Evolving Community at Radio Open Source

Broadcast | Language/Structure
I’ve been leafing through a six-year old copy of Brill’s Content— a goldmine of hindsight-foresight, grist for an upcoming Civilities piece– and I couldn’t shake loose a media prediction for 2005 from the August 1999 issue: “TV AND THE WEB WILL FINALLY CONVERGE BUT IN UNEXPECTED WAYS.” That’s hedging your bets. Maybe the unexpected ways would be it would be not television, but radio, which would first convervge in a natural way with the web. And the best example of that today may be the five-month old Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon.


Every TV show has a web component, for sure, which exists to be visited at any odd time other than while the show is on. With Radio Open Source, a listener opens up the companion website leading up the show, during, and stay on afterwards to contribute to the conversation. (that is, if they are not doing familiar activities for 7-8pm of commuting home or eating dinner). As he did before, Lydon brings professors and experts and ordinary people together for intelligent and spirited talk radio. Have a question? Call up the radio show– or post it on the website. Either will do, and the conversations jumps between the two. If there’s a better example of convergence, I haven’t heard about it.

(Granted, one could nominate MSNBC’s Connected Coast to Coast in for the convergence category. Hosted by Ron Reagan and Monica Crowley, it airs at noon for an hour each day, fielding input via email, online polls, blogs, etc. But its website, not unlike others for MSNBC’s programming, is a complete mess gives very little direction about what it is even being covered today.)

I had the fortune of meeting Chris, along with Brendan Greeley, one of the show’s producers and now the “blogger in chief,” at various Berkman conferences this past year. I’ve listened to perhaps half of the shows over the last five months. I noticed over the weekend that Brendan put a call out for some feedback, so I thought I’d finally put it all together. I’ve tried to cite some of the other contributors where possible.

How Open Source Radio Works

The essence of the open source idea, outside of its origination from the software world, is that the community volunteers can contribute to the production on equal terms with the paid staff. Obviously, there are appropriate times when the paid staff asserts control– for the on-air production– but the community volunteers can fill in elsewhere.

Here’s an example from this past month. After listening to the show Theocracy in America, user timkar felt that it was “irresponsible and inflammatory” for Chris to compare evangelical leader James Dobson to Iraq’s “Ayatollah Sistani or the mullahs in Afghanistan.” I responded to his post saying that I would sympathize with him, but that I needed to listen to the whole show again (I had only caught the last ten minutes live). Quite usefully, the engineers post the MP3 audio file to the site following the show for further listening. I listened to it on Sunday and went to post back, but another regular in the community, Potter, had beat me to it, saying that timkar mis-heard. And I post in agreement, posting the exact words. Potter and I make the case that a religious test for office– which was offered during the ill-fated nomination of Harriet Miers for Supreme Court justice– can make it “feel like a mullah-ocracy,” which were Chris’s words. Timkar’s responses was ultimately unconvinced, but it seemed a helpful exercise at the time.

It’s something that the staff could do– or should do– to clarify things for the record. But if the community can step up, they might as well. The other major contribution has been show ideas, naturally.

Tania Ralli of the New York Times wrote a short review of the program on July 25th, focusing on the basic aspects of the program. A longer review might have looked into how the community was actually making use of the service– and what could help make better use. Let’s have a look:

1. Who’s the community?

I’ve been following ROS at least twice a week. I’ve posted to the website, and called the show a few times. I still don’t know who many of the other community members are.

One of the barriers to me with online communities is never knowing who I’m talking too. Sure, I’d met a few occasional posters from past Berkman conferences: Andy Carvin, Lisa Williams, Erica George. But I don’t have any idea who these other people are: Potter, plaintext, avecfrites, etc. I am aware that a certain type of people don’t feel comfortable posting their real names. But I have a hunch that many of the people Chris has on, many of whom are semi-public figures, may not feel comfortable themselves posting in a forum where people aren’t using their real names. Or there may be another reason; I don’t know.

Various ideas — local profiles with optional pictures, simple identifiying characteristics, etc– are in practice on other forums.

Despite the relative opacity, the discussions are highly civil, and avoid the nonsense which transpires on other websites. I think it’s in deference the hosts, and that’s what makes it a sustainable community.

2. The Participation Curve

There’s still a step up from the website to the on-air program. This should to be a smoother curve.

Very few of the producers have participated in the discussions: sometimes they interact. Brendan promised today that they would weigh in more. Similarly, few of the guests interact in the comments. For the show titled Jonathan Zittran and a Cyber September 11, Professor Judith Perolle of Northeastern had made an appearance on the show, and added comments to the discussion after she hung up. That was more the exception than the rule.I can only assume that it’s impossible to carry on an intelligent conversation and read/write posts online– and there’s little incentive to post before or after. But it would be a nice gesture.

Also, the “what’s happening on the blog” segment still happens a bit out of the blue, mostly once, rarely twice a program. I wonder if it could have a bit of a smoother transition.

While an open source community should value egalitarianism, it doesn’t hurt to reward people who’ve invested a good deal of time for the community. When Chris announced a show on Walt Whitman, it just so happened I had written a little word play on Whitman, and we had a small email exchance about it. It was several weeks later when the show actually aired. I called up and gave my full name to the producer, and was eventually put on the air. I was hoping to hear "Hey, great to hear from you! I loved your essay, tell us more about that!" but the producers hadn’t pass along my full name, so I had to sheepishly introduce myself without sounding too self-important. It wasn’t just me; I can remember another time that a caller had connected and had to reintroduce himself on air to Chris.

3. The tyranny of the blog format

Want to make a general comment about the show? There’s no place to discuss it. The utility of blog software, of allowing every page to have an open exchange, circumvents the power of the rest of the community to add posts on an general topic. When Brendan asked for some feedback on September 8th about suggestions regarding Katrina coverage, this opened the door for all sorts of feedback, from the structure of the site, to some back-and-forth about the appropriateness of the host’s interruptions and biases.

These are topics to be discussed on an ongoing basis. There should be forums set up to handle these “meta” topics. These should not sap the focus of the community away from the main content, but they should be there to just handle the random questions that come up.

4. The tyranny of the single thread

One thread cannot contain all the discussions during a program. Granted, the last twenty shows have averaged about 15 comments each, which seems on the manageable side. But sometimes people don’t post just because they’ll be tough to read through. Or other times the posts are interminably long, and 15 comments can scroll to that many pages (the site should consider limiting the size of the post– so that it doesn’t spill over more than one screenful, for example). A more complete solution is needed. We need to think in term of splitting up the online dialogue around a show into multiple channels.

A web-based chat room would be a good way to handle the feedback during the broadcast (plaintext, Rochelle, Pete all suggested this as well). It would have the further benefit for someone tuning in late to see what’s been discussed, and it can promote instant feedback. Also, it can be used by subsequent listeners to easily scan the show’s content.

Separately, the discussion for each show should be threaded. There should be a thread for each question raised. Other listeners should sign on to the question to encourage its being asked (see the proposal for Question Scoreboard). Or listeners can contribute their own answers.

Some of the respondents suggested that Radio Open Source switch over to LiveJournal. I’ll recommend Drupal, which this site uses. 


Update, November 7th: Brendan has posted his synthesis of the feedback. In short, while the Berkman folks appeared to be advocating to make it "more like a blog," the regular listeners pushed for more community software features. Franz Hartl, God bless him, respond: You should eat your own “open source” dog food and migrate this project over to Drupal. Drupal is open source, designed to build community, and modular. Jon Garfunkel has lots of good insight, but his best piece of advice is to switch to Drupal. By keeping this project on WordPress you are only postponing the inevitable.