The entrepreneurial phase of media evolution is a marriage of vision, capital, risk, and timing. Most initiatives flop, but every once in a while, the planets align and someone gets it right—an application of the technology finds an audience, and a new industry is born.
Radio illustrates this dynamic. When Guglielmo Marconi discovered in 1898 that messages could be carried through the air, he wasn’t focused on radio’s potential as a mass medium. Rather, his focus was on point-to-point communication modeled on the telegraph. In fact, he called his invention radiotelegraphy. It was Marconi’s employee, David Sarnoff, who had the vision for radio as a mass medium. In 1916 Sarnoff wrote a memo to his boss: “I have in mind a plan of development, which would make radio a ‘household utility’ in the same sense as the piano or phonograph. The idea is to bring music into the house by wireless. . . . The receiver can be designed in the form of a simple Radio Music Box.” Sarnoff also proposed advertising to fund his vision for radio as a mass medium. The boss didn’t share the young Sarnoff’s enthusiasm for reinventing radio. On his other merits, however, Sarnoff rose quickly in a spinoff Marconi company, Radio Corporation of America. Then Sarnoff redefined radio as a new mass media industry under the banner of RCA subsidiary NBC.
A few inventors see commercial potential in their inventions. Thomas Edison, for example, forged his way into sound recording and movies as business enterprises. Generally, however, inventors don’t dominate the entrepreneurial phase. It can be argued, for example, that Edison did less inventing as time went on, and more strategizing and managing.
Media Empire Builders. Through history, many media empires have personality- driven enterprises that began small. Entrepreneurs built them into empires. Even in today’s relatively faceless corporate structures that minimize risk-taking, there emerge occasional geniuses who are masters at technology, messages, and business practices.
Mark Zuckerberg. At 18, during his sophomore year at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg and some of his friends came up with an idea for an online social networking site called Facebook for Harvard students. Soon they expanded to other colleges, and soon after, their network expanded to include the general public. Zuckerberg had the technical know-how of writing code, mastered the message, and knew business. By 26 he was Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Facebook overtook its major social-networking competitor, Myspace, in 2008. After waves of layoffs, Myspace’s owner, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, sold the company. Murdoch paid $580 million for Myspace, and sold it for $35 million. In 2015 the number of monthly active users was 1.5 billion.
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