With podcasts rising in popularity, it’s no surprise that companies are producing their own. What’s more surprising is that people are actually listening to them.
Yaffe-Bellany estimates that there are about 750,000 podcasts available on the Internet, and I would argue that the large number is because podcasting has remained an open platform. The podcasting medium is not dominated by a single or a small group of companies, or at least not yet.
The phenomenon reminds me of something I remember reading about early radio broadcasting. Before it was centralized by the Federal Radio Commission—the predecessor of the FCC, schools, department stores, churches, and small communities operated radio stations into the 1920s. Chronologically, this was more or less between the amateur period of the 1910s and when the Commerce Department began classifying radio stations—Class A, Class B, and amateur stations—and prioritizing the large professionals, such as those stations run by AT&T, Westinghouse, and General Electric.
The amateurs were pushed out because they were deemed unprofessional and unpolished. Radio was a fairly open medium 100 years ago in the United States would later be dominated by as few as two radio commercial networks—NBC and CBS—and a handful of radio set manufacturers.
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WNYC’s Note to Self recently asked its listeners to share stories about using mobile apps and fitness trackers to quantify their daily progress—with dieting, sleeping, fitness—for the episode, Your Quantified Body, Your Quantified Self.
I’ve maintained a pretty ambivalent attitude towards the new wave of trackers that have emerged over the last decade with the advent of the smartphone and the proliferation of wearables. In the mid-2000s, I used to employ a heart rate monitor to do interval training for bicycle rides. I have since soured on the practice. After sinking hundred of dollars on a couple of Polar devices, I learned that the best way to train is to simply put in the miles and find a few hills along the way. Of course, others swear by it so your “mileage” may vary.
However, I have unwittingly resumed tracking my activity after getting an Apple Watch. The stock Activity app not only counts my steps, but it awards me circles for meeting daily goals. If I keep active for thirty minutes throughout the day, I get a green circle. If I avert sitting for a full hour, twelve hours throughout the day, I get a blue circle. And if I burn 870 calories, I get a red circle. I regularly meet these goals, but unless I bike more than fifteen miles or take a very long walk, it’s easy to miss meeting the calorie-burned goal. Thus, no red circle for me.
In the episode, we hear about people becoming anxious in meeting their goals, including walking laps around their kitchen before bedtime in order to walk the requisite number of steps. This resonated with me because, once, I was twenty calories short of my daily goal. My solution? I walked to the corner pizza shop to burn those twenty-plus calories and to get that elusive red circle. But I also bought 300-calorie slice of pepperoni.
Obviously, it would have been better not meeting my calorie-burned goal. The Apple Watch and its activity tracking couldn’t save me from my own poor eating choices, and because it does not record my eating, it was none the wiser.
We also hear that for many who obsessively tracked their fitness, dieting, or sleep, they almost invariably were overcome with anxiety, fearing they would not meet their goals. Ultimately, this anxiety leads to their abandoning the trackers. One participant noted that instead of using the notifications to make exercising a regular habit, she noted that dismissing and ignoring the reminders became the habit. Overall, the participants all soured on the experience, much like I did with heart-rate monitoring a decade ago and with journaling and habit-tracking in recent years.
I should note that I have found this podcast series and New Tech City—its predecessor as a segment on WNYC radio—to be bothersome. The host is too technoutopian for my taste and seems very cozy with the technocratic entrepreneurs that she profiles. In this episode, instead of conceding that trackers offer only temporary benefits for most, she imagined possibilities for “what will they think of next?”
You might take a personality test before you choose a tracker, one that understands that you are a social butterfly, and you need social support. You need that competitive edge with your friends… Or you would respond better to a fitness tracker that lights up in soothing colors, indicating it’s lovely outside, the sun is about to set, and right now would be the perfect time to take a twenty-minute walk.
Did you get that? It’s not that constantly tracking our eating, sleeping, and exercise are unnatural processes that as humans we will invariably abandon. It’s that the tracking devices and apps simply don’t have enough data. Yet.
Earlier today, in my electronic media class, we discussed radio advertising. Specifically, we covered how radio stations develop formats to attract a segmented audience that specific advertisers are seeking. If you ever wondered why, in the blink of an eye, your favorite heavy metal station turned into a Spanish-language norteño station, it’s because the advertising market changed to accommodate one que habla español.
How advertisers segment audiences is something that I won’t pretend to have much expertise, mostly because I find it dull. I also don’t get excited about this because when I begin to talk about demographics, it seems familiar to most of my students. It doesn’t feel like I’m actually teaching. After all, who doesn’t know that age, ethnicity, gender, income and education level each determine what media you consume and how you spend your money?
