Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Facebook Radio

In which we see new technology is really an old story

The Felix Chronicles, #22

"All right, Mr. Cullen," Nate says."So you've told us about movies and
newspapers a hundred years ago. What about radio?"

"Yeah," Jason says. "What about radio?"

"Well, what do you want to know?"

"How did radio happen?" Jason asks. "When did people start listening to music?"

"If by 'music' you mean sound recordings, no
t for a long time after radio came along. Actually, the record industry hated radio. Record companies wanted no part of it."

"Really?" Lisa asks. "That's so weird."

"Well, not really. Record people thought that people would never buy music if they could get it for free."

"Well, I can kinda see that," Roy says. "My big brother tells me that there was a big fight over this company Napster a few years ago."

"Right. But that wasn't the only problem. Records also sounded lousy on early radio. Most music was live."

"That must have been cool," Joey says. "Radio today is so lame. Z-100 plays the same music over and over again."

"Actually, early radio was pretty lame," I say. "It was like local access cable today. Wayne and Garth type of stuff."

"Wayne and Garth?" Kim asks. "Who are Wayne and Garth?"

I sigh. Even pop culture that was after my time has become old. Of course I should have known
when Roy referred to Napster as "this company."

"Haven't you ever seen
Wayne's World?" Joey asks incredulously. He plays the air guitar and wails "Wayne'sworldWayne's world!" It's not clear whether the laughter is recognition of the riff or amusement at Joey's weirdness.

"Actually," I say, "We probably need to take a step back. The roots of radio are in telegraphy. You may remember when we talked it about that last fall: the telegraph allowed virtually instant communication between two points, connected by a wire. That was pretty amazing. But almost as soon as that happened, tinkerers and entrepreneurs began working on communication without wires -- wireless communication. By about 1900, the technology reached the point where this could happen relatively proficiently through Morse code. The big user of wireless telegraphy was the shipping business -- ports could get crowded, and accidents could happen in the dark and bad weather. Radio also had military applications that became apparent during the First World War."

"This is a little surprising," Lisa says. "That this thing we think of as entertainment was used for war."

"Not surprising at all. How do you think the Internet started?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, the Internet was first invented by the Defense Department in the 1960s. It was made so that computers could communicate in the event of a nuclear war."

"Wow. I had no idea."

"And tape recording was invented by the Nazis so that they could give the impression that Hitler was everywhere during World War II," Tom says.

"Yup. A lot of the the things we take for granted in everyday life started out as military technologies."

"Wow," Beth says. "That's sad."

"Yes, Beth, it is. "Radio became a form of entertainment pretty quickly, if not in the way you might think. By about 1920 a new hobby had emerged of so-called "radio hams" who set up communication systems in their basements and began signalling each other. By this point, the technology had improved to the point where it was possible to transmit the human voice. These guys were often total dweebs who were obsessed with distance." Here I adopt the voice of an imagined radio ham shouting to his wife upstairs: 'Hey honey! Listen to this! I got a guy here in Cleveland! Can you believe that? He says it's raining in Ohio!' The class laughs.

"This is kind of how I imagine Bill Gates in the seventies," I say. "He was a dork, too. They may strike out with girls, but end up running the world. You can imagine he got good looking pretty fast after he started Microsoft." Some amused smiles at this.

"So how did we get from that to listening to music?" Sam asks.

"Well, it began with an engineer outside of Pittsburgh," I answer. "This guy had the bright idea of transmitting music and other information to multiple people at the same time, people who didn't need or even want to talk back. So it was that radio broadcasting was born. People started buying just receivers rather than both halves of the set."

"So that's how we got Z-100," Joey says.

"Not quite. You're making it a much more straight line than it actually was."

"Really?" Kim asks. "Why?"

"Well, " I say, "early radio was a little like Facebook or Twitter."

"This I've got to hear," Susan says.

"What's Twitter?" Mindy asks.

"You don't know Twitter?" a bunch of voices ask in unison. I must say I'm surprised as well. But I don't want to get sidetracked.

