Thursday, February 28, 2008

Arcania International On The Air!

Brent Hosier, owner of the Arcania International record label was featured on WVTF during "Morning Edition" today.

It was a pretty exciting time for all of us. My business partner and I at DCD Records have been working with Brent for some time, trying to get some well-deserved attention to his releases.

Brent's a knowledgeable record collector, and his compilations of 1960's garage band and soul records are pretty remarkable. Brent insists only using tracks that haven't been previously released on CD, which keeps the selections fresh-sounding. Further, he's pretty much limited his compilations to Virginia artists (with a few side trips).

Arcania International has two series running. The four volumes of "Aliens, Psychos and Wild Things" focuses on garage and psych bands of the mid- to late-1960s. "Ol' Virginia Soul" collects soul and R&B tracks from (mostly) the Old Dominion on three CDs.

Some of the discs have fallen out of print, and that's where we've come in. DCD Records has reissued "Aliens, Psychos and Wild Things, Vol. 1" and we're working on the others.

Check out the "Captive Audio" series at WVTF. You can even listen to the segment. And then -- if you're so inclined -- you can toodle on over to and buy a CD or two. We'll all be glad you did.

- Ralph

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

WJMA - Sooner and Later

While we've been analyzing John Amos' essay about his thoughts as a disaffected radio listener, our local radio station's been busy.

I first looked at WJMA's website back in November and have checked it monthly since. It's been a fascinating look at the disconnect between commercial radio and the Internet.

The good news is that there's some change. The bad news is that the change still shows ignorance of basic Internet concepts.

At first blush, the site looks the same. But click on "Meet the Staff." The "under construction" notice is gone! We can now "Meet the Jocks."

I hope the higher-ups at Piedmont Communications didn't do a lot of high-fiving when this page went live because it doesn't up their Internet credibility by much.

First off, the layout's confusing. Directly under the header "Meet the Jocks" we have.... the air shift schedule. The eye has to search for the name (it's to the right). OK, we bumped on the flow of the page, but now we understand the layout -- schedule on the left; name on the right. We continue down and find that under Weekends, the names are on the left (and no schedule at all)!

My takeaway from this page is that the person who constructed it doesn't understand the basics of design, or doesn't care -- or perhaps both. Not a good corporate image to project.

Thankfully, there are handy instructions ("click on name to e-mail") in the upper left corner. Hyperlinking is a basic concept of the Internet, and such instructions should be unnecessary. But the way the text is set up, it's not clear that the names are also links. Look -- even if it's a graphic, all you have to do is underline the text, and the reader will know to click on it. Again, this looks like the work of someone who's unfamiliar with the basic concepts of web navigation.

And then there's the final touch: "Pictures Coming Soon." As I pointed out in a previous post discussing "under construction" signs, this is a sure mark of amateurism. Don't offer something you don't have. If that notice was gone, I wouldn't think anything was missing from the page. Many contact pages have e-mail links and no pictures.

The professional approach would have been to post the page without the notice, and when the images are ready repost. But the note calls attention to what's not on the page and tells us this page isn't finished.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because a business' website is their calling card and for many potential clients their first impression.

My impression of the station from this page is not good.

And there's one other thing.

Unfortunately, WJMA's used the phrase "coming soon" before. I think their placeholder webpage promised this site would be "coming soon" for about a year. When I started monitoring the site in November, we were promised other things were "coming soon." And now in March (or perhaps late February) they finally deliver.

So is that the station's definition of "soon"? If a sales representative promises to get back with me "soon," am I in for a three-month wait, too?

- Ralph

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Radio Nowhere" and Half-Dead Radio

In my post yesterday, I asked a question:
Something that the radio industry trumpets as its savior is significantly absent from John Amos' essay. Do you know what it is?
John Amos, in his essay "Radio Nowhere" talked about the changing (for the worse) face of radio from a listener's perspective.

The subject was commerical radio, but he mentioned many other listening alternatives. Amos talks about:

National Public Radio
community radio
satellite radio
Internet radio

He talks a lot about content, and about the role local radio played in his life. But there's something missing from Amos' essay.

Have you figured it out?

There's no mention about the importance of sound fidelity, and no mention of HD Radio.

The listener is more concerned about the quality of the content than the amount of static in the signal.

According to the HD Radio Alliance,
It’s the most significant advancement in radio broadcasting since the introduction of FM stereo more than 50 years ago. HD Radio technology enables AM and FM radio stations to broadcast their programs digitally – a tremendous technological leap from the analog broadcasts of the past.
Yet in the cold light of day,

...some hard numbers on HD radio sales: 330,000 sold in 2007, up from 40,000 receivers in 2006.

Spin this any way you like, the reality is that these are low numbers, particularly after hundreds of millions of dollars of radio promotion provided gratis.

Indeed, by this time next year, there will be more HD radios in the U.S. than Ham Radios.

