Back in the 1950s, my parents invested what then amounted to a month’s salary in a cutting edge piece of household equipment. No, it was not a refrigerator, a washing machine, or even a television. At that time, these items were comparatively so rare that you had more chance of being hit by a meteorite than walking into the average UK home and finding any one of them.
No, what my parents invested in was a wonderful hunk of wood, which resembled, in profile, a huge cut of meat: The Murphy “Mutton Chop” Wireless. Not just a radio, but an embryonic family heirloom. In fact, this monolithic wonder, complete with its mysterious glass valves, now resides in my home office and reminds me of how I first fell in love with radio.
In the early 50s, only the wealthy could afford the tiny-screened black and white televisions that were starting to appear. As prices started to come down, television would become the object of every family’s desire. Computers seemed like a science fiction fantasy.
Even up to the early sixties, a portable tape recorder usually meant quite a bulky machine with perhaps 3 inch or 5 inch reels of open tape powered by batteries that lasted for about 15 minutes. The compact cassette quickly became accepted after its introduction in 1963, but it wasn’t until 1979 that the Sony Walkman popularized the first truly pocket-sized portable cassette player.
For the most part, mobile communications from a car in the seventies only happened if you subscribed to a single channel two-way radio system where you had to pass your message through a radio controller, who in turn, passed it on to another mobile user or to a phone caller. The Nokia Mobira Senator of 1982 weighed 22lbs (9.8kg)!
The first computer I saw in radio was in 1984 when my radio station purchased an early Apricot (British competitor to IBM and Apple) which we used to house a database of community information. Two years later, in 1986, we became only the third radio station in the country to use a computer to schedule the radio station’s music – and we were the first (by some margin) to allow a computer to program our radio station 24 hours a day. Of course, the software program was my introduction to RCS, in the form of what would become the legendary, Selector.
Back then, the idea that one day the computer would not only schedule the music, but would also contain all the music – was futuristic beyond belief. It was difficult to imagine the economic storage of audio. At that time, most personal computers didn’t even have internal hard drives. Our earliest computers contained two 5 ¼ inch floppies – one contained the program and the other, the data. And remember, those early floppies contained less than a megabyte of information.
It seems like only yesterday that computers broke through the 1 Gigabyte hard drive barrier. Colossal, we thought; now you can get a Terabyte on a tiny external hard drive. And the only thing you know for sure is that if you print this off and read it in 10 years, the idea that we could be impressed by a single Terabyte will be laughable.
Of course, with hindsight, it’s all so obvious and easy-to-understand isn’t it? We could have all predicted how the future would turn out for us couldn’t we? And we’re just ordinary folk. It’s probably always been the way that really clever people can predict the future better than the rest of us, wouldn’t you think? Well, no, not exactly.
Think about these quotes etched into history:
- In the early 1920s, associates tried to talk David Sarnoff out of investing in radio with, “The wireless music box [radio] has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
- In 1927, Harry M Warner of Warner Brothers Studios said about the arrival of movies with sound: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
- Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, said in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
- Ken Olsen, President, Chairman and Founder of the Digital Equipment Corporation in 1997 said: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.”
At least radio is run by sensible people and surely our industry has a history of being forward-looking? Well, I won’t dwell on those who thought I was mad in 1986 to use a computer to schedule music.
Then there were those who thought BBC TV’s future technology program, Tomorrow’s World were plainly on another planet when they featured the heavily computerized Pirate FM – the radio station I set up in Cornwall UK in 1992 – as an example of the radio station of the future.
And, of course, there were those who were positively outraged when I introduced the UK’s first fully computerized radio station at Star FM in 1993 – the first time studio automation was used for protracted periods, rather than taking an overnight sustaining service (another form of syndication at the time).
Star introduced the UK’s first intelligent automation system, (yes, you’ve guessed it, RCS Master Control), complete with voice-tracking. With RCS Voice Tracker and Internet Voice Tracking, most listeners think they are enjoying a live presenter. With the dazzling new Zetta playout system from RCS, one can do even more things. We are always moving forward.
Is there anyone now who would dare to suggest that there is nothing left to invent? A preposterous idea? Well, in 1939, Charles Duell, Commissioner of the US Office of Patents, no less, said, quite simply: “Everything that CAN be invented, HAS been invented.”
I have a feeling he was in the wrong job. We invent new ways of doing things every day.