Networked NY Q&A: Greg Young of The Bowery Boys

Our latest Networked NY Q&A comes from one of our “Blogscapes and Digital Interactions” panelists, Greg Young of The Bowery Boys. Greg answers questions below about the evolution of blogging, the future of the podcast and life as a history evangelist.

As a member of the “Blogscapes and Digital Interaction” panel, what was your take on the conference as an occasion to explore material, literary and digital connections in the city? What immediate questions or concerns did you take away from your conversation with Bryan, Teri, Rachel and Maud?

As somebody a little outside the world of academia, I was honored to participate and was interested in academic exploration of the ever-evolving methods of digital information.  If anything, our panel discussion made me realize that the issues I face daily as a blogger and podcaster are similar to everybody else’s issues, no matter the subject matter. It’s like there are two tracks to a blogger’s life these days – the topic they’re discussing and the actual process of blogging itself.  Sometimes knowing how to maximize digital content can take as much intellectual prowess as the subjects of the articles themselves.

One of your most quotable moments from the panel came when you suggested that newspapers are picking up the bad habits of blogs and blogs are picking up the best habits of newspapers.  Can you say more about what you mean by that?  I know that the focus during the panel was driven by the audience’s interest in fact-checking, but I’m curious whether you see other applications/developments in the evolving relationships between New York blogs and New York print outlets.

My background is in magazine journalism, and I studied at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where the study was extremely (some would so overly) focused on newspaper craft. Wrapped within that was a traditional take on journalistic ethics. So when I originally began blogging, I was struck by the seeming lack of such structure to so-called ‘blog journalism’.

Over the past five years, however, that has noticeably changed from my perspective. Blogs have become reliable sources of information as a greater pool of digital source materials becomes available, making it actually irresponsible to be factually incorrect. With a greater cacophony of blogs in the digital universe, factually wrong or poorly written blogs are simply ignored.

I also think basic design has influenced content. There was a very awkward period when digital newspapers tried to convey their information using standard newspaper column design. Academic and library resources also presented their information in ways that was not viewer friendly.

As readers have become comfortable with what might be called ‘standard blog template’ (one or two columns, scrolling, with hotlink and jump buttons to expand articles), those design basics informed newspapers. But in doing so, it changed the content — article length, of course, but also the tone of articles. Perhaps cynically, the writing itself might take reader’s abbreviated attention spans into consideration.

Your podcast and blog speak in a very immediate way to an audience of New Yorkers, but you also noted how they organically generate a community beyond New York through comments, links and other digital formats.  Do you see an opportunity for exchange between these local and global communities? 

The biggest revelation in doing The Bowery Boys, both the blog and podcast, is the profound reach of the internet. We did our first couple dozen episodes completely unaware that anybody outside New York would find them interesting. Today, about half of our listeners live outside of the New York metropolitan area.

This has changed my perspective on creating content, but for the better.  Interacting with a global readership has broadened my personal perspective of the impact of history. Listeners aren’t just interested in the glamour of New York (although tourism is a big driver to our show) but also in how the city influenced the world. As a result we often do shows on larger topics (histories of electricity, radio or film) and New York’s contributions to those fields.

In a real sense, our global community has helped shape the show, but in a way that has only expanded its original purpose. I only hope to explore this further and, one day soon, to take it to another level.

My advice for any blogger: Keep true to yourself and your topic but realize that somebody in Tibet is probably reading you.

Image below: Brooklyn Radio Stores, 33 Flatbush Avenue, September 8, 1936. Wurts Brothers Collection, NYPL.

In your remarks at the conference, you cited the widespread obliviousness of most New Yorkers to the history they’re literally and figuratively inhabiting by living here. Are you an evangelist for New York history?  Does a resistance to thinking of ourselves as “native” New Yorkers (or the very porousness of that identity) contribute to the obliviousness you see?

I am totally a history evangelist, and not just New York history either. Every place on the planet has a story to tell. New York just happens to be very thickly stratified with them.

History enriches people’s lives abstractly, of course, but I argue that it does so practically as well. It’s about context. Your pizza tastes a whole lot better when you realize it’s been made in New York’s oldest pizza kitchen. (Whether it actually tastes good is besides the point.) This is the tourist perspective of New York. But to infuse that perspective into a daily experience here is profound. Suddenly, every street corner, every building, has a particular uniqueness. Everything talks back to you.

But that can be exhausting. The drone of everyday life in a city as difficult as New York blocks appreciation of it. It’s one of New York’s stunning ironies. We live in one of the most history-saturated places in America, but the speed of regular life obfuscates this.

I think the secret to a well-balanced, full-bodied life in New York is to have a little bit of tourist in you. Nobody should ever take our environments for granted. It’s simply too expensive to do so!

Your fellow panelists at Networked New York were all bloggers.  Can you say a word about how the podcast has shaped The Bowery Boys?  What can you do with the podcast that you can’t do with the blog?  Where is this format headed?  What other podcasts do you listen to?

We started the podcast in July 2007, and the blog was started shortly afterward, at Episode 3.  It was literally just started because I heard it was a good way to promote the podcast.  But I’ve always been a writer — always been writing something — and suddenly I realized that a blog could be an excuse to expand my own knowledge while presenting other stories on the periphery of ideas brought up in the podcast. It now seems that the podcast actually supports the blog.

The podcast makes history truly immediate for people. I could get really theoretical and talk about my theories of the oral tradition, of course, but simply put, a podcast is easy for people. As the authors, Tom and I can create a rapport that you simply cannot do with a written blog.

It’s unclear where the podcast as a medium is going. In one sense, this is actually the best time to create a podcast. Quality recording and editing equipment is affordable, and outlets like iTunes and Stitcher continue to support them. However, the medium has not evolved as it should. Some major outlets (like the New York Times) have abandoned it, even as others (like Slate) embrace it. It may turn out that there is a limited audience for podcasts in general, that in the end, for whatever reason, it will be unable to overcome perceived limitations when compared to regular terrestrial radio. But we’re doing our part to push the boundaries as we can.

There are a lot of excellent history podcasts out there. I regularly listen to only few of them! After doing my own, I find my brain almost maxed out on dates and places. I personally love a couple of big film podcasts (Filmspotting and Kermode Film Reviews). The slate of Slate podcasts are all outstanding. In a way, the best podcast in the world is the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day.  One day soon, I hope to work the word ‘incunabulum’ into a sentence.