By Michael W. Dean
The Freedom Feens/Genesis Communications Network.
Two Kinds of Media
CASPER – I don’t define different talk shows by their subject matter or political bent. I really think there are only two kinds of talk radio. There are only two types of media for that matter, whether it’s talk radio, music, newspapers, TV, books, movies or whatever. The two types of media are DISPOSABLE and ETERNAL. Media is either disposable — to be consumed like yummy junk food, or it’s eternal and will be studied and taught in universities and enjoyed in homes for at least 150 years, well after the death of the author.
Which type is your show? Which type do you want your show to be?
And for that matter, if your show is the very tiny minority of talk radio that is eternal, what are you doing to make the archives as high quality and freely available as possible, and encouraging people to preserve it and share it so widely that it actually has a chance of being listened to 150 years from now?
Lust for Life
I’m 49, but I wake up each day and literally jump out of bed. I have more energy than most teenagers. And I’m not pimping some diet supplement. My energy comes from having a purpose in life. My purpose is not talk radio. My purpose is reaching the world, and changing the world. Talk radio is simply one of several delivery mechanisms I use to do this.
There were two defining events that drove me to need to reach and change the world, and they both happened very early on in life. First, when I was seven years old, I heard the term “message in a bottle.” I thought the idea was hella nifty, and I decided to actually put a message in a bottle and throw it into Lake Erie. I told my dad the idea and he helped me. I dictated and he typed the letter, because my handwriting wasn’t very good, and I didn’t learn to type until I was 10. The message we wrote was simple: the location we were throwing the bottle into the lake, our names and address, and a request for anyone who found the bottle to please write us a letter and let us know.
A couple of weeks later I got a snail-mail letter from someone who’d actually found the bottle, 75 miles away in Buffalo. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. When you’re seven years old in a small town in the pre-internet 1970s, your world is pretty small. But I’d thrown my thoughts out in the world, reached out to the ether, and a stranger replied. It was kind of like the internet, but before the internet.
My dad thought it was pretty cool too, and told the editor of the local newspaper about it. He wrote an article called “Local boy gets answer from message in bottle.” It was the first time I’d seen my name in print. Even cooler.
The second defining thing that drove me to talk radio actually involved radio. I became interested in electronics early on. When I was 11 years old I built a tiny 100-milliwatt two-transistor 9v battery-powered transmitter into the handset of an old telephone. It worked. I used to walk around my neighborhood talking into it. The neighbors thought I was loony. They didn’t know there was a transmitter in the phone handset, they just thought I was acting like a crazy person. I didn’t care. I also didn’t know if anyone ever happened to hear me on their radio, but I didn’t care about that either. It was the fact that they could have heard me on their radio that was so exciting because I was talking on radio. I was talking to the unseen possible audience of strangers out there in the world.
I’ve always been a talker, which is one reason I love being in a magazine called “TALKERS.” Ever since I was a little kid, people always said of me, “That one sure is a talker!” I’d talk to anyone about anything. And I’d even talk to the sky with my telephone handset, regardless of whether anyone was listening. I looked like I was talking to myself but I may as well have been talking on a direct line to God. Because there was the chance that one person might have been listening. It seemed magical to little me.
The desire to really get through to just one person is what drives many people to become talk show hosts. And it is the desire for one person to speak intelligently to someone that drives people to listen to talk radio. Whether you’re talking to a few people or 20 million, talk radio is really always just one person speaking to one other person. That’s how the audience feels. It’s communication at its most intimate and simple level. Talk radio is mass communications’ most pure form.
But there is talking that’s disposable, like chit-chat at the water cooler. Or the message I put into a bottle and threw into a lake. And then there’s talking that’s for the ages. Like great speeches that are studied and taught for generations.
Your Voice and Your Brain as a Time Capsule
Right now is the first time in history when old and new technologies are colliding in such a way that anyone can not only speak to millions of people, everyone also has the ability to carefully archive and disseminate their communication in ways that gives it a better chance of still being around in 150 years.