One day the radio industry will awaken to realize that inventing a new channel of distribution in a sea of already popular distribution channels is no pathway to the future.

Particularly not if the consumer has already spoken. - Mark Ramsey

And in John Amos' case, the consumer has spoken -- by not speaking about it at all.

- Ralph

"Radio Nowhere" -- Who's listening?

In "Radio Nowhere," the essay we posted yesterday, John Amos articulated the disenchantment he felt listening to the radio. And if you think he's alone, here's a little Internet mashup, placing excerpts from his essay alongside the posted thoughts of broadcast professionals.

Stations try to grab listeners with fizzy promises (“more music, less talk”) and catchy slogans... - John Amos
No one cares about your station or what you do. What they care about is how you make them feel about themselves and their decisions while in your presence. Do you make them feel special, in the know, smart, etc? Whatever it is, ask how you are making people feel while tuning you in or wearing your logo. - Tom Asacker
What’s missing, of course, is any sort of community connection... pre-packaged shows, produced in nameless places, are no substitute for the real, live thing. - John Amos
Programming went from local to homogenous. Making things worse was a decade in which the radio industry failed to program for youth. Bad timing, because it was at this same time that youth were looking for programs they could relate to. Youth still want to know what's happening locally. If radio won't tell them, they have this thing called the internet. And, boy, have they turned to it. - Ken Dardis
So the question is what can be done to save radio.

Get into the local content business. I’d start a website with music, social networks, artist interviews and other embellishments for every college and high school in your terrestrial listening area. Radio folks would do it the other way – one website for all local colleges. Radio works best when it is local. The Internet is your friend. It enables you to reach out to markets that may not ever listen to your terrestrial stations. After that expand by interest or social group. Impossible? Costly? It’s being done all the time in the Internet world by young entrepreneurs on what even today's radio would consider chump change. - Jerry Del Colliano
At issue is how radio companies transform their models from spot-sellers into marketing workhorses with communication assets built around individuals with faces and names rather than anonymous tallies of ears. - Mark Ramsey

In fact, not that long ago radio was a vibrant part of this community.... These folks took their work seriously, and they put out a product that people wanted, maybe even needed, to hear. - John Amos

Generally, listeners like the idea of live and local DJs. 77% said they preferred to have DJs who live in and are a part of their own community and 74% said DJs should be live, not recorded. - Mark Ramsey
Don't even think about more voice tracking -- it will only save money and never attract listeners -- not even if you paid a person carrying a People Meter to stand in front of a radio blaring your station 24/7. - Jerry Del Colliano
Real people, real entertainment, and real information.

Radio, far more than television, relies on an audience’s imagination. Without pictures, it has only words, voice, and human warmth to reach listeners. This requires a person at the other end of the microphone, not a recording. - John Amos
"TV gives everyone an image, but Radio gives birth to a million images in a million brains" - Peggy Noonan

What would a steak be without its sizzle? Radio is the security blanket of the ear. We flip a switch, we laugh, we scream, we sing along. We remember our youth, connect with our community, share our opinions, soothe our pains, calm our fears. Through the radio, our imagination unfolds, we dress for the weather, drive for the traffic, cheer for the team, take comfort when the world is safe and hold our neighbor's hand when it is not. - Mark Ramsey
[Radio] will only survive by cultivating the human connection. - John Amos
When you take out (or never put in) the personality, when you lack the voices that connect us to the music and each other, when there is no promotion, no news, no traffic, no weather, no contesting, no feeling that what you're hearing is in any sense "live" or, for that matter even "living," is that really "radio"?

Is that what we want "radio" to be?

Is that what the audience comes to us for? - Mark Ramsey

Commercial broadcasters won't listen to the professionals. Will they listen to the listener?

- Ralph

Bonus question: Something that the radio industry trumpets as its savior are significantly absent from John Amos' essay. Do
you know what it is? Look for the answer in tomorrow's post.

Monday, February 25, 2008

"Radio Nowhere" by John Amos

I was trying to find my way home,
But all I heard was a drone,
Bouncing off a satellite,
Crushing the last lone American night.
This is Radio Nowhere.
Is there anybody alive out there?

--Bruce Springsteen

Well, is there? Will somebody please answer the man’s question: Is anybody alive out there? I’ve been listening, but it seems pretty dead to me. Commercial radio, once such a potent means of communication, has become an utter wasteland.

I spend two hours a day in my truck, which doesn’t have a working CD player. So I listen to a lot of radio. I’ve got ten preset buttons, but only a couple are worth pushing.

Most stations today play pre-programmed “hits.” Few have live deejays. Of the ones that do, advertisements and silly talk predominate. Crude humor abounds. Once we had Wolfman Jack; now we have Imus, Stern, and a host of other shock-jock wannabes.

