Friday, March 20, 2015

Public radio and the public square intersect at WGBH in Boston

On the evening of Thursday, March 19 podcast experts, enthusiasts and producers gathered at the WGBH studios in Boston to discuss the rise and influence of this form of media. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Of my many childhood memories, one that really stands out and has had a major influence on the person I am today is listening to National Public Radio in the car with my parents. I can recall vividly many chilly New England mornings when my father or mother would drive us somewhere and Car Talk or some other show would fill the air inside the car. It's a habit I picked up myself once I got my license and it continues to this day, although I suppose my listening habits have changed over time. Along the way I've added many new shows to my list of favorites, including The Moth Radio Hour, Fresh Air, On the Media and Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! For anyone with a range of interests and eclectic tastes, NPR is one-stop shopping for humor and intellectual stimulation.

During my own sojourn through the thrilling (if somewhat financially perilous) world of freelance journalism many years ago I even did a short internship at WBUR in Boston for Here and Now, standing out on the street and recording brief comments from passersby to air at the start of the show. I strongly believe that virtually all of the shows on public radio play a vital and unique role in the health and well-being of civil society at every level, from the hyper-local discussions around this winter's MBTA troubles on WGBH's Boston Public Radio and WBUR's Radio Boston, to issues of national importance on the Diane Rehm Show and All Things Considered.

All forms of journalism are important for civil society, but at a time when newspaper readership is declining and the news that people consume is increasingly customized, homogenized and sanitized via narrowly selected social media channels, radio bucks that trend, something I was reminded of this last night when I attended an event called Boston Talks at the WGBH studios in Boston. The theme for the evening was "The Rise of the Podcast" and featured a number of engaging speakers from the world of podcasting.

There were a few things that drew me to this program, including the fact that I've been thinking about adding a podcast component to this blog. Also, two of the main speakers were the guys from the Fish Nerds podcast, brave souls who have caught and eaten every type of freshwater fish in the Granite State. I'd heard a piece they did on WGBH, and being an avid fisherman myself was intrigued by their epic (if at times slightly nauseating) quest to consume the range of finned denizens inhabiting New Hampshire lakes and rivers, from the undoubtedly tasty salmon to the culinarilly questionable Slimy Sculpin.

These were the two things that peaked my interest in the program, but it was the program itself and the other attendees that kept me there once I arrived - consciously or not, I think the organizers created a format which in some ways mirrored the pace and tone of a well-produced radio show. To wit, in between speakers there were breaks to mingle and meet fellow radio enthusiasts, producers and podcasters creating a fun, congenial atmosphere. This format also allowed for conversations to take place which a more frontal, one-way presentation, would not have allowed - for example I got to meet one of the Fish Nerds and trade recipes for pickled Pickerel, put a face to the voice of Edward B. Herwick III, talk New Hampshire politics with Peter Kadzis and learn a little about the evolution of the highly popular podcast Serial from producer Kerri Hoffman.

As I drove home from the event I kept thinking about some of the things I learned from Sree Srinivasan during a social media seminar at the Harvard Kennedy School last month, not only about the keys to effective tweeting and online engagement, but about the importance of using social media to connect to people and ideas in the real world. It's something I've given a lot of thought to recently and tried to integrate into my own work - both in my day job in the nonprofit sector and with this blog. For me, the Boston Talks event brought together the best elements of all of these things:  I made a couple of new contacts, got a better idea of what goes into a good podcast and stood in a space where radio, social media and "real life" interaction came together in a fun and interesting way.

Such forums are important for civil society because they encourage dialogue and interaction in creative ways, forcing individuals out of their personal media silos and into a kind of "town square" where they can encounter different opinions and perspectives. As someone who has planned (and attended) too many events of every shape and size to count, I think the organizers of Boston Talks have hit on a great formula for which they deserve praise, and I'm looking forward to attending future programs at WGBH.

Oh, and the whoopee pies were pretty good too.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Daniel
    This Blog post covered the event perfectly! We, the Fish Nerds, were truly honored to be part of that event, podcasts are breaking real ground, thanks for writing this post. Hopefully more businesses and regular people will see the power of a podcast.
    Dave and Clay
    Give sculpins a break, they can't help themselves