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Georgetown’s History as a Hotbed for High-tech
Nico Dodd • April 11, 2016
Other than the birth of the newspaper whose influence far exceeds its size, Georgetown has an important place in the history of technology as well. San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the Dulles Tech Corridor are all places that are strongly associated with technology, but Georgetown remains a place where innovators work towards progress.
The Birthplace of IBM
Washingtonians may be surprised to know that the first computers were invented right here in Georgetown. Visitors to 1054 31st Street, right next to the C&O Canal, will find a plaque marking the building as where Herman Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company was located at the turn of the 20th century. Hollerith’s company would later merge with other companies to be renamed International Business Machines, also known as IBM.
Hollerith originally came to Georgetown in 1879. In 1886, the U.S. Census Office decided to hold a contest to see who could come up with a more efficient system of counting the census. Hollerith receieved inspiration from French jacquard weaving machines, which were set up with punch cards to automatically weave intricate repetitive patterns. Hollerith created his own punch card system of tabulation and got a patent for the invention in 1889. When he entered the census office contest, his sample census took a fraction of the time of his nearest competitor. Better yet, he saved the government $5,000,000, a huge amount of money in 1889 dollars.
In 1896, Hollerith started the Tabulating Machine Company. The first factory employed mostly women, who worked on their individual tabulators in a large open room. These women were called “computers,” because that was their job description. Hollerith’s business thrived, and his machines were sold to countries around the world for census taking. His fortunes grew, too, and in 1915 he built a grand house in Georgetown at 1617 29th Street, where the house stands to this day.
While his machine was a big success, other innovators came up with similar inventions. Hollerith sold his company in 1911, amd it was merged with two others to be the Computing Tabulating Recording Company. Later. the company again and changed its name to International Business Machines.
Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory
Alexander Graham Bell is best known as the inventor of the telephone.
In 1880, Bell won the Volta Prize, a prize of 50,000 francs for scientific achievement given by the French government. Bell used the money to establish the Volta laboratory in the carriage house of his stepfather’s house at 1527 35th Street. In 1887, Bell founded the Volta Bureau at 1537 35th Street “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf.” Both Bell’s mother and wife were deaf, and much of his father’s work was in elocution. The current building was built in 1893 and is a National Historic Landmark.
The Future of Tech in Georgetown
Both Hollerith and Bell were drawn to Washington because of the special nature of it being the nation’s capital. Hollerith began his business thanks to the Census Bureau, and Bell was frequently involed in patent disputes at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
These days, most techies are familiar with the Dulles Tech Corridor, the region along Virginia State Route 267 where many technology firms are located. Washington remains a place where innovators are working together to get new companies off the ground.
As the coming “mobile wave” breaks, location may cease to be an issue as people in different parts of the area, country or world collaborate on projects.
A Supreme Court Ruling and a Referendum on the Media
Much has been written about the seminal Supreme Court decision to uphold the Obama health care law. But perhaps less recognized was Thursday’s news gaffes —one which may go down as an even more pivotal turning point for American media.
Decades ago, the death and funeral of President Kennedy were true watersheds for live television news. In 1989, the Tiananmen standoff made CNN a real news force, while Michael Jackson’s death 20 years later gave Twitter news legitimacy.
But CNN and FOX News’ misreporting that the healthcare mandate had been overturned could be viewed as the moment that media legacy forfeited its monopoly on credibility.
It’s not like they didn’t know this ruling was a minefield. Bush v. Gore had set a precedent as to why you should never rush reporting a Supreme Court ruling. It’s like stepping in the puddle that you know is there — and yet they stepped right in, anyway.
This is why that fateful Thursday could be the end of news as we know it. That is, no more big names setting the agenda for what is right and good in journalism.
Those big brands of American journalism have long made their resources, expertise and credibility to get it right their last stand as to what separates them from everything else — from small papers such as this one, to startup news organizations to mommy bloggers.
