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Benjamen Walker had a theory that priority queues are changing the American experience of waiting in line. So he visited amusement parks, highways, and community colleges to find out how these priority queues work and who is using them. What started as an episode of 99% Invisible became a half-hour radio documentary for the BBC.
Along the way Walker met the man that may be responsible for the reason why many Americans know the word “queue” at all: Neil Hunt from Netflix. He has been trying to abandon the word ever since he introduced it into the DVD service over a decade ago.
Walker also met up with Susan Crawford, a net neutrality advocate, who thinks that queues are a good way to examine the pitfalls with what she calls the “cablelization” of the internet. Comcast has taken the lead in providing high-speed internet to consumers, but people like the CEO of Netflix have been critical of Comcast favoring its own video content over video from third party services such as Netflix and HBO Go. Crawford’s concerns go way beyond streaming video to the heart of the net neutrality debate: is a market without any meaningful competition a safe place to determine the future of communications in this country?
Maybe we should all move to Kansas City.
Pneumatic (adj.): of, or pertaining to, air, gases, or wind.
In the world before telephone, radio, and email, the tasks of transmitting information and moving material objects were essentially the same challenge. The way you sent someone a message was pretty much the same process as sending someone a package—you had to send a piece of physical media through the post, or on a ship.
It was really the telegraph that divided telling someone something from far away and giving someone something from far away. But every day people didn’t speak morse code (or have telegraph equipment). The message had to be deciphered, written on a slip of paper, and then that was delivered to the recipient. For many cities, the pneumatic tube was essential in getting these slips of paper to the intended recipient quickly.
It’s no surprise that electronic communication eventually killed most of the need for pneumatic tubes. But you may not know that it was the telegraph itself that also put pneumatic tubes into widespread use.
Architectural historian and pneumatic tube aficionada Molly Wright Steenson leads us through the rise and fall (but not disappearance of) pneumatic tubes in Paris, and beyond.
I only recently started listening to BackStory with the American History Guys, but it’s already earned a top spot in my crowded weekly rotation. With great stories and lively discussion, the “History Guys” connect our history to the present day. They’ll also help you win your next argument about the causes of the War of 1812. Be prepared. This happens.
In this piece from their “Monumental Disagreements” episode, BackStory producers Eric Mennel and Nell Boeschenstein visit Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia to tell the story of a monument in honor of Heyward Shepherd, a “free black,” and the first man killed during John Brown’s 1859 raid.
While we’re gearing up for season 3, we present two pieces from two shows we love:
First up, Language Bites from RTE Choice in Ireland. Language Bites is a series of 1-minute programs exploring the origins of popular phrases in the English language. It’s presented by Colette Kinsella and sound designed by Lochlainn Harte. This episode is about the origin of the word “storey” (or in American English “story”) when used to refer to a level of a building. There are 80 episodes in the series and I just adore them. They are in heavy rotation on the radio stream/station I curate for PRX called Public Radio Remix.
Our second selection is from Nate Dimeo’s brilliant show, the memory palace. Each episode of the memory palace features pointedly short, surprising stories about the past. It’s sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hysterical, and often a wonderful mix of both. It was also a huge inspiration in the creation of 99% Invisible. This episode is about the beautiful sculpture and star map commemorating the Hoover Dam.
New Public Sites is an investigation into some of the invisible sites and overlooked features of our everyday public spaces. These are the liminal spaces within cities that are not traditionally framed as “public space” because, quite frankly, they are often ugly and unpleasant, the leftover scraps of urban design centered on the automobile. By giving these places succinct, fun and poetic names and leading people on playful walking tours, Graham Coreil-Allen says we can help start a discourse about our public spaces and how we want to envision them for the future. You can download a pdf of the New Public Sites book here.
Sean Cole is a poet and he knows what you think of that.
He is also a radio producer. One night, drunk and stumbling around the Hudson River with his friend Malissa O’Donnell, he discovered a monument — two of them actually — to two of his poetry heroes. Apropos of the name of this show, the tribute wasn’t very obvious. In fact, he and Malissa nearly walked right past it. Still, embedded in the architecture of a 25 year old plaza were the words of Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara. And weirdly, Sean had he’d been reciting from O’Hara’s Lunch Poems just minutes before.
