JESSELL AT LARGE

Feeling Cursed? Here’s The Reason Why.

Is it a coincidence that the recent financial troubles of broadcasting began at the same time the site of the original KDKA transmitter and studio in Pittsburgh was razed? I don't think so. That added further insult to the earlier destruction of the home of KDKA pioneer Frank Conrad to make way for a Wendy's (left) and, I believe, caused a curse to befall broadcasting. But don't fret. There's still a way to save the business.

Call it the curse of Frank Conrad.

Things were going great for TV broadcasting in early 2007. With private equity money backed by plentiful credit pouring into the business, stations prices shot up and the stock of publicly held companies like LIN, Hearst-Argyle, Sinclair and Nexstar soared with them.

Then in early summer, it all suddenly went to pieces. Credit dried up. Buyers willing to pay traditional fat multiples disappeared. The station trading market froze.

You know the rest of the story. The economy plunged into the Great Recession. As a business almost totally dependent on advertising, TV broadcasting felt its full force. In 2009, revenue at TV stations plunged at speeds that no one thought was possible, to levels that sent some groups into bankruptcy and others to the brink.

At the same time, new and strange forms of media competed feverishly for viewer attention and whatever ad dollars were still out there. Every time the broadcasters thought they had them cornered, new, even more perplexing and elusive types would evolve.

Revenue has rebounded nicely this year, thanks in large part to $2.5-$3 billion in political spending. But next year is uncertain. Nobody can say if broadcasting will ever fully recover what it lost.

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So, why has all this misery descended upon broadcasting?

You can talk about the collapse of the housing and financial markets and the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler. But if you ask me, it’s the curse of Frank Conrad.

Conrad was the Pittsburgh engineer and tinkerer who, with an assist from his bosses at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing, pioneered commercial broadcasting in the second decade of the last century. In the fall of 1920, he put KDKA on the air and on Nov. 2 the station broadcast the results of the Harding-Cox election.

Others, most notably WWJ Detroit, lay claim to being first, but it was really Conrad and Westinghouse that made a business out of a hobby by selling radio receivers to those interested in hearing Conrad’s broadcasts of phonograph records. It was only later that they and others discovered they could sell time to advertisers.

But why this curse? Why has Conrad turned on the industry he founded?

Neglect.

Conrad did his experiments in radio in a two-story garage behind his house in Wilkinsburg, Pa., a close-in Pittsburgh suburb. It was from here that he entertained others with homemade receivers with his broadcasts.

In 2001, despite outcries from local preservationists and what I thought was a persuasive column by me in Broadcasting & Cable, his house and garage were cleared to make way for a Wendy’s.

That’s right. The birthplace of broadcasting is now a fast foodt outlet without even a plaque to commemorate the man and all that he accomplished.

But Conrad, who died and entered the ether in 1941, let that indignity pass.

What he apparently could not tolerate, even in his very dead state, is what happened in the summer of 2007. Contractors razed the so-called K Building in East Pittsburgh, the site of the original KDKA transmitter and studio.

Did you catch the timing of that? The summer of 2007, the same time the business started falling to pieces. A coincidence? I think not. Broadcasting hasn’t been the same since.

I am no expert on the supernatural, but it’s my feeling that if over-the-air TV and radio are going to make a full recovery, broadcasters are going to have to make things right with Conrad.

The Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters helped by finally inducting Conrad into its Hall of Fame this year.

But what’s really needed is to save the Conrad garage. Before it was destroyed by bulldozers, Pittsburgh preservationist Rick Harris, who has devoted years to this project, had the garage disassembled brick by brick and stored in a warehouse. That was made possible by a $50,000 contribution from Ralph Guild, the former radio rep.

It’s a cool garage, big enough for a small broadcasting museum. It now needs a fitting home, preferably somewhere in Pittsburgh, and the money for the reconstruction.

Harris has a more immediate problem. He’s running out of money to store the garage and a bunch of other artifacts he’s collected over the years. He needs another $5,268 just to keep it all on ice for another year.

I believe that it would also help if the broadcasting industry would somehow recognize the 90th anniversary of the first KDKA broadcast, its own birthday, when it rolls around on Nov. 2. Significantly, Election Day this year falls on the same day.

With the date less than two months off, I’m not sure what can be done. Maybe it’s just better to stay focused on restoring the garage so that when the 100th anniversary of the business rolls around, there will be someplace to go for the ceremony.

This is really an appeal I should be making to the City of Pittsburgh and the historical institutions there. They have a real duty to preserve their history. But they are not my readers. You are.

And when I say “you,” I especially mean CBS. Through its merger with Westinghouse, CBS is now the owner of KDKA as well as its companion TV station. This whole sad situation could be remedied if CBS would take the lead in fixing it.

Look, I really don’t believe in curses (although how else do you explain the Chicago Cubs). But I do believe that a business that doesn’t care about its past has no soul.

The history of a business can inform and inspire those who work in it today. It can transform what they do from just another way of making a buck into something great, something worth their best efforts.

Broadcasting is blessed with a particularly rich and colorful history. You can help preserve it by supporting institutions like the Library of American Broadcasting, the Paley Center for Media, the Museum of Broadcast Communications and, of course, the efforts of Rick Harris on behalf of Conrad.

If you are interested in assisting Rick in any way (and in lifting the Conrad curse?), please contact him at 412-241-4508 or [email protected].


Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. You can reach him at [email protected] or 973-701-1067.


Comments (9)

Leave a Reply

bart meyers says:

September 10, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Harry,
Good piece with a funny tone. You ought to entertain the idea of having more funny, entertaining articles on the history of broadcasting–characters, incidents, anecdotes, stories, etc.

Binky Bob says:

September 10, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Fast foot outlet indeed 🙂

Gregg Palermo says:

September 10, 2010 at 4:13 pm

It was not Frank Conrad. Or the Detroit station. It was Charles “Doc” Herrold who was first to conceive of broadcasting as a program service and not a way to sell radios. http://www.charlesherrold.org/

    Linda Stewart says:

    September 12, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    Who’s on first is a debate that will never end. Can’t we just agree that KDKA (and Pittsburgh) were first and get going with preparations for the 100th anniversary?

Lauri Neff says:

September 10, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Nice column. It’s good to spend a minute or two on a Friday reflecting on the risk-takers and adventurers who created and grew the broadcast business.

Susan Baurenfeind says:

September 10, 2010 at 4:43 pm

New owners….new managers, staff….stand on the shoulders of such as Earle Gluck. They are not concerned about how that came about. The interest is in self promotion to get more and more…for less and less.
They should know….fame is fleeting. Absentee ownership…not the same as local owners. From one who worked with Earle Gluck (Charlotte radio pioneer… )

Shirley Putnam says:

September 10, 2010 at 8:55 pm

If TV is going the way of the Dodo, why would anyone care about it? “Let me set aside 1% of my profits so we can have a museum,” is not a good boardroom strategy. Put the crap in the Smithsonian and move on.

    Linda Stewart says:

    September 12, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    That’s actually not a bad idea. I wonder if Harris has approached the Smithsonian.

Jim Carr says:

October 1, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Thanks for the column Harry and thanks to the one reader who made a contribution to help “lift the curse.” If any other readers would like to do the same, they can visit our web site at http://www.savethegarage.org and click “Donate Now.” We are very interested in how readers feel about saving Frank Conrad’s Garage and we welcome any ideas for fundraising. They can email us with their comments or suggestions by going to the “Contact” page on our web site.


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