And yet they stepped in the puddle that so many others do — the very alternatives to which they have held themselves superior, the very competition they say lacks their credibility.
But, needless to say, most of them got it right.
David Shuster, a former MSNBC anchor reported from of the grandiose plaza outside the Supreme Court, live online for a new venture called Take Action News. He proudly noted that while both CNN and FOX got it wrong, his team had taken the time to get it correctly — suggesting openly that if you want accuracy, turn off the networks and turn on Take Action News.
And, in many cases, that turning off has already begun. For while CNN was getting it wrong, the leaders of D.C. ‘legaldom’ gathered for a retreat outside town, where they weren’t even bothering with CNN. They had already been relying on their Supreme Court news from SCOTUSblog, the definitive blog site covering the Supreme Court, which reportedly had over a million hits on the day of the fateful decision.
This event certainly won’t be the end of the brand name networks, and this process has been underway for a while, but the fateful Thursday at the Supreme Court may come to be remembered as the day the “credibility superiority” claim finally came undone.
To update CNN’s most famous tag line, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is now just one of the networks, blogs or other media of record. ?
Thanks, Obama, for This Wacky Campaign Season
Georgetowner • January 27, 2016
Really. Thanks … for Trump, for Bernie, for an election outside any political norm.
Seriously. This is not some Obama-hating screed.
When the Tea Party first raised its cacophonic head, I asked the genius behind Obama’s online election operation whether the Tea Party was just the natural evolution of the idea the Obama campaign had really pioneered: leveraging the internet to give voice to the formerly politically voiceless.
Although intended as a compliment, Macon Phillips jumped down my throat: “No.”
Yet here we are.
What Obama did was get around the mainstream media. His operation did not so much make videos as encourage everyone else to make them about him, endowing him with whatever they wanted in their anti-Bush candidate. He let other people make race the non-issue.
Meet Mr. Trump, who audaciously says he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and he wouldn’t lose any votes. And he is sadly probably right, because his vehemently loyal followers do not care about the myriad of problems with their candidate, viz.:
• He’s filthy rich but he has been really bad for the businesses he’s run (most people only get to have one bankruptcy, he has driven companies into four);
• He says he is not racist but makes the most racist comments;
• He has little concern about facts;
• His behavior has been so outlandish that even America’s special friend, Britain, held a parliamentary session debating banning him from the U.K. (Cooler heads prevailed.)
ATM makes no bones in our belief that Trump has debased American politics. But he is riding the wave that Obama first climbed on, forgoing the traditional media to find a powerful direct line to his base. But unlike Obama’s promise of Hope, Trump went the other way — tapping into the sense of being passed over that is enraging white American males, the ones left behind by the new economy.
And he offered them someone on whom they could hang all their anger. He sidestepped the media — actually spat on its shoes — sensing that, like Obama, his audience would provide their own echo chamber.
And the television pundits (because electoral reporting has been replaced by live coverage of stump speeches and debates even as great political reporters pull their hair out) have no idea how to deal with him. Lost in their disbelief that this is for real, they end up promoting him with their ceaseless verbiage.
When I asked a network political chief why his network covered Trump while ignoring other candidates, he replied that it was because Trump was the poll leader. When I pointed out that he might be the poll leader because they kept promoting him and ignoring other candidates, there was a polite agreement to disagree.
But it is not just Trump. Whatever your feelings (or unabashed loathing) for Hillary, think about the fact that Bernie Sanders is also riding Obama’s legacy.
In place of Obama’s Hope, Bernie is offering not youth but the promise of youth. To quote Churchill: “If you’re not a liberal at 20 you have no heart and if you are not a conservative at 40 you have no brains.” I asked a class of young African American female students what they thought of Hillary, and they all looked down. “Bored” was the reply of one. The response to Bernie was “energetic.” If Hillary isn’t inspiring these young women, many of whom represent the very promise for the next generation that the young Hillary embodied, something seems very amiss.
