Evil Genius Chronicles Podcast for September 5 2015 – The Cost of Dignity

In this episode, I play a song from Sligo Rags; I tell a story about Cajuns and Irish Music; I wrap up the Dog Days of Podcasting; I tell a story of an altercation and my loss of dignity; I discuss a Kristine Kathryn Rusch article about the crappy parts of the writer job; I talk about Song of Ice and Fire vs. the Jack Daniels mystery series vs. Murder at Avedon Hill.

Here is the direct MP3 download for the Evil Genius Chronicles podcast, September 5 2015

Links mentioned in this episode:

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Evil Genius Chronicles Podcast for Aug 9 2015 – DDOP 6

In this episode, I answer a question about my initial motivations for podcasting and if my feelings have changed in the last decade.

Here is the direct MP3 download for the Evil Genius Chronicles podcast, August 9, 2015

Links mentioned in this episode:

You can subscribe to this podcast feed via RSS. To sponsor the show, contact BackBeat Media. Don’t forget, you can fly your EGC flag by buying the stuff package. This show as a whole is Creative Commons licensed Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported. Bandwidth for this episode is provided by Cachefly.

Evil Genius Chronicles Podcast for August 27, 2013 – “My Life In Fandom #24”

Here is the direct MP3 download for the Evil Genius Chronicles podcast on August 27, 2013.

I talk about Reality Break, the radio interview show I did first for WREK and later on the public radio satellite system thanks to KRVS FM in Lafayette LA. I tell the whole story, starting from 1992 through my various changes of locale and ways of preparing the show, all the way through to the end in 1998.

You can subscribe to this podcast feed via RSS. To sponsor the show, contact BackBeat Media. Don’t forget, you can fly your EGC flag by buying the stuff package. This show as a whole is Creative Commons licensed Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported. Bandwidth for this episode is provided by Cachefly.

Links mentioned in this episode:

Public Radio Fails Me

This blog post has been percolating for a very long time and now I finally am getting to it. As it turns out, it is more timely than I would have expected considering last night’s forum at MPR in Minneapolis (or at least it was last night two weeks ago when I first started writing this post. It has taken days to get this down.) In the interim, Jeff Jarvis has posted on the ouster of NPR’s CEO.

First, let me provide a little background on myself and public broadcasting. Growing up in Kansas I got a great value from public broadcasting. If it wasn’t for it in the days before cable, I never would have seen Monty Python, the Prisoner, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, I Claudius, All Creatures Great and Small, Fawlty Towers, The Good Neighbors and any number of other programs that I loved and love greatly. Public radio didn’t affect me as much until I moved to Georgia and got access to the programming that we couldn’t receive in rural western Kansas. It didn’t take long to get addicted to Car Talk and Prairie Home Companion. Not long after I graduated college I began contributing to public radio and I have been basically my entire adult life. I’ve been a member of Peach State Public Radio, Oregon Public Brodcasting, South Carolina’s ETV. In Louisiana we actually were a member of two stations: our local station KRVS in Lafayette and also WRKF in Baton Rouge because we listened to the local Cajun programming as well as Prairie Home Companion on WRKF. KRVS was also the flagship station of my syndicated radio show, so they have a place of honor in this list. My independently produced program was on the satellite for two years and when I met public radio people at conferences they were almost universally warm and wonderful people. They treated this kid in his twenties doing a science fiction talk show from Louisiana as a one man operation as their peer, which was a great kindness and much appreciated by me.

All that preface is to point out that I’ve had almost 20 years of support for public radio. I’ve been a listener and someone who ponies up cash for that time. When I say that public radio no longer meets my needs, it is not a casual comment by a disinterested party, it is a cry of despair for someone who has been on the team for his whole adult life and feels the team has let him down. Note too that I’m talking about the NPR(tm) brand, not that of the affiliate stations or their programming. In many cases, I think the locally produced programming is of higher value than the nationally syndicated shows. [Update: For those who want to pick nits, I’m not being careful about distinguishing NPR from PRI from APM. They all have the same problems and same failings. The guy who felt he was really zinging me by pointing out that Prairie Home Companion was APM not NPR truly missed the point by a mile and a half.]

Jarvis was posting in terms of business and political maneuvering, but I’m speaking as a listener and constituent. I think modern day NPR is just dismal. It sucks and no longer matters to me. I’m not talking about one or two programs that aren’t as useful to me as they used to be, I’m talking about the whole slate top to bottom. I’m not 100% sure if NPR has changed anything or if after three and a half years of listening to podcasts all day every day I have developed a taste for the natural voice and a disdain for the artificiality of the NPR voice.

