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It Talks


an essay by Lyn Gallacher

Take a glimpse inside this radio station. It’s fictional but typical. It’s called DEF Radio and it broadcasts nationally on the AM band which, as everyone knows, is dying. Like most media organisations on the wrong end of technology DEF plans to extend its audience by using the internet but it’s a transition no one is sure how to make. Here in the studio the program makers are generally happy with the idea of an increased web presence but they have no idea what this, or radio without radio, actually means and how it will affect their working lives.


DEF’s major daily current affairs show The World As We Know It is about to go to air. The producer in the control room cues the presenter on the other side of the glass. The technical operator fades the music down. The microphone light glows red. And … it talks.


Hello and welcome to the program. Today on DEF Radio a debate about art and pornography. Where does one end and the other begin? To discuss this with me are protagonists from each side of this hot potato. They’ll argue, from their fixed positions, leaving you, the listener with exactly the same view on the subject that you had before. Also coming up …


DEF is one of the better places to work. Most of the staff have been around for decades and, while this means lots of experience within the organisation, there’s not much new blood. It’s unusual. Most media organisations have a high turnover of staff. Cadets are usually run ragged while they’re young and hungry and by 42 they’re well and truly burnt out. Career over. But here at DEF many burnt-out broadcasters are still on air, mostly because it’s too late for them to do anything else with their lives. They are good, capable journalists and program makers, but the fact that they’re wearing out at the same time as the media landscape is changing around them makes their life doubly difficult. They know they have to remain relevant to the next generation if they are to survive—they just don’t know how.


One way of making this happen is to encourage young people to contribute to the network, which is why here at DEF the new buzz word is UGC; an acronym which stands for user generated content. It goes with the slogan don’t hate the media, be the media and what it basically means that listeners can use the DEF website to post and webcast their own creations. The vision is that young people everywhere will upload their stories to DEF and thus become loyal users of the website and perhaps loyal listeners to the radio. It’s a long shot and it comes under the heading of citizen journalism. Anyone can do it. All you need is to be in the right place at the right time with a mobile phone camera and when you see an accident don’t call the emergency services, call the media. Even if you’re not actually there you can still ring or SMS your opinion of the latest disaster to any network willing to listen. News is now geared to this kind of audience involvement and while it may or may not be the way of the future it is frightening the life out of old-fashioned journalists.


Older journalists, brought up in the school-of-hard-knocks, were taught to believe in concepts such as truth, balance and objectivity. They were taught to check and re-check their facts and tell the story from both sides of the argument. There were editorial guidelines for moral dilemmas, training classes in deformation law, seminars on protecting your sources and workshops for resolving ethical issues. Now, young reporters resolve tricky issues by calling the information technology hotline.


All this marks a shift in the style of news that is broadcast. Everything is now from the point of view of the observer. It’s eyewitness reporting. Emotions rule. Facts are secondary, because they come and go and no one remembers them, whereas emotions linger and can still be talked about the next day in the office. All of which means context is simply where you’re standing at the time (and news editors would prefer it if that position was as close to the action as possible—never mind the bullets). Best of all for the network, these amateur citizen journalists (who are becoming better equipped and more savvy all the time) don’t need to be paid. They buy their own gear, pay their own travel, risk their own lives and do it for five seconds of fame. It’s a beautiful thing.


….later in the program, an intriguing look at frog sex and the sub-prime mortgage crisis. But first we’re joined, in the studio, by Wayne Carey.


Wayne, I’ve heard that religion has given new meaning to your life?


Well yes. I’ve turned over a new leaf. I needed something other than AFL in my life.


Do you have any advice for young people today?


Get a lawyer.


Wayne Carey – thank you for speaking with us today.


DEF Radio gives free advice to those who listen. After reality radio it’s the next most popular form of broadcasting and sits well alongside the paid messages from the sponsors. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between program content, advice and advertising.


After the program is over it’s time for an editorial meeting. These happen at the end of each day in order to plan for the next. The broadcasters hunch in their chairs. Program meetings are power plays.


What’s on the board for tomorrow?


