150 Years Of The Atlantic September 2006

Technology & Innovation

This is the eighth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by James Fallows, a national correspondent of The Atlantic.
Television and Radio
May 1937
By Gilbert Seldes

In 1937, the impending commercial launch of television inspired Gilbert Seldes, a commentator on popular culture and the author of The Seven Lively Arts (1924), to consider how this new technology would affect radio. Soon after this essay ap­peared, he became the first director of programming for CBS.

Sometime in the middle of 1938, television sets may be put on sale in the United States …

The effect of television on radio will be so gradual that we may be able to preserve whatever in radio is desirable … Because of radio, more of us took setting-up exercises in the morning, with possible improvement in our health … Those who could not read found a new interest; oratory was restored to its ancient glory in Presidential campaigns; the difference between the city and the country was made less, vaudeville artists got jobs, book sales increased; farmers knew the price paid for stock and grain in Chicago and Minneapolis … millions of people, totally indifferent to social movements and international affairs and totally unhabituated to reading about such things, have become aware of them through news broadcasts and commentary …

It is desirable for us to know what price we have paid for the creation of this incomparable engine of social influence: we have certainly created a habit of almost indiscriminate, almost apathetic listening; through the air has come a really incalculable number of stupidities; much that is trite and tasteless comes with what is intelligent and bright. A critic of society would have a delicate job to determine how far radio has corrupted and how far improved the public taste, and the very existence of a power so great as that of radio seems menacing to many observers …

The audience which television will create will be more attentive and, if properly handled, more suggestible even than the audience of radio.

Volume 159, No. 5, pp. 531–541

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