Sunday, February 5, 2006

Q&A Christopher Lydon: Signal and noise

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

By Harvey Blume

"MY BUBBLE never burst," Chris Lydon exclaimed over coffee last week in Harvard Square, just around the corner from the WGBH studio where he hosts "Open Source," his new, Internet-savvy public radio talk show.

When we met, Lydon argued passionately for what he sees as the vast, bubble-proof potential of the Internet. I'd heard talk like that before, had talked that way myself in the '90s. But Lydon made his case earnestly and energetically enough for me to want to reexamine the skepticism I had acquired since.

 In 2002, Lydon left the "The Connection"--the successful, much-imitated talk show he conceived of and hosted on WBUR and Public Radio International--after a bruising battle with WBUR management about the control and direction of the program. "Open Source" (which launched last May and airs Monday through Thursday evenings on 89.7FM) marks his return to Boston radio. That's satisfying for him on a personal level, no doubt, but it's only part of the reason he's high on "Open Source."

The other reason is political. Lydon, who earlier in his career covered politics for the Globe and The New York Times, told me he fears that America is sliding toward empire and that mainstream media just doesn't get it. The show's website,, is much more alive and engaging than sites for comparable shows. In fact, bloggers themselves get lots of air time: The recent show about Hamas's election victory, for example, put a number of bloggers, including one from Gaza, on the radio.

The open source approach to software development is famed for its collaborative, nonproprietary ethos. But Lydon, in his mid-60s, hasn't suddenly fallen into geek love with the Internet. He values it as a democratic force that has arrived on the scene just in time.

IDEAS: On the show's website you flame away at mainstream media, especially your old employer, The New York Times. You write the Times "will realize one of these days that it is an Internet news and opinion business that just happens to print a broadsheet every day." Really?

LYDON: Absolutely. That's where we're going. The Internet is a vastly better place for connecting a whole nest of community conversations than we've ever had. It's not over-hyped. It's under-hyped. And it's not the people writing on it that make it great. It's open architecture that makes it cheap, universal, and democratic. The Internet is an Emersonian device for Emersonian purposes-for letting the infinitude of the private man, as Emerson said, express itself.

IDEAS: But what's the business model for an Emersonian New York Times?

LYDON: I'm not a techie or a businessman. I'm a fan of the space and its possibilities.

IDEAS: As in the podcasting you extol on the site?

LYDON: Podcasting is a big part of the real estate for the future. A marvelous Chinese pianist played at Jordan hall Saturday night, and to my amazement said, "Chris, I listen to all your podcasts in Shanghai." He subscribes. He plugs his iPod into his computer, and doesn't have to throw a switch. It's downloaded automatically. Podcasting gives people anywhere on the planet the power to listen as they choose.

IDEAS: How would you define the key difference between "Open Source" and your old show, "The Connection"?

LYDON: "Open Source" has a completely different marriage with the Internet, which extends the conversation wider, in a democratic spirit. We ask people to suggest shows, and we really mean it.

IDEAS: How many shows have you actually produced from their suggestions?

LYDON: Somewhere between 20 and 40 percent.

IDEAS: I remember listening to you in the '90s and feeling you knew very little about computers or the Internet. But you invited a stream of guests who did.

LYDON: Everything I learned, I learned on the radio. And there were breakthrough moments. The architecture of the Internet struck me as a beautiful social model. And people were telling me about blogs.

IDEAS: But isn't there a danger that you, personally, disappear into the blogosphere? On "The Connection," your stance, your personality came through. But sometimes, on the new show, I wonder: Is Chris just a traffic cop for bloggers?

LYDON: Well [laughing], I haven't heard this before. The more common complaint is that I talk too much. When people say that, I answer, "I'm not a potted plant." But I don't want to be Rush Limbaugh, either.

Look, in 1840, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to Margaret Fuller about the magazine "The Dial," saying he wanted it to be "one cheerful, rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics." I had tried to read Emerson all my life and never got the man. Suddenly, when I was doing talk radio in the '90s, it struck me like a ton of bricks that he's all about conversation, energy, and the intuition you get talking to people.

IDEAS: I want to get back to your take on mainstream media. Couldn't it be that print media has gotten weaker because electronic media and the Internet are getting stronger?

LYDON: I think about it all the time. Let me put it this way: The rise of blogging comes with the still mysterious collapse of traditional voices around the war in Iraq, the inexplicable silence in Congress and big media around what had folly written all over it. Where are the grownups, I wondered, the people with memory?

It will take more than our lifetimes to see, in perspective, whether the blossoming of individual voices was associated with the corruption of public space. I don't know. The great paradox of our time is that the information age is also the age of Fox News, and the mass herding of idiots.

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge.

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