Of rabbit ears, relics and premature requiems


POSTED: Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It was a common spectacle back in the day, a feat that required the involvement of at least three people - one on the roof, one in front of the box and one somewhere in between to act as relay.

The objective? Position the antenna to get the best reception for the television.

The scene was played out at every household when a new set was bought or when wind or other forces of nature, shingle deterioration or metal fatigue forced the issue.

It was usually dads or big brothers who hit the roofs, their brawn needed to rotate the unwieldy contraption bristling with crossbars and spikes.

Relay posts were the most tedious and the least crucial, entailing only data transmission, i.e.:

“;How's it look now?”;

“;He said, 'how's it look now?'”;

“;Tell 'em still kinda fuzzy on Channel 4.”;

“;She said, 'still kinda fuzzy on 4.'”;


“;She said, 'OK on Channel 9. Real lousy on Channel 2.'”;

“;OK. Howzit now?”;

“;He said, “;Howzit now?'”;

“;Which channel?”;

The real heavy-duty chore rested with the person who made the call on picture quality, whose evaluations were always subject to second-guessing by everyone in the household, not to mention the neighbors who came to watch and throw in their two cents. (”;Shee, the old one was mo' bettah, no? Wit' Sylvania, da color too red, but maybe you put da rabbit ears come good, hah?”;)

Rabbit ears - those shiny rods often accessories with aluminum foil and wire coat-hanger sculptures in attempts to capture a better signal - and rooftop antennas have been the symbols of an earlier communication technology, what became in the past mid-century a modernity accessible to the many.

Soon they will be looked upon as relics as the rest of the nation follows Hawaii in converting from analog broadcasts to digital television.

Though Hawaii usually trails behind in technological endeavors, the islands' lead in the transition was dictated by, of all things, an endangered bird.

Because Hawaiian dark-rumped petrels hang out on Haleakala where dismantling analog towers would have coincided with their nesting season, the state made the change before the Feb. 17 deadline. Congress last week pushed back the deadline to June because people and conversion equipment on the mainland weren't ready for the switch.

Change isn't easy, but in this instance, the repercussions are manageable - which isn't always the case. Technology, the Internet and their aluminum foil accessories have had a remarkable effect on the business by which I make a living.

I've worked through the many evolutions of newspapering. I've seen devices such as hot-metal Ludlows and Linotypes give way to film-image typesetters and computerize printing, a swift metamorphosis when measured in the span of one career.

Gloomy talk about newspapers these days is misinterpreted as requiem for a dying industry when the message is more about the medium in transition. And just as rabbit ears and antennas will still be needed to pick up television signals, even with converter boxes, those who gather news and capture images and prepare them for delivery to their communities will remain valuable and essential. The relay of information and the words still matter.


Cynthia Oi can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)