Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Principles of Collecting - Part 2, Have a focus to your collection

What advice would you give someone thinking of starting a collection as a hobby? That's the question my father and I attempted to answer, and came up with what I think are five universal principles. Collect something you're passionate about seems a good place to start, but then what?

Have a focus to your collection
Here's the reality: for virtually field, it's impossible to collect it all. Romance novels, coins, dolls, stamps, Civil War memorabilia -- there's just too much.

Someone I know "collects" pigs. Well, it's something she's passionate about, but there's no focus to her collection. Anything that's generally pig-shaped is fine with her, from the cheapest plastic knick-knack to expensive crystal sculptures. It's not so much a collection as a pile objects indiscriminately thrown together.

Museums have a plan for obtaining objects, and so should the collector. Museums are after things that fit into their overall mission, that helps tell their story. A museum that's focussed on 19th century life may have a few contemporary newspapers to help illustrate daily life. A newspaper museum would have thousands -- but none of the 19th century clothing, furniture, etc. that the other museum would have. Both museums could have the same objects, but use them in different contexts.

Same with personal collections. Having a focus makes the collection manageable, and at the same time gives it a purpose.

Let's go back to that pig collection. Currently, it suggests someone who's a borderline hoarder. But suppose it had a little focus. In addition to her affinity for pigs, she likes crystal. Combining those two passions, she could collect only cut or blown glass pigs. It would actually make each object mean more to her, and also tell a story of her interests. If she liked a particular studio, or school of design, she could further narrow her collection, while increasing its interest not only to her, but to others as well.

The more focussed a collection, the easier it is for non-collectors to understand. I'm not saying you should collect for the approbation of others -- collect your passion. But you can communication that passion, and perhaps pass on an appreciation of your interest to others if there's a purpose to your collection.

A collection of 19th century cast-iron piggy banks is tells a story -- several, actually. This is the level of technology for these type of objects in the 1890's; this was the shared cultural perception of pigs; this is an example of 19th century life; look at the variety of form and quality in these pieces all made around the same time.

And having a focused collection makes it easier to decide what belongs, and what doesn't. That doesn't mean you have to be draconian -- it's your collection, you make the rules, and you decide when to break or bend them. So that collection of cast-iron banks may have a lone plastic piggy bank from the 1950's, the bank the collector owned as a child, or perhaps was given by a dear friend.

And it's best to decide on the focus of your collection as early into the process as possible. It's always easier to not bring something into the home, then to try to get it out again -- and more economical, too.

- Ralph


Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Principles of Collecting - Part 1, Collect your passion

If you were talking to someone thinking about starting a collection as a hobby, what advice would you give them? That's the question my father and I attempted to answer, and in the process came up with five universal principles.

First Principle: Collect something you're passionate about

There's really only one good reason to start a collection -- it gives you pleasure. Something about the objects you're seeking out provide a joy that just isn't met otherwise.

So what does that mean? Well, it's no accident that many collectors are interested in objects from their past. Take the area of toy trains, for example. The average collector seems to be a 60-year old male. The hottest items? Toy trains manufactured in the early 1960's, when that average collector was 10-13 years old.

For the average collector, trains from that period have special meaning. They may conjure up pleasant associations from years past (and since most toy trains of the period were commonly used as Christmas decorations, that feeling of nostalgia can be especially strong). They may be the toys that the collector wanted but never had as a child, and so to get that special train provides a feeling of accomplishment.

Whatever the reason, for the toy train collector, there's more to their hobby than just accumulating objects of plastic and metal.

That should be true of whatever you decide to collect. A book collector I know tells me that, while he's primarily interested in the author and the story, there's something about the smell of old paper that conjures up fond memories for him.

A coin collector friend likes to contemplate the history of the Roman coins he owned. Where had they been? How many hands did they pass through? How did they end up where he found them?