Stations try to grab listeners with fizzy promises (“more music, less talk”) and catchy slogans (“Generation Radio,” an inane euphemism for the oldies format). What’s missing, of course, is any sort of community connection. I realize the bottom-line drives a station’s programming decisions, but the fact remains: pre-packaged shows, produced in nameless places, are no substitute for the real, live thing.

Most stations today are owned by huge corporations. That’s why they all sound alike. Can’t take a chance on something original, so we’ll just play another worn out old standby, tell another smutty joke. The result: homogenized play-lists and tasteless talk.

It was not always so.

In fact, not that long ago radio was a vibrant part of this community. Orange’s tiny station had talent that much larger markets must have envied. Arch Harrison, Ross Hunter, and Bill Little were classy broadcasters with made-for-radio voices. The station also developed young talent, hiring high school students as broadcast interns, who learned the ropes quickly and soon became radio personalities in their own right. These folks took their work seriously, and they put out a product that people wanted, maybe even needed, to hear.

My grandmother listened religiously to The Swap Shop, a sort of on-air yard sale. She loved hearing people call in to trade clothes, cars, books, and other odd-and-ends. I once heard an old farmer on The Swap Shop attempt to trade a bushel of sweet potatoes for a 1968 Ford Galaxy transmission. I kid you not.

People tuned in on Friday nights to hear Hornet football games. They listened on election night to local politicos discuss the vote tallies. Teenagers called, requesting songs and offering dedications. People set their alarms to hear their neighbors’ birthdays announced. Churches took turns airing Sunday morning services.

None of it was particularly exciting, but it was genuine. Real people, real entertainment, and real information. Of course, it’s no longer cost-effective; but surely something has been lost.
A few oases still exist in today’s radio wasteland. National Public Radio provides a wonderful medley of music, interviews, and in-depth reporting. A Prairie Home Companion is the closest thing we have to the classic shows of the 30’s and 40’s.

Closer to home, several Charlottesville stations are bucking the trend. WNRN advertises itself as “community radio” and plays a wonderful grab-bag of music. 106.1 “The Corner” lives up to its slogan, “Different is Good.” And you never know what gem you’ll hear next on WTJU. These stations mix passionate volunteers with seasoned, professional deejays to create something worth listening to.

And in Orange, Phil Goodwin continues to report daily on local news. He’s a humane and intelligent voice, crying in the wilderness.

The internet is also trying hard to revive the medium. XM and Sirius offer stations devoted to blues, jazz, sports-talk, and just about anything else you could want. Services like Pandora and actually allow listeners to build their own stations. Though I like the concept, internet radio seems a bit sterile to me. Good radio should deliver a sense of place, and who can say where the internet originates?

Radio, far more than television, relies on an audience’s imagination. Without pictures, it has only words, voice, and human warmth to reach listeners. This requires a person at the other end of the microphone, not a recording.

Like the newspaper industry, radio is struggling to remain relevant in the modern age. It will only survive by cultivating the human connection. Abandon that, and all you’ve got left is waves, bouncing off a satellite.

- John Amos

©2008 by John Amos
Reprinted by permission

Sunday, February 24, 2008

"Radio Nowhere" and the Orange Review

John Amos, a local writer here in Orange, Virginia, writes an excellent column "Every Now and Then" that's published in the Orange Review and the Fredricksburg Free-Lance Star.

His article that ran in last week's edition of the Orange Review, "Radio Nowhere," articulated the ennui of broadcast radio's diminishing audience from a listener's point of view. I really like the piece, and I should have been able to call attention to Amos' essay simply by linking to it.

But I couldn't.

The Orange Review didn't put it online. Only a portion of the articles published in the weekly paper makes it to their website, and they have no online archive. New week, a new batch of articles and the old simply disappear from cyberspace.

Now I know I've talked about local media a lot recently, but it's for a purpose. Most of "CE Conversations" readership don't live in Orange, Virginia, and commentary only about WJMA or the Orange Review would be irrelevant for them.

But these critiques are using specific examples that are relevant elsewhere. While it's unlikely the site in question will do anything, hopefully, it will stimulate thought among the readership for other sites they're involved with; be it work, recreation, or volunteer organization.

So what's wrong with the Orange Review site that might be of help to similar sites? The Review doesn't understand that content is king.

The Review is the best source of news and information about what's happening in Orange and has been continually published since at least 1887. Granted, it would take a long time to digitize all those back issues, but what a resource for historians and genealogists.

But the paper doesn't even archive what it currently prints! At the very least, there should be two or three years' worth of content available (I'm guessing that's about the time everything went digital in the press room). Where do these digitized stories go after publication, anyway? Just add a search box (also missing) and make this content available, already.

Why should they? Because unique content drives traffic to the site, which boosts ad revenue. Which is the other problem with the Orange Review site. There's just one ad box. Ad clutter is bad, but these guys just aren't trying. A few spaces for contextual advertising would not be too obtrusive, and would help expand the revenue base outside of the Orange County limits.

