Sometimes efficiency is bad
Engineers believe in efficiency. We believe doing something in 5 seconds is better than doing it in 5 minutes. We spend our lives automating, scripting, abstracting, doing everything possible to save time.
And for the most part, this is good! I love how, as an software engineer, my job has been made more efficient. I love that I write web apps in a framework that that compiles to an interpreted language that runs in an engine written in a compiled language and so on all the way down to the physical switches that make up my circuit board. Those abstractions let me work efficiently.
But lately, I’ve been thinking about when efficiency makes life worse. It started when I turned on the radio.
WUOG: Student radio
I’ve lived in Athens, Georgia, for several years. I initially moved here so my partner could attend veterinary school at the University of Georgia. It was then I discovered the delights of WUOG, a student-run alternative radio station. I can’t remember how I found it, or why I was even listening to the radio (I have a smartphone and Spotify). The station stuck in my mind, though, because the music was great.
In their own words:
WUOG is an alternative media outlet, meaning that it is our duty to air quality programming that is otherwise neglected on commercially operated channels. Our station’s music philosophy is designed to help new and independent artists gain exposure on campus, in Athens, and throughout the nation…
Artists “graduate” from WUOG when they meet either of the following criteria:
- The artist has or had a song chart on the The Billboard Hot 100 in the past 20 years.
- The artist has an album that has entered the Top 20 of the Billboard 200.
It is the only radio station where I constantly yell at my phone while driving, “Hey Siri, what song is this?” The students running the station have excellent taste.
The other half of WUOG’s magic is its DJs. You might imagine a radio station run by college students would be unprofessional, and it absolutely is. WUOG hosts range from “somewhat competent” to “hilariously, obviously stoned.” I can’t remember the exact words, but a few years ago I heard something like this around 5pm on WUOG:
Hey, what’s up guys, it’s ya boy DJ Pygmy Goat. I’m… uh… supposed to be getting off in a moment, but… the person who’s supposed to replace me isn’t here yet. So, yeah. Guess I’ll keep hanging around with you.
This, I must emphasize, rules. It is funny. It is something you cannot get from Spotify. It feels special, unique, and human. It’s endearing, to hear the students experiment and joke and take personal phone calls on air and use goofy names like DJ Feral Housewife.
I just wish they did it more.
In recent years, WUOG has embraced automation.
Roughly a decade ago, the station was still staffed with live DJs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Graveyard shifts were considered a rite of passage, and it felt completely appropriate to bug the next DJ if they failed to wake up for their 5 a.m. shift.
Automation generally pales in comparison to the personality of on-air hosts and variety of hand-picked selections, but it offers a convenient way to relieve staff from working around the clock.
Automating playlists was a lifesaver for them during COVID, and it helps during holiday breaks and overnight. That’s understandable - I’d never want someone to give up their holiday for a radio station. Automation is more efficient than 24/7 staffing.
But I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t hurt the station. When I tune in, a lot of the time there’s no DJ on the air. Half of the magic of WUOG is its absurd, unprofessional student DJs. Without them, WUOG is just a playlist. I can get that on Spotify.
With engineering, more efficient is always better (assuming you’re not also making some other part of the system worse). But art isn’t like that. Art is about experience and human connections and special moments that happen just once at 11am on a Tuesday on college radio.
Sometimes, the reason something inefficient is good is because it’s inefficient.