Music Post: The Medium is the Music

Published: Oct. 9, 2018 at 2:09 PM HST
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Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), the guru of mass media who coined the term, “global village,” more famously said, “The medium is the message,” having figured out that the nature of any communications medium affects its content and the way that content is perceived.

For those of us who actually work in mass communications, the practical effect is that medium and format always tend to be more congenial for one message than another. TV news tends to give less coverage to stories that are not telegenic. There are many ways to define my role on TV, but one that isn’t on my business card but remains in the forefront of my thoughts is that my job is to take the stories that are not telegenic and make them so, whether by writing them succinctly or drawing cartoons to illustrate them. I fight the format.

Neil Postman (1931-2003), in his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” put it well, indeed put it more amusingly, when he wrote that you can’t discuss philosophy with smoke signals. An extreme example, yes, but every communications medium has its own characteristics. Television: you can see the riot. Radio: you can hear the riot while you do something else. Newspaper: you can hold a photo of the riot and study it for as long as you wish, without someone replacing it with the next image. Web: you can seek out many stories about the riot by different reporters.

Not only is the medium the message, the format is the message. Hurricane coverage is different on CNN than on The Weather Channel. HawaiiNewsNow coverage of weather is affected by the commitment to discuss it every 10 minutes, though we do it more frequently when that’s warranted. The presenter is the message, too. Anyone gets this who has seen a play, the same play, performed with two different people playing lead.

In 48 years in broadcast journalism with several different forays into print and Web journalism on the side, I have thought about this a lot. So naturally it occurs to me to apply the same ideas to music.

Did you know this? When the compact disc was being jointly developed by Sony and Philips, Sony CEO Norio Ohga (1930-2011), a conservatory-trained pianist, insisted that the CD format be able to hold the whole of Beethoven’s Ninth on a single disc. In the LP years, the time constraints of vinyl militated against putting certain masterpieces on one side of a record, but it was good for others – for example, placing the Ravel and Debussy quartets on the two sides of one LP, or Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” and “Italian” Symphonies. Earlier still, 78 r.p.m. records led to many tunes being kept to three minutes.

In the 250 years that orchestras have put on concerts of several works, formats have evolved. Overtures, such as we recently featured on my public radio program, were written for brevity and punch, and often to sound good with little rehearsal, so the orchestra could spend more time rehearsing the symphony that would anchor a program. Concertos don’t just feature the soloist; they also are written not to tax the orchestra too much, because, again, of the demands of the rest of a scheduled program.

I was granted the opportunity to do “Howard’s Day Off” in the not-coveted 5-7 a.m. Saturday slot in the fall of 2006, and from the start it was my intention to do a “sampler” show, playing individual movements rather than whole works, using pieces as examples to explain stuff about music. If Gene Schiller stands at the open door, a genial presence, warmly welcoming one and all to the House of Classical Hits, I’m standing out on the street frantically waving to you to stop because you gotta HEAR this!

My years in commercial radio had taught me certain tricks of formatics that can be applied to public radio. People form listening habits if you do what you do at the same time every day. For 12 years my show has featured breaks at :29, and I give just two timechecks per hour, at :00 and :30. I begin each half hour by playing something short without introduction. This means, as a matter of format, if I’m going to play something longer, perhaps a quarter hour, like the “Russian Easter” overture, it needs to be the second piece in the half hour.

When you listen to an oldies station, if you don’t like THIS record you might like the NEXT one, and this is an incentive not to tune out. “Howard’s Day Off” is the ultimate oldies show. Roll over, Chuck Berry.

(Howard Dicus hosts “Howard’s Day Off” on Hawaii Public Radio’s HPR-2, 5am-7am HST Saturdays, with a replay at 5pm-7pm HST Sundays. If you join the Howard’s Day Off Listener Appreciation Society on Facebook you’ll see cue sheets for the programs along with advance notice of the following weekend’s topic.)