Christmas Eve and the Birth of 'Talk' Radio
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. It is called the heterodyne principle, a poetic-sounding name for a discovery that led to a chain of events culminating in me, talking to you, right now.
Reginald Fessenden made the discovery in the early years of the 20th century. A Canadian by birth who began his career working for Thomas Edison, Fessenden figured out that by combining two frequencies together, radio could do more than simply transmit Morse code. It will be possible to speak over the airwaves.
Thanks to him, radio became a sound medium. It happened 100 years ago. And as writer Dean Olsher explains, the first implementation of Fessenden's principle is one of radio's creation myths.
DEAN OLSHER: These are the details passed down to us. Christmas Eve, 1906, not far from Plymouth, Massachusetts. Three days earlier, Fessenden had notified ships at sea to monitor the airwaves. At the appointed hour, 9:00 pm, they heard -
Well, it's actually impossible to know exactly what they heard, but it may have sounded something like this.
SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RADIO PROGRAM
OLSHER: A wax cylinder recording of an aria by Handel, the largo from his opera about the Persian king Xerxes. There was to be a reading of scripture by Fessenden's wife and secretary, but the first ever instance of mic-fright rendered them mute and then came the first ever instance of dead air.
So Fessenden jumped in and did it himself.
Mr. CHRIS BROOKS: (As Reginald Fessenden) Glory to God in the highest. And on Earth, peace. To men of good will.
OLSHER: The man who got the credit for inventing radio, Marconi, had imagined that it would be a way to transmit Morse code, to reduce the tremendous loss of life on the open seas. And while listening to dits and dots and dashes does have its appeal, it's somewhat limited.
By making it possible for music and speech to travel over the airwaves, radio, as Fessenden understood it, would become an extension of the most primal human communications. Fessenden took this newborn creation that had been conceived as a merely informational medium and made it into an evocative one.
Thanks to him, radio could not only warn of cyclonic conditions developing in the Bay of Fundy. For the first time, sailors at sea away from their families for unbearable stretches could connect with someone from home, a stranger who had suddenly gained intimate access.
Thanks to Fessenden, a fellow human being could whisper into another's ear from far away and reach the innermost recesses of the imagination.
SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH HOLY NIGHT"
OLSHER: Fessenden described the debut broadcast of sound in a letter at the end of his life: Then came a violin solo by me, being a composition by Gounod called O Holy Night, and ending up with the words adore and be still, which I sang one verse of, in addition to playing the violin, though the singing, of course, was not very good.
It was the birth of a new thing that would utterly change the century that followed. On the very eve of the day set aside to commemorate that birth described in the Gospel Of Luke. And what was born was an end to loneliness.
But wait a minute, Gounod didn't write O Holy Night. And come to think of it, adore and be still is not among the lyrics of that song. So what to make of this? Should we chalk it up to the failing memory of a dying man? Possibly. After all, it turns out there is a tune called Adore and Be Still, and it was written by Gounod, so you can see how easy it would be to mix things up.
But isn't it funny how so many writers keep repeating Fessenden's error. As it happens, there is only a single source for this story and that's Fessenden's own deathbed letter. And as with so many of radio's creation myths, there have been doubters and disputers. An even more substantive challenge goes like this: Fessenden was a self promoter with a healthy ego. Why would he have passed up the opportunity to let the world know that his milestone at the moment that it happened? Why did he then wait decades to share this irresistible story?
It's always good to question the reliability of a narrator whose posthumous reputation stands to benefit from a little burnishing. And here's another thing: Fessenden had recorded at least one test broadcast.
SOUNDBITE OF RADIO CLIP
OLSHER: Why did he not also save his history-making public broadcast of Christmas Eve 1906 for posterity. Or perhaps, he didn't see it as irresistible at the time. It may have required hindsight and lot's of it to understand its true importance. So the naysayers didn't prove anything. There's no slam dunk.
But there is the shadow of a doubt. Well, the fact is Fessenden did figure out how to make it possible for people to talk and play music over the radio. Whether things happened exactly the way he described will probably remain an unanswered question forever.
But we retell our creation myths not because they reveal factual information about history or science. We don't read the Aeneid for tips on how wolves might suckle human newborns.
So what is the lesson here? What do we find attractive about this myth? Even if the literal truth is disputed, what higher truth does it convey? Well it is this: radio can do remarkable things. It can inform but more importantly, it can reach between the ears and grab hold of what's in there. It can be a beacon of truth, but don't forget that within just a few years after Fessenden spread his message of peace on Earth, a failed painter from Austria would become masterful at using the airwaves to win over large numbers of followers to the side of hatred and falsehood. Falsehood is not always the same thing as lying; it has to do with intentions.
It's quite possible that years down the road you will remember that you once heard Fessenden's actual broadcast of a hundred years ago, even though I told you it was a reenactment. The mind plays tricks, because it wants so much to believe.
So by all means, allow the radio to seduce your heart and guide you through the fog. But don't let it shut off your brain. If we let it do our thinking for us, we risk following the siren's call toward the rocks.
BLOCK: Dean Olsher is a writer in New York. That was Christina Smith playing the violin and Chris Brooks as the voice of Reginald Fessenden.
I'm Melissa Block. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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