Wednesday, April 30, 2008

New Tech/Old Radio

Podcasting is the new technology. "Lone Ranger" broadcasts from the 1930's are the old radio. Sending out old time radio shows as podcasts is a great idea -- for those not familiar with the genre, it's sort of like getting books on MP3.

From the 1930's through the 1950's music was but one of the programming formats heard on the radio. In the era before television, there were variety shows, situation comedies, soap operas, crime dramas, mysteries, horror and suspense anthologies, and more.

I recently subscribed to the "Lone Ranger" podcast and started enjoying tales from "those thrilling days of yesteryear" as I made my daily commute.

Some folks wonder how I could possibly listen to a story without any kind of visuals, or even what the appeal would be. Well, it's quite simple. I just appreciate the art for what it is -- not what it isn't.

A radio drama has to communicate all the action with either words or sound effects. And there's decidedly an art to it. The sound effects have to sound natural, yet unambiguous. A narrator can set the stage, but if they're used too much they become intrusive. Dialogue can help communicate action, but again, if not smoothly integrated it can actually interrupt the story.

Listen to this excerpt from the "Lone Ranger" episode, "Confederate Money," first aired May 20, 1938. In this extended sequence, the Lone Ranger's helping two down-and-out Confederate veterans. They've been hired to collect taxes from ranchers who've killed off their predecessors rather than pay.

The Lone Ranger, knowing that Bolivar Bates and Hacksaw Hastings are but minutes behind him, enters the rancher's home posing as a robber. He then pretends to be interrupted by the arrival of the two men and hides behind a door. The Lone Ranger deliberately leaves the rancher with but one choice: give the money to the tax collectors, or refuse them and have it stolen (OK, some with modern sensibilities might say its the same thing).


Did you hear it? Lee's voice changed to indicate when the Lone Ranger was outside the door, and when he came in. Also, notice that none of the actor's voices share exactly the same range -- it's easy to tell them apart. They also call each other by name more than they would in normal conversation (or in a film), but just enough to help guide the listener.

And how about the characters of Bolivar and Hacksaw? Their voices are distinctive enough to help the listener conjure up their appearance.

Is the Lone Ranger great art? No, but it's solid entertainment. And because I have to imagine the action, it uses a different set of mental muscles than watching TV does. I'm happy to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear (and yes, this was way before I was born). And I'm glad a very modern technology (podcasting) makes it easy to do so.

- Ralph

BTW - you can listen to the entire episode here.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Podcasting Explained -- Thanks Again, Common Craft!

Yesterday I shared a video about blogging from Common Craft. Their "in Plain English" series explains complex concepts in short, simple videos. "Podcasting in Plain English" outlines the basics of podcasting, and even addresses some of the common misperceptions about it.



I've been enjoying podcasts from some time now. In fact, it's almosst completely edged out radio listening when I drive. And I also produce a podcast for our record label.

Podcasting and other web activities face a very difficult hurtle. The benefits are immediately obvious to those who participate and use them. But these activities are so new and foreign to most people that they have almost no way to understand what these processes are -- and therefore can't properly assess their value. And therefore don't use them.

Why should that matter? Who cares if only a select "get it?"

Well, for one thing it considerably limits the potential audience.

I produce the "DCD Classical 'Cast" to showcase the releases that we carry at our online store. The more folks subscribe to our podcast, the more potential customers we have. Our listener base is slowly groing, but it's still a VERY small fraction of the potential audience. If everyone who listened to classical music on the radio understood and used podcasts, we would still only get a minority of that audience, but our download numbers would jump exponentially.

The other reason it matters who "gets it" is that podcasts are inexpensive to produce and distribute, and are tailor-made for narrowcasting.

Some businesses benefit from podcasting, either by producing their own (as we do), or advertising on them to get their message out to their core customer base. But its only a fraction of the businesses that could profitably use this tool.

Audble.com is a good example of how to do it. For the uninitiated, Audible is a "books on tape" company. Save that their books are downloadable MP3s.

For the past two months Audible's been agressively advertising on many of the most popular podcasts, which a special introductory offer. And it makes sense. They're selling downloadable MP3s that you can listen to on long trips, or a daily commute. Podcasts are downloadable MP3s that many people listen to on long trips, or daily commutes. Audible is simply connecting with their core customer base.

How many decision-makers at companies don't "get it?" And how many are therefore leaving money on the table?

So thanks again, Common Craft. I'll be using your video to help bring others into the fold -- both for personal and professional reasons!

- Ralph

Monday, April 28, 2008

Blogging Explained - Thanks, Common Craft!

Common Craft specializes in producing short videos that explain complex concepts "in plain English." Their video on blogging is a gem.



If you know of someone who doesn't get blogging (but should), sit them down and make them watch the video!