Teenage eating disorders.


We’ve already done it.


What about prostitution in small country towns?


Done it.


There’s a story about farmers suiciding because of the drought, that could be interesting.


Is there a new angle?




It’s so bloody worthy.


There’s a new report on global warming that says Arctic ice is likely melt in three years rather than fifteen.


OK then. But I don’t want to hear from Greenpeace.


The story ideas being put forward here have no reality except that they are blocks of time to fill the next day’s program. Yet, these editorial conversations are the fulcrum of the network’s existence. They decide what goes to air and what doesn’t. It’s interesting then that they are also the place for one journalist to advance their standing over another. The audience is a secondary consideration, much more important is keeping an eye on whose story goes first, who gets the most air time, and who’s stealing whose ideas. It’s this sense of competition that fuels the daily treadmill and gets the adrenalin pumping inside the studio. There’s even the chance of winning a Walkley, and while this competition is useful, upholding the standards of journalism etc, it also reduces the world to what happens inside the studio.


Can you find someone to slag the nuns who set up that heroin injecting room in Kings Cross? I don’t care who they are. We need someone to slag the nuns because we need balance.


Yes! We’ve dumped global warming. Do something on dairy deregulation instead.


Aboriginal cultural copyright is on hold. It was only ever a backup story.


Can you edit 15 seconds out of germ warfare? We’ll also need an early out on global debt.


Someone answer that fucking phone and don’t tell me I have to update my software. Not now.


These are the kind of thought processes which define what goes to air and not only do they shape the program, they also shape our media landscape, and our view of the world. It’s important, then, to remember that stories generated within this environment are not what they seem. They are defined more by the program structure and brief than they are by the world from which they spring. They fit the world into a template; which is why every day the news seems more or less the same. Each broadcast is not actually a reflection of the day but rather a reflection of the day defined by certain conventions, such as: top story— short, strong, local, news; second story—also local but can be a soft news story; third story— national news; fourth story— global news; fifth story— local human interest; then it’s over to finance, sport, the weather, and a colour piece. The narratives that unfold within these segments also follow certain rules and journalistic clichés. The lead is read by the presenter who throws to the journalist, who says much the same thing over again, but this time with a few examples and some punchy grabs from the talent. The story then concludes with a summary sentence or a joke. Then it’s back to the presenter for another story with a similar structure. So, the news is made up before a journalist even gets anywhere near it.


Of course, all of this is true, not just of the news, but of most other programs on TV and radio, and it is true of articles in newspapers and magazines as well. Just on TV it applies to gardening shows, reality shows, quiz programs, arts programs and even drama. The most inventive use of television as a medium is often in the commercial breaks. But take, for instance, a simple, popular, program like Collectors on ABC TV. After two episodes a viewer could easily predict the format of a third and also predict how the format will shape the content. Every week there’s a mystery object. Every week there’s a guessing game about an auction. No one story (or collection) will take up more than its allotted air time.  No one will disapprove of the collector or the collection. The panel and the presenter will be self-consciously enthusiastic and will have been allotted one question each. Like most shows it’s built around the comfortable concept of pattern recognition, which is natural given this is the way our brains are wired.  But it doesn’t explain why all programs have to conform to such tyrannical and arbitrary rules. Even in areas where you might expect a little more creativity, like arts journalism, there’s often a set formula. If it’s a play, interview the director (with a grab from the show). If it’s a dance, interview the choreographer (with a grab from the show). If it’s an orchestra, interview the conductor (with a grab from the show). Ask each guest why they did it, what they think they achieved, and what they’re planning next. That’s the interview. It makes life easy for everyone. All the presenter has to do is look interested, smile and be famous, but what does it do to us as viewers to watch story after story conforming to such arbitrary constraints? Does it make us feel comfortable? Relaxed? Does it prepare us for dementia and stop us from recognising other more unusual aspects of the world which can’t be represented in this fashion? Are we programming ourselves to expect and enjoy only the predictable? If this is the case then how can media managers be expected to steer their networks towards brave new digital horizons? Will they attempt to take their pre-packaged program ideas into the new age? It’s hard to see why not. Like us they’ve been trained to think in predictable loops.


