Thursday, September 4, 2014

Communication at the Speed of Light...

There was a story in the LA Times this morning about the beginning of WWI in 1914. A steamship arrived at a Pacific Island with the news the war had started three weeks before. The English and the French living on the island were surprised to find out that they were now the enemies of their German friends on the island. And had been for three weeks. Slow communication.

A book came out a few years ago about the change radio brought to every corner of the country and the world. It wasn't a very good book, but it opened something like this...

"Imagine you are living on a farm in a remote corner of one of the western states, it takes you a full day to go to town and back. When you go, maybe two or three times a month, you get things you need for the farm and your family, you haven't any idea what's going on in the world until you get to town. You get your mail, you see the local paper, you talk to friends and shop keepers. At the end of the summer you travel to the state fair and you see for the first time something called a radio. It requires electricity to operate, you have none. But this radio has a wind powered device that makes electricity to charge the radio's batteries. You buy the radio and take it back to the farm."

What changed for this farmer and his family in their little, remote corner of the world? Everything. Grain prices in the morning, national and local news and baseball. Late Saturday afternoon Standard Oil brought the New York Philharmonic to the farm. For the first time in your life you heard the voice of the President. You had music to listen to anytime you wanted it and you had weather forecasts. What's more important to a farmer than the weather?

When we built our lake cabin in the 50's we had a 30's era Zenith (my grandfather bought it new) console radio with a cat's eye tuner in the corner of the living room. The big old Zenith had AM, something called FM and multiple bands of shortwave. My grandfather ran the antenna wire to a window screen and the old set was ready to go. The Zenith had push buttons below the dial just like a car. The buttons were labeled with the call letters of the big clear channel stations of the time. WCCO, WGN, WLS, WLW, WBBM, KMOX and of course, North Dakota's first radio station WDAY. I listened to the sinking of the Andrea Doria as it happened on that radio. The radio played rock and roll and it made me despise Patti Page. The first time I heard the BBC World Service was on the old Zenith. I heard short wave broadcasts in foreign languages, including I suppose Russian propaganda and our propaganda on Radio Free Europe

The old Zenith had a "eye" it looked like the eye of a cat when you tuned it perfectly on the station you wanted to listen to. Still a good idea.The sound quality was great on the old radio, better than the car or the little Arvin I had in my room. The radio in those days was a window on the world. Then I got my first 6 transistor radio, it fit in my pocket, it had a little speaker and ear buds. I could ride my bike and listen to Little Richard and Gene Vincent. I could listen to R&B played by John R "Way Down South in Dixie if I turned my little radio in the right direction at night.

Early in my career I worked with a guy named Lem Hawkins. Lem was from Oklahoma and had started as a radio musician on a station in Oklahoma City. The station was owned by the publisher of the newspaper, the publisher also owned a farm. Lem and his band mates worked on the farm, got in a truck at noon drove into the station and played hillbilly music on the radio from 12:15 to 1, Got back in the truck, drove back to the farm and went back to work. Lem started announcing full time and quit the farm. When I worked with Lem he had been in radio one way or another for 35 years. Lem should have written a book, he was definitely not the guy he "played" on the radio.

Today's instant communication and information would amaze my grandparents. They were born before radio existed. My parents grew up with radio and adapted quickly to Television, I grew up with both and I've adapted to the instant communication/gratification of the internet. I suspect my grandchildren will read this post with skepticism, shake their heads and they sit at their 3 screen computer set ups with an I-Phone in their hand. Keep in mind kids all of this has happened in less than a 100 years, TV wasn't common outside of the big cities until the early 50's and the web since the late 80's and it didn't start to work very well until 10 or 12 years ago. Until the telegraph came along in 1837 people in Boston had no idea what was going on in New York for days, the telegraph, the first mass electronic communication system prompted massive changes in society including the adoption of standard time zones.

20 million people still listen to Prairie Home Companion on the radio, the replays and the web...a good show is a good show. Always has been no matter where you find it. And I still read the newspaper too. 


  1. Ah yes. The good old days. Our big radio at home was a floor model Philco. I can remember listening to Amos and Andy, the Great Gildersleeve, the Green Hornet, and lying on the floor in front of the speaker sobbing when Bobby Thompson ended my Brooklyn Dodgers' season in 1951. That was about the year we got our first t.v. I had gotten into ham radio and read in a book about how to adjust the t.v. set. My dad told me to leave it alone but I used a screwdriver in a hole in the rear of it to straighten out the horizontal and vertical linearity. He was amazed.

    Good post, Jager.

  2. Saturday mornings I'd sit by our Philco, a beautiful floor model, stare at the dial screen, lights and cloth of the speakers and listen to radio adventures. We got a big plastic Zenith table top radio that had a piece broken off a corner. It sat on my chest of drawers and evenings I'd drift off to sleep listing to Johnny Dark, and old radio PI shows or dramas. Because of the fractured corner, light would seep from the back of the radio and light up the wall. Radio was magic. It also expanded my world. At about nine I started to listen to Monitor-wow! The NBC program was brilliant.

    Thanks for the memories!

    1. Old Dick Fairbanks had a collection of old radios in the conference room at WKOX...he let them go. I should have taken one of them, a Zenith with the cat's eye...