Friday, February 11, 2011

20th Century 20 - 16

Many inventions and innovations go nowhere. Some technologies simply aren't marketed properly, or are prohibitively expensive, or aren't in demand.

David Sarnoff oversaw a critical little business right when it was being developed. That business was radio.

At RCA Sarnoff came up with a great new idea: a Radiola that broadcast, not to an individual like a telephone, but to many people at once. He thought music would be a good idea.

The first two major radio broadcasts he was involved with, though, were of the Titanic disaster, in real time, and a prizefight between boxers. Real time communication throughout the States. From the Scopes trial to the present, this technology has only increased in importance.

Within Sarnoff's radio revolution is the kernel of the 24-hour news, live coverage of the Gulf War, and an increasing importance on who does the presenting, since everyone in the country would be getting the same information. We now expect to know what is going on everywhere, despite very great distances, all the time.

When the war was over radio was slowly being replaced by television. So he updated his company, NBC, to stay relevant. The National Broadcasting Company was aptly named, for Sarnoff had simply pulled the same trick that had worked for radio by bringing in a mass audience through an entertainment network. As such people all over would not only hear but watch the same thing.

A shared culture, based out of New York, emerged. E.D. Hirsch has made a career out of tracking what television tells us all is important. But the story could have been different without Sarnoff. The country-spanning networks were incredibly important for shared ideas and copied to global effect around the world. Using radio and television to link people, rather than for specialized purposes, is an achievement that leads both to Sesame Street and Network. Whichever way it goes, we'll all go.

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