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No. 178:
A Media Child

Today, some thoughts of a media child. 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.

During the 1920s -- before TV, talking movies, or decent recordings -- my mother ran her own radio program. A sheet-music store hired her to play the piano and sing the latest songs so people would buy the music. She started her brother in radio by letting him sing "On The Road to Mandalay." That didn't lead to musical stardom, but he went on to become a noted broadcast journalist in the 30s and '40s. Finally, my father was a newspaperman and editor through the '20s, '30s, and 40s.

I was, in short, a child of the media -- raised to understand that clear, honest, entertaining communication was a virtue on roughly the same level as avoiding theft and murder.

But the family trade was not for me. I suffered from what, today, is swept under the confusing label of dyslexia. I could neither read nor write acceptably, and I was beleaguered by a severe stammer. I looked for fulfillment -- not on any public stage -- but in the workshop. I built model airplanes, tree houses, many of my own toys, and anything else I could think of.

My parents seemed content with this alternative, although I seriously challenged their patience one spring afternoon in the waning days of WW-II. The Japanese, in a kind of 11th-hour desperation, had started releasing balloons into the westerlies that blew across the northern United States. Each one carried a small incendiary bomb. Luckily, America was less flammable than the Japanese had hoped. This first assault on the American mainland did no damage, but it created enormous media interest.

So I set about to launch my latest construction. It was a six-foot-tall hot-air balloon made of white tissue paper and painted with my concept of Japanese characters. I'd built a small oil-fired heater to buoy it into the sky.

I was puzzled and hurt when my father saw what I was doing and told me to quit it right away. A media child I may have been, but I hadn't learned that neither media people nor their children were allowed to manufacture news.

All that came back to me during a recent chat with a visiting Russian scientist. What could I say to him when he insisted that the American media were under government control! He had no way of understanding the burden of responsibility that vests in people who enjoy genuine freedom of expression. There was no easy way to explain the power of the values I'd seen daily as a child -- the values of free speech that we see at their best today in public radio.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

[I wrote this episode before the old Soviet Union broke up.]