On this Easter Sunday morning, I’m still processing the pictures etched into my brain of Notre Dame Cathedral, in flames. This 856 year old church, is the most visited structure in Paris, eclipsing the Eiffel Tower.
Like many people around the world, I sat in front of a video screen watching the efforts of 400 French firefighters trying to contain the inferno.
In a world that seems out-of-control, the raging flames destroying this icon seemed like a metaphor for our lives.
“Built in the Gothic era, destroyed in the social-media era.”
-Rachel Donadio, The Atlantic
This quote by Rachel resonated with me because it made me think of some similarities between the radio industry and the history of this great cathedral.
A Short History of Notre Dame
Notre Dame was a masterpiece of French Gothic architecture. It was built in the middle ages with the structure largely completed in 100-years. It would take another 100-years to see the cathedral take on more of the shape we had most recently known.
Over the centuries, Notre Dame would be badly damaged, first by the Huguenots, and then again during the French Revolution. Napoleon would order the church’s restoration and hold his coronation there as Emperor in 1804.
By the 19th Century, Notre Dame was again half-ruined inside and badly battered. It was even used as a warehouse, and there was talk of just tearing it down. A novel by Victor Hugo titled “Notre-Dame de Paris” (published in English as “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”) would bring the cathedral new attention, and in 1844 King Louis Phillippe ordered the church’s restoration.
Notre Dame would survive two world wars, but during the 20th Century the cathedral would be battling air pollution and a lack of interest in funding the maintenance of this aging structure.
In late 2010s, it was estimated that $113 million in renovations was needed to preserve the cathedral. Only late last year had work begun on the spire.
A Short History of Radio
Radio was a communications masterpiece. The spoken word and musical art forms of radio broadcasting would spread knowledge, culture and entertainment like the world had never seen.
Commercial radio born in 1920, would quickly become the must have device in every American household. It was the “Golden Age of Radio.”
Radio was first challenged by the birth of television in the 1950s and the migration of its talent and programs over to TV. Like Notre Dame, there were many who thought radio had come to an end and that television had replaced it. But radio broadcasters with vision, renovated radio broadcasting from its block programming and national broadcast networks into a variety of formats that would be curated by the radio personality, known as the Disc Jockey or more simply the “DJ.”
Radio was now in what would be called its second “Golden Age.”
Like the great cathedral of Notre Dame, radio would be challenged by its own particular battles over its life. Things like the 8-track tape, cassette tape, compact discs and the ubiquitous CB radios of the 1970s, all these challenged radio in a place it had long enjoyed dominance, the automobile.
As Rachel Donadio so prophetically observed, radio and Notre Dame were seeing their own type of destruction in a social-media 21st Century world.
Money for Disasters but Not for Maintenance
One of the things we have learned from the fire at Notre Dame is that while it was near impossible to find donors to fund needed maintenance and restoration of the cathedral, the disaster of April 15th has secured hundreds of millions of dollars for the full restoration of this great iconic church.
I’m sure that Notre Dame will be restored to a glory even greater than before the fire.
Radio & Cooking Frogs
On the other hand, radio isn’t going up in flames. There will be no live, continuous television coverage of radio’s destruction. Most people don’t even realize there’s a problem. 9 in 10 people still are counted as weekly radio listeners.
Radio’s situation is more akin to the way you cook a frog. Throw a frog into a pot of boiling water and it will immediately jump out, but put the frog in a pot of water and slowly raise the temperature and the frog will be cooked without realizing it.
My heart sinks as I read how important the radio personality is to the future success of the radio industry, and at the same time read about how decades long radio people are being eliminated with job reductions on almost a weekly basis.
If all radio stopped tomorrow, people would spring into action to save it, just like they are doing for Notre Dame.
Radio, like all local, independent media, plays a vital role in our lives, our democracy, and our future.
Can you feel the water getting hotter?