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Graphic by Bryan Waterman, with edits by Tom Abi Samra

Research Paper Radio

“No actual research papers have been harmed or even discussed in the making of this show, but the music's so good you might find yourself itching to write about it.”

Mar 2, 2019

Every Sunday night, Bryan Waterman, Associate Professor of Literature and Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Development, hosts a three-hour radio show called Research Paper Radio. Professor Waterman’s show runs from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Sunday nights and includes a diverse selection of music, from New Wave to Leonard Cohen covers and everything in between.
Research Paper Radio is broadcasted on NYU Abu Dhabi’s very own radio station, Howler Radio. Howler started in the early days of the Saadiyat campus, sponsored by the Interactive Media department. Howler describes itself as a “web based radio from the desert” with a fixed weekly schedule of shows hosted by members of the NYUAD community. Earlier this week, The Gazelle’s Features Editor, Taj Chapman, sat down with Professor Waterman to discuss his radio show, music and the future of radio.
Chapman: What got you started making a Howler radio show?
Waterman: So, I knew the students who started it. You know, it was called Jackal Radio in the beginning and they talked about it for a little while. They sat down with [the] interactive media [department] and they were Skyping people from different campuses and talking about shows. I mean, somebody asked me to come to that meeting, and from that very first meeting I thought, “this is great, I wanna have a show.” I sort of have a habit of listening to web-based radio, so I’ve spent a long time with the architecture of the kinds of shows that I like and sort of created a framework for myself that fit into that vocabulary.
Chapman: Every week on the show, there’s a new theme or topic and on the Howler site it says “Never the same show twice.” What's your process for coming up with themes and how does this influence the set?
Waterman: Well you do get some of the same artists. So, the idea was I wasn't gonna have a ton of time to plan shows in advance, so I needed a formula that would take some of the decision making away from me. I like all kinds of music and recorded sound, so I just you know, I have drives and old iPods that are just full of songs. So, the idea was to start introducing search terms or other kinds of constraints into those databases and see what emerges... On the very first episodes of my show we played all of the songs on my old iPod that started with the word “all.” So we said, we’re gonna play all of the all songs. We as in, Allen Magnusson showed up. He was part of that first group of students that started Jackal. I would show up at ten and he would show up at 11 [p.m.] and we would have a conversation over the music we played. I think he was there for that first show.
I read this old essay I wrote about one of my old iPods and the fascinating thing was that if you played the song tracks in alphabetical order and just played it, then different patterns would emerge, based on the first word of the song title. Even in my own collection, different genres would cluster towards different letters of the alphabet, all the hip hop was in W. There were a lot of hip hop songs on my old iPod that had lots of “who, what, when, where, why” questions for titles. So I thought, that's kind of interesting. I had never noticed that before. I just tried to follow that impulse and create content.
I mean the word search ones are my laziest. I'll just search a word and if I have three hours of material, then I drag everything into a folder and start from there. But some of my favorite shows were different. I had some shows that were only instrumental. I had some shows that were mostly spoken word, like a lot of poetry or songs that seemed to be delivered in more of a spoken style. So those were things I collected over time.
I would hear something and drag them into a folder until I had enough material to play. I also had non-English shows and that one I liked, because when I do the word searches, if I'm searching in English, I only get English speaking music but I have a ton of material that doesn't even have English track titles. So I have to figure out a way to use all that stuff.
Chapman: Where did the name Research Paper Radio come from?
Waterman: Lots of students think its a research paper advice show.
Well for one, it alliterates and I'm a professor. I actually knew that I wanted to have my theme song for the show be this song by Gary Davis called 'The Professor's Here.' I used to think about that, “if I ever have a radio show I want it to be this song.” So I just thought, you know the professor is here, Research Paper Radio, it sounded good.
In the early seasons, maybe in the second semester or second year, I did a directed study with Melinda Szekeres, Class of 2019. We did directed readings on places where words and visual art comes together, in 1960s art and poetry. We would just get together and discuss whatever she was reading that week on the radio show. So we basically did a directed study out loud on the show. It was really kind of rough and haphazard, but really fun. So that was the closest we ever came to doing research. We did actually read a research paper on air for that, it was a paper a student had done a long time ago about Yoko Ono.
There was once, we had a cool formula once called Ubu Radio Annotated or something like that. The idea was that we would go to’s radio stream, which appears on WFMU, a freeform station that I've always listened to.
So we went to their radio stream and basically listened to their sound files from their massive collection of avant-garde sound recordings. Like it's got the whole history of 20th-century sound and it just randomly generates a playlist..
