BY MATTHEW PARSONS
If I were the king of Facebook, everybody’s news feeds would show a constant stream of Peter Gabriel videos and radio documentaries.
Alas, we do not live in that utopia, and this might just be for the best.But the vast difference between my Platonic ideal of Facebook and the material reality of it does beg the question: where’s all the radio? Honestly, I’m pretty sure that the only radio pieces that have ever hit my news feed have been shared by other people who make radio. Even the eminently concise and, one would think, shareable 99% Invisible can’t seem to get through the radio-impermeable membrane that surrounds the Book of Face. This is a problem and here’s why:
Radio is the last bastion for the long-form interview, and as far as I’m concerned, the long-form interview is one of the most satisfying things that journalists do. (I know, I know. Long things don’t work on Facebook. Give me a minute; I’m getting there.) Given the time to properly establish the tone, a good interviewer can coax a guest to reveal thoughts, anecdotes and reflections that you’d never hear in short-form television spots. The result is this: when interesting people say meaningful things in a public forum, that forum is very often the radio.
So there’s a giant, important part of the public discourse that is almost completely absent on Facebook. I can think of a specific example when I really felt that void. Remember when Reza Aslan did that horrible Fox News interview where the host just couldn’t wrap her head around the notion that a Muslim historian could write a book about Jesus without having an anti-Christian agenda? That blew up, and deservedly so. Watching Aslan disassemble host Lauren Green was the catharsis of the year, for me and probably many others.
But the scale of that interview’s idiocy could have been better understood with a bit of supplemental material. Perhaps the most blatantly awful moment of the spot was when Green accused Aslan of never having disclosed his religious views during an interview. Let’s ignore the fact that this would be basically inconsequential if true, and focus on the fact that the previous week, Aslan had delivered a stunning and deeply sincere account of his personal spiritual journey on NPR’s flagship interview show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
Given Aslan’s cultural cachet in July 2013—partially because of his then-recent book Zealot, but mostly because of the Fox debacle—the Terry Gross interview should have been making the rounds on Facebook. I can see the headlines now: “Here’s what happens when you put Reza Aslan in a room with a good interviewer.” But, no dice. I wouldn’t have even known that Gross interviewed Aslan if I was less of a radio geek.
Radio never makes it on to Facebook, and that means that there’s a giant hole in pretty much everybody’s intellectual life.
When I started thinking about this post, I was interested in posing solutions. At some point, I came up with what seemed like a completely brilliant idea: radio shows should look to late night television as a model for how to make their content shareable. Think about how John Oliver’s new show Last Week Tonight has been handling its online presence: break up the episodes into digestible thematic chunks, put them up on YouTube, and eventually your breakdown of net neutrality is all over Facebook and Twitter, it’s responsible for crashing the FCC’s comments system, and it’s provoking the ire of the people you were satirizing.
Network and basic cable shows like Conan tend to be pretty good at this, too. Anecdotally, I see a lot of videos from late-night talk shows on my news feed. Most of them seem to involve Benedict Cumberbatch. I’m not sure how to account for that.
Anyway, late night shows are designed to manufacture “moments,” and I use the word “manufacture” carefully. Here’s a moment. Here’sanother. Radio interview shows generally don’t work like this—at least not explicitly—and thank God. But a good radio interview is full of a less ostentatious kind of “moments.” So, I was thinking, what if producers took advantage of that the way that late night shows do? They could cut one or two clips of maybe four minutes apiece from each show: “Reza Aslan talks about finding Jesus and returning to Islam,” “David Letterman talks about making Johnny Carson laugh.”
Now, I suggested earlier that this may be something other than a completely brilliant idea. Well, here’s the thing. Radio shows are already doing this. And, even I had no idea, and I’m a radio geek, so it’s obviously not working as well as it should. I suspect I know why this might be: because they’re doing it on SoundCloud. Don’t get me wrong, SoundCloud is great. I love the way that you can comment on a specific part of a clip and it shows up on that part of the waveform. YouTube should do that. But, in the same way that nobody just browses Vimeo, nobody thinks of SoundCloud when they’re looking for interview clips. Even the cherished Radiolab gets only around 15–25,000 listens on an average clip; compare that with John Oliver’s show, which regularly breaks a million. In relying on SoundCloud for all of their shareability needs, radio programs are effectively ghettoizing themselves.
But, there’s a deeper problem here, namely that, online, people need constant visual stimulation to keep their attention. Nobody listens to online audio and just stares at the timecode while the numbers get bigger. But, I’d argue that radio’s lack of picture is a virtue for the digital age, in one respect: it’s great for mobile devices. You can listen to a podcast, or play through interview clips while you’re riding your bike, or walking to the grocery store. Radio can maintain your interest while leaving your eyes free to do other tasks.
But that doesn’t compensate for the shareability problem. There must be a way for radio to harness the ubiquity of YouTube as a shareable-media-hosting platform. And no, videos with no video are not the answer, because they’re hacky. (There’s a reason that the one I just linked to wasn’t actually posted by NPR: they know better.) Maybe the answer is actually filming radio interviews, like CBC’s Q does. But, that removes the part of radio’s appeal that stems from the lack of picture. My data plan can’t handle that much video streaming, and I’m not in the habit of taking my life in my hands by watching YouTube while I’m crossing the street.
Well, looks like I’ve reached an impasse with myself, and once again, I’m unable to answer the question I posed in the title of my post. If you’re reading this, and you care about radio, I implore you to try and finish my thought for me. If you have the big idea that I don’t, please make it happen. If I were the king of Facebook, we wouldn’t have this problem. But then, if I were the king of Facebook, nobody would use it. ♦
Image via LIFE Photo Collection, Google Cultural Institute