Long before there were bloggers, long before the Internet opened countless venues for public discussion, and long before there was easily accessible portals for venting and thought sharing, there was Speakout. If I'm doing my math correctly, we're approaching the 35th anniversary of this once-unique public discussion forum in Southeast Missouri.
Let's give credit where credit is due - the public phone-in line known now as Speakout was the idea of a large weekly newspaper in Michigan. OK, so we borrowed that idea and opened the phones. And in those three-plus decades, the idea has generated more public venom and praise than you can imagine.
Before Speakout, the avenue open to express your views was pretty well limited to a 'Letter to the Editor.' But Speakout simplified the process and opened that age-old can of worms known as anonymity. Readers could now share opinions without fear of reprisal. Granted, that's a two-edged sword as any editor worth his salt will tell you.
I have said from the very first Speakout column - which I edited, thank you very much - that readers will always have a love/hate relationship with the anonymous nature of the column. Time has proven that to be accurate beyond my imagination.
From those humble beginnings, Speakout - or some hybrid - is a staple for hundreds if not thousands of newspapers. The wildly-popular feature has been copied, modified and expanded literally from coast-to-coast. And without fail, it has generated more discussion than virtually any other aspect of newspapers over the years.
I have always argued that Speakout is no different from what you hear in the shops - coffee, barber or beauty. Sure, we clean up the language from time to time but the basic sentiment remains.
There's something about human nature that drives all to seek a voice. Some people call city hall or their congressman. Some people simply grumble under their breath. And others feel a drive to vent their frustrations or voice their support. That is the purpose of Speakout.
Technology is our wired world now allows this same voice in a different form. We now can air our opinions on a much wider platform but the basic premise remains the same. And in the end, people yearn for that voice.
In one final footnote on the brief history of Speakout, that very first caller all those years ago was a woman complaining about Missouri motorists' reluctance to turn right on a red light, as the law allows in most cases. I happened to visit with her recently. She's still complaining.