(And I’m not talking about what the NSA does with our private conversations as well as with all talk radio shows. In 150 years people will view that kind of behavior the way we now view slavery….which ended about 150 years ago. In 150 years the NSA will be history and their computer clusters will have long been wiped clean and sold off in military surplus stores.)
There’s nothing wrong with disposable talk radio, or any disposable media. I like disposable media. I like some disposable morning zoo crew talk radio, some junk TV, pop culture magazines and websites, and bubblegum power-pop music, in the same way I like junk food sometimes. It’s comforting and familiar. It’s quick and easy to consume. But it doesn’t last. Disposable talk radio is like the daily tabloid newspaper. It’s quickly read, but the next day it’s blowing in the gutter or being used to line a bird cage.
While I like listening to the morning zoo crew and right wingers screaming at left wingers and left wingers screaming at right wingers, it’s all still the daily fish wrap. I enjoy consuming it (in small doses). But I’m not interested in creating it.
Radio for the Ages
What I’m interested in creating is not the daily paper of talk radio. I’m interested in creating the great American novel of talk radio…three times a week until I die of old age on the air doing what I love, or get thrown in a cage when they finally outlaw free speech. (Things may well get worse before they get better.)
I’m interested in creating something people venerate and want to pass on and preserve. Something people would risk jail themselves to share on SD cards via trained pigeons even if feisty talk shows were stomped out by the American Stasi. And from what our listeners tell us, The Freedom Feens are achieving that.
Whatever talk radio’s delivery mechanism becomes in five or 10 years….whatever combination of internet/streaming/podcast/satellite/mobile/terrestrial/twinkling electrodes we shove into our brains, whatever technology replaces terrestrial radio, this will be true: in the coming New Talk Media, today’s dominant 800-pound gorilla rock stars of talk will be gone. They’ll be out of fashion and without a market. And they won’t be replaced by young clones of themselves, regardless of what people are shoveling at PDs lately.
I’m not going to go as far as to say that the 800-pound gorillas of talk are going to be employed as my show’s board ops in five years. Those cats have made a good non-government retirement package on their own by helping create and define modern talk radio.
But they are to talk radio what the Rolling Stones are to music. The Rolling Stones broke ground, have been well-rewarded for decades of hard work, and they’re still hugely popular, but their most relevant days are behind them. And you can bet at this very moment there’s some kid you’ve never heard of practicing with his band in his garage playing and living rock ‘n’ roll far better than the Rolling Stones have since 1972’s Exile on Main St. That kid is banging out his ninety-five theses in three chords as the neighbors are calling the cops. Meanwhile the Stones are up the road at the Enormo-Dome going through the motions of crankin’ out the hits at 600 bucks a seat.
The driving force in radio in five or 10 years isn’t going to be the Right yelling loudly and eloquently at the Left or vice-versa. The main thing in five or 10 years is going to be liberty yelling loudly at tyranny. Because more people every day tire of being told what to do by any “king,” regardless of whether that king has an R or a D after his name. And as more new laws are added, and more normal behavior becomes outlawed or suspect, more people are going to realize that all the kings are just rent seekers who add nothing to the equation but resistance. And that’s what they’re being met with.
It’s not Left Versus Right
A sea change is coming in radio. Liberty versus tyranny is the thing for station owners and PDs and GMs to consider right now rather than worrying if the delivery mechanism is going to be microwaves bouncing off a satellite or microchips embedded in our inner ears. The delivery mechanism is just the window dressing. That’s just technical issues to be solved. And radio stations have long been ahead of the game on solving technical issues. In fact, most stations have at least one full-time employee whose job description is basically “Solver of Technical Issues.”
No, the more important thing for people in radio is moving from right versus left in your programming to liberty versus tyranny. That’s the future, and that’s what more and more people want to hear.
Robert A. Heinlein said it well: “Forget conservative or liberal, Tory or Labor; there are only two types of people in the world, those who would control the actions of others, and those who have no such desire.”
Your Qualifications, Please
You may now be saying “Who the hell is this Michael Dean guy telling me how to do my business? He’s new, I’ve been doing this forever.