And remember collections don't have to be about old things, or even valuable things. If a particular group of objects strikes your fancy, then that's fine. I knew someone who collected novelty salt-and-pepper shakers and seldom paid more than a few dollars for any set. While the items weren't (and still aren't) worth much, it doesn't matter. She had fun collecting them, and that was really the point.

Remember: it's your collection. Perhaps you like post-modernist fine art. Or maybe your taste runs more towards bobble-heads. Doesn't matter. Your collection only has to speak to you.

Corollary: Collect for fun, not profit.
Even a casual Internet search will turn up lots of posts talking about the value of "collectibles." But there's a reason why the stories about old, presumably valueless items found to be worth thousands keeps turning up. Because it's still such a rare occurrence that it's newsworthy.

Make sure you read those stories carefully. What you'll discover is that these highly valued items are exceptional in some fashion. Sure, that first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 is said to be worth $310,000. But don't expect to collect comics and then sell them off to fund a comfortable retirement!

Let's look at that value again. The estimated top value of Action #1 is $350,000. That means the price it can get when the comic's in impeccable condition. Damaged covers, missing pages, etc. significantly lower the value. However Action Comics #2 is valued at around $20,000 (first appearance of Superman is historically important - the second, not so much). And there's a further fall off with issue number 3, 4, and so on.

When Action Comics #1 came out in 1939, the concept of collecting comic books wasn't really formed -- many were folded up and jammed into back pockets, passed around among friends, read and reread to tatters. At the time comic books were regarded as cheap juvenile ephemera, and often discarded. Quite a few ended up recycled in World War II paper drives.

Out of a print run of about 200,000, less than 100 copies of Action #1 are known to exist. So it's very unlikely you'll find a copy in your attic. And of those copies, only a handful can command top dollar. Further, that $350,000 is an auction estimate. If all the major collectors are at the same auction and if they get into a bidding war, the comic might fetch that amount.

But Action #1 is an unusual comic. It's both rare and historically important. Millions of comics have been published, and many of them aren't especially desirable -- even in mint condition. Most of the comics you're likely to run across won't be worth a fraction of Action #1. A clean copy of Career Girl Romances #1 from 1965? Perhaps three or four dollars -- if you can find a buyer.

So while the idea of finding a stack of old comics in the attic and selling each one for hundreds of thousands of dollars might seem like an attractive business model, that's not likely to happen.

Collecting things for the primary purpose of selling them at a profit isn't a hobby -- it's a business. And as any antique dealer can tell you, it's a labor-intensive business at that. Tracking down items to buy, maintaining the books, making sure you have enough operating capital, monitoring the market, selling at shows and auctions -- it's work. So unless your hobby is running a commercial operation, it's best to stick to collecting for enjoyment.

One other thing -- most collectible markets are even more volatile than the stock market. If buying and selling is your thing, you'll probably do better as a day trader.

Next: Narrowing the focus.

- Ralph


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Principles of Collecting - Introduction

In his retirement, Dad's become a fairly popular speaker for fraternal organizations and the like. Many of his presentations center around some aspect of history, usually involving either local history, or the background of pre-war toy manufacturers.

Currently, he's developing a talk he'll present with a fellow toy car collector. It will be a presentation on the basics of collecting designed for retirees just contemplating taking up a hobby to occupy their leisure time.

As Dad and I traveled to the Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA, his project prompted us to think about and discuss what the underlying concepts of collecting might be. And while at the meet, we had a chance to see some of those concepts in action.

So here's the question: if you knew someone who wanted to start a collection, what advice would you give? What principles universally apply whether you're interested in Beanie Babies or Hemingway First Editions?

It gave us a lot to think about. And (I think) we came up with some interesting ideas, which I'll discuss in detail in a series of posts. Look over this list, though, think about your own hobby, and let me know if I've overlooked something.

The principles of intelligent collecting:

1) Collect something you're passionate about

2) Have a focus to your collection

3) Have a plan for organizing and storing your collection

4) Build a solid knowledge base about the subject of your collection

5) Understand the market dynamics of your collecting subject

- Ralph

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lessons from York - Economic indicators?

My dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to York, PA for the Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train meets. As I've noted before, it's a pretty big event, and as significant in the field of toy train collecting as, say, CES is to consumer electronics.

This is a hobby that tends to skew old -- most people don't get serious about the hobby until they're in their fifties. So there's a significant portion of collectors that are retired, and living on a fixed income

Dad and I wondered if the economic downturn would impact the hobby -- or at least what we saw at York. Would attendees pull back in their spending? Would some even stop coming? After all, a hobby isn't a necessity, but for many, it's a very important part of their life.

In the spring, we didn't notice much of a change. Attendance was still very high, Lionel, MTH, Atlas and other manufacturers still displayed new products, and older items for sale seemed to be about the same price.

This month, though, things were different. The major manufacturers were all still there, albeit with somewhat restrained product lines. I don't have attendance figures, but the crowds did seem thinner.

But the most obvious change were the dealers. Quite a few halls had empty tables. In some cases, it was clear that the tables had simply not been rented. But many had names on them -- the tables had been rented, but the dealers never showed up. Table signup is finalized months before the meet, so clearly, circumstances changed during that time.

And the effect was similar to the "broken window" syndrome. The vacant tables didn't go unnoticed. We overheard many conversations talking about sluggish sales and general unease about the future. And if we stopped to look at something, more often than not the dealer was right there really giving us the hard sell.

We still had a good time and got some good bargains (like that Lionel MPC boxcar pictured above I brought home). And truth to tell, we also came with less spending money than in years past. And we got the answer to our question. Hobbies can provide a nice diversion, but sometimes reality can't be ignored.

- Ralph


Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Value of Twitter, Part 4: Join the Conversation

The Value of Twitter Series:
Part 1: The Personal
Part 2: The Professional
Part 3: The Informational
Part 4: Join the Conversation
Part 5: An Annotated Conversation

In the three previous parts of this series, I talked about the ways I find Twitter valuable using the analogy of a cocktail party. Many people hear about Twitter, open an account, look around, and abandon their account fairly quickly. Talking with some folks I know that have done so, there seem to be two reasons:

1) They don't understand how Twitter works
2) They don't know where to start.

Hopefully, the three previous posts help with point 1. As for the other, let's return to our cocktail party analogy. You walk into a very large room (perhaps at a convention) and it's entirely filled with people engaged in conversation with each other. The din is overwhelming, and there's no way you can make out more than a few words of what anyone's saying.

What do you do? Well, you could join the people lining the walls, the wallflowers looking on, but never participating (until they decide this is stupid and leave the room). Or you could plunge in. And most of us would probably do so in one of two ways. If we saw someone we know, we'd probably join their conversation, at least initially. If we happened by a conversation about something we were really interested in, we might introduce ourselves and join in. In either case, you're filtering out the noise, by focussing in on something specific.

Same with Twitter. To get started, you need folks to talk to and things to talk about. Many abandoned Twitter accounts have a single tweet that essentially says: "I'm here, now what?" The response is the same as it would be if you made it at the door of that convention hall -- nothing. Because you're not talking to anyone. So the first thing is to start following people.

Following friends
A good place to start is with other people you know on Twitter. The search function is fairly useful in tracking people down. Once you start following some friends, you've part way there. Each person you follow receives a notification that you've added them, and (if they're really friends), they'll return the favor.

Once you have some followers, that's the time to ask "I'm here, now what?" because then folks will see your question and have an opportunity to answer.

Following friend followings
OK, sounds a little circular, but it's not. If you visit the profile page of someone, you'll see a list of everyone that they follow. It can be a great way to discover other people or organizations of interest to you (depending on how much overlapping interests you have with your friend).

Following strangers
You're not just limited to friends, of course. I find it useful to follow my elected officials, for example. Many other public figures have Twitter accounts, too. As do many news organizations, cultural institutions, etc. One way to find such feeds is to search by the name of the person or group.