The truism about Hillary being a lousy campaigner aside, she appears to have swift-boated herself (referring to the way John Kerry was negatively and unfairly portrayed by supporters of Bush II’s reelection campaign). Social media has worked against her at a time when the traditional media seems stuck on the Clinton follies. The liberal Baby Boomers proclaim she is getting a raw deal, and she might be. But she has evidently failed to learn the Obama rules of getting elected.
And as Hillary struggles, Obama’s shadow looms again. His defeating the presumptive winner eight years ago has set the stage for the inevitable headlines: “Hillary ’08 Again!” Prophecies can be self-fulfilling.
Whether Trump rides his angry supporters to the nomination and whether Hillary can survive her travails, we are already witnessing an aspect of Obama’s legacy: the undoing of American electoral journalism.
The GroupMe Media Frenzy
Peter Murray • October 19, 2015
Georgetown stores are in the business of racial profiling—at least according to a Washington Post report picked up by Fox 5, channel 9, Drudge, Gawker and the Daily Caller. The report details racial bias in a public safety reporting app set up in cooperation with police by the Georgetown Business Improvement District, but media discussion has left out a few crucial details.
The Washington Post story heavily borrows research, facts, and anecdotes from an investigative report I wrote for The Georgetowner’s Aug. 5 issue, all without giving proper (or any) attribution. While we are thrilled that the Post’s sway is causing more media outlets to pick up our story, we are disappointed that one of our city’s best-reputed media outlets has failed to recognize a basic tenant of journalism, citation.
Next, the app is not racist, some users are. Messages on it may contain racially charged or biased content, but the app itself is a simple, real-time group messaging app along the lines of iChat or WhatsApp. Looking through messages in the app, however, we saw an alarming trend; users reported African Americans 15 times as often as white people.
Many posts in the app have led to real arrests of real criminals. That much can’t be disputed. The problem, demonstrated by the catalog of GroupMe messages is that users are more closely watching blacks than whites. Yet, research shows that African Americans are no more likely to shoplift than white people. (Other studies have shown that retail employees are much more likely to steal from their employer than are store outsiders.) Even if in Georgetown, African Americans were more likely to shoplift than whites—the implication of the BID’s recent statements to the press—the disparity between whites and blacks flagged in the app is too big to reflect that likelihood. More likely, white thefts aren’t getting caught.
Looking through the app, you’d think that all of the criminals in Georgetown are black. The constant stream negative reinforcement about African Americans leads to confirmation bias. For example, research on police has found then when officers use race as a factor in criminal profiling based on presumed statistical probabilities, they contribute to the statistics upon which they rely, which helps further justify the profiling of black people. A similarly self-fulfilling, circular phenomenon is likely occurring among GroupMe users in Georgetown.
Using GroupMe to increase communication has serious potential to further public safety. While most posts concern criminal or suspicious behavior, some provide alerts on weather and traffic, and the app as a whole keeps community members connected to each other and to the police. However, there must be training so that app users recognize their own biases before they broadcast them to the group. Since the story was published in The Georgetowner, the BID has indicated that it will take steps to better train users and eliminate bad actors from the group. We look forward to seeing those steps in action and reporting further on this important topic.
The issue raises questions not only for Georgetown but for other places where police, businesses and citizens are implementing new digital communication strategies for community policing with GroupMe, Facebook Chat or the next big messaging app. How do we make sure app users are sending accurate, unbiased, valuable information to the police? When messages demonstrate bias, is a potentially small reduction in crime (neither the police nor BID have any hard data linking arrests and GroupMe posts) worth alienating an entire group of citizens? Perhaps we can begin to answer these questions once racial bias is exposed on more private message boards across the country and our society embraces a culture of honesty and transparency when it comes to the intersection of criminal justice and technology.
