REMIXing Radio

I am the best Program Director. For me. All my favorite radio shows download automatically, and I listen to them when and where I want. On The Media starts when I do the dishes on Saturday morning. I don’t start washing the dishes at the exact same time every week, but no matter what time it is, On The Media starts when I press play on my iPhone. It’s not that the Program Director at my local station isn’t smart and talented (I know for a fact that he’s smarter than I am), but he doesn’t stand a chance. It’s an on-demand world and I know what I want all the time; it’s uncanny.

What’s a radio broadcaster to do? Radio may be losing its edge when it comes to appointment listening, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t vibrant and relevant today. It just needs to embrace the qualities a continuous, ongoing stream already has. It needs to embrace surprise and serendipity. REMIX Radio is an experimental public radio format that tries to do just that. There’s no program grid, there’s no schedule; you won’t know what’s on before you turn it on. It’s a story-driven, radiophonic stream (online, on XM 136 satellite radio, and as a terrestrial broadcast service) that aggregates and curates remarkable audio- short-form documentaries, features, podcasts, interviews, archives, “found sound”- and rotates it through a 24/7 channel. The goal is to make it sound amazing, interesting, diverse, unusual and compelling.

From a sound design perspective, this freeform format creates interesting challenges. The various tones and styles of public radio pieces run against each other with the potential to create chaos. The public radio precedent is to try and tame that chaos by creating a magazine program that provides the proper framework and holds the listener’s hand. The REMIX ideology is play into that chaos, add more non-sequitur, add more sound. Let each piece be what it is and create a kind of beautiful chaos. Some pieces on REMIX are hosted and introduced when they need to be, but some pieces are, and have always been, complete as-is: no lede or host required. Format follows function, not precedent.

Doing things in a new way for a new audience doesn’t mean we abandon all the things (and people) that have made public radio great, quite the opposite. The new format allows for experimentation and new voices only because it stands on the shoulders of giants. The great public radio “driveway moments” are our bedrock. In fact, we think that the most arresting examples of the “art form of information” deserve to be broadcast and experienced over and over, like a favorite song. This is out of some necessity to fill a 24/7 channel, but as with our beautiful chaos, that perceived weakness is transformed into a strength. The majority of the audience misses the short-form documentary work on the radio when it airs only once or twice. That’s a lot of time, money, and effort spent producing a piece of art that’s treated like an item of news.

The result I am hoping for is that the freedom of the freeform format permeates and affects new production. So much of my life as a producer has been spent cutting a story down to fit time, or expanding unnecessarily to fill time. I never want to do that again. There’s no standard clock here, so that’s over. That little change by itself changes how I produce radio. I think the “new voices” that public radio is always searching for, are not only young people with a fresh perspective (although, we do still, and always will, need them), but those new voices are also our voices, the voices of seasoned professionals who, out of necessity, have stopped experimenting and adopted the aesthetic of the dominant format. I hope REMIX grows to be a playground where all new voices can develop, even if they are “old” voices.

The REMIX format also allows for a wider definition of what constitutes a radio story. There is amazing audio production going on out there that has never aspired to be part of public radio, even though it naturally conforms to our values and mission. We need to harness that energy. We shouldn’t experience new things through the filter of a quirky story narrated by a bemused host. We should experience new media as the thing itself.

My hope is that REMIX is a laboratory for all kinds of radio experimentation. Incorporating dynamic localization and interactivity are going to be so cool to figure out and implement. We may discover things we never anticipated. When we connect more directly with the audience, will they be as we imagine them? Who knows? That’s what makes it fun. That’s what makes it scary.

Note: REMIX and Transom are cooking up an audio contest we’re calling “Neglected Darlings.” Complete details will be announced soon here on Transom and at PRX.org. We’re searching for short (under 90 seconds), poetic, memorable bits of tape that may have been cut from previous stories, or may have aired in a longer piece, but never got their due. They are the gems on the cutting room floor. The darling children, still near and dear to producers’ hearts, but abandoned. So, start thinking about it and we’ll give you all the details in a few weeks. Entries may be played on REMIX and a select few will also be featured on Transom. Stay tuned. We may not have answers for you yet, but if you’re dying to ask a question: darlings@prx.org.

Roman Mars

About
Roman Mars

Roman Mars is the host and program director of REMIX Radio from PRX, a 24 hour, experimental public radio story stream broadcast online, on XM satellite radio and public radio stations across the country. He is also the host and producer of KALW’s 99% Invisible, a 5-minute radio show about design and architecture. The 99% Invisible podcast recently peaked at #8 in the iTunes rankings for all podcasts, as well as #1 in both the Arts and Design categories. Mars has worked on staff of the Third Coast International Audio Festival and NPR/PRX’s Snap Judgment. You can hear more of his work at romanmars.com.

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