And before you respond that this is just a little paper in a little one-horse town and they don't have the staff or the time to do all that interwebtube stuff, know this: the Orange Review and the papers for the four surrounding counties are owned by Media General, a fairly large media company. Their sister publication, Charlottesville's Daily Progress does a slightly better job -- at least, you can search their archives and their ad placement makes a little more sense.

I think it's simply a lack of vision. Whether it's at the corporate level, the regional level or perhaps even the local level, somewhere decision makers are not understanding the web.

If I had my way, everyone whose decisions involve even marginally the Internet would watch the following video. Mike Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State put together what I consider the best explanation of how information on the Internet works, and how its different than printed media.

So the story ends with me contacting John Amos and getting permission from him to post the column in its entirety on "CE Communications" (he owns the copyright to the material). I'll post it tomorrow.

If this article generates the amount of discussion I think it should, traffic for this site will increase significantly. And that's a shame -- because each additional click represents another missed opportunity for the Orange Review.

- Ralph

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Milford Metamorphosis

By some strange coincidence, my posts comparing two artists illustrating the comic strip Gil Thorpe happened just at the right time. On Monday, when my initial post went up, Frank Bolle debuted as the strip's new artist, replacing Frank McGlaughlin.

While I sometimes write posts on the fly in reaction to events (like this one), for the most part, I normally jot down topics as they occur to me, and fill them out at a later date. That's what happened with my last two posts. I had been meaning to write about Steve Bryant's tryout strips for a week or so. According to Bryant's blog, he had been asked to submit some samples, but he had no details about if -- or even when -- the Chicago Tribune Syndicate wanted to replace McGlaughlin.

We can't do a direct comparison, but here's Bolle's depiction of high school basketball action placed against Bryant's.

(click on image to enlarge)

Zowie. I think I prefer Bryant's snapshot style (panel 2) to Bolle's attempt to show action with speed lines (panel 1). It just makes all the players look like they're trembling.

Bolle is an experienced comic strip artist, which I'm sure was an important part of the syndicate's decision. They know he'll produce on deadline and at a certain minimum level of quality on a consistent basis.

But compared to Bryant, his style looks a little flat to me. Plus, Bolle is really experienced -- he's 83. Bryant's almost half that age.

It seems strange to me that they would bring in a new artist who's near the end of his career. Every artist change disrupts the readership somewhat. To have to do this again little ways down the road seems short-sighted, somehow.

- Ralph

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Art of the Comic Strip Narrative, Part 2

Yesterday's post comparing two different ways of presenting the same comic strip continuity generated some insightful commentary from readers. From the same sources here're two other examples placed next to each other.

The comic strip on the top was drawn by Frank McGlaughlin, the official artist for Gil Thorp, and was published a few months ago. The bottom strip is a tryout by Steve Bryant, created at the request of the Chicago Tribune.

Unlike yesterday's example, there are strong storytelling elements in both versions. The script requires three different speakers and a scene change. McGlaughlin starts out the reader in the team bus, showing us the two coaches in a discussion.

If you haven't been reading throughout the week, it may take a moment to figure out where they are. Bryant shows us the bus in transit, clearly setting the stage, but there's a trade-off. We don't know who's speaking (unless we've been reading the continuity throughout the week).

(To be fair, Bryant used the text supplied by the Syndicate. Had he been the actual artist working with the writer, it's possible that the dialogue could have been slightly tweaked so that Kaz and Gil mention each other by name.)

In McGlaughlin's version, panel 2 has Gregory sitting in the back of the bus, his pose showing he's not been humbled at all by the talking-to referred to in panel 1. He's also looking up as if seeing himself on an imaginary pedestal. His two teammates seem less than impressed.

Bryant has Gregory address the reader directly (while seeming to talk to someone off-panel). How big is Gregory's ego? Big enough to break the fourth wall! On the downside, the way Gregory and his fellow passenger are dressed give us no indication that they're members of a high school basketball team. McGlaughlin's choice of varsity jackets did the narrative a greater service in that respect.

For the third panel, we have Gregory's ex-girlfriend (Maureen Monte, right) and her friend Anne Mayers (left) talking about his ego. Notice the nice arc the story provides. We start with the coaches talking about how they hope Gregory's attitude is under control, the middle panel Gregory refutes that assumption, and in the last two other people provide additional evidence to show just how conceited he really is.

McGlaughlin gives us a clear change of scene by filling in the background and showing us a girl's bedroom. The two girls, albeit drawn somewhat awkwardly, are in poses typical of teenagers lounging. Although the setting is clear, the cell phone with exhibit A (the texted scores) is kind of difficult to make out.

Bryant's far more economical in his scene change. The first two panels have frames, the last one doesn't. By drawing the girls closer in, he can show the cell phone. McGlaughlin has the girls staring off into space, which doesn't help. Are they engaged in conversation or is Anne just thinking out loud? Bryant has both girls' attention focussed on the phone, which draws our eyes to it, too.