Trump and Clinton Play Chutes and Ladders
Amos Gelb • September 1, 2015
Oh, how Hillary Clinton wishes she were Donald Trump right now.
I mean purely in the media sense, of course. For Clinton, it was just a matter of time until the shoe dropped. The headlines seem like 2008 all over again, with the electoral flushing of the inevitability of her election. Oh, she just can’t get a break. (ATM will leave it to others to decide whether she deserves one.)
All the media, all the time, about her is negative. Polls slipping. Excitement drooping. Campaign stalling. My favorite from the Washington Post: “A summer of Clinton stumbles gives way to an uncertain fall for Democrats.” Past, present and future — all bad. Of course it’s still early and Hillary is still way, way in front of the other wannabe Democratic nominees. Well, except for Bernie Sanders, who’s gotten within seven points in a recent poll.
On the other side is Señor Trump, he of the Mexican-paid wall. The media has no idea what to do. And neither do the other Republican candidates. The media has no idea how to report him. The polls say he is for real but the coverage is somewhere stuck between not taking him seriously and riding the Trump carnival to ratings and clicks.
The other candidates have to be jealous. He goes to war with the darling of the conservative media, Megyn Kelly, and claims he is the one being reasonable. He has the most prominent Hispanic journalist thrown out of his press conference, while a Trump follower, possibly a staffer, literally tells him to go back to his country (Jorge Ramos is a U.S. citizen.) Yet somehow Ramos is on the defensive. Teflon wishes it were this good.
Trump has never been in the public light if it wasn’t at an ego-feeding press event of his making or of a reality show not of his making (he was just the hired firing gun). And even though he has had such a rocky business run, not a substantive story has been written on his ethics or behavior or history. The chances that guy is squeaky clean are about the same as my 14-year-old son actually doing his homework and not finishing the ice cream when he gets home from school.
ATM has never seen the media so confused and hamstrung on how to deal with a story. Trump, his hair and his ego are redefining the norms of political discourse in this country, and the media plays enabler.
Clinton has to be wondering how he is getting away with it while she has become the piñata of presidential politics.
Listen to the Sunday talk shows. Republicans hint and dance along the line of calling for a criminal indictment for her emails — and then Trump, nothing bad.
It’s a like a bad game of Chutes and Ladders. Every time Clinton spins she lands on a chute, sending her further back down. Trump keeps getting ladders that send him ever higher.
The leaves haven’t started changing yet; so all of this is political foreplay. But odds are Hillary wishes it resembled some other board game.
D.C.’s New Business Man
Amos Gelb • May 11, 2015
Back in the early 1800s, a French writer toured the embryonic United States, just a few decades after independence. It fell to this foreigner, Alexis de Tocqueville, to define the foundations of our country in his ever-fresh travelogue, “Democracy in America.”
As James MacGregor appeared over the rise of the steps at the Georgetown Four Seasons, seemingly scripted for J. J. Abrams’ latest saga, I wondered whether I was looking at a modern-day Tocqueville, a new foreigner in a crisp blue suit come to tell the tale of the emerging Washington, D.C.
Once-challenged neighborhoods like Shaw, NoMa and even Petworth (although more slowly) are at the forefront of what seems like the overnight birth of a new city, filled with entrepreneurs and young adults – not just passing through as they scratch the itch to dabble in politics, but planting roots and building careers.
It is a town where start-ups like 1776 and WeWork expand, it seems, as quickly as developers can throw up new buildings, and where whole neighborhoods along the Anacostia and the Southwest Waterfront are not so much gentrifying as metamorphosing.
And here to make sense of it all is James MacGregor, the 40ish father of two who hails from Toronto and comes via stints in America’s heartland (Louisville) and, for the last dozen years, in the start-up meccas of San Jose and San Francisco.
He’s come east to tell a great tale. One of growth and resurgence.
“Get 100 miles outside D.C. and everyone will tell you that D.C. is only about political gridlock and politics. But actually it is not. That might be the federal government, but the business community is engaged in getting stuff done.”
