MASS COMMUNICATIONS took a rather curious turn a couple of years ago when the masses suddenly started communicating with the professional communicators. This was when those telephone-answering shows started, the shows on which a radio announcer sits around the studio answering the phone and broadcasting his conversations. For the first time, local radio became a sport for participants. The first programs had the boredom as well as the fascination of conversations heard over a transom, but they were enormously popular. Now every city has one, the air is full of strange voices, and the old-fashioned rural party line has turned into mass communications.
Last month John Dickins, an announcer at CFPL in London, Ontario, carried the process a step further. He taped his broadcasts, selected the liveliest calls, and put them together on an LP anthology titled A Year on the Phone. In the first few weeks it sold 600 copies, at $2.
This might seem to prove only that people will buy LPs of anything, but in fact A Year on the Phone proves to be rather more than just a radio station promotion. It reminded me often of Nathanael West’s nightmare novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, in which an advice columnist on a newspaper starts out to do a routine job and finds himself involved in the grotesque problems of his readers. Dickins hears from an odd collection of people. A woman calls in to talk about her mother’s death from cancer. A man calls to complain that women spend too much money, then calls back a couple of weeks later to say that his wife has now left him and he’s saving lots of money. People phone in to describe fires burning in their neighbors’ houses. One pitiful man calls to confess that he’s an alcoholic, and doesn’t know where to turn, and you hear his wife shouting at him in the background. Several people call to discuss discrimination in housing, and one Negro woman states with flat resignation that “I don’t think we’ll ever be accepted as human beings.”
A West Indian intellectual, George Lamming, who is visiting Canada, mentioned on TV the other day that phone-call radio was to him one of the most fascinating aspects of Canadian life. Certainly it shows that the mass media can do some pretty unpredictable things just when some of us start saying that they are getting much too predictable. Half a dozen years ago the movies looked like a dull, dying
business—now there are plenty of new, serious directors and plenty of art houses to show their work. Similar developments turn up everywhere: a TV program rather threateningly titled The Dick Powell Show turns out to be an excellent anthology of offbeat plays: the girlie magazines in the United States turn out to be purveyors of, among other things, some unusual fiction; night-club and TV comedy suddenly transforms itself into a vehicle for social criticism. And now private radio—which looked, for a while there, like a kind of louder, all-day juke-box—has become a means by which the authentic voice of the people makes itself heard. For people who take the trouble to examine them, the mass media turn out to be more interesting than their critics usually admit.
□ IN THE SECOND WEEK of July all that other junk orbiting in space was joined by a new device, Telstar, the latest of science’s contributions to mass communications. Telstar makes trans-Atlantic live television possible, more or less. Everything still depends, of course, on uncontrollable factors: the weather, the condition of your own set, and whether there’s anything worth watching. Telstar is an achievement with rather limited implications, as the first, rather hilarious test broadcasts demonstrated. The United States, which paid for Telstar and therefore got the first crack, opened the operation by transmitting pictures of the American flag. Immediately France replied by sending over a program of Yves Montand and a beautiful blonde named Michele Arnaud, both singing love songs. Britain's response was to announce that the French weren't playing fair; the entertainment wasn’t supposed to come till later. Finally Canada announced that it would, at the proper time, transmit pictures of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival.
The opening ceremonies, aside from their usefulness to students of national character, were discouraging. The British-French argument cast a shadow over Telstar's future as a promoter of international friendship; in this field it figured to be about as helpful as the Olympic Games. More than that, however, the statements of self-congratulation from the companies and agencies involved were curiously inflated.
The fact is that before Telstar the broadcasters already had the technical means to pro-
vide Europeans and North Americans with fascinating and illuminating views of each other and the world. It takes only six hours to fly a piece of videotape here from Europe, and only a day or so to bring one from China. But these facilities are rarely used with intelligence. How often have we seen interesting events of the world covered at length? When violence breaks out in the Congo, or Russia holds a crucial party congress, or Castro gives an important speech, or Adenauer and De Galle suddenly begin appearing in public together, we are shown 90 seconds worth of film on the late-night news and a half-hour documentary a week later.
The reason is that both the CBC and the American networks have fallen into a rigid pattern. Time is organized in 30-minute and 60-minute chunks and sold to sponsors for months in advance. This means that (a) News events must be as compelling as space shots or coronations in order to push aside the sponsors’ programs; (b) News shows must be fitted into time spots that they may or may not suit — a discussion demanding an hour may be squeezed into half an hour, or a film which woqld be interesting at 20 minutes must be stretched out with boring commentary to an hour.
This arbitrary pattern of time periods, inherited from radio, was adopted by TV without much thought or discussion. Before anyone knew what had happened, television was in a straightjacket. It will emerge, to freedom and flexibility, only when television executives learn that public affairs and news can’t be fitted neatly into snug compartments. When that happens, “news specials” will be commonplace rather than extraordinary; they will be flung onto the networks in response to news events themselves rather than to the demands of schedules. Until that day, the achievement of Telstar will remain unimpressive.
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