Monday, June 23, 2008

The Media Guru, Paul Levinson talks radio, media, and his new book

About 10 years ago my sister gave me a book for my birthday entitled The Soft Edge, by Paul Levinson. My head was deep in the "dot com" boom, and at the time, I was living in Copenhagen working for a large Yahoo-esque portal called Jubii. Those were heady days indeed. The current Web 2.0 push - while still exciting - cannot compare to the confusion and optimism I was experiencing in 1998. I had my own instincts, but was hearing crazy stuff like "profits are no longer relevant", and major companies like NBC were already proclaiming that television was a thing of the past (anyone remember the original It felt like all the rules had gone out the window, and we were rapidly heading towards some kind informational singularity utopia, but with little or no direction beyond "The Internet".

The Soft Edge was the closest thing I had to a compass. For those that have never heard of it, "Edge" is a history of media, and media revolutions. Recommended.

While I can't recall everything in the book, here are a few things that really stuck with me that I never knew before reading it:

  1. The printing press was invented in China, hundreds of years before Gutenberg was even born. It never took off in the same way as Gutenberg's, mainly due to the inherent complexity of Chinese script.
  2. Levison argued that Gutenberg's printing press filled a necessary pre-requisite for the European settlement of The Americas. Namely, it would not have been possible to convince the greater masses of the existence and opportunities in The Americas without a means of direct and reliable communication coming from the Kings and Queens of the time. In other words, a key piece of the "broken telephone" puzzle had been solved. A problem that hindered the Vikings from settling North America, even though they had discovered it earlier.
  3. Black and White photography, while thought to be doomed after the invention of colour photography, found a respectable niche after it was recognized that colour could obscure an image's essence. As a side bar, you might say that Mr. Levinson indirectly helped shape TUN3R and bolster our own convictions that a B&W Dial is more usable than a colour Dial.
  4. Radio's eventual popularity was almost accidental. Levinson points out that Marconi invented radio communication as an improvement over Bell's invention of the wireline telephone. Marconi set out to create a wireless telephone, but the radio technology quickly took on an unintended life of its own as a one-to-many broadcast medium. How's that for serendipity!

After reading this, you might take Mr. Levinson as a full time media researcher/theorist, kind of like Marshall McLuhan. Far from it. Paul has one of those epic careers that would make anyone green with envy. He started out as both a singer and songwriter, then moved into radio production. He has since spent a great amount of time in academia, earning all manner of degrees and distinctions, and is now the Chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. During this period, Paul has published several books both non-fiction and fiction (mainly science fiction). He has also served as President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

I believe that Paul is one of those rare guys you actually want to be sitting next to on an eleven hour Greyhound bus ride from Toronto to Wawa. So by that key measure, I feel incredibly fortunate that he has agreed to this interview.

Q1 Neil: Thank you so very much for giving me some of your time and insights. You write about media, but you're also a part of it. I want to first learn more about your radio background. What did you mainly focus on as a radio producer, and how has that experience factored into your writing and teaching?

A1 Paul: I put together "sets" for Murray the K and Wolfman Jack - groups of records around a similar theme. For example, for Murray, one of my favorites was a "law and order" set, consisting of "Take a Message to Mary," "I Fought the Law," "Indiana Wants Me," "Gotta Get a Message to You," "Tom Dooley," etc. The "set" idea originated with Murray, when he pioneered FM progressive radio on WOR-FM radio in NYC in the mid-1960s. Murray and Wolfman were attempting to make Top 40 radio more sophisticated when I worked with them at NBC Radio in NYC in the early 1970s.

This behind-the-scenes work in radio gave me keen insight into all that goes into a seemingly live, unscripted medium such as radio - I often make that point to my students. As for my writing, no disk jockeys have yet appeared in my fiction, but music from that era populates most of my science fiction novels - music recordings make good markers for time travel stories.

Q2 Neil: You worked with "Murray the K" and "Wolfman Jack". What were these guys like to work with? What do these DJs have in common? Are there contemporary DJs you've seen that compare?

A2 Paul: Both were egomaniacs, but I'm more or less one too, so we got along fine. Murray and I had more in common - I'd been a fan of his since I'd first heard him on WINS radio in the late 1950s (I was 12 years old, then). In fact, Murray invited me to work with him after reading my "Murray the K in Nostalgia's Noose" (not my title, just a line in an article I had published in the Village Voice in 1972). It was my second published article. (My first was in defence of Paul McCartney.) Wolfman Jack was a tough-as-nails businessman - behind that big hug lurked a lot of industry know-how. Bob Shannon, long on WCBS-FM Radio in NYC, is about the closest to Murray and Wolfman nowadays. Shannon has a lot of Murray and Wolfman's historical savvy, maybe even more.