Not a bad party line for someone who has been in D.C. for about six months. But his D.C. boosterism is just getting started. He dismisses comparisons between the Silicon start-up land he just left. “Everybody seems to want to be the next Silicon Valley. There is a lot of stuff there that makes Silicon Valley what it is. It is a thing to strive towards, but, if that is the end goal, that is not going to work.”
Instead, what MacGregor sees is a story that is just starting to unfold, built on a number of industries. And he is here to make sure it gets told, because MacGregor is the new publisher of the Washington Business Journal.
He inherited the job from Alex Orfinger, the long time WBJ publisher who moved down the hall to take on broader duties for the WBJ parent company (owner of 40 print titles and a bunch more online, nationwide).
And MacGregor thinks there is a better story to tell in D.C. than on the other coast.
“It’s actually hard to cover the tech giants like Facebook or Google. So to really cover them you cover others things, like real estate deals.”
And that, he believes, is the heart of any business story, the people and the deals, mostly in real estate. And if it is about people and deals, MacGregor thinks D.C. offers a far richer story than the West Coast. MacGregor’s journalistic mantra: follow those two and you have a road map for what is happening. He has spent much of the first six months just getting to know both.
“When you eat out as much as I have to, you have to police what you eat,” MacGregor offers as he orders three eggs and grilled tomatoes, hold the toast.
The WBJ currently has a staff of 43, with about half devoted to editorial coverage for a paper that has circulation of 16,000 and 2 million hits, with a quarter of those unique visitors to the website in March. As publications go, that is rather modest, but you won’t hear MacGregor singing print’s swan song.
“Digital actually made us do print better, to make it more engaging for the reader. It does not have to be a race to a bottom. In fact we have spent a lot in redesign and improved the quality of the paper. We made investments across all platforms.”
Rather than the traditional competition, what worries MacGregor is the competition he can’t see, the challenges coming around the corner, that individual blogger whose posts about tech or health or one of the other emerging business hubs in town suddenly catch fire, build a following and take WBJ’s audience away.
The real challenge, MacGregor says, is that the barriers to entry are now so low that serious competition can emerge overnight out of nowhere. Partly in preparation for that, MacGregor believes the WBJ needs to leverage its unique position.
Currently, he sees a false separation between Maryland, Virginia and the District. MacGregor describes the Journal’s duty as being to foster a sense that “a rising tide will lift all regional boats.”
To that end, he believes the Journal needs to lead the conversation about what is important to local businesses. Thus, a third leg of the Journal strategy: holding breakfast sessions and other events across the region, focusing on growth, real estate and development and the challenges in each jurisdiction.
“If we do it right, we are going to get to the end of the year and there will be four things across all of these jurisdictions that are really important to business. And we can know what they are and perhaps how to tackle them.”
Add to those breakfasts, the panel discussions, which he hopes are not only events for those who attend but will generate news and stories that the Journal can then repackage (along with revenue). WBJ is averaging about 30 events a year.
So MacGregor’s WBJ is not going to be a passive chronicler. He intends to make it a force to enhance, encourage and facilitate development and business growth. It is almost planting the seeds of the stories the Journal will get to reap later.
He smiles as he recalls exactly that role, how he heard from people who wanted to start companies and used the Journal’s Power 100 list to call people up, get advice, then exploit those connections to establish thriving businesses of their own.
MacGregor is still in the honeymoon phase with his new city. But he says that the final decision to come to Washington was not really his.
After hearing about the job, he and his wife came to check out D.C. They arrived for one of those glorious fall weeks, a Destination DC-kind of trip, he recounts. They toured around as the leaves were changing, looked at some neighborhoods and tasted D.C.’s growing wealth of great restaurants, getting around on Capital Bikeshare bikes.
