Sunday, July 22, 2007

Wait Wait I Was in Chicago!

So this week's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me was taped in Millennium Park in Chicago, and since I was visiting an old college friend, my wife and I decided to fly out early enough to catch the taping on Thursday night. We got there literally one minute before the show started - perfect timing! The pic to the left is the closest I could get to the front, from left to right is Carl Kasell, Peter Sagal, Roy Blount Jr, Roxanne Roberts and Adam Felber. Adam was in rare form this week, correctly answering eight questions during "Lightning Fill-In-The-Blank"...that's hard to do, but Adam's somewhat notorious for being a little too well-informed. :-)

It's interesting how much gets edited out on Friday before the show gets distributed to local affiliates across the country; the live show went on for nearly two hours, and listening to the finished product I remember hearing a lot more chit-chat and jokes...not all of them exactly hilarious, but more jokes nonetheless! And if you stick around for the re-takes at the end, the panelists and crew apparently will schmooze with the crowd a bit afterwards; I had a nice chat with Rod Abid, the head-honcho producer. :-)

However, I think I also made my claim to fame...at one point there was a listener caller from Boston. The chit-chat included a mention that the Chicago White Sox were playing the Boston Red Sox at Fenway that night, and I shouted "Go Sox!" (much to my wife's chagrin). It does sound vaguely like my shout made it on tape, although I was mighty far back on the lawn. Meh, even if it's not really me - I'll choose to believe it is. I'm a Red Sox fan...allow me my delusions... ;-)

P.S. We also got a very nice tour of Chicago Public Radio's facility on Navy Pier from Breeze Richardson on Friday; thanks Breeze! Some pics are posted here: there's the "WBEZ statue" out on the boardwalk of the Navy Pier (which CPR is located on). There's also this retro-looking "Remind-O-Timer" I spotted in one of the studios...I have no idea if it works, though. The hands were spinning but the time is wrong. Looks cool, though...all those curved marks around the perimeter are switches. And there's a pic Breeze took of myself and my wife in WBEZ's main mic studio, a very nice studio with lots of mics, high ceilings, and plenty of floor space to have bands perform during interview shows. There's also a separate performance studio (that I didn't take a pic of) that's even nicer.


I also stood not 10 feet from the back of Ira Glass's head while he was in town for a meeting. (Ira's based in NYC these days) My skin is still tingling. :-)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Misleading News about Auto Insurance

Actually this isn't a post about auto insurance, which is big in the news today because Massachusetts is experimenting with "competitive" auto insurance. No, this is a post about the media, which has shameless trumpted a particular news tidbit without providing crucial context.

In Massachusetts, ever since a disasterous experience with market-based competition for insurance rates in 1977, the rates an auto insurance company charges are set by a state regulatory agency. Rates are set statewide, which means drivers in rural areas are subsidizing drivers in urban areas. In 1977, when this subsidy was removed, rates overall shot up over 14% but in the urban areas it was much, much worse than that. Over howls of protest, the flat rate was reintroduced after seven months.

What is often being quoted is that Massachusetts is the "only state in the US where auto insurance rates are set by the State."

While this is factually accurate, it paints a very misleading picture...namely that the other 49 states are all using the same system, and only Massachusetts is not. This is not true - every State regulates their auto insurance differently; while none of them quite come to the level of direct State control over rates, it's not like there is zero regulation elsewhere.

Since this new decision could mean significantly higher or lower rates (mostly higher - we're terrible drivers in Mass.) it's a very politically charged issue. That means people will no doubt be contacting the Legislature to sound off on it.

The upshot here is the way the media at large (both the Boston Globe and WBUR 90.9FM...I haven't checked any other media outlets yet) is reporting this is presenting a subtle but powerful political argument that argues against the status quo. That is unseemly for news organizations that claim to present objective news.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Howie Carr and WRKO's Woes

If you follow Boston's radio scene at all, you've heard about the gigantic coup WTKK scored by "stealing" local Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr from WRKO, where Carr had done afternoon drive for many years. Adam Reilly also did a good writeup about Carr's departure in the Boston Phoenix, and Dan Kennedy has a good writeup about the decline of WRKO leading up to this.

Many other blogs are buzzing, too...I've done a little commenting here and there, but I have little to say about this myself here. On the surface, WRKO has screwed up badly by not offering Carr a contract when they had the chance several months ago...and FM competitor WTKK has gone a long way to fill a gaping hole left by Imus's departure followed by Mike Barnicle's "retirement" from WTKK.

Of course, how much of a "screw up" this is depends a lot on what the future holds for WRKO's right-wing talk format. The current morning host, ex-Speakah of da House Tom Finneran has always had potential but just isn't a good radio personality (ed.note: not alone he isn't...if they'd give him a good sidekick to fulfill the "radio professional" role, Finneran would probably be pretty decent). There's the usual right-wing fare on the rest of the day, the strongest of which is probably Rush Limbaugh, whom is a radio force nationwide but I've heard Boston is his weakest market (not surprising).

Rush alone does not a viable commercial station make. And don't forget WTKK still has some holes in the schedule even with Howie, and there's also WTTT nipping at the heels in the conservative-talker wars. So does this spell the end of WRKO's conservative-talk format?

If so, then letting Howie go might make a lot of sense, although the threat of legal action against him, and letting him keep doing his show, seem fairly odd no matter what. And I can easily see Rush migrating over to WTKK as well. The other shows can find homes here and there (probably on WTTT or perhaps WBIX depending on the show).

The wild card, of course, is the Red Sox. This year marked the beginning of the arrangement where most of the baseball games are carried on WRKO but previous home WEEI (which, like WRKO, is also owned by Entercom) remains where the sports-talk format lives. Most radio geeks have derided this as goofy at best, utterly stupid at worst...although Entercom has claimed there hasn't been much confusion for the listeners, and overall I suppose it adds up to (at least a little) more ratings since WEEI does pretty well all day, not just during the games.

But changing the format of WRKO probably doesn't mean the Sox games will move back to WEEI; the conventional wisdom is that the Sox played hardball with insisting on this WEEI-WRKO split because they didn't like the criticism of the team during WEEI's regular talk programming. So whatever new format comes around has to work around the games. That rules out a lot of options.

Liberal-talk on WRKO has been bandied about quite a bit, even the return of Air America Radio. But I don't see that happening; AAR still has budget problems which make it a risky option. And the last go-around of AAR on WXKS & WKOX was a miserable failure ratings-wise. You can blame that on the lousy night signals and poor overall promotion (and you'd be right) but regardless, it was still a failure before and that makes it no less a risky proposition as staying with conservative talk. Plus I'm of the suspicion that, even though it's more centrist in its politics, the fans of liberal talk are already pretty happy with local NPR offerings WBUR and WGBH.

Going way out into the realm of speculation, I wonder if Entercom is thinking way outside the box and might just sell WRKO for a few tens of millions of dollars. Certainly it solves the programming problem, albeit by cutting the Gordian Knot. But it would help offset the mucho dinero ($12mil per year for 10 years, IIRC) they're paying for the rights for Sox games, and it might essentially "force" the games back onto WEEI (which probably wouldn't be viewed as a bad thing by Entercom). Of course, selling off such a potentially valuable property as a radio station - especially one with WRKO's hefty signal - is rarely done and with good reason; when the Sox games were still on WEEI, Entercom made (I believe) about $35 million a year off of 850AM alone. While that's an extreme example, a well-run, well-listened-to station can rake in at least $5-$10 million a year, so Entercom could potentially earn the same value as a sale in less than a decade. Hence why a sale is somewhat unlikely.

Although if it DID happen, it'd be nice to see it go to WUMB. Hint, hint! ;-) I'm mostly kidding, of course...I'm a pubradio nut so it would be pretty cool to see the folk format on a real hefty signal (even AM, since HD Radio can help overcome the audio fidelity issues of AM). But I doubt WUMB could afford it without ridiculously generous terms of sale.

Anyways...personally, I wonder if Entercom is going to follow Clear Channel's example and target the under-served ethnic populations in Boston. Word around the campfire is that WXKS & WKOX have brought in decent billing in a surprisingly short time with the Spanish-language "Rumba" format. And there are literally a dozen pirate stations airing Caribbean news and music (mostly Haitian) around Boston. Why not a Caribbean-creole/Haitian format? Or maybe copy WJFD from New Bedford and put on Portuguese-language for all the Brazilian communities? It's comparatively cheap to do, and cheap to market (word of mouth is all you need), and obviously there's a market.

I guess time will tell!

Handy Tip - Back of Lightswitch Plates

Reading Friday's BostonNOW I spotted a handy little tip on page 13:
A convenient place to write the name and number of the paint you used in a room
is on the back of the switch plate.
This got me thinking that the back of a lightswitch plate is a handy place for engineers to jot down all sorts of information. For example, let's say you've got a heavy-duty dimmer switch for two dozen incandescent tracklights. This is a special switch, designed to take a lot more than the usual 600 watt maximum. Ten years from now, the engineer of that day - who's renovating the place - might've lost your documentation and he or she doesn't know what the actual wattage maximum is. Well, there you go - write it on the back of the switchplate.

Maybe you could hide a lock combination or spare key back there, too. Obviously you'd have to evaluate whether this is worth the inherent security risk (not to mention be careful sticking a conductive key near electricity!) but it's probably more secure than a key hidden under a doormat.

Depending on how public the info needs to be, you might also put a code there that matches a code at the breaker panel...a handy confirmation for what circuit that lightswitch or power outlet is on.

There's a part of me that thinks there's probably a way to expand this concept of "cleverly hidden info that's easy to forget" to other avenues for the expert radio engineer, but at the moment I'm lacking inspiration. When I think of something I'll post here, but if you have an idea by all means please share!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Shameless plug for the Butterfly Garden

It costs over $20 a head to get in, but I really dig the Boston Museum of Science's Butterfly Garden. Yeah, I'm a dork, but those little buggers are just so cute. Plus they can, and will, fly right over and land on you, get comfortable, and stay a while.

Check out this pic of one on my wife Lisa, who then crawled onto my finger for a few minutes, too (below). That is the same butterfly...that species has iridescent blue wings on top, and drab brown on the bottom, to confuse predators when they're flying. Poor little fellah had some wing torn off (that's common...the wings are super-fragile and butterflies don't live more than a few weeks) but it didn't seem to hamper his flying much.

If you go, make sure it's when the sun is still shining brightly...most butterflies are not nocturnal and they won't fly much as dusk approaches. However, I have been in there about an hour before closing, when it was about a half-hour after sunset, and while not much was moving...you could get really up-close and personal with many of them hanging on the branches. Plus the staff is happy to chat with you at length since it's often pretty quiet that late in the day; you get the place to yourself! Still, daylight really brings the colors out so I do recommend taking a weekday to head over if you can (weekends are pretty mobbed).

I also overheard that any chrysalises that're ready to hatch, tend to do so around noontime. They don't mind you hanging out in there for quite a while, but the space isn't very big...there's enough room to comfortably allow perhaps a dozen or so people at most. And of course, like the rest of the MoS, there's often little kids galore in there...again, especially on weekends.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Mac Daniel's New Job: A Conflict of Interest?

I feel like I have a problem with this, but I'm not sure I really should.
The new communications director at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is someone with experience dealing with the agency. Mac Daniel has covered the Turnpike for years as a reporter with the Boston Globe. His hiring comes about a week after legislation went into effect making Governor Patrick's transportation secretary the chairman of the Turnpike's governing board of directors.
See the full article at WPRI.com

I've talked with Mac personally a handful of times, he's a nice enough guy. And in the interests of disclosure I frequently do send in questions & tips to his email address: starts@globe.com

But he's been oft-critized by sites like BadTransit for being too "soft" on the MBTA and other transit agencies around Massachusetts. I don't really agree with that assessment, but I can see why...Mac rarely "went for blood" on his Starts & Stops column in the Globe. Granted, the Globe is not a "gotcha" news organization...they strive to be objective...but I do concede that our transit organizations here in Boston definitely need someone to smack them around on a regular basis, since the elected officials certainly won't (most Massachusetts transit agencies are havens for patronage jobs) and the public is routinely ignored by these organizations.

So you can see why I'm uneasy about Mr. Daniel leaving his job to report on the transit in Boston, to go work for one of the agencies he used to report on. It raises legitimate questions about the objectivity of his reporting.

For example, how long ago did he know he was a candidate for this job? During that entire time, his objectivity is completely in question. Now, carrying that train of thought to a logical (albeit extreme) conclusion...has Mr.Daniel always wanted a job like that? If so, then virtually everything he's ever written should be considered "invalid" because maybe he "took it easy" in his column to avoid annoying the people who are now his supervisors.

Again, for the record, I choose to believe that Mac Daniel has enough journalistic integrity that none of his writing should be questioned. But the problem (mostly for the Globe) is that there's no way anyone...even Mac...can prove that he did have that integrity. And as such, it looks bad.

As my journalist friends often remind me...when it comes to journalistic integrity, looking bad is the same thing as being bad. So that's why I feel uneasy about this.

But at the same time...it's not like he was writing columns for months or years while knowing he had this job in the wings. Charging Mr. Daniel with a conflict of interest feels a bit like a Catch 22; is he never allowed to ever have a job in a transit agency just because he covered transit while at the Globe? Maybe his column gives him valuable insight and experience for the job!

Argh. I don't need these moral dilemmas in the summer...it's too damn humid to think.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What Makes Public Radio Different?

I saw this article in the Boston Globe today: Two Seconds are All an Advertiser Needs

In a nutshell, it's about how commercial radio is starting to use more 2 second "blinks" and 5 second "adlets" instead of the usual 30 or 60 second commercials. They're cheaper and you can fit more of 'em in.

What the article didn't address was how shorter "commercials" are a hallmark of public radio.
Mostly because they're considered "less intrusive". "So what?" you say? Well, this is potentially a huge deal.

Why? Well, we all know public radio depends on fundraising to make its budget. Now, what's an very common theme in pubradio's fundraising? That's right: we're not as bad as commercial radio. To be specific, pubradio doesn't have those long, obnoxious commercials...it has quicker, less-obnoxious "underwriting".

Starting to see why this could be a problem? Experts have warned for years that public radio has relied too heavily on the message of "we're not as bad as commercial radio" and anything like an "adlet" that narrows the gap could be bad news for public radio.

What's the solution? The simple answer is that you have to get away from the old "we're not commercial radio" marketing because it means you're not defining your station...other commercial stations are defining your station...and sooner or later they're going to change to your disadvantage.

In other words, you shouldn't be telling your listeners that you're not as bad as commercial radio...that should just be self-evident from the quality of your programming.