I listen to this daily radio show that suddenly appeared on the network. It was unannounced in any general media, but has already developed a national and international following in its short life. Its topics range from technology and product strategy, to the latest gadgets, to politics, comedy, and even some occasional drama. It’s not part of a national syndicated media network, it doesn’t seem to have venture capital backing, and it only accidentally has advertising. Actually it’s not even broadcast over the airwaves— although one can listen to it live. I get it through iTunes and listen on my iPhone, although the other day I listened by clicking on an MP3 file on a web page. It’s compelling radio, I try not to miss a day.
This show has a roundtable format more common to television political commentary shows, or technical conferences. It’s pundit talk, or as they sometimes call it “reckless punditry.” Because the show has no advertisers and isn’t part of any network, it’s an open forum. The guests aren’t compensated, they show up because they want to be part of the conversation about what’s going on right now. A point of reference would be Bill Maher’s HBO talk show, Real Time. Although the differences between Maher’s show and this one are significant, the show is unscripted, improvisational, really more of a jam session. The show’s host often compares the structure of the show to a small jazz ensemble. In this sense, it’s a new form of editorial composition.
Initially the show’s roundtable was composed solely of well-known technology industry figures. The conversation occurs over a conference call with the participants scattered all over the country. They call in from airports, their cars, while on an exercise treadmills, in their home or regular offices, or just out walking around. The show’s format changed profoundly during a particularly chaotic episode. One of the participants in the panel posted the call in number and conference code to Twitter, and uninvited participants started calling in. Imagine watching an episode of Washington Week In Review where interested members of the audience simply joined the panel at will. This potentially destructive moment became the seed of something new. It connected a filtered live social web, via Twitter, to the show’s jazz-based conversation. To extend the metaphor, some unknown out-of-town musicians were sitting in. There’s an etiquette to jamming and sitting in, and it’s up to the band leader to make it all work and blend.
The show was transformed and a new format emerged where some of the regular pundits were joined by members of the audience in a new kind of conversation. There’s a distinction between this and traditional call-in newstalk radio. Let’s go back to the jazz metaphor, when an audience member is called on to solo, they’re expected to jump in and wail. A point of reference here would be Dave Winer’s idea of the “unconference.” In technology conferences, the sum total of knowledge in the audience exceeds that of the panel of speakers. The unconference attempts to surface the knowledge, ideas and opinions of an interested group through a moderator. The composition of the group and the skill of the moderator are determining factors in the quality of the output.
There are a lot of interesting threads generated by the format of this daily radio show. But the starting point for my thoughts was connecting the show’s low-cost mashup production methodology with a phrase used by the musician Robert Fripp. After disbanding King Crimson in 1974, Fripp wanted to create music within “small, mobile, independent, intelligent units.” Working with Brian Eno, Fripp had created a performing and recording technique called Frippertronics that he believed would allow him to do significant work outside of the big rock band / recording industry context. The idea of small, mobile, independent, intelligent units is also linked to the ideas of E.F. Schumacher and his book “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.”
Schumacher also referred to his thinking as “Buddhist Economics.” Here’s a quote that explains what that might mean:
It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in the multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character.
All economic systems are built on fundamental metaphysical ideas about what a person should want and achieve in this life. The concept of Buddhist economics came from studying economies of small villages in Burma in 1955. Schumacher published his essay “Buddhist Economics” in 1966.
This radio program doesn’t have any visible economics which is a constant source of concern for the show’s participants and its audience. While its production costs are low, with no revenue generated, a negative cash flow situation is implied. This is conjecture based on an external view with no inside knowledge. In the culture and economics of Silicon Valley small isn’t beautiful, scalability is beautiful. The venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road don’t fund small. This begs the question: Is there a global, networked, small village Buddhist economics that could support this radio show so that it could continue to thrive? And can something like this show thrive, not in abundance, but in enoughness?
The other question that surfaces is that of sustainability. Is it actually of any importance for this radio show to continue on for years and years? The after-hours jam sessions at Minton’s didn’t go on forever. Those who witnessed Bird, Monk and Pres engaging in late night cutting contests heard the sound of lightning in a bottle. Perhaps it’s enough that this kind of a radio show can emerge when we need it, a kind of “just-in-time” culture.
By the way, the host of this show? He’s the guy who said “links are dead.”