Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Having a good friend in your back pocket

I once took a course on television (!), culture, and their effects on each other.

We spent a lot of time on Marshall McLuhan and his messages of global village, electronic interdependence and how the medium is the message. Basically, he said electronic technology could shrink the world (slightly, and global audiences would learn how they were more similar in their expectations than dissimilar.

In that same class we saw different TV shows which had formed micro-communities, like Cheers, I Love Lucy, All in the Family and every soap opera. For the characters inside these shows, there was no world outside their communities. If the audience identified with the characters and grew an affinity for them, the show would succeed.

I've been making new friends lately. I'm working remotely on my own, and have befriended Tony Kornheiser, Terry Gross and Bill Simmons. I found them on iTunes and download their podcasts to my iPhone. While taking long dog walks or coding on my laptop, I listen to their stories, their conversations with interesting friends and gain a new perspective on the world. I keep them in my back pocket and listen to them on demand.

I'm not alone.

I met an NIH worker who moved his family from Bethesda to Hagerstown to save 70% on his mortgage payments. He commutes at 3:30 a.m. to drive 90 minutes (any later and the highway is filled). In 3 years, he's listened to 200 books on tape.

Judo Chuck at Penn State is raising three girls at home and wants to participate in a virtual party program, if only someone would create it. His idea: Have people around the world attend an online party, so isolated people like himself can hang with them online, dozens at a time. He wants more than a chat room, something in which he can connect with online friends – new and old.

I've turned Mike Barnsback on to podcasts; he listens to recorded episodes during his 30-minute commute and keeps his radio off. Mat Edelson is about to produce podcasts for an audience to learn more about the towns in which they live.

I've been thinking about the online communities I've joined through podcasting. I've sat in on online history classes on Cal-Berkeley, taken a New Media class through the University of Michigan – all through podcasting.

I'm addicted to my daily doses of Tony Kornheiser on local radio, and he's addicted to serving me. Previously, Tony's podcasts would be in iTunes about 24 hours after his daily, 2-hour show is done. Now they're available about 90 minutes after the show's over. The podcasts are in two parts for a total of 70 minutes – all the commercials are trimmed; it's all Tony and crew.

My iPhone staples are several shows from WFAN sports radio in New York. Because only the 10-minute interviews are posted online, they're still topical if you can hear them within a week. NPR's Terry Gross' Fresh Air show is evergreen, so I get to it when I can.

I'm intrigued by my own reaction to my new fifth-best friend, Bill Simmons, the Page 2 (columnist) Guy from espn.com. His podcast is a rambling conversation with semi-interesting people on sports and some similar stuff. It feels like he knows his guests from past lives: growing up around Boston; college at Holy Cross; Los Angeles lifestyle; past jobs as sportswriter, bartender, comedy-show writer; family man.

On podcast, he's connecting and re-connecting with people throughout his universe. Do I care about his teams, the Celtics and Red Sox? No, and hell no, but I care that he cares. It's fun to listen to his passion and his friends' myriad answers and thoughts on UConn basketball, Clippers stars, movies with The Rock and Nicolas Cage, and comedy shows.

Sometimes, it sounds like the glory days of the Cheers cast where different people with different lives share a good time at the bar. Often they have little in common but for the walnut under their elbows and a good thirst. Individually, they're kind of losers; they're there so often because they don't have another place to be.

Simmon's podcast friends are kind of like that: one-trick ponies who know their topics very well, We're not asking them about other topics. Why should we? The guy who explains how the wise guys bet in Vegas broadens my horizon just a litte bit, and he's gone. Trent Dilfer offers his insight on what it was like being a quarterback on a Monday morning, and he's gone.

Bill Simmons hasn't become my best friend, but he feels like my fifth-best friend, and I hear a lot more from him than I do my extended family. He's available on my demand, in my pocket, when I'm ready for him. If I get busy and don't listen to him for a month, we can re-connect – on my schedule.

In a shrinking, global community, he's my old college roommate, available on demand.

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