Making Radio History (Elena Razlogova)

November 17, 2023 | 1:03:22

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Elena Razlogova is an Associate Professor of History at Concordia University. She is the author of The Listener’s Voice: Early Radio and the American Public (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) and co-editor of “Radical Histories in Digital Culture” issue of the Radical History Review (2013). She has published articles in American QuarterlyRadical History ReviewRussian ReviewJournal of Cinema and Media StudiesRadio JournalCultural StudiesSocial Media Societyand more

Elena’s someone I’m always excited to talk to when I see her at conferences and I thought it would be fun talk to her on this podcast. In this episode we discuss some of her research interests including U.S. radio history, audience research, music recommendation and recognition algorithms, and her current book project, which centers on freeform radio station WFMU and the rise of online music. 

Toward the end of the episode we talk about Elena’s research strategies as a historian working in the digital age. 

And for our Patrons we’ll have Elena’s What’s Good segment, featuring something good to read, listen to, and do. You can join at

Today’s show was edited by Nisso Sacha and Mack Hagood. 

Transcript by Katelyn Phan.

Music by Mack Hagood.


[Robotic Music] This is Phantom Power 

Mack Hagood: Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power. I’m Mack Hagood. Today’s guest is radio and media historian Elena Razlikova. We’re going to talk about her current research on the legendary freeform radio station, WFMU, among other things.

But before we get into that, I just want to do a little bit of a call back to our first episode of this season–my “rant.” I think I might’ve mentioned at the time that I was a little sheepish about doing that episode. You know, sometimes I’ll do an episode on my own Research, but I generally keep this podcast focused on sharing and celebrating the work of other people.

So, I was already a little bit out of my comfort zone, wondering if I was being too self indulgent, in talking about myself and the challenges that we’ve been having in Ohio and at my university and the ways that I’m responding to those challenges by reshaping my own career. And then when I was done recording it, I decided I was really not comfortable with it.

I was just like, “I don’t want to put this out”. So I was going to pull it, but. I didn’t have another episode ready to go, and I was feeling really guilty about starting the season so late in the year, so I said, okay, whatever, just get over it. And I dropped the episode into the feed. Well, lo and behold, I guess that was the right move because I got more emails about this episode than any I’ve ever produced over the past five years, including a number of episodes that I literally worked on for months.

So, yeah I guess you never know. You know, I don’t do audience research and I really probably should, so maybe I wouldn’t be so surprised right now, but your response did my heart good. I really appreciate the feedback. Please keep it coming. I love hearing from y’all.

And in terms of the feedback that I did receive, many of you said you would like to hear some episodes about the publishing process, finding a literary agent, you know, trying to publish a trade press book, that sort of thing. So we will do that. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to have Warren Zanes on, one of the most successful authors of popular nonfiction that I personally know. And I asked Warren I just finished that interview. And I asked Warren about his career path a lot of questions that I think you might find useful. So look out for that one.

And then early next year, we’ll have. My new agent on, well, she’s new to me, but she’s certainly not new to publishing. Her name is Jane Von Maron. She’s a senior partner at Evitas Creative Management. She’s not only a respected agent, but she was formerly an editor and rose to Senior Vice President at Random House.  So she really knows the ins and outs of the industry.

But don’t worry: we’ll still have a lot of sound stuff coming your way. In December, we’re going to have the great noise theorist, Emily Thompson from the UK. In January from the Netherlands, we’ll have Carolyn Birdsall, author of the award winning book, Nazi Soundscapes, and the author of the brand new book, Radiophilia.

But this episode, speaking of radio. We are diving into radio and  algorithms with Elena Razlogova. Elena is an associate professor of history at Concordia. Elena is the author of The Listener’s Voice, Early Radio and the American Public, which came out on University of Pennsylvania Press back in 2011.

And she was the co editor of the Radical Histories in Digital Culture issue of Radical History Review back in 2013. Since then, she has published articles And like so many top flagship journals, it’s crazy. American quarterly, Russian review, journal of cinema and media studies, radio journal, cultural studies,

She’s quite prolific and she’s someone that I’m excited to talk to. I thought it would be fun to talk to her on this podcast. So in this episode, we discussed some of her research interests, including us radio history, audience research, music recommendation and recognition algorithms, and her current book project, which centers on  the freeform radio station, WFMU and the rise of online music.

 And towards the end of this episode, we talked to Elena about her research strategies as a historian working in the digital age.

 And for our patrons, we’ll have Elena’s what’s good segment featuring something good to read, something good to listen to, and something good to do. You can join us at patreon. com slash phantom power. And now here’s my interview with Elena Razlogova.

Mack: Elena, hi

Elena: Hi Mack.

Mack: It’s good to see you. You’re just one of those folks that I have gotten to know, basically, just from conferences. You know, I’ve heard you give papers, I’ve been at the meetings with you for radio studies, sound studies. I’m excited to just talk to you more because it’s just always at conferences.

Elena: That’s true. And we also have common interests.

Mack: Oh yeah, absolutely. So maybe just to get us started, could you tell us a bit about your background? Where were you born? What was your family like? And then maybe we can talk about how you ended up studying radio and media.

Elena: Okay. Sounds good. Thank you for having me on the program. I’m very happy. I’ve been listening to it for a long time. . . so I was born in Moscow and I was one of the first students to enter the United States as a college student. After the Soviet Union was broken up a long time ago, I wanted to do medieval history initially.

