Radio - who’s scheduling now?

Despite notions of "end of linear time" in media, of consumers downloading or streaming content as and when they like, scheduled broadcast media (proclaimed to be archaic and/or dead since a few years) are still alive. The ethos of "live" has stayed with radio since from the first experiments in 1920s: at first as a neccesity, because of insufficient reproduction quality of audio storage media, resources in archives and commercial interests of gramophone companies.

Digital recording, audio compression, network distribution and resulting abundance of audio content have brought about new formats such as radio on-demand and podcasts, with the authority of the broadcaster extended by playlists based on "friends activity" (Spotify1 and other applications for recently introduced Facebook music service) and algorithms (Aupeo2 - a personalised radio using an algorithm developed by Fraunhofer institute, analyzing rhythm, acoustic color, tuning and tempo). These „industry innovations“ rely on advancements in aucoustic fingerprinting (ways of IDentifying songs, melodies, or tunes, used to monitor broadcasts, peer-to-peer networks, mostly for the needs of licensing and monetization3), social graph APIs describing relationships between members of a network and willingnes of the users to share their preferences and connections come announced as „game changers“ or „huge land grabs“, but they might as well fade into obscurity after the fanfares. Playlists programmed by social activity are not a magic wands and might not extend the long tail of niche audio content after all, just endlessly remake the mainstream and replace the automated scheduling based on market research, used in radios currently.

So the live programme happening at a certain time (and place) still retains its appeal, not least because it follows a fixed time schedule: the hourly news updates, morning live shows to cheer you up on the way to work, late night dialogues to make you think. Scheduling of radio programe seems to be a alchemical operation of sorts – diassembling to assemble something pure in a scheme that fits the common in the „broad public“. To take the most widespread pattern as an example: „weekdays could be (very roughly) characterised as (pre-0900) agenda-setting news into (0900-1130) serious factual conversation into (1130-1200) entertaining diversion, then (1200-1400) popular/consumer news and information, then (1400-1600) relaxing diversion to (1600-1830) facts, news and behind the news, then (1830-2000) arts and entertainment on to (2000-2245) facts, news and behind the news for the more concentrated listen, then (2245) book at bedtime, and for those who don't want to go to bed (2300-2330) some more diversion and entertainment.“4 The programming is not allowed to shift too much, the listener wants the radio to follow his daily time schedule.

Another reason why this radio format still prevails is its commonality, the way it shapes a common identity of a group, be it a ethnic or subcultural one. This has its roots in the radio history too, captured by visual arts of that time usually by pictures of a families or neighboroughs listening/sharing the radio in one room. Thus the schedule becomes a force of setting (or reflecting) a common perception of time.

If we imagine radio not only as traditional broadcast with a fixed schedule, but a more or less informal network of broadcasters streamlined into "channels" by connections in the network, we can see the personalised (algorrithmically or socially curated) and live radio not as mutually exclusive, but supplementing each other. RSS or Twitter feeds with links to separate live broadcasts/streams become radio channels, though without a fixed schedule, with live programmes announced a few hours before the start, as they come. Mass adoption of streaming technology like uStream has made almost unannounced radio shows quite common – a few friends drop by at someones flat, they set up a temporary studio and go live, they just have to appear on your time-line / feed to be caught up. But if the need for a schedule maintaining the commonality remains, is it possible to go beyond the 24hours schedule, dropping the timeline and using some other time? A wind-time, perhaps?

This was one of the tasks of TIK Art Radio experiment - to test out a distributed online radio network based on wind clock time, driven by TAK time units. It was a week-long event, coordinated from a temporary studio (Progressbar hacklab in Bratislava). Apart from live and pre-recorded radio shows scheduled by wind-time (measured in Bratislava by a simple Windflower clock6), the stream was inbetween „sandwiched“ by a permanent flow of wind-sounds, submitted by participants. Before start of the radio-week, a call for participation was sent out, to which people from different backgrounds responded (for resulting programe see the TIK wiki7)

During the event, the participants experienced a somewhat loose time feeling - the wind-clocks proved to be more tricky than expected and it was not considered that they could go backwards as well. So it could happen that at some points a programe was thrown back two days in the schedule and it had to be re-scheduled. The schedule was daily announced (with possible corrections) on the TIK wiki and Twitter8 so people could follow what was actually happening on the stream.

The results of this experiment remain somewhere on the half-way, just an sketch of what an alternative radio scheduling system might look like. Most of the radio shows from outside the Progressbar studio were pre-recorded, the live ones happening mostly in the studio and requiring to wach the wind seconds-minutes-hours on the TIK client to start, whithout an automatic trigger. The concept – if taken to the extreme – would also mean that a radio show would have to go live even if that would mean to wake up the presenter (listener) at 3 PM, or catch him travelling on the bus. The first case points to the question of how much one can give up his daily plans, the second to availability of mobile technology and willingness to being online and ready to broadcast at any time.

Michal Čudrnák

(1) http://www.spotify.com/int/
(2) https://www.aupeo.com/about
(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acoustic_fingerprint
(4) http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio4/2009/04/scheduling_radio_4.html
(5) http://www.ustream.tv/
(6) http://www.col-me.info/node/791
(7) http://timeinventorskabinet.org/wiki/doku.php/tik_art-radio
(8) http://twitter.com/TIKRadio