By Published on .

When the wireless began to show up in America's stores, early in the century, radio's advocates swore up and down that it would not become an advertising conduit. It was going to be an educational medium. The then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover assured all that it was "inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service . . . to be drowned in advertising chatter," and that if important messages ever "became the meat in a sandwich of two patent medicine advertisements, it would destroy broadcasting." Radio was going to transmit the best that had been thought and said. It would open the floodgates between the government and its people and between the universities and its students.

Sound familiar? Just a few years ago, the Internet was going to carry never-ending knowledge from the centers of power and learning out to the most distant home computer screen. The World Wide Web was most definitely not going to be filled with blinking banners and "Click me! Click me!" icons. This new medium was going to improve, to lift, to make better, to civilize. There is no need for me to recite the most popular Web sites and who sponsors them.

Radio lost the wide-eyed innocence with which its devotees sought to imbue it on August 18, 1922. On that particular Monday, M.H. Blackwell, a housing developer with the Queensboro Corporation, stood before a microphone at WEAF in New York City. He would speak for 15 minutes and pay $50 for the privilege. What he said was every bit as important as "Come here, Mr. Watson, I need you," only a bit longer. It was to be the May Day distress call of high culture.

Mr. Blackwell noted that the Queensboro Corp. has named its most recent development, Hawthorne Court, in the writer's honor. A slow-moving pitch followed, with Blackwell trying to move the "vast radio audience" in an emotional as well as in the most literal of ways: He urged his listeners "to seek the recreation and the daily comfort of the home removed from the congested part of the city, right at the boundaries of God's great outdoors, and within a few miles by subway from the business section of Manhattan. This sort of residential environment strongly influenced Hawthorne, America's greatest writer of fiction. He analyzed with charming keenness the social spirit of those who had thus happily selected their homes, and he painted the people inhabiting those homes with good-natured relish."

Mr. Blackwell, of course, was selling houses.

One cannot help but notice that Blackwell, who may have a perceptive sense of urban angst, has little sense of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I daresay he'd never read a word of The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables. If he had, Blackwell would surely have known that Hawthorne hardly painted a rosy picture of American suburban home life. Oh, Hawthorne depicts home life with relish, all right, but the relish is made from cayenne peppers. The only happy people in Hawthorne's miasmic world are loonies and crackpots.

No matter. Blackwell made the romantic connection between the good life and the natural life, and provided a link between suburban space and family happiness. Later, in his radio address, he upped the ante. This is the really creative part: "Let me enjoin upon you as you value your health and your hopes and your home happiness, get away from the solid masses of brick, where the meager opening admitting a slant of sunlight is mockingly called a light shaft, and where children grow up starved for a run over a patch of grass and the sight of a tree. Apartments in congested parts of the city have proved failures. The word 'neighbor' is an expression of peculiar irony -- a daily joke . . . Let me close by urging that you hurry to the apartment home near the green fields and the neighborly atmosphere right on the subway without the expense and trouble of a commuter, where health and community happiness beckon -- the community life and the friendly environment that Hawthorne advocated."

Three weeks later the Queensboro Corporation had sold all its property in Hawthorne Court in Jackson Heights in present-day Queens, Long Island.

That pretty well sealed the fate of radio, television, and now the World Wide Web. It took about 20 years for radio to become colonized by commercial interests. Television never had a chance. The Web went in months.

And through it all, Mr. Blackwell remained, hiding behind the winking pixels,

Most Popular