Q3 Neil:
Changing lanes now. There is clearly a trend towards on-demand, and personalization (think iPod, YouTube, PVRs). The trade-off (as I see it), is a loss of The Shared Experience (i.e. many people having the same experience at the same time). Television and Radio defined the mass Shared Experience, but it is less common with the PVR (I love my PVR btw). I reckon that radio will survive for some time as a primarily live medium, but for how much longer I can't say. Do you believe that we are indeed giving up on The Shared Experience and living in our own media cocoons. Is the Shared Experience going through transition, or will history see it as a 20th century fossil?

A3 Paul: I don't know that radio - at least insofar as a rock 'n' roll medium - was ever primarily a completely shared experience. Of course, when a record is played on the radio, all listeners hear it at the same time. But almost all of them are not in the same place. So is that a shared experience? In the non-mediated pre-technological world, a shared experience entailed seeing the faces of those in the sharing, hearing their voices.

Nowadays, listening to a CD or mp3 or radio station in my car is pretty much the same experience as listening to radio - except that I have no control over what's on the radio, which can be pleasantly surprising. (The iPod shuffle is a limited form of this surprise - because I'm the one who programmed it in the first place.)

I think this exhilarating lack of control over live radio will keep it kicking for a long time - maybe even forever. It's part of what I call the "media ecological niche" - radio can do something we enjoy, that no other medium can. The other parts of the niche, for radio, come from the fact that we can listen to radio while doing other things - this makes radio different from reading a book, jumping around online, or even watching television. Indeed, this is part of what enabled radio to survive the ascent of television in 1950s (the other part was rock 'n' roll). But it's true of all acoustic media - CDs and mp3s as well as radio. I therefore think it is the lack of control we have over radio that will keep it viable in an age of mp3s.

Q4 Neil: This is a similar question. In The Soft Edge you discuss how after the invention of colour photography, Black and White photography repurposed itself. Given radio's small decline in numbers (although it is still one of the most popular mass mediums), do you see radio going through a repurposing of its own? If so, where do you see broadcast radio's strengths? What do you think radio broadcasters should be focusing on to stay relevant to younger audiences in the 21st century?

Well, adding to what I said in Q3 above: Radio's been wrongly counted out at least twice. First, when television came on strong in the 1950s, and co-opted radio's serial, sitcom, soap opera, and news programming. Radio defied all expectations, and became more profitable than ever was a medium of rock 'n' roll. Second, contrary to "Video Killed the Radio Star," radio survived MTV quite well - the Buggles had it wrong. Broadcast radio's main, enduring strength is that you can turn it on, and then do whatever else you like, and be pleasantly surprised by what the radio gives to you. It is a multi-tasking medium par excellence - you can drive to it, wake up to it, etc. Radio broadcasters in the 21st century should just keep surprising its listeners with great mixes of music. A good DJ can help, too.

Meanwhile, talk radio adds the additional factor of listening to other listeners speak. And, of course, the DJ in talk radio is essential to that use of the medium.

Q5 Neil: A topic that's near and dear to my heart is Custom Radio vs. Human DJ mixed radio. While I believe the current spate of Custom Radio (e.g., is a far cry from what a decent human DJ can pull off, I wonder more about Custom Radio's potential. Do you think that the Human DJ's days are numbered, and by extension do you think that within the next 25 years we'll see chart toppers composed entirely by computer algorithms?

A5 Paul: Much as I love a good DJ, they're hard to find. The upshot for your question: I think a good DJ is always better than what any kind of computer mix can put together. But a good computer mix is better than the average DJ. What makes a DJ good: a combination of incredible savvy about the music, and a good sense of humor - Bob Shannon, as I mentioned above, is a good current example. My guess is that human DJs will continue, but as more of a specialty item than is the case today. I would therefore expect that, 25 years from now, we'll definitely have some humans beating along with the algorithms.

Q6 Neil: You're both a media commentator/theorist/futurist and a sci-fi writer. Do you approach the two as one-and-the-same? I'm guessing there's a lot of entanglement here. Do you have any examples of how a sci-fi idea influenced your non-fiction writing/teaching and vice versa?

