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Martina Castro

Zen and the Art of Quality By Martina Castro

I recently finished Robert Persig's 1974 novel, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." It's a book about understanding why we perceive the world the way we do, and what we should do about it. It has to do with values, and philosophies, and ways to justify our existence. It was not easy to get through, but what kept me reading was an interesting question the author set out to answer about quality: What is it, exactly?

Persig's main character is convinced that quality is where we all come from, and what drives the world forward. He says quality is ultimately impossible to define, but when you see it, there is no way to miss it.

This thesis grabbed me. His quest to define quality seems appropriate, given that it's a fuzzy concept we all constantly reference, as if we know what we're talking about. I'm consistently getting into conversations with people who are convinced that the world is losing sight of quality. Whether we're talking about music, journalism, radio, or just the quality of work in general, it's not uncommon to hear people say that quality is a thing of the past.

I didn't come to radio after slaving away in journalism school, or after years of late nights working at my college radio station. I came to it first as a listener, because I was captivated by a quality I hadn't heard or seen anywhere else. The quality of sound possible in radio storytelling tempted both my ears and my mind, and thus began my love of the art.

But now, as the honeymoon stage of this love affair is coming to an unanticipated end, disillusion is making an appearance, and I'm having trouble defining quality like I never have before.

An engineer I chatted with recently about this question told me that personal stereo systems first became widely available to the general public in the 1980s. He said it was the first time people could access quality sound whenever they wanted, carrying it around with them wherever they went. This revolutionized the world's listening ears.

Since then, radio has gone from AM to FM, to digital, to satellite to HD. The medium for listening to music has gone from the personal cassette-playing "walkman," to the discman, to the MP3 player. You could say that technological progress has been about expanding on quality, on making everything "better."

Well, what is "better"? Nowadays, it seems like "better" means more accessible, more portable, faster, and then the ultimate consumer advantage, cheaper. The cheaper it is, the easier it is to access, therefore the "better" the product. But is the actual quality of the content and how we hear it really improving? Does it even matter?

I can't help but ask: why do people listen anyway? Whether you're listening to radio or music, does the sound quality actually matter anymore? Or is the content what really makes the difference? Maybe "quality" nowadays refers to the best deal for your buck, or being able to find what you want as quickly and as easily as possible.

All industries are moving toward maximizing their budgets, squeezing where they can, and letting go where they must, so that they can keep up with this suddenly realized demand. The quality that inspired me to come to radio journalism seems to be on the chopping block, and a different quality, that of portability, speed, technical innovation and financial efficiency is the new standard for excellence.

This means that the new generation of radio journalists is coming into a very different industry than what existed five or ten years ago. They are already highly adaptable, versatile, and well-rounded multi-taskers, so there is no doubt that they're going to fit right in. After all, they are of this new age. But can the rookies (like me) take anything forward without knowing where it has been? Should they scrap the old definition of quality, and focus only on the new?

When it comes to precise definitions, quality is probably too relative a term to be pinned down. But it's not about being able to define it, just knowing how to recognize it. The Zen in Persig's novel was about meditating on this undefinable quality in everything that we do, as we live, breathe and create in this world. If we just did that -- no matter what version of quality we happen to recognize in the world -- maybe we could collectively stay producing what the world needs, while still giving people what they want.

Thoughts? Write Us.

Columnist Martina Castro is back in her hometown of Washington, DC, after spending some time working for the NPR program "Day to Day" in Los Angeles. She’s applying for jobs and waiting. In the meantime, she’s still living in "The Transition Zone."

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