As I watched, it reminded me of the changes in WETA's "blog."

When WETA returned to an all-classical format, they set up a blog to communicate with listeners -- very much in line with the concepts expressed by Common Craft.

To fill in some background
, public radio station WETA in Washington, DC dropped classical programming to chase after bigger pledge dollars to be found in news/talk. Ratings sagged, and listenership (and pledge dollars) fell off. The sole surviving classical station in the Washington area, WGMS, was a commercial radio station whose owners wanted to flip to a more profitable format.

Seeing an opportunity to retreat from their own misstep and take over a now vacant field, WETA offered to go back to classical music, taking in WGMS' massive CD library and some of their more popular announcers.

In the early days WETA's blog talked about the change-over, the announcers, and generally took folks "behind the scenes" at the station. And it enabled comments. As things progressed, the comments became a forum for those discontented with the direction the station was taking, the programming, etc.

And then the blog changed. It's still billed as the "blog for classical music lovers," but it's not -- at least according to Common Craft's definition. It's become a music review column by Jens F. Laurson, similar to what one would find in a paper. Comments have been disabled. It's strickly a one-way conversation. Laurson reviews; you read.

Now I have no quarrel with Mr. Laurson. He's a good writer and a thoughtful reviewer, and I enjoy reading his posts. But in my opinion this isn't a blog, and for WETA to call it so seems a little disingenuous.

I consider the feedback I receive an integral part of the blogging process -- even if they're not favorable. WETA's missing the critical part of new media, and that's the conversation.

So if you're meeting with decision-makers to discuss blogging, do watch the Common Craft video. Don't use WETA's blog as a model.

- Ralph

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Joan Woodbury Returns Again

I recently watched "A Yank in Libya," another movie starring Joan Woodbury, thanks to Archive.org. This 1942 "B" picture an amiable piece of fluff designed to raise American morale. Walter Woolf King plays Mike Malone, a jive-talking go-getter American reporter determined to blow the lid off a Nazi plot. Here he is ditching his pursuers and leaving the evidence with a very surprised Nancy Brookes-Graham (Joan Woodbury).


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Notice how Duncan Rinaldo plays the character of Shiek David. He's basically channelling Rudolf Valentino's performance in "The Sheik." The portrayal of Arabs in this film demonstrate how much America (or at least Hollywood) knew about the Muslim world in the 1940's -- which wasn't much. Some of the cliches may have changed, I wonder if modern film depictions of Middle Eastern culture are any less ignorant.

While Sheik David embraces Western culture (and Nancy), Sheik Ibrahim (George J. Lewis) wants to have nothing to do with it. So of course he turns to the one person who want to help throw the British out of his country -- Yussof Streyer, Nazi spy (Wilhelm von Brincken).


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Malone runs into "Parky" Parkyakarkus (Harry Parke), who serves as his sidekick (and later turns out to be an American agent).


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Our brash American fast-talks his way into the British Consulate. And while they may appear somewhat stodgy, the Brits aren't quite as clueless as Malone thinks.


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As it turns out, the British know all about Herr Strayer's plans, and for me the film took an unexpected turn. The real dramatic tension came not from Malone thwarting the Nazis, but from the British trying to keep this headstrong American from upsetting the applecart and forcing them to act prematurely.

It's a fun film, and Joan Woodbury again turns in a solid performance.

"A Yank in Libya" might not be a great movie (it was never meant to be), but it's an hour's worth of solid entertainment. And it provides an interesting glimpse into the attitudes and culture of the period -- at least the version filtered through Hollywood's sensibilities.

- Ralph

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lessons from York - Integrated Knowledge

I've already talked about the trip my father and I made to York, Pennsylvania for the recent toy train meet. In addition to having a little insight into the problem of perspective, I also relearned the value of integrated knowledge.

With the explosive growth of Wikipedia, Google, and similar sites, there's been a corresponding rise in the assumption that one doesn't really have to remember anything. If all of the human knowledge is available online, one just has to call it up. And if it's there, why memorize it?

It makes sense if two things remain true. The first is that everything is available online. The second is that you'll always have access to it.

There's something else to consider. The information you internalize is information you can really use. Because all that data can be mentally combined many different ways to yield new truths and insights. And the more information (and the aforementioned insights) you have, the easier it is to make better decisions.

My real-world demonstration of this came at the train show.

Dad found a Lionel train set he was interested in (a standard gauge "baby state set" for those in the know). But was it worth the asking price?

Cell phones and other devices aren't allowed in the halls at the show -- we were offline. Dad had to rely on his own knowledge, based on years of research and first-hand experience. He talked me through his thought process as he considered the purchase.

