One of my more media-literate friends, who has long held that WBEZ is boring, lifeless, and needs to change, listened to :Vocalo for the first time after reading Michael Miner’s piece this week on the new station/Web site/social-networking experiment. He started IMing me.

“People are complaining about George Bush using the word ‘Internets’ right now.”

“They’re talking about the Red Line accident yesterday. They don’t know how it happened or when. But it HAPPENED.”
“Now it’s just weird, unexplained man-on-the-street audio [Ed. note: this is a trope at :Vocalo].”
“A few hours ago they were playing the Cool Kids and musing about whether the Cool Kids are from Chicago.”
“They just played sound of a guy who simulates the sound of trains by recording things that aren’t trains. And then they tried to tell me his website, but couldn’t remember it.”
“I guess my point is that 50 years of youth culture cooptation experiments should have taught people by now that corporatized amateurishness does not have a long tail. Except, instead of interesting art/design/bands, they’re coopting livejournals.”
Just for the record, here’s why I think :Vocalo is significant and why I care that it’s not very good right now:
1. I’ve been reading, writing, and participating in online journalism and media theory since I was in high school, so take me at my word when I say that :Vocalo is the most dramatic experiment I’ve ever seen in basing an actual media organization on vogue theory about the future of mass communication. Even more well-known experiments like CurrentTV (puttering along) and HOTSOUP (failed horribly) made some concessions to Old Media. It’s literally springing fully formed from the ideas people are kicking around on the Web and in various publications.
And I am admittedly impressed by Malatia’s uncompromising commitment to his vision. It might be Quixotic, but he’s not backing down. And whether it succeeds or fails there will be a lot of rich lessons as a result.
2. It follows that it’s uncommon to see someone take such a dramatic gamble on a model which he is utterly transparent about, giving interested parties like me a chance to watch it evolve and succeed or fail based on its structural qualities and flaws. Everything you hear on :Vocalo can be traced back to its structure and the theories it’s based on. In short, :Vocalo lets you into the sausage factory, from Malatia’s essays and interviews to the raw audio on the Web site that gets made into the final product.
3. As someone who does believe in the value of journalistic voices outside the media tent, to the extent that :Vocalo fails (and I think it does, and I think I’m not alone), it’s useful to understand why. A good comparison, I think, is Pitchfork, which is the center of attention in Chicago this weekend and probably on some level more important than some absurd sporting contest, and you should think back to the very early days of Pitchfork, when no one had heard of it and it wasn’t good, and even if you think it sucks now you should reflect on the miraculousness of it all.
I profiled Ryan Schreiber back in 2004, when he’d turned it into a full-time job with an office and it had really started to break acts on its own (eg Broken Social Scene). You know when it started? 1995. Pitchfork is 13 years old. And it really wasn’t very good when it started, and Schreiber admitted as much; he wasn’t even that good a writer, much less a media baron. Addicted to Noise–I remember all this–was run by a professional music writer and was a lot better.
But he loves music, and loves writing about it, and he got better at it, and he attracted writers who were better than him. He just stuck it out as a side gig, took a calculated gamble when it started to bring in a barely livable amount of money, and fortunately it worked. Whether or not you think Pitchfork is good, I find the proposition that Schreiber (and Mike Reed, the festival organizer) is admirable hard to argue with. The whole thing is like the Hoosiers of indie music journalism.
And you can do that on the Web. Many of the really significant blogs and magazines on the Web started as mediocre hobbies and passions, and their proprietors learned how to do it well, and some of them turned into professionals, or at least beloved and influential hobbyists.
And you can also fail. There are a lot of blogs and such. Most of them suck. But they suck for free. Actually paying people full-time wages who don’t know what they’re doing from the point at which they start at zero–particularly in an unforgiving medium like radio, where production (ie technical skills) and content (ie creative skills) are closely related, and which people tend not to habitually mess around with for fun–is a tremendous burden. I don’t know if it’s insurmountable, but it’s a great and arguably unnecessary barrier. David Foster Wallace has a great profile of B-list political talk show host John Ziegler, the kind of highly compensated radio crank you’d probably dismiss out of hand, and makes it clear that even the second tier of professional radio babbling takes unique, honed gifts.
4. That highlights what I’m guessing is responsible for a lot of the tension at WBEZ. Malatia is basically telling a group of highly-trained professionals that their training and professionalism is, in a particular segment of the market, eg a lot of people who those professionals want to reach, bad.
Whether or not he’s right, it’s a hell of a trip to lay on your staff. So if I think he’s wrong, you should take it with a grain of salt, because even though I’m green I’ve been doing journalism (writing, editing, design, production, even advertising) for many years. I’m naturally going to be skeptical; that reaction has to get stronger as it gets closer to the source.
5. Sorry to belabor the point for much longer than I expected to, but that’s why I think :Vocalo is significant and deserving of your scorn or your help; obviously, it’s easy to contribute.