In the early days of podcasting, I was compared favorably to Ira Glass and This American Life a number of times and I always considered it a compliment. Back in 1997 when I first heard the program I was still doing my radio show and I was absolutely blown away by TAL. My first inclination after I picked up my jaw was to figure out what they were doing that was so powerful and try to figure out how to steal that for my program. It felt like powerful human stories with a natural voice and I just loved it. It was fresh and interesting and completely unlike anything on NPR. In fact, it wasn’t on NPR because NPR passed on it, which is why it is syndicated by PRI.

Fast forward a decade. I have a TAL confessions to make. I have only been able to finish two episodes since 2004. [Update: I tried to listen today at 3 PM while in the car, shut it off in disinterest.] I don’t listen regularly and those occasions when I do run across it, I always turn it off in disgust because I find it unlistenable. Even the contributors like Sarah Vowell that I really like seem to be turning in lackluster stuff, painting by the TAL numbers. I can’t stand to listen to Ira Glass’s voice. When I see him on Letterman I just want to slap those hipster glasses and that smug shit-eating grin off of his face. I can’t imagine ever watching the television program on Showtime without shooting my television Elvis style. There was a time when This American Life was the best thing on the radio, now it is not the worst but it is the most disappointing. Add to that the bogusness of how they dealt with the early days of podcasting when they first put up MP3s and Jon Udell rigged up a homebrew RSS feed. They not only made him take it down, but made him take down his mentions of the takedown. That is pure distilled bullshit and whatever lingering goodwill they might have had with me dissipated that day. Even worse than TAL are the knockoffs like The Next Big Thing. Oy vey.

I used to love Prairie Home Companion and now when I listen, it sounds like a sad shell of its former self. I didn’t even care about seeing the film but I did because I love Altman’s work. The elegiac feel of that movie was spot on. The show itself has died some time ago, but like a zombie the animated corpse continues to lurch forward. Like many of these long running NPR programs the formula itself is so well worn that people can do it in their sleep. Thus, they do. I used to enjoy Whadya Know and now it is must skip listening. The list, sadly, goes on and on.

I can’t listen to any of the NPR news programs. They used to, in the early days, provided long form, in-depth coverage of issues because they didn’t have many reporters and couldn’t get out to every press conferences. They adapted to that weakness by focusing their energy on fewer stories but covering them well. I long for those days. Now, when they have reporters all over the place they have become sound bite bogus journalism just like that of every other form of broadcast news, audio or visual. When they do longer form bits, they are almost always at the intersection of the uninteresting and the irrelevant. I remember the day when I was listening to All Things Considered and they did a long exploration of the front porch in America. This is no joke, that is what they aired on the program. It was the opposite of a driveway moment, it was an instant finger to the off button.

I tried to listen to Christopher Lydon’s Open Source program. I know his heart was in the right place and his reverence for new media borders on the scary, but I thought the program was far less than the sum of its parts. Even though they worked like crazy to bring in bloggers, to integrate the new media aspects, to take user questions and calls and program suggestions, I never thought it worked. There was too much NPR style DNA in this chimera, which made it stillborn to me. I found Lydon hard to listen to. The make or break show to me was when he had Sonny Rollins on, a guy I love. When he couldn’t make a show that spoke to me out of interviewing Rollins, there was no reason to stick around.

The NPR voice is smug and stilted and has that elitist, know-it-all air. I can’t stand listening anymore. Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day to Day, Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation: it doesn’t matter. None of them speak to me in any relevant way, seldom on any subject of interest and never in a voice that isn’t arch and superior. That’s the part that really loses me. I get the sense of superiority from this programming, that they are on a mission to tell me what they think I need to know, at the same time as their relevance to me decreases drastically.

That gets us to the relationship of NPR and their supporters/audience/donors. It has always been a weird relationship because they talk such populist talk about how “we’re all in it together” and “we can’t do it without you.” At the same time, I feel like they have continually pulled away from listening to or even caring about the input from the listeners or the listeners themselves. They need our money but after they get it, they need us to shut up and listen. Even when they say the opposite, their actions betray themselves. Read the live blog from that MPR forum for an example of this dynamic in action. I don’t doubt that the MPR people feel they were doing the right thing but were so disconnected from what it is to interact with their constituents that they can’t even do it without slumming and condescending.