He knew that this particular set was cataloged from 1930 to 1933 (he had helped fact-check the early editions of several Greenberg's Guides ).

Dad examined the locomotive, looking primarily at the motor. There were two different types in use at the time, but only one would be correct for this particular model (restorers often use the other). It was the correct model.

He pointed out that the engine had been run, and although it had some wear, was still in good shape. The "flip-flop" reverse unit was missing, which actually added to the authenticity.

As Dad explained, this kind of unit toggled back and forth, causing the engine to reverse direction. Unfortunately, the mechanism was a little too sensitive, and often changed direction on its own if the engine experienced any kind of minor bump -- such as going to a switch or a crossover. As a result, many frustrated operators simply removed them.

Dad further pointed out that the wear patterns on the car roofs were consistent with the age, and actually very good considering the paint method used. He explained that Lionel used to dip the car bodies and roofs in the paint until about 1933 when they went to spraying on the paint. Cars that were dipped sometimes showed evidence of running paint, and in this case further confirmed that the paint was original.

Dad also knew that the formula for the dark brown paint didn't let it adhere well to the metal, and so to find the roofs of all three cars with no metal showing helped determine the value of the set.

The couplers were original, and their 70-year-old springs still in good condition. To Dad, this suggested the train was probably only run on holidays and had relatively little active use. There were other indicators as well; the proper logo plate on the engine's motor, the consistent aging of the remaining window cellulose, and so on.

All of which told Dad this was an original set in good (but not great) condition, and it was priced fairly. He bought it.

Even if we had been able to access the web, it wouldn't have helped much. Notice the paucity of links in this post. After researching this for over a week, I still can't find most of this information anywhere online.

Sure, it's all available in various reference guides, but they were several hundred miles away when Dad saw that train.

But Dad had spent years accumulating the knowledge necessary to make an informed decision that day -- and he was ready.

And that's the point. The Internet isn't the be-all end-all. And just having a list of facts isn't the same as understanding the relationship between them.

Dad got the train. And I relearned a valuable lesson.

- Ralph

BTW - the picture is the type of train Dad bought, but not the actual set.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Newsweek figures it out

Jonathan Alter wrote an interesting piece for Newsweek recently, titles "Adios, Sound Bites, and Fat Cats." In it, he looks at how the Internet's affected the political process.

The media and fund-raising rules have undergone a huge change this year. The era of sound bites and fat cats may be coming to a close.

It took me a while to grasp this. On the morning of March 18, when I read an advance text of Obama's Philadelphia speech on race, I told my wife that it was well written but contained no eight- to 15-second sound bites to counteract the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.'s greatest hits. Under the old rules, a 37-minute speech full of complex ideas didn't stand a chance against the excitement of "good TV." Of course, I was wrong. Obama's speech has now been played on YouTube nearly 5.5 million times, with viewers presumably watching at least a few minutes of it.
It's a good article, and I'm glad I read it.

I do appreciate his admission that it took a while to grasp the change. "C.E. Conversations" isn't really a political blog -- I'm primarily concerned about new technologies (and old pop culture). Yet even I figured it out back in September of last year. I further articulated these startling new concepts in early February ("The Virtual Body Politic"), early March ("Politics as (un)usual" and "Political Pushback" ), late March ("Citizen Fact-checkers" and "Political Talkback").

And I freely admit I'm a latecomer to this party compared to commentators to this blog like Cameron, Samuel Brainsample, and Sean Tubbs. And I'm sure they could site others who "got it" even earlier than they did. This may be a new concept to Mr. Alter, but it's old news to the online community.

It's not quite the Rome/Nero analogy, but while mainstream media continued their unending cycle of sound bites and accompanying parsing by pundits, something interesting happened online. Something that's now been officially deemed newsworthy.

People haven't been waiting for mainstream media to filter the news for them. They've been reporting -- and deciding -- for themselves.

- Ralph

Monday, April 21, 2008

Lessons from York - Points of View

My dad and I made our semi-annual trip to York, Pennsylvania for the largest toy train meet on the East Coast. But this post isn't about that -- it's about different points of view.

With the Pennsylvania Democratic primary coming up Tuesday, just about every other television commercial was a paid political announcement. The Clinton message was all about affordable healthcare, and Obama's was that American jobs needed to stop being sent overseas.



While we were there, the big story in the local paper was the layoffs at the Harley-Davidson plant, a major employer in the area. According to the paper, the down-sizing was a result of declining sales over the last quarter.

As we wandered the York Fairgrounds, we fell into conversation with a local resident who was checking out the show for the first time. We commensurated with him about the plant closing, but he had a different take on it. There had been a recent strike at the plant over the issue of health care. Harley-Davidson had been paying all of their union employees' health insurance premiums, and when it was suggested that the workers pay part of it, they struck.

