Chris Lydon – Open Source Radio

Posted on 03. Oct, 2007 by in Broadcast

Introduction and Narrative: Open Source, the radio show, was our first crack at extending talk radio to the Web. We’re working now on a second crack.

The puzzle is how best to plant a democratic, spoken, wide-ranging, welcoming, lively and fairly serious conversation into the vastly expanded architecture of the Internet, where it can be instantly global, accessible by Skype (live) and also archivally, and open to listener prodding by text messages before and after the live

We went on the air on Memorial Day in 2005, an independent production company broadcasting live out of WGBH in Boston, networked by Public Radio International, funded by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and private angels. We’d still be doing a daily show if UMass Lowell hadn’t withdrawn its support in a political shift of chancellors. Suddenly we had a major cash-flow crisis, and we didn’t resolve it in time to stay on air uninterrupted. But for that, as Mrs. Lincoln might have said, it was a great time.

Main Goal: We work with an image in our heads of a new feedback loop: with that inexpensive, penetrating, revealing radio sound of the human voice (the fabulous instrument that Studs Terkel calls “vox humana”) on the outbound track, and a world-wide fishnet of suggestions, digressions, second opinions, links and other commentary on the Internet as the inbound track. That remains the basic idea, but how to develop it sustainably?

Notable Achievements: We got “proof of concept” in the demonstration that if you build a clubhouse for smart talk about a “stretched” menu of subjects, people
will come in good numbers and with a fabulously constructive spirit. They come not just to listen but to join a “conspiracy of the curious” in a consistently non-commercial, non-imperial, authentic — we said “Emersonian” — circle of inquiry. I think you can judge this yourself by our site: we did too many shows about the Web 2.0 revolution, but many great ones about passions (candy, poker,
knitting), about Iraq and Iran, about big minds and themes (Spinoza, Samuel Beckett, Thucydides), about music (live with the Dresden Dolls, a punk cabaret duo, and with the mid-point between J. S. Bach and
Thelonius Monk: a pianist named Donal Fox).

We took the show to 40 stations around the country, including New York, Washington, Seattle, Salt Lake City. We were on the verge in Chicago when we took our break… We had listeners and correspondents in 150 countries; about 150,000 on-air listeners, and about 150,000 Web downloads a month.

A Surprising Realization: The happiest discovery was that we actually formed a community of listeners: guardians and keepers of the hearth in the comment sections, wits and strays always entering with suggest-a-show ideas, critics and a few spoilers now and then. But the place became, as many people observed, a sort of big neighborhood tavern with regulars, irregulars, some noisy folk but an astonishingly big spread of thoughtful writers. See the comments, for example, on Norman Mailer; on the movie “Groundhog Day”; on the rise of “shuffle” culture on people’s iPods. See the more than 1000 comments on the natural vs.
religious roots of morality — most written before we did the show! See the heartbreak thread on “Endings,” when we announced that we were going off the air for a while.

Biggest Mistake/Lesson: Clearly we had one crucial turn of bad luck, but more generally we failed to figure out the business model. In hindsight, I would say we made the production too expensive, at something just under $1-million for staff, offices and broadcast services at WGBH. The work can be done more simply, with a leaner staff, in my humble opinion. And still there’s a lot of introspection and other work to be done in figuring who’s baby this is to feed. How can the responsible burden be put where it belongs in the end, on the listener? What role should educational institutions play? (I’m now working on the re-launch from Brown University at the Watson Institute for International Studies). Which foundations with a lively interest in the global conversation can be counted on for long-term support? Our biggest failure was not anticipating the crunch, and not finding a timely cure.

Money: Toward the end we asked our listener base for contributions — on our website and by email, not over the air. Within a few days we raised $165,000, including a substantial anonymous foundation grant. It helped, but wasn’t enough. We’d also won a MacArthur grant of $150,000 recognizing the value of what we were learning and demonstrating about new democratic media. But it, too, ran out.

Future Goals: I remain a believer in the many promises of online media, in the spirit and detail of Jay Rosen’s original celebration of citizen journalism. “The terms of authority are changing,” as he told me at the first “BloggerCon” at Harvard in 2003. By now, with the extended failure of institutional media to address an American — and universal — catastrophe in Iraq and an appalling tailspin in our democratic process, the terms of authority have changed decisively. The essentially “republican” citizen spirit (“of the people, by the people, for the people”) of an open argumentative peaceful democracy will be restored only by the many confident free voices the Web can harmonize — voices that we heard aplenty, voices that are still writing regularly in reponse to our podcasts continuing on Open
Source. See you on the radio, then, and in the meantime on the Web.

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