Purdue Student Radio – A (mostly) failed experiment.

Every once in a while I feel like I should post about things I’ve worked on in the past. Sometimes it’s as a point of pride and others I feel like it’s just a matter of documentation. In this case, I was recently reminded of my time working with the Purdue Student Radio Station so I’m going to reflect on that here.

[Wow.. this post has been in the works for.. well, the first draft was logged in 2015. lol. I’m trying to do more writing, and dredging up some of the many things I’ve started in the past but not finished.]

A conservative place..
Purdue University is a conservative institution. Especially considering the aptitude for curiosity and exploration of many of the students (and some of the faculty) there. A former supervisor during my time working in IT at Purdue told me it hadn’t always been so stuffy. Things apparently got really conservative during the Hovde administration. This supervisor had a story from his undergrad experience at Purdue wherein a couple of students built a small hot air balloon that landed on top of a campus building and caught fire. The point of the story was that these students were expressing a healthy desire to create and learn, and weren’t punished for the relative danger they incurred in this pursuit, while a similar event in the current political climate (this was around 2000 mind you) would have gotten the students thrown out of school and probably sued for damages. This conservative tone echoed in many aspects of student life. “Mass” media was one.

[As an aside, I noticed something interesting as I researched for this article. The duration of time that Purdue presidents hold office is seriously diminishing over time. Cordova – 5yr | Jischke – 5yr | Beering – 17yr | Hansen – 11yr | Hovde – 25yr | Elliot – 23yr | Stone – 21yr … not sure what to draw from this, although I suspect it somehow fits into the discussion of “what’s wrong with higher education”]

Student life and media consumption..
Purdue as a University during my time had three main student facing media outlets: Boiler TV – the campus cable network, airing several regular cable channels along with a couple of terribly curated campus information feeds. The campus newspaper, “The Purdue Exponent” – once referred to by my friend Matt F. as “The leading source of misinformation in Tippecanoe County”. And finally, a radio station called WBAA – This is operated by the university, but seemed, at least during my tenure, to not consider students as their target market. The station played mostly classical music and some select NPR programs. It seemed like, in general, the University was very wary of either campus-wide communications, or campus -wide communications with students at the helm. There was also a general perception that it was unwanted, but I never had problems finding other students who were into the idea.

That said, Purdue has a long history of student run radio in the form of so called “dorm stations”. Many residence halls at Purdue had their own closed circuit stations at various times, some also having low power FM in times of less heavy regulation. WILY, WCCR in Cary Quad, Shreve.. There were more, but I don’t have any more info than this. For a time, something called PRN – Purdue Radio Network connected several of the dorm stations. (it seems to still exist in some form but is focused on sports coverage?) I DJed at WCCR when I lived at Cary Quad in 1996 and 1997 and learned a lot of the station lore. WCCR was purported to be the first station nationally to broadcast stereo by sending the left and right channels out two separate transmitters. They had a hell of a vinyl vault. Unfortunately, by the time I got there it was all melted due to improper climate control.

The problem with these dorm stations was that listenership was very low, mostly because to hear it you 1. had to live in that dorm and 2. had to go to the front desk and get a “splitter” to connect your cable TV line to a stereo.. if your stereo had an antenna input. In my time, I was lucky to get 2 or 3 of my friends to listen in. I suspect the dorm stations were more popular before tv and internet was readily available in the dorms. In the mid 2000’s some of the dorm stations experimented with web streaming. WCCR would get a handful of listeners from time to time.

[Some of these stations seem to continue on in some form and have web presences: WILY, WCCR]

My experience at WCCR was both informative and disappointing. The station had a cool vibe – there was a big lounge with typical institutional sofas and lots of old copies of CMJ laying around. The air studio was a small, but functional room with one wall lined with CDs. Some manner of junky Arrakis board was the operational centerpiece along with a chronically broken mac of some kind. I don’t remember a lot about the other bits, being new to it all, but there were surely a couple of CD decks, a (also broken) cart machine and at least one semi-working turntable. There was some manner of operational organization – station officers that we DJs were supposed to somehow report to, and send our play logs to, but now that I think about it, I had no idea what any of those people actually did, and honestly, I don’t think I ever saw them past the callout meeting.