Plus, by having the brunette dressed in a light-colored top, the phone stands out in contrast. McGlaughlin chooses to draw a black phone in front of a black sweater.

The downside to Byrant's portrayal is that we're not sure where the girls are. They could even be on another part of the bus, for that matter (letter jackets in panel 2 would have helped that somewhat). On the plus side, he breaks up Anne's lines into two connected word balloons. As mentioned yesterday, it suggests a pause in the delivery, and the second balloon's position over Maureen's head indicates that the comment came after Anne was shown the text message.

If I had to choose, I would say that Bryant's the better artist overall -- and his website shows that he's well-steeped in the comics tradition. Still, continuity strips with their many constraints present a unique set of challenges to the graphic storyteller who usually has a whole page to play with.

I'd almost call this one a draw. No pun intended.

- Ralph

The Art of the Comic Strip Narrative

For many people, the daily comics are something to scan and forget -- which is why the gag-a-day strip continues to thrive. In previous posts, I've talked about the importance of the narrative in the continuing story strip, and the skill it takes to keep it interesting when you have three panels to recap events and advance the plot.

But comics are a unique artform where both words and pictures combine to tell the story. Comic art at its best can set the scene, show action, and portray the characters' inner thoughts or emotional states.

How important is the art? Thanks to an unusual turn of events, we have a chance to compare two different ways of illustrating the same story -- and see how the art shades the narrative.

Steve Bryant was under consideration as a fill-in artist for Gil Thorp and was asked to provide some sample strips. Below is the strip that originally ran drawn by current artist Frank McGlaughlin, and underneath that, Bryant's tryout version.

(click on image to enlarge)

Notice how, even with identical dialogue, the dramatic emphasis and pacing of the story change. McGlaughlin uses three equal-sized panels. The eye travels across the strip at an even pace, keeping the narrative flow moving along in a similar fashion.

Bryant, on the other hand, makes the second panel bigger, which causes the eye to pause. Just like an actor who pauses before delivering his line, Bryant has given Cully's words more dramatic weight.

Notice also the placement of the word balloons. In the printed version, they're all in the top third of the panel. It's possible to read all the dialogue without ever really looking at McGlaughlin's pictures.

Bryant uses word balloon placement to further the narrative. In the first panel, he breaks Gil's lines into two connected balloons. This suggests a slight pause between the two lines. A little more dramatic, and (if you say the lines out loud) a bit more natural, too. There's nothing wrong with the way McGlaughlin did it -- but without that visual clue, the reader will assume both lines are delivered with the same pacing.

In Bryant's second panel the word balloon is placed to the right of Cully's head. The reader sees the resolute expression on this young man's face before he speaks. Again, there's a suggestion of a pause, as there's a visual interruption between Gil's word balloon and Cully's. We get the impression that Culley chose his words carefully before responding on this topic that's clearly difficult for him to talk about.

And while the two lines are in overlapping balloons, they're not as separated as Gil's speech. The balloons show a shorter pause between them than the lines in panel 1.

Bryant places Gil's response in panel 3 in the lower right corner. It suggests the speaker's location -- Gil is in the foreground, just off-panel.

The careful placement of the three balloons draws the eye across the strip in a downward diagonal motion. With McGlaughlin, we can skip the top of the strip and never become fully engaged with the comic. Bryant forces us to notice expressions, and indeed, take in all the art.

In any form of drawing, choices are made about what to put in, and what to leave out. In cartooning, those choices impact the narrative. McGlaughlin gives us enough background detail in the first panel to know we're in the stadium. Those details remain in all three panels. When Cully runs off at the end, the short distance between the two characters shows that Gil's comment comes hard on the heels of Cully's response (the overlapping word balloons show the same thing).

Bryant also gives us a stadium background, although with less detail than McGlaughlin. Once the scene is established, we don't need to see it again, and so we don't. The second panel shows Cully alone. In McGlaughlin's version, we see Cully, Gil in the foreground, and some fence in the background. There are many things to draw our attention. Bryant strips away all the distractions. He wants us to look at Cully's face and has taken everything else away to ensure we do.

Bryant's third panel has Cully in silhouette. By putting his entire body in the panel, Bryant shows distance. He's clearly walked away from Gil, who's now calling after him. Clearly a few seconds have passed between panels 2 and 3. By showing Cully in black outline, Bryant hints at the weight of his burden. In the first panel, Cully's facing forward in full light, looking up. In the last, he's in shadow, facing away and looking down. Culley's mood has changed over these three panels.

A lot of thought -- and work -- went into these panels.

And all of this is for a daily comic strip that takes most people fifteen seconds to read.

I like to linger over my morning comics and savor the details of the artform before me. Now that's entertainment!

