Follow-up on music: local radio & digital music

Today at PopMatters, Ben Rubenstein has a “Mixtape Confessions” column up about the loss of two local radio stations in Boston. In particular, there are two passages I took note of and that prompted me to further thought on themes from yesterday’s music post.

First, Rubenstein notes the role that one of the stations played in introducing him to certain “classic” artists and songs:

When I was growing up, the Rubenstein car radio was controlled largely by my parents, which meant a steady diet of Oldies 103 during any car trips. The station introduced me to The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”, Ernie K. Doe’s “Mother in Law”, the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” and all the rest. Sure, I still gravitated toward Kiss 108 when left to my own devices, but those songs are as much a part of my childhood as anything Rick Dees introduced me to.

But he goes on to ask what role local radio might play in a context where people who want to hear music have tools like Pandora or Spotify at their disposal:

It all leads to a larger question, one that station managers have likely been trying to answer for a few years: What does a traditional radio station really offer now that we can create our own, customized stations with a few clicks? What drives that relationship beyond convenience?

In the first excerpt, I think that Rubenstein notes a couple of key elements to local radio that are harder to reproduce in a digital context, or in a world where radio is largely de-localized and no longer programmed by people who are members of the community for which they play music.

While different local radio stations certainly carved out niches for themselves, even where you found a favorite, you were likely to hear artists and songs that would not be your choice. You were always dealing with someone else’s tastes, but ideally someone with refined tastes whose selections could direct you to artists that you may not have found on your own. I think that ‘discovery’ works very differently in a context where you are giving yourself over to someone else versus picking and choosing on your own.

The other point I want to note from the first passage is the shared aspect of radio. The means of listening to music used to be more scarce, and as with Rubenstein’s family, in mine, other people tended to control the radio (and the stereo), or, at least, what station to tune to (or what album to play) became a subject of negotiation between family and friends; which is another way in which analog technology fostered a context where discovery often came from the need to deal with others, and their preferences, rather than being driven by self-selection.

It is easy to romanticize one’s own formative experiences, and I don’t want to do that here. Local radio was no less of a commercial enterprise than the stations now owned by Clear Channel, and that means ads and certain songs being put into heavy, heavy rotation. Furthermore, as Rubenstein implies, while relying on others for music selection can be enlightening and educative, by definition, those choices will never be exactly what you would choose on your own. I spent many an afternoon listlessly switching between stations until I found something I wanted to hear. The main reason I made mixtapes for myself is to have, essentially, personal radio.

Which is what Rubenstein is pointing to in the second excerpt: the appeal of digital services like MOG and Pandora is user control, of listening to what you want to listen to, or, at the least, to set parameters for listening and, in many cases, to pick and choose individual songs as you listen. For a fee, you can usually lose the ads, too.

On balance, as an adult, is is hard to to argue with that model. As I admitted in yesterday’s piece, I don’t have the same kind of time to devote to music that I once did. Why sit through ads and repeated plays of songs to which I am indifferent or that I may actually hate just to get to something that appeals?

And yet it is primarily the search for new music that I missed, or that decayed, after college.

Digital music services do offer tools and opportunities for discovery, but these are largely based on inputs that the user provides. As noted above, in one sense this is a feature, but in other senses it is a problem. This kind of ‘narrowcasting’ ensures a steady diet of listening that is likely to be appealing, but it is less likely to provide an interesting juxtaposition or to cross genres. If I had this kind of technology when I was a teen, I’m not sure how I would have ended up listening to Lone Justice, or becoming a devotee of the Indigo Girls in college. The one exception to my lack of musical engagement after college is that Anne-Marie and I started going to Grateful Dead concerts, something my teenage self would have found unthinkable. In practice, I’m sure that there probably are a host of ways in which I could have ended up listening to any number of things if I’d had Spotify and last.fm instead of local radio and MTV, but user-driven radio/listening seems to work against wider ranging discovery.

Related to that point is another sense in which digital narrowcasting poses a problem, which is that branching out and finding new music depends on the user making an effort to try something or new or to take up recommendations. And as useful and rewarding as that activity might be, it takes time and energy of a kind that listening to your local DJ doesn’t, and, again, is, I think, less likely to provide a surprise.

As a teen and young adult local radio often provided a soundtrack for hanging out. Waiting for the next song became part of our social activity, as did debating the merits of the selections. Music sharing seems much different for A and her friends. Most of her friends are very intolerant of anything new or unfamiliar (and for all I know, A is that way when she is at their houses). Clearly, ‘kids these days’ have some means of finding new songs to like, via YouTube mostly as far as I can tell, but they also seem used to just shutting off what doesn’t immediately catch their ears.

It could also be that I am underestimating the role that face-to-face relationships play in developing one’s musical tastes. Rubenstein mentions his parents and the car radio. We clearly have an influence over what A listens to, even if she isn’t always able to share what she likes with her friends (and they, in turn, must be getting musical influences from their parents). That kind of thing becomes increasingly rare among adults though, except where you have get togethers of people who play music. At least, this has been my experience.

