Category Archives: Unexpected

Public media’s digital transition & future

I’ve often thought that digital technology is one of the best things that has ever happened to radio … and one of the worst.

NPR’s DC HQ.

It dramatically increases radio’s global reach (in a way mailed cassette tapes of “airchecks” never did) and the ability to consume its audio in bite-size chunks, such as in podcasts. Yet it provides an existential threat to terrestrial broadcasters who assume radio waves, not audio content, is what sets them apart.

Both extremes of thought are well known in public radio. And discussed in the latest interview in my special GeekWire series of podcasts and articles about the arts, popular culture and science fiction. This time, I speak with representatives of two Seattle-area public radio stations, Matt Martinez from jazz/news/blues format KNKX, and Bryan Lowe of classical format KING-FM.

Martinez has an additional perspective, having come to Seattle two years ago after 15 years with NPR. It was while on a vacation visit to NPR studios in DC in September that I got the idea for this podcast, seeing the floors of studios, the two-level newsroom, and even the glassed-in control center for program distribution (with an odd, unexplained egg-shaped chair in the center — sadly, no photos).

Lowe from KING-FM and Martinez of KNKX. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The conversation with Martinez and Lowe was fascinating, and the podcast goes far beyond what’s in the summarized GeekWire story. We also delve into tech fads vs. trends for public radio, how radio content gets from their studios to your (non-radio) devices, and even some backstory about The Bryant Park Project, an NPR morning show initiative that Martinez worked on a decade ago and was, in the telling, a bit ahead of its digital time.

My NPR vacation souvenir.

And for those who don’t know, the “aircheck” I mentioned earlier was a tape that radio personalities used to make either for critique sessions with management or to look for work at other stations. Yeah. I spent a dozen years on the air, for a brief time as a disc jockey and then, for much longer, in news as an anchor/reporter and also a news director.

Never in public radio, though. I was once offered the news director position at public KUOW Seattle after what I thought was a disastrous group interview with news department staff.  (Them: “What makes you think you, as a commercial newscaster, could handle public broadcasting?” Me: “It worked for Daniel Schorr, didn’t it?”) The interview had gone so badly, in my mind, that I’d already taken my first position in tech before the KUOW offer was made. Not only did I wind up leaving radio behind, I discovered I wasn’t always a great judge of how I did in interviews.

Off-air musings aside, check out the GeekWire story, “Public radio’s digital moment: Smartphones, streaming, and the future of listening.” And listen to the 43-minute podcast, too. It’s got some great voices.

A note about GeekWire & work-work balance

Team GeekWire at the GeekWire Summit 2017. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Last week, I attended the GeekWire Summit. One year ago, I was certain I was done with GeekWire.

I’d joined as an outside columnist at its inception in 2011. Four years later, I’d run out of column ideas, and limped along as an occasional contributor. Finally, I decided I was done. I even ended it on my LinkedIn and Facebook profiles.

It was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made. Because I wasn’t thinking about balance. Not work-life balance. Work-work balance.

Many of us have more than one professional activity that we are good at and love doing. But we can only take one full-time job at a time.

Once we land in one professional field, we may think we have to give up other professional interests. We may bank them for some far-off retirement.

That is a false choice.

If you love doing something, don’t give it up. Better to tuck that professional love in around the edges of your main gig. Both will benefit. When you move between the two, you’ll be mentally refreshed. And you may have fresh ideas from one that cross-pollinate to the other.

Now I devote some weekend time to a new series of GeekWire podcasts and articles on science fiction, pop culture, and the arts. While it’s not a lot of activity, it’s enough.

And I remain proud to be part of Team GeekWire.

Sourcing, conserving, displaying: Behind the scenes at MoPOP

Three years ago, I decided to clean out some of my science-fiction collectibles. Among them, I had dozens of top-condition lobby cards — the small rectangular cardboard cards with large photos and the names of films that movie theaters used to display in their lobbies beneath large movie posters.

One of the many lobby cards donated to MoPOP by this writer.

Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture agreed to accept them as a donation, back when MoPOP was known as EMP Museum. And that led me to wonder how museums that focus on music, science fiction, and other aspects of popular culture actually get, conserve, and display these sometimes very ephemeral objects.

