The thing about a movement is that calling it a movement usually means that it’s over.
How incredible would it have been to have been invited to bring your keyboard over to some lower Manhattan warehouse and jam out the new minimalism with Philip Glass? Or to have argued narrative with Truffaut and Godard in Paris? Or to have hammered out new understandings of culture with Boas and Meade and Benedict and the gang at Harvard?
These questions are as rhetorical as they are maddening: you weren’t there, you don’t know, and you never will. The way we’re taught to think about and classify movements of art or film or music or literature, or whatever, is that there were a few key players, they made their contributions, and now it’s pretty much over. At least that’s how it felt to me growing up in suburban Florida—that not only was everything far away, it had already happened.
The wonderful and exhilarating weekend in Chicago at the Third Coast Festival made it clear that something is happening in the medium of sound. Right now. The medium—which is actually the oldest time-based medium—is undergoing more innovation now than in its 100-or-so year history.
A funny thing happened while I was at Third Coast: people kept praising my scarf. It’s red and looks like it’s for some soccer team, but it’s actually a CBC Radio 3 scarf that I got while visiting the CBC headquarters in Toronto a few years ago. After getting asked by (I’m guessing) all of the Canadians at the conference if I’m Canadian, they’d all say pretty much the same thing—that there’s some amount of fascination (or maybe even envy) for the indy radio community in the US. In Canada, I’m told, either you work at the CBC or you don’t. There aren’t these pockets of radio artisans doing weird things on their own.
And that is a perfectly frustrating thing to say to an American indy producer—how great would it be if we could all get jobs actually making radio on the clock instead of doing it in off hours in our bedrooms? Sometimes I think I would learn French and force myself to enjoy cold weather if it meant getting to listen to the CBC on terrestrial broadcast—not to mention the ability to work there.
But that observation does seem to point to the fact that there’s this something happening in the indy radio community, in pockets of the US and abroad.
The major evidence of this is obvious: there’s Radiolab, This American Life, Radio Diaries, the incredible stuff people are doing over at the ABC, BBC, and CBC. But I’m even more inspired by the people who are making some of the most compelling radio out there in their off-hours, alone or with groups, for broadcast or podcast or just for their friends to listen to. The producers who are cramming passers-by into darkened tiny venues to listen to things together; the producers who are hoodwinking the smartphone-savvy into spending afternoons wandering around neighborhoods because the voice in that app told them to; producers who, in a time when record stores are practically fossilizing, opened a new one that only sells recorded stories and soundscapes.
So it seems that radio/audio, for the first time in history, is being taken seriously as an art form—both in its creation and reception, The only thing that kind of bums me out about this explosion of medium is that we’re all so far apart from each other (and it sure can get exhausting when you’re thrown into the same room with most of everyone making this stuff, and all you want to do is talk to every single person there). We have no Greenwich Village, no Right Bank, no Cambridge that can contain us all. We’ll have to keep making things in our bedrooms and on weekends, usually alone or with a close cadre of collaborators.
But when we ship our product, it goes viral, and it goes global. People is listening.
When I left Third Coast, it was the first time that “going home” meant going to California. But even since going back, I’ve already been to several indy radio-affiliated things in my new hometown. Almost like it’s a scene, or something.
Just don’t call it a movement. And least not yet.