The Rise of Media Independence

by Doc Searls

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.

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