Today, music and news. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Radio entered our homes not
too long before I was born. My mother did a radio
program for a local sheet music store during the
late 1920s. She played the piano and sang the new
songs to interest people in buying the music for
themselves. Many of her listeners were still using
crystal sets; radio was
that primitive. Sheet
music and pianos in the parlor were a huge part
of domestic life. When radio appeared, its first
role was as a complement — an extension — to the
That complementarity played out within my family in
another way. My mother gave her younger brother his
start in radio when she brought him onto her
program to sing "On the Road to Mandalay."
Later, my uncle told me that his singing had been
pretty awful. But the radio station liked his
speaking voice. They made him an announcer. He
became a leading local newscaster in the years
before the big networks. His name was Brooks
Henderson and some of my older listeners on station
KBEM in Minneapolis will remember Brooks as KSTP's
Phillips 66 Reporter.
So music and news were the family trade. My
newspaperman fa-ther dwelt upon the morality of
responsible news reporting — a lesson that many of
today's media forget. But then, the lesson of
responsible music can get lost, too. Since I've
always had trouble tuning out bad music, I wonder
which failing is the worse.
You may feel that lumping biased news with bad
music is rather like a bit of doggerel that my
father would quote. He would say,
In any case, the struggle to keep
standards is always with us.
Your grammar's bad.
Besides, you lie.
The two are worthy mates.
A third presence on early radio was theater. And,
unless you count opera, theater has almost
completely left us. The vaudeville shows of
Jack Benny and Fred Allen, along
with the drama of I Love a Mystery and
The Mercury Theatre, are the one part of
radio that's been taken away by television. But
they're the only part.
The music and the news remain. Up in Minneapolis,
KBEM preserves music in another of its forms. It is
straight-ahead jazz, which we now find woven
throughout twentieth-century composition.
I spend time talking with friends here
at my home station of KUHF. I haggle with the music
people over how they strike the terribly delicate
balance between familiar classics and difficult
classics. I also find myself testing the lengths to
which the news people will go to keep personal
beliefs off the air. To this day, I wonder who my
friends at the station vote for.
Nothing is quite as exhilarating as this ongoing —
this often conflicting — struggle that we're all
involved in. We work to up-hold standards at the
same time we work to keep the public engaged. In
engineering we call that a problem in
multi-objective optimization. Here, in public
radio, I suppose we have a more direct term for it.
We call it, simply, music and news.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
(You may, by the way, download many of the entire
Mercury Theatre broadcasts here:
The KUHF and KBEM websites are, respectively,
as I hack
This rumpus of shapes
For you to know ...
I build my bellowing ark
To the best of my love
As the flood begins,
– Dylan Thomas' prologue to his readers.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2020 by John H.