- Ralph

(Special thanks to This Week in Milford, where I first learned of Steve Bryant's artwork)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Still fair and balanced -- our bottom five posts

Our last post we took stock of where we were after 20,000 views and ran down our five most popular posts. Just as we did when we hit the 10,000 mark, we're also going to list the five least popular posts, in descending order. After all, if we celebrate the good, we ought to acknowledge the bad.
5) After the Bum Rush -- My analysis of the attempt to send the record labels a message by pushing an independent release to the top of the iTunes charts. Was it successful? Fortunately, more folks responded to the challenge than read my post about it.

4) I Want My MTV YouTube -- I'm hoping this one's in the gutter just because it's so recent. I offer up the concept that YouTube serves the function of the original version of Music Television.

3) Pulling Cable -- Ken observed new fiber being laid in his neighborhood. Would HDTV finally be available? Did you care?

2) The Revolution Will Be Dugg -- My attempt to put the spreading of DRM codes as an act of civil disobedience into a larger context.
And the absolute least-read post so far:
1) Return of the Marching Memes -- This was also the least popular 10,000 views ago. When you're not interested, you're really not interested.
Four of the five bottom posts are mine. Ken finally has an entry, but he still comes out ahead when you look at the most popular posts. No matter how we look at the stats, you, gentle reader, have voted with your mouse clicks. Quality wins over quantity once more. And I don't think either of us would want it any other way.

- Ralph

Another milestone -- and our top five posts

Late last night CE Conversations passed another important milestone. Our eccentric little blog has passed the 20,000 view mark, according to Feedburner.

Feedburner tracks the subscribers to our RSS feed and hits to our Feedburner site. (The StatCounter down on the lower right of this page tracks direct hits to this site -- but only for the past few months.) Feedburner provides a variety of traffic stats, included one that tells us which posts are the most read. And so, to mark the 20,000 view milestone, here's a rundown of our five most popular posts.

5) "Better" Best Be Better (Ralph) -- a look at the urtext of the Blu-ray/HD DVD format war

4) Digital junk food (Ken) -- articulating the role of short-form video on the Internet

3) A Worthy Supporting Role (Ken) -- commentary on Rex Ingram's role in "Sahara" and how it played against racial stereotypes

2) Who needs an iPhone, when.... (Ken) -- suggesting an alternative to the iPhone madness
And the most popular post to date,
1) Greenberg Revisited (Ralph) -- discussing the importance of well-researched price guides as opposed to relying on Ebay to determine the value of collectibles
Although the lineup's changed since our last survey at 10,000 views, overall reader preferences haven't. Ken's taken a bit of a hiatus, which has caused the proportion of my posts to the total number available to grow significantly. Nevertheless, Ken has three of the top five posts, with an overall total that easily trumps mine.

It appears that you still prefer quality to quantity. Congratulations once again, Ken! Now write me a post!

- Ralph

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I Want My MTV YouTube

Beloit College recent released their annual mindset list for incoming freshman. It places the class of 2011 in perspective by outlining some of the differences that shape their worldview as opposed to that of their professors.

One entry to the 2001 list caught my attention: for freshmen in college, MTV has never featured music videos.

For those who came in late, "MTV" originally stood for "Music Television" and the cable channel did nothing but play music videos. In the late 1980's it reshaped the musical landscape. Artists' fortunes rose and fell as their videos either entered heavy rotation on MTV or were discarded.

Eventually, the network started creating its own programming which eventually changed MTV from a video jukebox to a 20-something lifestyle network.

So those born in 1989 have never experienced "Music Television." But that's OK -- they have YouTube.

While many people only think of YouTube as a place for stupid pet trick videos or goofy Interent memes such as "Turtle Boy," it's actually a vast repository of all kinds of video material -- including music videos.

Many independent artists have self-posted their own videos, of course. And there's a fair collection of live performances, both professionally recorded and surreptitiously taped.

But record labels, both large and small, now use YouTube the way they used MTV in the 1980's to promote their acts. Everything from Natashia Bedingfield to Cat Power to A Band Called Quinn can be found on YouTube.

And unlike MTV in its heyday, the content isn't solely tied to current releases. It's easy to find videos from the 90s like Blind Melon's "No Rain." Or you can go back to the 1980's and catch the same videos your parents saw when MTV was new.

In the 1950's through the 1970's -- before music video came into its own -- TV variety shows served as the primary visual showcase for artists. Many of these performances have found their way on the site as well.

Watch a young and innocent Marianne Faithful perform "As Tears Go By" from a 1965 episode of Hullabaloo; Kansas performing in 1976, or Ike Turner playing on a St. Louis 1959 TV show when rock and roll was brand new.

Unlike the old MTV, YouTube's video offerings span the globe as well as time. Artists from all over the world can be found on YouTube. And all genres are there, too -- country, blues, jazz, folk and so on. NPR recently ran a story about classical music videos on the site.

