The Best Show on WFMU – 2009 Marathon, originally uploaded by notladj.
So it’s something of an annual ritual (see here and here) for Abject Learning to offer its meagre but heartfelt mojo to the WFMU Fundraising Marathon (background here). As I’ve written in the past, the legendary freeform station is a towering cultural touchstone in our home, and the sense of adventure and fun with which they pursue their mission is a constant source of inspiration. They are a model of a pre-digital organization enhancing their profile through the intelligent embrace of open digital media (archives, search, blog, MP3s and podcasts) without sacrificing the values that made them special in the first place. They are leading the way on the Free Music Archive which is set to launch next month, and offer a home to projects like the astonishing avante-garde archive UbuWeb.
It was a treat for me to discover this video of Station Manager (and dream keynote) Ken Freedman talking about WFMU’s “Open Source Marriage of Audio, Music & Radio“: webgeek stuff like MySQL databases and RSS feeds, the lunacy of present copyright law and industry stances with respect to noncommercial culture, and just generally sounding like he wouldn’t be out of place at one of my favorite conferences…
Thinking about what I could add to my previous years’ posts, I was struck by my memories of a post Mike Caulfield wrote some time back. I know lots of people love the automated music services such as Pandora and Last.FM, and certainly I understand the appeal. But for reasons that Mike articulates much better than I can, I always find myself amused but unmoved by these services. The automated services, no matter how intelligent, no matter how wired into real social activity, end up feeling somehow sterile to me. And if I put special effort into my channel I will like the music I get back, but eventually I start to feel as if I am in an echo chamber of my own making. Mike writes: “A web radio show of the KEXP or WFMU type is put together by a person. And to listen to it is in some sense to engage in a dialogue with that person.”
And that’s exactly it. When I connect with a WFMU DJ, I will often be delighted and surprised, and I will sometimes feel bored and even mildly offended. But I will be connecting over weekly hits with a human consciousness that takes the creation of a playlist seriously… someone who links songs together in an act of personal sensemaking, often with something like a creative or narrative arc. The typical musical flow is 30-40 minutes of music followed by 5-10 (and yes, sometimes 15) minutes of patter. And in the age of Last.FM (or, for that matter the excellent and much more streamlined CBC Radio 3), some people find that extended human interaction intolerable. And I’ll admit, I listen mostly on the archives and I frequently scan through the mic breaks. But if the music is great, chances are the stories and tidbits behind it are great as well, and the chance to hear an articulate and engaging person share those things can end up being great radio.
So in a sense, my support of WFMU endorses a vision of the web that understands its awesome power, that accepts the imperatives for comprehensive change, yet refuses to relinquish the human sensemaking and communication elements from the equation. I would hope for nothing less from my own practice.
The marathon (which is pretty much the station’s sole means of support, no ads, no foundation grants, no underwriting) is probably not the best time to be introduced to the station. If you are new, it’s just a bunch of people you don’t know asking for money. If you want to check the station out, I suggest going to the advanced playlist search, and entering the name of an artist you love. You’ll almost certainly be rewarded with a list of DJs and specific shows that have that artist, and you are quite likely to enjoy what those DJs are spinning.
But for those of us who love WFMU, the marathon is oddly enough a time where the station seems to elevate its game, where there is a pervasive sense of “expectation and a sense of occasion.” Keira noted that part of this energy derives from the unusual pairings of DJs with disparate musical and personal styles which brings out usually unheard elements of their personalities (and occasional acts of litigation and violence if Kenny G is involved). The pledge-drive culminates in a riotous on-air party and live karaoke show known as the Hoof and Mouth Sinfonia in which most of the DJs perform songs via live videostream. As I’ve written in the past, it’s kind of like Super Bowl Sunday at our house. I could only wish that the funding/business side of more organizations could be handled with such spirit of celebration.
If you don’t know the station and love free culture, check WFMU out. And if you feel prepared to support it, there’s lots of great swag and premiums to help ease the dollars out of your wallet.
Man, you just about said everything that I love about WFMU in one blog post.