It was interesting to go from the general to the specific.

The political message: Americans are losing jobs to foreign outsourcing.
The local reality: Harley-Davidson employees are losing jobs because of slow sales.

The political message: Working Americans are in a health care crises.
The local reality: Harley-Davidson workers have complete health care coverage (the ones with jobs, that is).

That's not to say that Clinton and Obama aren't talking about important issues. But from the perspective of the locals affected by this layoff, neither candidate's message quite hits the mark.

So who's right? Well, in a way, they all are. Check out the sources I've linked to. Each one has part of the story. Put it all together and draw your own conclusions.

If we hadn't been in Pennsylvania this weekend, I might have missed this lesson about viewpoints. Now I've got something to think about.

- Ralph

Friday, April 18, 2008

Money for Nothing -- the Coulton Conundrum

The story of Jonathan Coulton and his success as a singer-songwriter has been well-documented. He's been featured in the New York Times, inteviewed in Wireless Magazine, profiled on NPR, and been on several podcasts, blogs and other forms of e-media. And yet most of the struggling musicians I talk to have never heard of him.

And that's too bad, because they could learn a lot from Coulton. Much has been made about Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails giving away music as a way to increase interest and therefore sales. The question remains, though, if they could reasonably expect the same massive response if they had not already been well-known acts before their experiments.

Jonathan Coulton started out as a complete unknown, and built his fanbase through an innovative and unusual fashion. He wrote and recorded a song each week for a year and posted it on his website. While you could purchase Coulton's songs, many of them you could also download for free.

Coulton's compositions were protected by a Creative Commons license, which meant others could use them freely for non-commercial purposes as long as he was credited. And people did.

Before the year was over Coulton's music started showing up all over the Internet. Because people could use his material without a lot of complicated licensing, almost 2,000 fan-made music videos were posted on YouTube alone.

Here's one of the many videos made for one of my favorite Coulton tunes "Ikea."



The songs Coulton posted eventually were collected into albums, which are available for sale through normal indie music channels such as CDBaby.com. Coulton toured, and continually played to larger and larger audiences. And his fanbase continues to grow to this day.

His song "Code Monkey" has become an IT anthem.



Recently, he was commissioned to write the closing song for the video game "Portals," which opened up an even wider audience to Coulton's music.



While I'm not suggesting every rising artist should copy Coulton's "Thing a Week" model, there are some takeaways from his career that I think every independent musician should know about.

  1. Offer quality content -- If Jonathan Coulton didn't write good songs, he would still be working that day job.
  2. Use the tools you have to connect directly with your fans -- The Internet offers many inexpensive ways to reach niche markets. Websites, blogs, podcasts and emails are all good places to start.
  3. Keep control of your material, but not too much control -- If you purchase a Coulton song, the artist gets the cash. There's no record company to take the lion's share. And because Coulton allows non-commercial use of his material, his fans have spread it farther and faster than any record label-funded publicity campaign possibly could.

I first heard "Ikea" on a podcast and immediately liked it. When I heard Coulton's version of "Baby Got Back," I started actively looking for his music. I checked out some of his other tunes from his website, and now own some of his albums.

The major record labels consider every shared song a lost sale. For Jonathan Coulton, every shared song set up the potential of another sale. Independent artists need to take note.

And the rest of us just need to listen. These songs are great!

- Ralph

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Tender Trap

A major auction house that specializes in antique toys recently published this picture in a sale catalog. It made me seriously question exactly how much expertise this firm really had.



Notice anything wrong? The tender's backwards.

One of the things that really irritates me as a toy train enthusiast is a backwards tender. The tender is the car that trails immediately behind a steam locomotive. It's where the fuel for the locomotive is stored, (wood or coal), and sometimes extra water for the steam engine.

Most people picture something like this for the archetypal of a steam engine and tender.




The walls of the tender, open towards the engine, slant upwards in the back. Actual tender design from the late 1800's on favored a more rectangular appearance with slightly higher walls in the front. Nevertheless, the archetype remains, popularized in children's book illustrations and other media.

As a result, when people with no real knowledge of trains display a toy steam locomotive and tender, they often have the tender facing the wrong way. Why? Because having the smaller end of the tender next to the locomotive more closely fits the archetype, and "looks right."

So what? Without specialized knowledge, how would someone know that the proper way to display the switch engine below is to have the large end of the tender face the locomotive? After all, that's just ignorance.

However, almost all toy train manufacturers for about a century have designed their tenders to only connect to their locomotives a certain way. The general-purpose coupler that hooks the toy railroad cars together, be it a latch design or more realistic knuckle coupler, can be found at one end of the tender. The engine usually has a completely different coupler -- and its match is only found on one end of the tender.

