WTF? Obama in a garage: How mass media was infiltrated by internet mavericks

Last week the President of the United States showed up in Marc Maron's garage and spoke plainly about many issues, including race relations. Here's why.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

WTF means exactly what you think it does. Somewhere, there's an old White House protocol officer rolling over in his grave.

My wife describes Marc Maron as a very talented, but -- until his podcast -- very second tier comedian. She's a fan. Me? Not so much. I listened to a few of Maron's earliest podcasts and he sounded whiny and self-absorbed, even for a comedian -- or a podcaster, for that matter.

Maron's career has been spotty. He toured a bit. He had a number of radio shows on Air America, which got canceled. Apparently repeatedly. He did do quite a few guest TV spots, but was clearly something of an acquired taste. The executives at Air America (now itself defunct) didn't like his comedy style (as I said, neither did I). And so he was out.

Back in 2009, Maron decided to do what many out-of-work broadcasters were doing: podcasting. Rather than rely on gatekeepers like a studio or a network to hire them and approve their programming, they just did it themselves. They recorded shows, uploaded them to iTunes, and waited for the fans to download the MP3s.

Podcasting, like blogging, disintermediated content from gatekeepers. What I mean by this is anyone can start a blog. Anyone can start a podcast. Entry cost for a blog is truly free, especially if you use a service like WordPress.com. Entry cost for podcasting is a bit higher, because you need at least a good microphone (and it helps to have quality recording equipment).

What made all this possible was a combination of the Internet's broad reach and content production tools that made it possible for non-techies and marginal geeks to put together their own programming, post their own stories, and not have to rely on an engineering team to write code for a publishing system.

Think back before the Internet. There were grassroots ways for people to communicate. Colleges often hosted 'zines: short, hand-produced, mimeographed or photocopied short-run periodicals. Concert goers and music fans often produced mix tapes, which they shared with a few of their friends. Back in 1990, Christian Slater starred in one of my favorite period movies, Pump Up the Volume, about a kid and his pirate radio station.

But these personal publications and broadcasting mechanisms were necessarily limited. Production cost, mailing cost, and the logistics of moving paper limited 'zines to small runs. Pirate radio stations were limited to a few miles around the transmitter, and the few thousand people (at most) who might tune in.

They were, by definition, not mainstream because they existed in spite of mainstream media.

Blogging was a lot like that in the beginning. Bloggers were those who had something to say, but didn't want to have to get approval for their message. As has been affectionately joked about, that's often because some bloggers have written about the most mundane of topics: how a dinner went, the tribulations of a date, the worry about a new job.

Interestingly, Facebook co-opted much of that puerile, self-absorbed sharing. With a Facebook account and a bunch of friends, all you needed was a keyboard, a pet photo, and some angst and you were sharing.

But blogging didn't stop. This article is a blog post, but it's for the most mainstream of mainstream media. You may not know it, but ZDNet is part of the CBS media empire. CBS, of course, is one of America's great founding broadcast networks, started by William Paley in 1927.

So, as my post here proves, while blogging is accessible to everyone, it's also now a widely used communications vehicle, adopted by mainstream as well as personal media. When I post here, I'm very well aware that I have editors and producers and standards to uphold. But when I post lab notes on my personal site, I answer to nobody and can say anything I want.

Podcasting has undergone a similar transformation. It was first a vehicle for audio and then video broadcasts, limited mostly by the cost of bandwidth required to host the files. Even with that cost, intrepid independent broadcasters fired up their microphones and went to town, saying anything -- and I do mean anything -- they wanted to say.

The medium got its big break when Apple added podcasting to iTunes. This meant that listeners no longer had to jump through technical hoops to find, download, and sideload onto their devices the podcasts they wanted to listen to. It was just there like any other iTunes file.

Then came YouTube and the rise of the YouTube star. YouTube made video broadcasting free to the broadcaster and removed all gates between the world's kittens and your video screen. Because of its huge audience, its built-in viral distribution mechanisms, and the immediacy of the video, stars were born.

But unlike the stars of years past, these stars could own their audience. They weren't hired or fired by producers. They were powered by their audience -- and just their audience. Some YouTube stars reach more people than American Idol.

What makes personal media like podcasting and YouTube so interesting is the vast difference in...everything. Some people build companies around content production and produce video with every bit the production quality of the networks. Others sit in their pajama bottoms and record from a garage or spare room.

More great project ideas

And that, curiously enough, brings us back to second-tier comedian Marc Maron -- and the President of the United States.

When Maron started his podcast back in 2009, he initially produced it in the Air America studios (he still had keys to the building). As you might imagine, that situation changed and Maron eventually set up his garage as a broadcasting space. His one-bedroom, two bathroom house became host to a show filled with interviews and commentary.

Because Maron is an entertainer, he has been able to reach both above and below his station and bring in an ongoing stream of interesting guests. These included Kevin Smith and Robin Williams in a sad and poignant foreshadowing of his eventual suicide.

And so Maron built an audience. There were no TV or radio executives to tell him what to do. He just kept doing his thing. Some (like me) downloaded and quickly tuned out. Others became loyal listeners for the long haul.

Slowly, but surely, Maron built a bigger name for himself via his own podcast than he had ever built as a radio host or late night TV guest.

Last Friday, any remaining question that podcasts and personal broadcasting were somehow less credible than the mainstream media gatekeeper broadcasts were put to rest.

Last Friday, a government sniper climbed onto the roof of the home of one of Maron's neighbors. The LAPD swarmed his neighborhood. His cats were locked in his bedroom.

Last Friday, the 44th President of the United States, Commander-in-Chief of the world's most powerful military force, President Barack Obama came to Maron's garage and talked.

The interview, released on Monday, exploded worldwide because not only did the President sit in a Pasadena garage for an interview, he also either relaxed enough or was calculating enough to use the "n-word" in the context of a discussion on race relations.

You can listen to the interview on your own. This isn't about President Obama's politics (or Maron's for that matter). What it's about is that the mindset of what makes up mainstream media has changed.

Just a few years ago, no White House would have approved of a President doing what amounts to a pirate radio interview in someone's garage. Interviews were doled out to prestigious, proven media outlets, not some guy wearing a plaid shirt sitting in a cluttered garage who is neither part of any network nor has any executive management approving his style or content.

Poorly-treated cable customers have the potential to reach millions of fellow customers through Facebook, Twitter, and SoundCloud. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube shaped the political debates in the Arab Spring. So, too, we are seeing how podcasting and personal media broadcasting is reaching far beyond the neighborhood garage.

Mass media is no longer solely owned by the massive media companies. Individuals, even second-tier comedians, can build their audience, showcase their style and talents, and score the most prestigious of media "gets," the President himself.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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