MacGregor had been to D.C. sporadically. He knew the great story brewing here and the strength of the publication Orfinger had built. At their final dinner, when Orfinger asked what they thought, it was MacGregor’s wife who answered for both of them: “Sign us up. We are in!”
And so MacGregor blazed the family’s trail to D.C., with his wife and two young children joining him at the end of the school year.
Now he will have two families to watch grow: his own and that of his newly adopted home.
The Taming of the Internet
Amos Gelb • March 11, 2015
The last week of February was pretty monumental in the world of free speech.
Let’s start with the win for the public soap box, the cacophony that is the internet.
The rules will be challenged and fought and likely evaded but the FCC voted to approve net neutrality, federally prohibiting internet providers from controlling the speed with which any particular content goes down their pipes and, in the process, saying what has been obvious for a long time – the internet has become a utility, an integral part of our society and should be managed that way.
This is huge for all those who are not going to be held at ransom by the internet service providers (ISPs) who would have been able to extract fees to guarantee easy flow. But more significantly, the decision ensures that commercial interests of ISP’s do not trump the American exceptionalism that is Free Speech.
There is an old cliché from the age of newspapers that the press is indeed free, but only for those who own the presses.
The internet changed that, and empowered such forces as the Tea Party and Facebook. It is loud, unruly, chaotic. And that is what makes it wonderful and terrifying at the same time.
When All Things Media spoke to FCC officials last year, they were wary of passing regulations that would play too heavy a hand in shaping the future. With Net Neutrality they didn’t have a choice – they either would give the ISP’s the power to control their pipes (one argument being they needed to be able to control the flow to guarantee equal access) or give the content creators unfettered access.
The FCC knew it would get battered whichever way it went. But it took a stand and did what so many people say agencies never do – its job.
Which brings us to a perhaps equally wise lack of spine.
Within a week of the FCC’s vote on Net Neutrality, Google – the de facto sorter of the internet – took steps to make it harder for “adult” blogs to be found on its blogger platform, forcing them to go private. Three days later it backtracked after a deluge of comments saying it would just reinforce the existing warning page. But non-commercial “adult blogs” could continue essentially unbothered.
In trying to valiantly protect the innocent, Google suddenly found itself in the strange position of becoming not just the conveyer of free speech but suddenly its arbiter. It was a noble attempt but someone at Google must have looked into the abyss of what the internet Goliath was about to step into and thought better.
It was a wise choice. It is enough to have the all-powerful algorithm essentially decide what we all get to see without the added headache of becoming cultural cops. That’s a role would make the FCC’s current situation look palpably enviable.
Leonard Nimoy, Spock of ‘Star Trek,’ Has Beamed Up
When our friends or mentors, our parents or children, lovers or acquaintances, famous people we know personally not at all, or even our pets die, we weep, we mourn, we grieve, we gather in ceremonial aspects and places and sing and weep some more.
When a Vulcan dies, Vulcans do not weep.
That would be illogical.
Mr. Spock, first mate of the Federation Starship Enterprise, died last Friday morning.
The whole world wept.
Mr. Spock might have disapproved.
Leonard Nimoy, the actor who portrayed the inscrutable, pointy-eared Vulcan for three seasons and a number of films, would no doubt have been amused by the reaction, but not surprised. Nimoy, who died at the age 83 of pulmonary issues, long ago accepted that the resolute, often forbidding but immensely steadfast Vulcan would be a kind of alter ego, complete with Federation uniform and all the accumulated Star Trek minutia. that would accompany him to the grave in the kind of pop cultural mind-melt practiced by Vulcans when they wanted to really get to know someone well. Not to mention the “live long and prosper” sign off with a whiff of hippie happiness and the hand sign which resembled an intellectual’s version of the hand jive.
Nimoy, the son of Ukrainian Orthodox Jews, aspired to an acting career early on and had one, although a fair to middling one, until 1966, when he snared the role of Mr. Spock, the second-in-command of the Enterprise under Captain James Kirk on “Star Trek,” a series envisioned and made real by producer-writer Gene Rodenberry, whose mind-set seemed often to come straight from the counter culture of the times.