Thus began Sean’s quest to talk to the people whose idea this was — forging a largely unloved art form into a permanent fixture of the cultural landscape. Along the way he talks with urban landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, former Battery Park official Richard Kahan and none other than Frank O’Hara’s younger sister, Maureen O’Hara.
What’s the difference between what the public sees and what an architect sees when they look at a building?
The hotel on the very prominent corner of Touhy and Kilbourn Avenues in Lincolnwood, Illinois used to be the town’s most famous building: The first Hyatt hotel in all of Chicagoland, premiere accommodations, top-notch restaurant. It was swank! Roberta Flack stayed there. Barry Mannilow stayed there. Perry Como. Michael Jordon stayed there on his first night in Chicago. Every thirteen year old boy in the area had his bar mitzvah there.
Then, slowly, over time, it became Lincolnwood’s most infamous building. Changed hands, got seedy and run down. It was the home of the Midwest Fetish Fair and Marketplace convention. There were drug-fueled sex parties attended by shady Chicago politicians later convicted of things like extortion. And of course there was the convicted mobster Alan Dorfman, who was gunned down in the parking lot. It’s now dilapidated and empty.
But even if you know nothing about the history, everyone in the area knows this hotel.
Because it’s purple. Really, really purple.
Gwen Macsai grew up nearby and she always thought it was really, really ugly. Lots of people did. To be fair, lots of people didn’t. But everyone has an opinion about it.
But Gwen Macsai, host of Re:sound from the Third Coast International Audio Festival, has a secret about the Purple Hotel.
Gwen talks to the original architect of the Purple Hotel, plus WBEZ architecture critic Lee Bey, developer Jack Weiss, and the new architect, Jackie Koo, who’s looking to bring the Purple Hotel back to its former glory.
Starlee Kine’s friend Noel works in advertising. In 2003, Noel was working in at an agency in Richmond, VA. Everyone wanted to work on flashy spots like Apple or Nike or Gatorade. Do you know what wasn’t flashy? Insurance. Which is why when a company called Geico became a client everyone hoped the campaign wouldn’t end up on their desk. Noel ultimately got stuck with Geico. His job was help them somehow figure out a clever, not painfully boring way to explain how simple it was for people to sign up for their insurance online.
Maybe you see where this is going.
But you don’t know where it came from.
Goethe said, “Architecture is frozen music.” I like that.
Of course that was before audio recording, so now, for the most part, music is frozen music.
It’s only very recently in the history of music that we’ve been able to freeze music into an object. In my life, the form of this object mattered a lot. I once bought vinyl albums and cassette tapes, where there were two first songs per album, Side A and Side B. The energy of a first song makes it stand apart, at least in my head it does. Then the CD came along and eliminated Side B and there was only first song, and the actual number of a track (that you see prominently on the UI) became my index for sorting songs. Then MP3s jumbled my sense of track order, and albums began to feel more like a loose grouping of individual pieces rather than a conceptual whole. I could name hundreds more examples like these, and I welcome you to chime in, but my point is: the form of the thing matters.
But no effect has been as world changing as that original innovation: freezing music in time onto a recording, where a single version of a song, a single performance of a song, became the song. An inherently mutable method of communication was fundamentally changed.
I heard a radio broadcast several years ago that really affected the way I thought about all this. Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot are the hosts of a radio program I’m a huge fan of called Sound Opinions (subscribe now). The songwriter, composer, and producer, Jon Brion came to WBEZ in Chicago to talk to Sound Opinions in 2006. At the time, Brion has just co-produced Kanye West’s album Late Registration and he was also already a renowned film composer. In this interview, Brion talks about the difference between what he calls “performance pieces” and “songs” and how recorded music has changed the way we appreciate the different art forms.
Special thanks to Sound Opinions for allowing me to rebroadcast this segment.