Local Media in a Postmodern World

A Broadcaster's Christmas Carol

by Terry Heaton (and Charles Dickens)
A gust of wind swirled around the trees in front of old Ebenezer Broadcaster's hilltop house this cold December night, scattering snow from the branches like an invisible broom sweeping dust from the attic. The large evergreen at the corner bent in the gale and rerouted the gust over the valley and its inhabitants. It was Christmas Eve.

It was a peaceful and starlit night throughout the land, and the little ones dreamt of the next morning with its joy and gifts — all except the little ones at the cottage of Bob Gadget. Gadget had worked as an engineer for Ebenezer for 30 years, but this Christmas, he feared for his job and, along with it, his ability to care for his crippled son, Tiny New. Rather than buy gifts, he was saving what little money he had for the inevitability of Broadcaster's axe.

Ebenezer was a second generation Broadcaster, having built his empire from a small A.M. radio station his father owned in the 50s. With a penchant for squeezing every last penny from a dollar, Ebenezer Broadcaster had a reputation as a hostile and difficult employer. He boasted that many celebrities had come through his television stations on their way up the ladder, but the truth is he never paid anybody enough money to want to stick around.

"Humbug," he would say on the matter. "I just did my part in helping their careers move along."

Earlier in the evening, Ebenezer had been enjoying his holiday brandy, when a vision appeared to him warning of visits by three Ghosts during the night. Dismissing the apparition as too much booze, he went to bed as usual. However, his fitful sleep was interrupted when the clock struck midnight, and he bolted upright in bed as a strange presence rattled chains while emitting a comfortable but frightening warmth. The Ghost was small in stature, and a broad smile never left its face.

"Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me." asked Ebenezer.

"I am."

The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.

"Who, and what are you." Ebenezer demanded.

"I am the Ghost of Broadcasting Past."

"Long Past?" inquired Ebenezer, observant of its dwarfish stature.

"No. Your past. Now, come. Let us look and observe."

Suddenly, Ebenezer Broadcaster was pulled into a vortex of sight and sound — familiar yet unfamiliar. The tunnel was lined with all sorts of money — floating cash, loose change, profit, credit scores, check books, and an endless sea of balanced budgets. He reached for a $100 bill, but it slipped through his fingers. Laughter and merriment echoed from every direction, and he was aware of a profound sense of power as they flew along on their journey.

"A journey to where?" he wondered.

The Ghost turned to the left and suddenly they were aboard a cruise ship with hundreds of old associates and clients.

"I never thought the Broadcasters would ever spend their money on something like this," said a stout fellow holding a martini.

"Their money?" replied his companion. "Hell, it's OUR money they're spending. They've got us by the balls, they do. If we want to reach our customers, we're a slave to their outrageous rates."

With a sudden yank, the Ghost pulled Ebenezer heavenward, and they were soon floating over the city. Tucked in an envelope of warmth, it seemed they were immune to the cold night air. Every home had an antenna attached to the chimney, and inside smiling faces were everywhere as families gathered around their television sets to enjoy the programming Ebenezer's station provided. It was good and all was well, but in an instant Ebenezer was back in his bed. With its toothy smile, the Ghost stood before him and announced that another Spirit would soon knock.

Then, Ebenezer Broadcaster was alone.

In mid-snore, he was again awakened as the clock struck one. A stream of light from the next room beckoned, and Ebenezer reluctantly investigated, discovering a giant Phantom surrounded by a floating field of electronic gadgetry and wires that filled the room. The Ghost of Broadcasting Present was pleasant and young, and she carried a torch shaped like a computer screen. When the Ghost turned to the left, the floating field turned with her. When she turned to the right, the floating field followed. It was most strange indeed.

First the Ghost of Broadcasting Present showed Ebenezer the people of the town in all their merriment on Christmas morning. As they watched the townspeople, the Ghost sprinkled good cheer on them from her computer and the people rejoiced. As Ebenezer looked around each home, he noticed that no one was watching television. The set still stood in the corner of the living room, but youngsters played video games and DVDs, while older people watched cable niche channels like HGTV and The Food Channel, each in their own room. How awful, he thought.

Computers were evident in other rooms of the homes, and people sat typing and drawing and reading and watching. There was only a scattering of antennas on the chimneys of the homes.

A bone shivering chill swept over Ebenezer's body as he considered the scene before him, and he felt a want that was unfamiliar.

"What's happened to my business?" he inquired of the Spirit. "You cannot represent the present, Ghost. Where are the people watching television? What about Nielsen? What about my clients?"

"You seek the past in what is now," the Ghost replied.

"Humbug," Broadcaster muttered. "This is nonsense! My spreadsheet still shows profit."

