From Radio Nostalgia To Mobile Radio

As some of you know, I’ve been working with a small startup, Swell, based in Palo Alto, since I met a founder, GD Ramkumar, or “Ram,” through mutual friends. The company is called “Swell,” and June 2013 is a big month for us. Swell is a soon-to-be-released (!!!) radio and podcast app for mobile. We started with iOS, for now. On many levels, it has been a pure joy to work with Ram and his team, on this product specifically, and to be involved in a type of content delivery and medium –that is, radio — which fits naturally into my daily life.

Though I grew up in an age of Cable TV and saw the transition from Beta to VHS to DVD to Digital to Streaming, radio has been the medium that’s been most consistent throughout my life. I remember my father kept an old radio in the bathroom while he got ready for work, the same radio which informed him and my mom about when Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984. I remember my mom crying a lot when this happened. I think we still have that radio, with its brown box frame and big silver knobs and dials.

For me, radio has always been in the background, but always on, too. Countless summer evenings listening to my favorite baseball team play after coming from baseball practice. In college, I studied a lot of music, and was introduced to Alan Lomax, the world’s greatest music ethnographer. He was commissioned by the Library of Congress go around the old south and personally record the audio of old slave music passed down through oral histories. His collection still sits on my bookshelf, one of the most masterful works of art in music I’ve ever discovered. After college, a friend introduced me to a band called Uncle Tupelo, which essentially gave birth to the “alt country” movement and whose members split off to form Wilco. Most of you know will know Wilco. The band is obsessed with the nostalgia of radio, using radio code like “Will Comply” to form Wilco, and some of their earliest album covers depict old transistor radios. More recently, while watching “Mad Men,” there was a scene when some diner workers learned about MLK’s assassination as the radio was playing in the kitchen. As it does then, and does now, radio connects us both the past and present with great power.

What, then, does radio look like in the future?

A decade ago, Howard Stern was certain it was about satellite radio. The market agreed, for a while. But now, we all have computers in our pockets, bandwidth is cheap, and streaming rates are very low. Satellite radio was integrated into many vehicles, but the longer play is that we’ll just connect our phones to our cars to carry on myriad functions, everything from entertainment (music, talk radio, entertainment for passengers) as well as recording analytics from our driving patterns.

For me, personally, the future has even more radio in it. I’ve junked my Cable TV in favor of Apple TV. I listen to much more Pandora and Spotify at home. No television, except for Netflix or buying movies or playing through YouTube. And, while I used to play NPR around the house at times in the background, nowadays I just put Swell onto AirPlay and mill around. When I’m in the car, Swell replaced my car radio entirely. Swell is a better platform for me to learn from, as I learn in a conversational, auditory manner. For me, it’s more efficient to keep up to date with the world via Swell versus reading about the news – I prefer to hear it. Radio fills the dead time in my life, when I am free to be more at ease, more relaxed, and as a result, my brain seems to expand a bit more to let in more information. Yes, we are visual and textual creatures, and images are central to how we process information, but audio is equally important for me, and when it comes to knowledge, the ambient awareness provided by radio is perhaps the most powerful.