Still, I had fun doing radio shows for my friends, playing my favorite stuff and also digging through the station’s CD collection. Once I even plugged my guitar into the board and played on “air” for a whole show. And lol, I remember Enrique, a guy who lived down the hall calling in with a fake voice every time I did a show and requesting Tool.

The start of “Purdue Student Radio” as a station..
Maybe a relevant piece of information in this story is that I was a student at Purdue for over 17 years, so I saw things come and go. When I moved off-campus, the dorm stations became little more than a fond memory. But I was still looking for things to do on campus.

I remember going to a callout for PSR, Purdue Student Radio, at some point prior to 2004. It was a kind of odd group, seemingly predicated on doling out various “director” positions to students volunteering. But lets jump outside of my personal experience and backtrack.

Apparently, the station had been formed under the premise of being a place for business students to practice.. business stuff. I don’t know the full story, but this seemed to be the brainchild of an undergrad who somehow had the ear of people at Krannert with money. Regardless, the business model was based around selling on-air advertising. A Purdue Staff director or engineer of some kind, Michael Gay from WBAA, was involved in planning an AM transmitter installation using gifted money. The transmitters would augment a web stream, and added a touch of legitimacy that the dorm stations lacked. WBAA also provided a massive, antique Harrison console and some other miscellaneous hardware. This was all housed in a room in the old student organizations area in the basement of the Union.

And that all happened. Kind of an amazing feat. But that’s about where progress stopped it seemed like. When I found out about all of this, it was kind of in a proof of concept state. The transmitters worked – 6 low power AM units perched atop the Krannert building, the transmission barely made it to Chauncey Hill at AM1610. The studio had all the parts it needed and was capable of doing most of what it was supposed to.. but there were many broken things, no music library, and not a lot of institutional knowledge.

And so back to my experience.. we had a lot of these meetings where people were trying to figure out how to synthesize the structure and operation of a college radio station. I remember the Programming Director instructing us, the non-director volunteers, to try to generate a station handbook by plagiarizing other college station’s handbooks. Little progress was made under this regime, and said Programming Director later was kicked out of school for some dubious reason if I recall. Another prime activity of these meetings was trying to recruit people to do the “sales”. The only training was “go talk to businesses and see if they’ll give us money”. Needless to say, this didn’t work. I always surmised that the real shortcoming in this plan was that the station wasn’t actually broadcasting anything yet. Eventually, the guard driving all this was changed. I’m not quite sure what happened. Probably some people graduated, and probably some got bored with the lack of progress. A couple of good people stayed for a while and did what they could, but there was really not enough knowledge to make it work.

The reorg..
At this time, somewhere in 2007, there were a few of us in the non-director set who were there for the music rather than the business and we decided to change the approach to: lets have a functional station and then try to get some money later. We started by building a music library. I knew a little about how this worked from my limited time doing record label promo. All of the labels and distros were quite happy to give you more music than you could handle if you were reporting to CMJ, (College Music Journal) so we shelled out the cash for CMJ membership. I recall this was over $1k for a year, which seems excessive.. but I digress. I handled the chart reporting, basically grepping the logs of our station automation software, SAM, for what was getting the most plays. At this point, the station was largely on autopilot so this was an easy process. We dumped some mp3’s in, and it played them randomly. Later we got more advanced, doing programming blocks by genre, etc. CD’s came in droves. More than we could deal with, in fact. [as an aside, when we wound down the station, there were still dozens of CDs a week coming in for our PO Box in Stewart Center. I remember the mail folks asking/demanding that we tell companies to stop sending stuff, but I didn’t even know where most of them were coming from. Labels and distros just chucked that stuff out to any entity on the CMJ list. Hopefully they’ve finally stopped or else someone in the mail department of STEW have just started taking the music for themselves.] There were also the starts of digital distribution, which eliminated some steps but added new ones. We initially hoped to get all music we received into the digital music library. I set up a ripping lab with four PCs with multiple CD drives so we could at least rip 4 discs at a time.

It seemed like we were doing pretty well. There were several regular shows, constant content with music and syndicated programming, I was keeping station manager office hours and reporting to CMJ weekly, and it felt like we were growing. At one point, because we still didn’t have any money and still weren’t really interested in doing sales, we hit up all the old dorm stations to see if they had gear they’d give us. One came through, told us to take whatever we wanted, then mysteriously stopped responding to emails/phonecalls after we took the first load. We also talked to WCCR at this time who were still going. They didn’t have any equipment for us, but we had some interesting talks about piping in their programming.

The death..
Things eventually just petered out. People weren’t showing up to do their shows as much, keeping the equipment working was hard, staying on top of ripping CDs that came in was daunting.. and the real nail in the coffin – the AM transmitters quit working. Their demise coincided with a re-roofing project on the Krannert building that we weren’t notified about until after I started investigating the dead transmitters. I got permission to go to the roof with the building deputy to inspect the equipment. ..and noticed that some of the 6 transmitters’ ground straps had been removed for the roofing and not reattached. I suspected that maybe they got a lightning strike, but who knows. The university seemed to have a stance of “we’ll we’re not real sure what happened, but we’re also not going to do anything. Sorry.” Not having the knowledge or motivation to troubleshoot any further, we basically packed it in. As far as I know, the transmitters are still up there, connected to the streaming box in the penthouse.

We folded the club, and sent most of the remaining gear to a burgeoning podcasting club that a couple of our folks were in. The Harrison console went back to WBAA, and God knows what dark basement it’s hanging out in now.

Looking back..
Well.. the station didn’t do what it was supposed to. Very few ad sales were made, if any, and in it’s prime, we didn’t do advertising at all. For music nerds, it worked a little bit. Longer than I would have expected.

It was an interesting thing to be a part of for sure. I’m glad I did this. I made a lot of friends, and it’s always good to have a shared goal with people. While this wasn’t an exercise that added a lot to my CV, it is one of the handful of things that I’m proud of. Notably, we had a couple of show hosts go on to minor celebrity in broadcasting and comedy, and I’d like to think that having a radio station to do shows on was at least a little boost for their skills and resume.

Shoutouts:
I realize I have a bias for being negative, and accentuating the struggles in things like this over the good times, so I want to take a minute to thank people involved in this radio thing that brought joy to me in one way or another over the years that we did it:

Nur – for keeping things going in the transitional period mentioned above

Doug – for wiring up the whole thing in the first place

Emily, Jake and Andy – for being the core of motivation and participation for this thing.

Pat, Mike and Nick – for helping to keep things going

Ryan, Coby, Alex, Wes and Blair – for doing shows and keeping them going

Aaron and Michael – for all of the tech help and time spent

I’m probably forgetting a lot of people, but thanks for being there.

On the topic of pop music driving anti-intellectualism..

As I’m trying to establish myself here in San Diego, I’ve found that I’m gravitating towards music again. I’m just a few blocks from a great concert venue that a lot of locals and larger names play, and I think that finding myself in that fray reminds me how much accumulated knowledge, and maybe even skill I have in the area.

While I’ve been thinking more deeply philosophically about music, expression and identity, I bumped into a couple of interesting articles. The first, The Assault on Intellect: How Popular Music’s Lyrics Perpetuate American Idiocy cites work by Andrew Powell-Morris on the topic of “Lyrical Intelligence” wherein the author uses some rubric to determine the reading level of lyrics on the billboard charts over the past 10 years and graphs it all out. The takeaway is that lyrically, pop music is getting dumber.

I don’t necessarily agree with the metric – I think I’d like to somehow measure the depth of the themes of the songs as well as the instrumental maturity.. but nevertheless, it’s a pretty interesting idea, and one that has crossed my mind in the past. Notably, I remember a paraphrase from a friend back in Lafayette on the topic of local bands – “I don’t like local bands; They all try to make their music difficult”. The last half of that certainly has some salience to me. I remember playing in one of my longer running bands, Summerfield, and trying so hard to create something original and challenging. I’ve come to understand this as something of an appeal to ego, but doesn’t make me value it any less. I think the flip side is a band that can go play a three chord song that people enjoy dancing to. Both are valid in their own ways.. Why I’m attracted more to the former, I don’t know. Leaving a lasting mark? Advancing an artform? Self fulfillment from conquering a challenge?