And, it so happened that, one of my teachers was a great American historian, Lawrence Levine at, university of California Berkeley. And I started studying with him and reading his books and reading the books that he assigned to the class. So I decided I’m gonna do American History. So I became an American historian and I went to several schools, New York University and then George Mason University in Northern Virginia.

And I ended up working with the labor historian, Roy Rosenweig, who wrote a famous book Eight Hours for What We Will about leisure and the working class. So I decided to work on leisure too. And at Berkeley I worked. I did my honors thesis on cinema, and I became interested [00:02:00] in reception–cinema reception.

But by the time I got to my PhD, I realized that radio actually has a lot more sources to study reception than cinema.

Mack: Really.

Elena: Because it’s a serial, like any serial form will have more evidence because people write and then the narrative changes. And that’s partly what my dissertation and book is about.

About how the narrative of serials changes because of what people write in.

Mack: Oh yeah, that interplay between the storyline and the feedback that they get from their audience. Yeah, that’s fascinating. You know, I actually didn’t realize that you are a historian working in a history department, I never realized that about you. It’s because we meet at these media conferences and actually, I feel like I’ve had almost the opposite trajectory where I didn’t know much of anything about history and yet.

Through my study of media, I’ve sort of had to learn historical [00:03:00] methods, a little bit by the seat of my pants. So I’m really interested, maybe later on in our conversation I can get some tips from you on, uh, your historical research approaches.

Elena: Okay.

Mack: What is it about radio besides, it sounds like you had, sort of more evidence ready to hand.

So studying radio was almost a very pragmatic move for you, but once you got into radio, were there any particular things about it that really fascinated you? Certain themes that you found recur throughout your research?

Elena: Mm-Hmm. . Well, I think both of us are really interested in sound studies and that is what I came to eventually. I didn’t plan to at all. But, listening to radio programs from long ago. It’s just a fascinating experience and we don’t understand how people…like we can tell from a letter, for example, what people thought about the program, [00:04:00] but listening to it at the same time makes a lot of difference.

Mack: Hmm.

Elena: Also I became interested in music and of course music has its own music. Musicology has its own discipline and pop, pop music studies has its own discipline. But, working on radio, past 1945 or even past 1940, you cannot avoid music because it became really important from the fifties on.

With the advent of television and the kind of soap operas and crime shows become less important very quickly. And then it’s just music on the radio, so it becomes really interesting to find out about it.

Mack: So you wrote a book in 2011 with this, I mean, I think a really great title, The Listener’s Voice. And you’ve already sort of hinted at what that might mean, but can you talk a little bit about what this great title is all about?

Elena: Well, I was trying to figure out the whole question of [00:05:00] the  book was how listeners may have affected broadcasting, and in America it’s different because it’s not state sponsored. It is commercial. It wasn’t commercial in the twenties. So it’s a very interesting period when engineers actually had a lot of influence as listeners on how radio stations operated.

And in every decade it changed, more and more with the rise of networks. Of course, listeners would have much less influence than, in local radio, but still I was able to find certain patterns when, say, soap operas would actually pay attention to letters, whereas like nonserial. Nonserial radio shows had less of a relationship with the audience because they could, the audience could not help with narrative.

Because the narrative was just there for one procedural. For example, like The Gangbusters Show, which is now in the national repository at the Library of Congress as one of the [00:06:00] American artistic achievements. It was a one episode show where people, um, want a true crime case dramatized.

And there were a lot of letters written in response, both from listeners and participants, people who were depicted in the show and they didn’t really like how they were depicted, but then nothing could be done after. So the letters were very much ignored. But it’s still interesting to see how people who were bystanders in these dramatized crimes, were protesting their own depiction by the broadcasters.

Mack: So, that’s so interesting to hear that you were researching true crime around that time because, I mean, I’m trying to remember what year did Serial the podcast come? Do you recall? I mean, that must have been sort of like. After you had been-

Elena: Maybe 14.

Mack: Yeah. [00:07:00] So it was after your book came out, but after you had just done this body of research on this kind of true crime genre. What was your experience of serial like?

Elena: Well, I loved Serial and of course it was a big exploration, this is how podcasts became viable. Basically it was a demonstration of podcasting as a long-term viable art form, which is much more in question right now. Because some people are wondering whether there’s gonna be a podcast winter.

Um, some of the people I interviewed for my current project actually talked about that, but at the time it was really exciting. And actually one of my books was well reviewed in journals, but who cares about that? I got a mention in a Time Magazine blog entry about Serial because of my argument about soap opera. The fact that the narrative was changed [00:08:00] in relation to the letters received.

Uh, the author of the blog post was saying, well, this is what happens in Serial as well. Like, look, they invite listeners’ responses, and then based on what people write in, then the next episode will change.

Mack: Yeah, there’s that feedback loop. That happens, right, between the audience and the content that gets produced. What was the timeline for the, for the shows that were Serial shows that were multiple episodes. What was the sort of timeline of influence over the course of the show? 

Were the productions of those individual episodes really fast? And then were they scripted well in advance? Or was this kind of seed of the pants where it was closer to real time than we might expect 

Elena: Yep.

Mack: Audience had, was it, it quick or was it like the next year that might show up in a script?