In other words, for just about any make of toy trains, it's impossible to connect freight or passenger cars directly to the steam engine -- and it's impossible to connect the tender to the engine backwards.

Let's take a closer look at that offending catalog photo. Notice the tender's latch-style coupler in the pairing at left -- and how it doesn't match with the pin on the back of the engine. Now look what happens when we reverse the tender (right). Now there's a tab connector with a hole that matches the pin.



Here's another example, this time from eBay.




In the postwar era, toy trains became more sophisticated, adding whistles and other sound effects. As the motor occupied most of the locomotive's interior, these features were housed in the tender. Look closely at the photo and you can see the cables coming out of the tender. These wires connect the printed circuit boards in the tender with the compatible components in the engine. There's a simple pin on the back of the locomotive, and several terminals for the wire. Yet the person chose to photograph the tender backwards, to match the archetype.

Here's how it should look.





So in order to set up a toy locomotive and tender so that it "looks right," the person has to deliberately ignore the very clear evidence of the connectors. That's not just ignorance, that's willful ignorance.

And in the case of that auction house, it makes me call into question everything they had to say about the items offered. And that's bad for business.

- Ralph

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

More Joan Woodbury

Yesterday I wrote about the 1936 B picture "Rogues Tavern" and how Joan Woodbury really stood out in the film -- and started me on a search to find other movies she was in.

It was similar to my discovery of the African-American actor Mantan Moreland in "King of the Zombies."

So I was a little chagrined to find out that "King of the Zombies" also starred Joan Woodbury! Usually when an actor is called to my attention, I can recall if I've seen them before in other movies. In this case, Moreland's performance so outshone everyone else's that I didn't remember Woodbury was in the movie at all.

Yet there she is. This is her first appearance in the film. The downed American flyers (Dick Purcell and John Archer) have just met the wife of their mysterious host, Dr. Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor). They help the mentally ill woman to her room, where they discover Sangre's niece, played by Woodbury.

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Quite a change from her appearance in "Rogues Tavern," shot five years before.

And that's part of the fun of these old movies. Sometimes its not just what I discover, but what I rediscover.

- Ralph

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Free enterprise at 30,000 feet

I'm flying to Colorado tomorrow to go on a backcountry ski trip with some friends. I did all the requisite price shopping for airline tickets and ended up with a pretty good deal on Northwest (ahh . . . I mean Delta, maybe).

As we all know, times are tough for airlines, and the things we once took for granted -- meals, free snacks, and such, are pretty much a thing of the past. Of course, as travelers, we hate that. Isn't a smiling flight attendant with a pillow and a free bag of peanuts in the Bill of Rights somewhere?

But I don't begrudge the airlines a chance at making a few extra bucks here and there. Case in point -- as I checked in for my flight today, Northwest/Delta gave me the option of shelling out $25 bucks extra for a "Coach Choice" seat.

What's that? Simple -- those emergency exit row seats with the extra leg room. They hold them back, then give you a chance to pay a few extra bucks for the privilege of stretching your legs out. I'm all for free enterprise and a little extra leg room -- I snatched it up in a jiffy.

Now if they'd just throw in a pillow and some complimentary peanuts...

Ken

Rogues Tavern

If you're not one of those people who only watch movies made within the past ten years, Archive.org can be a great source of entertainment.

Recently, I enjoyed a little public domain gem entitled "Rogues Tavern." This 1936 mystery is very much a product of its time. Collecting a group of people together in an isolated location and killing them off one by one had been a staple of mystery stories since the early 1920's -- in this case, it's an out-of-the-way tavern, where two detectives inadvertently turn up just as the bodies start to accumulate.

Quite frankly, it's not much of a mystery. The identity of the murderer is completely unexpected, but only because an additional character never mentioned before is introduced right before the denouement. It's a horrible cheat, but that's OK. None of the characters take the plot very seriously, and neither should the viewer.

This bit of exposition from the beginning of the film sets the tone right from the outset. And Wallace Ford and Barbara Pepper have a nice amount of screen chemistry.

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So why watch this forgotten B picture? Well, the dialogue's reasonably witty.

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OK, I said "reasonably."

There's also some ambitious photography. Puritan Pictures was a short-lived "poverty row" studio, constrained to making movies on a tight budget. Nevertheless, they managed to make the most of their limited resources.

Check out the massive set that serves as the tavern's lobby (and for economic reasons where most of the action takes place). The nice, long establishing shot slowly explores the room and shows us all of the suspects/victims. Although the camera wobbles a little (probably due to the quality of the equipment used), it's a great shot and adds a lot to the film.


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And finally, there's Joan Woodbury. Her screen presence is remarkable. Here's her opening scene.


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I'd never heard of her before viewing "Rogues Tavern," but afterwards I looked for other films she appeared in.

And that's why I like viewing these kind of movies. I never know what I'll discover -- but I usually find something (like Mantan Moreland).

- Ralph

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Wagon Train of News

Recently, I offered up the various news sources I used to keep myself from becoming too insular -- or circling the wagons as I referred to it.

I got a lot of great suggestions both on- and off-line. Samuel Brainsample in the comments section mentioned some public broadcasting sources, especially NPR's RSS feeds. Personally, I have a hard time with news crawls -- I tend to read them instead of whatever I'm supposed to be working on -- but as a general suggestion, it's a good one.

He also recommends (with various caveats), Talking Points Memo, Brian Lehrer, Glenn Greenwald, Bill Moyers, and On the Media, among others (check out the comment section for "Circling the Wagons").

A friend of mine also suggested Al Jazeera. Like the European sites, I check for European perspectives, its a good primary source for news about the Middle East. And it's coverage of the American presidential election is offering a very interesting perspective as well.

The biggest problem I have is simply one of time. Thanks to the Internet, I could tap into all the primary and secondary information sources throughout the world -- and not get anything else done in the day. Like everyone else, I have to filter the information influx in some fashion.

My goal, though, is to do so in such a way that I don't exclude stories and ideas I don't agree with.

After all, when you circle the wagons to defend your ideology, you don't go anywhere. It's only when the wagon train stretches out, open on all sides that it can move forward. And that's the direction I'd like to keep going.

Any other sources I should consider? Let's keep the conversation going!

- Ralph

Friday, April 11, 2008

The weakest link

My last post was all about the importance of connectivity. I inadvertently illustrated that by messing up two of the links (as bkr was so kind to point out in his comment to the post). So, as Anne Robinson would say,
"Ralph, you are the weakest link. Goodbye."
And there's a good chance many readers (especially first-time visitors) did when they clicked on links that didn't work -- they said goodbye.

But there's another little web lesson to be learned here, and it's one that's been an important part of my business ethos. Sometimes what you do when things go wrong is more important than what you do to ensure they go right.

I received notice of bkr's comment about fifteen minutes ago. I immediately went into the post and discovered the two problems that caused the links to fail. They're now fixed, and I've republished the post.

And that's the lesson. Mistakes create a negative impression, so it's important to correct them in a timely fashion. For the web, most errors can usually be fixed within minutes. Most people who do business on the Internet know this, and so the longer an error is allowed to stay, the more damage is done to the company's reputation.

This was the point I was trying to make to WJMA when I pointed out month after month that they used "overseas" instead of "oversee" in their job posting.

I'm not perfect -- which is why I welcome feedback. Thanks, bkr!

- Ralph

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

WJMA, WVTF, and the weakest link

While it seems obvious to most readers of this blog (being the Internet-savvy lot that you are), the basic concepts of the web still elude many. I've written often about the website of our local radio station, WJMA. I do so primarily because it's a real-world example of the kind of mistakes businesses can make when the decision-makers don't really understand what this new medium is all about.

And what it's about are two basic things: quality content and connectivity. To make money from website traffic (either through ads or just raising brand awareness) you need something to bring the eyeballs to your site. And you need easy ways for folks to access the content once they arrive.

It's not that different from traditional retail: keep the shelves stocked with attractive merchandise, and lay out the store to encourage shopping. Yet many don't make the connection (as anyone who's tried to get any kind of online innovation approved by higher-ups baffled by e-mail can attest).

Let's take my recent flurry of posts that linked to the news pages of two radio station websites: WJMA and WVTF. Now a case can be made that this could be an unfair comparison: WJMA's a commercial station, and WVTF's public radio. WJMA has a single news reporter, and WVTF has a staff of them. Yet in both cases one news reporter was responsible for the creation and posting of the content I linked to. So let's see what happened to the folks I sent their way -- and the impact on the stations.

WJMA news site (I've also taken a screen shot of the page).
Is there anything here that invites us to stay? The local headlines still do little more than tease for stories that aren't there.
"A retired D-C police detective is running for the Culpeper Town Council."
Really? Who? What's his background? No details -- and no links. We have nowhere to go to get additional information about this cryptic piece of information. And notice the D.C. abbreviation. That's the spelling used for on-air reading to ensure the initials are pronounced correctly. Whoever posted this didn't even bother to change it to the correct form for written text.

Well, the news page is a dead end. How about the home page? From there, we can either go to the Weather Underground, or the Virginia Department of Health, but that's about it (and I'm not really sure why that's on the radio station's homepage anyway). I'm posting this in April and the scrolling banner at the top of the page is still advising me to click on Closings for the latest winter closing and cancellations.