Back to the literature review though.. I saw another article around the same time that referenced a GZA interview on the topic of the absence of lyricism in modern hip-hop. I’ve heard a little of this material before in other interviews with the rapper, but this was a broader collection of ideas. GZA’s criteria of quality aren’t that well organized, but I’ll attempt to capture them in bullet point format here:

  • lyrical
  • Strong
  • Fresh
  • New
  • discussing the art of MCing
  • good analogies
  • good wordplay
  • good sentence structure
  • good visuals
  • not about negative things (?)
  • having a message
  • telling a great story
  • grabbing you / pulling you in
  • understanding life
  • witty
  • intellectual
  • smart rhymes
  • clever rhymes

I see three main themes in these items.. The first is embracing a kind of “meta” culture – describing your rapping skills, and maybe even bragging about them. This is definitely a prominent element in most music styles, but I’m not sure if is really a strong thread in what makes lyrics “good”, at least not for me, from a critical viewpoint.

Storytelling is another theme mentioned by GZA. This one definitely resonates with me and I’ve often cited a good story as the main driver for my preference of hip hop songs. In an era of popular artists bragging about material possessions and success at dubious endeavors, hearing a good story can make a difference.

The last, and largest theme in GZA’s list of preferred qualities seems to be a general intellectual depth and thoughtfulness. Both in terms of being a person with a broad knowledge to draw from but also displaying an aptitude for abstract thinking. This, I think, most relates to the example I cited above about local bands. GZA’s motivations to be creative, innovative and intellectual may be ego driven, but they do also push the envelope of what other artists are doing.

Looping back to the Lyrical intelligence rating, I suspect the criteria used there would probably call GZA’s works less intelligent since the main metric is application of grammar rules – something that is less important to the artist than the wit and craftiness he imbues.

So what?

I guess I wrote this all out to start a conversation with myself about how to make smarter music. I’m going to forego the question of whether challenging music is better or worse than simple music. What is “good” to me? and how would one integrate the conversational tradition of most music lyrics with something more heady?

 

..on treating machines like people

I just saw a blurb on huffington post that had Clifford Nass talking about what he usually talks about; treating machines like people. If you’re not familiar, go check out The Media Equation and his other books. Why an article about him in the mainstream media? I’m guessing it’s because he worked on the google glasses. Sidenote: it kind of sucks that you have to commercialize science to make people care.

Anyway, the article is mostly nothing new. What was new from him, at least for me is his concern with multitasking.

What concerns you most about the direction of current technologies?

Unquestionably my biggest concern is the dramatic growth of multitasking. We know the effects of multitasking are severe and chronic. I have kids and adults saying, “Sure, I multitask all the time, but when I really have to concentrate I don’t multitask.”

The research to shows that’s not quite true: when your brain multitasks all the time there are clear changes in the brain that make it virtually impossible for you to focus. If we’re breeding a world in which people chronically multitask that has very, very worrisome and serious effects on people’s brains. For adults it has effects on their cognitive or thinking abilities. For younger kids we’re seeing effects on their emotional development. That does scare the heck out of me.

I have the same concern, and actually wrote a paper about it last semester. By the time the paper was done I had kind of stopped caring about the issue because I’d blown it up into a deep mindmap and kept getting stuck on the issue of efficiency as a sole guiding force to interaction design development. My thought is that we need devices that use less of our attention, but I think the problem is really more human than machine. Given more unused attention, we’d probably still be trying to cram other tasks in there.

I guess I need to revisit this idea. How can we reduce the cognitive overhead of multitasking while still multitasking? A Nass-like solution seems ideal, since we have the ability to deal with multiple other humans. (ex: mother with a minivan full of kids) Surely though there is even a finite number of humans we can deal with at once.

I really don’t have a good answer. I’d love to hear other opinions.

Thoughts about the physicality of communication devices

I saw a website article a few weeks ago displaying new conceptual models of iPods/iPhones. Most were wearable items like a ring or bracelet. After some time, I realized that these concepts were kind of sitting uncomfortably with me. I guess I just have a difficult time believing that the next generation communication technology interface will be something you wear. I’m prone to thinking that we are already at a pretty efficient interface ideal with the iPhone/Android/etc. At least until such devices are more bio-integrated and worn on the inside of our bodies. That is a subject for another time. For now lets focus on the current crop of smart phones.

