Friday, September 19, 2008

Day 17 (Round II) "In the trenches" (blogging-downhill edition)

About to take the brake off and start rolling downhill on the Fall Fest weekend. Blogging will likely be text-light and image-heavy as we go forward.

Killing time in the office (looking ahead at next week's teaching materials, when I should be doing is booking various conference flights and taking stock of just where the hell the relevant writing stands). In about an hour I'll head across campus to the university's NPR affiliate radio station, about which I've blogged before: an absolutely crucial, foundational part of our alternative-media audience education and outreach programs. As is so often the case in small-sized cities--especially those outside the Left and Right Coasts--the budget in the local traditional media (especially newspaper) for arts coverage is slim to nonexistent. The local paper (best typified by a back-East friend, who refers to it as the "Lubbock Daily Disappointment") is a really pretty terrible regional newspaper, entirely obsessed with covering local weather, sports, occasional City Council activities (but never the sub-rosa back-scratching and kickbacking between local pols, developers, and investors), and, like so many regional newspapers, is more than anything else concerned to avoid any editorial positions, reportage, or even mention of any items that might (a) offend, (b) intimidate, or (c) rile their perceived readership. The reason the paper sucks so badly is that it so transparently caters to the perceived audience: graying, shrinking, conservative, insular, taking pride in "small-town values" (how's that worked out in the life, conduct and "truthiness" of the current Republican VP candidate?), and so the coverage is similarly narrow, incomplete, monochromatic, and though wildly oscillating from a model of "local Small Town Values = Mom & Apple Pie, while [foreign/distant] Big City Events = dark, scary, new, different, complicated, ambiguous, and to be avoided," consistently manifests a "mission" which is the tritest kind of timidity and conservatism.

So the arts coverage in such a paper (it was true in Bloomington, too) tends to be limited to a couple--or even just one--person(s) who is/are massively overworked, typically began life expecting some other career, has a limited knowledge outside the specific area of original arts interest--so that the Comic Book Guy ends up writing about opera or the Retired Sportswriter about symphonic music or the Failed Screenwriter about music--and so the coverage either (a) doesn't even happen or (b) sucks. Or both. There's just not enough conviction at the paper that there is enough of a population to actually care about a local arts there's not enough money to pay for individual(s) who actually know about the arts they report the person(s) are either overworked, bitter, or ill-informed, or all three.

Locally-producedd television news is, surprisingly and by comparison, pretty darned good--but you have to understand their priorities and, especially, their time scales. A musician, poet, dancer, or actor--much less a novelist--is accustomed to getting 3 minutes, or 10 lines, or a stage, or 3 acts, or 400 pages, in which to convey the artistic essence. But on TV you're lucky to get 20 seconds. So the craft of using local television to promote your arts event becomes the art of (a) recognizing the kind of material that they believe will work for them and (b) giving it to them in 10-15 second chunks. If you do that, they're very responsive and helpful.

Usually this translates as "give them good images, especially of interesting or unusual instruments." They love dancing, because it makes good video. They love weird instruments or instrumental combinations, for the same reason. Unusual locations. Interesting combinations of individuals. And so on. The stuff that the refugees from 1952 at the newspaper are convinced is hopelessly weird, off-the-track, or intimidating for their readership can, with the right framing, and a solid understanding of how TV people think about content, work very well.

So you give them the weird instruments. Or the dancers in interesting costumes or formations. Or dancers interacting with musicians. Or unusual staging or settings. You make the hard (for a musicologist) realization that they don't want to hear you talk--they want you to get out of the way and let them tape the weirdo, visually-interesting stuff. When we had two NYC-based archlute players here for a masterclass and performance, two of the three local news channels sent film crews to the concerts. And when the boys were going through airport security next morning, the local TSA folks were saying "Hey! We seen you on the TV." The lutenists felt like rock-stars, and inquired, while standing in line at security, when they could come back for another concert.

