I had a dream.
I dreamed that someday I’d be able to send stories and photos to publications from anywhere, even from the middle of the woods. Which, coincidentally, was where I lived at the time.
As a cub reporter at The Birmingham News, my job title was “General Assignment Writer,” with the emphasis on “General.” (My boss, Clarke Stallworth, once promoted me to “Colorful Old Man Who Lives Under a Viaduct Editor,” but it took up too much space on the page.)
While the more senior reporters spent their days at city hall, the courthouse or the police department, my typical schedule was to drive from Shanghi, Alabama, to The News office, get my assignments, drive to the Middle of Nowhere, interview some interesting individuals, drive back to Birmingham, write the articles, process the film, print the pictures and drive home to Shanghi about bedtime. Next day, rinse and repeat.
My Ford Pinto and I were on a first-name basis. My name for it was not printable, and I’m sure the feeling was mutual.
I dreamed of the day when I could file stories from out of town and then drive straight home. At the time, the only way one could do this was to “dictate.” No, not to act like Hitler, but to call the office from a pay phone and read your story to another reporter who typed it and turned it in.
Because the process was cumbersome, dictating was reserved for breaking, front-page stories, which I was rarely assigned to cover. I envied a couple of the older reporters, who could dictate a story off the top of their head without jotting it down first. I couldn’t, and still can’t.
Then came the Computer Age. Sort of. I shelled out a hard-earned grand (in 1977 dollars) at my local Radio Shack for a device known as the TRS-80. It had a full-sized keyboard, a black-and-white monitor slightly smaller than a mailing envelope and a blazing 8KB of internal memory. (Note to younger readers: Not 8MB, but 8KB. No, I’m not hallucinating this. Ask your grandparents.)
In other words, the TRS-80 was a reporter’s dream. What’s more, you could get a nifty (sold separately) “acoustic modem,” which resembled a modern-day defibrillator, except that the shock-pads were big suction cups, allowing you to manhandle them onto a pay-phone receiver in the Middle of Nowhere and transmit your story to the newspaper via the phone lines.
The modem was so fast that sending a 600-word article, for instance, only took ... forever, while you huddled in the frozen phone booth, kept a close eye on the monitor and hoped the chattering of your teeth didn’t interfere with the acoustic, non-digital signal. Transmitting a photo? Forget it. Life was too short. You could drive back to Birmingham quicker.
After that, reporting from a distance seemed like a wild dream again. We had a yard sale, and I put the TRS-80 on the table with a $15 price tag. Near the end of the day, I reduced it to $5. Still no takers.
Here in 2011, of course, we can suddenly send articles (and photos and videos) anywhere in the world (as long as the country doesn’t have a dictator) with the push of a button. There’s an upside and a downside to this, but I’ll worry about that later. The reality of high-speed wireless transmission hasn’t actually sunk in for me, yet.
Right now, I’m like the butcher that backed into his sausage grinder: I’m getting a little behind in my work.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 p.m. on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com and is archived afterward on his website.