The brief physical anthropology of communications devices:
I think it’s definitely possible to see an evolution in electronic communication devices. Skipping the obvious face to face methods that have existed for thousands of years, I think the telegraph is a reasonable starting point for a communications technology as the term has come to be generally understood. The interface was stationary and passed information serially using only boolean data. Next came radio transmission, which in retrospect seems like more of an underlying support technology, allowing the telegraph to be mobile. Then the telephone, which began as a stationary unit for parallel audio transmission. Then we slid the radio technology under audio transmission and had what we now know as AM/FM radio, which at the time supported stationary transmitters, movable receivers. The receivers were too large and heavy to be moved regularly. Next the radio technology came to the telephone and we had wireless handsets which were very mobile, but had limited range. Soon the first cellular phones appeared, with gigantic battery packs and resigned largely to emergency use in a car, or for military communication. They slowly shrunk in size, and picked up more casual use and overlapped with the user base of landline phones. Computers also came on the scene, initially adopting a typewriter like interface for input and output. This hasn’t changed much from the keyboard/display setup we are still using with computers today. And lest we forget the fax machine, which I feel was already obsolete shortly after it hit the scene, yet for whatever reasons still has quite a user base.

So at this point, this is probably looking like the so-and-so begat so-and-so bit from the book of genesis in the bible. We’re about caught up to current though. There already seem to be a few instances of convergence when a new technology or social use comes along. So here we are with a rapidly shrinking cell phone, and highly mobile laptop computers with wireless connectivity as well. These user bases overlap, and we start seeing the functionality of computers in phones (instant messaging, email, web browsing) and phone functionality in computers. (VOIP such as Skype, et al) it kind of makes sense to combine the two, and here we are with iPhones, Blackberries and Androids.

The actual interface:
Ok, so we understand a bit of the physical anthropology of the communications device, lets take a closer look at the interface. The profile we’re looking at is an object that can be operated with one hand and stored in a pocket, like a cellular phone, with an approximation of a desktop/laptop computer’s capabilities for high resolution display, data storage, input capability and processing power. Along the way we also convergent-ly picked up the functionality of digital cameras and music players. It’s interesting to me that we seem to have taken more functionality from the computer and shoe-horned it into the small package of the cellular phone. I believe that this illustrates the strongest aspects of each device. It’s also interesting that the camera and music capabilities are easy to tack on since the requisites for computer functionality provide an easy infrastructure to add these other functionalities.

Since the general form is more like a phone than a computer, it’s easy to see that the interface of the phone functions will be similar to that of a standard, non-smart, cell phone. The physical form of the computer on the other hand, was large, and this size was mostly occupied by the I/O elements. A smaller screen, and likely lack of a physical keyboard show the need for a modified interface. It’s very important to note that there is a trade off here. What we have wound up with interface wise is a stripped down version of what MS windows and MacOS have been all along – a list of clickable icons. In absence of a mouse, we are now using touch screens. A keyboard is emulated, but almost all incarnations of this idea pale in comparison to the efficiency of a standard computer keyboard.

What am I getting at:
After all that, I hope you can see my point. We have arrived at the modern smart phone handset through a kind of natural selection, adopting traits of communication devices we find beneficial and leaving others behind in favor of more favorable traits. The beginnings of a move away from a physical keyboard illustrate this idea – the small, portable size of smart phones might be more important than the typing efficiency of the old keyboard. As a result, we also see the social ramifications of this with truncated language (O I C. U R welcome. LOL.) use starting on mobile devices and spreading to more traditional forms of communication. Could we assume that the use of mobile devices for communication is more important than maintaining traditional language norms?

The future:
I personally cannot see any immediate jumps away from the current smart phone hand set. It seems like a very flexible platform that has not been fully tapped for functionality yet. I believe that a more functional voice control, such as the one in the iPhone Google app, and the Android maps feature, will be the next step with this platform, allowing information request and retrieval to take place over a headset with limited physical interaction with the hand set. This would be highly dependent on voice recognition technology, which on the iPhone and even on desktop computers seems to be a ways off. If and when the VR technology catches up, concepts like the iPhone ring or bracelet will make a lot more sense, but until then seem like they would just be a hassle to interact with.

For more realistic future implementations I hope to see gesture control and perhaps more accelerometer control. But who knows what we will see.

Photo credits: