Erik Duval is asking for non-conventional nominations for a conference keynote speaker. Though it’s near-impossible to top his own suggestion (Laurie Anderson), it brings to mind my own long-time “if I could pick anybody” choice for a keynote speaker — Ken Freedman, station manager for freeform radio station WFMU.
Anyone who knows me or reads this blog is probably rolling their eyes at yet another WFMU plug, and justifiably so. But my rationale extends beyond mere fandom. For one, I know from regular listening to his show that Freedman would make a compelling and very amusing speaker. And a freeform radio station is at least somewhat analogous to an institution of learning. Both have their roots in media that predates digital technology, even as they are challenged on every front by what new media means. Both have their passionate adherents and practitioners who generally have wildly divergent visions of what the practice should be. Both are chronically underfunded, and need to find inventive ways to get things done.
One thing I find compelling about WFMU is how they reinvented themselves, moving from their 1960’s campus radio roots to something that embraces online culture in a way that does not diminish their core values. The station does so many things right with technology: its archives, its array of awesome search tools, its podcasts, and of course its fantastic weblog (check out that Technorati ranking). Here are a few excerpts from an interview with Freedman:
Blogs and podcasting are both fads in their present incarnations, but they both represent real trends that are NOT going away. Podcasting as it presently exists may go away, but the idea of on-demand audio being automatically deliverable is not going away. And blogs are just the latest incarnation of what the web has long made possible – the amateurization of publishing, journalism, broadcasting, filmmaking, etc, which is a great thing. We no longer have to rely on fake experts for any of this stuff. Every radio station has to do what’s right for it – I can’t speak for other stations. But our blog has been enormously successful. The jury is still out on podcasting – we’re severely limited in what we can do on that front by copyright laws, and that situation is not going to change. I’m hoping to develop a podcasting license of our own so we can freely podcast a lot more musical material.
… we have seen an increase in our listenership, but that’s only because we’ve heartily embraced all this new technology. There’s no question that iPods, the Internet, satellite radio is whittling away the audience for AM and FM radio, we’ve seen it ourselves. Fewer people listen to FMU over the air, but the number of new online listeners has more than compensated. The old model of broadcast radio is disappearing, but I’m thrilled about that. Most people in the industry – commercial AND non-commercial – aren’t quite as happy about all this as I am.
… I’m honestly not sure what the future holds for the old model of community and alternative radio. I don’t think it’s very bright actually, because most stations have been too slow to embrace new technologies.
WFMU is 100% listener supported — no corporate sponsorship, no foundation money, no campus affiliation. Its main fundraising is via its two week marathon, on now. (I wrote about the marathon last year.) Given how much money the station saves me by serving as my primary music source, I feel obliged to pony up some dough. This year, I got more than just swag for my pledge, I also got naming rights to an item at WFMU headquarters — somehow I snagged the Studio B microphone (pictured above)! I am assured a marathon DJ is using it right now. I should have come up with a more inventive name for the equipment, but I was frozen at the sheer glory of it all, this is way cooler than having a sports stadium name.
UPDATE: I have audio proof that my naming rights are legit. My dream keynote speaker himself Station Manager Ken utters it (short MP3) at the onset of his annual State of the the Station address (streaming RealAudio).