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ange on 12/24/2012 at 12:59PM
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time in archives reading pamphlets written by 17th century pseudo-scientists: alchemists, astrologers, and hobby scientists. One thing I came to learn was that it was these freaks and rebels, these “deviants” that came to inform the boundaries of what came to be defined as modern science. In a similar vein, WFMU’s 2012 Radiovision Festival seemed to have an analogous logic at work – bring in the folks operating on the fringes and see how they might be able to re-invent or provide interesting musings on radio. So while it wasn’t alchemists and astrologers, the Festival, deliciously curated by WFMU’s Ben Walker, brought together pirates, hackers, occupiers and nomadic storytellers to explore the mighty question, what’s next for radio?
The festival kicked off with maker / DIY extraordinaire Mark Fraunfelder, founder of Boing Boing and Make Magazine. Mark noted that the maker movement was for him, and for many others, primarily about self-reliance, but at a deeper level also about self-expression. While less of an apologist, some of Mark’s comments reminded me of Sociologist Richard Sennett who outlines in his book The Craftsman the intrinsic pleasure associated with the act of making. What Sennett and the modern maker movement have in common is a vision for broadening the realm of DIY craftsmanship. Both also seem to link this renewed maker spirit with an active kind of citizenship. It might sound a bit magical: does a good maker translate into a good citizen? Well, maybe not yet, but it’s the first step really, it’s about people’s empowerment. The empowerment that comes along with do-it-yourself.
Over time, I think the maker movement really will become a force for good in the world. It’s a movement that can provide a new script for how we engage in the economy, not as consumers, but as producers, as active shapers of the economy itself. If makers turn their attention to re-thinking how we create primary commodities and services like food, energy, and healthcare, particularly at a local level, then the force of the movement could be really disruptive. We would not only be able to reduce our dependence on large corporations, but we would be in control of our own economic destiny. It’s an appealing vision, but one that we haven’t yet fully realized.
Moving from the maker movement, which is all about democratizing making, we encountered those working to democratize radio and storytelling itself. We heard from rogue journalist Tim Pool, who, with no background in journalism and merely armed with a cell phone, YouTube and Twitter, provided real-time coverage of Occupy Wall Street. We also heard from The Guardian’s multimedia editor Francesca Panetta whose pet project, Hackney Hear, brings the stories of local residents, musicians, and writers into a guided tour experience of London Fields in East London. Hackney Hear is truly an off the grid experience, allowing listeners to “choose their own adventure” while walking through Hackney and receiving GPS-linked audio stories on their mobile phones. The stories range from a local resident talking about a first kiss to a photographer talking about the squatter scene from the 80s.
Having lived in Hackney when I first moved to London, it is easy to see how Francesca chose this area as fertile ground for her storytelling efforts. Hackney is in no small part a massive source of inspiration for The Misfit Economy. Having encountered drug dealers, squatters, young artist provocateurs, and small informal businesses all within this tiny microcosm of East London, it’s where my first interest in alternative economies was piqued. While I didn’t directly speak about the misfit economies of Hackney, my contribution at Radiovision was to explore, along with Swedish Pirate Party leader Anna Troberg, the lessons and insights that pirates could provide us about radio. Anna was incredibly refreshing. Wearing jeans and touting her love for Lady Gaga, Anna spoke about the Pirate Party values of integrity, privacy, and freedom of speech. All values that the Pirates had initially used to forge an agenda for internet freedoms, but are now becoming more expansive to tackle a wider agenda as the party develops its political influence. To complement Anna, I spoke about old school “arrr” pirates and what we could learn from their models of self-governance, egalitarianism, and underground brands. I also managed to make fun of Proust.
Later during a coffee break, I had the great fortune of meeting Aengus Anderson whose radio series Two Wheels to Nowhere explores the authentic underbelly of America, giving voice to the philosophic stirrings of a culture all too silenced by a dominant national discourse in which nothing ever appears to be said or meant. Aengus self-described as “an unremarkable guy with an audio-recorder” provides a perfect offsetting voice to this election season. He reminds us that as Americans we’re all not quite as dumb as politicians think we are.
With storytelling radio-enthusiasts like Aengus in the audience, it’s refreshing to remember that people are all still capable of authenticity. That even though we’re surrounded by so many toxic narratives and over-hyped sound bites, that radio is still a place to come for a little bit of human transcendence. As T.S. Eliot famously said, “All significant truths are private truths. As they become public they cease to become truths; they become facts, or at worst, catchwords.” In my mind, what good radio resurrects is the courage to express and indulge in private truths and unformed narratives; particularly, at a time, when our public language and capacity for storytelling has never been more impoverished. It’s why we have to grope for authenticity in those courageous outliers – the makers, pirates, and occupiers, who provide us with a muse for re-educating ourselves in the ways of being human.
Alexa Clay is an economic historian, author, and innovation strategist with a healthy obsession for pirates, sound art, new economics, and pseudo-science. Her first book, The Misfit Economy, will be published by Simon & Schuster next year and examines the ingenuity of "underground" or black market and informal innovations. Alexa has published pieces in Fast Company, Forbes, Wired, The Guardian, and Stanford Social Innovation Review. She currently directs thought leadership at Ashoka Changemakers and is working to build a movement for a do-it-yourself (D.I.Y.) economy. Alexa received her BA from Brown University and a MSc. from Oxford University.
This series is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.