Elena: Oh, no, no, no. It wouldn’t be next year. It would actually be like in a [00:09:00] matter of days or weeks. Because early on in the twenties, people just sent telegrams. There are these, like during boxing matches, you could hear, you could basically hear from your listeners in real time. If the sound wasn’t coming through, they would call or send telegrams.

Some reason telegrams were really in, even though phones were already available, people preferred to, to send telegrams, um, and then . Yeah, exactly.

Mack:  It’s like texting

Elena: Exactly. And then in soap operas, because there were so many episodes, the writers were just churning them out one after another. But there were also, kind of,  arcs of plot that were explicitly constructed in relation to what people would write in.

Like, they would ask the audience opinion, like should, I don’t know, Bob and Jane get together and people will chime in. Depending on what they write, it was kind of audience research for even plot development. And of course I have to kind of caution this because [00:10:00] another aspect of network broadcasting of course, is that these shows were sold to advertising.

So advertisers, I decided on what was happening on the show as well. And, there’s a concept of audience commodity that, um, Kathleen Newman wrote about, and it comes from Daon, um, D Smith, who’s a Canadian, um, media scholar. Um, and it’s a Marxist, concept that argues this, that audiences actually have no agency, that they’re just a product sold to advertisers.

And in part, that was true as well. There’s a pessimist approach to that question, and then there’s an optimist approach to that question, and I’m just more interested in the interices where the audience can have an impact, a certain impact. But I understand it’s not very much. But by the time we get to the late thirties and early forties, it’s already a very well oiled machine and advertisers have a lot of power.

Uh, but at the same time, in the forties, late by the late forties. We already have the rise of television and the rise of disc jockey. And with the music and with the reemergence of local radio, it becomes, again, possible for local stations to affect these radio personalities. So my argument is less about the audience having power all the time, but more about these cycles of power and oppression or being sold without any agency.

Mack: Yeah, I mean, it definitely complicates this broadcast model that we have in media studies that, you know, just thinking about the fact that someone in a centralized system, like radio, owns the transmitter tower and then everyone else has these passive radios that they can change the channel, but that’s about it.

You can’t broadcast individually and a lot of hay has been made over the transition between that old school broadcast model and the interactive new media of today where people can create content for one another. But [00:12:00] there was always feedback. There was always an active audience that was interested. That was communicating. 

I mean, I think that’s one of the things that you’re really highlighting and showing us the specificities of it. Like, what that was really like. When it comes to that question, does the audience really have agency or do they just have the illusion of agency? I mean, that’s just another one of those debates that we’ve had.

I mean, it would happen once the Walkman came out, right? It’s like, were people assuming a kind of agency, a sort of control, over their own listening? Or were they sort of just becoming perfect slaves to the culture industry even when they were walking down the street? You know?

Elena: Yeah. That is in your book. I read that argument in your book.

Mack: Yeah. Yeah. I mean that’s, that’s, that’s the debate, right? That’s, that’s gone for a long time.

Elena: And this is a very much a media studies debate as opposed to a media history debate because we would ask the question when,[00:13:00]  “When did the listener of the Wachman have control or, used the instrument to, kind of extend, possibilities in life and when it was actually, uh, just a sham and, um, the producer or the industry had an upper hand?”

I think it really depends on the situation.

Mack: Yeah, I think there’s no blanket answer to these questions, right? It really depends on the specificities. And what exactly are you talking about when you talk about agency? Like when I was a kid in elementary school, I used to call my local top 40 radio station and ask them to play things.

Occasionally I even got my little squeaky voice on the radio, and that’s a certain kind of agency. Like he played the song that I asked. But then again. The only songs I knew about that I knew that they would play on that radio station were the ones they were already playing. Right. I just happened to like one of those songs.

Elena: Yeah. And it is a very small number.

Mack: Oh yeah,

Elena: There’s a science to it. Oh, there [00:14:00] was, I guess there was different science in different times. Yeah, okay. But then we also have the same question with the rise of the internet. Like with users, do users have power or not? And now they do not, which would definitely be the consensus. That basically users are just pawns in the surveillance and data collection schemes of the platforms.

But it wasn’t always that way in the history of the internet.

Mack: Yeah. And that’s a whole other question that comes up a lot in my classes where we’ve moved from a paradigm of me actively going to the video store and pulling a video off the shelf and renting it, to one where it’s my behavior as a video viewer that is predictive of the next video that the algorithm is gonna put in front of me.

This kind of algorithmic culture, as it’s been called, and so [00:15:00] the thing that kind of interests me about your book is you sort of point out that this, in a way, happened a long time ago as well, right? Because the people used to actively write to the radio stations and that was the only feedback that the radio station had.

But then eventually they moved to so-called “Scientific Audience Measurement”. So can you maybe talk about what that was like in radio, that move to studying the audience? Instead of the audience just actively telling you what it wants.

Elena: Right? So there were these experimental surveys done where people would just press a green button or a red button whenever they like something in the program. And those are still done by producers and these are very formal.

It’s the way the experiment is constructed, and doesn’t really leave any space for context. For example, for what people are doing in their real lives. And it’s so specific that it’s really, [00:16:00] in my opinion, very difficult to figure out, actually, what it means that the person pressed the red button or the green button.

And then the selection of these test subjects is also a problem because you obviously are not going to cover the entire spectrum of class, race, gender, sexuality, in society. So these are probably middle class white people who are doing these experiments. It’s the same story as face recognition technology. Like you have a certain sample and then your software recognizes a certain sample of the population, and everybody else is out of the system. They’re not recognized as people by cameras because the test subjects are only ever a certain kind.

Mack: Mm-Hmm.

Elena: So then, it’s also connected. The rise of audience research is connected to political polling. Obviously, they kind of came at the same time-

Mack: Mm-Hmm.

Elena: Like Gallup research starts in the mid thirties and audience research, scientific audience research starts [00:17:00] at the same time.

And political polling is also a very, inexact science, I would say. The same, with some differences, methods that are employed today. In trying to figure out which show is more popular, at least on television, maybe not on Netflix.

Netflix has its own computation system. Were devised in the forties. Either there’s a machine attached to the television or there’s a person asking questions, or there’s like a laboratory setting where people press buttons. 

Mack: Do you think as someone who was born in Moscow that you have a certain anthropological distance from American radio culture that allowed you to maybe have different insights than a native scholar might have had?

Elena: Well, I think that distance is more obvious in the project I’m doing now than in the original one, because the original one was my dissertation structured by the training [00:18:00] that my professors gave me, and they were American historians who were also Americans. So maybe my optimism about American commercial broadcasting came from me not understanding all the evils of capitalism.

 Because when you come to the United States from Russia, you kind of feel like, “I’ve arrived in the land of milk and honey and everything’s gonna be great”. And then very quickly you realize that it’s not the case, but maybe some of that optimism was rigidly still there when I was doing my PhD, but I really doubt it.

I think it’s very much an American project. I did a fellowship with the Smithsonian, American History Museum. Um, it’s also shaped by that time because reception studies were big at the time. Everybody was trying to figure out what people really thought about these texts. And cultural studies was big, Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, and its American version where popular culture was considered important.

Large groups of people were [00:19:00] interested in it, like Madonna was studied, Buffy the Vampire things like that. So, different now. Yeah. It was a moment that passed, I think. And I think the first book is of that moment. When you’re trying to apply these insights that are a reaction to like Theodore Adorno version of mass culture that

Trying to disprove that earlier version, which was its own kind of pessimistic band that probably needed to be corrected. But we really went way too far in the other direction too.

Mack: Yeah, I mean, but it is, you read Theodore Adorno on jazz and you know, he just thinks it’s this mass produced commodity that capitalism just kinda shits out and, I mean, it just doesn’t match with my experience as a jazz listener. Right? And that was that gap I think, that a lot of scholars were trying to address at that moment. 


Mack: And, [00:20:00] I can see how that would be attractive to you, you know, coming from, I mean, gosh, the Soviet Union basically, your childhood at least. I’m curious about what radio was like then in that era?

Elena: In the Soviet Union? Basically the radio in the Soviet Union was wired. So, you only had three or four programs available. And they were all state produced. I think in the late eighties, which I’m not quite sure because I listened to my grandmother’s radio and my grandmother’s radio was definitely like the first program, second program, third program.

It was all political news, which was of course, bent to the government perspective. I met somebody who started the music program. He’s a film translator and a friend of the family and he started the music program on Moscow Radio, and he [00:21:00] played The Beatles and he played some really cool shows. But, it was a brief moment because once the bosses realized what he was playing, it was deleted. 

If you had the transistor radio, you could listen to foreign broadcasting. So that’s where people got jazz and the Beatles. And then these broadcasts were taped and shared.

And then there was a record exchange, the black market for records, in the fifties, even, with these transistor radios. And this music was recorded on X-rays. So it would be like hospital x-rays cut as records and there would be American music on them, like not just jazz, but rock and roll as well.

Mack: Yeah. Like, like you could actually drop the needle on someone’s lungs as they spin around. Oh, man. I remember reading about that. It’s been a long time since I thought about that. [00:22:00] I would love to collect one those

Elena: Uh, it’s called Rock and Bones. And, uh, there’s a great historian in England who is working on it right now. So maybe when you have a little note next to your program, I can find out all of those names that I’m now forgetting and you can, you can put them down.

Mack: Definitely add that to the show notes for sure.

So these days you’re studying WFMU, which I think for a lot of listeners to this podcast will be a much loved and very familiar radio station. But for those folks who haven’t heard of WFMU or who have kind of heard of it but know that much about it, could you tell us a little bit about FMU and how you got interested in it?

Elena: WFMU is the longest running “freeform radio” station in America. This is one of its distinguishing characteristics. It was born in 1952 as a college station of [00:23:00] Sala College, which was a Lutheran college in New Jersey. Like in the middle of nowhere East Orange, New Jersey,

Mack: Hmm.

Elena: And in 68 with the rise of freeform radio, which is this type of radio when the DJ has complete freedom of  anything he or she can play on the radio. And mostly these guys, like, there were very few women DJs at the time, but freeform radio was big in the late sixties because even commercial stations, after FM radio. There was a law that precluded doubling of the, of the shows between AM radio and FM radio, owned by the same company. So FM bandwidth overnight became this empty space that needed to be filled and freeform radio became one of the methods of on, of how to fill that space.

and a lot of counter-cultural figures went into [00:24:00] that activity. A lot of rock and roll was played on the station and progressive rock, what was then called progressive rock. Like MC5, political groups as well, the Stooges, like all of that. So MC5 and the Stooges actually visited FMU.

