Who Owns the Airwaves?

A couple of years ago, when all of the hullabaloo about the switch from analog to digital TV stations was passed and actually became mandatory, I was a little bit surprised that there weren’t more paranoid skeptics out there going, “Tsk, Tsk, Tsk another ploy by Big Brother to get us to buy stuff and watch stuff,” etc. It seemed what should have been and could have been maybe a very deep debate about our freedoms and limitations and potential for monopolies was quickly silenced. Do I sense this might have stemmed from complacency on the big part of media makers to go along with more methods of control (read: more ways to track and monitor the users of cable and other ways to prevent and penalize those people who figure out how to wire/hack and steal cable)? Yeah, that is what I think. But one of the more interesting theories I found floating out in cyberspace was from this guy who has posts up on his blog where people speculated on all sorts of paranoid things, such as:

1. All the nice, new HDTVs covertly have tiny cameras built into them, and they must all be plugged into a digital box or wire because Big Brother is secretly using our TVs to take a look/listen inside all of our homes

2. Because Analog streaming seems to be more instaneous (which may or may not be physically or technically possible, nor the truth) there is more of a chance for censorship via HD, because there is that extra time lag where the censors can come in with their bleeps and their edits and take out all the “fun” stuff from live TV. (Which really is a joke in itself, if you think about it because live TV by it’s very nature is only the finely sifted hand-selected crap that the broadcasters and advertisers choose to present to us anyway… but I digress.

3. And possibly the best one I’ve heard yet, though not from the above-mentioned blog, now with the box installed and the potential for digital to be constantly streaming, Big Brother can covertly send subliminal messages into our homes~even when the tube is off~to get us to buy more, spend more, hang out on the couch more and eat more fast food. (Because there hasn’t been/isn’t already a ba-jillion other screens/channels/radio spots/product inserts/inter-stitials/product drops/promotions etc. in all of the other media/aspects of our lives for these messages to get passed around. Right).

Basically, I’m not too worried. I don’t subscribe to the most paranoid notions out there (well, for the most part… at least I don’t let them distract me to the point of delusion).

But what I did get to thinking about was, what happened to all of that airspace that used to be occupied by commercial micro-waves transmitting their messages via pretty color dot matrices and audio clips, bouncing off of everything; bouncing all around us, hitting us in the head when we walk down the street, bouncing off our pets, our houses, our cars. What happened to all of the waves? Does this mean that all of that airspace is now free and un-occupied?

Well, it didn’t just go away; it is still out there.

When I was in college (the first time) I went to University of Arizona and I was a DJ and then a music director at the campus radio station (KAMP). At that time, KAMP was vying with the FCC to please, please, please let us have airspace. We were applying for a license to broadcast via radio waves http://www.fcc.gov/mb/audio/howtoapply.html We wanted a frequency and a low-power transmitter so that we wouldn’t have to be limited to just streaming on the Internet and iPod shows and on-campus cable TV (which, now that I think about it, that was all pretty advanced. That was 1999! There are college stations NOW who don’t do live streaming… aye yay-yay, I digress again).

Anyway, the big problem was, we were too close to Mexico. We were constantly being told that Mexican stations owned about half of the airwaves down that close to the border.

Back in those days, there was a actually a collective of randy non-U of A-affiliated radio bandits who managed to make their own little radio “station” and get around the FCC’s strict requirements and mean limitations for transmitting your own original content. These guys were known as Radio Limbo, and you could never really be sure where to find them on the dial, because their frequency was rumored to change. The myth goes, these guys wanted Free Radio, so they built their own transmitter in a remote location (to get around having to apply for the FCC license and submit to their strict regulations on content–what you could and could not air–you know, decency standards and all that fun stuff). Anyway, they were happily broadcasting from their desert shack on the outskirts of town, or their U-Store-It rental unit, or something, when they got wind that the FCC might be on to them. So the story goes, they they broke down the transmitter and rebuilt it in a van. And for the last year or two that they were in existence, they drove around Tucson, broadcasting their music, news and editorial programming from whereever the hell they pleased (read: where ever they could be under the radar from authorities–which isn’t easy in Tucson! You know… that close to the border? In addition to state and local cops, you have any idea how many Border Patrol agents are creeping around down there?? Lots!)

I know I just went off on a tangent into the radio world (insert Radio Limbo joke). But my point about the free waves remains…

I started to think about the potentiality of a generation of “air pirates” who might embrace these newly emancipated TV waves, and use them for the spread of good. Oh, I don’t know… just think of the possibilities for your art, for your soap box, for your sanity. For an underground movement?

