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Liberate Yourself from the Mainstream Media

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Although there have been occasional great programs, this nation’s radio and television has never lived up to its potential for delivering informative and thoughtful discussion to the public, particularly in the area of political events. Sadly, with the increasing concentration of media sources, much of the public has easy access to less diversity of opinion than ever before. This same media concentration has allowed the networks and newspapers to dispense with much of their reporting staff so that there is a further degrading of the quantity and quality of news.

This has tragic consequences as we have seen with the buildup for the Iraq war. Despite the many dissident voices that objected to the war and doubted the misinformation that the administration was distributing through a willing and compliant mainstream media, most of the public remained unaware of these voices and were stampeded to support for the war. After all, few people ever heard voices on television or radio that failed to support the war and in fact insist on its obvious necessity.

A significant minority of people, however, knew better because they were connected to the internet and were able to read and hear a much wider range of opinion and in fact a much more serious body of thinking than was commonly available on the television or on the radio. Information from news sources abroad enriched the quality and quantity of reporting available to those tuned in to the internet. Ironically, much of this more thoughtful material did appear in newspapers, on radio and even on television. However, few heard or read it because it appeared on the newspapers of the relatively few towns that were served by Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) or on some obscure and relatively low powered radio stations, often at inconvenient times. Opinions that did not support the war were quite effectively kept from influencing mainstream public opinion.

Most people reading this article are well aware of the wide variety of text media that is available on the internet and most are aware of video sources like u-tube, Go-Left TV and The Real News. However, it seems as though internet radio and podcasting remain unfamiliar to many people, and that is the focus of the remainder of this article.

It seems fair to say that most people interact with the internet by reading text. Reading is the traditional means of acquiring serious information and it certainly offers the unique advantage of allowing a reader to pause and carefully consider what was just read. However, it also has the severe disadvantage that it requires nearly total attention and is pretty impractical for much of the time.

By all rights, radio should fill an important niche in our media experience because we can listen while driving, while engaged in many kinds of work, while walking the dog and so on. The unfortunate fact is that much of radio has become the preserve of the extreme right wing. The lack of diversity available from this particular media is particularly unfortunate because radio is such a convenient medium and it has such a potential for being an important factor in keeping us informed. Fortunately, there is a very welcome alternative but it is not widely enough known or used.

Without doubt, and probably much more often than in the past, you have seen young people walking around with earphones to their ears. Often, if not usually, they are listening to music on an iPod that is hidden in a pocket or strapped to an arm. The iPod is Apple Computer’s brand of MP3 player and it can be fairly expensive. Cost depends on memory size and to some extent on features and styling and a teenage music addict will no doubt want the latest, most fashionable unit with a huge memory to accommodate an entire music collection.

Generally, an MP3 player is a pocket-sized, but it need not be expensive. If your interest is in listening to lectures and discussions rather than in hearing the chants of hip-hop groups then you probably do not need a huge memory on your player. If you are an adult you probably are less concerned with fashion, so in summary, you do not need to spend $600 for that iPod that all your friends have and in fact you can probably be quite satisfied with an MP3 player that costs less than $50 (and probably less than $20). You may decide that you need some accessories, however, so you may want to have in mind eventually spending something closer to $50 for the player and accessories.

If you are buying an inexpensive MP3 player for listening to talk programs, there is a feature that you should be alerted to. As I said, most MP3 players are marketed for listening to music and that can cause problems. When you turn on your MP3 player to listen to music you probably would unconcerned if it started up at the beginning of a song you like, even if you listened to part of that song just before turning the player off. However, if you are listening to a lecture that lasts two hours and you have already listened to the first 90 minutes then you may be a little unhappy to have the player restart the lecture from the beginning. When buying an MP3 player, be sure that it can be turned off so that it will reliably start up again where it was stopped; this will save you considerable aggravation.

An MP3 player is actually a tiny specialized computer. It is dedicated primarily to playing audio files (most will have some additional functions too) and so it has a much simpler user interface. It connects to your computer, generally through a USB port so that, through your computer you can manage which audio files you are to hear. Many MP3 players just appear on your computer as a removable drive and you simply copy .MP3 files to that drive. A few players have more complicated interfaces.

The player that I use is a Zen V (you may find the Wikapedia article on this player interesting). The Zen V comes with dedicated editor that you must load on your computer for management. The primary advantage of the more specialized interface is that it gives you better control over the order that the .MP3 files are played. I’ve not surveyed a wide variety of players for comparison, but I can report that I am quite happy with the Zen V and I see on eBay that 2 GB Zen V’s are often going for less than $20.

My particular player has 1 GB of memory and I find that will hold about a month of programming. However, I should add that before I load files on my Zen V, I process the .MP3 files using a (free) file editor called Audacity. This editing is not really a necessary operation, but it does approximately double the amount of programming that will fit on my player with no noticeable loss of fidelity. It also adjusts the volume for consistent level between files and I use it to speed up the programs slightly so that I can listen to an hour show in about 50 minutes. All of this editing can be done automatically; I just set up a list of files to be processed when I will be away from my computer for a spell. But let me repeat that it is not necessary for you to do this editing at all - it is entirely optional.

Before I leave the subject of MP3 players, let me just say a few words about accessories. I find the most useful accessory to be an FM transmitter that allows me to listen to my player through my car’s FM radio. My recollection is that I paid less than $20 for the transmitter, but if you have a newer radio or a newer model of MP3 player this may be unnecessary. Some new cars have a socket so that you can connect a cable from your MP3 player directly to your radio. Alternatively, some newer MP3 players have built-in FM transmitters, though these may be only the more expensive players.

The other accessory I find useful is a powered speaker (i.e., an amplifier/speaker combination). Sometimes I just don’t want to wear earphones and having a powered speaker makes this possible. The speaker that I use started as a pair of speakers (for stereo), but I disconnected one of them and put it in my attic. My files are all monaural and one speaker is easier to carry than two. Actually I have a second pair of powered speakers fairly permanently installed in the garage so all I have to do is plug in when I am working in the garage. If you shop around, these speakers are only about $10 - $20.

By now you may be wondering why you should bother with all of this since you can simply turn on your radio. The point of course is that with an MP3 player you have a much wider selection of good programs. Even if it is a program you can find on a local radio station that you want to hear, it may be on at an inconvenient time for you. With an MP3 player you can listen when it is convenient for you, not when it is convenient for your local station. More importantly, you can listen to programs that are not on your local station at all. In fact there are good programs that you can download from the web that are never broadcast on the radio at all. As an example, many of the talks at the recent Media Reform conference in Minniapolis are available for download.

You may recall that an MP3 player is simply a pocket sized computer that is specialized for listening to audio programs. Anything you can do with an MP3 player you can do with you home PC (except put it in your pocket), so you can explore available programs without first buying an MP3 player and devoting the time to learn how to work with it (not so hard). In fact, if you are satisfied with listening only from your PC then there is no need to buy any new hardware.

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Attended college thanks to the generous state support of education in 1960's America. Earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Illinois followed by post doctoral research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. (more...)

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