Thursday, June 11, 2009

Next century not so promising

Today marks the second century of broadcasting, which promises to be far less auspicious than the first.

On Thursday, radio station KCBS will be broadcasting from the San José building where it predecessor began exactly 100 years ago.

Most (even Wikipedia) report Charles “Doc” Herrold as launching his first radio broadcast on June 11, 1909, and credit him as launching the first regularly scheduled radio broadcast a few years later. He had a radio station before the government license radio stations: he later got a license for KQW, which was bought by the (now news radio) station KCBS (later moved from San José to San Francisco).

As a publicity stunt, KCBS will be broadcasting from downtown SJ, then Herrold’s “College of Wireless Engineering” and now Fairmont plaza (covered by the SF press club and the Radio Business Report). Among those inspired by Herrold include Fred Terman (the man who grew Stanford’s college of engineering and cemented its relationship with Silicon Valley) and Herbert Hoover (who founded a thinktank at Stanford).

Unfortunately for KCBS, radio is dying off. Music is competing with iPods, and will die before news or talk. (Abolishing the “Fairness Doctrine” 20 years ago gave talk radio a new lease on life 20 years ago, so it might outlive news).

The problem is that the idea of broadcasting — and the mass media in general — was a concept of limited bandwidth rather than customer demand. Due to limited radio spectrum and startup costs, a city might have 5 radio stations or 3 TV stations, so everyone got the same content at the same time from these stations. Broadcasting was also enabled by (and enabled) nationwide distribution, providing a channel for a national broadcaster or network, whether Paul Harvey or Edward R. Murrow.

But since the Betamax, DVD sales and the Internet, it’s clear that broadcasting is a second choice for most media consumers. People get news when they want it from a website, music from a music site and talk from a podcast. Internet connections are not commonplace in cars, but they will get there soon (whether directly or via handheld cellphones).

So the first century of broadcasting included its high water mark, whether it was World War II (for radio) or the space race (for TV). It’s a record it will be unable to match in its second century.

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