Chautauqua Celebration focuses on Old and New Media

I was privileged to be asked to speak at the 4th annual Chautauqua Celebration of Lifelong Learning at Wesley Ridge Retirement Community recently. I was asked to give a “Lecture in the Tent,” which is a big top white tent reminiscent of the old days of the New York Chautauqua. The focus of my talk was to be on the coverage of news using the medium of radio, television, iPod, twitter and other technology in the 21st century. That topic has quite a bit of information to fit into a 20 minute talk! Congratulations to Wesley Ridge for such an amazing Chautauqua including a series of lectures, performances, worship services, movies and fitness times.

Here is just a portion of my script for the speech, focused on the history of radio and television –
I think what you experience here this week has quite a bit of connection to my topic today – the technological evolution of how we receive news and information. The tweets and blogs of today might just be the modern form of the Chautauqua.
As you probably know, the Chautauqua movement was founded in 1874 on the banks of New York’s Lake Chautauqua. It soon became a place where thousands of families could gather together for several days of inspiration, education, and enjoyment.
People came from miles around to hear speakers of national stature and engage in an open forum on the great issues of their day. The idea spread and was copied in other communities for people who could not travel to New York. The first Chautauqua outside of New York was in Ohio. By 1900 there were 200 pavilions in 31 states. On the program were teachers, preachers, travelers, scientists, politicians, singers, bell ringers, jugglers, magicians, whistlers and yodelers. Teddy Roosevelt described the Chautauqua experience as the “most American thing in America”.

It was also the place where people met to hear the news first hand, to debate the issues, to engage in important conversations about their country and their community. There was no electronic communication, so the Chautauqua was an important place of sharing and learning about the world.

My only other experience, outside of today, with a Chautauqua-like setting is the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. I went to Ole Miss for my graduate degree in Journalism and produced a PBS documentary on the Fair. It has been a key player in state politics since 1889 and features hundreds of small cabins, all with front porches and a pavilion where politicians come to speak.
But these places…whether in Mississippi or here in Reynoldsburg, became rare in the 1920s and 30s. Part of the change was improved transportation; but it was also the coming of radio.

Radio came to Columbus in March 1920, when a radio license was issued to The Ohio State University to implement an experimental station called 8XL. By the next month, its first program was broadcast over the airwaves – though only a handful of engineering faculty could receive it. In April 1922, the call letters WEAO (standing for Willing, Energetic, Athletic Ohio) were assigned to the station, and its power was raised, officially making it the first radio station in Columbus and among the first educational radio stations in America.

WEAO became WOSU a few years later to better reflect its ownership by Ohio State. Radio soon became part of the American landscape. The inventions of de Forest, Armstrong and Sarnoff profoundly changed our country and the world.
Manufacturers were overwhelmed by the demand for receivers. By 1930, 60 percent of American families had purchased radios . Sales soared from nearly zero in the early 20s to $426 million by 1929.

No other media had the power or the immediacy to create heroes and villains so quickly. When Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic from New York to Paris in 1928, the radio brought this incredible feat into American homes, transforming him into a celebrity overnight. Here is how E.B. White described radio in 1933:

“I live in a strictly rural community and people here speak of THE RADIO in the large sense. When they say THE RADIO, they don’t mean a cabinet, an electrical phenomenon, or a man in a studio, they refer to a pervading and somewhat godlike presence which has come into their lives and homes. “

Radio defined the 20th century as much as the automobile. It was the first modern mass medium. If you think of the impact the telephone had on the letter…you can compare the impact radio had on the printing press. Rather than read something that might have happened days or weeks before, the radio let people experience it instantly. Radio also spawned a new use for the word BROADCAST. The whole concept of “broadcast” was borrowed from the metaphor of a farmer scattering seeds across a field. Now, one person on the radio could sow seeds of information or propaganda or culture across the land.
The power of radio was immediately apparent and newspapers were instantly threatened. In 1930, a prominent journalist observed that at almost any assembly of newspaper men, someone would declare war on radio broadcasting.

Until Radio, the newspaper was the primary source for information. The radio now provided a faster and more cost effective alternative. Soon, newspapers replied to the challenge by broadening their stories to add more depth to them.
Newspapers found their place, but circulation would never again be what it was before the widespread popularity of radio.
The coverage of news events was popular on radio – and some were covered in an incredibly effective manner, such as the on-the-scene reports of the crash of the Hindenberg or Edward R. Murrow reporting Live from London during World War II.
But another new mass medium was being perfected.

“Now we add radio sight to sound,” was how David Sarnoff announced the presentation of television at the RCA pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. The TV set was still costly though and you could only watch a dozen hours of programming a week. The war interrupted the development and marketing of television and in 1945, there were less than 7,000 working TV sets in America and only 9 TV stations on the air. Eight years later in 1953, there were 400 stations providing coverage to nearly 90 percent of the United States; No medium in history could compare to television in its record-breaking implementation.

TV was the place for big events…as in 1946, when NBC and Gillette staged the first “television sports extravaganza” — the Joe Louis-Billy Conn heavyweight fight at Yankee Stadium . The fight had an estimated audience of 150,000. And for every TV set tuned to it, there were on average, 30 people watching. By 1950, national sponsors were exiting radio in droves for TV, much like they left newspapers with the invention of radio.

An old radio anchor who made the transition to television, Ed Murrow was soon critical of this new medium, saying “Television in the main was being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us.” Little considered during the 1950s was the creation of nonprofit educational television. Many of these stations, like WOSU TV, which went on the air in 1956, were given what was considered inferior frequencies on the UHF band. And in fact, it would be over a decade before WOSU TV could garner much of an audience in Columbus, since all three of the commercial stations in this community were on the VHF band and a custom antenna was required to receive UHF.

The coverage of news shifted dramatically from the radio to the television. I grew up in the 1960s and recall quite clearly my father’s habit of coming home from the business he owned, mixing a hi-ball and sitting down to watch Walter Cronkite on CBS and learn about the world. It was a habit most of America followed. For several decades, to the early 1980s, television news anchors and TV field reports during the nightly news dominated the media landscape; informing us, educating us, and in some cases changing our perceptions. They brought us great news and news we dreaded.

From Walter Cronkite to Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC, and Howard K. Smith on ABC, these news anchors had the on-air presence and credibility to dominate the world of news and often to influence public opinion. When Cronkite, reporting from Vietnam, came out against the war in February, 1968, it turned many Americans against the war and President Nixon.
Later, reporters such as Dan Rather, John Chancellor, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer on PBS, were the sources of much of our news on television. The big TV networks dominated our access to information and culture for over four decades.
Radio was doing its part to fight against the TV tide. The first 24-hour radio news stations started in the early 1960s and National Public Radio was created in 1971 with a new daily news program called ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Commercial radio stations that were once a mix of rock, country, big band, local news and sports started to focus on one format to better develop a loyal audience and attract advertisers.

The same happened in a way with cable television with the creation of ESPN and CNN. The spread of cable TV channels focusing on news, sports, weather, and everything from crafts to travel, would soon splinter the TV audience.
Since 1990, the influence and ratings of network news broadcasts have declined dramatically. And the audience today is among the oldest watching television. The recent announcement by Katie Couric that she was leaving the anchor slot received just a ripple of interest compared to the retirement of Cronkite or even Dan Rather from the then prominent post of CBS Evening News Anchor.
In my teenage days, I was the human remote control for my family. As the youngest, I’d be called upon to get up, change the channel to one of four we could receive locally and adjust the rabbit ears on our TV.

That seems like yesterday to me, but in the world of technology we live now, it is many generations ago.

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