Entropy and Content Bloat
Radio is the anti-internet
I recently started listening to the radio again after a long hiatus. A friend recommended Clay Pigeon’s WFMU morning show, which is on from 6 to 9 am every weekday—I listen to it when I wake up. The show is a perfect instance of the morning show format: The host radiates a warm aging-hippie energy, makes a lot of jokes, and has great taste in music; the show as a whole, and the daily ritual of listening to it, saves my not-yet-warmed-up brain from the strain of having to decide on music in its first foggy moments, or (god forbid) endure silence—but unlike the algorithmic version of non-deciding, in which a black box serves up correlated output using a mechanical process coated with a veneer of humanity, the radio DJ is a conscious steward of the listener’s experience, someone in whose hands you choose to place yourself, allowing one big decision to replace many small ones. The Spotify AI DJ feature is merely an anthropomorphic simulation of the real thing, and there’s a reason that the image of a DJ is effective marketing for a curation tool: When a human does it well, it feels incredible.
Aside from various stretches in rental cars on vacations, I haven’t listened to the radio much since the ‘00s, which was perhaps the last decade in which radio felt more like it belonged to the present than the past. My recent radio listening, and my unexpected enjoyment of it, has made me think about the nature of the medium, and the purpose it still serves in a media landscape saturated with podcasts and automated, endless music playlists. If talk radio, or any scheduled radio show with a fixed duration, is about filling its established time period with material (conversation, music, advertising), the media that have succeeded radio in digital environments are about squeezing more and more content into an infinitely expandable space with no temporal constraints, where it’s held for asynchronous consumption. A given podcast episode may last as long as any talk radio show, and its content may even be the same; podcasts, however, float in the digital aether untethered from any need to either fill a certain amount of time or end punctually and make space for something else to begin. Perhaps this is why it’s popular to complain about a perceived surplus of podcasts, and of digital content in general, while linear media like radio and traditional television proceed through time at the same rate that we experience it (even though the number of channels proliferates). Linear media are confined to their rigid 24-hour-a-day segments, always playing, always ephemeral, vanishing second by second as they proceed. But there’s always room for another podcast, so they seem to accumulate faster than anyone could ever get through them.