Looking at the media landscape at present, you can see that the old world has not yet died, and the new world has not yet arisen. In this in-between, program makers and media managers are struggling. The ground is shifting so fast that some of them are beginning to lose faith in themselves and what they do, and perhaps this is right, perhaps they are yesterday’s news. In August 2008 Fairfax media announced plans to cut 5% of its workforce. That’s around 550-600 jobs here and in New Zealand. It is expected the cuts will largely be to staff at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.


We are in an age of ongoing and profound media transition and it is bad news for institutions at the wrong end of technology, such as traditional newspapers, AM radio and free to air television. All over the world organisations are worried. On his blog deuze.blogspot.com, media commentator Mark Deuze says that in the United States the media workforce is continually shrinking. He cites IWantMedia, an organisation which tracks jobs in the industry and notes that the only area of the media that’s booming is marketing. Creative talent, he says, which would once have gone into journalism, is disappearing into a void of contingent, uncontracted, insecure, freelance working arrangements. Added to this, jobs being lost in print, radio and TV are not being matched by jobs gained in digital. Instead, content makers who remain on staff in these traditional media organisations are being asked to work harder with less and file for both media at once. So at a place like DEF Radio, for example, this means fewer people making more radio, and those same people taking responsibility for what goes online as well.


It’s called technological determinism, which is fine, but the old world is receding before the new one has arrived. We’re midway through a very uncertain set of processes and one of the by-products of this change is that the information technology department wields a lot more power than it used to. It is enjoying a rise up the food chain while journalists are tracking down. Once central to any media organisation the story tellers now find themselves most at risk. The environment has changed so much that they can now be replaced by the audienceIt’s called citizen journalism but it is not just that which is threatening their jobs, it’s also a greater reliance on freelancers, on imported shows, on agency feeds; much more repetition of programs and much, much more sport that are all filling the gaps where program makers were once  presenting stories.


The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in the UK is so concerned about these changes that they set up a commission on shaping the future, and came up with a report called Multi-Media Working. It’s old news now, but it is a document which expresses the union’s concern with the fact that the remaining core staff in many media organisations are being reduced to a cross between call centre operators and data processors, as all they have time to do is sit at their desks re-jigging press releases. What level of corruption, lies and law breaking, asks the NUJ, is going on unreported in the corridors of power while journalists work at data entry and public relations? And while the NUJ is a British organisation it isn’t hard to imagine how program makers in an Australian organisation like DEF could likewise side-step the mismanagement of Indigenous health in order to write a story on the best brand of coffee machine. The collapse of the global economy is after all a tough issue when you could be analysing celebrities, blockbuster movies, sport, shoes and handbags.


Perhaps, then, program makers and content providers are right to feel depressed. Perhaps the battle is over and this old way of telling stories has been surpassed. It is, without a doubt, too late to turn back the clock. So, what are the remaining staff members to do? Continue re-jigging media releases until their natural talent, sense of purpose and creative energy eventually evaporates?


It’s a negative way to put the question and you could argue that the battle has been won rather than lost because journalists, program makers and content generators do still exist. Yes, they are in lesser numbers, but they are still around. Huge changes have already occurred and some have not only survived, they’ve thrived. John Micklethwait, the editor-in-chief of The Economist, says that the circulation of his rather cerebral journal has increased by 90% in the last decade, and in the course of an interview with Phillip Adams on the ABC’s Late Night Live he was heard to remark;


I think there are lots of other ideas-based organisations which are really doing quite well. You look at the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, you look at clever TV programs, and they’re all doing quite well. I think there is a slight era of what might be described as ‘mass intelligence’ products which are all doing quite well— look at the numbers of people going to art exhibitions, or museums or going to watch serious films—those are all up. (ABC RN 19/6/08)


Maybe content generators have come through the worst and are about to be born anew, so long as they can leave behind the baggage of the past and master new skills.