Jeff Jarvis’ post about the internal issues of the NPR leaders touches on something I’ve been discussing since the beginning of the podcast era. When NPR itself podcasts programs, it is a huge channel conflict. They are competing against the local affiliates who, by the way, are the real customer. They are the ones who pay the checks when they pop for $100K/year or whatever it is to broadcast Prairie Home Companion. I always thought the better way to deal with new media was for NPR to have zero podcast feeds themselves. Instead, they should have granted a podcast license to any affiliate who paid the broadcast fees, ie that they could podcast anything they had the right to broadcast. Instead of having a single podcast of Fresh Air, there could be hundreds of them, each branded with a “support our station” message. You could get your podcasts from your local station, or from some distant station with a better feed, or whatever and you could pop a few bucks to whomever. NPR, of course, would never consider that because it is an organization that needs to control. Now they have this centralized service that has even sucked in local programming that gets affiliated. Ultimately, I think that what is likely to happen is that the affiliates lose their patience with the NPR hegemony, drop syndicated programming and go back to creating more local programming. That’s what makes KRVS such a special station, the many hours per week of locally produced Cajun and Zydeco programming. When I lived there, I was much more interested in that than one more hour of some centrally produced music programming. Really, I wish South Carolina produced more programming. I’d rather hear local and regional interviews at 7 PM than Fresh Air.

I think this is indicative of the mindset that I’ve been talking about all along. They want us to be on their side, but they are not on our side. They are not even on their affiliate’s side. They have long since lost their scrappy and scruffy charm and now have more aspirations toward being Clear Channel than the BBC. They talk populist and act elitist. They consider their programming the crown jewels of radio but it has dropped in quality below the threshold of listenability.

Here is the full list of any NPR or NPR type programming in my podcatcher:

  • Garrison Keillor’s Writers’ Almanac
  • KCRW’s Le Show
  • KCRW’s The Treatment
  • WGBH Morning Stories with my friend Tony Kahn

That’s it. There are a few other radio programs in my list, several Subgenius and WREK programs, but no other NPR/PRI/APM programs. There used to be something like 15 in that list, and I’ve pared it down to those four. If Sound and Spirit had a podcast feed, I’d subscribe to it but they don’t.

If NPR can lose me in the new media world, who else can they lose? What value do they add? How can they reclaim their soul? I’ll never forget the session where I heard Tony Kahn, himself a veteran of decades of public radio, give the advice to young broadcasters not to go into radio but to create their own programming on their own channels that they themselves control. That, my friends, says it all. This game is not over, but it’s down to 2 seconds and only a half court shot will send this to overtime. NPR needs to step up fast or they will be stepped over.

Update: People in the comments think they can be clever by putting this back on me. “You stop liking it and you think public radio has changed?” I kind of thought the whole point of my piece was that public radio hasn’t changed, but the world around it has. In a world where we have true interactivity in many ways, the folksy faux interactivity of NPR doesn’t cut it. “Send us money, we’ll tell you what you need to hear and oh, here’s a tote bag.” Of course I have changed out from under it. That’s why public radio doesn’t meet my needs anymore and why listening to these programs I once loved are now like walking barefoot on broken glass.

Public Radio and Podcasting

Via Michael Geoghegan comes this link to a Wired article about the effect of podcasting on public radio pledge drives. Note that I wrote up a suggestion 6 months ago about how this channel conflict between NPR and the affiliates could be avoided. I stand by that. NPR should not podcast at all but should permit any and all affiliates to do it. If you want to support your local station go for it or if you prefer to get it from the affiliate with the best feed, go for that.

There is also a fairly obvious insight that never gets addressed in the article. They discuss the gap between rich and poor stations, but what they really mean is “net programming exporters” and “net programming importers.” Your WNYCs and WGBHs and KCRWs are producing shows that get carried on other stations. This suggests that even smaller stations should be looking for programming they can be exporting to the world. The one that jumps out to me is my beloved KRVS in Lafayette LA, which is the station in the world with the best access to Cajun and Creole music. They have 20-odd hours of local music programming they air. Although they web stream (and I capture it for listening later), they should podcast and try to use those podcasts as revenue producers. How about encouraging listeners to do a several dollar a month recurring Paypal donation, something that doesn’t expire at the end of the year but requires effort to stop?

I also think these problems may be exacerbated by podcasting, but the as Jan Searls pointed out, they have deeper roots. As she pointed out:

PBS and NPR ask for “members” to support their programming by giving funds, but do they want to actually hear from their members or to be accountable to them? By giving them support, the assumption is made that we approve or have chosen their programming because it is what we want. Aren’t we really giving our support just to keep them alive, because even if their programming is not of our choice, we like it marginally more than the commercial offerings? Therefore, we are not really members, but simply financial supporters.