Get hip to hashtags
Another good way to expand your follow list and find interesting conversations is to search with hashtags. A hashtag is a word with a pound sign (#) in front of it. It serves the same function as a keyword. Twitter recognizes this symbol and uses it as a link. You can click on it and see everyone else who used that hashtag.

So, for example, if you're interested in knitting, you might search for #knit (with only 140 characters, #knitting is a little too chatty). I've found hashtags handy for communicating during conferences (using the conference initials) as a way to talk to other attendees -- some of whom I met through the process.

RT and FF
There are two other ways to join the conversion -- Retweeting (RT) and Follow Friday (FF). When you see RT in a tweet, it means "retweet," or forward to your followers. It can be an efficient way to spread the word about breaking news, things requiring fast action, etc. Yes, it's similar in concept to the idea of forwarding emails, but there's a difference. With only 140 characters stupid stuff like urban legends, and chain letters tend not to happen. RT or not as you choose.

"Follow Friday" has become something of a tradition on Twitter. Every Friday people send out lists with recommendations of people to follow. Usually, the tweet has the designation FF or #FF (remember hashtags?) and then a few names. Sometimes there will be a word or two about why that particular person is worth following. It can be a great way to find people to follow -- and for you to help others find the folks you enjoy conversing with.

Reciprocity optional
Just because someone follows you, you don't have to follow them (and visa versa). If you're at our hypothetical cocktail party and the person you're talking with is boring (or saying something inappropriate) you move on. Same with Twitter. It's fine to unfollow people (even friends) if you find you're not interested in what they're saying.

And conversely, don't be too upset if the people you follow don't follow you. Let your list of followers and follows reflect your use of Twitter -- the numbers don't have to match.

So there are my suggestions on where to start. Where you go with Twitter from there is entirely up to you.

- Ralph

Day 186 of the WJMA Podwatch


Friday, October 16, 2009

The Value of Twitter, Part 3: The Informational

The Value of Twitter Series:
Part 1: The Personal
Part 2: The Professional
Part 3: The Informational
Part 4: Join the Conversation
Part 5: An Annotated Conversation

In the first post of this series, I outlined three major areas where I find value in Twitter: the personal, the professional, and the informational. Of the three, the informational is probably the easiest to understand.

Virtually every news-gathering agency maintains a Twitter feed at this point. The 140-character format actually works very well for delivering a news headline with a link to the full story. I follow a few key news services to keep up with international, national, state and local news.

And it’s surprisingly easy to do. I prefer the BBC World for international news, and Breaking News for most everything else (I found if I followed too many news sources the feed got cluttered with a lot of repetitive tweets). Other people use CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, etc. –- depends on what flavor you like your news in.

But the real advantage of Twitter for me is the local coverage. In our little community of Orange, Virginia, we have a local newspaper that publishes weekly. The regional television stations do a good job, but I seldom catch the morning, noon or evening newscasts. So one might think it’s difficult for me to keep up with local events.

But when our board of supervisors abruptly canceled a controversial meeting in the early afternoon, I knew about it. As I did with every other important event that’s happened in our county (and there have been several). Why? Because I followed the Twitter feed of said regional TV station, NBC Channel 29.

And that’s the informational value of Twitter to me. I receive live updates of important events nationally, and locally. If I want more information, I can click on the provided link and get it. If not, at least I’m aware of the event.

Twitter’s what you make of it. Choose the news feeds you follow carefully, and it can be a valuable resource. Twitter’s not the be-all and end-all, but it can be a good place to start.

- Ralph

Day 184 of the WJMA Podwatch


Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Value of Twitter, Part 2: The Professional

The Value of Twitter Series:
Part 1: The Personal
Part 2: The Professional
Part 3: The Informational
Part 4: Join the Conversation
Part 5: An Annotated Conversation

If you want to understand Twitter, think of a cocktail party. In part one of this series, I talked about the value I find in Twitter on a personal level. This would be the equivalent of making light conversation with friends and acquaintances. But sometimes a cocktail party can be more about networking and make business connections than socializing – and so can Twitter.

