Coming In Loud, But Not Clear New Sound Systems Haven't Helped Communication; They Have Actually Hurt It.

Posted: August 27, 1997

New technology brings new troubles. That is reinforced every night when that wonder of Alexander Graham Bell interrupts our dinner, bringing an unending stream of annoying phone calls from telemarketers. The same can be said of another questionable advancement in communication: the Sound System. Great idea, bad results.

True, neither the telephone nor the electronic sound system is what you would call new - unless we're looking over decades here - but they have brought relatively new problems. For the telephone, it has been annoyances like the telemarketer pest, the obscene caller, the wrong-number dialer. For the sound system, alas, in almost all its forms, it has been not communication, but noise.

Before the loudspeaker, performers, preachers and politicians had to project. They had to enunciate. They had to speak clearly, or they would lose their audiences - quickly. And, for the most part, the audiences listened.

There was a time when public speaking was a subject offered and promoted in schools. There was a time when the best remark you could make about a speaker was that ``you could hear him in the back row.''

In those days - not more than 50 years ago, really - audiences detested new-fangled loudspeakers. They all began with ear-piercing, high-pitched sounds that you could feel in your teeth. The dramatic move by the speaker of turning off the microphone with the statement ``I don't need this'' usually was greeted with loud applause.

Professional speakers got their messages across. Mumblers got the bum's rush.

Now, with sophisticated sound systems, important points are lost in grunts, groans and grimaces. Have you ever noticed, for example, how much more clearly you can hear the actors in old-time movies - despite the ancient sound tracks - compared with the modern film and TV dramas?

Even in big-screen, big-sound movies, major turns in the plots are lost because the words aren't there. We're not talking about hearing-impaired listeners here. We're talking about people with perfectly good hearing who walk away asking, ``What was it he said?''

The garbled message is not happening only in movies. It's in music, television, radio and advertising. Some advertisers feel that they are not getting through unless they shriek their sales pitch at you. Of course, it doesn't get across at all because after the first shout, the listener lunges for the ``off'' button.

All of this is coming at a time when more people are having a harder time hearing. As baby boomers are entering their 50s, one out of four of them is experiencing some kind of hearing loss. It's one out of three for persons over 65.

The prospect is even dimmer (or should I say quieter?) for younger people. They have been exposed to a steady diet of ear-splitting rock bands, boom boxes and car radios that you can hear in the next county. You can't go to a wedding reception or even to a small club these days without being bombarded by speakers the size of refrigerators that assault you like audio jackhammers.

So we have two problems here: a population finding it harder to hear the message and sound-based media that are obscuring their own message more and more.

In a 1950 study, audiologist Samuel Rosen found an African tribe in a quiet area near the Ethiopia-Sudan border where the natives had exceptionally good hearing, even those in their 70s. Their hearing was excellent because they lived in a relatively noise-free society.

There isn't much hope for that kind of a hearing-sensitive population in today's industrial society. But we can soften the message; we can make it clearer. And we can recognize that the whole purpose of sound systems is communication.

If we get that right, then maybe we can deal with the telemarketers next. They can be loud, obnoxious and obscure, too.

Phil Joyce writes on issues affecting senior citizens.

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