Public radio stations talk the language of us all being on a team together, but then tend to treat listeners like teats to be milked. As Jan points out, to be serious about “membership” and “community” requires more then sending out branded sweatshirts and coffee mugs and involves truly listening and engaging with the audience. That’s the aspect on which they are getting their butts beat by citizen media. The culture of public broadcasting is one of knowing better than their audience what is good for them. They have it in their power to be responsive to and engaged with their communities, and they need to get to it but fast.

As is the general practice with these articles on podcasting, there is one big factual whopper:

KCRW general manager Ruth Seymour disagrees. Seymour’s Santa Monica, California-based station was the first NPR affiliate to leap into podcasting a year ago with such programs as To the Point and Left, Right & Center. She says she’s seen few new donations from out-of-market listeners but that the expanded audience helps her sell larger underwriter sponsorships.

KCRW started podcasting on March 1, 2005. That puts them 5 months after WGBH, which started podcasting Morning Stories on October 7, 2004. That race isn’t even close. If KCRW is making that claim, they are way off. More likely it is original to our favorite Wired correspondent, Steve Friess. Check out his bibliography of Wired articles on the subject and you see plenty of attempts at being inflammatory without a lot of attempts at factual correctness. In fact, had I noticed he was the author before I started writing this post I probably would have bailed because I always get the sense from his stories that he’s trying to execute the Dvorak maneuver – write something controversial enough that it gets lots of traffic, whether or not it makes any sense. I guess by paying attention I played into his hands.

Audible Domino Falls

I read Doc Searls’ commentary about the news that NPR will not be renewing their contract with Audible. This line of thinking kind of fits in with what Doug Kaye as saying about the future of public radio. As Doc points out, the weird thing about this new world order is the “channel conflict”, where NPR or PRI is on one hand distributing the shows via the stations and also via podcast. Here’s my proposal for avoiding that weirdness (a little disorganized as I’m writing it in a big rush).

NPR and PRI should not podcast their shows. Instead, they should adjust their contract to allow any station that airs the program to podcast the shows if they so desire and to archive any episodes as long as they want, as long as the carriage contract remains paid up. This way, NPR is never competing with the individual stations for the attentions of the listeners. If an individual station wants to be a badass, pony up for lots of storage and bandwidth and maintain serious archives and do serious podcasting, they are contractually allowed to do that. If they want to use their podcast feed as a venue for underwriting and/or getting membership pledges, more power to them. Much like the way many stations precede their streams with announcements about how you can support the station, put those in the podcast. Use this as a resource. Let the stations serve as a decentralized, loosely affiliated set of podcast feeds for the same shows they air.

In this scenario, there is no channel conflict. NPR and PRI don’t have to have big enough iron to serve the whole world, just a directory of stations that podcast the shows. The stations get to keep their relationship with the listeners and use this as another mechanism to serve their constituents. Any underwriting inside the programming (national or local) gets propagated that much further. If they are smart, they would use the podcast feeds of the national shows to help promote feeds of their locally produced programming. Because of the time-shifted nature and the fact that everyone doesn’t need to connect at the same time, the station can server orders of magnitudes more listeners via podcast than streaming with the same resources (because the load can be shifted to off-peak times instead of simultaneously during the program). Everyone wins in a variety of ways, up and down the chain. No one is turning off the transmitters, so this is not a “death of radio” situation but the opposite, an “expansion of radio”.

I already capture the streams from a number of radio stations, including the local Cajun and Zyedeco programming from KRVS FM in Lafayette LA, and if they were to podcast those shows, I’d switch over to the feed in a heartbeat. Currently, if my cable modem is out during the show, I miss it. In a podcast world, if I can’t download it gets retried and I still get to hear the show. There’s another win. Unlike Doug’s scenario where podcasting eliminates the need for the stations, in my scenario podcasting is just another way the stations get the programming to their members. Cool stuff to think about, no?

Gatemouth Brown on NNK

I listened to the Nashville Nobody Knows interview with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. As it happened, I was in my car in downtown Conway when they played this great version of Brown doing Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” with Jo-El Sonnier. I cranked it up and was blasting the cajun-styled music from my car. For some reason, I’ve always enjoyed doing that. When I lived in Lafayette, I loved cruising around in my pickup on Saturday morning listening to “Zydeco Est Pas Sale” on KRVS. It feels kind of cool to be cranking something that isn’t heavy metal or gangster rap. Plus, the fiddles and accordion sound great at volume. I always am hoping for bemused bogglement from the passers-by.