Hey, I wonder if they still sell that “How to Build Your Own Pirate Radio Transmitter” ‘zine at Left Bank Books….


The Feedback Loop

Does the mass media influence culture or does culture influence what the media absorbs and the marketers try to sell us? This is the thesis question at the heart of Douglas Rushkoff’s/PBS Frontline’s movie “The Merchants of Cool” (2001). I’ve been showing this movie in my Rhetoric classes because we are discussing persuasion and I think it’s so interesting to see the way the reaction of the masses is measured, and consequently, the way marketing messages are then altered to appeal to the tastes of certain target markers, such as teenagers.
Friends, remember when indie rock was really indie? Remember when bands did their own recordings and they were put out by small (ish) ultra cool, ultra un-heard-of labels like Up! Records, K Records, Kill Rock Stars and Matador (back when it was, ahem, independent). You’d rush to be their first kid in your scene or the first one at your college radio station to get the new Sunny Day Real Estate or Death Cab for Cutie CD and you’d tear open the plastic and pop it in your player at home (or on your college radio show) and lean back in your chair breathing a sigh of relief that you were ahead of the curb; one of the more musically elite.
We saw those days go away with the late 1990s/early oughts as many of those little indie labels crashed and burned, or got absorbed by much bigger companies such as Sony and DGC. In some ways, that doesn’t totally bum me out. Because for some bands that were small and un-heard-of back then, like the Dandy Warhols or The Black Keys, having the stability of a major-label backing actually does open up some doors. Some of these bands got huge tours and excellent distribution. A real punk-rock kid at heart would never fess up to this; but really, every rocker’s dream come true. After all, what good is slaving away at new songs, practicing every week (or every day) with your band and self-recording if the only people who will ever get to rock out to your stuff are your friends and family? No one who tries to form a band wants that. Trust me, no one.
The sell-out like of discrediting a band simply can’t be used the same way it could before the 1990s. (I mean, I guess it can sort of apply… if you’re accusing a band of changing their aesthetic completely to comply with the expectations of a more mainstream audience, like recent accusations thrown at Deerhunter have claimed, since the singer no longer goes around wearing women’s dresses and covering himself in blood at their now-sold-out shows).
The funny thing is, even though we keep hearing about how the record industry isn’t making any money since no one buys albums any more, the fame machine still seems to be in place, only more emphasis is now on alternate forms of distribution and packing a live concert hall. These seem to be the only ways left for really making money.
So what does that mean for the bands? Does it mean that no one ends up a multi-millionaire Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen anymore? Maybe. It seems the rotation of rock music trends faster and faster these days, spitting out new “it” bands and radio wonders such as Lady Gaga and 30 Seconds to Mars faster than you can write out a check; gobbling up and excreting last month’s MTV has-beens faster than ever.
But should this cycle discourage kids from picking up guitars and going out there in the future? I say, only if it’s been done before. And then I say, yikes, look-out! Almost everything you might try has been done before. Music and art influence music and art influence music and art. Still, wasn’t it Zappa that said “Art is making something out of nothing and then selling it?” Maybe the sale is the root of intention.

The Internet Era and Need for Dynamic Citations

I have started teaching ENG102 at a community college in Arizona and it’s been a real push of mine to promote awareness in my classes of the ever-changing landscape that is the World Wide Web.

We’re working on research papers, and I’m trying to emphasize how important it is that when they provide me with citations for their Internet sources (appropriate, trustworthy web news sources and articles, of course!) that they provide the Date of Access.

In MLA citations, the date of access should be listed at the end of a citation, followed by the webpage URL. For example, quotes from the Wikipedia entry on the 1969 New York Mets would be cited like this:

“1969 New York Mets.” Wikipedia.com. Web. 2 Nov. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org

I have been explaining that due to hypertextuality, content on the web is dynamic and constantly evolving and being updated. Unlike the trusty Page 2 of a newspaper in days of old, that frequently included a Corrections box pointing out errors, omissions and/or updates that might “change” the day’s news, we don’t always get a warning when sensitive web information is changed.

A fun page to look at is archive.org‘s Wayback Machine. Drawing from free-floating ghosts of pages that still exist in cyberspace, the Wayback Machine can re-generate the way old websites used to look “back in the day.” You can look at MTV.com from all the way back when the site was launched! Microsoft’s homepage, too. True, some assets, links and ads are missing, but you get a good idea of how a website can evolve over time.

Good to be aware of how impermanent the web really is when you’re using web sources to build supports for your “solid as a rock” arguments and thesis statements.