The problem with this optimistic outlook is that there are a few reality checks at work in Australia that make this view naive. Most obviously, telecommunications in this country is hamstrung. The situation is an ongoing mess. Take the embarrassing roll-out of digital radio and television. Punters have lost count of the number of delays and now no one can say when the analogue signal will be switched off. Networks have been on high alert for over a decade, while the government does deals with media magnates over bandwidth. The privatising of Telstra has added to the disaster and ensured that Australia’s internet speeds are well below international standards. It’s meant that hundreds of media workers have been left poised at the starting blocks for years. By the time the gun goes off they’ll be ready to retire. Nevertheless, the roll-out of digital radio and television will happen, and it will happen without the networks finding any more money for program makers. It’s clear these new stations will rehash, recycle and replay existing material, which is more and more what it seems the digital future promises to be any why it isn’t something which fills journalists with joy.


As an audience we expect the news, and other programs, to be reliable, edifying and entertaining. We want the programs we like to go to air when we like, and we don’t want a drop in standards. So far most radio networks have been achieving this by maintaining a dedicated group of old school broadcasters who won’t leave the office until the show is in the can. But, no one knows how long they can continue to do this.


Back at DEF an announcement about a futures meeting is met with a groan. They already feel under siege and are understandably defensive about taking further unnecessary risks. Someone asks, ‘Why can’t we have a meeting about the good old days?’ They seem sick of the future before it’s even started. Why should they have to make tomorrow’s show and sort out the future as well? From their point of view it seems like another meeting, another management abrogation of responsibility, another waste of time, another day.


The guest speaker at DEF’s futures meeting is a young woman from the Innovations team and, in spite of the scepticism she senses entering the room, she maintains a bright demeanour and proceeds with her presentation. She begins by drawing a broad picture of a world where sound, moving pictures and text are all be available on all media outlets all the time. And this data, she says, will be searchable and shareable. Most major newspapers and magazines have already making begun video and audio programs available on their web sites. She suggests checking out The Monthly’s Slow TV, for example. Some of these add on services are completely free and others, such as The Art Newspaper and The New York Review of Books, are available only for electronic subscribers. This bit is old news, but she is setting the scene for her vision of the future at DEF and has the full attention of the broadcasters who are pleased at least to have a new face to focus on. DEF, she says, must move beyond Web interactivity level one (which includes things like message boards, guest-books, voting and competitions) to a Web 2.0 space (which includes social networking, kick apps and content that’s aggregated and curated from all over the internet). She cites examples from overseas media organisations like the BBC and the Washington Post. Early on BBC Commercial did a deal with YouTube to publish a video clips channel. This channel (www.youtube.com/BBC) now features around 3-4,000 short clips. The BBC also has a large number of Facebook sites and these are only two of their 340 external platforms. The others include MySpace, iTunes, Wii, VirginMedia and the like. The idea is that if you give content away to other platforms such as these then you can bring people back to your own platform and your own brand.


All this talk of social networking and web interactivity seems to involve a much more sophisticated understanding of on-line environments than most of the over-forties in the room are able to muster. They seem to be losing focus. Nevertheless, Innovations has armed their ambassador with another anecdote which might help. This one is the Washington Post’s question of the week. It’s an example of content curation beyond the local platform. Each week a question such as, ‘What will the world look like when we run out of petrol?’ is posed in the newspaper. Then the people, formerly known as the readers respond to this question in whatever form they like and post their response to their usual blog or social network. The power-point presentation then goes on to show how tools such as Tweet, Scan, Yahoo Pitpes, or Technorati can aggregate this tagged content so that the Washington Post editors can collate it and publish the bits they want. But words like Tweet, Scan, Yahoo Pitpes, and Technorati are dangerous in this context. They are so alien that they can achieve the opposite effect to the one intended, meaning that they can alienate, rather than impress. In this case while the program makers drift off thinking about where words like Tweet, Scan, Yahoo Pitpes, and Technorati could possibly have come from they also notice that this exercise by the Washington Post is nothing more than a techno-junky feedback loop. But the woman from Innovations is smiling. ‘This,’ she says, reading from the next slide, ‘is an example of how we can be a radio station without the radio. We will become an information exchange site, a social network, a hub.’