A6 Paul: My critics often say that my non-fiction reads like science fiction, and my science fiction deals with important media issues - I take that as compliment, though it often isn't meant that way (hey, wringing compliments from insult is a fine art, and, I think, essential to anyone in the creative arts). I started writing my doctoral dissertation, "Human Replay: A Theory of the Evolution of Media" (1979) at the same time as a time travel novel, back in the 1970s. I soon found I was enjoying the novel so much, I didn't want to write the dissertation. So I put the novel aside. (The first part was published as "Loose Ends," an award nominated novella, in the 1990s.) By the late 1990s, I was able to write Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium and my first science fiction novel, The Silk Code at the same time - and both were indeed published in 1999. Much of The Plot to Save Socrates (2006 science fiction) and Cellphone: The Story of the World's Most Moble Medium (2004) were written at the same time. Right now I'm writing my next nonfiction book, New New Media, and two science fiction novels - Unburning Alexandria (sequel to The Plot to Save Socrates), and a new Phil D'Amato novel. I'm also working on a television script (science fiction).

So, yeah, all of my writing comes from the same source, and sometimes it comes out as science fiction and sometimes scholarly non-fiction. In The Consciousness Plague, science fiction from 2002, I pick up on the question of why the Norse discovery of America in 1000 AD had so little world impact - an issue I explore at length in The Soft Edge in 1997. And I explored questions of physical v. cyberpresence in The Pixel Eye, science fiction from 2003, and Realspace: The Fate of Physical Presence in the Digital Age, also published in 2003.

Writing fiction, in general, is like daydreaming. Writing nonfiction is more like just thinking, or hearing myself talk. I enjoy doing both, and having each spill over into the other is entirely natural (at least, to me).

Q7 Neil: This is a variation of a stock question I like to ask: Let's say a director like Darren Aronofsky or Shane Carruth came to you to make a movie based one of your books (published or imagined), and asked for your input to select a piece of music that would set the tone for the movie. What would you choose to suggest, and in what context?

A7 Paul: First, I'd be thrilled. But in answer to your question: John Lennon's "Across the Universe" is one of my all-time favorite songs, and performances. It always brings tears to my eyes and heart. It would work in movies from any of my novels - not just Borrowed Tides, (2001) about the first starship to Alpha Centauri. It would probably work best in a movie made of my "Loose Ends" saga - since Lennon's murder may well play a role in its ending (which I have not yet completely written - so far, three parts of four have been published of the saga - all as long short fiction). A character in an earlier segment is already talking about "Real Love," which also breaks my heart every time I hear it.

Q8 Neil: I started using the Internet in 1991. I was a big Usenet junkie, and remember a time before SPAM and AOLers. There was a sense of optimism that lasted well into 2001. I naïvely thought that the Internet would lead to a greater enlightenment, and that most bullcrap would be weeded out through trust networks. But Fox News seems to do just fine. Are we better informed than before the Internet, or do we just think we are?

A8 Paul: Fox News is largely irrelevant - the Internet, not television (broadcast and cable), and certainly not newspapers any longer, is where people are increasingly getting their news. Obama's getting the Democratic nomination, and Hillary Clinton coming close to it, are examples of the enlightening effect of the Internet - an African-American and a woman would not have done that well even a decade ago. Wikipedia, YouTube, Digg, hundreds of blogs in different ways are getting out the truth. I think these "new new media" - in which readers and viewers are writers and producers - are fulfilling some of the optimism that was felt about the Web in 2000. It was just a little early. In fact, I'm flatly predicting that the neo-con Republican party will go the way of the Federalists and the Whigs in the US, in the next 20 years. How's that for optimism?

Q9 Neil: You're working on a new book called "New New Media" scheduled for a 2009 publication. Can you briefly describe what the book is about? Do you have any plans beyond this horizon?

A9 Paul: New New Media is about the revolution in user-driven media that I mentioned in my answer to Question 8. For the first time in history, experts are being replaced by everyone as sources of information and knowledge. Blogging, YouTube, Wikipedia, Digg, MySpace, Facebook, Second Life, these and other leaders of the new new media revolution will be the subject of my book - which will explore what is gained by this overthrow of gatekeeping, but also what may be risked (there is no such thing as a 100% beneficial technology).

Other projects:


The Flouting of the First Amendment, about how Congress and the FCC have systematically spat in the face of John Milton and Thomas Jefferson, and endangered the freedom of all Americans with unconstitutional fining and bullying of broadcasters, The New Golden Age of Television, how The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost, 24, Dexter, Rome, The Tudors, to name a few, have made current television the best it's ever been, and every bit as good or better than current theater and movies.


Unburning Alexandria (sequel to The Plot to Save Socrates), new Phil D'Amato novel (Phil has appeared in three novels and three short stories so far), and a sequel to Borrowed Tides. And a pilot for a television series that I'm co-writing, but can't say anything more about, without risking being kidnapped and never heard from again.

1 comment:

inthistogether said...

To Paul,
Dammit Levinson -- the more i see andresad by you and about you the more respect i have for you. Now ya got me runnin to the bookstore!!
('n btw -- take care)