Right now I am motivated and have time to devote to building my universe in MOG, and I am encouraged that the “Editor’s picks” seem to range across time periods and genres, which gives me an immediately accessible adjunct to more targeted recommendations on the service*. And yet when I have to get back to prepping and teaching classes I suspect that I might miss having a couple of go to radio stations, places staffed by people who love and know music and who program for a specific local audience. Or maybe the digital music bubble I am finally making will be all I need.

Read Ben Rubenstien’s full column at PM: http://pocket.co/sMXKs

*Yes, I read reviews, but following up and hearing what is being recommended has been a barrier in the past. Read my prior entry for context (linked in the intro).

Follow-up to “Growing up free in PDX”

After posting my reflection on growing up in Portland and the freedom public transit gave me, I saw this report from The Oregonian about Mayor Sam Adams pushing back on TriMet’s plan to end the free youth pass. In short, Adams is proposing to raise the fees charged to TriMet for use of city property for shelters and benches. The money raised would then be used to cover the costs of maintaining the pass program.

Youth passes weren’t free when I was a kid, but I seem to recall a special rate, if not for youth specifically, then for the monthly pass. I did not mention the monthly pass specifically in the prior post, but I did use one in high school, at least when classes were in session. Regardless of cost, a pass makes using transit even easier than having to find and count out fare for each trip, and while it made Fareless Square less useful to me personally, my friends who did not have passes could ride around the downtown area with me as freely as I could with my pass.

At BlueOregon, Kari Chisholm comments:

For years, I’ve believed that TriMet should just allow any young person under age 18 free access to buses and light rail. After all, what better way is there to produce the next generation of transit riders? Riding the bus can be confusing for newbie riders – so adolescence is exactly the right time to get folks accustomed to it.

That certainly resonates with my experience, even without having enjoyed something like the current youth pass program. In fact, when we visit Portland, or for just about any city, our practice is to park the car (if we have one) and, as much as possible, use foot and transit to get around while we’re there. There’s no better way to get to know or get around a city. I find it much less stressful to take the time to orient myself to a transit system than to drive around, especially, in an unfamiliar city, and even where I do know a place well, I am happy to avoid negotiating parking. Where transit is a viable option, I find that it affords more freedom of action and movement than being shackled to a car (thus the theme of my original post on this topic).

I hope that Adams is successful in his bid to forestall or offset the effect of this particular service cut by TriMet.

Updates: comics doc, Whedonesque, Vimeo

Some updates about my online work elsewhere:

  • I started an album of production stills from my comics documentary. You can link to that album from here.
  • In addition, Charles Heying, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at PSU and a featured subject in the film, has kindly noted the completion of the documentary on the Artisan Economy Initiative blog that he co-authors with a group doing research on Portland’s “artisan economy”.
  • I recently took an opportunity to join the community at Whedonesque, a collectively authored blog dedicated to gathering discussion and references to work by and about Joss Whedon and his collaborators. It’s an unique space where academics, critics, and fans mingle and intersect. Content ranges from pointers to films and TV episodes featuring actors from Whedon shows to links to articles about the Jossverse. I blog there as “sph“.
  • A few months ago I started building a video page at Vimeo, where I plan to have my new video home. I had been using bliptv for that purpose, but in the past year or so that service made a strong turn towards looking and feeling like a TV network and that does not seem like the right context for my work, where content is provided on an irregular basis and without much commercial aspiration. My Vimeo page now has a variety of content on it, including previews for the comics documentary and films from the International Documentary Challenge and 48 Hour Film Project.

Winter break is coming. Will I ever blog again?

I have this blog set as my homepage in Camino and looking at it has become sad and a little stressful, thought not to the same degree as looking at my prior blogs was to me when I would hit an unproductive moment. But the fact is I haven’t posted anything of substance since August, and, since September, I have even neglected to post links to my work elsewhere.

For what it’s worth my LibraryThing catalog is in even sorrier shape. I have months of comics to catalog, so many, in fact, that I am thinking of writing the rest of this year off, except for trades, and starting new in 2012. Fortunately, I had already decided to skip the usual “year end” ritual in my column for PopMatters, making the lack of a good record of what I read less important than it already is.

There’s no mystery to why I have not been writing here: over the summer we sold our house in Monmouth and moved to Corvallis, which was, and in some ways still is, a time-consuming and exhausting process. Many things got put aside and before I knew it, it was time to report back to campus.

I’m not going to call it a “new year’s resolution” because I want to jump start my writing here before the end of December, but with the Winter Break coming, I am hoping to get back in the habit of blogging. It might be foolish to think that around Christmas is when I will find time to write here again, but I think that getting through Fall is what I need to do more than anything to get restarted.