To the program makers present this sounds like narcissism rather than journalism and they’re not overly impressed. They complain that they are already drowning in spam, why would they want more? Someone asks where does the network stand if this online social interaction leads to crime in the real world? There’s already been a case where a regular email correspondent began stalking a presenter and as far-fetched as it sounds there has even been a marriage (which resulted a year later in a somewhat violent divorce). Social networks on the web can be a legal nightmare and the network lawyers are drafting all sorts of disclaimers as fast as they can. There is a particular problem with post-moderation. DEF now has one website where the audience can post whatever material they like without it first going through the filter of a program producer. This means less work for the producers, but greater risk for the network. It’s a fine line between an open access ethic and allowing the posting of inappropriate, offensive user-produced content. The site that is post-moderated at DEF is called The Tub and if there is a complaint about any particular posting then the network offers to take it down within 24 hours. You-Tube and Facebook work this way. They trawl their respective sites twice daily for offensive material, such as death threats, extreme racism and sexual abuse. It seems to be successful in their case, but a radio station is different kettle of fish. A radio station has to be mindful of its charter, its board and its code of ethics.


Listening to these complaints the guest speaker from Innovations nods sympathetically, knowing for sure now that she’s dealing with Luddites. She wonders if they’re hoping their retirement will arrive before the digital revolution. But The Tub is her pet project and she’s heard all the arguments against it before. ‘I think, she says with a sigh, ‘you’d be surprised how responsible the online community actually is. It’s their space. They respect it.’ Soon, she thinks someone will tell her that UGC is 90% crap, and to prevent this she launches into a final spiel which, if timed correctly, will take the meeting up to lunch time:


The Tub allows people to collaborate online. And that idea is not new and it will be done. Of course finding the right legal framework is new. But meanwhile we all want to build a place where everyone can share their creative work. So you can upload audio, video, text and still images anytime. And if you think about it, that really opens up a world of possibilities, so the people formerly known as the audience can tell us their own stories and they can publish them on DEF. It will be large scale mass creativity. It’s a buzz. It’s what they want.


It leads to, you know, a site where there’s all sorts of things going on, videos, audio documentaries, field recordings, animations and so on. And what you can do when you get there is you can comment on other people’s work. Ideas grow by being shared. You can tab other people’s work, assist browsing, and build what’s called a folksonomy. Or you can email the contributor. So The Tub is a place to connect, not just with information, but to build a community around other people’s creativity. There can be all sorts of online mentoring, skills-sharing, collaboration going on. People can download each other’s work, re-mix and re-use it. It’s also the opportunity for professional broadcasters to work with amateurs and that’s a really critical part of the project. We are watching that distinction become blurry.


Now she has said too much. She’s lost them. They think she’s talking about the emperor’s new clothes. It’s time for lunch.


It takes a lot for a media organisation to turn itself around and go from, say, broadcasting on radio to broadcasting on the web. The fear for a network like DEF must be that it will embrace a passing fad rather than the future and that in the process it will have spent its budget and lost its original audience. Aside from these fears, why would a distinctive radio station want to become just another web site? Well, because there may not be any choice. The AM band will be phased out and audiences’ listening patterns are changing. So if you’re a journalist working in this environment how do you shift focus? How do you know how much energy to put into the program each day and how much to keep in reserve for the digital age? And if you are used to mass communication, do you consider webcasting to be the same as narrowcasting? Is it a specialist audience? Will the stories be different? You won’t need to file on sport, finance, the weather and the traffic anymore. There will be plenty of other places where this information is available online. So what about local stories? Are they what we are expecting the audience to file? How about international stories then? Is that what DEF wants? More stories on the US elections?


