The Rise of Media Independence

What happens when anyone can produce as easily as he or she consumes?

I grew up in New Jersey, not far from the swamps that later were
re-labeled "meadowlands", after a sports complex by that name appeared
alongside Paterson Plank Road. In those days, back in the '50s and early
'60s, I was like any other geeky kid who had better luck with science
than with girls: I sublimated unrequited desire for the latter into a
preoccupation with the former. Since computers still were captive to big
business, big defense and big science, I focused my science obsessions
on big radio.

I could visit the working end of big radio by riding my bike down to the
transmitters of New York's big AM radio stations, whose towers rose like
alien crystals out of the tidal muds flanking the Hackensack River.
There I'd hang out with old guys at WMGM/1050, WADO/1280, WMCA/570 and
WINS/1010, learning the relative merits of Continental, Westinghouse and
RCA transmitters, the directional effects of multitower arrays, the
relative efficiencies of towers trimmed to various fractions of
wavelengths and the mysterious variable called "ground conductivity".
Although eastern states generally lacked good ground conductivity, salt
water provided the fortuitous exception. You couldn't beat tidal swamps
if you were looking for a good AM transmitter site. The guys at WINS
told me the station was disadvantaged by having an extremely directional
transmission pattern. Four towers in a row aimed a signal not much wider
than a flashlight beam across Manhattan, the inner boroughs and southern
Long Island and out into the Atlantic. Yet the salt water path was clear
all the way to Bermuda, where the station boasted a few listeners. The
guys at WMCA told me the same thing. WMCA was only 5,000 watts, while
WINS was 50,000 watts; but the longer waves at the lower end of the dial
carried farther over both land and water.

As I grew up, and FM began to grow in popularity, I took more interest
in VHF radio propagation. On FM and TV--which flanks the FM band,
channels 2-6 below and 7-13 above--waves are only a few feet long at
most. Divide the distance light travels in a second by the frequency,
and there's your wavelength. While AM waves carried along the ground or
bounced off the ionosphere at night (which is why you can pick up
"skywave" signals from AM stations hundreds of miles away after dark),
FM waves traveled about as far as you could see from the transmitting
antenna. That's why FM and TV stations transmit from the tops of
mountains, towers and skyscrapers.

The idea in every case was to game nature. Or, rather, to take advantage
of natural features and natural limitations.

Today, if I want to put a show on the radio, I don't bother with radio
at all. I record an .mp3 file, put it on a Web site and "enclose" a
pointer in an RSS feed. Anybody who picks up the feed or downloads the
file can get the recording, anywhere on the Net. Which is "right here"
for anywhere with a connection, anywhere in the world.

Which is why radio as we know it is doomed. Same with TV. AM and FM
stations have a future as long as manufacturers ship cars with radios.
But that future increasingly will be restricted by a growing assortment
of other sources of what we've come to call "content".

Two stories, both from Tuesday, April 11, demonstrate this point.

"Trying to corral Stern's lost herd" is the headline of a story in the
L.A. Times that begins, "Only a fraction of the audience followed the
shock jock to satellite. Stations wonder where millions of ears went.
Can millions of listeners just disappear?"

"Disney's Web Move Shakes Up Decades-Old TV Model" is the headline of a
story in the Wall Street Journal with a subheading that says "Sorting
Out Winners and Losers: Advertisers Reach More Consumers; But Local
Stations Feel Shut Out."

The first story is the more clueful one, because it faces the undeniable
fact that radio's audience is not a fixed sum but instead is comprised
of human beings who have many choices about how they spend their time.
The second story is framed by the assumption that a fixed sum of people
still will watch the same sum of television, even if they're watching an
iPod rather than a TV. It also fails to mention how Disney's plans to
stream ABC and Disney shows over the Net. What technologies are
involved? Will they be limited to one kind of client, say, Windows
running Real or Windows Media Player? Probably.

What both miss is the evolution of consumers to producers and the
obsolescence of "media" as a one-way construct.

Earlier this week, at the
Santa Barbara Forum
on Digital Transitions
, there was much talk about how
young people are certain to be a boundless source of fresh content of
all kinds, especially video. Sure, there still will be plenty of
appetite for expensively produced and packaged TV and movie products.
But there also will be an overwhelming abundance of independently
produced TV, movie, music and other forms of what the professionals
still call "programming", including traditional radio transmitted over
packets instead of airwaves.