The series in which Nimoy was the only alien on the ship that featured an American melting pot of a gorgeous African American, an Asian officer, a Russian and a Scot engineer with a Scottish accent as thick as Sean Connery’s chest, sent its crew into places “where no man had gone before” by way of warp speed that let the Enterprise time-hop, jump in and out of worm holes (and black holes), and encounter all kinds of planets filled with aliens, left over earthlings starting over, and little things called trebles. It championed a brotherhood of man among a universe filled with aliens, warned against environmental disasters and preached—sometimes with tasers at the ready—tolerance. It was also a kind of mind-blowing fun that seemed to have been produced in someone’s back yard.
It didn’t matter. Although the series lasted only three years—enough to go into syndication where it took in aspects of a cult—it re-emerged in film form, big expensive Hollywood blockbusters. Spock, in fact, died in one of them only to re-emerge in another. Other series appeared, such as “The Next Generation,” with a new captain, a bald and more cerebral “Make it So” Jean-Luc Picard, played by the Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart. There were comic books, more movies (including a current series that so far number two), cartoons and books.
Star Trek got into our heads—soon Trekkie conventions, in which hordes of people dressed as characters from the series showed up, shared stories, exchanged knick knacks and generally took advantage of the opportunity of never having to grow up.
Through it all, Nimoy never quite shed the shadow of Spock, and then finally stopped trying as in two books he wrote: “I am Not Spock” and “I Am Spock.”
Old School Is Back
Amos Gelb • February 11, 2015
Dear Buzzfeed, Suck it.
So, Mr. I’m-too-sexy-for-the-internet: How does it feel to have a grandma teach you to suck eggs?
Yeah, you. “So what am I going to do with the $50-million infusion of venture capital, and a valuation that puts me somewhere near $850 million, all for cats and stuff.”
Meet the “it” kid in town. The cool thing everyone has been talking about. The one that is so retro it is avant-garde. The one that said nanosecond attention spans be damned.
How about seven hours’ worth? And just people talking?
Oh, baby – old school is back!
Radio. Yes, radio – that medium so old that its college roommate was the dial telephone. Or, more precisely, radio in the replayable form of podcasting and one series in particular called “Serial”: the eight-part investigation into a Baltimore murder, the young man serving life in prison, the former friend whose testimony put him away and the questions surrounding the case.
It was so popular that 1.5 million people reportedly tuned in each week.
But more than numbers, it was buzz. Old media – a great story well told without pictures – was a hit, even with the clickbait-addicted generation in their 20s. When asked what he thought, one member of the social media glitterati almost went into a trance: “I binge-listened!” Forget binge-drinking, binge-listening!
For All Things Media, the significance of “Serial” is its defiance of all the woe-be-us punditry condemning the state of media today. Yes, there is a lot of very poor stuff out there, but there is a lot of imaginative content being created. And radio, the medium that was written off as dead half a century ago, has become a hotbed for innovation, much of it harkening back to traditions of old.
If you haven’t listened, try NPR’s “TED Radio Hour” or “Radiolab” or “This American Life,” the show that spawned “Serial.”
So while Jimmy Fallon was turning the “Tonight Show” into a late-night goliath string of YouTube segments, the buzz at the end of the year was a good old-fashioned murder mystery, told with sound alone in 30-to-50-minute bites by Sarah Koenig.
It succeeded very simply because it was worth listening to.
And in the age of free, it turns out people are willing to pay for something that they perceive gives them value. In this case, listeners replied virtually overnight to a request for support by bankrolling season two of “Serial” with donations.
That is nothing new. That is public radio’s model. What was different: the audience includes people who have never even thought of a radio as something they might actually buy. Why would they? The internet is free, after all.
Now the hard part comes…can Koenig and her team do it again?