Connection is one of the many reasons I still prefer WFMU to services like Pandora. When I was younger there were nights when I was unable to sleep because I felt alone and anxious. My fix was to put on the radio, because it felt like someone else was out there too, awake with me. It just a connection that doesn’t occur on Pandora. Its not so much about what is playing, but the DJ playing it.
WFMU is more than just a radio station. Its a place of free thought and free culture, it is just good stuff.
Thanks for pledging to help keep the awesomeness of WFMU going, you rock Brian!
This was a recurring theme at Northern Voice – the power of intelligent curation as opposed to the Wisdom of the Crowd. Crowds are dumb. People are smart. Smart people curating great content is powerful.
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Shannon – I noticed you pledged as well. Whenever it is we meet, I look forward to the radio equivalent of a geek-out talking about our favorite DJs and shows. Radio is a very intimate medium, as you capture so well… and in the commercial-free environment that feel just intensifies. Let’s keep the rock rolling!
D’Arcy – I am surprised that I got through this post without using the word “curatorial”… technology can make it easier for us to find, assemble and re-present the stuff — and I think ‘the crowd’ can help me in all those processes — but (and maybe this is my vestigial old-dude vibe coming out) ultimately I want the sense of a human consciousness being communicated. That’s why the idea of automatically generated learning content leaves me cold, but why I love the idea of educational remix.
I agree with the “Kenny G & violence” thing
“Smart people curating great content is powerful.”
You said it, brother. That’s one reason I love my teachers so much. They’re DJs of the mind and the records they spin keep me moving.
Plus, as an old radio DJ, I love all the radio love here. Makes me wish I could go back and do it again, although it’d have to be on an Internet station, as all the open-air stations have been commodified beyond endurance.
Brian, this is indeed an amazing post. I wish we were shopping for vinyl right now. Then back for a listening session. Did you did Lester Bangs on the Guess Who?
I completely agree with almost everything here… though the comparison of a good radio program and Pandora or Last.FM seems a bit of a misfit. Apples and organges. Cakes and steaks. Whatever. Sure, if I listened to nothing but Pandora (particularly– the lumping together of Pandora and Last.FM is frustrating since they are quite different in operation, character and flavor) then it becomes an echo chamber… partly because they don’t use the human data to enable connections in quite the same way, but similarly if I eat nothing but cake I eventually get rather sick of it. Last.FM costs nothing in time or effort and yet has revealed to me wonderful connections to music and people and, in a way that other formats can’t, has revealed interesting things to me about *myself*. I’m grateful for that.
But I don’t see it as any kind of replacement for something like WFMU and I join you in celebrating what they do so well…
Gardner – You know how much I love the educator as DJ metaphor (and I am excited to know that Scott Leslie is working up a keynote on that theme.) I made a point of reading the Guess Who entry based on my memory of your recommendation. One of the funnier pieces in the book, and presented an image of Burton Cummings quite different than I would have expected.
Chris – Thanks for your comment. I’ll acknowledge my grasp of Pandora is shaky (in part because it is blocked from Canadian users, and it’s been a long time since I’ve used it). And I have enjoyed music that Last.FM has sent my way and have seen some of my friends do amazing things with it. (One feature I love is the way it integrates with live concert announcements in your area.) Having said that, I was expressing my honest impression of my own experience with these services… Maybe misguided, but I didn’t mean to be unfair or to slag people who feel differently.
Brian – I didn’t take it that way at all, just wanted to point out that Last.FM handles recommendations, in particular, in a completely different way from Pandora… a way that is more human and surprising because it is based on what people actually listen to rather than what they say they listen to or a catalog of musical features. Pandora is what I turn to when I want something predictable, even if new… Last.FM is what I turn to when I want to discover something new that I might never have connected myself.
It’s an important difference in this context, I think. Pandora is like some broad but relatively shallowly listening friend picking out music similar to what you have liked… Last.FM is like listening over the shoulder of people who can make a connection, no matter how personal and twisted, between say Wagner and Iron Maiden– much more like a real experience with human friends, which is the best of all and what a good radio DJ gets closest to…