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

Last weekend I decided to get serious about the fact that I live in an earthquake zone, and started putting together a kit with all the food, water, and equipment I’d need to survive for a few days if local services broke down. One of the items that turns up on all of the standard readiness checklists is a battery-powered radio. So I dutifully added “radio” too my shopping list. But then I realized that in an actual emergency, I wouldn’t know what to do with a radio. I know the name of only one local station, KQED, and I don’t think I could even tell you where it’s located on the dial.

It’s not that I don’t listen to lots of radio programming—I do. I’m a huge fan of public radio shows like Fresh Air, Marketplace, and All Things Considered. I just don’t listen to any of this content on radios (except in my car, where I never change the station anyway). Instead, I get my “radio” via Internet streaming and podcasts. So when the big quake hits, I’ll be reduced to surfing the radio dial at random; I’ll feel like the doofus who has to ask where Google is on the computer.

That got me thinking about all the other examples of media-shifting in my life.

—It’s been almost three years since a video signal has entered my television by way of a coaxial cable or a terrestrial broadcast. I get all my TV shows via Netflix, or iTunes on the Apple TV, or the Roku Player.

—I buy plenty of books, but in the last year only four of them have been on paper. I ordered two, a cookbook and a graphic novel, from Amazon, and picked up the other two at local bookstores. The rest came from the Kindle Store.

—I get one print magazine by mail, MIT’s Technology Review, and that’s only because I’m an alum. All of my other magazines (the Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Wired) come to my Kindle or my iPad.

—I have several hundred CDs laying around, but I almost never play them. More than 99 percent of my music comes from iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify.

—I read plenty of newspaper articles online, but I couldn’t tell you the last time I bought a printed newspaper. 2004 maybe?

I’m not trying to paint myself as some kind of digital pioneer—I don’t think that any of these media behaviors are that unusual anymore. What’s noteworthy is that when I listen to a podcast of Fresh Air, I still think of it as a radio show. When I’m enjoying a Kindle edition of a novel, I still think of it as a book. When I listen to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” on my iPhone, I think of it as an album. And I read something from the New York Times, I still think of it as a newspaper article.

I probably think this way because the digital versions of these shows, books, albums, and articles are still recognizable as examples of their original genres, though they’ve been ripped from their traditional contexts. The forms have persisted, even after the vessels that shaped them have been taken away.

It appears that Marshall McLuhan was wrong: the medium is not the message. Or at least, the medium is not the whole message. If it were, there’d be no room for online-only newspapers like seattlepi.com, or podcast-only radio productions like Planet Money, or live theatrical broadcasts of New York operas.

But the current stability of form—the traditions that, for example, make a group of eight or nine singles recognizable as an “album”—won’t last forever. Without the old constraints, certain traditions just stop making sense. Take the inverted pyramid style in newspaper writing, for example. This venerable rule, which says that the most newsworthy details in a story should be 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.

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

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