The medium is the message

Wednesday night, I rediscovered something brilliant – on, of all places, AM radio.

A little background:  I recently moved out of my family home. I found a great place in Carytown, but it’s occupied until New Year’s. So, for a few months, I’m renting a room in Northside Richmond.  

Thing is, there’s no TV. No cable. No dish. Not even an old analog set with an adapter box.  Nada.

And it’s time for the World Series.

Now, to be sure, I could always hang out at a sports bar. But, at this point in my life, I prefer a quieter environment, and I don’t relish nursing one beer for nine innings while some scantily-clad waitress urges me to “try our wings” every 10 minutes.  (Not that I wouldn’t appreciate the attention, but...)

But it’s October. I seldom watch a ballgame during the regular season, but growing up with my Dad, the week or so devoted to what  Dizzy Dean called “the World Serious” was a time as holy as Advent or Lent.

Dad’s been gone for 20 World Series now, but ignoring this event would be a failure of filial piety. Besides, this Series promises to have everything, including a David vs. Goliath storyline.

Still, the question remained:  How to watch Game One with no TV.

Having no better option, I didn’t watch.  I listened.  

And it was great.  

What I’d forgotten was that baseball is a game that evolved in the age of radio.  

Now the NFL, a younger sport, is based on spectacle. The nature of the game requires you to see the artistry and feel the violence.

And the NBA without TV is utterly pointless. (Don’t say it. I know.) College basketball, a team game, is tolerable on radio. But the NBA is less a sport than a showcase for amazing individual showmanship.

But baseball – especially at the highest level – adds the element of intellectual warfare to the players’ athletic excellence. It’s been compared to chess, and rightly so.

Baseball in October requires all the experience, judgment, and shrewdness of the veteran – in the dugout, on the base paths, from the catcher, everywhere.

Thus baseball – as a thinking fan’s game – is actually better on the radio than on TV. There’s time for thought, and the appreciation of thought, in that medium.

Forty-seven years ago, a Canadian professor named Marshall McLuhan wrote a profound book, in which he offered this thesis:  “The medium is the message.”

The idea was that every medium of communication contains within it certain assumptions and values, which are subtly delivered by that medium, and which are as important as what we think of as the “content.”

It’s a remarkable idea, more important now than when McLuhan first proposed it. We live in a world dominated even saturated – by different, competing media. In addition to old-school media like radio, newspaper, and TV, we carry around these amazing little devices which enable us to keep in touch with all sorts of things.  

But each medium, itself, conveys messages which shape the way we think – or don’t think.

For example, the more a medium relies on images and sounds – i.e., the less it uses words – the farther it moves away from the rational.  Logic and Reason – human creations designed to make sense of the world – evolved through the manipulation of words. In a sense, without words (or numbers), logical thinking is impossible.

A more concrete example:  Standardized tests, as a medium, convey the assumption that there are only a few answers to any question – and that one of them is “right.” 

Which is fine for simple math, but absurd for history, literature, or any subject involving critical or outside-the-box thinking.

This topic is far too complex for a brief newspaper column – but it’s something to think about.  The place to start would be reading McLuhan’s book, “Understanding Media.”

But for now, as a practical experiment, listen to one World Series game on radio. You’ll be surprised.

I listened to the whole game, from the first pitch through the final out. It was perfect.

Especially when the Cards won. Dad would have loved that.


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