My GeekWire pop culture podcast (and two accompanying articles) digs into that with MoPOP Curator Brooks Peck and Collections Manager Melinda Simms. How do they find stuff? How to they keep it from deteriorating (more)? And, ultimately, how do they tell a story with sometimes very different objects?

Museum of Pop Culture Curator Brooks Peck and Collections Manager Melinda Simms. (GeekWire photo / Clare McGrane)

The questions — and answers — led to a very lively and anecdote-filled conversation that definitely upends any misperception that museum collecting and curating are dusty and dry occupations. Especially when there’s a pig lizard involved.

Bring me the head of … never mind. I’ve got it.

Read the overview on what the MoPOP collection is like in, “Preserving the future: How MoPOP protects and presents our ever-changing popular culture.” Move on to how MoPOP leverages fans for, “Hey, obsessed pop culture fan: You may have something museums want.”

Or just listen to the entire popcast, “Preserving Pop Culture.” And don’t miss earlier installments in this special series on science fiction, pop culture, and the arts.

TWIEtR: Chrome beats all others … combined

More analysis of Chromebooks as the tool of choice in classrooms today, in what otherwise is a light week in edtech reports.

Looking for real-time updates? Follow @FrankCatalano on Twitter. Or avoid having to check the blog for new posts by entering your email address above “NOTIFY ME” in the left website navigation.

Education Week continues to slice and dice the information in its fascinating survey of school administrators and teachers that pits four major tech companies (Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft) against four major education companies (Scholastic, Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

The latest? Google Chromebooks are used “more frequently in day-to-day instruction than all PC and Apple desktop and laptop computers combined.”

It’s that last phrase that is telling, that Chromebooks are used more frequently than all others combined.

Another interesting, but not surprising, tidbit: going forward, district staff plan to invest more in tablets and laptops than in desktop computers for classrooms.

Quick diversion to my day job: West Corporation (which provides SchoolMessenger communications solutions to districts) is starting to release results of a national survey that will be officially issued in a webinar and white paper on June 1.

The survey examines what communications technologies districts use to engage parents, which channels they find the most effective, and where they plan to invest their time and resources in the next one-to-three years.

Key findings are that, “school districts increasingly rely on social media, turn more to mobile apps, and, ultimately, recognize that they must use multiple communications channels. ”

Tech & Learning had a nice summary of three of the initial data points, summed up as:

  • 86% of district leaders surveyed use social media to communicate with parents today.
  • 65% of district leaders surveyed already use 5 or more channels to communicate with parents.
  • 33% of district leaders surveyed plan to focus on district mobile apps in the next 1-3 years (an increase of 44% from today’s use).

A fourth initial data point — that 45% of district leaders cite parent internet access as a significant obstacle to engaging parents with communications technology.

I’ll be joined on the June 1 webinar by Elisabeth O’Bryon, PhD., co-founder and head of research of the non-profit Family Engagement Lab, which itself has done some interesting research on what families want to hear from schools, and how they hear about it.

Webinar registration is open now. And I’ll likely summarize more results here after the white paper is released.

And one more thing:

I was reminded on May 18, 2017, where I was and what I was doing on May 18, 1980. I was interviewing for a broadcast news position in the Seattle market. I’d flown out for the weekend from my current station, WNFL Green Bay, where I was news director.

That Sunday morning, as the person interviewing me and I headed out for brunch, we heard — and felt — a muffled “boom.” We drove straight to the station, where it was confirmed that nearby Mt. St. Helens had erupted.

I immediately went to work filing reports for the local station as well as the network with which WNFL was affiliated.

Much later, after catching a red eye flight home, I walked into the newsroom and was greeting by the Green Bay station manager. “Great reports about Mt. St. Helens on the network,” he said. “What the hell were you doing in Seattle?”

Fortunately, I was offered the Seattle job. And remained on good terms with WNFL and its management. But it just goes to show that when an opportunity presents itself, it’s important to act. Even if there is both the potential of reward and risk.

Oh, and the 1980s-era photo I posted with the 140 characters on Twitter? It’s now out there, for good or ill. You can’t un-chirp a tweet.

(Note: This Week in Edtech Reports will take a Memorial Day weekend break and return, refreshed and re-snarked, in early June.)