So don't feel sorry for the class of 2011 and what they may have missed. MTV's role has been taken over by YouTube. And considering the vast array of content, it's an upgrade.

- Ralph

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Classical C'Ville

I have to admit, this isn't quite the post I thought I'd be writing.

Last Wednesday I attended a Steve Reich concert at James Madison University. This past Saturday, I went to a concert by the Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra. As I remarked in a previous post, I was one of the oldest audience members in the Wednesday night concert, and I fully expected to be one of the youngest for the symphony's.

I was thankfully wrong. The Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra, perhaps because of its ties with the University of Virginia, attracts an interesting mix of people. There were certainly enough blue-hairs there, but there appeared to be just as many middle-aged folks and twenty-something students as well.

Three rows down from me an older gentleman snoozed through the Brahms First Piano Concerto, while just to the right of him a young man in his twenties sat on the edge of his seat, intently following the by-play between soloist and orchestra.

The symphony played very well -- especially for a group made up of professional, student and amateur players. The brass, wind, and percussion sections were especially strong, and the string section had a good ensemble sound.

Maestro Kate Tamarkin directed the orchestra with a surprising economy of gesture while delivering plenty of drama musically. I actually felt the audience jump when, with a crash, the orchestra launched into the finale of Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite." And pianist Andrew Armstrong looked like he was having fun as he and the orchestra romped through the Brahms concerto.

The audience loved it. At least in Charlottesville, Virginia, classical music isn't exclusively the domain of the very old.

Mozart wrote the Overture to the "Magic Flute" when he was 35;, Stravinsky the "Firebird" at age 28, and Brahms was 26 when his first piano concerto premiered. There were plenty of folks in that general age group Saturday to hear and enjoy their creative efforts.

Which is precisely how it should be.

- Ralph

Saturday, February 09, 2008

WJMA - Still Frozen

There's been a little bit of change on the WJMA website -- sort of.

For those who came in late, in November I wrote a series of posts analyzing WJMA's website. The site's not unique in the radio world, which was sort of the point. Broadcast radio, on the whole, has not a clue how media consumption has shifted nor what to do about it. My series of posts used WJMA as a test case -- here's a problem, and here are some practical solutions.

One of the problems was the lack of maintenance on the site. The local news page had the dateline "November 9, 2007" and a blank page. I revisited the site on December 9 and January 9 and saw nothing had changed. Now on February 9, there's been a modicum of activity -- the page no longer says "November 9, 2007." It's now completely blank!

Note to the powers that be: this may be a change, but it's not an improvement.

Also, the job posting hasn't been changed. Piedmont Communications is still looking for a program director who can "oversea programs." I wonder if they were looking for someone who could oversee programs the position wouldn't still be unfilled?

And of course, you still can't contact the on-air staff -- or even find out who they are. That page is still under construction.

We'll check back March 9. Will anything be different? Stay tuned!

- Ralph

Friday, February 08, 2008

Less than 13 ways of looking at Steve Reich

OK, that headline's a little obscure, so I'd better explain. The contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird (no caps) will be premiering a new composition by Steve Reich in Richmond, Virginia (about an hour from where I live) in April. The group, like the title for this post, references Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

I had an opportunity to see Steve Reich and hear his music Wednesday at James Madison University. There were many facets to the experience, each one worthy of its own mini-post, hence the title.

First view - reputation
When I first heard about the series at JMU, I was really excited. Steve Reich, along with John Adams and Philip Glass from the pantheon of minimalism, a compositional school that re-connected classical music with the vernacular of popular music.

Reich's music sells very well, he can make a living as a composer (without having to supplement it by teaching), he has a record contract with a major label (Nonesuch), and he's a major influence not only in the classical world but also in other genres as well. Steve Reich's compositions are what classical music should be -- relevant, exciting, and accessible (at some level) to a wide audience.

Second view - radio
While some of our local public radio stations mentioned Reich's appearance in Harrisonburg WTJU excepted, of course), there was no way in hell they were actually going to play any of his music. I've railed about how safe programming is killing the classical radio audience, and this is a good example. One of the most important -- and popular -- composers of our time is in town and not a note of his music can be heard anywhere on the radio. Shame on Steve Reich for not dying in the 19th century like Brahms -- that's how you get airplay.

Third view - friends
Not one of our personal friends had heard of Steve Reich, nor even grasped the importance of the event. This isn't so surprising -- music isn't everyone's thing (especially classical music).

Sadly, this also included a school music teacher who professes to like all kinds of music. Yet when it comes to classical, she likes 'em dead and buried. So what concepts will she pass on to her students about this genre?

Fourth view - the pre-concert lecture
Wilson Auditorium had a good-sized crowd for the concert. Reich, in a personable and informal manner, outlined the background for the works we were about to hear and shared details of his creative process. It was a great presentation. I gained new insights into his work, and how to enjoy it at an even deeper level. and he accomplished this without resorting to musical jargon. His comments were easy to understand for just about everyone.