So FMU was one of the several important college stations that went completely freeform for two years. And this is the first time when the station became nationally known and in part because of the guy who signed MC5 and the Stooges to the electoral label and kind of launched their career.

He was a DJ on FMU at the time, Denny Fields. Like a big figure in the history of punk rock. But also it was run by students at the time who were all interested in counterculture and were political and just took over the station for two years, or rather for a year, for a year and a half, and just revolutionized programming and started playing all this [00:25:00] modern music that Lutheran professors didn’t really approve of.

Before that, it was more like classical music and talks and things like that. So, that freeform tradition with one break. The counterculture people basically quit the station on August 31st, 1969.

And, for a few years it became, album oriented rock station, which is one, one of the, kind of froggy, progressive rock formats, on commercial radio at the time. But after that, since 1975 and up to the present, it’s completely freeform. and the DJs have complete agency of what to play on the radio.

And it became famous, after being kind of one of the major stations in the sixties. It became famous again in the eighties, and nineties and early two thousands for playing music that you couldn’t hear anywhere else. So a lot of these DJs were record collectors and then they would [00:26:00] go crate digging for R&B records from the fifties or old music records.

And they would be experts on a particular kind of music, but also people who played all kinds of music in the same show or even in the same set.

Mack: And also like, cassette only labels at the time too, right?

Elena: Yeah. Or even, home produced sets. That was a big movement in the eighties. And Berger, who was a DJ at the station, he actually, according to some historians, was the one who came up with the name Lofi for that music. It’s not like a hundred percent, it’s not proven a hundred percent, but that’s the consensus.

A lot of RTV Moore, also one of the pioneers of home music recording, recorded on cassettes at home. He was also a DJ at the station for a while.

Mack: So two, just quick questions here. How did you get interested in FMU? And then how does one research FMU? Is [00:27:00] there an archive? Like what are you doing? How do you go about this?

Elena: Okay. Well, the way I got interested in it was through a friend, whom you also know David Seman. Music historian who was a DJ at FMU for several years. And he basically told me about the station. I didn’t know about it. And I haven’t really lived in New York for a long time.

I only was there for two years in my entire life in the United States. So, he started just advertising his own shows. So I listened to his shows at first and then, as you know, we often get asked by friends to contribute to different collections like the Oxford Handbook, on radio studies or, new research in radio.

So I wasn’t interested in the radio from the thirties and forties anymore by the time my friends started asking me. I think my first article was published in 2013 and David told me about this interesting station. and I just started writing about it.

I wasn’t even listening [00:28:00] to any other shows except for David’s when I started to write about it.

Mack: Wow.

Elena: And it has a really important place in the free and open software movement and free culture movement of their early 2000s. It was one of the stations that started archiving its programs online in 2000.

2000, 2001 and now has an archive from that time to the present. All of the shows. It created this collection–a free music archive that was widely covered at the time with a grant from New York State, actually came out of a settlement. Kind of the PO settlement by broadcasting corporations they paid to the state and the state distributed to people like Pauline or Oliveros and also WFMU. 

And they created this archive of music, licensed under creative copyright, that you could play on the radio.

Mack: So wait. The Great Paola Scandals, which for those who [00:29:00] don’t recall, was like DJs were getting paid to play certain songs on the radio by the record labels. They were fined by the state of New York for doing this?

Elena: Not then. That was the fifties. This is more 2000s. That’s a good question. 

The free music archive was established in 2009, and that’s when the settlement happened. So it was the same kind of thing that happened, but not the famous one from the fifties.

Mack: Okay, so there was a second Payola scandal

Yeah, there was a minor Payola scandal in New York State specifically. And so the state fines the radio stations. The radio stations pay money to the state, and then the state gives it to people like Pauline Oliveros to make.

Elena: Yeah, that’s what happened. That’s what happened. And FMU also got the money, not just for the archive, but also for setting up live concerts. There were a lot of live concerts set up with that money in New York City.

Mack: Wow. I mean, why [00:30:00] doesn’t that happen more often? I love that.

Elena: I know actually do that.

Mack: To go to weird art and musical archives. Sounds amazing.

Elena: Exactly.

Yeah. So this is what I started to write about in my first articles because I was interested more in the kind of open source movement, which was still happening at the time. It was before Big Tech, before we all got jaded about open source and free software. And that was the question.

FMU actually was a great example of an institution that’s an old institution, lived through another crisis and also participated in this very modern movement for free culture, and open source programming.

Mack: Your work on this, it seems to me, that a central theme here is that a lot of times in media studies we tend to focus on what the technology does to. The genre, right? Like how [00:31:00] the technology, for example, a lot of hay has been made recently about how TikTok has changed popular music.

People go straight to the hook immediately. They put in a weird sound effect that catches the ear.

Elena: Mm-Hmm.

Mack: It gets more shares on TikTok. And that changes music. I mean, that’s definitely a thing. But what you seem to be more interested in is the ways that music genres and radio formats actually shape technology.

So you’re totally flipping the script on what we often talk about. Would you say that that’s fair characterization?

Elena: That’s what I’m trying to prove, yes. That the freeform format and the kind of philosophy that it created, at FMU, but also at other stations, led these DJs. These stations experimented with the medium and some of the pioneering experiments with[00:32:00] algorithmic presentation of radio actually were created on these smaller college stations and not on corporate stations, and that’s actually true. 

