Fabled voices falling silent


Media: As America loses its elder generation of journalists and commentators to retirement and death, it is also losing its sense of identity.

August 26, 2002|By Reed Johnson | Reed Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Their voices were filling and reassuring, the communications equivalent of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. They spoke to their audiences in the stick-to-the-ribs, common-sense argot of the rural Midwest -- even if they hailed from, say, New York or San Francisco, and even if they had long since been transplanted to some tropical oasis such as Los Angeles.

And now they're either dead, in the case of Ann Landers, Jack Buck, Mike Royko and Pauline Kael, or retired, as is the situation with Walter Cronkite. An advice giver, a sports broadcaster, a big-city newspaper columnist, the queen bee of movie critics and an avuncular network news anchor.

Voices of a generation, they were trusted friends, confidantes and late-night comforters; benign authority figures whose power resided in their calm self-assurance and peppery directness ("Wake up and smell the coffee!"); soothing, low-key elders in a society that seems to get younger and noisier by the minute.

Together, they personified what one academic calls a media culture of "companionship" that contrasts with the current one of confrontation. Recently, two more of them officially fell silent.

Chick Hearn, the legendary Los Angeles Lakers play-by-play announcer and ex-officio ambassador, died Aug. 5, ending a relationship with local listeners that had spanned the terms of nine U.S. presidents. Also that day, family members announced that Pauline Phillips, aka Dear Abby, has Alzheimer's disease. Daughter Jeanne Phillips now writes the column.

Performing a ritual

While words such as icon and fixture inevitably are used to pay tribute to such figures, their stature might have had as much to do with sheer consistency and dependability as with whatever snappy phrases or dazzling insights they imparted, says Irving Rein, a communications studies professor at Northwestern University.

"It was the whole notion of having a friend or a relationship, of somebody translating events to you in what you consider common-sense vernacular," he says. "I won't say it's like the faithful dog, but they perform a certain ritual."

Part of the advantage these old-school communicators enjoyed in building longevity was a more stable, paternalistic and homogenous structure of media ownership. Just as the old Hollywood studios created brand identity by locking their biggest stars into exclusive multiyear contracts, so other media established continuity by cultivating what was once a relatively limited pool of recognizable names and voices.

Sportscasters such as Hearn and Boston Celtics announcer Johnny Most were identified with single teams and single sports, and Cronkite was associated with a single network, CBS. Abby and Ann's mug shots anchored many a newspaper's feature sections, becoming practically as familiar as the faces of one's relatives.

By comparison, in today's corporate media culture of churn, a familiar face might be gone overnight. This week's star MTV video jockey or sex columnist could be at the front of next week's unemployment line. "The turnover of celebrities is much faster now," Rein says. "We can hardly keep track of them."

"Back in the days before mass communication, it took a much longer time to build up authority figures," says Ray Browne, professor emeritus of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and author of dozens of books on American popular culture.

Today, Browne says, "We're all free agents, and in a capitalistic world, free agents are out for their own aggrandizement. Baseball players used to have loyalty to the team. Now they have loyalty to the check."

Regional identities

Another thing that anchored these vanishing voices and personalities was a sense of place, a regional identity that stuck with them even as they went on to establish wider reputations.

Landers, though nationally syndicated, was from the Iowa heartland and made her base in adjoining Chicago throughout her long career. Buck was synonymous with St. Louis, Hearn with Los Angeles and Royko with the Windy City's bare-fisted blue-collar attitude.

Cronkite never lost the folksiness of his Missouri and Texas past, and Kael kept her San Francisco Bay Area countercultural friskiness intact during her tenure at The New Yorker, a pillar of East Coast sophistication.

Like Will Rogers, an earlier paragon of plain-spoken truth, wit and intelligence, these "companion" commentators spoke locally but projected nationally, sometimes even globally. Their association with a particular place gave them access to a loyal built-in audience in a way that was very different from the global access granted by the free-floating, everywhere-but-nowhere Internet.

"These people had a kind of a franchise on the business. There was no competition," Rein says. "They built an intimacy with their clients that isn't going to be there anymore. CNN isn't going to develop those kind of characters."

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