Who am I? Consider me the guy in the first act of any sci-fi movie who yells, “There’s an earthquake (flood, aliens, gamma rays, asteroids, whatever) coming!” and no one believes him. Later in the movie while people are drowning in water/alien goo/lava, they’re saying “Gosh, I wish we’d listened to that guy.”
I’m relatively new to radio, but I’m not new to media. Radio is just another delivery mechanism for media. Media is about far more important things than the delivery mechanism. Media is simply communication, and the most important facets of communication are universal, regardless of the delivery mechanism.
I played in bands for years, toured the world, and was signed to Warner Brothers. I now write books and direct documentary films for a living. And here’s what I’ve seen: every press release for every band I’ve ever encountered basically says that they’re the next Beatles or Nirvana. Every film is going to be the next Easy Rider or Blair Witch Project. Every one-sheet or marketing kit I’ve ever seen for a book says the author is the next Hemingway or Stephen King. The same pattern holds true in radio promotion. (But in our case, we’ll live up to it.)
But I’m telling you: you don’t want to syndicate the guy who sounds like the guy who’s big now…. because that’s not what’s going to be big in a few years. You want the guy who’s doing the New Talk Media equivalent of the kid in his garage who’s banging out three chords with the real spirit, doing it well, and doing it for the ages.
There are about a dozen A&R reps from different major labels that went and saw Nirvana play in a club and passed on signing them. I’ve met three or four of ‘em. I’ll tell you this much: none of them are in the music business anymore.
There are only a few syndicated shows in the country that really are for the ages in the Heinlein sense, which is going to becoming the current driving force in history, and will therefore be the driving force in radio in the next decade or three. None of these shows yet have the 500+ flamethrower affiliates that the 800-pound gorillas have, but we will. If you’re a PD and you want to be ahead of the curve, rather than trying to catch up with the bandwagon when this sea change occurs, sign ‘em all up. Today! Especially if you have a sudden hole in your schedule for some reason.
Is Your Media for the Ages?
If you’re a natural “talker,” other than keeping an eye on the atomic clock and not cussing, there are really only two things to consider. First, is your show for the ages? If it’s not, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to write the great American novel. Newspapers have their place. Have fun, go to local events, ribbon cuttings, beer drinking contests, whatever. Interview the mayor, do a profile on the local gal who’s “somebody” somewhere now, and have a cop explain why we need to spend more money on cops. Interview the local kid who got an answer back from the message in a bottle he tossed in the lake, then interview the cops who arrest him for littering, because that’s what would happen now, read the day’s celebrity news and make pithy comments about it. Let your personality shine. There’s a market for that, and some people dig it. I even dig it, when it’s done really well, and I’m more jaded than most.
Making Your Show MORE for the Ages
But if your show is for the ages, why not make it more for the ages? Focus less on the local and less on daily events and more on timeless universal truths. When you do talk about events in the daily news, couch them in terms and angles of examination that will stand the test of time. Listen to your every show, after sleeping and at least a day after doing it, so you have some distance from it. Study your shows the way ball players and coaches analyze video of games.
Don’t worry so much about the occasional verbal stumble, or a fader not being up quickly enough right after the liner. Make notes to fix that stuff, sure. But be more concerned about the overall direction and vibe. The Rolling Stones certainly hit a few wrong notes live in 1974, but they were far more interesting in 1974 than the perfect museum piece they’ve become today. Put aside the fact that all of us talkers love the sound of our own voices (which is why we got into this business in the first place). Then honestly ask yourself, “Will people still listen to this in 150 years? Or even in 40 years?”
I still listen to Exile on Main St. today, but I can’t name the last 10 albums the Rolling Stones put out. I know they still tour, but I have no idea if they even still make records. They lost me after 1973’s Goats Head Soup. And shortly after that, punk rock came out and destroyed arena rock. All those kids started climbing out of their garages, taking any stage they could find, and making rock ‘n’ roll relevant again, by making it real.
