Look Both Ways

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Many speeches and press releases talk about looking towards the future or being aware of the past. It is my humble suggestion that we all try to do both. The past provides context, and an awareness of history. This is extremely important for in the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The future, on the other hand, is rife with the possibility of the unknown. It is the crucible in which the present is tested.

With this in mind, I would like to share two stories I found on the Internet, one each showcasing the past and the future of the medium known as radio.

Clea Simon of Boston.com gives us some perspective from the past courtesy of Wilmer “Bill” Cressman Swartley, Jr., the former general manager of WBZ radio. In their conversation he recalls the debut of the medium that was supposed to be radio’s death knell– television:

“The moment television was announced as a reality, everyone immediately forgot about radio except for the newscasts,” says Swartley, who was also a regional vice president of Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. That epic showdown started in 1939, when TV was unveiled at the World’s Fair, and Swartley, who will turn 100 on June 16, recalls it vividly. He had begun working for the Westinghouse Corp. after his graduation from Cornell and by that point was not only in management, but also on air on his local Pittsburgh station, often reading a radio play.

“Radio borrowed heavily, when it first came on air, from vaudeville,” says Swartley. The soon-to-be centenarian recalls hearing Jack Benny and other comedians in his youth in Pennsylvania. But by the time he assumed the job of general manager at WBZ in 1946, following five years of Army service, Swartley says the medium had gotten more formal, with talk shows or radio plays, a concert every afternoon, and evening announcers in tuxedos.

When he came to Boston, Swartley’s primary responsibility was getting WBZ-TV on air; the station launched on June 9, 1948. But the general manager also had to keep the radio station up and running, which he accomplished by focusing more on news.

“This is what our public wanted,” he says. “It was a public service they expected.” It was also, he learned, an area in which radio could edge out television. In order for the new, visual medium to cover breaking news, he recalls, “television had to send a person out there.” A radio announcer, however, could respond “in a flash. You tell them, ‘We have learned from the tower that a plane has crashed. We’ll give you more, now stay tuned.’ And they would!”

I think that the overall discussion of radio’s future often lacks a sense of history. Detractors speak of how old and unchanging the medium is, while proponents point to its lasting power and stability. The thing that boggles my mind is the fact that these discussions rarely seem concerned with the repeated cycles of modern history.

Every few decades since radio’s inception a new media technology has debuted that “signals the end.” First there was FM, a new form of broadcast that was supposed to wipe out AM radio completely. Millions of talk radio fans can tell you how well that went. Then there was television. Almost 60 years later, and radio reaches more people that ever. Now the new medium is the Internet. Do we see a pattern yet? These periods of protean change usually spur a frantic spate of innovation and re-imagination on the part of broadcasters.

A good example of that is this next article, Jon Gordon of Minnesota Public Radio shares a few brief thoughts on the spread of microblogging amongst NPR station hosts:

There were very few public radio people on Twitter when I signed up in August of 2007. That’s changed. Check out the public media Twitter Pack for a list of people to follow. I’m on there, as are many names you might recognize, including Bob Boilen of All Songs Considered, Clark Boyd from PRI’s The World, and MPR’s Bob Collins. Others have signed up but rarely use Twitter (can you hear me, Ira Glass?) On the other end of the spectrum you need a tolerance for noise if you follow NPR social media dude Andy Carvin.

This is one aspect of the future that is already upon us, the embrace of multiple methods of interaction as support for the broadcast. Twitter is hot right now, despite the new service’s recent outages, and is only one of many microblogging platforms out there. Utilizing it in this fashion is a token of things to come.

So before you enter the crosswalk to the future please look both ways.

Photo courtesy of celinecelines, used under its Creative Commons license

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