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Something in the Air

Dave Randall

Posted on October 21, 2018 22:57

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Two important radio anniversaries are approaching. They remind us why an evolving medium remains vital.

Few people had experimental crystal sets in the Northeast, when KDKA, Pittsburgh, reported returns of the Warren Harding-John Cox Presidential Election, November 1920. It was the first radio broadcast.

It's hard to believe that in two years, radio, as we know it, will celebrate its Centennial. As a medium, it faces its biggest challenge since Television lured away the audience for variety, comedy and drama. It was through serendipity--the confluence of Rock 'n Roll's birth and the rotation of 40 records as a format- that radio was granted new life and purpose for the second half of the 20th Century.

This didn't happen via data mining and bean counting. That advised "sell out--the medium is dead." President Eisenhower insisted the radio networks stay in business, so that in a national emergency, he could reach the majority of the people. Otherwise they'd have evaporated into the ether.

Over the air radio is free. It is ubiquitous. If no longer a source of amazement, it's a cost free source of entertainment and information. How it will continue in a century defined by the internet, social media and smartphones, is not known.

Be assured the evolution will not come from the highly recompensed "geniuses" who create their own insider lexicon. What will save radio will come from entertainers, engineers, and a quirk of popular culture. It will defy the data, then be consumed by it, as the medium is, today. But it will survive.

That brings us to another anniversary that stands as testament to radio's impact, it's use, and distinction: Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast, October 30, 1938. Welles' and his Mercury Theater players used simulated news bulletins to dramatize an invasion of the earth by hostile Martian creatures. 80-years later, it stands out as innovative, brilliantly executed, and downright frightening.

The 23-year-old Welles succeeded in scaring the hell out of listeners in the eastern and central time zones who, if research had been correct, should have been tuned to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on NBC. The hysteria that ensued resulted in tougher regulation, and a very frank realization that radio's power could be used for good or nefarious purposes. Welles' series got a sponsor (Campbell's Soup), and the country got a cold splash of water in the face.

Before Welles' clearly-stated dramatization, Nazi Germany had been using the medium throughout the '30's to shape it's citizenry with lies and conditioning. During the War that began less than a year after the Martian broadcast, American radio reporters, particularly Edward R. Murrow, distinguished themselves with accurate accounts of the horror--as accurate as military censorship would allow. One medium, used for both mendacity and altruism. Something to remember in an era where talk show hosts report lies as fact. 

We observe these anniversaries, the first broadcast and War of the Worlds, not knowing how radio's next existence will manifest itself. We just know it will, whether it makes a dime or not.

Dave Randall

Posted on October 21, 2018 22:57

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One year ago: The Chicago Cubs held off Cleveland 3-2 in Game 5 of the World Series, cutting the Indians' lead to 3-2.

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