We just played their stream through our radio and then we would play for like half an hour. While we were playing, we would take out our laptops and try to research whatever was on air. Then we would come to mic and talk about what had just played. In that case, most of us didn't know what we were listening to. Most of us were scrambling to research it and come back on the air and say something about it. That was great too because nobody had to come back and make decisions about what we were going to play. I really liked the mechanical aspect of removing some of the decision making process.
Chapman: With a bunch of new shows coming in this semester, do you think Howler is reviving?
Waterman: Yeah, I do think that it cycles. You have people that are really into it for a while and then when they go away you might not have that same crop of people who are. I think that's normal. I mean I hope students keep being interested in Howler. I think it's a really fun project.
I think it's matter both of, trying to find an audience for what you're doing, but knowing that the audience is going to be pretty small. Think of it as an experiment in sound recording. I don't know if everyone records their shows but if you do, you have a document, which is accessible for as long as we have interfaces to play it back. It is an extremely durable format, that actually gave new life to radio because before then you couldn't archive and playback stuff. Because regular listeners can go online now and you don't have to live close to a station to be able to pick up a signal. It's just so beyond that, where you can access little tiny radio streams from places all over the world.
Chapman: So would you say that radio has a future? Waterman: I hope so because I prefer to listen to music that's being DJed by human beings. You know there's some really interesting writing about the problem of algorithmic listening.
You know how Spotify finishes your songs and then kicks you into an auto generated playlist. That can be really cool in a way because they have a massive database and they can push you toward things that you might like. Because they're sonically, or generically, or even mood-wise related in some way but, somehow, there's a relationship there and their algorithm will tip you towards new music. But it can all start to sound the same – they kind of bottom out, in some areas their resources are pretty limited.
You’re gonna get the same seven bands over and over. But if you listen to a free form show that a really capacious DJ is playing, they're listening for connections that you were never gonna hear otherwise. They heard something and thought these two songs worked well together and nobody's going to be able to program that.
Chapman: BBC Radio published a piece called “Why the music we love as teens stays with us for life” where they argue that we are quicker to recognize and enjoy the music from our teenage years; that this music will stay with us for life. What are your thoughts on this?
Waterman: So a friend’s dad told me that once – and he was in his 70s or early 80s. We have this music listening club I've been a part of for several years and this friend’s dad came over and he played two tracks from 1955 from the same artist. He said, yeah, you know, the music you listen to when you're 15 will stay with you for the rest of your life. There's sort of something to that, [although] there are bands that I was passionate about at 15 that I can't stand right now. I maxed out at a certain point. But there are some that I never stopped listening to.
I mean it's true, like what I was saying about international new wave, there's something about the sound that was produced between 1979 to 1988, so basically my teenage years. There's something about the sound that really does have this sense memory aspect to it. It just like, it hits a certain emotional thing. I like so many other kinds of music, but there's something about that type of music that always drags me back.
Yeah, I mean, it's hard to argue with that. It just goes to show how music structures our emotional development and sense of identity. There's no doubt that a large part of who my friends were – I was friends with people who had the same taste in music.
Chapman: Do you think the way people listen to music nowadays is different in anyway?
Waterman: It’s totally different, for better or for worse. You can WhatsApp a Spotify track to someone. Like you could be listening to something and already have sent it to someone around the world. There's something instantly gratifying about that.
Lots of people don't listen to albums. A lot of people listen to playlists or singles. It's even more than that, there's this thing of how easily accessible everything is which sometimes makes me feel like taste doesn't work quite the same way.
Like when I was a kid you could get beaten up for listening to the wrong kind of music; or you might not be friends with somebody for what they listened to. Now I feel like things are so universally available, that people just agree to let everybody have their own taste. You're not gonna get into fights with people over what they're listening to, and I think you know the level of investment might be a little lower. I don't know if that's necessarily true or not but it feels like that.
Chapman: Thanks for talking with me, Professor.
Tune into Research Paper Radio Sundays from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Sunday nights. A small disclaimer in the show’s description states, “No actual research papers have been harmed or even discussed in the making of this show, but the music's so good you might find yourself itching to write about it.”
Taj Chapman is Features Editor. Email him at
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