My love affair with the radio

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    Choosing a favorite medium – in my personal experience – can be quite difficult. But radio, as a medium that can transcend the visual, fascinates me the most.

    As with comics, you can do practically anything with the form; both are reliant upon active participation, and sometimes even, imagination.

    Taken at its purest, radio should be theatre of the mind, and can also be a time machine – a simple song can send you spiraling back weeks, months, even decades to the time (and place) you first heard it. Gen Xers are pretty much at the end of this tradition. Today’s up-and-coming generation will not quite have these connections with the original music box.

    For them, radio is a wireless experience; freeform, unprogrammed, uncensored, uninterrupted – it happens inside their heads. Earbuds have become a kind of altar, a fortress of solitude, if you will…

    The average radio listener is typically in search of music or news; true, a few may enjoy talk radio. But if you’re seeking something out of the ordinary, an experience that blends music, talk, narrative, fiction, reportage, or comedy, then you’ll be in search of compelling radio. And by compelling, I mean that it is challenging on some level. It relies on your complete immersion.

    Public Radio International and WBEZ’s “This American Life” represents to my mind, the best the medium has to offer.

    What makes it compelling?

    Simply, it applies all the tools of the medium: sound effects, music, narrative structure, interesting characters, and best of all, it’s real. Real people. Funny stories. Sad stories. Fictional excerpts. It’s a palette cleanser in the best sense of the word. (You’ll find episodes of “This American Life” on WDET 101.9).

    You want to get behind the scenes, personal, intimate interviews with authors, filmmakers, politicians, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners? Try “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross.

    Now, before this starts to sound like an advertisement for public radio (it’s not), you should know that some of the best and most innovative radio is occurring daily not only on public radio stations across the country, but college radio, and of course, Internet radio.

    Terrestrial radio – as it’s called these days – has now become a pathetic wasteland of too much “big business” and not enough creativity. Every station is a clone of another station and the playlists are indistinguishable from one another.
    Format, formula, pass the scissors and…cut.

    Enter satellite radio and, yes, Howard Stern.

    Stern brought a lot of innovation when he first launched his show on Sirius (now Sirius XM). Some of his ideas included comedic sketches, journalism, rotating disc jockeys, dramedy, all programmed on two stations devoted to Stern material.

    Try to forget the image you have of Stern’s raunchy persona and listen in on some of his interviews; his riffs on popular culture; his exploration of celebrities from an insider’s perspective – that’s the real and compelling Howard Stern; the Howard Stern I enjoy listening to.

    There’s Sirius XM’s Book Radio and Radio Classics (featuring the Golden Age of Radio) and several comedy stations, providing standup excerpts from family-friendly to adult fare.

    Audio books, live concerts, dramatic performances, “real” disc jockeys who actually select the music you’re listening to, radio dramas, audio documentaries. It’s all there (however fragmented), on the Internet and via satellites that orbit the Earth.

    And let’s not speak too boldly of HD radio. There’s a strong possibility it will go the way of HD DVD (thoroughly defeated by Blu-ray). The HD model is too similar to the satellite one, and although there’s no monthly fee, you do have to pay for a receiver.

    Thanks to 3G and Wi-Fi enabled devices, through Internet radio you can listen to German radio, British, Japan, Australia, or others, transporting you across the world.

    Many have touted the intimacy of the medium, and there is some truth to this. Where movies are generally best enjoyed as a communal experience, radio is perhaps best enjoyed alone.

    I love radio. I love its potential. It can do pretty much anything your HD TV does but without the expense and the barrage of images.
    Radio doesn’t just have to be music and news.

    We must reach a point where listening becomes a two-way experience.

    Demand something better from your local radio stations, and maybe, the future will find you, its majestic sound, opening your mind’s eye.

    Send your comments, suggestions and submissions for “Technology” to cfortune@michronicle.com.

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