Things that stand the test of the ages do not always have the immediacy of disposable guilty pleasures. And immediacy is usually the main watchword of radio. But that immediacy has largely been replaced by the internet. Radio has to become more for the ages to survive. Even in the formerly-immediate medium of radio, it’s possible to produce things that can worm their way into people’s psyches, and stay there far longer than fun disposable media. It may take longer for people to “get it,” but it will stay longer. Like a tattoo…on the soul.
So Yeah, I Think My Show is “for the Ages” – What Next?
The next thing to consider when making your media something people will consume in 150 years is this: what are you doing to make it archival?
Don’t Wait Around
I don’t have kids. I had one daughter, but she died of leukemia. So basically all I have to pass on is my words. I’d like my words to live longer than I do, and I plan to live a long time. My dad’s 91, and he’s still alive and very aware. (We actually did a fun interview with him last year on the show.) But I can’t just expect someone else to make my media easy to archive. I have to help make it happen.
I’m from the Ian Freeman school of radio. Free Talk Live has gotten to the TALKERS Heavy 100 and become the premiere “for the ages” show by working like the world depends on it being heard….both today and 150 years from today. And Ian’s willing to go to jail for his beliefs. Most talk show hosts go on and on all day, every day, about “lines in the sand” and “we have to stop talking and push back,” but it’s mostly talk. How committed are you to your message? Would you go to jail to walk your talk? Ian has, for peaceful non-compliance, and he’s willing to do it again. That, my friends, is commitment.
But even more than that type of commitment, Ian does things that are important, but not nearly as dramatic as going to jail…things that most people don’t know he does. Ian spends all morning calling affiliates, then does his show. His co-host Mark Edge spends all morning calling advertisers, then they do the show. Then Ian archives it. Then he blogs. Then he does his own engineering and solves technical issues. Late into the night. Then he gets up early and does it again. EVERY DAY. He doesn’t have a staff, and he’s done all this pretty much seven days a week for 10 years.
With the changes already here in radio, and the changes coming soon, with everyone being a “content producer” now, and with the economy tanking, just being a good talker isn’t going to be enough. The next batch of up-and-coming talk stars of tomorrow will also have to be their own engineer, producer, board op, PR firm, webmaster, and head bottle washer. That is what it’s going to take to thrive. And some small percentage of those who thrive now will still be listened to in 150 years.
I’ve taken Ian and Mark’s process to heart. Actually, I was already doing that before I got into radio, I did it, and do it, in music, books and film. When my band got signed in 1991, my manager told me, “In this market you can’t count on the label to do the work for you. Those days are gone. You have to work 10 times as hard now. Getting signed just means you now have a job. It’s now up to you to go to work every day and do that job.”
I haven’t been doing radio long, but my show The Freedom Feens already has more affiliates than many other syndicated shows that’ve been running for years, and we’re even on a couple 25 kW and 50 kW flamethrowers. That’s because those other shows are waiting for someone to “do it for them.” They think that just being a good talker is enough. It just isn’t enough anymore.
The market for all media has gotten much more competitive by far since my band was signed in 1991. Everyone’s a media producer now. Everyone. Everyone’s a distributor, too.
So how can you stand out, and still be listened to in 150 years?
Show Audio Quality
The first thing you can do is make the audio quality as high as possible. Audio transmission is going to improve incredibly fast in the next couple years. What’s currently considered “good enough for radio” is going to be considered unlistenable in a few years, let alone 150 years. If you’re a PD, while you’re busy dealing with listener complaints about your morning zoo crew show, some young tech geeks are busy working in their garage improving the sound of internet audio transmission to the point where in the very near future, a codec isn’t going to be a rack-mount unit that you spend $3,000 on. It’s going to be an app you download for $1.99 on your smart phone. And it will sound as good as that $3,000 hardware codec. Probably better. But a great codec transmitting bad audio will still sound bad.
Give a hoot about your show’s audio quality. Money should go back into audio gear, training and personnel, not into an air hockey table in the break room, $7,000 studio furniture, custom mic flags, and a fancy light-up sign on the wall that says “ON THE AIR” and has your call letters.
