JESSELL AT LARGE

90 Years Of News, Entertainment, Service

This Election Day marks the 90th anniversary of  KDKA-AM Pittsburgh's broadcast of the results of the Harding-Cox election, widely recognized as the start of commercial broadcasting. It's been a great run and who's to say the best years are not ahead? There is still magic in broadcasting. In a increasingly mobile world, being tied to a cable or anchored to a dish is what seems out of date.

Happy Birthday, broadcasting.

Ninety years ago today, Westinghouse Electric Co. launched the radio business — and all of electronic mass communications — by broadcasting the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election over its pioneer station, KDKA Pittsburgh.

Oh, historians will quibble about whether Nov. 2, 1920, was the real date this all got started. There are other claimants with other dates. But I’ll stick with Westinghouse and KDKA, if only because that’s what I was taught as a kid in Pittsburgh. As a source of civic pride, broadcasting was right up there with steel and glass.

Plus, how about this for bona fides: Broadcasting (now B&C), then the undisputed Bible of the business, essentially certified KDKA as the Big Bang by devoting a big part of its Nov. 2, 1970, issue to the 50th anniversary of the industry. Thanks to amateur archivist David Gleason, you can read the whole issue in PDF form right here.

The centerpiece of the issue was a special report, actually more of a personal essay based on a lot of interviews with first-generation broadcasters, by reporter Morrie Gelman. In it, Gelman looks back and looks ahead a bit.

You would have thought the TV broadcasters of 1970 would have been free of the anxieties that plague broadcasters of today. But no. According to Gelman, some fretted about such threats as cable TV, a “direct-to-home satellite communications system” and “cartridge TV.” The latter, I believe, is what they called home video, which in 1970 was still 10 years in the future.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

The article carried the headline, “Broadcasting at 50: Can it adapt?”

In retrospect, we can say that the answer is an unequivocal yes. Heck, many of the broadcasters’ worse fears of 1970 came to fruition and then some. Yet, broadcasting is still here, free and universal.

Since 1970, AM reinvented itself as the news and talk medium and, for better or worse, has transformed politics in the U.S. FM, with its superior, static-free fidelity, took over AM’s job as the principal purveyor of popular music. And TV embraced local news as the thing that would distinguish it among the hundreds of national cable and satellite programming options.

Can it continue to adapt?

Yes, at least in the case of local TV (I’ll have to set aside AM and FM for the moment only because I do not follow them closely anymore). Although TV had a sluggish initial response to the Internet, the leading groups now get it. They have begun thinking of themselves as local media and marketing companies. They are broadcasting plus — plus the Web, plus mobile and, in some cases, plus outdoor.

KDKA will be celebrating by broadcasting live from the Heinz History Center in downtown Pittsburgh from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today. Appropriately, Westinghouse Nuclear, a direct descendent of that original broadcaster, is a sponsor.

But as far as I can tell nobody else is paying much attention. The anniversary didn’t merit a mention at the B&C Hall of Fame last Wednesday and the NAB is wasting no words on it.

That’s unfortunate. It’s important for an industry to recognize its common roots and common cause, especially when it is under assault in so many ways. Properly acknowledging such milestones, I believe, encourages broadcasters to work together as they have on mobile DTV and as they should in figuring out how to stream their signals on the Internet and exploit other opportunities.

And, frankly, broadcasters could use a morale boost after some of the toughest years in their long history. This is a great industry with a great history and a lot more fun than most. Stations like KDKA, and there are still a lot of them, have become integral parts of their cities and towns. They amuse, inform and, in crises, save lives.

I’ve always thought it was interesting that KDKA chose to make its debut on Election Day so that it could broadcast the results of the presidential election, something it knew that everybody was interested in.

Tonight, without even thinking about that legacy, hundreds of TV and radio stations will provide detailed coverage of elections, posting the numbers, calling races just as quickly as they can and providing expert analysis. They’ll do it for the same reason KDKA did. Because it’s something everybody is interested in.

And who’s to say the best years are not ahead? I would not be surprised if broadcast TV outlasted cable and satellite TV. In an increasingly mobile world, being tied to a wire or anchored by a dish is what seems out of date to me.

There is still magic in broadcasting.

Prompted perhaps by the Fox-Cablevision retrans blackout in New York and Philadelphia, the Chicago Tribune ran a story two weeks ago on the growing popularity of TV antennas, particularly among videophiles seeking the best possible HD pictures.

The story quoted Richard Schneider, founder of AntennasDirect.com, an online retailer of TV antennas. “We’ve seen a huge rush in orders in the last six to nine months,” he said. “There’s a perception that it’s for the elderly or the indigent, but the fastest-growing part of our business is 20-something techy kids.”

Not bad for a nonagenarian.

P.S. When a really horrible disaster befalls this country, natural or manmade, I’d rather take my chances with AM than with any of the other electronic media that have evolved from it. AM radios are cheap and ubiquitous. And if you can’t find one, you can build one from the stuff in the junk drawer. The AM signal itself delivers all the power you need. No batteries necessary. To me, that’s as amazing as 10,000 iPhone apps. The Department of Homeland Security should take note.

 


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


Comments (0)

Leave a Reply


More News