Once upon the end of 2016

Once upon a time, there was a writer who didn’t write.

He knew how to write. He had written. He just had stopped.

And not stopped in the dramatic way one assumes writers of melodramas must punctuate their prose (“I am so DONE with this CHAPTER!”). It had more simply quietly slipped away, first as a pause when his mother died the previous May, then was logically extended when he took a new full-time job a month later, and then … well, it just continued. Through the end of the old year, and into the start of the new.

He did take a brief break from not-writing in the spring, but only to review three new Amazon initiatives (and write an impassioned, well-reasoned plea to save a local public radio station for its digital media efforts) at the request of his former column home. It later turned out that those four essays were the end of it — of five years as a columnist and contributor to the tech news site GeekWire, and shorter parallel periods as a columnist for education technology news sites like EdSurge and NPR/KQED’s MindShift.

He finally realized it wasn’t because he couldn’t write. He actually still had quite a bit researched and even drafted. It’s just that he felt he had nothing new to say, and no one wants to become known as the author equivalent of the old guy who repeatedly yells, “Get off my lawn!”

The extended pause carried over to his other public activities, too. As the year came to a close, he realized his last public speaking engagement had been shortly after he stopped writing regularly.

He’d go into 2017 with an 18-month stretch nearly devoid of public writing and speaking.

And for this, he was verified on Twitter as a figure of public interest? No wonder Twitter had issues.

It wasn’t that 2016 was uneventful. He continued as vice president of marketing strategy for West Corporation’s Education group. His father passed away in September after a dramatic incident in January made it clear he had dementia, and he’d been able to fly to California monthly to visit and help as his dad moved from hospital to memory care home to hospital to rehab facility. He and his wife had a wonderful week-long hiking vacation in Palm Springs over Thanksgiving, appropriately punctuated with mid-century cocktails.

But 2016 ended with a one-time public figure not being quite as public. Was it an ending and redirection? Or a long cleansing of the palate?

As the new year brought a new chapter, he’d look forward to finding out if he was its protagonist, author, or both.

One year ago today, I silenced myself

FrankBWSXSWeduOne year ago today, I was preparing my final presentation for an education technology conference, a practical session at ISTE on students’ digital footprints and privacy.

One year ago today, I had finished dealing with comments and tweets on my last education technology analysis, a snarkfest for GeekWire on edtech trends, fads, and WTFs.

GeekWirecolumnsOne year ago today, I walked away from formally writing or speaking about edtech. I did so after two decades of writing and speaking about edtech, in locations as varied as New Zealand and DC, and for vehicles as varied as EdSurge and MindShift.

It was a departure I had planned for months, after many well-received keynotes and columns as an independent observer.

ETIN2As 365 days passed, a few began to notice my absence as a speaker or attendee at industry-focused conferences (this month, I shed my Advisory Board member role for SXSWedu, one that I’d held since 2012). A very fewer have asked: Why?

I usually coyly respond that it was time, that I was pruning extraneous activity. Now it seems worth unpacking that further into three reasons:

  • The influence of stupid money. Venture capital has an important role to play in accelerating startups and good ideas. But cash can equally and aggressively propel bad ideas. It was becoming increasingly clear that, as with consumer tech in the late 1990s, too much money was chasing too few good ideas in edtech by the middle of this decade. That gold-rush mentality was influencing what people wanted to write about, read about, hear about, and even which conferences waned and waxed.
  • The binary religious war. More and more of the conversation about edtech — inflamed by limited attention spans and limited social media character counts — devolved into an “edtech is education’s savior” or “edtech is de-humanizingly evil” binary argument. (There also were hidden financial or social agendas in which edtech was purely used as a stalking horse.) The truth is far more nuanced. Edtech is a tool that can be used both badly and well under human direction. And “edtech” is no longer just one thing, like a network connection, or a device, or software: It takes so many forms, that loving or hating “edtech” generically is meaningless. But nuance is not currently in vogue in popular dialogue, and I deal in nuance and its antecedent, thoughtfulness.
  • The lack of anything new to say. I still have plenty I’m observing and noting about education technology. I’m just no longer saying it publicly, because so much of what I have to say would repeat what I’ve said before about appropriate use, workable business models, realistic speed of change and all that. The only thing worse than a voice crying in the wilderness is the cranky old guy repeatedly yelling, “Get off my lawn!” Sometimes, the best approach when you have nothing significantly new to add is to simply shut up.