And don’t just think about the audio quality of your own voice on your show, if you want to be for the ages. Think about the audio quality of callers and interviewees too. I’ll politely dump a poor sounding call, no matter how interesting the caller. And I always do a pre-interview call with interviewees a day or more before, to feel out their vibe, and to test their audio. I’ll have them try landline, iPhone, Skype, Mumble, everything they have to find the best sound. These days most people who are frequently interviewed have a semi-decent mic and Skype. If not that, at least a land line, which sounds better than many mobile phones.
I recently had an interview scheduled with a guy who’s kind of a “name” but after talking to him, I postponed because of his audio quality, or lack thereof. In our pre-game call, I could instantly tell he was using a crappy cell phone, and the audio quality was not great. I asked if he had a land line. He said, “Yes, but I don’t have a phone attached to it. The landline came with my internet service.” I postponed the interview and asked him to go to Salvation Army and spend 10 bucks on an old landline phone. Those sound better than a cell phone. He said he would, and we rescheduled.
Audio quality has always come naturally to me, and I’ve constantly worked on getting better at it. I could get good audio in a metal airline hanger using two tin cans and a string. But that’s just me. I have Macho Audio Flash. If you don’t have Macho Audio Flash yourself, find someone who does, and pay them to do your engineering, even if it means not printing up custom tchotchkes to hand out.
Archive Audio Quality
The other issue with being for the ages is archives. I record mine on my end, both hosts (we’re in different cities), direct from the board. I know of shows that make an MP3 from the MP3 their network provides, stripping out the network ads and adding in the show’s ads. But an MP3 made from an MP3 sounds horrible. Strip out what you need to on your end, before compressing to MP3. Tag your MP3s well, that stuff will probably be included in legacy players, in whatever form they take down the line. Offer MP3s in at least 64k, and stereo if your show is stereo. Most people think a mono MP3 is half the file size of a stereo MP3 at the same bit rate. It’s not. They are the same file size. Stereo/mono half-rate only works with uncompressed files like WAVs and AIFF. Make your MP3s stereo, even if your show is mono and only the ads are stereo. Hell, make ‘em stereo anyway. Not all MP3 players can deal with mono files.
And soon when Ogg Opus files start to replace MP3s, jump on it, even if you have to offer both Opus and MP3 for a while until people catch up. Haven’t heard of Opus? You will. Though MP3s will still be fine for archiving for the ages. Opus sounds like MP3s, but at a smaller file size.
Archive Bit Rate
Make your MP3s 44.1 Hz 16-bit stereo at 64k. That’s the optimum tradeoff in sound quality versus file size to be extremely listenable (if your show sounds great, as it should). MP3s of a well-produced talk show at 44.1 Hz 16-bit stereo 64k can sound astonishingly good on any computer, and are also very portable for steaming downloads to any “chromed robot turd” (mobile device). If the audio is well mic’ed, processed and recorded (more on that in future articles), they will sound astonishingly good on any chromed robot turd, even over the tiny built-in speakers.
He Who Dies with his Art on the Most Hard Drives Wins
The final technical bit of making your show for the ages is something no one is doing except the Freedom Feens. We put up every episode not only on an easy-to-find RSS feed, but also on BitTorrent. And we have a separate RSS feed for the torrents that works in uTorrent. That way it automatically downloads AND seeds from many computers worldwide. This makes your hardcore fans a legion of archivists, sharing your media 24/7.
The best way to keep your media around for the ages isn’t having it in a museum vault somewhere. The best way to keep your media around for the ages is to have it everywhere.
BitTorrent is great for getting this everywhere. And BitTorrent is time-proof, censorship proof, and even drone proof.
Here’s our page on how we do the BitTorrent RSS thing: http://www.freedomfeens.com/feens-torrents/
Tim O’Reilly (no relation to Bill) said that for content creators “Obscurity is a far greater threat than piracy.” For talk radio hosts to still be listened to in 150 years, Tim O’Reilly’s quote translates as this: don’t make people jump through any hoops to hear and share your media. Period. Don’t listen to old-media consultants who tell you to make people sign up to hear your stuff. Don’t charge money for people to hear your stuff. Make your money on advertising. You can also make your money on offering your media without advertising, through a premium feed. But only offer that as a convenience. If someone pays to access that ad-less feed, then gives the media away somewhere, don’t send them a lawyer letter. Send them a thank you letter.
