Lessons in the differences between blogs and radio

I’ve been back at this blogging thing for a few months now and I’m enjoying it a lot more than I did the first time around. The issue back in 2016-17 was that I was used to Media Are Plural existing as a community radio show. It was a challenge to come up with content ideas for a completely different medium, and I mostly just wished Toronto had an institution like Trent Radio where I could keep doing what, at the time, I did best: make weird radio content. It turns out there are many differences between blogs and radio. Who knew?

I relaunched this site after a nearly four-year hiatus, and this time I’ve been noticing a lot of similarities between the two media. I still find myself yearning to be in front of a microphone (Media Are Plural podcast when?), but I have a clearer idea of how to execute my vision from a keyboard.

This post is proof of that! I’ve come up with a self-indulgent idea that turns a medium through which to create content into a looking glass, just like I used to do on the radio.

I meant that statement as a joke, but it is sort of true. I’m going to use my experiences with the two media to explore the differences between blogs and radio.

A blog’s humble beginnings as a radio show

Media Are Plural started off as a con job.

My cohost and I had many different ideas for topics to explore on our radio show, but we couldn’t find a niche that encapsulated all of them. That was a problem, since a show’s theme is like Step 2 on the show proposal form after your name. Our eureka moment came when he said something along the lines of: “let’s make is a show about media since everything is media”. We did just that. We hoodwinked the radio station into giving us an hour to talk about whatever we wanted without limitations. Or so we thought.

Years later during a conversation I had with the Programme Director (Hi James!), he mentioned that every so often people would attempt to do what we did – create a show that would let them do anything – and every time they would end up creating limits for themselves. It was an eye-opening moment for me. What I thought was an incredible con was little more than edgy branding.

We felt like we could do anything, but that’s more because non-commercial community radio lets you do just about anything. And we did get to do whatever we wanted from week to week – from hosting on-air karaoke to what was essentially a pre-Twitch livestream where we played Super Smash Bros. – but there were limitations on what we could do whether we realized them or not. We were the ones that placed them there. What we really did was create a media-analysis show that occasionally sought to push the limits of what radio could do (which is just media analysis performed through demonstration). Our niche was clear, and we were happy to work within its confines.

This section is about a similarity, oops

You’ve probably seen the same process play out numerous times in online spaces. We all have a friend whose Twitter or Tumblr or whatever account went from being general interest to specialized on a niche. They could have gone on talking about every one of their interests, but it made more sense to zero in on one or two and build their online community around that.

The internet provides even less constraints on what you can create than community radio does, but it often makes sense to place limits on yourself, at least regarding the topics you cover. When I decided to create a blog, it made sense to do it under the banner of Media Are Plural. Its niche was clear after four years on the airwaves despite the show’s beginnings.

In hindsight, a blog was a weird medium for me to pick. Sure, I had other writing experience to draw on and I wanted to get some experience working with HTML, CSS and all that website stuff that looks so good on a resumé. But Media Are Plural the radio show was heavily focused on sound. So much so that simply translating the concept onto a blog was not easy.

Part of the reason we had such trouble coming up with a theme back in the day was because we were both music lovers who wanted to jam, while also leaving ourselves open to ridiculous topics like on-air sessions of the Wikipedia philosophy game or noise collages. Playing music, reading half a sentence of a Wikipedia article before clicking onto another, and looping sounds upon one another until you create a cacophony that elicits listener complaints do not work as articles.

Differences between blogs and radio are myriad, but one stands out

The difficulty I ran into was caused by one of the biggest difference between the media. Radio allows you to show, but blogging is mostly about telling.

Not all radio programmes show. Newscasts, for example, tell listeners the news. And not all blogs tell. My Christmas music article is an example of a post that’s about showing. But if you were to rank media on a spectrum of most likely to show versus most likely to tell, radio and blogs would not be all that close together.

Media Are Plural was all about demonstrations. I could say that mp3 is a lossy format whose files degrade as they are edited and saved, then explain the ins and outs of that process. But I’d much rather take a well-known song and save it 100 times until it sounds atrocious – then play it for my poor listeners after I had already made them listen to a record I had held over a burner on my stove.

These examples are ridiculous. Think about a normal radio show, one that’s mostly music with a DJ chiming in every so often. There’s no way that would make sense as a blog. What would it look like? Two paragraphs of text would break up lists of seven or so YouTube or Spotify links. Atrocious. But it works well on radio because the medium allows you to go, “hey, here are a bunch of songs. Enjoy!”

Showing on a blog just ain’t the same

I loved talking about and playing music on the radio, but I despise making posts about it on the blog. The reason comes back to the showing-versus-telling thing. I played music on the show for one of two reasons:

  1. To break up big sections of talking.
  2. The song was thematically relevant, and I planned to discuss it.

In the first, I was going, “hey, here’s a neato song”. In the second, I was demonstrating how a theme I was exploring shows up in music. Both were acts of showing.

The first one wouldn’t make much sense on a blog. I can use subheads to break up chunks of text just fine (while improving SEO). The second one involves asking people to stop reading, bust out the headphones and listen to a song. I couldn’t see myself doing that while reading someone’s blog unless I was visiting with the intent of listening to music, so I don’t feel comfortable asking my readers to do it.

I have a much more personal reason for not including much music on here. When I would play a song on the radio, I’d be in the booth with headphones on listening along with the people tuning in. We were listening together. Compare that with the Christmas music article I mentioned above. I listened to those songs alone over the course of a week in early December. I shared the article later in the month, and it was only then that readers might have listened. Meanwhile, I was probably off playing a video game or browsing a social media site.

It was not a shared experience, and the process feels hollow to me. Intimacy between the creator and listener is, for me, one of the most crucial differences between blogs and radio.

How I learned to adapt to these differences between blogs and radio

Back in 2016-17, I wrote about music a lot more than I do now. I did a year-end roundup of my favourite albums and a couple of quarterly posts highlighting music I had been listening to. It was here that I learned I strongly dislike trying to put into words why I like music. Phoebe Bridgers’ voice is nice, and her songwriting is emotionally evocative. The songs are bops man I don’t know what you want me to say. Just listen along.

(Please let me know whether you listened.)

I had several topics left over after the radio show ended, and almost none would work as a blog post. Most leaned heavily into demonstrations that would sound interesting. Many were broad since it takes a lot more words to fill 60 minutes of airtime than your average blog post can comfortably provide. And all of them were thought up assuming I would be talking into a microphone based on bullet points. I basically had to start from scratch.

The result is a blog still based on media analysis, but which now does it through storytelling, weird listicles, or rants. It’s different from what I did on the radio, as it should be. What sort of media-analysis person would I be if I wasn’t mindful of the strengths and weaknesses of the medium I use to communicate?

I find the posts I enjoy most are ones that capture the same weirdo energy I harnessed on the radio. I love creating bizarre content and my audience seems to love it too. But I also enjoyed this mildly sappy journey through the differences between blogs and radio and Media Are Plural history. I promise I’ll keep posts like these to a minimum.  

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