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 the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Tammy

    Interesting article, Wade. Oddly enough, we were recently having a similar conversation since we’re just about to give up the DirecTv.

    Although, by making that decision, we’re losing all NBC programming, our preferred news station, and PBS unless the weather is perfect. HD broadcasts are less than perfect.

    We still read books – mostly purchased second-hand – Sad to see the used book market disappearing. (I buy many books for my students at garage sales over the summer.)

    And we listen to the same radio programs – on the radio! In the garage in the backyard, while I’m cleaning the bathroom – generally places I don’t want to take my laptop or Ipod.

    I think that location effects the cost, the availability and quality of many technology driven changes. And what you see as “normal” is still “on the leading edge” in most of the country.

    As part of the I teach a severe weather unit, each year my students have to compare and contrast different sources of weather data. Radio is cheap, generally available to everyone, operates even when the power goes out and the broadcasts are generally locally broadcast and easily updated during emergencies. So, buy a radio, good batteries, find at least one radio station when you get home and let’s hope you never need to use it!

  • Fred

    Great article. I too do not get my news from a newspaper subscription, but use the internet to look up topics such as technology taking jobs away. I find it interesting that while jobs are diminishing towards more tech driven devices, that those people working at the bookstores, department stores, or even movie theaters for that matter, are still able to afford such high tech devices. I just got cable about three years ago. While it is great to have, we really don’t need it. The antenna “rabbit ears” that we have attached to our digital TV provide us with FREE HD for all the networks. Not really sure why folks are paying the extra money to get HD for the local networks. But just think how much money could be saved by not have phone data plans, or cable, internet TV. Even the APPs that people are getting through the device that they can’t afford in the first place; we could be using that money to pay off our debts. Let’s wake up and start to take responsibility for our actions. We are all too involved in our own satisfaction and enjoyment that we neglect the community in which we live. I for one am glad that call center employees are coming back. And what if you don’t have access to the internet (power out), I for one would rather know that I can reach someone the old tried and true two way radio. While technology is great to have, there are still things it can’t replace. People interaction. Great conversation over some food and wine at a great restaurant. Maybe the internet and new technology is its on bubble waiting to burst. Now if I could only figure out the Facebook phenomena.