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Are you even listening to yourself?

Evening Post & Mail
On the BBC’s historical “Empire Service” and outreach to the work-from-home empire of today

It was in December 2019 that the first cluster of Covid-19 patients were identified in Wuhan, China. But it wasn’t really until the very abrupt escalation of circumstances in March 2020 that the massive adjustment to a work-from-home economy took hold in the United States. At one point in 2020, 54% of Americans were working exclusively from home. That number has fallen to about a quarter, but about half of the American workforce is still working from home at least some of the time, according to Gallup data.
■ Working from home has shown itself to be both easy and hard. Aside from the initial learning curve required to implement technologies like videoconferencing, Americans found the basic functional transition easy, but discovered it was harder to do things like maintain focus and motivation. The “soft” parts of working from home (like drawing boundaries around personal time and keeping up on water-cooler talk without a water cooler) have turned out to be much more difficult than adapting to the “hard” skills required.
■ The economic downturn that resulted from the pandemic was terrible for productivity in sectors like arts and entertainment (which have an obvious sensitivity to whether people can gather), but appears to have left work-from-home-friendly sectors like IT, finance, and professional services largely unscathed. It should surprise nobody at all if working remotely (from home or elsewhere) remains not only an option but a robust and permanent feature of a lot of white-collar work. It’s terrible for downtown stores, restaurants, and landlords, but it’s an adjustment that is almost undoubtedly here to stay.
■ In addition to how working from home has vaporized a lot of conventional office chatter, it’s also reshaped a lot of media habits – there’s no point in listening to drive-time radio for traffic reports if you’re only commuting to the kitchen. This adjustment makes it seem strange that nobody seems to have developed a “Working from Home” radio format. Human beings like to feel as though we have a sense of what’s happening around us – either that we can see it for ourselves (it’s one reason why we love having windows), or that someone will tell us right away if something is noteworthy (which serves to explain at least some part of the endemic of social-media addiction).
■ This deep into a social and cultural shift, it’s odd that something bigger hasn’t caught on in response. People have obvious attachments to their Spotify playlists and their Pandora streams, but a giant rotating library of music is insufficient if part of the reason for listening to something during the day is to gather a sense of being aware and connected to what is happening. The idea that an audio programming service could provide satisfying background sounds with occasional live updates on the relevant “here and now” is nothing new. It was the cornerstone of full-service radio decades ago, though that particular format has gone almost extinct today.
■ But no matter whether delivered by terrestrial transmitters or by an Internet stream, it seems like a tremendous missed opportunity for programmers to have ignored how a modern revival of a full-service format could be just what a lot of people working from home didn’t know they wanted. And with the technological capabilities in place to address the musical tastes and preferences of lots of listener demographics, it seems even more obvious that enterprising programmers could arrange lots of carefully-targeted musical formats around a shared “clock” of useful, live, and local updates from amiable hosts.
■ The BBC World Service had its origins in the “Empire Service” – when radio was used to offer a sense of companionship to the “remote workers” of a far-flung empire. It seems obvious that a similar companionship approach would find a market in the digital “empire” of working from home.
Lend me your ears
Lend me your ears
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Brian Gongol
Brian Gongol @briangongol

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