Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Radio is not a platform. FM, DAB+, digital satellite, webcasting - these are lines drawn across a battle map that concerns itself with multiplex monopoly, license lockdowns and standards. This is not radio, just as music is not defined by the vinyl, tape or FLAC that carries it. It influences the way in which it is consumed, but content is something else entirely. Content is where the real battles are fought, where the real potential for freedom and innovation exists.

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Many quote McLuhan, many chorus that the medium is the message. Many forget or never knew the context McLuhan himself placed that epithet within. On censorship:

'Although the medium is the message, the controls go beyond programming. The restraints are always directed to the “content,” which is always another medium.'

So what is at stake is not a platform, not arguments about encoding, relay stations and broadcast technology, but instead what we must call 'another medium'.

'Another' here must be read as something distinct or of difference; not more of the same. It also follows that if content is the site of interest, dissidence and interruption, then we can safely disregard playlist radio and the commercial sectors of the spectrum in our thinking for they are little more than mobilised archives. More of the same.

So what defines this medium? McLuhan offers several insights in Understanding Media (published in the year England's first pirate radio was launched – 1964) that amount to the subliminal and the private. Radio as something dating back to unspoken communication between separate social groups and now existing as something uttered into the dark, into society's echo chamber. Inherent and crucial is the need to D-I-Y, to fill in the blanks. Radio reduces the most enormous of communications to something with 'village dimensions' McLuhan claims.

And so what relevance today for (yet) another medium? The next stage of the evolution of the web - be it semantic, Web 3.5.1, or HTML 5 – surely returns us to the global village, the infinitely connected community? Hyperlocality is found in all new start-ups – social networking, revenue-streaming, geo-tracking – information's primary relevance is to the world around you. Community is everything.

Communities exist of trusted peers - they don't have to be geographically located, but often they are. At the recent ON Festival in Basel, many leading radio stations found that the majority of their listeners, even those tuning in online, came from their immediate FM broadcast area.

Trusted content – and the boundaries of trust change from one person to another – is the next visible sign of web evolution. Faith once more in experts, in opinion formers, in qualified content. Observe the rise of curation in fine art as a more noble, studied and well-paid job than that of the artists (the same goes for promoters whose brands hold more weight than those that perform under their banners).

So, then. Community and trusted content are the hallmarks of what we see changing around us on the web – these too are the foundations of radio content. The role of makers and editors, the interaction between content providers and those that ratify it. Radio's continuing vitality, essentialness and recent resurgence can be attributed to a popular need for reconnection with communities and trusted content. Add to this the need to hack and open source both our gadgets and our processes, and you have a trinity of needs that brings radio to the fore, not as a technology but as a form of content and a collaborative process.

Whether we tune in on battered transistors or chrome DAB+ eggs is another issue, another medium if you will. Whether our audio is bundled with photostreams, metadata or even video, radio as a site for exchange is unrivaled. Radio has survived and outlived the 'psychic action of technology' (more McLuhan, this time on ignoring the effects of technology on society), seeing off the threat of television and more, and comes into line now, ready to reap the benefits of digital natives eager to hear 'the resonating echoes of tribal horns and antique drums.'

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