave up on AM a long time ago. There’s almost no way to get a good AM radio anymore, even if you want one. Choice, which a market requires to express its preferences, just isn’t there. AM radios in cars have approximately no treble at all. (Try turning the treble up all the way. It does almost nothing to AM and makes the FM sound chirpy.) The AM tuners in home radios and receivers are even worse.

On a technical side, I still have the radio receiver my dad brough in the mid-1970s. It’s got a beautiful weighted dial which I remember spinning back and forth as a child. On the front panel there are two analog gauges measuring the strength of the signal and tuning accuracy. By contrast the newest digital tuner I have skips tens or hundreds of kilohertz whenever I change from one station to another. No wonder AM radio has died. There is one local bright spot on AM in my part of the world. RadioK at the University of Minnesota is becoming a greater and greater part of my listening repertoire, especially when public radio decides to hold one of its annoying pledge drives.

More importantly the Spears cover tells me one thing - sex is what is selling all of her records. I have no quarrel with using sex for marketing but the attention grab is so completely over the top it reaches a level hard to stomach or accept. I recently read an article about electronic jukeboxes that expressed great surprise over the depth of audiences musical tastes. Record executives expected people to listen to 20 or 30 percent of what was available on a streaming jukebox in a bar, instead people listened to 80 to 90 percent of the tracks available.

Listeners have shown remarkably broad tastes, too, paying to play a range of songs from virtually every album in the vault instead of sticking to the hits.

There’s a lesson there for the music industry as it starts using the Internet to distribute tunes, said Ecast Chief Executive Robbie Vann-Adibe. If what the music industry is producing “is any good whatsoever,” he said, “there’s probably an audience for it, if you can give them a way to access it and pay for it.”

I know it is certainly true in my own personal experience with Rhapsody that I have a lot more music in my library than I would ever purchase in a record store. The benefit of a flat fee subcription fee is that I can try as much music as I want without an addtional cost. The result is that I’ve gone crazy with 100s of artists I was always mildly interested in but never excited enough to buy a tape or CD - Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and more.

Searls continues his analysis in another entry and an SuitWatch email from Linux Journal. In that letter he points to a couple of open source, Linux based sound editing projects. I took a quick look at the website for ecasound and it looks a bit intimidating to someone who has never done any real audio editing or mixing. Like many Linux tools it looks like the work and system of one person working to scratch their itch. More power to them.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.