Recently I went to an Apple store. In a suburban mall in New Jersey. It was the week after Black Friday weekend and its deluge of online sales. I had hoped to exchange an iPhone case I also bought on line.
At midafternoon the mall was quiet as most malls are in a state where COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are once again leapfrogging themselves. But the Apple store was more than quiet. it was bare. No new iPhones or MacBooks on the tables. No iPhone or iPad cases on the shelves. Nothing. To. Buy.
It was one of the saddest things I’ve seen in a pandemic year of sad upon sadder things. A store which like all Apple stores has always been brimming with delighted energy – silent. Nearly deserted. 3 weeks before Christmas.
It was suddenly a metaphor for everything I’ve cried over as 2020’s increasing miseries and tragedies and deaths piled up. This Apple store looked like – well – death. Like a place where the lights were about to be snuffed out. As I said, a metaphor for all the human lights snuffed out needlessly this year and all the small business lights snuffed out because Congress couldn’t find enough decency to help them through this financially until the very end of the year. When it was way too late. Then there are all the grandparents who still can’t see their new grandkids and all the kids who still can’t go to real school in person and all the young people in their first or second jobs who still can’t drop by anyone’s desk to ask a newbie’s casual question.
An Apple store means many things to many people. But until now it has never meant lost jobs or food bank lines which stretch forever. Or loved ones who never saw the holiday gifts already bought for them. An Apple store. Deserted and like so much in 2020 and still in 2021- dead.
I love radio. There’s an immediacy and singularity about it that TV or internet video streaming can never match. And certainly not Pandora or its multiple offspring – with their endless, depersonalized music. Listening to radio creates a personal connection – a one-on-one relationship with the talk host, the news anchor, the DJ or the music. And it also works the other way. When I’m doing radio news — or just talking into a live mic – I feel like I’m in someone’s home or car. Having a conversation. That connection never quite carried over to TV. Although I’ve always tried to imagine someone I actually know behind the camera lens – watching the screen.
I started my on-air career in radio as a Boston teenager and after decades of on-camera TV reporting and anchoring, I’m back on radio doing business news. And back to that personal connection.
Well – I got an email today from a very good friend. Who has had a similar career. And whose memories of growing up in radioland reminded me of mine.
Like my friend, I had a cheap plastic table radio in my room. Which somehow pulled in New York’s legendary WNEW in all its Make Believe Ballroom glory whenever the clouds provided a decent enough bounce for the AM signal. My parents were musicians with ties to the big band era and Broadway musicals. WNEW played The Great American Songbook. William B. Williams and his fellow hosts made even commercials interesting. I listened well into the overnight – (Remember Al “Jazzbo” Collins?) pulling my little radio under the covers so my mother wouldn’t hear. Once it was dark out and the daytime stations were gone from the airwaves, the signal was often as clear as if it were coming from next door.
Beyond my own little radio, we had a big old standup radio (like the one above) in the foyer of our apartment. In the back was a shelf for a long ago junked “victrola”. But in the front was a magic dial. 2 of them actually. One selected the radio band. Short wave, medium wave, local. The other slid the selector across the dial. When the radio was set in short wave, all kinds of foreign languages flooded in. Medium wave usually brought in stations from the West coast – unimaginably far away to a little girl who had never been further from Boston than New Hampshire. And if I was allowed to stay up late enough I could sit crosslegged on the floor in front of that radio and hear broadcasts of the remaining big bands from the few 40’s style ballrooms still standing. Pure magic.
When I was 14 I talked a small Boston radio station into broadcasting a weekly show hosted by me and my locally well-known pianist father. It was a clash of generations. I played my teenage music; he played his swing era, Boston Pops favorites. I think it lasted for at least a year. The first of several weekly radio shows I talked that station into broadcasting – all built around music. Then I discovered jazz and in college did shows for the 2 college owned FM radio stations in Boston. And as many of you know, I eventually spent 10 years as a CBS Radio Network news correspondent until I migrated to TV news.
Now in my car, I too listen to satellite radio. Mostly the audio of the TV news channels. I feel like a traitor. But when something big happens, when there are major snow storms or high winds or floods I fall back on AM radio. When I need a traffic report I switch between the 3 news stations which have them (Sirius’s is always very out of date). WAZE is useful but somewhat distracting when you’re driving. Traffic and weather together on the 8’s. Or the 11’s. Or the 5’s are still a commuter’s best friend. Along with the top local stories.
There has been talk of radio’s death for decades. It’s always survived. But the Millenials and Gen Y think radio is preceded by Apple. And they’ll be running things soon. Most local radio stations are now just automated clones, owned by a couple of giant companies loaded with debt and interested only in extracting whatever revenue they can to make their quarterly reports look better for Wall Street. The CBS radio stations and the network which distinguished them may soon be among that group.
I love the new tech. I live on my iPhone and iPad. I try tons of new apps. But when I need to know what is breaking right now I turn on the radio. Or, if I’m anywhere but in the car or at home I stream from a radio app. Real radio app.
Some day – when real radio has been destroyed and a huge hurricane knocks out the power for weeks as Sandy did almost four years ago – we’ll need local radio to hold communities together and tell a frightened public where to go for food and shelter and help. But radio will be gone. And there won’t be anything to replace it. Because without power, the internet and broadband won’t work. And even the battery-backed-up cell towers fail after days with no electricity.
I have one foot in the print world and one in the digital one.
I still get my New York Times delivered every morning. But I usually read it on my iPhone or iPad, since a print subscription gets me through the digital pay wall. My magazines are still piled in somewhat dusty stacks in the living room. But when I DO read them (again – print buys digital) it’s mostly on the iPad. You get the drift.
I also read most of my books on my Kindle app. Currently I have maybe 10 in varying stages of consumption. I like the freedom to “carry” my weightless books wherever I go. I read one entire book last summer on my iPhone during daily Prague Metro trips.
Digital is always there. Especially when you’re always on the go. But news apps and e-books have to compete constantly with Facebook and Twitter and all the other social media apps you carry along. Which can – and DO – suck up all the air in the room. Or time in your life. Note I said I read ONE book last summer. And that only because there’s no wifi connection underground.
I am not alone in this discovery, apparently. The US Census Bureau data just released this week show that bookstore sales rose by 2 and a half percent last year — the first such increase since 2007! In fact, e-book sales fell in 2015 — while old fashioned print sales rose. For many – that pile of books on the kitchen table still seems to compel us to pick one up and retire with it to the couch.
Fact is — much as I love my digital print apps – when a newspaper is sitting in front of me, I can save one or two of the sections to read later. Which can be a lot harder to do with constantly refreshing digital content burying the older stories. You can say news is meant to be read immediately. And you’d be right. But there’s a lot which passes for news these days which can wait a few days. Just ask the geniuses at Twitter who are trying to destroy the much loved chronological timeline tweet feed in favor of Facebook-like, algorithm-chosen “most important” tweets.
As for magazines – unless I’m traveling – I tend not to read the digital versions — even after I’ve diligently downloaded them, chuckled approvingly at Time’s digital front page (which always comes together in ways weird and wonderful) and left one open at a video extra on my iPad as an incentive. The real thing is so much easier to leaf through, gulp down a thought or column or photo — and move on.
So I live in a world where print and digital mesh. Somewhat seamlessly. A kind of Never Land for pre-Millenial generations. Flexible. As portable as I want to make it. Always available anywhere in any form.
Right now I’m going to grab the Science Times section of today’s print version of the Times and read a few stories. While I eat a greasy, mayonnaise loaded tuna sandwich. Try that on the iMedia glass screens. You’ll never get them clean.
I miss the front page. Oh I know — I can see a digital front page on my New York Times iPad app. But social media editors are always adjusting the stories to encourage more clicks. Which often has little to do with late-breaking news. I want what today would be called, I guess, a “sticky” front page.
I’m one of those half and half people. I read almost all my news from all sources on my iPhone and iPad. Mostly iPhone. Seldom even on a legit website. But I still get the print version of a few newspapers. Like the New York Times. Daily and Sunday. I like to look at that front page in the morning — already outdated in our 24/7 world – and get a sense of what is or was important.
Most days I put the paper in the recycle pile without opening it. Mondays and Tuesdays I save the Business and Science sections for the media and health stories I can read later. On the apps — those stories are often moved to the bottom of the stack — or even dropped — before I have time to get to them.
But the front page — that’s the heart of any newspaper. The world at a glance. You just can’t get that from a stacked-up news app on the iPhone. It’s kind of like the legacy networks’ evening news broadcasts. We know the news already, mostly. But that half hour neatly sums up the newsday. Front page in the morning. Newscast at night. (Although I could certainly do without all the drug commercials with their ridiculously scary side effects). With so much information out there – true and false – most people don’t have the journalistic skills to sort it all out. Prioritize.
That’s what editors do. The 3 who are left.
Well I suppose I’ll give in soon enough. Dump my print delivery with its front page of record. But before I go — one more thought. When you’re reading and eating fried chicken or a sloppy tuna-in-a-pita sandwich –the real newspaper doesn’t care that your fingers are all greasy. It neatly absorbs whatever your fingers slop on its pages. Try that with the gorilla glass screens of the iDevices.