This column was published August 19, 2023 in the Manhattan Mercury.
It seems a bit strange that the concept of “radio and TV” would be considered historic. A heavy brass doorplate bearing those words, salvaged from the decade-plus-long remodel job of the Kansas State Capitol building in Topeka, was billed as just that.
A couple of years back, my wife participated in a once-in-a-lifetime online auction of Statehouse historical architectural accoutrements, outbid like-minded seekers of relics of times gone by, and surprised me with it as a keepsake. An homage (or at least a nod) to the chronological component of my career when I toiled as a journalist in the Statehouse room graced by that doorplate. First floor north, beneath the westernmost staircase.
Within those confines would be found a pair of massive videotape editing machines, state-of-the-art at the time. One to play, one to record. Visual images and sounds of the art and practice of public policy creation on behalf of the people of Kansas, captured on cassette spools of ¾-inch wide videotape, roughly the size of the Grisham novel on my nightstand.
Live shots from the Rotunda on the 5, 6, or 10 o’clock news. Standups on the west lawn, the setting sun at the golden hour illuminating the frame, me in the foreground offering reportage du jour, Statehouse in the background, copper dome oxidizing. The journalism that emanated from that room with the brass doorplate was shared via a terrestrial transmitter with a finite geographic range, roughly the northeast quadrant of Kansas, and received by anyone within that quadrant who possessed a TV tuned to channel 13.
Today, if I wanted to, I could edit broadcast quality high-definition video on the phone in my pocket. Then, I could share that video with anyone on the planet. If I wanted to. Many people do, it turns out. More media. More messages. Less discernment. It forces consumers to work harder. Many people don’t, it turns out.
A half-century ago, Marshall McLuhan posited it was the medium itself that shaped and controlled “the scale and form of human association and action.” It was the advent of television that prompted McLuhan’s “medium is the message” message. He died in 1980. If he were still with us, I suspect he’d scan today’s media landscape and find a polite, non-threatening way to say, “Uh… don’t look now, but… told ya so.”
It was in the space graced by that brass doorplate that I made the career decision to transition from journalism, to move, literally, to the other side of the camera and microphone as the message guy for a candidate for governor, Bill Graves. When he was elected, I moved up one floor, second floor east, just down the hall from the cage elevator and John Steuart Curry’s mural of the anti-slavery Kansas icon, John Brown.
Latter-day John Browns rally around ideas they believe in. The like-minded organize into groups, many anonymously through social media. Some with pure motives, others nefarious, nowhere near ‘social,’ all seeking to advance an agenda, to influence hearts and minds.
As recently as a generation ago, it was easier to pigeonhole the messengers according to medium. Consumers of media went to diverse sources to scratch a specific cultural itch. The daily newspaper with a cup of coffee in the calm of the early morning. Radio on the drive to work. TV at the dinner hour.
Today, we are smack in the middle of another really messy transition of media, message and culture.
Consumption habits change and evolve with technology. With satellite radio ‘70s on 7 in my car, I don’t listen to much AM or FM radio, and that’s where I started my career. You may be reading this newspaper column on a hand-held electronic device somewhere in Tajikistan. Why, you may even be reading black words printed on cream-colored paper that was physically delivered to your mailbox in Manhattan, Kansas.
Messiness provides fertile ground for those who peddle mischief and nefariousness. And this is before we even get to the conversation about whether smart phones are dumbing us down.