Andrew Bottom Lee’s book actually talks about that, how the first experiments in broadcasting on the internet were on college stations and not on commercial stations. So that is true and FMU played a different role rather than pioneering webcasting.

Pioneered algorithmic uses for, delivering, playing or curating music. For example, the free music archive had something like they called it, Creative Commons, Pandora. They had an algorithmic system by which you could listen to music.

It was a little app created during a hackathon by some programmers. And, it pulled from the free music archive algorithmically [00:33:00] through connecting to the software. That later was created by Equinet and later became the basis of Spotify’s engine. So they were experimenting with the same kind of software, but for free music.

[00:33:17] Mack: That’s interesting. Yeah, that reminds me, you know, a little bit of the great internet and music researcher, Nancy Bayme, her work, you know, she, she sort of argues that music fans in a sense built the internet or at least of the things that we tend to do on the internet. So sort of like practices of music file sharing, grow out of the tape.

Trading of Grateful Dead fans and indie fans or blogging grows out of practices that were developed in indie zine culture. Even something like the early bulletin board system, the, well, like a lot of Grateful Dead fans on there, right?

Elena: Exactly. Musicians had a big part in that [00:34:00] Grateful Dead for sure on the West Coast, but also a lot of zines went online pretty, pretty early and created BBSs Online. And Kevin Driscoll’s book is great on BBS as a kind of precursor to social media. 

The first experiment with social media and in New York there was Echo. It was an alternative to the BBS in New York that was run by… the woman…

Mack: It was Stacy.

Elena: Yeah, Stacy.

Mack: I learned about it by reading your work

Elena: Stacy Horne. Exactly and, um, that’s, uh, that, uh, BBS still exists. So Echo still exists and still has members. And when it started, it was geared instead of being geared towards like the Silicon Valley version of capitalism, as well, it was geared towards artists.

And women specifically, she tried to recruit women. And there were a lot of cartoonists. There was [00:35:00] like a cartoon discussion group. There was a music discussion group and some of the people who worked on Echo also, ended up helping to put WFMU online. So the first website was created in 1994 by Henry Loing Guard, who was a master, both for Echo and for WFMU.

So there’s a lot of connections between the BBS movement and WFMU’s involvement in online pioneering or online technologies.

Mack: Yeah, there seems to be this kind of historical overlap between weird music hacking and left wing politics. I’m actually thinking about a friend of mine from my days in New Orleans. Alec Vance, he’s a Phantom Power listener. Hi, Alec! I feel like he’s like right in that Venn diagram of an early computer nerd, you know, definitely leftist but also [00:36:00] really into weird music. Like what is that all about? Like, do you have any kind of, uh, historical explanation for how many people swim in that stream?

Elena: I believe that there’s an affinity specifically between the freeform. Philosophy and hacker philosophy as it existed in the eighties. And it’s not entirely, it’s not always left-wing, but it happened to be left-wing, I think in the demographic around that from you and the idea that there should be freedom to code and freedom to select music for broadcasting.

And the idea that experimenting is how,that creation should happen through experimentation. Both, freeform radio and hacker groups kind of agreed on that. The hacker ethic was a phrase that was pretty common then because of the book that I’m now blanking on.

Do you remember it? Levi, what is his name? And, anyway, so there’s several precepts in the hacker ethic that have parallels in freeform. And another one that’s really interesting is humor. [00:37:00] So, hackers really liked to include humor in the form of an Easter egg. For example, they would include references to, I don’t know, things they like, like radio stations or music or friends or whatever.

FMU also was interested in including humor in freeform DJing. So a lot of DJs ended up accepting phone calls, conversing with listeners, or inviting listeners to play their music over the phone. And if it was bad, that was even better. That was bad because it was funny.

I interviewed this DJ from the eighties who was also a comic artist who once was telling me about how when he started, he was really nervous and he just ended up dropping a bunch of cassette tapes on top of the record that was playing.

So it was a complete fail. It was really loud and then he kind of apologized on there and started over, [00:38:00] and then somebody called and said, can you do it again, So there was not only there was experimentation on the part of DJs, there was experimentation expectation on the part of listeners who wanted it to happen.

So I think that’s something that the hacker community and the freeform community definitely had in common. And I know I actually studied a listener’s surveys from that period. They are amazing though. So in the two main demographics that come out are computer coders, illustrators, and artists.

There’s so many. So I think comics artists, especially undergrad comics artists, also had this kind of sensibility of breaking the rules and trying to push the boundaries in their art that they founded at FMU as well.

Mack: Oh man, that’s totally amazing. You know another tie in that I had no idea about until reading [00:39:00] your work was that Shazam has this sort of historical connection to FMU, right?

Elena: Mm. Shazam doesn’t.

Mack: It doesn’t?

Elena: Spotify has a historical connection to-

Mack: Oh, oh, Spotify.

Elena: Because of the Echo Nest. That’s the connection. And then also another argument that I’m making, or I’m interested in making, which I kind of made in one of the articles I published, but I’m gonna investigate it further, is that we really should be thinking of what happened with Big Tech and the early experiments with algorithmic programming in general, as primitive accumulation.