Like networking face-to-face, it’s important on Twitter to strike a balance between self-promotion and genuine interaction. From a professional standpoint, I use Twitter to do the following:
  1. Promote our company’s activities
  2. Discover and interact with professional colleagues who can help us, and whom we can help
  3. Develop a resource for information
So how do I do that? Well, I actually have two Twitter accounts. @ralphgraves primarily deals with my personal tweets, and @DCDRecords is the Twitter feed for our record label, DCD Records.

Professional tweets in a professional feed
I use the @DCDRecords feed to promote the activities of DCD Records. Normally our tweets concern

  1. Notices of our Friday sales and other special offers
  2. Notices when new episode of the “DCD Classical ‘Cast” podcast is posted
  3. Notices when new releases are added to the DCD Records website
  4. Notices when updates and additional features are added to our website, such as sound samples, new artwork, etc.
  5. Reminders that we have a Facebook Fan Page and a MySpace page as well
All of the above, of course, include a link to the pages I’m referring to. And yes, I’m looking at the traffic for those links. I also like to go a little behind the scenes and share vignettes of what it’s like to run (almost single-handedly) a small record label as eccentric as ours. I’ll post about writing podcast scripts, formatting web pages, exciting new projects, all kinds of things.

As yet, we’ve not received much feedback, but should some of our followers offer up questions or opinions, I’ll be more than happy to start a conversation. And that conversation doesn’t have to end in a hard sell, either. Just as you can form an opinion about a person’s character through conversation, I believe you can do the same with a business -- especially a small one. That’s why our little label (read: me) continues to tweet away.

Professional tweets in a personal feed
I also do some professional tweeting at @ralphgraves. The goals are different than those for DCD Records. On my personal feed, my goal is to build my own personal brand. I do that by posting the following:

  1. Notices about a new blog post to C.E. Conversations. If you want to know who I am, and what I know about, this is a good place to start!
  2. My radio program on WTJU. This serves two functions. I want to raise awareness of the station within the online community, and document my knowledge and experience in radio.
  3. Notices about updates to the “Gamut” playlist. This is the playlist for the above-mentioned radio show. It’s a pretty unique program, predicated on the rule that I will only air a particular classical work once. I just finished show #851, and I still haven’t run out of music to play. The Gamut Playlist site documents that journey.
  4. Participating in collegial conversations. It’s not just about me. If other broadcasters are tweeting about an issue, I’ll join in. If you’re at a party, you don’t want to hear the other person’s list of accomplishments – you want a back-and-forth conversation. Me, too.

Other advantages? When our company attended the Public Radio Development and Marketing Conference this summer, we used Twitter to our advantage. I tweeted commentary about the sessions I attended and picked up several followers in the process. I tweeted invitations for a get-together at our booth in the exhibit hall – and people showed up. All good from a business standpoint, you’ll have to agree.

And here’s something else. There was a professional conference I wasn’t able to attend earlier in the year. I really wanted to be in a certain session, as the information presented was critical to our business. One of the folks I follow was there and tweeted during the session. I raised an objection to one of the things being said, my colleague read it, and asked the question to the presenter, and then tweeted the answer. And this conversation wasn’t just between the two of us. All the other professionals in the field who were following the thread got the information, too.

Final advantage – I follow several fairly prominent journalists and podcasters in the tech field. I’ve commented on their tweets, and have received some responses. And in a few cases, been asked for input. Without Twitter, it is extremely unlikely that any of this would have happened.

So yes. I personally find professional value in Twitter. And if you think creatively about your business, you should, too.

- Ralph

Day 182 of the WJMA Podwatch.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Value of Twitter, Part 1: The Personal

The Value of Twitter Series:
Part 1: The Personal
Part 2: The Professional
Part 3: The Informational
Part 4: Join the Conversation
Part 5: An Annotated Conversation

Several people have asked me what value I find in Twitter. They all signed up for the service, and after a few desultory posts pretty much gave up on it.

