Every generation has their version of “Back when I was your age we didn’t have [fill in the blank]”. With the pace of technological advancement over the past 20 years we’ve now reached the point where the shifts aren’t generational, but sub-generational, as both the pace of innovation and speed of adoption continue to accelerate. It won’t be long until high school sophomores will wax poetic to incoming freshmen about how much easier the new class has it, because a year ago X, which is suddenly ubiquitous, didn’t exist.
I often think about this in the context of entertainment. I was born in the early 1970s. At that point, pretty much every household had a television, if not more than one, and the primary TV was most likely color. Radio was certainly everywhere as well, but generally when it came to “shows” people meant what was on TV. In most markets you were limited to a handful of channels – the three major networks, PBS, and maybe a swap meet calibre local access channel was about all we had. If you wanted to see the new episode of Happy Days or Three’s Company you had to make a point of being in front of your set at the scheduled date and time. Yes, VCRs existed in the 1970s, but who could afford one? I recently saw an add in a 1977 magazine listing VCRs at $1,000, and blank tapes at $100, both of which sound outrageous today. But when you factor in inflation… wow! That 1977 VCR would be the equivalent of about $4,200 in today’s money, with the blank tape costing another $420 (I believe my father was earning $12,000 per year in 1977). And since you couldn’t even buy movies on VHS at that point, could you really justify spending that kind of money? And even if you did, for what? So you could catch Sanford and Son a day after it aired?
By the early 1980s my family had cable and a VCR, and enough indie video rental stores were around that you could at least see movies like Deathstalker and Easy Rider. An ever growing number of cable channels and syndication meant you could catch up on at least some old shows, but it probably wasn’t for another 25 years that things like TiVo made recording shows easier. And now even that seems quaint in the era of streaming. More and more people I know are dropping cable completely and doing everything via streaming services, and people are as likely to watch shows on tablets or phones as they are televisions.
So I’m of the last generation that remembers a time before cable and VCRs, while the generation after mine will recall their life before streaming. But if we go one generation older than me, folks who grew up in the 1950s, most people didn’t have television, and even if you did the few channels that existed didn’t even broadcast all day. In fact, if you were telling someone about a “show” you were looking forward to that night, it was probably a radio show. And likely not one that played music but some kind of radio theater. While I know what it means to have to tune in at a specific day and time to catch your show, the idea of sitting in front of the radio to listen to it seems as foreign to me as having your schedule dictated by TV does to a teenager today.
I got three boxes of free records from someone at work the other day, and included were three box sets of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, all of which I believe were released on vinyl in the 1970s. One, The Hound Of The Baskervilles & The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, consists of the sound from two Sherlock Holmes movies, which you can more or less follow but definitely includes passages where the action is purely visual and you’re left scratching your head. The other two, though, Sherlock Holmes Tales From Baker Street and More Sherlock Holmes Adventures, are comprised of radio show episodes from the 1940s and 50s, each about 25 minutes in length. It’s a trip listening to these and thinking about the role they played – this was the cutting edge of delivering entertainment directly into the home. And they’re kind of fun to play in the evening while you’re chilling out with a cocktail.
You can actually find these from time to time and fairly reasonably priced. So long as the vinyl is in good shape, one of these boxes will give you a good three hours or so of entertainment and a way to travel back in time… even if you can play them any time you want.