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The Last Word on Radio’s Digital Transition…from Fred Allen?

"Those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it," wrote Edmund Burke, and this familiar advice should ring loud and clear to broadcasters today. 

Terry Teachout reminds us of as much in the Wall Street Journal, where he draws a compelling analogy between the new-media crisis of 2009 – and the new-media crisis of 1949, a crisis precipitated by that novel tech gadget that most folks didn't even own, the television.  See if some of this sounds familiar: 

"Maybe we old people can't adapt successfully to video," said Jim Jordan, the star of "Fibber McGee and Molly." Most of them, including Jordan, couldn't, while those who could jumped ship as fast as they could. So did their fans: Only 786,000 American households tuned into a radio show on any given night in 1950. Jack Benny and Bob Hope, the two most popular radio comedians, made their TV debuts that year. Twelve years later, CBS's "Suspense" and "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar," the last nighttime radio drama series, were canceled. Network radio was dead.  Fred Allen, one of the many radio greats who was unable to establish himself on TV, groused about his failure in "Treadmill to Oblivion," his 1954 autobiography. Like today's old-time radio buffs, he argued that radio was superior to TV because the listener "had to use his imagination. . . . When television belatedly found its way into the home, after stopping off too long at the tavern, the advertisers knew they had a more potent force available for their selling purposes. Radio was abandoned like the bones at a barbecue." But Allen was gnawing on sour grapes. The truth is that network TV was neither intrinsically better nor worse than network radio. It was simply different—in a way that ordinary Americans preferred. 

Teachout draws three lessons from this traumatic transition that can serve to instruct us today: 

Network TV lost vast amounts of money in its early years. It was only because the existing ­radio networks were willing to subsidize TV that it survived—leaving CBS and NBC at the top of the heap in the '50s and '60s, just as they had been in the '30s and '40s. The old media of today have a similar chance to prosper tomorrow if they can survive the heavy financial losses that they're incurring while they develop workable new-media business models.  Established radio performers such as Benny and Hope, who embraced TV on its own visually oriented terms, flourished well into the '60s. Everyone else— including Fred Allen—vanished into the dumpster of entertainment history. The same fate awaits contemporary old-media figures unwilling to grapple with the challenge of the new media, no matter how popular they may be today. Americans of all ages embraced TV unhesitatingly. They felt no loyalty to network radio, the medium that had entertained and informed them for a quarter-century. When something came along that they deemed superior, they switched off their radios without a second thought. That's the biggest lesson taught by the new-media crisis of 1949. Nostalgia, like guilt, is a rope that wears thin.

Don't ever let nostalgia misguide your strategy.

You don't wake up to a changed world, you awaken to a changing one.

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