by Will Schreiber

Radio, SF, and cultural stopgaps

Growing up, I remember “Save Public Radio” stickers all over the place. Beanie-wearing hipsters would sip lattes and bemoan the iPod’s war on radio. There were petitions for grants to keep WBHM’s lights on.

But radio is a tiny blip in the history of music. Ancient Rome had lyres and tubas and bagpipes. Everywhere we discover ruins, we discover instruments. For tens of thousands of years, we had to gather together in order to hear each other strum and hum.

Then, less than 150 years ago, we figured out how to mechanically record sounds. A few decades later, we started transmitting speeches over radio waves.

Radio was a century-long stopgap, a bandaid in-between the invention of recorded music and the invention of the Internet.

Radio’s reign was a four-generation blip.

We complain about losing lots of things as if they’re a part of civilization’s natural order. “People don’t get coffee with friends anymore.” “When’s the last time you called a friend to catch up?” “The dinner party is dead.” But coffee shops, long-distance phone networks, telephones, and McMansions are all recent inventions. 19th Century humans found happiness without them.

Similar to radio, the “death” of San Francisco is being widely reported. Who knows, maybe it’ll continue to be the heartbeat of software. Maybe it won’t.

But what bugs me is when people talk about SF as if it has always existed as some oasis, as if it has always been the center of the technology industry.

San Francisco did not exist as a city until 1850.1 In the 1960’s, San Francisco was a hippie town. Silicon Valley was exactly that - a valley - until Hewlett-Packard and Fairchild Semiconductor sprung up around Stanford. VC’s and entrepreneurs have migrated north to SF in only the past two decades.

SF’s reign has been a one-generation blip.

San Francisco could easily remain as the burning core of the software industry, but crazier things have happened. London is no longer the world’s biggest financial center. Milan is no longer the heartbeat of fashion.

The world keeps changing, yet we keep holding onto things that “once were” and onto how things “should be.”

Cities evolve. People move. We discover new physics equations.

Movies replaced live shows. Now binging habits on Netflix are destroying the movie as a medium.

Talk radio replaced Lincoln-Douglas debates. Now podcasts are replacing talk radio.

Office spaces, cities, cars, suburbs, drive-thrus, jet engines, restaurants, cheeseburgers, hotels, Airbnbs, trains, Zoom, colleges. All of these are cultural stopgaps, blips enjoyed by some number of generations until they’re replaced.

These things are not the natural state of civilization. I’m looking forward to what comes next.