Well, as I recently wrote, Twitter is what you make it. And it works pretty much like a cocktail party. If you're a wallflower and don't talk to anyone, you're not going to get much out of it. Personally, I find three areas where Twitter's valuable to me; the personal, the professional, and the informational.

Let's talk about the personal.

If you're not familiar with Twitter, you might ask how is it different than Facebook or any other social media site?

Part of it has to do with the length of the posts, and the nature of the service. With only 140 characters, you have to be brief. Facebook, et al, allows for more lengthy conversations, along with embedded pictures, videos, etc. With Twitter, it’s all text. You can provide a link to further illustrate your point, but even that URL must remain within the 140-character limit.

People often dismiss Twitter as a time-waster. And if you're perception of the service is an endless series of tweets about what one had for breakfast, or when they went to the bathroom, then that would be true. But it’s not.

Go back to the cocktail party analogy for a moment. Plenty of people just make small talk in social gatherings. "How's the weather?" "How about them [favorite sports team]?" There's not much value in those conversations. And I think few of us would be interested in talking with someone who could only make small talk.

But suppose you were a fan of said sports team. That opening question might get you to respond with your opinion of the star quarterback. Which could lead to a discussion of the current season, and then favorite plays from past games, and so on. Now you and the other person are conversing in depth about a topic of mutual interest.

That's how I use Twitter for the personal. I sometimes throw out informational tidbits about what I'm doing, to give folks a better idea of who I am. But they’re also designed to be conversation starters, too, if anyone’s interested. Here are some real tweets I’ve done:

One thing I like about fall. When it's chilly, the morning sky is clear and I can really see the stars (even the Milky Way this morning).

"Food will not bring us close to God." (1Cor.8:8) Hmmm. So I guess I better put down that Lil' Debbie snack cake.

Bird feeder's knocked out of the window, and there’s feathers on the windowsill. I think we've inadvertently fed the hawk again.

Sometimes it works. In the following real-life example, I happen to know a goodly number of my followers are interested in classical music. So when I talk about what I listen to, I expect to get a comment or two -- like this:
Me: Listening to Bruckner's Missa Solemnis in B flat. (thanks, iTunes DJ) This choral work seems to flow better than his symphonies. IMHO

Tom: Bruckner's Symphonies flow majestically if the conductor knows what the f*ck he's doing (i.e. Furtwangler).

Me: Not saying I don't like Bruckner symphonies. I do. Now Furtwangler's symphonies are another story entirely...

Tom: Furtwangler's symphonies are awful. He did write a decent Te Deum, though. It's not as good as Bruckner's however.

Me: I actually have all 3 symphonies, his piano concerto, and violin sonata on CD. So I think I've given Furtwangler a fair shot!
Not earthshaking, but a pleasant conversation, nonetheless. And I learned a little in the process, too (now I have to track down that Furtwangler Te Deum).

Just as I would at a cocktail party, I only disclose so much on Twitter. I seldom talk specifics about work (boring), and politics (too polarizing). Since other family members aren't on Twitter, I don't talk about them to respect their privacy.

But still, I find the personal content of my Twitter feed to be an engaging read when I check it. If you pay attention, you can get to know a person better just chatting with them informally. And I've found that to be true, even through a 140-character filter.

Are my followers BFFs? No. But, just like a good cocktail party, it’s an interesting mix of personalities. And one that I brought together by taking part in the conversation and not being a wallflower.

- Ralph

Day 182 of the WJMA Podwatch.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Going private as publicly as possible.

Two things happened recently that sort of go together. I had at least four different friends independently ask what the value of Twitter was, and Miley Cyrus quit Twitter in a very public fashion.