That it’s really clear now with all of the avenues for experimentation closed. And most of the profits and most of the benefits went to big corporations such as Spotify and even Shazam. I really like Shazam because it started as basically a gimmick [00:40:00] 

Can we recognize songs or not? And it was kind of a very small operation initially. And then they also tried to become a platform and add other services and eventually they were bought by Apple. So they’re part of Apple’s platform of services.

But I open source the fact that it was volunteer based and free and organized around things like hackathons and open source projects where people contributed their labor without compensation. 

That value was created in the non-commercial, non-corporate sphere for sure. Maybe even a non-commercial sphere with elements of that. So it was an alternative way of creating value. 

And then corporations like Spotify just swoop in. They bought EchoNest and all of these free services that EchoNest created. That is the connection with Shazam. I remember that. So EchoNest created a version [00:41:00] of music recognition that basically back engineered Shazam. And it was based on, music brains, like a crowdsourced music library.

So, it was an entirely open feature that was both a proof of concept that could be copied and also a service that people could use without paying. and then Spotify, when they bought Echoes, they just shut down that entire service. So within a few months, I think even both.

The EchoNest recommendation agent, which was available for others to use, including free music archive and the recognition agent engine. Both of those were just defunct and not available because of Spotify. So I think that’s what we can call primitive accumulation, where there’s really no way to justify the taking of resources.

It’s not like working in the factory, [00:42:00] you know, it’s not like there’s labor that you pay for and then you create value out of the discrepancy between the wage and the profits. There is no wage. So it was an entirely different economic model that got just gobbled up by these corporations.

Mack: And the term you’re using for that is primitive accumulation?

Elena: Yeah, primitive accumulation is Marxist, Karl Marxist term that was used for appropriation of land from the peasants. And yes, there’s a disagreement among Marxists, whether it can be used in contemporary context, but there are quite a few Marxist theorists who would say that there’s also a term that there’s a translation that anthropologists are not saying, use this. She wrote this famous book, Mushroom in the End of the World. I dunno if you’ve heard of it. It’s an amazing book. and basically she describes how these mushroom pickers in Oregon, who are just mushroom pickers, they’re [00:43:00] not a commercial enterprise like that.

Mushrooms end up in Japan in very expensive restaurants. Through this process of translation of value created in non-commercial context into a commercial capitalist value of someplace else. But they prefer accumulation because it’s more violent than that. At least in the case of open source, it definitely was more violent.

Mack: Just to unpack like this idea of primitive accumulation in the original context, we’re talking about the appropriation of land, which is the commons, and here you’re talking about this kind of effort, that people were using with free software that then gets very similarly appropriated by corporations. Is that the idea?

Elena: Yeah, that’s part of it. And also the labor. So in Karl Marx’s theory, you enclose the land [00:44:00] and then the people who are using it become proletariat and then you can exploit it. And this is, you could argue that that happens with these communes of hackers who start as open source programmers and then end up being hired by Spotify and one of the people who had it, free music archive, actually is now a programmer at Spotify.

So this is basically what happens. So the question is how unprecedented that moment was with the open source software. So another way to name it is salvage accumulation, which is what Anna Singh talks about. And she argues that if the process is ongoing, which happens in many industries, such as these mushroom collectors.

That is salvage accumulation because it just happens all the time. And, she argues that capitalism depends on these alternative economies to sustain itself because it always extrapolates that [00:45:00] labor and that value produced with that labor. But I think the open source moment was more unprecedented.

I think there was so much hope for these alternative modes of production, for alternative economies, and FMU was a big part of that. And that’s why I’m interested in the station. Right now, all of it seems impossible.

Mack: Yeah. I mean, the story of Shazam. I mean, as a piece of software, it almost felt like a miracle that this was possible. That it could listen to your phone through your microphone, which was really tuned just for voice and to reject these ambient sounds. So that just as a sort of programmer to figure out a way to get it, to listen to what the phone was supposed to reject in a way. Right. and, and on the basis of very little information, identifying the song was just amazing. 

But then beyond that, it also seemed kinda like a miracle in that it had this open [00:46:00] source community around the technology, but then through the kinds of dynamics that you’ve explained, the dreams just seem to sort of curdle.

Elena: Yeah. So there was a lot of optimism after Shazam came out to reverse engineer it and create an open source, open free alternative, or many free alternatives at the time, and through lawsuits and kind of shutting down these projects. That ended fairly quickly.

But the fact is that Shazam never became a mega company, still makes it, in my mind, sort of a, not a success story exactly, but it’s a “how technology should work”. It’s a small problem that you’re trying to solve with very precise programming and experimentation. And then you solve it and you also solve it.

Partially, it never claimed to do everything. It couldn’t [00:47:00] do classical music ever, because different records of classical music would be indistinguishable. It could do pop, very well. Pop music and short songs. But it was good for that. People were really excited at the time and then it never became anything more than that. Whereas, the way platforms work, they start with one little service and then they expand into more services and they try to get more users and use the data. And this is how Spotify works. With playlists, for example. So it started with algorithmic playlists and then it started hiring people to actually create them together with the algorithm.

So there would be a name attached to the playlist, that is a different service. And then it got into podcasting, and now there’s podcasting and Spotify. So they just keep going and going.

Mack: And one of the, one of the things that I really like about your work and you’re [00:48:00] always so interested in the sort of the agency of the users and the fringes of audiences in a sense. But you know, in your chapter that you wrote about Shazam that I’m thinking about right now.