On a personal level too, these program makers have many questions. What will happen to office conversation once everyone is watching TV on their computers and listening to radio on their MP3 players? Won’t that change our sense of community? They used to relish the fact that they could come to work having seen the same television program as their colleagues. It was a shared experience.  There would be discussions over morning coffee that everyone could join in. They also used to like listening to the radio knowing that at that moment anyone in Australia could tune to the same bandwidth and hear the same thing. Time shifting programs, not only means that this is sense of the present moment is lost, but it also means that many programs never get listened to, or watched, at all. They lose their relevance surprisingly quickly, and having not watched it once, it’s surprisingly easy to not watch it again. But maybe these are unnecessary anxieties. Maybe the new technologies won’t mean the introduction of special interest narrowcasting at all. Instead they may well deliver a hundred different ways of watching Dancing with the Stars.


These more traditional journalists and older broadcasters also worry about what these developments are doing to people’s brains. We all know that MP3 players are making young people deaf, but what about other changes that are taking place? Program meetings aren’t the right place to discuss it, but privately they wonder if we are on the verge of becoming a society with an attention deficit disorder. Already they notice themselves becoming impatient if they have to watch or listen to something in real time. They are addicted to the fast forward button. They are easily frustrated by slow download times. They enjoy the quick high of Google research rather than having to locate and read the appropriate book. They know this means that their brains are being trained not to linger, but they can’t help it. And now Innovations is telling them to produce 30-60 second video clips. Anything else is too long. At that length it’s a clip which can be downloaded anywhere and emailed to a friend. Station management even issued a memo; ‘Clips that were once thought of as add-ons are now part of the core content of DEF. They have proved popular for sharing and snacking in many overseas media organisations and soon they will be here too.’ The irony of this memo is that the DEF program teams do not yet even own a video camera, let alone know how to produce a snackable clip.


If you take the long view you could track the communications revolution from the oral, to the written, to the screen. Literacy is being replaced by techno savvy, just as surely as the oral communication gave way to the authority of the written word. And if this evolutionary description of human communication is extrapolated it could be said that communication has gone from the village, to the nation, to the globe just as it has gone from the oral to the written to the screen. The paradox of this analysis is, though, that as the world has become more accessible people have become lonelier and more isolated. Computers have led to what’s known as ‘cocooning’. People seek out programming that reinforces their own view. And with so much information around, how else can you filter? All you can do is seek out the bits you want and with which you identify, which means that a media organisation, if it is to be successful, must figure out a way to give you what you want, when you want.


It is type of media future that is not only transforming society but it is also transforming our bodies and brains. Oxford science professor Susan Greenfield recently went public with her concerns in both The Age and The Australian (June 14, 2008). She was quoted as saying, ‘We are sleepwalking into a new age’. She doesn’t want to be an alarmist but, she said, we have to realise that something profound is happening. She was warning us that people who spend many hours a day in front of computers and televisions are producing unprecedented levels of the brain chemical, dopamine. And while we don’t know what exact impact this has, Greenfield speculates that it could mean the suppression of certain types of sophisticated thinking, an increase in obesity, a shortening of attention span, more risky behaviour, more sensory (and less cognitive) behaviour, less empathy, more violence, and less independent thought. It’s not a great list, and she could be wrong. But she is at least putting the issue on the public agenda.


The irony here is that brain science may well answer questions about the future of the media that the media cannot even ask itself. Journalists and program makers are too caught up in the change to study it and, as we’ve seen, there’s no time between emails to allow big questions to resonate. No one drowning in press releases really has a moment to stop and ask why. And because the why question hasn’t been put, it makes practical decisions about new program schedules, social networks and vodcasts on the web difficult to resolve. The best that media managers can do in this vacuum is put together a series of stop-gap solutions—a temporary fix here, and a short term solution there. All very well in the short term because the future hasn’t arrived yet, but it also creates an environment of seemingly endless uncertainty. The weird part about this situation is that those employees who this uncertainty makes most insecure, the journalists and the program makers, are the ones who should be most confident about the communications future. Their research skills, their contacts, their news sense, their way of structuring a story, their technical ability and their archival knowledge could all be useful in the new era if only someone knew how. But, as Marshall McLuhan once said, you can’t force the new media to do the work of the old, and perhaps by extension the reverse is also true—meaning you can’t force the old media to do the work of the new.


© 2009—Lyn Gallacher

Filed under: essays, works, writing