I still work in edtech. I still believe it has promise. I still occasionally write and speak about other types of technology (most recently, on subjects from Amazon to digital public media for GeekWire).

But as for edtech? Others can own the microphone and keyboard. I’ll let my previous work speak for itself. Unless or until, that is, I get so worked up that I can’t stand being silent anymore.

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P.S. Still reading? Even though I’m not formally writing or speaking about edtech right now, I do tweet. And an ad hoc comment might occasionally leave my lips. As it appropriately did at ISTE this week, a year after my last formal presentation. Kevin Hogan pulled me in front of a camera to ask me about trends I saw on the exhibit floor for his Tech & Learning Live broadcast. Enjoy. But please don’t get used to it.

Awards don’t matter, until you get one

SJPAwardsI will openly admit that yes, I’ve won two awards for my recent writing in GeekWire from the Society of Professional Journalists. And I’m delighted to have done so.

This weekend, at the SPJ Gala held in Seattle for the Northwest Excellence in Journalism contest, I was honored with second place in Editorial & Commentary for a selection of three GeekWire contributions, and third place in Critique & Review for my piece, “As science fiction ascends, its popular award – the Hugo – threatens to nosedive.” (Both were in the Small Daily Print and Online division for work appearing in 2015. Size does matter in award competitions.)80100_spjlogo-for-header.png.300x300_q85_autocrop

There is a type of bashful condescension about awards in the creative arts. “My work speaks for itself.” “I’m not competing with others.” “Money will get you though times of no Hugos.” (Anyone with a long memory of awards in science fiction will be able to attribute that last reference.)

But the reality is awards can serve useful purposes: to draw audience attention to good work that isn’t wildly popular, or to give artists (including writers) a rough benchmark of whether their peers think they’re hitting the mark.

Flanked at the reception by KPLU's Ashley Gross and first reader Dee Dee Catalano.
Flanked at the reception by KPLU’s Ashley Gross and first reader Dee Dee Catalano. (Photo: Sara Lerner)

I’m pleased to note that two great online-only news outlets, Crosscut and Seattle Globalist, took the first place awards in the two categories in which I placed. But coming in right after them makes me happy, since they do such good and broad-based work.

The last time I placed in an SPJ competition was in 2013 for columns I wrote in 2012, a third place in Commentary when there was a different Online-only category. This year is better. (I don’t enter every year, though I’ve been writing for GeekWire since 2011.)

If you’d like to see the three pieces that added up to this year’s Editorial & Commentary honor, they are:

And yes, for those counting — the last one actually won twice. Writing about Hugos apparently will get you other awards, if not a Hugo itself.

Saving (digital) public media in Seattle

Jazz24captureThere is no shortage of media “voices” in a digital world. But when a unique, successful online voice like Jazz24 is set to be extinguished by an unexpected sale, it’s time to speak up.

I did exactly that in my role as a commentator and analyst for GeekWire. In the piece, “KPLU’s proposed acquisition by KUOW puts a global online audience at risk,” I pointed out the to-that-point under-covered fact that if the sale of Seattle area public radio station KPLU’s license to KUOW went through, it would likely mean the end of a highly popular, global digital audio stream.

Jazz24studiosessionsThe intent reported in my commentary was later confirmed by the public media news site Current, complete with supporting emails, in a story titled, “Email shows KUOW saw ‘no sound business vision’ for Jazz24.”  (Current also kindly quoted my GeekWire commentary in an earlier story it wrote on the fund-raising drive by the community group Friends of 88.5 FM to buy KPLU’s license from Pacific Lutheran University, instead of letting KUOW buy it.)

There is still no guarantee, as of this writing, that the fund-raising effort of the Friends of 88.5 FM non-profit and the #SaveKPLU movement will succeed, though it’s awfully close to reaching its goal. (Update May 26: The fund-raising goal has been met; negotiations on the purchase remain.)