"It's only human nature", somebody said. In that case, we'll have nature
gaming media, instead of media gaming nature. And the result will be the
end of media as we knew it, as scarce, expensive and restricted ways for
a few producers to reach many consumers.

The one scarcity that still will matter is time. Choices about whether
to produce or consume will be made from a new state we've never enjoyed
throughout the entire history of regulated industrial media. They will
be independent.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He
recently was named Visiting Fellow at the University of California,
Santa Barbara.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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kilgoretrout's picture

The other real scarcity, apart from time, is talent and that's not going to change anytime soon. As long as traditional media companies can attract and control the limited talented expression available and present it to the public thus saving the public time in searching for that talent, the media companies will continue to prosper regardless of the method of transmission.
As the cost of media production goes down, there should be increasingly more media available but the vast majority will be self-important garbage, kind of like the blogs we see now. Talented expression will alway be scarce commodity.

Scarcity - talent

Anonymous's picture

I think it is true that there is a glut of untalented people
trying their hand at content. But, there are far more people
with real talent that don't have any outlet. As a musician
for a number of years I can say this from experience. I'm
lucky enough to be in a band with very talented people, one
of which is the best musician I've personally met in over 25
years as a player, and having met a small number of internationally
respected musicians. Yet, my guitar playing friend doesn't
have a "record contract" and doesn't want the baggage that
comes with a contract. Rather, he's (we're) recording his
3rd CD with the benefit of very high quality gear now accessible
by consumers. Small pockets of extraordinary talent outside
the control of traditional content owners are a big threat
to the likes of MPAA and RIAA, and in my view a good part of
the content and delivery protectionism being lobbied for by
those organizations.


Anonymous's picture

Radio has been free (like bear) ever. Did exist galena's radios. You could even listen to the radio in your mounth (in some trick dentalwork, made by dentists) !

Internet, by other side, is not free. You have free Internet providers, but a computer is not free. Electricity is not free !

I hope old style radio don't go away.

Just my two cents.

Let's make content

Linuxluver's picture

The TV here is rarely on. We read the net. We listen to it. We watch some, too. We post stuff. I make videos for relatives far away. We post photos and some art....for friends.

The future of media? Communities of interest, families, friends. This how we (our family) now use our time.

We are all computer literate....and this is what we do.

I agree with you. The

Mike Whalen's picture

I agree with you. The problem I see with a culture that produces more or as much as it consumes is that it will perhaps become much more difficult to get heard.


lost.sync's picture

i couldn't agree with you more. my girlfriend and i had this same conversation the other day. she didn't think i was right. and i'm not saying this is going to happen in 5, 10, or even 20 years. but it's going to happen. prices of independant production go down and down while the quality of the tools used in said production goes up and up. suddenly, i don't need 45.7 million dollars to make a decent movie. i don't need 10 hours in a $100/hr studio to record a nice song.

and that's going to change everything.

Access to cheap and good

Anonymous's picture

Access to cheap and good tools does not make you good at using them. Have a look around youtube sometime. It seems like everyone and their sister is posting videos, but only 1 in 50 is worth watching. And those ones were generally professionally made, and probably posted by someone without the rights to have done so.

I love the idea of the means of production being available to all, but I don't believe for a minute that the amout of quality media is going to go up.

Working the numbers

Doc Searls's picture

A couple decades ago, when comedy stores were springing up all over the place, Milton Berle (or somebody like him) said "Twenty years ago there were 100 comedians and 5 of them were good. Now there are 5000 comedians and 5 of them are good."

Seems to me you're saying the same thing.

But I don't think it's true in this case. The means for producing good video are getting cheaper and more available to more independent artists and producers. The old locked-up systems are getting more locked up and balkanized every day. In music, in journalism, in photography, in lots of other arts, there are more and more good participants joining the marketplace, even as the raw numbers of not-so-good participants multiplies.

If there's more chaff, it's because there's also more wheat.

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


Anonymous's picture

All the endless noise from all the billions of amateurs will make rich (1) those who empower the unwashed masses to do as they please, (2) those who empower the unwashed masses to wash, and (3) those who empower the unwashed masses to locate partially or fully polished gems amongst the riffraff.