Well, I've certainly found value in Twitter. To me it's very much like a cocktail party. Whether or not you have a good time depends on whether you sit in a corner, or get out there and mingle.

I think there are three basic areas where 140-character conversations can be beneficial (I'll explore each in depth in future posts).

1) Personal - You exchange small talk at parties, and a standard complaint about Twitter is that small talk makes up the bulk of the conversation. But is it really worthless? Small tidbits and personal observations can help you get to know a person better. (But you can't always control who listens in.)

2) Professional - Many people are on Twitter to further their career in some fashion. Sometimes I'm one of them. It can be a great vehicle for collegial discussion and promotion. (Celebrities get this part, including Ms. Cyrus.)

3) Informational - Virtually every news organization has a Twitter feed. There really isn't a better vehicle for pushing out breaking news. I follow several news sources.

Like that proverbial cocktail party, Twitter can be whatever you make of it, which leads us to Miley Cyrus.

When celebrities first discovered Twitter (Ashton Kutchner, Oprah, et al.), there was a concern that the Twitter would be awash with vacuous tweets by the famous (or more likely, their assistants).

But Miley Curus seemed to have used Twitter for another purpose -- as sort of a micro-diary to do quick asides and further connect to her fans (see point 1). Unfortunately, Twitter can be a very public forum. Yes, in theory you can block people you don't want to follow you, and retain a certain amount of privacy. But if you have followers numbering over a million, it isn't difficult for at least one tabloid journalist to sneak in posing as a 14-year old girl.

And (no surprise) it wasn't long before information shared in tweets started showing up in the news. For some celebrities, this was gold and a dream come true. Because when reporters use celebrity tweets as their news sources, they're reporting the information the celebrities themselves provide, and so the celebrities get to shape (but not totally control) the message.

Ms. Cyrus, apparently, felt differently, and closed her account.

Now the story might have ended there, but she then produced and posted to YouTube a (cringe-worthy) rap video explaining why she closed her account -- which makes things a little more complicated.

Twitter is like a cocktail party. It's not a private phone conversation. Whatever you say can be overheard, because you're saying it in a public forum. And one thing we should have learned by now is that content released to the Internet often take on a life of its own, with no guarantees that the originator will have any control over where or how it's used.

It's one thing to quit the conversation if you're not having a good time. But when you decide to leave a cocktail party by standing on a chair and screaming your displeasure -- well. That's something else indeed.

Respect my privacy! Don't read my tweets (but please watch my video)!

A mixed message, to be sure.

- Ralph

Day 181 of the WJMA Podwatch. (No, WJMA doesn't have a Twitter feed -- but WTJU does!)

Monday, October 05, 2009

WQXR - The Finest of the Flavors

There seemed to be a little bit of confusion about the intent of my post about WQXR's revamped programming. Let's see if an analogy will help.

Let's say that instead of music, WQXR served up ice cream. WNYC acquired WQXR and had to move them to a new frequency with a lower coverage area. Sort of like relocating an ice cream store to a different neighborhood with a smaller local customer base.

Continuing with the ice cream analogy, WNYC's announcement (reported in a New York Times article) might be paraphrased like this: WQXR will combine "the longstanding tradition of being a full-service ice cream parlor with WNYC’s passion and commitment to discovery.”

Now there're two ways you can go with ice cream. You can sell all kinds of exotic flavors, or you can stick the basics. Baskin-Robbins, Ben and Jerry's, et al. do just that (although some have more variety than others).

Or you can just stick to the basics and maximize sales. Dairy Queen, Tastee Freez et al. only offer vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, the three most popular flavors.

Now it's obvious what's going on with our radio/ice cream parlor analogy. Smaller market, need to recoup investment as quickly as possible -- going with the three most popular ice cream flavors makes sense. If anyone's going to buy ice cream, there's a very good chance they'll settle for one of those three flavors.

