Walk this way

CED Magazine
April 2011

The personal media revolution probably would have happened anyway, but it didn’t hurt that a Japanese executive named Akio Morita happened to have a fondness for opera, a habit of flying across the Pacific on business trips, and the control of a multi-billion dollar global consumer electronics company called Sony.

Morita, the legendary Sony co-founder who died in 1999, wanted a way to listen to opera music during the lengthy flights he frequently took, and an obliging Sony audio group engineer, perhaps mindful of the career implications of pleasing the boss, came up with a solution: a portable, battery-powered audio-cassette player that spurted signals through a connected headphone. Morita liked it so much he funded an entire production operation devoted to the gadget. In 1979, starting in Japan, Sony began marketing the Walkman.

The iconic name endures today even though its heyday has come, gone and been leapfrogged by Apple’s iPod and an assortment of do-it-all smartphones. That’s ironic, because Morita supposedly hated the name, preferring an alternative such as Soundabout, the brand originally marketed in the U.S. beginning in 1979. But the marketing team already had the wheels and budgets in motion, and so the Walkman it was.

The original Walkman TPS-L2 (and its aliases) weighed 14 ounces, was sheathed in turquoise, silver or orange plastic, required two AA batteries and could play up to 36 songs housed on two sides of a 120-minute cassette tape. The original version looked more like a compact transistor radio than the slim, brightly colored derivations that would follow.

Sexy or not, the boxy device was an instant smash hit, appealing to an emerging lifestyle that prized mobility and freedom. In Sony’s early U.S. advertisements, attractive young models carried around Walkmans in parks, along bike trails and in busy cityscapes, personifying the ideals of youth, health, activity and the good life. The Walkman was freedom, choice, individuality, non-conformity. Jack Kerouac’s dream, available for $99.

Its impact on media culture and consumer expectation was vast. Before the Walkman, stereos were big, wooden and wired. The Walkman taught an entire generation to expect something different. The Walkman was a testament to miniaturization, true, but an even bigger impact flowed from a relatively pedestrian feature: the soft headphones that wrapped users in a world of their own making. For users, the Walkman created a separate sonic reality, where music poured forth for the sole benefit of an individual. Joggers, hikers and teens splayed out on the couch at home could immerse in an audio world of their own design, and nobody else got in on the act.

That was the real Walkman breakthrough: the assignment of individuality to media. Until the early 1980s, when Walkmans sprung up everywhere, most media consumption was communal. Television programs played out in living rooms, where people watched the same programs at the same time. Music from stereo systems could be heard by anyone in range. Movies were shared events playing out in packed theaters.

The Walkman changed that. Media suddenly was personal and portable, untethered from a fixed location. An idea we take for granted today – the possibility of consuming content on a one-to-one basis, just us and our device – was popularized by the colorful audio players Sony unleashed on the world. By the time Sony shipped its last cartons of Walkman tape players last fall, the company had sold more than 400 million of the things.

The progression to the personal, portable media world of today has been informed all along by the Walkman. Headphones and their earbud successors are staples of the media environment, and rare is the traveler, like Morita 30 years ago, who doesn’t whip out a portable media player as soon as the seat belt light dims.

The source and output of the content is different, of course. Video has followed music as a fixture of portable media, and the analog cassette is long gone, replaced by nimble and seemingly inexhaustible digital storage systems. But the same essential promise remains: your content, played when you say so, to an audience of one. That was the novel premise of the original Walkman, and as cable, entertainment and consumer electronics companies pursue the new possibilities of media delivery today, they’re listening in on Akio Morito’s enduring soundtrack.

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