Recently, I lost a loyal and faithful friend.
It was on a nondescript April night, just after midnight. It wasn’t unexpected; it was clear this was going to happen, and I figured I could be a witness to the final moment. Even so, I had to scramble to make the connection with my friend, and once I had, I discovered that my vigil was a lonesome one.
Who was the friend? A reliable pal born 57 years ago into an unknown but promising future: the analog TV signal of a local television station. Cause of death? Progress. He couldn’t keep up. His successor, a furious blast of bits, had pretty much replaced him with five times the ability to deliver the goods.
How did he go? With a brief and impassive pop, at one minute past midnight, as planned. He was busy to the end, conveying the image of a late night comedian in smooth analog modulation, just as he’d always done. On the audio track the audience was laughing at a joke, when suddenly – picture and sound vanished. The TV, startled, examined the resulting snow for a few seconds, trying to find some pattern, then gave up and reverted to a blue screen. Of death.
I knew that a whole team of electrical relays that had spent many years tightly clenched to keep electricity pulsing into the bowels of the TV transmitter had just “clunked” – but this time, to the open position. This last clunk had denied thousands of volts to the signal end of the transmitter, and the radio energy created there had evaporated, leaving nothing to crawl out on the transmission line. A TV antenna a thousand feet away had instantly been reduced from a pulsing beacon of high frequency energy to a quiet metal frame, just a large dead weight strapped to a tower.
Something about it triggered a phrase buried deep in memory: do not…go gently…into that good night…
And I wondered: except for the engineers who were punching a few more buttons to let the blowers wind down, who was at the party? And why hadn’t I and every other viewer been included?
Of course there was a party. For 57 years, hadn’t this signal been an integral part of the community, delivering hundreds of thousands of news stories and storm alerts and game scores?
Hadn’t this signal let us be witnesses to events great and small, happy and sad, using its unique and powerful combination of sight, sound, color, and motion to engage us, enrage us, distract us, and educate us?
Hadn’t this signal been a key catalyst of local commerce, showing millions of commercials that inspired us to shop, bank, drive, eat, visit, vote, see?
Oh, sure, for better than half this signal’s life, its basic waveform had been diverted, more and more, to cable and satellite boxes, and the aluminum rods that we had strapped to our chimneys to receive it had become anachronisms, but this was still the signature feature of the station, the spinning of an electrical umbrella over the community that anchored and defined the station’s business: “broadcasting.”
Was this how broadcasters would mark the changing of the guard – the biggest national conversion of an electronic medium that the world has ever seen – with the simple flip of a switch that would send a lingering giggle at Letterman or O’Brien riding a station’s last analog waves into space?
Another line crept out of memory: old age should burn…and rave…at close of day…
So where was the party? Where was the video of current and veteran personalities and employees who had poured their blood, sweat, and tears into this busy signal over the years? Where were the viewers who had sent in crazy ideas on how to say goodbye to analog or who had a favorite station memory to share?
Where were the tributes from the mayor and the police chief and the chamber of commerce and the ad agencies and the animal shelters and the food banks and all the folks who’s voices had been amplified by this powerful community resource?
Where was the countdown clock and the split screen on the digital feed that paid homage to the analog signal as the DTV signal picked up the exclusive duty of continuing the broadcasting tradition?
Where was the story of who got to throw the analog shutoff switch (not a fake cardboard switch, but the real one, right on the transmitter)? Was it the highest bidder to the station charity? Or the oldest engineer? Or the governor, or the President, or everybody, grabbing a rope and counting down to the moment when they all tugged together and cheered the clunk of the relays that said technology changes, but broadcasting continues?
Another phrase had wandered into my head: rage…against the dying of the light…
I looked it up. In 1952, the same year the TV station went on the air, a wild Welsh poet named Dylan Thomas published a poem that screamed against darkness. He had written it while watching his father die gently, too gently. The first stanza ended with this: “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”
“Rage” may be too overwrought a term for a transition we’ve been planning and managing for years, but there is a fierce passion in Thomas’s words. Is it just a coincidence, or, 57 years ago, did he publish the first obituary for analog TV?
To the “un-transitioned” broadcasters who still have time to mark the moment with something more than a dispassionate clunk: you decide.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
- Dylan Thomas, 1952. First stanza.