Nothing wrong with that, but what would you think if you had a "passion and commitment to discovering" new ice cream flavors and walked into the WQXR store. They said they share your passion, but instead of a Baskin-Robbins-type store, you only have the choice of vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry? And, when you asked about the limited choices, how would you feel when the clerk told you (paraphrasing from the article again), "There may indeed be times when you have a taste for cookie dough, or chocolate mint chip, but we will not favor them over the flavors that speaks directly to the needs of the taste buds.... Vanilla trumps Rocky Road.”

And you had your heart set on Heath Bar Crunch. Feel like you've been a victim of a little bait and switch?

Right. That's one of my points. If you're just going to provide the three basic flavors, fine. But don't try to spin it into something grander.

As several observers have pointed out, we may all agree with the Bare Naked Ladies when they sang in "One Week" that vanilla is the finest of the flavors. But how many servings will it take before even the "finest of the flavors" becomes boring and unappealing?

And finally, what about the people who like fruit-flavored desserts? Or desserts with nuts? Or desserts with caramel, or marshmallows, or -- you get the idea.

If their only exposure to ice cream is vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry (if you want to go wild) they'll come away with the impression that ice cream is never a good choice for dessert. It has none of the flavors they like.

Does that grow or shrink the market for ice cream? There's a reason why those specialty ice cream parlors offer more than three flavors...

- Ralph

Day 174 of the WJMA Podwatch.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


And no, I don't mean "Save Our Ship." New York City's all-classical commercial radio station, WQXR has been bought by WNYC. Initially, there was rejoicing. The venerable station, formerly owned by the New York Times, had become a cultural institution over its 70 years of existence.

So what do I mean by "SOS?" Same Old Sh*t, of course.

According to a New York Times article by Daniel Walkin, the new WQXR will have more classical music aired (because they won't be running commercial breaks), but the selection is about to get much less interesting.

In the article, Laura S. Walker, president and CEO of WNYC said new WQXR will combine "the longstanding tradition of being a 24/7 classical music station with WNYC’s curatorial point of view and passion and commitment to discovery,” she said.

Cool. So that means that WQXR -- broadcasting to the city that is the center of American classical music -- the city that gave Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Corigliano and many, many others their start -- is going to continue interviewing composers and presenting the best in current classical music, right?

Not so fast.

According to the new mission statement: “There may indeed be times when the more radical and unfamiliar pieces work, but we will not favor them over the work that speaks directly to the needs of uplift, beauty, and contemplation.... Greatness matters. Bach trumps Telemann.”

OK, so that "passion for discovery" doesn't extend to the third best composer (behind Bach and Handel) of the late baroque. Surprising to hear that Telemann's music doesn't uplift, nor inspire beauty and contemplation. So what else doesn't make the cut?

Well, according to the article, the usual. No vocal music, no choral music, no contemporary music, nothing from the renaissance, or the middle ages. No chamber music (except for some solo piano, perhaps), no American composers (save Gershwin and Copland -- but no singing!).

None of this is surprising if you look at the circumstances and decipher the code words. WNYC spent some serious money to purchase the station, and with the frequency move, WQXR is going to broadcast to a smaller potential audience. So what WNYC really wants to do is get as many people listening as possible to justify the investment. The best way to do that? The tried and true radio method is to be as innocuous as you can.

"Greatness matters. Bach trumps Telemann." - Translation: We're not really talking about the relative merits of the pieces here because there is NFW we're going to air a Bach oratorio or the Art of the Fugue. Bach is a household name, Telemann is not. Familiar is comfortable, so we're going with that.

"work that speaks directly to the needs of uplift, beauty, and contemplation." - Translation: we want to get as close to Muzak as we possibly can. "Speaks directly" means familiar tunes. "Uplift" means light and pleasant music. "Beauty" means great for background listening. "Contemplation" means music that's not too loud (see: Beauty).

So explain to me this: where's the "passion and commitment to discovery" Ms. Walker was talking about? Based on what I've read so far, it seems to be more passionless familiarity.

- Ralph

Day 170 of the WJMA Podwatch.