Any traffic I send to this website is basically wasted. A visitor coming from CE Conversations sees neither quality content or relevant links, and the station derives no benefit from the visit. If the news page was a store, it would be an ill-lit dingy one with a few dusty items on mostly-empty shelves.

WVTF Captive Audio (I've taken a screen shot of this page as well)
Once again, we have a headline -- "Catching up with a member of Ol' Virginia Soul." It's just as cryptic as WJMA's, but this time there's additional information.
The stories behind the story of the Arcania record label continue. Arcania founder Brent Hosier put out a series of compact discs focusing on soul, psychedelic and garage bands that recorded around Virginia in the 1960s. WVTF's Connie Stevens has the story of Junious Bugs Hughes, featured on the Ol' Virginia Soul collection.
So now we know what Ol' Virginia Soul is, we know who's being interviewed, and we know the background of the series. Oh -- and we also know who did the story and when. Notice that the WJMA posting is anonymous (I don't think I'd want to put my name to it either), and the only clue we have about the date is a 2006 copyright notice!

Connie Stevens also provides us with a picture of Mr. Hughes, and a link so we can listen to the story. This is valuable content, with intuitive connectivity. Even though I didn't hear the segment when it was broadcast, I can still listen to it now.

The visitor who followed my link gets some useful information. And the station derives some benefit as well. The page has plenty of links to WVTF's other locally produced programs, as well as their national feeds. It also has a link so the visitor can listen online. And just reading the links gives the visitor a good overview of the station and its services (and of course ways to contribute).

Folks who click through to WJMA reach a dead end. Those who follow the links to WVTF have an entirely different experience.

And here's the other part of the equation. By linking to WVTF's Captive Audio page, we've benefited ourselves. I'm linking to this page because we're selling the CDs that are the focus of the Captive Audio series. And the Arcania International segments on WVTF started airing, sales of the discs have risen dramatically over the past month (and causing us to quickly re-press two titles). And some of those sales have come from outside WVTF's coverage area, which suggests online listening via their website.

When it's done right, the connectivity of the web can help both the linker and the object of the link. Obvious to some, but many are oblivious to it all.

- Ralph

Monday, April 07, 2008

Uncircling the Wagons

In a response to my post about citizen fact-checkers, Samuel Brainsample of the "Lots O' Thoughts" blog made very good point.
Cass Sunstein... wrote a book recently about how there is a tendency to surround yourself with like-minds online, and potentially use sorting tools (like StumbleUpon) to filter out news you might not like to hear.
And he's quite right. It's certainly not a new phenomenon. When people in major metropolitan areas had two or more newspapers available to them, the paper one subscribed to often served as an indication of their political preference. Even as newspapers consolidated, that remained true.

I grew up in the Washington area, and it made a difference if one read the Washington Post (Democrat) or the Evening Star (Republican). And after the Star's demise, the Washington Times took over the role as the conservative paper.

And of course the same holds true for TV news. Conservative friends of mine are quite content to watch Fox News and only Fox News because they like the world view it presents. The same is true of radio. Public radio is seen as a liberal news outlet, and Rush Limbaugh et al provide news and opinions for conservatives.

So it's always been easy to build an informational echo chamber that continually reflects back the same views on the same stories -- the Internet just makes the process more efficient. I've talked before about what I call the digital subdivision, and how one be online a good amount of time and only be minimally aware of what's going on.

So how do I use the Internet to keep my world view as wide as possible? Here's what I do:
  1. Rely on reputable news sources that provide a good deal of the basic information many others redistribute.
  2. Never ever listen to talking heads of any persuasion. I prefer the "Oh yeah? Says who?" approach. That is, examining the source materials and forming my own opinion.
  3. Maintain an element of randomness, so that I'm exposed to information I wouldn't otherwise see.
I accomplish this through a mix of websites, podcasts, and newspapers. Here's the ones that make up part of my morning routine:

The Internet
  • BBC International Edition -- A good overview of what's happening in the world. Anna Nichole Smith's death never rated a top headline here.
  • Physics.org -- This keeps me up with the latest science news; accurate and not watered down for the general public.
  • OpenCongress.org -- I don't need my senators and representatives telling me what kind of job they're doing. I can see for myself what bills they're sponsoring, when they're sitting on their hands, and when they're present to vote (and how they vote).
  • ArtsJournal.com -- It keeps me current with what's happening in the arts, both from the creative side, and the business/political side.
  • BoingBoing.net -- A nice compendium of random strangeness (see point 3 above).
  • Digg.com -- This is another of my randomizer sites. Most of the stories are tech-oriented, but sometimes things pop up I'd never see otherwise.
Podcasts
  • Deutsche Welle's "Inside Europe" - A weekly "Morning Edition"-style program that covers the important stories in Europe that we often miss over here (except when the consequences come to bite us in the a**).
  • This Week in Tech (TWIT) - A weekly program of all things tech. Most of the trends discussed turn up in the mainstream media months after the fact.
  • This Week in Media - A little more techy than TWIT, tis weekly program often goes into more detail about media-related issues, production, and developments.
Newspapers
  • The Washington Post -- We get the Sunday edition of this liberal newspaper, primarily for the arts and entertainment features (and the best, albeit shrinking, selection of Sunday comics offline).
  • The Richmond Times-Dispatch -- We get this conservative newspaper the other six days of the week, primarily for state news (remember, I live in Virginia). Although it does have two full pages of comics.
  • The Orange Review -- I live in Orange County, Virginia. This weekly paper is a good way to keep up with what's going on. And sometimes its about the only way.

