Prof. John Sheridan
Paul Harvey's recent death, at 90, after a career that began on ABC Radio in 1951, brought to mind the influence of this medium on my young life. It brought back memories of sitting on my living-room floor, with my father and brothers, while listening to live broadcasts of the three heavyweight title fights between Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson, who also died recently. These bouts, fought between 1959 and '62, were broadcast exclusively on radio.
I belong to the baby-boom generation, born in 1948, a most prolific year of reproduction for my parent's generation. Although my generation's development parallels television's, radio was part of my cultural upbringing, too. That's because my grandmother, Nana, always listened to the radio as she whiled away the last years of her long life, she died at 92, on a couch in the sun porch.
The golden age of radio, when the whole family sat by a large wooden radio and listened to Big Band music and to comedy, drama and variety shows, was replaced by television. Some shows were successful at making the transition from radio to television, but many, especially Big Bands, did not make the cut. This is because Americans wanted something new from the new medium of television; their TV screens would soon be dominated by cowboys, cops and quiz shows.
American families used to sit by their radios as previous generations had sat around Franklin stoves listening to family lore passed down over the generations. The radio was a master story teller, engaging the whole family. Unlike watching television, which produces families of couch potatoes who barely acknowledge one another, listening to the radio was quality time for a family.
There were entire families who were scared out of their wits, truly believing that Martians were invading New Jersey, when The Mercury Theatre on the Air, starring Orson Welles, broadcast H. G. Welles "War of the Worlds" on Halloween 1938. Many families were listening to their favorite programs when, on Dec. 7, 1941, news of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor ended their peaceful Sunday afternoon -- "a day that will live in infamy!" And it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "fireside chats" on the radio, begun in 1933 during the Great Depression, which assuaged their fears during World War II.
While television was replacing Hollywood movies as America's prime medium of entertainment, in the days when Americans went to the movies two or three times a week, radio was adapting to the challenge of television through the car radio, and then the transistor radio.
With the rise of American affluence and concomitant car culture in the 1950's, radio entertained Americans as they commuted from suburb to city on new highways or as they enjoyed the open road on long rides to the beach or lake during summer vacations. Installing radios in cars was a stroke of genius.
And the transistor radio, an innovation that heralded Japanese dominance of the electronics industry, offered everyone a convenient way to listen to the medium. This compact radio became an accessory that could be carried anywhere, to a picnic table or a blanket on a beach.
As American affluence trickled down to teenagers, a separate youth culture without precedent spread across America. For the first time in economic history, teens had disposable income and were coveted consumers who were targeted by corporate America, including big tobacco. Getting a driver's license was a rite of passage for them, with some teens even driving their own cars. And nothing was cooler than riding in a car, preferably a convertible, while smoking cigarettes and listening to Top 10 hit songs.
Radio's programming, influenced by teenagers in cars or with transistor radios pressed to their ears, would adapt as well. Certain radio stations ended their eclectic formats, becoming full-time music stations that played mostly Pop and Rock ??Roll. This gave rise to the Disc Jockey (DJ), who used to "spin" 45 r.p.m. records from a sound booth in a radio station. The 45 was a recording innovation that helped an individual song, called a "single," to become commercially successful by giving teens a chance to buy it as a cheap 45 rather than having to buy an expensive 33 r.p.m. album to get this same song.
American cities usually had two radio stations catering to teenagers, as well as individual DJ's whose hip persona and jargon attracted a large following. In my hometown of Philadelphia (Philly), we had WIBG ("wibbage") for Pop & Rock and WDAS for Soul music, with many high-school students doing their homework while their radios were tuned in to these stations.
A wave of nostalgia swept through Philly baby boomers when WIBG, the station they were weaned on, ended its music format in 1998 and changed to Talk Radio, the dominant force in radio today. The appeal of Talk Radio is that it engages listeners in the discussion at hand, encouraging them to participate by calling in, often from cell phones in cars, and giving their impassioned opinion on current events and social issues that are roiling the nation. It is a forum that invites listeners to have their say, the equivalent of a Letter to the Editor in real time.
Radio's all-music format was also challenged by The Walkman and music downloading, eroding its young audience. Both of these let Generation X (and the rest) pick and choose the music they really wanted to listen to rather than what the radio stations, with their repetitive advertising, frequent news reports and annoying DJ's spinning commercial music, were offering. But the stations have kept in tune with their commuting listeners in cars by giving up-to-the-minute traffic reports that tell drivers listening to Talk Radio why they are stuck in traffic jams and how to avoid them.
Celebrity DJ's have been replaced by celebrity Talk Radio hosts. The most influential of these hosts is Russ Limbaugh, a bloated, overbearing bigmouth who is more "entertaine" ?than pundit. This arch-conservative spokesman for the Republican base put both feet in his mouth, and was widely chastised, when he declared that he wanted President Obama "to fail." At a time when America, and the world, is suffering economic hard times and when people who voted against Obama want him to succeed, Russ' statement was deemed outrageous. I wish the blowhard would just shut up.
Another bigmouth is Howard Stern, a notorious "shock jock." His risque shtick and fixation with women's boobs, always asking a guest to display them, raised the ire of the Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.), which fined and harassed Stern off national radio. But I doubt whether many of the people who vilify Stern's antics have ever listened to his show. A very literate friend of mine listens religiously, finding his sharp wit quite funny. Unfortunately for Stern, the F.C.C. does not have a sense of humor.
Radio remains a viable medium because it adapted to modernity. Now newspapers, the first mass medium, must adapt to the Internet. From Boston to Seattle, newspapers are on the brink of bankruptcy because circulation, and therefore advertising revenue, is way down. There are cities facing the specter of not having a hometown paper to cover "tribal" news. This decline in readership has nothing to do with a decline in literacy; it's that people are opting for a more convenient way to gather the news -- the Internet.
Newspapers are adapting by going online, but as media institutions that are as much a part of a city as are its people, streets and architecture, they will only be shells of their former selves. Unlike radio stations, which have remained viable despite television, many newspapers will close or become subsumed into the Internet.
Radio has adapted; newspapers that don't will perish.
By Prof. John Sheridan (Resigned)
Dept. of English Lang. & Lit.
Prof. John Sheridan (Resigned) Dept. of English Lang. & Lit.
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