The age of the optical disc was a rough one for DIY Media Enthusiasts, at least until the DVD Burner (or the xvid CD, for the early pirates among you) became common. From the mid-90s to the early 00s, lots of very interesting independent media was being produced (this was, after all, the era that brought us the first podcast!) but very little of it was explicitly video based.
In 1997, Gareth Branwyn – best known for his work with Mondo 2000, BOINGBOING, and TWiT.tv – published possibly the least well-timed book on New Media that has ever existed. Jamming the Media was published at a time when Internet connectivity was uncommon and slow, digital video was uncommon and slow, and computers (though common) were very slow. It is not explicitly a book about DIY TV, but instead a handbook for all manner of DIY Media, with a specific and explicit focus on zines and music, but with room for various kinds of hypertext and multimedia, and, yes, even video.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that the book was poorly timed. Reading it, though, is an excellent reminder of just how much changed, and how quickly it changed, in the mid-90s. This section is named after Jamming the Media, not because the book was especially influential (I suspect it was, but more of it’s text is spent documenting what others are doing than providing tips to do it yourself) but because it was the first text since the original Guerrilla Television that really engaged with the idea that making media was, by itself, a radical act.
Like Guerrilla Television, Jamming the Media proposed media creation as a Radical act, but did not treat it as an inherently political one. There was talk in this manual of ways to use media to create political change, but that was incidental to the core message of the book, and I think that was to it’s detriment. The act of creating and distributing media is the act of reinforcing your social and political values. To do so without the intent to do so runs the risk of being wildly misunderstood.
Unfortunately, Jamming the Media doesn’t mention Guerrilla Television, or any of the alternate video movements of the 70s. By the mid 90s, these things had largely been forgotten. It does talk a lot about Public Access television, and it seems that some really interesting things were happening in that space at that time. (Paper Tiger TV springs to mind as a topic for research if you’re interested). Unfortunately, shortly after the publication of the book, Comcast won a court case that effectively shuddered the majority of the remaining Public Access networks in the US. By the mid-2000s, even some of the most influential of them were gone.
This is not to say that there was no other independent media being created in the 90s. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The Guerrilla filmmaking techniques of the 80s came in to their own in the 90s, and the rise of Video8, digital8, and miniDV meant ever increasing video quality in ever smaller packaging. This was the era of skateboarding videos, of backyard music videos, of concert footage, birthdays, childbirths, and Christmas mornings. It was the era of video which was shot for reasons no one could clearly define, and then left to rot unwatched in an attic or a basement.
With the rise of the multimedia PC, and the increasing availability of video editing tools (including bake-ins like Windows Movie Maker and iMovie), more people than ever were creating independent video, but they faced two major problems:
1 – There was no good way to transfer, transmit, distribute, or broadcast them
2 – If they were working with digital video, the resulting files were too big to keep around considering the price of storage.
One notable exception to the otherwise somewhat dreary outlook for independent video production in the 90s was a tool called Macromedia Flash, which enabled the creation of simple animated videos in a way that could be streamed over the Internet, even at the speeds available to most people in the 90s. It didn’t look good, but it did work!
Outside the US, Sony released a product in 2000 that was designed to enable the live production and distribution of television over ISDN (“Integrated Services Digital Network”, a transitional internet technology that provided faster internet than dial-up but which was replaced by DSL and cable before it had a chance to find a foothold) using a camcorder-laptop called the Vaio PCG-GT1. It appears to have worked, although it certainly didn’t have much of an impact on the market. Technology was changing too quickly, the world was barely catching up. One video codec gave way to another and another, storage got cheaper, computers got faster, bandwidth increased. DVDs ate the world, HD became an option.
And then, YouTube ate the world.
While the era of the optical disc was not a good one for many kinds of independent video, it was a very good time for a new media product, one born solely of the internet age, and one from which we can learn a great deal: The Podcast.
The premise is simple: it’s a radio show!
Well no, it’s a little more complicated: It’s a radio show on the internet.
Well, no, it’s not just a radio show on the internet. It’s a radio show on the internet that you can download.
… It’s a radio show, on the internet, that you can subscribe to and have downloaded automatically, and sync automatically to your music player, so you can listen to it in your car.
Podcasts were a way for anyone to publish audio, and distribute it directly to their listeners. It was cheap to get started, easy to do, easy to learn, and while it had a lot in common with Radio, it was also entirely a New Media phenomenon.
The important parts about podcasts were:
1 – Podcasts used an open standard for subscriptions and distribution
2 – There was no central authority or gatekeeper. Anyone with an internet connection could start a podcast, and anyone with an internet connection could listen to that podcast.
3 – The primary method of interacting with a podcast was to Subscribe, which meant that the hard work of acquiring a new listener paid dividends. If you wanted to listen to a podcast you probably didn’t just download the latest episode, you added it to your podcatcher. If you hated it, you might unsubscribe quickly, but the built in Subscription by Default mechanism made podcasts sticky in a way that other forms of new media, especially in the early days of the internet could not be.
4 – There was no gatekeeper. This was also point 2, but it’s big enough to repeat. Traditional podcasting, outside of the walled gardens of Spotify and Google Podcasts, is the closest we’ve ever had to truly democratic media distribution.
Sure, some folks were making animations, and other folks were still making VHS tapes, or shooting on video for DVD distribution, or shooting on DV for VHS distribution, or whatever, and that’s great. But public access basically fell apart, the world moved away from a read/write medium towards a read-only medium, and everyone sat in a holding pattern for a few years, able to see that a major technological breakthrough was at hand, but underestimating how much work it would take to reach.
The lesson to learn here is to make use of the tools that exist, not the ones that might exist in the near future.