Putting it down in a list, it seems like a lot, but its not, really. It take me about twenty minutes to read the weekday paper, and another 20 minutes to check the news sites. The podcasts, of course, I listen to throughout the week (primarily in the car).

I like to think I'm getting a broad range of basic information, but I'm sure I have some blind spots. What sites do you recommend?

- Ralph

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Arcania International on WVTF -- Part 3!

This week Connie Stevens continued her series profiling Arcania International artists on public radio station WVTF. The segment, "Captive Audio" uses Arcania's "Ol' Virginia Soul" and "Aliens, Psychos and Wild Things" compilation CDs of Virginia soul groups and garage bands of the 1960's as its starting point.

Junius Bug Hughes, who recorded "I'm Just What the Doctor Ordered" in the sixties is this week's subject. While his record didn't take him to the big time, he still managed to have a successful music career before moving back to Virginia and becoming an ordained minister.

It's an interesting story, well-told by Stevens through judicious editing and the use of background sounds.

And of course, it throws some attention to "Ol' Virginia Soul: Encore!" where Hughes' track can be found. So both as a public radio listener and the distributor of Arcania International releases, I enjoyed the segment very much!

- Ralph

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

WTJU and the Dream Pledges

As promised in my last post, here's the playlist for "Dream Babes," which aired this morning as part of WTJU's Spring Fund Drive. I'm going to try some live updating with this, so here's what I've aired as of post time!

6:00AM - 7:00AM
The Paper Dolls - Ain't Nuthin' But A House Party
Petula Clark - Sign of the Times
PP Arnold - If You Think I'm Groovy
Polly Perkins - Young Lover
Shirley Bassey - Goldfinger
Lulu- The Boat That I Row
Sandi Shaw - Girl Don't Come
Life & Soul - Bye Bye Baby
Jackie Lee - The Town That I Live In
Twiggy - Over and Over
Judi Johnson - A Way Out
The Orchids - Gonna Make You Mine
The Stockingtops - You're Never Gonna Get My Lovin'
Judi Smith - Leaves Come Tumbling Down
The Paper Dolls - Any Old Time
Jan Panter - Scratch My Back

7:00AM - 8:00AM
Julie Grant - Don't Ever Let Me Down
Barbara Ruskin - Pawnbroker, Pawnbroker
Rosetta Hightower - Pretty Red Balloons
Petula Clark - I Know a Place
The Breakways - My Sacred Love
Dani Sheridan - Guess I'm Dumb
Angelina - Wishing My Life Away
Clodough Rodgers - Come Back and Shake Me
Britt - You Really Have Started Something
Jani Jones - The Time Has Come To Choose
Sylvan - We Don't Belong
Ninette - Push A Little Button

8:00AM - 9:00AM
Jude - Morning Morgantown
Goldie and the Gingerbreads - Can't You Hear My Heartbeat?
Samantha Jones - Do I Still Figure In Your Life?
Lindsey - Lindsey's Song
Twinkle - Mickey
Val McKenna - (Your Mama Said To) Roll On
Samantha Jones - No One Wants My Love Today
Birds of a Feather - Blacksmith Blues
Lulu - Morning Dew
The Stockingtops - You Don't Know What Love Is All About
Bella & Me - Whatever Happened to the 7 Day Week?
The Paper Dolls - My Life Is In Your Hands
Vashti Bunyan - Winter Is Blue
Mally Paige - Life And Soul Of The Party
Cindy Williams - They Talk About Us
Petula Clark - Colour My World


Have you made your pledge yet? I've raised $395.00 so far (once the online pledges are added in, I'll make this a final total).

- And in an unexpected turn of events, two listeners called in to say this music sounded like Shonin Knife! All the tracks I played were recorded and produced in London circa 1963-1967, which was about two decades before Shonin Knife formed. So I'm thinking it's probably more correct to say that Shonin Knife and other Japanese groups sound like 1960's Brit pop -- instead of the other way around.

- Ralph