In the meantime, I have a few upcoming pieces in PopMatters and one place to start will be posting those pointers again. Also, feel free to checkout my Pinterest page which I created during my hiatus, and the projects I have backed at Kickstarter.

The trials of Spring quarter

I have not been attending to this blog as much as I would like lately, but I am confident I know why: the start of Spring term.

The Oregon University System is on quarters, and Spring, for me and, I gather, many of my colleagues, is the toughest.

There are a number of reasons for this, but I think that the most important is the fast turnaround from Winter. Yes, we have a break, but unlike between Spring and Fall where you have, essentially, three months off in between classes, or between Fall and Winter, where you have, typically, three to four weeks, the transition between Winter and Spring is only a week. Even if you can snag time at the end of Winter to begin prepping for Spring, it is still a challenge to find time both for a breather and getting ready for a new round of classes. I suspect that many faculty at my institution choose to either be ready for the start of the term or to take time off and turn the beginning of the term into a scramble to get set up.

In any case, Spring always ends up feeling like a grind. I know that right now, for example, I am reading two books as I teach that I would have finished and annotated in advance for either of the other two quarters.

At the same time, while I likely would support a move to semesters in OUS, there are aspects of the quarters system that I like. Having three terms with an option for a fourth to deliver courses every year makes it easy for a small department such as ours to carry a respectable major. If we had to reduce the number of courses we could offer each year, we would have to make some tough decisions about what to leave aside, and that’s in a context where I think we already have notable gaps. Our cartography offerings, for example, are the barest of bones.

And while it means more preps each year, I do like the variety of courses I get to teach. As an undergrad at Lewis & Clark College, that was also something I enjoyed about being on quarters (LC is now on semesters).

The quarters system at LC had a few quirks to it that I am sure helped to make it easier to manage than the one we have in OUS right now. Fall term started early in September, which set the beginning of Winter break at Thanksgiving, a luxury that still affects me when having to head back to classes the Monday after that holiday. The standard class was five credits, which meant that students rarely took more than three at a time, and, in retrospect, I am sure helped to keep teaching loads reasonable.

What I don’t remember is if there was one or two weeks at Spring break. But I often think that having a two-week Spring break would solve most of the problems I have with that term right now.

In the bigger picture, though, there are other compelling reasons for moving OUS to semesters. Most of the academic world in the U.S. is ordered around the semester, from standardized texts to conference schedules. One of the added stresses this particular Spring is my having chosen to go to the Association of American Geographers meeting in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. While people from semester schools also had to leave classes behind, they did not do so in the third week of a ten week term. I had to schedule my trip to be back for a film class I teach one day a week. When missing a class means missing a whole week, and I only have ten to begin with, I find it impossible to bring myself to cancel, regardless of just about any circumstance (this problem was compounded by a delayed train in Seattle which put me back on campus just thirty minutes before my class, when I had planned on having two to three hours; slim margins, which is my whole point).

These kinds of problems are why I try to avoid travel while classes are in session. There’s no question that a semester offers more “flex” for professional activity outside of teaching than does a quarter. Not to mention for semi-professional activities like maintaining a blog such as this one.

I still hope to get to some of the topics I’ve wanted to write about the last few weeks, including a reflection on the AAG, but I’m not sure what I’ll be able to get to before the time to discuss has passed.

New “Worlds in Panels”: continuing the best of 2010

On Friday at PopMatters, my January “Worlds in Panels” posted. I continue my look at the best comics of 2010 from the vantage point of the column, focusing on ongoing series and one-shots that exemplify transmedia storytelling and that highlight issues related to format and publishing.

More particularly, the series, and single issues, I point to here are those that I found to be the best for starting a conversation about these questions: What are comics for? What do readers want and expect from the comics they read? How do publishers and creators address those wants and expectations? How are those wants and expectations met in different ways by comics in relation to other media?

Read the full column

I have a more conventional look at what I think are the best comics from last year on this blog.

Recommended daily reading – 20 December (emptying out the archive edition)

Been neglecting this part of the blog lately:

First, the most topical item. Via the freepress Save The Internet blog, bad news about the FCC and Net Neutrality. If you care about access to the internet, do what you can to forestall this action.

In other political news, but late-ish now, on Written World, Ragnell has a well-argued reponse to former DC President Paul Leyritz’s comment to the effect that superhero stories ‘fundamentally’ appeal to boys more than girls. Ragnell smartly hones in on the essentialism of this statement as the underlying problem with Leyritz’s perspective on the genre.

IFC has been promoting their new original series, Portlandia, premiering in January. The show will satirize life in my hometown, Portland, Oregon, particularly as the city boomed with ‘creatives’ starting in the 1990s. Looking forward to checking it out, and curious as to how people who don’t really know Portland will respond to the series.

From the world of webcomics:

(Sidenote: the links I collected for this post are the first from Pinboard. I made the switch from delicious over the weekend. Here’s why – assuming you don’t already know.)