Off they flew to the northeast corner of the valley and entered the home of Ebenezer's most loyal employee, Bob Gadget. Electronic machines sizzled and swirled in every corner of the cold house, and Bob himself was busy in front of a computer. As he pecked at the keyboard, the Ghost led Broadcaster to read the screen. Gadget was making an entry to his blog — forecasting doom for the industry he'd served for 30 years and gathering links from like-minded bloggers who were searching for ways to calm their unemployment fears.

"Rebellion," Ebenezer cried. "My own trusted employee is rebelling against me."

"You've given him no choice," answered the Spirit. "He must protect his family, including Tiny New Gadget."

In the living room, the Gadget family was gathered around the TV watching a Seinfeld rerun between the commercials.

"At least these are loyal to me," Ebenezer thought, but the Spirit directed his attention to the empty floor beneath the Christmas tree.

Suddenly, Ebenezer Broadcaster was alone once again, and he trembled for perhaps the first time in his life.

The clock struck two, and he awoke to a room filled with a terrible sense of foreboding and dread. Before him stood a third Spirit — this one ghastly and misshapen.

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Ebenezer bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved, it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.

"I am in the presence of the Ghost of Broadcasting Yet To Come," said Ebenezer.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.

"You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us," Broadcaster pursued. "Is that so, Spirit?"

The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.

The city appeared before Broadcaster as if it sprang up around him, and the Ghost's hand directed Ebenezer to listen to the conversation of several groups of men in the streets. They spoke of the death of a man and a funeral that no one planned to attend.

"He died a fool," said a fellow with a moustache and glasses. "The old coot just couldn't accept change."

"He also died broke," added another. "He never knew what hit him, because he wouldn't listen to anybody."

Ebenezer stared into the black emptiness of the Phantom's hooded face and said, "They're talking about me. Is it not so?"

Suddenly, they were above Broadcaster's old television station. It was a shadow of its former self, its windows broken and its walls covered with the utterings of vandals armed with spray paint. Equipment racks had been ransacked and anything of value removed. The parking lot stood empty. The tower was broken in half, and its transmitter was covered in overgrowth and wires. The cold wind whistled through the buildings of Broadcaster's once proud station.

"This, this cannot be," Ebenezer cried.

Over the city they flew, and joy and merriment was all the Ghost could reveal. Life went on. The people were entertained. The people were informed. Gone was any trace of a TV antenna. Inside the homes, the people entertained themselves with a variety of gadgetry. Elaborate menus of content drifted before his eyes, along with acronyms he didn't recognize. VOD, DVR, iPod and PSP. There were no television sets, only flat screens, laptops and handheld units — some connected by wires,others not.

Broadcaster's thoughts turned to his own sense of worthlessness. All this time, he had believed the people of the town couldn't live without him. Yet, here they were doing just fine despite the loss of the TV station.

Once again, he found himself inside the dwelling of Bob Gadget. The family home had been transformed into a sprawling mansion, the splendor of which overwhelmed Ebenezer. Laughter and joy filled the house, and prosperity flowed from every room. Bob's son, Tiny New, was the center of attention, and cash fell from his pocket as Bob lifted him into the air and set him in a special chair.

"It's all been worth it, my family," Bob announced as he raised his glass in a toast. "While that old bastard Ebenezer Broadcaster wasted away the hours counting on the immortality of his spreadsheets, we've explored the many new ways of doing what he used to do. Mass marketing died when the Internet was born, and media is now all about consumer choice.

"Our company has gone public, and thanks to our Tiny New Gadget here, we've come to a place where we can enjoy the fruits of life's many blessings."

And Ebenezer found himself in a graveyard, alone with the Phantom. Before him stood a tombstone that read:

Here lies the body of Ebenezer Broadcaster.
He dug the hole in which he is now buried.

The scales fell from his eyes and he realized what the Ghost of Broadcasting Yet to Come was telling him, so he asked, "Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be only?"

He begged the Spirit to assure him that if he changed his ways, this would not be his end, but the Ghost did not answer. He threw himself at the Spirit's feet and pleaded saying, "I will honor New Media in my heart, and try to keep up with changes. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me, and I will spend what the Future requires."

Ebenezer watched frightfully as the Ghost began to shrink until it melted away into nothing more than a bedpost.

As the sun broke through the window, Ebenezer Broadcaster awoke with a stretch and a smile. He was also on a mission, and there was no time like the present to get started. He made his way to the mall and burst into the door buster sales to buy this gift and that. He turned his car northeastward to the home of Bob Gadget and his family.

When Gadget opened the door, old Ebenezer smiled and announced, "Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas to you and your family."

He handed out gifts to one and all, put his arm around Bob, and said, "Let's you and I sit down and talk on Monday about what's going on in the business and what we can do together to prepare for the Future."

And Tiny New raced to Ebenezer and squeezed his leg.

"God bless us all," he proclaimed, "each and every one of us."