Radio Without Radios, Books Without Bookstores: Welcome to the Era of Unbound Media

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at the beginning and the most expendable at the end, emerged in the print era partly as a way to cope with the fact that column-inches were a finite resource. A writer never knew how much of an article might get cut off once it was laid out in type, so he had to make sure the good stuff stayed intact. In digital publications, obviously, space is no longer a finite resource (though readers’ patience and attention still are), so there’s more room to experiment with story construction.

The really interesting question to me is how the messages we create will mutate now that they’re unbound from their original media. Planet Money—the best thing, by far, to come out of the financial crisis of 2008-2009—is an encouraging case study. It isn’t a show so much as a team of multimedia reporters who put out a twice-weekly podcast on Tuesdays and Fridays, as well as a blog and occasional segments for Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and This American Life. Most Planet Money content is never broadcast via radio, and this frees up the team to create stuff that would never fly on the air, like a recent 22-minute podcast devoted entirely to the workings of Bitcoin, the nerdy digital currency.

Being radio-without-radios also lets the Planet Money reporters experiment with story form. One now-classic Planet Money technique for explaining a complex economic concept is to have one correspondent play the teacher while another plays the naive student. It’s a brilliant device, because it makes room for repetition—“let me get this straight, you’re saying that…”—-and it gives the “dumb” reporter license to ask the same questions that a lot of listeners would probably like to ask. You’d never hear this kind of thing on broadcast radio or TV, where everyone is too busy trying to sound smart. I really hope that somebody at NPR is paying attention, because Planet Money could represent the network’s future.

No doubt, media transformations can be painful and disorienting. The slow death of the print newspaper industry, for example, is causing real job dislocation and leaving big vacuums in certain areas of discourse, such as local politics. But there will be one important constant in the age of unbound media, and it’s the same one that newspapers inherited from the bards of yore: storytelling. If you know how to spin a good yarn—be it factual or fictional—you’ll have a place in tomorrow’s media business. And if you appreciate hearing or reading a good yarn, there will be more places than ever to find them.

Just make sure you keep that emergency radio on hand.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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