I remember there’s a moment in there where you kind of focus on the rise of Un-Shazamable music as being a kind of genre of itself that people got really interested in. Like, “Oh, play music that can’t be Shazam-d”

Elena: Yeah. So it all depends on the data, right? So one of the interesting facts about Shazam is that the first assemblage of records that they worked with was obtained in these quasi-legal means. It was a labor exchange, and it’s not clear that they actually had the right to use it, to ingest it for analysis.

Mack: Sounds familiar.

Elena: Yeah, exactly.

Mack: In today’s AI age.

Elena: Exactly. It’s just so interesting.[00:49:00] 

Mack: Yeah, absolutely. and I should say, you have, you know, generously put links to A lot of your scholarship, if not all. I don’t know about the book, but, but other than that on your website, so we’ll definitely provide links to the things that we’re talking about today. Your website is a great resource, itself. So I would like to switch gears a little bit and maybe talk about how you do, what you do. Which is doing this kind of historical scholarship in the digital age. One of the things that just gets overwhelming, not just for academics really, but I think for anyone is, it’s no longer a problem of “where do I find information?”

It’s “how do I organize this abundance of information that I’ve found?”  So could we talk a little bit about your process as a [00:50:00] historian in this digital world? What are your tools? What are your methods? Do you have any hacks that you can share with us.

Elena: Well, I think a lot of us use Zotero. Do you use Zotero?

Mack: I am a horrible EndNote user, I’ve tried to use Zotero in the past, and, something about it living in the browser, I’m not a huge fan of things that live in a browser.

Elena: Mm-Hmm.

Mack: It didn’t click with me, but I could be convinced to.

Elena: Well, it doesn’t live in the browser anymore. It’s a standalone program.

Mack: Oh, okay.

Elena: So basically, I think, if we think about PhD students and what they should be taught, they should be taught to have a program that creates bib bibliographies.

And my approach basically is that you should find open source, free alternatives for anything that you’re working with. And Zotero is a bibliography manager that is free and is managed. It’s been around for a very long time, so it’s not likely to die. There’re a bunch of academics who might maintain it with a big community of users. 

So I would definitely recommend that. This is what I use. And another thing that you should teach students is that you should never write your papers or dissertations in Word. Word is a terrible program and it doesn’t promote piecemeal writing.

What I teach my students is that you should really, um, separate your writing into chunks, and you should have a file for every paragraph even, but at least for every section of your paper, for every thought, and there’s several programs that allow you to do that. Scrivener is one, this is probably the most, the, the easiest to teach with because it exists both of Windows and Mac, and it creates

Your draft [00:52:00] is not one file, but a lot of different files organized as an outline, and you can focus on one paragraph, and it’s much easier than to start writing because you’re not starting from a blank page. You’re starting from one idea, and you put an idea and then you just revise it into a paragraph.

Mack: Mm-Hmm.

Elena: What I use is called Obsidian, which is an open source. Well, it’s free, it’s not open source, actually, but it is a free program unless you want to sync it with an iPad or an iPhone. Then you pay for synchronization. But if you just wanna use it on your computer, it’s completely free and students can download it.

It’s a little bit more complicated to set up, but it works on the same principle. That your, your writing is, piecemeal and the research part, you just re reproduce what historians always now, did it. Basically, you need to have, like the original way of historical research or humanities research in general.

You would put facts and quotes on this card with a source [00:53:00] and a page number. and then you would sort cards by subject or author or title, and that’s what obsidian does. You, you can create, you can take notes in it and you can sort it and, and, and, and search through them. And then you organize your notes into, uh, these, these research notes into an outline. And there you have your paper.

Mack: Hmm. Easily said than done, but that’s basically it. So I am a Scrivener user and I’ve actually had a long traumatic history with digital notebooks. I was an early adopter. I was using them back in like 2005, something like that then I had trouble. I think I was using EndNote back, no not EndNote, Microsoft OneNote back then.

and then I switched to a Mac and they didn’t have that for a Mac. So then I adopted something called Circus Ponies Notebook, which is this [00:54:00] beloved notebook program for the Mac. And so I used that. All of my graduate school notes, dissertation notes are all in there. And then they went out of business and all of my stuff was stranded in this digital no man’s land.

And then I had to find like other notebook programs and basically, cut to today,  I’m a Scrivener user, but I’ve never quite been able to piece together my digital life from the past, and I’m a little bit gun shy about committing to a notebook program anymore, and, and my notes are just a complete mess. All over the place. That’s where I am today.

Elena: Well, it’s definitely true, and it’s true of Scrivener too. If you keep notes in Scrivener, it’s a proprietary format, then you have to extract them. But Obsidian, however, is just text files, so there’s nothing to extract there. Just text files on your hard drive.

Mack: And [00:55:00] Obsidian is based on, um, what is that, that, that type of editing called, ah,

Elena: Zettlekasten? Zettlekasten? Or are you thinking of software or note taking? 

Mack: Markdown. Thinking of markdown.

Elena: Oh, markdown okay. Okay, now I know what you mean. Yes, so you don’t write formatted text. It’s all in plain text and then you use markers such as underscore before and after word for italics, things like that.

So that’s why it’s really easy to recover the files because the files are just text files.

Mack: Yeah. Okay,