"Well, like Facebook or Twitter, early radio was this big novelty item," I explain. "People were really intrigued by it. But people didn't quite know what to do with it, either. The rules weren't really clear, if you know what I mean. Just like we try to sort out what it means to 'friend' someone, people were trying to figure out what should go on the radio. In the early days, schools, labor unions, churches, even department stores owned radio stations. You could hear lectures, or sermons, or even college lectures -- "

'"Like those podcasts you can get at the iTunes store," Nate interrupts.

"Right. You could also hear really amateur entertainment. Like your neighborhood singing group. Or a local magician."

"Oh -- so now I see what you mean by Wayne's World," Sam says.

"Yes. A lot of it was really amateurish stuff."

"Like all those tweets people send around."

"Like those tweets," I affirm, never having Twittered myself. "But still, people were excited. And more than just a bunch of lame entertainers. People sensed there was serious money in radio. Just like they do in Facebook. The people who run Facebook today are sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars from investors. But no one is sure when, or even if, it will ever make any real money. They're just hoping."

"Yeah, Facebook is like radio in that people just like to lurk," Samantha says. "I never say much on Facebook. But I like to see what other people are doing."

"I love posting to Facebook," Lisa says. "What's the point if you don't participate?"

"Well, you may be pointing out an important difference between radio and Facebook," I say. Actually, it's the interactive dimension to Facebook that makes it the reason why people refer to it and things like Twitter as 'Internet 2.0.' The second generation of the Internet. Sort of what like sound movies were to silent pictures."

"So how did radio make money?" Kim asks.

Wanna take a guess?"

"By selling radio sets?"

"Not a bad answer. Actually, there was some money in that."

"Did people pay to go on the radio?" Ellen asks.

"Well, no, if by 'people' you mean entertainers. But you're on the right track."

"You mean advertisers?" Kim asks. As always, her curiosity is consistent and focused.

"Right. Advertising. Companies like Ever Ready batteries would pay to sponsor a show. That really drove up the quality of what it was possible to do. Proctor and Gamble, for example, would pay for the production of radio plays, aimed at middle-class women, who were often stay-at-home wives and mothers. They came to be known as soap operas."

"Aaah," Becky, who has been quiet today, says. "So that's where they came from!"

"Not that everyone was happy about advertising," I note. "You're probably too young to remember" -- by this point in the class, I've recalibrated my sense of generational time -- "but when the Internet became a presence in everyday life, there were a lot of people who were afraid of, and resented, the commercialization of the web. They didn't want advertising. Of course, they lost. There were people like that in radio, too. Those churches and unions, for example. By the 1930s, the Federal Radio Commission, headed by a guy named Herbert Hoover, gave all the best wavelengths -- like the one for Z-100 -- to commercial interests, while non-profit stations literally got shoved to the side, like 87 or 90 or something. There are always winners and losers when a new technology comes along. Which is not to say that big business always wins out. In England, for example, the government kept control and used money from taxes on radio sets to create the British Broadcasting Corporation, or BBC."

"Which gave us Monty Python," Joey notes. "The Ministry of Funny Walks."

"Indeed. Bring out your dead."

"What's he talking about?" Liza whispers to Mindy.

"And what about television?" Kim asks.
I look at the clock. Class is over.

"That's another story. But let me say this: the technology for TV was already in place in the early 1920s -- even
before radio took off. Revenue from radio was used to develop television. But TV took much longer to arrive than anyone figured. Partly that was World War II -- a lot of the talent and energy went into radar instead. The point here being that ability to do something doesn't mean that it's going to happen quickly or in a predictable manner."

Notebooks flip; laptops close.

"So, Mr. Cullen, does this mean you'll friend me on Facebook now?" Becky asks as she gets up with everyone else to leave.


"Why not?"

"Because I'm an old man."

"So?" (Alas, she doesn't contest my self-description.) "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Because I'm like Moses. I see the promised land. But I won't cross over into it with you. Think of me fondly when your kid shoves a gadget in your face whose appeal, if not operation, you find utterly incomprehensible."

She smiles: she can see this. I'm so pleased. "All right then. Have a good day, Mr. Cullen."

"Have a good decade, Becky." But already out the door, she doesn't hear me. With the room now empty, I can finally check my email.