Yet in a digital-first and sometimes digital-only world, any threat to an analog media source shouldn’t just be dismissed as the inevitable end of an old model. The analog media outlet should be viewed in the entire context of its analog+digital presence because sometimes — as with KPLU — that sum, and the potential loss, is far greater than any individual part may imply.Jazz24Facebook

Science fiction and the future

What’s the future going to look like? That simple question has fueled the work of philosophers, theologians, scientists, stock pickers, and, of course, science-fiction writers. So naturally it was the focus of my session at the 2015 GeekWire Summit in Seattle.

Joining me for the lively, 40-minute, and mercifully PowerPoint-free discussion were Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Nancy Kress, futurist and writer Ramez Naam, and former astronaut Ed Lu.

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One of my favorite parts of the session was a utopia/dystopia lightning round, in which I asked for quick assessments of which direction seven developments might take us, including:

  • Uber
  • Self-driving cars
  • Internet of Things
  • Robots overcoming the “uncanny valley”
  • iPhone 17S
  • All knowledge only digital in form
  • President Donald Trump

You can read a partial transcript (including the lightning round) on GeekWire. And, there’s a full video of the session on YouTube.

And for those who prefer podcasts, an eight-minute audio excerpt on the role of science fiction in looking ahead to the future is part of an episode of GeekWire Radio, starting at 25:25.

Lu also had some choice words on the current state of NASA. And the three all expressed both concern and delight when asked what keeps them up at night. I was simultaneously entertained and learned a lot from my guests. I trust you will be, too.

When columns subside: Why I’m taking a break from column writing

GeekWirecolumnsIt usually begins politely: “I really like your stuff in GeekWire.”

I mutter a thank you, asking them what they’ve liked. “Well,” this especially hypothetical reader responds, “That cheat sheet on trends and fads in edtech was great. And your leveraging of Tomorrowland to call for more, and better, optimistic visions of the future was a good read.” Then the pause.

Always, the pause.

“But why were both of those in May? And there’s been nothing since?”

As with relationships, French recipes, and government programs, it’s complicated. But let me unpack it as briefly and best as I can.

First, GeekWire and I have not parted ways. I’ve been a columnist (and occasionally more than that, filling in on the editorial desk and contributing other non-column posts) since Todd Bishop and John Cook founded the tech news site more than four years ago. Technically, I’m on hiatus (or less technically, a very extended summer break) due to several other demands. But it’s unlikely the regular column will return in its earlier frequency and form.

The why?

The speaking. Every public talk I give is a one-off. I don’t reuse presentations, because I know every audience is different (and I’d also bore myself if I always said the same thing).  I’ve been verbose: a June keynote on education technology in New Zealand, an early July session moderating a discussion on student privacy at ISTE, a late July on-stage interview of science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow for Clarion West, and participating in or moderating three panels at the World Science Fiction Convention in August. Every speaking gig requires the research of at least one column; a keynote, far more. Plus, in most cases (and especially New Zealand), travel time.

The day job. The start of June marked a rather intense annual effort as I again researched and wrote two detailed chapters (on instructional content and assessment) of the forthcoming MDR EdNET Insight State of the K-12 Market Report. Not only did that consulting project suck any remaining writing air out of my brain, but at the start of July, I set aside my education technology consulting practice to join SchoolMessenger as its vice president of marketing strategy. Since then, I’ve been drinking from the fire hose of new employment, trying not to drown. So far it’s been refreshing. But also time consuming.

The breather. Occasionally, a columnist needs to take a break and re-assess direction. I’ve done this with tech columnist and news media contributing analyst roles going back (cough) two decades, starting with Seattle Weekly/Eastsideweek, KCPQ-TV Seattle, Puget Sound Business Journal, and now GeekWire. (And that’s just the long-term tech stuff — I’ve also done shorter-term edtech columns for NPR’s MindShift and EdSurge, regular science and science-fiction book reviews for the Seattle Times and Amazing Science Fiction, and even sci-fi film reviews for The Comics Journal.) This is a happy break, very unlike the shorter one a year ago in which both my spouse and I learned some lessons about sharing bad news on social media.

I’ll resurface at the GeekWire Summit in early October in Seattle, interviewing an astronaut, a computer scientist or two, and a science-fiction writer or two on the future of technology.

And after that? There’s no deadline for me to start regularly writing again. But as my history — and the length of this  “brief” explanation — reveal, I will write. I don’t think I’m physically and mentally capable to not.