The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Friday, April 18, 2003
A RADIO FABLE: "The radio is an instrument that kills communication; it robs people of their tongues; it broadcasts the voice of a single individual to millions of listeners, reducing them to passive recepticles. If communication has the same root as common and community, the radio is an instrument for uprooting all three." --Fredy Perlman

"The audience was believed to consist of an individual, whose intention was to listen. The listening individual was assumed to have an alertness, an intelligence, an interest and an attention-span commensurate with those of the persons preparing and airing the program. There was no wish to persuade persons in the audience to listen beyond the range of their interests or at the sacrifice of their preoccupations....It was, in fact, a hopeful assumption that the radio would be turned off, or to another frequency, when KPFA's particular program had less than the compelling value for the audience of one." --Lewis Hill

July 23, 1997: my first sustained exposure to Adult Album Alternative radio. I was driving across Wyoming, scanning the FM dial, when I stumbled on what seemed at first to be the local public station. It turned out to be the state public station: a single signal originating at the University of Wyoming and rebounding off translators in every corner of the territory. Each translator had its own call letters, but they all sounded the same and they all sounded terrible: imagine an Adult Contemporary version of Alternative Rock -- the Clash as heard through a Kenny Loggins lens, dimly -- and then imagine your tax dollars paying for it.

I was running ahead of schedule, so I took a quick detour to Laramie, to find out just who was putting this music on the air. The answer: a machine. The program director kept up with all the latest charts and focus-group studies and plugged them into a computer, then out came a playlist. Or so he had told the fellow I was speaking with, who seemed rather skeptical about the process. "Someone's making the decisions," he told me. "I don't think there's an artificial intelligence in the computer."

Maybe, maybe not. There's not so great a difference between a tin ear and a silicon one.

I was on my way to Colorado and the second annual Grassroots Radio Conference, a gathering of broadcasters who would never dream of asking a machine which songs to play. I was excited: I had been researching my
radio book all year, and I was full of passion for the medium. It was two months before the FCC would start seriously cracking down on the micro radio movement.

As I neared the Colorado state line, I caught a whiff of something burning. To my right, firemen were fighting a blaze that had wiped out at least an acre of grass, leaving a long stretch of charred nothingness.

posted by Jesse 8:09 PM
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