Questioning Technology: Looking Back to Radio's Future

From a high-tech "electronic cottage" in rural northern California that links to more than three million people in 132 countries, Michael and Justine Toms -- creators of New Dimensions audio programming -- have a daily pulse on the future of radio. Though the Internet, "pay-per-listen" distribution, CD-ROMs and direct-to-home satellites figure prominently in their future, these veteran producers of spoken word radio programming go back to a pre-electronic era when describing their work."Radio is the tradition of storytelling," said Justine. "We have learned from each others stories since the beginning of language. We share stories around the campfire as our ancestors did. The only difference today is we sit in front of microphones that happen to go out on invisible radio waves. It's a magical medium."Since 1980, Michael, as on-air host and co-producer with Justine, have been broadcasting New Dimensions on 250 public radio stations in the United States and to over 130 countries around the world via shortwave stations and the Armed Forces Radio Network.As a listener-supported, non-profit educational organization, New Dimensions also sells audiocassettes from a radio archive of over 2,000 recorded conversations, publishes a magazine and engages in workshops and the production of specialty audio programming.Over the years New Dimensions has carved a significant niche for itself. It is the only nationally distributed program that focuses on personal and social transformation. The show's guests -- who have included such notables as Buckminster Fuller, Joseph Campbell, and the Dalai Lama -- address the dramatic cultural shifts and changing human values in society. Their focus on the human consciousness movement has created a treasure trove of historical information.As information entrepreneurs of the 90s, the Tomses' (they are husband and wife) see major change ahead in radio broadcasting due to new technological developments that allow specific programs to be addressed to specific listeners."Traditional radio will change radically because local stations are going to have to be able to compete with everything else that's coming down," said Michael. "The way they can compete is to become more local and more connected to the community which they serve."Bypassing the "gatekeepers" of traditional radio broadcasting and getting directly to the listener is a key goal of New Dimensions. "A lot of people are interested in audio they can't hear on the radio," Michael said. "People are discovering they can create their own commercial-free programming with just cassettes. The new technologies allow people to hear their programming when they want it."In addition to their current worldwide broadcast distribution, New Dimensions is using several new technologies to expand its listenership. These include:* A World Wide Web site on the Internet (http://www.newdimensions.org). "We see the Internet as a 24-hour-a-day radio station extension. A radio station without a transmitter," said Michael. New Dimensions recently opened its web site. ("It's still a walk up the hill," Justine noted.) RealAudio technology is being added to allow the real time playback of programming on demand. Much of the content, however, will remain free to listeners. "People are used to having audio for free. It's the way we've all come up," said Justine. "We expect to provide quite a bit of free material on the net in hopes that people will want to (purchase) other material that is not available for free."For example, said Michael, "If we do a series of programs on new business paradigms, we might play one for free on the Internet and have the rest of the series available for purchase."* Pay-per-listen. New Dimensions is working with Cupertino, CA start-up Information Highway Media Corp. on the test of a new audio-on-demand subscription service called "Listen Up." The new service will use cable television systems to download audio programming to a portable digital storage device that allows listening at anytime, any place. "This is the concept of addressability...the ability to capture individual households," said Michael. "That hasn't been possible up until now. We will be able to put out information over the 'electronic airwaves' and reach small numbers of people in a commercially viable way."* CD-ROMs. "We have over 5,000 hours of material from the radio program," said Michael. "Much of it is timeless with archival value. There are tapes with people who have become more famous in death than they were in life. This kind of audio can be coupled together with visuals to produce effective educational and commercial material on CD-ROM."Other potential new areas of distribution include informational audio channels on direct-to-home TV satellite services, digital satellite radio and audio tape subscriptions by mail (just begun at a cost of $300 per year)."We want to make our audio information available in whatever form through whatever technology is available," said Justine. "Radio will always be around but it will change when people can program their own commute time."A recent New Dimensions guest, Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helped Michael Toms refocus on his audio roots."He said the future of audio is bright because people have a lot more 'ear time' than they have 'eye time,' " Michael recalled. "More ear time than eye time. When you think about it, it's so true. No matter which technology we use in the future, we are basically committed to sound and the aural tradition."(New Dimensions is located at P.O. Box 410510, San Francisco, CA 94141. Telephone: 415-563-8899)

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