Ron Baker witnessed the birth of our modern media industry

Ron Baker finally retired.
He put in his last day of work here at HYPN just a few weeks ago. He put in his first day of work on Sept. 10, 1956 - the day he joined MacLaren Advertising in Toronto.

Ron Baker finally retired.

He put in his last day of work here at HYPN just a few weeks ago. He put in his first day of work on Sept. 10, 1956 – the day he joined MacLaren Advertising in Toronto.

At the time Ron thought he was joining nine other young men, armed with agate line rulers, standing at wooden desks, checking the size and reproduction quality of newspaper ads. But Ron actually landed in something much bigger. The mid-’50s represented the birth point of today’s modern media industry and Ron got to watch the whole show unfold, day after day after day.

This makes Ron our very own version of Jack Crabb – the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1970 movie Little Big Man. Just as Crabb narrated the story of his personal involvement in how the American West was won, Ron has stood for the last 46 years, a silent witness to Canada’s modern media revolution.

The main commercial media that you and I deal with today were mere shadows of their current selves when Ron started at MacLaren.

In 1953 TV sets penetrated only 10% of Canadian households and by the time Ron started tearing those ads out of newspaper checking copies, TV set penetration had hit 40% with a bullet. The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tombstone and Father Knows Best fuelled consumers’ desire for those black-and-white TV sets. Ron was around to witness Swanson’s first foray into TV dinners – a turkey entrée for 95 cents.

By 1958, when Ron found himself in MacLaren’s Broadcast Buying Unit, CBC was putting the finishing touches on Canada’s first coast-to-coast network. Cable was in its infancy with a few experimental systems in London, Montreal and Vancouver so rabbit ears and rooftop antennas were the receptors of record. BBM was only about 10 years old and the first colour TV transmission wouldn’t take place for another 10 years to come.

Ron witnessed the dawning of the age of ‘Aquarius’ – speaking demographically that is.

Before the mid-’50s, audiences were quantified by examining TV set sales or, if you really wanted to get fancy, dropping water pressure levels from the simultaneous flushing of toilets could be used as surrogate for commercial break avoidance. The voodoo marketing scientists of the time had come to the realization that Canadians, fresh from their World War II experiences and busy producing prodigious quantities of baby boomers, were well worth identifying, tracking and targeting.

Ron watched a new media industry as it kept a close eye on the emergence of the youthful boomer target. It was just one more violent quake in Ron’s media world.

Ron watched the radio business scurry out of harm’s way as the TV juggernaut rolled through the media environment.

Ron tuned into 1050 CHUM on May 27, 1957 and he listened to the newest sounds of rock ‘n’ roll music. But more importantly, Ron listened to the future – the idea of specialized, tightly formatted and disc jockey-hosted programming that would quickly infiltrate radio airwaves coast to coast. At that time Elvis dominated the music charts but during the summer of ’57, John Lennon met Paul McCartney. The stage was set for the ultimate music revolution.

On the technology front, radio took a major step forward when CHFI-FM became Canada’s first FM station. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time to Ron – there were no FM receivers and therefore no FM listeners. FM captures the majority of hours of tuning today. Just one more big media shift in Ron’s bag of career experiences.

He watched the pillars of the magazine business collapse. Many of the magazine titles that landed on his checking desk in the mid ’50s were large-scale, mass-circulation titles, roaming the media landscape like Tyrannosaurus Rex, requiring massive ad revenues in order to balance costs associated with huge printing runs. The ‘Rotos,’ consisting of Weekend and Canadian magazines, represented the core of Canada’s magazine segment in the early portion of Ron’s career. He watched them die off. Some titles made it through the gauntlet – TV Guide, Maclean’s, Reader’s Digest for example. He watched Saturday Night die and revive three times.

He watched many new titles like Canadian Living emerge from nothing to become magazine mainstays today. And Ron witnessed magazine ad space commerce move through pure numerical chaos to emerge into a highly sophisticated readership and product usage measurement practice thanks to the creation of the Print Measurement Bureau in 1973.

The first manmade object in space began orbiting earth during Ron’s first year on the job. Russia’s Sputnik 1 heralded the space age; clearly time was running out for the media department’s typing pool. Time was also running out for the ‘Comptometer operators’ who banged away at their giant Friden electric/mechanical calculators and tumbled numbers for the media buyers.

In that same year the Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain for their work on semiconductors and transistors. Computers were on their way.

When Ron left HYPN, 46 years later, he left his Dell Optiplex GX110 behind. He began his business life in a manual and highly centralized office environment and exited his career where a decentralized, do-it-yourself on your own desk approach was the order of the day. Ron is the only person I know who participated in and actually survived, a real live, honest-to-God office technology paradigm shift.

Perhaps many of you have never met or even heard of Ron Baker, but we’re all working with media that were born or re-born or re-invented around the time that Ron first drew a pay cheque. He’s been through office purges, ownership changes, technology revolutions, seismic shifts in demography, the birth of the TV and Internet medium, the re-birth of the radio medium and the rapid evolution in the magazine, newspaper and out-of-home media. He’s seen convergence and de-convergence.

His bosses came and went. His clients came and went. And he survived it all with patience, a smile, honesty and impeccable manners. Perhaps these characteristics are the reason he survived it all.

Rob Young is a founding partner and SVP, planning and research, at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell. He can be reached at ryoung@hypn.com.