NCPR and all the broadcasters of the nation went through a test of the National Emergency Alert System last Wednesday at 2 pm. Alarming buzz tones preceded and followed a short test message on schedule, so in that sense it was a success. There were issues; the sound quality was reminiscent of the automated stop announcements on the subway. In fact, it sounded as if the message had been beamed forward from the middle of the last century–back when you could actually reach the majority of Americans, all at the same time, via broadcast services.
Over the last two decades, the appointment consumption of broadcast media has dwindled to a shadow of its former self. If the whole nation needs to know something right now, pre-empting broadcast just won’t get it done. Some people watch and listen on-demand, some time-shift by recording, some only watch what Facebook friends recommend. Some were watching their TVs at the right time, but were streaming an old episode of The Avengers, or watching a cat chase a laser pointer on Youtube. Some were plugged into the radio, but it was internet radio, steaming their favorite tango show from Argentina.
Despite the common use of the term “mainstream media,” it has become an oxymoron. The mighty Mississippi of broadcasting has silted up now into the infinite channels, backwaters and bayous of new media. The rise of many-to-many communication has overturned such notions as “paper of record,” “the evening news,” “Top 40 Hit,” “major network.” It is increasingly impossible to characterize “the media” as too corporate, or too liberal, or too conservative, or too anything, because media (plural of medium) has thousands of forms and sources once again.
The media (singular) died with the 20th century, living on in the cultural vocabulary as a vestigial organ. Its former clout can sometimes still be detected. For example, city water managers can tell you the exact timing of commercial breaks during the Super Bowl by watching water usage spike as a myriad toilets flush simultaneously. But that is nothing like the vision the broadcasters of old had for their role–as powers in their own right, molding public opinion, curating the cultural zeitgeist, as arbiters of civic debate, and a fourth branch of government. The media game has changed: once it was Monopoly, now it’s Fifty-Two Pickup.