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Yeats and radio

July 25, 2000

A public radio commentary

A few years ago I attended a conference on using the Internet for education. A speaker caught my attention when he began with a quote: "this new medium", he read, "will be used to educate all of America - no longer will universities be necessary." It sounded great at an internet conference until he pointed out it was said in 1922 or so and referred to the then new medium of Radio.

What his quote highlighted is that the internet is undergoing exactly the same transformation as all new media. The first attempt is always to model the new medium on an old one, until the new technology finds its legs. The best example I know of this is a story about William Butler Yeats, the 20th century's greatest poet.

He wrote to his friends in 1937 calling himself "a fool", "a bore", and - unusual for Yeats -"a humbled man." What defeated this Nobel-prize winning poet? Radio.

From 1931 to 1939 Yeats made eleven experimental radio broadcasts - and learned that radio wasn't a lecture hall. In one of his earliest broadcasts Yeats arranged a celebration of sounds like he performed in drawing rooms and crowded halls across his country. In the broadcast Yeats got a actor to sing his poem and clap his hands in time to the background music after every verse; Yeats also arranged for another poet to lead people in the wings clapping their hands.

The result? In Yeat's own words: "Every human sound turned into the groans, roars, [and] bellow of a wild [beast]." He called it "a fiasco." "It was stirring" in the studio he noted, but "on the wireless [radio] it was a schoolboy knocking with the end of a pen knife or spoon." And he wondered whether "his old bundle of poet's tricks" were now "useless." After that instead of controlling the medium of radio, it began to control Yeats.

When his director told him the opening lines of his now classic poem "Sailing to Byzantium" were easier on the page than the tongue Yeats took his classic open line - "That is no country for old men" and changed it to "Old men should quit a country."

What Yeats had tried - as did many others - was to use radio as a huge loud speaker, a way to broadcast educational lectures and platform performances. But radio was a private one-on-one communication, even thought the audience was large; it was a medium that turned public speaking into just talking. Radio started by broadcasting long lectures and full-length Broadway plays. But since its audience could move away at the turn of a dial, unlike a theater goer, radio's mix of programming became all important. And soon it offered, instead of hour-long educational lectures, its own a mix of music, talk and soap operas - all tailored to the intimacy and time frame of radio. This is an evolution that's seen in all new media.

Look at the earliest movies and you'll see filmed stage plays - complete with curtain drops because the producers thought audience too stupid to see the relationship between one shot and the next. Only when film came of age did it do things plays could never do.

This is the same transformation we'll somehow see with the Internet. Right now people attempt to make it deliver TV, or newspapers and even radio. But in the end it will be none of these, it'll likely contain bits and pieces of them, but will mix them to form its own style.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises