In an ever-evolving consumer electronics industry, where accelerated technology turnover is a fact of life, Jim Barry stood, in his role as the Consumer Technology Association’s Digital Answer Man, as a stabilizing influence.
Barry, who died in October 2017 after 22 years in that job, took on the task of being the face of CE innovation to the buying public through his radio and TV appearances in countless local markets with experience that was tailor-made preparation for it. He came to CTA following a long and laudable career as a consumer technology journalist that included stints as editor of both Dealerscope, on the trade side, and then as editor of the consumer enthusiast publication Video.
“My intersection with Jim began in 1982 at the Zenith distributor meeting,” said John Taylor, senior vice president, Public Affairs and Communications for LG Electronics, who later worked arm in arm with Barry when Taylor chaired CTA’s Communications Committee. “There was a small cadre of luminary journalists, and all those guys were there, covering the latest console TVs of the day. He took me under his wing and I learned so much from him about the industry in those early days…He was a very talented journalist, always focusing on telling the story and getting the facts right – a very talented editor.”
His journalistic knack for “training by explaining” served Barry so very well through some tech transitions that were tough enough for those in the business – let alone, consumers – to grasp, were it not for his unique skill in communicating them.
“Jim’s journalist background helped him dig down to identify the key essence of the products he was showcasing, finding the key benefits and explaining them in an accessible way,” recalled Gary Shapiro, CTA’s president and CEO. “He was genuine – which made him accessible to his audience…he didn’t get caught up in engineering terms. He knew his audience simply wanted to know why the product was relevant to their lives.”
Following in the path of other CTA spokesmen, including CES founder Jack Wayman, who initiated the role, Barry came at the position as a 180-degree contrast to Wayman’s style. “Jim was more low key, but equally enthusiastic,” said Shapiro. “He was like a friend showing off their latest tech purchase, versus Jack’s more salesman-like approach.”
“You’d turn on your morning news program or your radio, and there was this comforting voice with a sense of humor who could explain the stuff and make the viewer or listener more interested and wanting to check it out,” said Jeff Joseph, CTA’s senior vice president of Communications and Strategic Relationships, whose tenure there paralleled Barry’s for several years. “He had a calm, accessible way about him that still conveyed excitement and enthusiasm about the product. If Jack would shout it, Jim would more convince you.”
An Explainer – and an Evangelist
His time in the job, luckily, dovetailed with some of the most seminal technology changes – most notably, the transition from analogue to digital TV. That switchover was something consumers couldn’t ignore, as it required those without cable or satellite subscriptions to either buy new TVs with digital reception capability or use a $40 stipend to get a converter box that would adapt older sets to the new signals.
“Jim played a key role in the rollout,” explained Shapiro. “He not only showcased products and talked about the technology during his regular tours; he led informational sessions with broadcasters in key markets, talking about the innovations in display technology, and met with consumers in retail stores.” And it was just the same for 4K’s introduction, Shapiro said, with Barry participating in several broadcast media tours to get the word out. Talking video, said Joseph, was a natural for Barry, who could leverage his deep knowledge on that count based on his Video Magazine background. “Video products were easy for him because they were what he knew best. But even as we got into the more app-based devices, he was able to make it all accessible and desirable for everyone.”
Was Barry more of an explainer or an evangelist for technology? “He was a bit of both,” offered Joseph. “He could explain things, but he was a technology fan and you’d see his excitement and his own curiosity. He never lost his ‘fanboy’ position. I’d walk with him around CES, and we’d see the products on this desk, and he’d still be excited about them.”
“I’d say he was second to none in storytelling about our industry and the innovation that it brings to retailers and consumers…He was always a great explainer of complex technology to the average consumer and to the TV producer he was talking to when he went on the air,” said Taylor. “This is not to de-emphasize his role as evangelist, however, because he was passionate about our industry and was always able to put things in context for the average purchaser.”
Striking a Work-Life Balance
As much as his love for the consumer technology industry was reflected in his consummate professionalism, those who commented for this article said that Barry clearly maintained a healthy sense of proportion about his career and his personal life. “Jim was a true gentleman, a dedicated family man and a passionate advocate for consumer technology,” said Shapiro.
“I was always in awe of how he was able to have such a good work-life balance when he was on the road as much as he was,” echoed Taylor. “But his family always came first – his first family, that is, and then he had this tremendous extended family of so many of us in the industry.”
Joseph remembered “he would dote on his wife, Kate, and his daughters and tell me every latest accomplishment. We both had daughters, and he was a great role model for me as to what to expect, since his were older than mine…That piece of him was just as a great, loving human being – always asking me at the beginning of every conversation, ‘Jeffrey, how are your girls?’ and always in that great Irish Boston New Jersey accent.
“The other thing I’d say about him,” Joseph continued, “was that he had this great reverence for what came before him, as a CTA Hall of Fame judge and adviser. He taught us all the importance of recognizing those who built this great industry.
“He had one foot in the past and one in the future, always looking to what was going to be next, setting the stage for the next great technology breakthrough."