This blog post is now included as a part of Resisting the Challenges of the 21st Century
Many, many years ago I was waiting in a line at a KFC, hoping for food. It was a small piece of luck that the background music in the store was actually something other than Muzak, and when the Four Tops came on, I naturally started singing along. The line finally moved along a little bit, and as I moved forward I glanced at the two people behind me in line, a young non-Caucasian (I give up on knowing if black or African-American or whatever term is correct now) and a man who appeared to be old enough to be his father or grandfather (time has eaten some of my memory of the day, but not the important parts).
The kid appeared to be confused that I was singing along with the song, and turned to his elder and complained that I seemed to know the song well enough to sing along. The man shook his head, and said, “It’s like I told you. Back in the day we used to all be together.” Given when this happened, it’s likely he was referring to the sixties, a time when things like Woodstock happened, but in the present day I fear we have even bigger hurdles to overcome.
Before cable showed up, most towns only had three or four television stations, and there were only three main networks and maybe PBS available. As a result, a significant percentage of the population was watching any particular show, and if a show was a big hit, everybody saw it live (video tape recorders weren’t widespread until the middle seventies). Now there are so many choices for viewing that even hit shows have ratings that are so low they would have been canceled in the past.
Radio stations were more widespread than television, especially at night. The FCC set aside AM channels between 600 and 1000 for broadcasters at a very limited number of stations, and at night those stations could boost their power and be heard over a wide area. Most places I have lived could pick up WLS in Chicago with ease, and I even had preset buttons in my car set to it while living in Nashville and even Atlanta. When I was a disc jockey in the sixties I could pull records from our playlist and play an assortment of records back to back that seems impossible now: Johnny Cash, Led Zepplin, Andy Williams, Beatles, Archies, the Supremes, Blood Sweat and Tears, and Judy Collins. All those artists could be played back to back in the same hour, and nobody gave it a second thought. That kind of top 40 radio was replaced by Narrowcasting, a plethora of radio stations that play only rap, or pop, or country pop, or classic rock, etc., all designed to attract just a small but focused audience. Sirius-XM radio goes even further, allowing online listeners to tailor their listening habits to not only select one of over 100 stations but even letting them increase or decrease the amount of Motown or bubble gum or big hits or little hits on each narrowcasted station.
And then there’s the Internet. Not only can you stream only the songs you think you want to hear, but you can select the way you get news, recipes, shopping, or pretty much anything. The ability of the web to narrowcast helps divide us even more, leaving us with almost no shared experiences anymore.
How can we ever hope to reach the one world promise of Woodstock if we are so hopelessly divided that we have no common ground anymore?
Somewhere, I hope that little kid has grown up to remember how to still sing along with the Four Tops; feel free to dance along as well: