Bandwidth Blues

It is 1923, hot on the heels of the Progressive era and World War I.  Radio Broadcast magazine confidently opines that the advent of radio as a popular medium “is destined, economically and politically, to bind us together more firmly.”  It might even produce “to some extent at least, unification of the religious ideas of the different creeds and cliques.”

Come forward to 2002 and scan the local radio dial—AM and FM.  A survey of the average metropolitan area will yield broadcasts in Spanish, Korean, and Russian; gardening shows; sports talk shows; Gregorian chants; country and new country; classical music; National Public Radio; soft rock, hard rock, jazz, blues, oldies, classic rock, and Christian rock; fundamentalist preachers railing against all rock music as a tool of the Devil; evangelical answer men telling listeners that they can’t lose their salvation; Jewish geologists admonishing callers to sober up and take responsibility for their pitiful lives; call-in sex-advice shows; and outraged Republicans and libertarians whipping their listeners into a froth over Democrats, moral outrages, and Big Brother.

Rather than unity, homogeneity, and equality, radio has fostered a different set of impulses: the drives to specialize, separate, and splinter.  In times of crisis, radio can disseminate needed information and direct resources, but normally it allows...

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