Psychographics and VALS
In addition to demographics, there are psychographics. These measure less about what a listener is, such as a 38 year-old, non-white hispanic male, but instead what a listener believes. One proprietary psychographic methodology is VALS. Developed by SRI International, VALS is based on two very broad types of consumers: innovators and survivors. Within those categories are six other types related to ideals, achievement, and self-expression.
Looking at the chart of VALS, I would imagine that I would not want to be perceived at the bottom of these categories. For example, look at how they describe Survivors:
Survivors live narrowly focused lives. Because they have few resources with which to cope, they often believe that the world is changing too quickly. They are comfortable with the familiar and are primarily concerned with safety and security. Because they must focus on meeting needs rather than fulfilling desires, Survivors do not show a strong primary motivation.
When I began to review each of these, I was in a self-deprecating mood and kept comparing myself to the lower rungs of the VALS scale, such as Believers and Strivers, but those didn’t seem to fit me.
An Innovator and an Achiever?!?
To get a more precise picture of my VALS type, I took the VALS survey and had some students take it, too. Some of them shared their results with me, and now, I’d like to share my results with you.
Apparently, my primary VALS type is an Innovator. Accordingly, that means that I am a “successful, sophisticated, take-charge [person] with high self-esteem” and with “abundant resources.” I am also the type of person who is “among the established and emerging leaders in business and government” but “continue to seek challenges.” My life is “characterized by variety,” and my “possessions and recreation reflect a cultivated taste for the finer things in life.”
They can’t be talking about me, right? This sounds like a pretty important person, and I’m as surprised as anyone.
What about my secondary type? Apparently, I’m an Achiever.
Motivated by the desire for achievement, Achievers have goal-oriented lifestyles and a deep commitment to career and family. Their social lives reflect this focus and are structured around family, their place of worship, and work.
“Goal-oriented?” I have probably written that on resumés because it sounds good, but here’s some “science” to prove that, I guess. What about having “a deep commitment to career and family?” That could describe someone like me, but since I have neither of those things, I’m not sure how it could be me.
What about consumer behavior? How do we Achievers like to spend our money?
With many wants and needs, Achievers are active in the consumer marketplace. Image is important to Achievers; they favor established, prestige products and services that demonstrate success to their peers. Because of their busy lives, they are often interested in a variety of time-saving devices.
That kinda sounds like me.
And it’s better than my usual, disparaging characterization of over-educated, underachiever.
All this month, Soundcheck, the daily music show on our local NPR cash-cow WNYC, is airing a series on the music of the summer of 1994 because that was twenty years ago and, looking back, that was a pretty nifty year for music. That was also the summer after I graduated high school and eagerly anticipated my move to college.
Man, that was a long time ago.
To give you an idea of how long ago that was, most of my music listening happened in my car1, and my way of listening in a car seems downright antiquated. The centerpiece of my in-car music system was a $300 Sony Discman CD player that came with a three-second memory buffer. That memory prevented the CD from skipping anytime I hit a pothole.
I could power this device with batteries, but it would barely last an hour, especially if the buffer was being used, not nearly enough for a drive from my parent’s home in the Antelope Valley to my school in Santa Barbara. To keep the tunes going, I used a DC adapter. I know many people still use these to charge a phone or, if you’re a cab driver, a standalone GPS unit. The charging port in cars from those days was designed as a cigarette lighter because in those days, there were more people who smoked than people who used a handheld computer. Getting that outlet to power an electronic device was, I think, one of the most clever hacks ever devised.
Listening to the CD player through the car’s audio system required another hack using a car audio cassette adapter that connected to the line-out jack from my Discman. I would insert the other end, shaped like a cassette tape, into the tape deck. Also, with that adapter I was guaranteed backward compatibility: I could listen to cassettes and CDs, and I wasn’t forced to upgrade until I was tired of exhausting my tape deck’s cutting-edge features, such as auto-reverse and song seek.
With all this great hardware, of course, I had great software. In 1994, and years before the iPod, carrying my entire music library was virtually impossible. I needed to bring a small batch of CDs with me. In 1994, I probably owned about 200 CD but didn’t travel with more than twelve discs at a time.2 Every car trip required careful curation and anticipation about what my friends and I might want to hear many hours in the future. This might seem inconvenient today, but I really got to know my music back then, especially how good a particular band was beyond their hits.
