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Oct. 14, 2011, 1 p.m.

WFMU wants to shake up radio storytelling…with a conference

Ken Freedman thinks radio can be a much more interactive and visual medium.

Since Man invented the conference, Man has complained about the conference. Conferences bring together the brightest people and best ideas in an industry, which can, paradoxically, create an echo chamber.

“How can we help more people feel dumb?” wrote the AP’s Michelle Minkoff last week, arguing that feeling stupid is the best feeling in the world. “Conferences need to change — the sessions are getting complacent and easy, and they’re not making me feel dumb. That’s not okay.” (She isn’t alone.)

WFMU logo

Ken Freedman, general manager of freeform public radio station WFMU, is similarly frustrated. So he is creating his own conference.

“I’ve gone to a lot of conferences in the last 10 years, and it just seems to me that so much of the discussion is based on theoretical practices, or people who aren’t necessarily that successful at what the discussion is about, or there’s always lawyers on the panel that are making everybody terrified to do anything,” Freedman told me.

Together with public radio personality Benjamen Walker, Freedman is launching Radiovision — a festival, not a conference — which aims to emphasize the more practical aspects of the craft. Radiovision will latch on to its larger and more famous big brother, the WFMU Record Fair, on Oct. 28.

“So many conferences are still stuck where they were over 20 years ago, or almost 20 years ago, basically saying, ‘The Internet is important, and you have to engage in the Internet,'” Freedman said. “And we just want to take that as a given at this conference. We want to get past the idea of convincing radio stations that they should be engaging in the Internet. We want to find out how successful people are doing it.”

Successful people are booked, including Ira Glass, Joe Frank (who is said to be Glass’s greatest influence and who, incidentally, once played jazz on Arianna Huffington’s grand piano while high on valium), WFMU’s Tom Scharpling, WNYC’s Brooke Gladstone, and the cerebral comedian Marc Maron.

“Each one of them was more or less told, when they started off their respective radio shows and podcasts, that it was a terrible idea, that they would never succeed,” Freedman said. “And each one of them persevered, and now each one of them is really super successful…and they’ve done it completely on their own terms.”

WFMU General Manager and DJ Ken Freedman

One day of the festival is a hack day — the first I know of just for radio — bringing together storytellers and coders to develop innovative, original projects in a short time frame. The participants will get their hands on three new APIs: from Cambridge startup Zeega, whose HTML5 platform is designed for interactive storytelling; from The Echo Nest, whose Pandora-like algorithms power iHeartRadio and KCRW’s Music Mine app; and from WFMU for its Free Music Archive.

In a panel called “Virtual Communities,” Tim Hwang (ROFLCon) and Kenyatta Cheese (Know Your Meme) discuss the ethics and social values of online communities as disparate as Facebook and 4chan. A panel about business models invites people from Kickstarter and The Awesome Foundation to discuss new ways of monetizing content.

Making radio more interactive

Freedman has been experimenting in this space for years. He hosts a weekly, experimental music show on Wednesday mornings. Like DJs at most radio stations, he posts the song and artist information for his playlists. He also attaches a photo or illustration to each track, drawing from his big database of mostly animated GIFs. (The rhythm of the GIF matches the beat of the song. You have to see it (NSFW-ish) to get it.)

“We also have a chat room that accompanies every radio show. And one really fascinating thing that I’ve found in the last couple of years is that I have people who come on to my playlist page when I’m on the air, and they’re blocked by corporate firewalls, so they can’t actually listen to the show,” Freedman said. “And yet there’s still enough content there that they come every week just to participate in the social chat and to look at the pictures and to discuss the music that’s being played — even if they can’t hear it! So I have non-listening listeners.”

Freedman says he sees great potential for radio in Twitter, which he sees as quite similar. It’s a realtime medium. It’s portable. It’s multi-platform.

That’s where the Radiovision hack day comes in, a practical exercise to complement all of the talking. The idea is “to really break radio through to the next level so that radio is no longer a continual stream of audio and music but it’s also a continuous stream of all sorts of content — video, text, comments from the DJ, comments from the listeners, photographs, illustrations, maps,” he said.

“But hopefully done in a way that it’s modular so that we’re not overloading people with information; they can turn off one portion if they want to. If they want to just listen to the radio, they can. If they want to participate in a conversation, in an accompanying live conversation, they can. If they want to just participate in the conversation and not listen to the radio, they can do that!”

Tickets for the Radiovision festival are much less expensive than for a typical conference, at $80 for the Saturday symposium ($40 for artists, students) and $7 for the Sunday hack day. Joe Frank’s Friday night performance is free but, sadly, sold out.

Photo of Ken Freedman via Wikimedia Commons

POSTED     Oct. 14, 2011, 1 p.m.
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