There are few things I miss about suburbia. However, some rituals work best in certain settings, and for me, one of those rituals was the time spent driving alone in automobile-dependent suburbia. Whenever I started my car, NPR would turn on, and every weekday morning, for the fifteen minutes it took me to get to school, I’d listen to Morning Edition. In the afternoon, while other kids pumped up the music in their Jeeps as they battled to get out of the parking lot, I’d catch the last part of BBC Newshour and hopefully be well on the way home by the time All Things Considered got started. In this way, I developed an appreciation for radio, because it differs from most of the media I’m exposed to.
Media today is incredibly personalized. When I read a New York Times article online, that article has been specifically selected for me. Not only did I click on it based on its title, tagline, and accompanying photo, but it was preselected for me when Facebook posted it to my newsfeed (based on whatever algorithms of past activity they use) or when it showed up in that “recommended for you” section at the bottom of an article I had just read. Even if it wasn’t based on my past history, I probably clicked on it because The New York Times itself emailed it to me as one of its news updates, preselected as a headline story. Any time I search something on Google, it takes into account my age, gender, location, and probably even what language I’m learning (judging from the YouTube videos I’ve watched on how to pronounce that elusive letter ы), using all of this information to show me what it thinks I want to see. Sites like Buzzfeed rely on strings of click-bait history to market articles to the appropriate niche groups: “33 Struggles Only Copy Editors Will Understand” and “20 Things You’ll Only Know if Your Parents Were Dentists.” Other services, like Pandora, are built on the concept that they will be able to provide you with the best experience by only exposing you to what you will, probably, like. This personalization is of course sometimes useful. When I look up sushi restaurant, I probably do want to see results that are relatively close by.
But radio transcends this. Obviously, there is a great deal of bias that goes into selecting a radio station, and which stations you can pick up depend on where you are. Still, radio remains a medium that supplies the same information to an entire mass of people, instead of cherry-picked information to each individual. What you listen to is determined more by the time you have available than what you want to hear. Radio eliminates the need for catchy titles and flashy images, because all you can do is sample the piece as it’s broadcast. If you don’t like it, you change the station or turn the whole thing off. But each morning and afternoon, I always kept NPR on because I didn’t mind listening to things I hadn’t expressly selected. I ended up enjoying articles I never would have clicked on had they been on the website. Hearing the history behind Don McLean’s “American Pie,” when my own knowledge of the song was rooted in “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Star Wars parody, is a much more compelling experience than feeling comfortable in the semi-nostalgia elicited by a list of things that “only ’90s kids will understand.”
Now, even as we feel more connected than ever, we are often informed within our own little bubble. And tech giants see it as their job to make that bubble cozier because, after all, you will click on things that interest you. Their page-views go up, and their purses get fatter. As a consequence, we miss important things. It was only through an attempt to keep up my French—letting the Le Monde app send me news updates—that I actually heard about it when ninety-seven people were killed in a terrorist attack in Turkey’s capital. (Where was the update on that one, Times?) Mass media used to have a power in saying that some things should be of interest to everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from. Radio still does.
Clare Jamieson is a member of The Columbia Review’s editorial board.