After college, I found myself listening to music in my car less frequently. Santa Barbara and UCSB were particularly friendly to walking and cycling, and long drives with my friends became a rare thing. That combined with a move to New York City made riding in a car a less common occurrence for me that riding in an airplane. Whenever I get into a car today, I just turn the radio to the local NPR station.
As much as Soundcheck’s bidecennial retrospective on 1994 makes me feel like an old man, it at least confirms that my music is objectively better than anything these kids listen to these days.
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Yes, this is the same guy who drives about 200 miles per year but pedals about 20x that. ↩
I never got the 100-disc binders that held a chunk of every single CD I ever owned. That was a good thing, in retrospect, because at least two of my friends had their big binders stolen from their cars. Those were, without exaggeration, devastating losses. ↩
A NBC television crew sets up outside of the RCA Pavilion at the New York City World’s Fair, 1939.
Last Tuesday, a bunch of people went to Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, the site of the 1964 World’s Fair to tour the Phillip Johnson–designed New York State Pavilion. The Pavilion was open to the public to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair. As with any free event in New York City, there was an hours-long line, and two people I know that went didn’t even get inside despite waiting over four hours.
Although it is still standing, the New York State Pavilion is in dire need of attention. Restoring or repairing it could cost as much as $75 million, and demolishing it would still cost around $14 million. These huge sums however have not deterred many groups from trying to restore the structure, a rare example of Googie architecture in New York City.
Some of the efforts to preserve the Pavilion include:
A statue representing the Freedom of the Press stands opposite a statue of George Washington, inaugurated 150 years earlier as the first president of the United States. (AP Photo.)
Speaking of presidents, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the Fair, the first such exposition in his home state.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt opens the 1939 World’s Fair. (AP Photo/John Lindsay)
The theme of the 1939 World’s Fair was the “World of Tomorrow.” Many of the corporate exhibits, such as General Motor’s Futurama, anticipated the role that consumerism would play in revolutionizing culture. The highways that would reshape the American landscape a decade later, for example, were on display as models at the Futurama exhibit.
Highways of the future. “Futurama” exhibit. New York City World’s Fair. (New York Public Library, Digital ID: 1674383.)
Now We Add Sight to Sound
To media scholars, the 1939’s World Fair is synonymous with the introduction of television. Although they didn’t invent it, RCA introduced television to the American public and, in very simple terms, explained its purpose.
RCA President, David Sarnoff, at the RCA Pavilion, New York City World’s Fair, 1939. (New York Public Library, Digital ID: 1681003.)
David Sarnoff, the president of RCA, clearly defined how television would work:
Now we add sight to sound.
Regardless of what television could do, RCA’s presentation of television introduced it with a clear purpose. RCA would guide television as an extension of radio. It would offer similar programming to what Americans heard on the radio in the 1930s, but with the addition of pictures. In the next decade, television would in effect supplant radio as the dominant entertainment medium, but it would still offer mostly entertainment programming sponsored by advertisers.
When I was first thrust into teaching media classes covering subjects that I did not study in college or in graduate school, I had to quickly learn about industries, such as newspapers, magazines, and advertising. I suspect that every teacher has gone through this experience at one time or another. After all, nothing makes you a better student than to become a teacher. Although the finer points of these “new” media industries were fascinating, none rivaled radio as an exciting subject. It really seemed like magic and was reminiscent of what the Internet seemed to me when I first used it.
The Bowery Boys, who produce one of my favorite podcasts, released an episode on the origins of radio in New York City. They cover all of the major milestones in the development of radio, albeit from the perspective of New York City history. They cover Nicola Tesla’s early experiments in the late nineteenth century, the establishment of American Marconi, Lee deForest’s audion, the Titanic disaster, David Sarnoff, RCA, Edwin Armstrong, the early radio stations in New York, and the beginnings of the radio networks with flagship stations here in New York.
Focusing only on radio history in New York doesn’t leave out too much from the standard accounts on the development of radio. For better or worse, the history of radio is very New York City-centered. Only the major accomplishments of Heinrich Hertz, who first transmitted a radio signal in Germany, Reginald Fessenden, who first transmitted the human voice in Canada, and Frank Conrad, who started the first bonafide radio station in Pittsburgh, receive mention in the mainstream histories of radio. Curiously, New York also looms large in the history of newspapers (as the birthplace of the American penny press and yellow journalism), American advertising (Madison Avenue), and motion pictures (as the base of Thomas Edison and his Trust).