By far the best of the traditional media--for us, really the only relevant source--is our local public radio station, where we joke that we have virtually a turn-key operation. Producing a weekly Celtic program for them? Here's a key to the building and the studio--feel free to use the gear on weekends for whatever projects you need. Helping them fund-raise during Pledge Drives twice a year? Sure, you can come in to promote your arts events any time you want through the rest of the year. Need a little extra time? Here, have 30 minutes during drive-time to talk about your stuff.

So we're able to hit the local NPR/classical music/student-recital-attending overlapping audiences pretty well. But that's actually a fairly small segment of the local population, largely defined by economic class, occupation and (usually) ethnicity. It doesn't catch the multi-ethnic folks, or the students, or the people in the outlying farming communities.

Now, some percentage of those latter folks are unreachable for us by almost any means, because the only traditional media they deal with are the newspaper (extensively) and evening 30-minute TV newscasts. So if we can't get 12 seconds of video on the newscast (difficult to do, because the stations want to send their camera crews out to the event, and broadcast the footage at 11pm after the concert, which doesn't help us advance-promote), and the local Arts Guy on the Daily Disappointment screws up his job as fundamentally as such are wont to do, we pretty much have to use the alternate methods.

We can catch a good percentage of the older and more blue-collar folks by old-fashioned flyers and posters: at grocery stores, restaurants, and the like. A big breakthrough came when we realized that, no matter how sacrilegious the content or texts of the songs, hanging posters at local churches was a great way to get the word out in this community, because "church home" is still a fundamental part of how people self-identify (and attempt to identify you, as in "Have you foun' a church haome? Well, wha not?!?").

It's also a big part of the lives of many of our Ensemble kids, so we can send them out with a couple of flyers apiece to hang at their respective congregations, and catch a lot of community people that way (haven't yet gotten to going and giving short "informational" performances at those churches, but we should, because congregations in this region still believe very strongly in the "adoptive family" model of church-going--and if you can get 'em to adopt the kids in yoru ensemble, you've got a huge social network going).

The final demographic group for us is the college-age kids, who largely eschew email, read the local paper only for local sports and the Sudoku puzzles (I'll save for another day the rant that Sudoku is like a crossword puzzle for people with no vocabulary and no problem-solving ability), get the vast majority of their data input (much of it hopelessly inaccurate) from each others SMS text messages and--centrally and essentially--from the social networking sites, most especially Facebook.

I've blogged briefly about our pilot use this year of Facebook as a means of communicating with students about class business. Regardless of whether they should read their email or visit the course website or, y'know, pay attention to announcements in class--our fundamental object is not to change or even improve their communicative responsibility and responsivity. Our object, in this case is to communicate the damned data. So if copy/pasting all email messages over to the Facebook "message all group members" function actually improves the total percentage who get and retain the information, so bet it--we'll suck it up and do that.

Last spring's Celtic Ensemble concerts were the first time we asked our various Facebook ninjas in the band to create "events" and then run invitations across their whole friends-lists to promote the concerts. And the positive impact was immediate and remarkable--like, doubled audience numbers from one show to the next. It's hitting NPR and other trad-media outlets now (was just a feature yesterday about gigantic open-air silent raves in public parks promoted purely through FB), and for once our little traditional band is at the front of that curve.

We've got two CE shows (the kids call everything "a show"--as a working musician, I still think of them as "gigs") this weekend, both of which we've promoted heavily via all available traditional media, through our seven-years-built alternative routes (mostly email and the Web 1.0-based distribution lists and calendars), but this is the first year that we've got a third leg to the tripod--which is the Web 2.0-based social networking sites. I'm interested to see whether/if/how much that impacts turnouts.

Here's a little taste:
[image by Ralston]

Now playing: Dama & D'Gary - Mpanjono Mody (The Fisherman's Return)
via FoxyTunes

1 comment:

Texas Tech Theory Department said...

I had to laugh because I had just checked headlines on the "Daily disappointment" before coming over to your blog and I thought you of all people would get a kick out of this "front-page" story:


P.S. My secret code to get this post published was "TTU go." Coincidence?