I have a friend in Australia who’s making a documentary film about Timothy Leary. My friend has the blessings of Leary’s estate, but is still having trouble getting usage rights for a lot of things. Because a lot of his media is owned by a museum and sitting in a vault.
Leary was a cultural icon in the 60s, a household name. Recently retired talk host G. Gordon Liddy once threw Leary in prison. President Richard Nixon once called Leary “the most dangerous man in America.” In other words, Leary was somebody. But my co-host, who is 29 and well-versed in pop culture and knows a lot about 20th century American history said, “Who’s Timothy Leary?” when I first brought up the name.
That would likely not have been the case if Leary’s archives had been digitized and given away to the world for everyone to pass on widely. But Leary died in 1996 when the internet was in its infancy, so he willed all his papers, audio recordings, film and video to the New York Public Library. That was how people tried to “preserve things for the ages” back then. But the New York Public Library operates largely in an old-media model, with copyrights and usage restrictions, and actual climate-controlled physically locked museum-type archival vaults. If Leary had given all his works instead to some computer geeks to digitize and give away, my co-host would likely have known who Leary is. And my friend would have likely finished his documentary by now.
Remember when Metallica sued their fans for sharing their songs on Napster? No one really took Metallica seriously after that. It was a huge bummer, and largely viewed as “seriously un-cool, man.” Though after Metallica backed down, the band still found ways to make money that didn’t involve suing people for being excited about their music and wanting to share it. Like playing live. And doing a documentary that was shown in theaters and on Netflix. And doing endorsement deals, i.e. advertising.
If you want to be heard in 150 years, stay out of the old models of media. Those models are a dinosaur thrashing as it goes extinct in the tar pits of time. Talk about not being around in 150 years. Suing your fans is death in new media. Putting any restrictions on your media is death in new media. As it should be. MP3s are not a scarcity-based model. Don’t treat MP3s like they are finite resource to be horded, or you will not be listened to in 150 years.
We at the Freedom Feens release all our MP3 archives (and movies, songs, books, blogs, meme images, everything) under a Creative Commons attribution 3.0 unported license. Which basically means that anyone can use the media for anything, as long as they credit us so people can find us the way we best like to be presented — on our radio affiliates, our high-quality MP3s on our website, our high-quality 24/7 random episode stream and our BitTorrent MP3 archives. But anyone could legally do anything with our archives. As long as they attribute us, they could even remix our shows in a way that makes fun of us, take out our ads, put their own paid ads in, stream it, sell the rights to listen to the stream and not even pay us! And we’re fine with that.
This seems like lunacy or heresy, or both, to most people who came up from an old-media standpoint. But this is the way to get yourself out there, increase the value of your name as a brand (which increases your value to advertisers) and primarily, to give you a better chance at being “for the ages.”
How Many Watts does it Take to Broadcast at a Distance of 150 Years?
Today you can make great art from your remote studio or your home and share it with the world, even through syndicated terrestrial radio. But with terrestrial radio, the show’s over as soon as it’s over. If you want it to have a chance at living on after you’re gone, you need to make it as timeless as possible, as good-sounding as possible, and make it as easy as possible for people to get and share the archives.
And you need to work like the world depends on hearing it (because it does) rather than waiting for someone to come along and do it for you. Because that ain’t happening anymore.
Art becomes media as soon as it leaves your studio. Do you want your media to be like the daily fish wrap newspaper? Or do you want your media to be cherished and studied and enjoyed in 150 years? The answer is largely up to you.
Michael W. Dean is co-host of The Freedom Feens which is syndicated by Genesis Communications Network, and can be heard every Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 noon to 2:00 pm CT. Michael Dean also runs the free audio tip website Creamy Radio Audio. He can be emailed at email@example.com.