Fifth view - the concert
There's nothing like hearing music live. I seldom get the chance, especially for classical music. It's extremely unlikely that any orchestra will program Hovhanesses' "Mysterious Mountain," or an opera company mount a production of Vaughan Williams' "Pilgrim's Progress." So by necessity, most of my musical exploration is done through recordings.

The concert featured two works: "Vermont Counterpoint," and "Music for 18 Musicians." The first work was for solo flute playing with a tape of several different flutes in overdubbed counterpoint. Watching the performance, I could see which parts were played by the performer (all the lines blend together in the recording). It gave the piece a different dynamic, and I found I actually enjoyed it better than the CD version.

The second work, "Music for 18 Musicians" is a marathon composition. It lasts about an hour and tests the abilities and stamina of the performers who play almost continually. Thanks to Reich's comments beforehand, I could follow the structure in a way I couldn't before. The work made more sense, and I was really drawn into it. I could hear the architecture behind the sound, and the hour (I think it was closer to 51 minutes) seemed to fly by in a timeless instant.

Sixth view - reflection
Early in his career, Reich formed an ensemble to perform his music. He had to -- his scores were considered almost impossible to play, and only by training and performing with the musicians himself could Reich get his music heard. But times have changed. At the concert Wednesday night, I saw undergraduate music students performing that same "impossible" music -- and performing it well.

Something else -- Reich is in his early seventies. Yet public radio, with their aging boomer audience, won't play him. My music teacher friend whose in the upper end of that age group isn't interested in him at all. Reich's audience isn't his generation.

Most of the packed house were made up of twenty- and thirty-somethings, with hardly a blue-hair in sight. When was the last time you saw anyone under sixty at a classical music concert? Reich's audience is the next generation of classical music listeners -- and the public radio stations and concert organizations who wring their hands over their shrinking and graying audiences aren't paying attention.

Seventh view - clay feet
After the concert, there was a rush towards the stage. Folks wanted to talk to Reich, shake his hand, get an autograph, have a picture taken with him, and so on. Reich refused to have any of that. He was ready to leave, and pretty much acted like a d*ck as he rebuffed well-wishers. It was the one downside to the whole experience. I hope he just had a bad night.

Eighth view - bargain
So I got to see one of the greatest living composers in the world and hear his music. The admission price? Six dollars (it would have been half that if I was still a student). Well worth it, and then some. Even if I didn't get my CD autographed.

- Ralph

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Virtual Body Politic

Someone who only follows the presidential election through mainstream media (primarily TV news) will form an impression radically different than someone who uses the Internet as their primary news source. I've been looking at election coverage both online and off, and sometimes it seems as if I'm reading about events in two parallel universes. And perhaps I am.

The differences have been most striking on the Republican side. Those who follow mainstream news saw Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee battle it out, with John McCain eventually coming up from behind (as of this writing). Rudi Guiliani always seemed like a credible candidate, as did Fred Thompson.

Following the process online yielded a different impression -- especially through sites such as Digg, where the candidates' supporters can raise awareness by submitting and voting for stories to get them to the top of the list.

In the online world, it's all been about Ron Paul. His supporters, in addition to being very vocal, have also been very active. And they've had to be. Mainstream media often ignored Paul. His supporters continually post documentation of deliberate marginalization, both among reporters and the Republican party itself.

Ron Paul leads the pack in terms of MySpace and Facebook friends, as well as the Digg the Candidates site. None of the other Republican candidates come close to Paul. Guiliani and Thompson were always at the bottom of the heap.

On the Democratic side, the mainstream media has Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a dead heat. Online, it's no contest -- it's Obama by a wide margin. He has ten times the friends on Digg, and wide leads over Clinton on Facebook and MySpace.

Obama is the candidate that "gets' the Internet. He supported net neutrality, which made him hugely popular with the online community. The announcement went almost unreported in the mainstream media -- which is hardly surprising as they have yet to really report on the issue of net neutrality itself. The average person watching TV news has never heard of one of the Internet's major hot button issues.

Of course, what matters are votes. If Ron Paul is so popular (according to the web), then why isn't he leading in delegates? If Obama's the clear choice online, then why hasn't he put this contest away?

I think it's because 50% of the people still live on the other side of the digital divide. And a good many of those on this side use the Internet only to forward ancient jokes and urban myths to their friends -- not as a source of information.

And therein lies the difficulty. While the Internet has made the political process transparent in many ways and leveled the playing field for the candidates, this has only come to pass online. There's been little spillover into the non-digital world.

To get out the vote, campaigners still have to connect with the electorate. In the real world. Face to face. Not just pixel to pixel. Can these new political bases rising online make the transition? This will be an interesting election.

- Ralph