We should all be grateful to Lloyd B. Roach, the President of WCOJ radio station inWest Chester PA, for researching and popularizing the history of American radio broadcasting. From him, we learn that public radio had its origin in Philadelphia, during the early 1920s. While it is true that KDKA in Pittsburgh can claim to be the oldest radio station around, there are those who say that radio as we now know it had its origins on the rooftops of four department stores clustered at Eighth and Market Streets, busily announcing what was on sale today, and helping draw teeming crowds to that center of dry goods merchandising that many of us are still alive to remember. Strawbridge and Clothier, Lits, and Gimbels were on three corners of the intersection, Snellenbergs was a block up Market, and John Wanamaker's big store was a couple of block still further West. In those early days, names like David Sarnoff and Arthur Atwater Kent were the equivalents of Bill Gates and Andy Grove today. Eighty years before the dot-com revolution, the public radio revolution made zillionaires of kids who had been working in cigar stores a year or two earlier, and not merely communication but world culture was forever changed. And in both cases, a sudden drop in the stock market wiped out a lot of them, although a few survived.
It seems you ought to know about "Absorption" which is some kind of electrical phenomenon whereby a lot of microwave and computer traffic wipes out the AM (as opposed to FM) signals in big cities. Because everyone knows that the political right wing likes the red expanses of the map, while the left or liberal way of thinking is concentrated in cities, hence blue parts of the map, the overall effect is that AM radio is more a phenomenon of the exurbs, rural districts, and highways. And a further consequence is that call-in radio is heavily right wing in its audience, hence programs, Rush Limbaugh and all that. Because of the innate remorselessness of paid political consultants, it doesn't take long for politicians to recognize that getting rid of absorption would make radio call-in shows more likely to reach urban liberals. We can't have that, or we must have that, depending on the bias of the observer, and hence a sort of radio signal called XM is something we predict will be made forbidden or made mandatory, because it makes urban liberal talk radio possible again. The beauty of this cutthroat battle is that it is so obscure that the public won't notice its significance until it happens, and when it does there will be few fingerprints on it. Commentators will rattle on about shifting tides of opinion when in fact some manipulation of the Federal Communications Act or the local broadcast licensing regulations by people who know very well what they are doing is what has gone on. Heh, heh.
To get back to Philadelphia, the dreary hulks which now stand where the department stores once stood are a reminder that shopping centers, or collections of strip malls, have killed the department store. Two phenomena are at work here. The brand name which gave credibility and comfort to the department stores' reputation is being replaced by national brand names with local franchises., and national advertising rather than regional. That might have been bearable if the department stores had not placed so much unwise reliance on the concept of the "full-service operation". If you try to sell everything in one-stop shopping, as for example selling pianos as well as perfume, some of the things you include are going to be losers. Consequently, the perfumes on which you made your profits will have to become more expensive to pay for the losses on pianos, and eventually, the perfume specialty stores will destroy your profit center, ruining the whole full-service business. This phenomenon, by the way, is beginning to eat away at the economics of hospitals as well.
Originally published: Friday, June 23, 2006; most-recently modified: Thursday, June 06, 2019
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