The century is only a few weeks old, and already everyone I know is out of breath. One problem is the media's insistence on hyperventilation. For weeks we were told the world would shut down on New Year's Day. The week after we were told never mind. One day we hear that the stock market is poised to soar; the next it's poised to plummet. One day a media merger will trigger a new era; the next it won't make any difference at all.

Now comes word that the media are actually beginning to take their own breath away. A new digital technology gaining currency around the country eliminates the silent gaps between words on broadcast programs, and even snips the length of some vowels, in order to squeeze out more airtime for commercials. According to a front-page article in The New York Times, the technology, called Cash, for its profit generating prowess, has the ability to add as much as six minutes of commercials to every radio hour.

Some stations carrying Rush Limbaugh used the technique (without telling the host), and irate listeners flooded the station with thousands of e-mail messages. Even the Inspirational Network, of Charlotte, North Carolina, has used it to speed up sermons and religious programming, the Times reports.

It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry in response to this technology. Any radio programmer who thinks the way to get the public's attention is by squeezing more commercials into an ad-heavy world deserves the tune-out this technology will surely engender. The faster that ads get shoved down our throats, the more quickly we forget them, and the less effective they become.
A new digital technology eliminates the silent gaps between words on broadcast programs in order to squeeze out more airtime for commercials.

What's most alarming about this drive to compress everything into less space is that it eliminates one of the most precious, and important, commodities in modern life: time to consider what's going on around us. Time--and space--to think.

Poets and actors have known this for a long time; the caesura is a dramatic pause in a line for effect. My mother knows it, too. When she would go into her "I'm counting to three!" routine when I was a child, she would always pause between two and three to give me one last moment to reconsider my behavior.

The bottom line is clear:

It's essential.

In many instances, the meaning of words actually changes if the spaces are eliminated. Try reciting the Pledge of Allegiance without the pauses:
"...oneNationunderGodindivisiblewithlibertyandjusticeforall..." Is God indivisible? Or the Nation? Are we indivisible with liberty and justice? If so, what does that mean? Compare: "One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Surely Limbaugh's station managers, not just his fans, can appreciate that turn of phrase.

Eliminating the spaces between words is actually part of a larger plague: the use of technology to alter the natural rhythms of life. Many pop music stations, for example, routinely speed up their songs to squeeze in more commercials. Worse, most pop music is recorded on digital tape, which means, as a practical matter, that performers sing songs as many as 40 times in the studio and editors splice together the best cut of each word with no regard to whether a real person could actually sing the final song. The days when Frank Sinatra's breathing was analyzed to determined how he inhaled are long gone.

These days if a lyric simply reads "I love you," it's not only possible but also likely that the singer will sing "I" on one day and "love" on the next, and then go on vacation to Mexico, have throat surgery, get married, get divorced, fall in love again, lose a parent, have a child, and in the process completely change his conception of what love means, before returning to the studio to sing the final "you." Technology creating a more perfect world, but one with less meaning.

We see this problem of time compression in other aspects of our lives. In the last decade, the radio audience actually shrank by 12 percent. One reason, no doubt, is the increase in use of cellular phones while people drive, prime time for radio. While cell phones can be great for delivering information ("I'm late," or "I've been in an accident"), in many ways they serve to cheapen the value of conversation. As someone without a cell phone, I've grown to dislike the chatty calls from friends or family as they sit in traffic or shop for groceries. I've become like talk radio: just filling their time. I can be pouring out my soul, when suddenly: "Hold on! I just dropped an avocado on I-95 and almost got run over by a cement truck."

Seconds later they're back: "Now, what were you saying?"
In Genesis, after God creates light, vegetation, the sun and moon, and humans, he pauses to consider his action, noticing that what he's done is "good."
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