Tuesday, September 30, 2008

If the MBTA Had a Work Slowdown...How Would You Know?

Crap like this is why, generally speaking, I really dislike unions. It's why most of my friends dislike - or even outright hate - unions, too. We're not exactly a statistical sample, but the universality is remarkable. Apparently, the spawn of Satan Carmen's Union has decided that, even though the MBTA is fiscally on the verge of bankruptcy, they want their back wages and they want them right now. Never mind that they're already ridiculously overpaid and have the same benefits Wall Street CEO's usually get. So they're going to stage the usual work slowdowns and "calling in sick" (en masse) to make all the commuter's lives miserable in the process.

My question is this: the T already is so goddamn slow and unreliable, would anyone would notice the difference?

All joking aside, it would be quite delicious if the Carmen's Union pulled their little stunt, and hordes of angry commuters started attacking the union members doing the slowdowns. I wouldn't exactly call it a likely outcome, but I do feel reasonably confident that angry commuters are not going to transfer any of that anger towards T management - they're going to direct it squarely at the union members themselves.

I'd almost feel sorry for the bus drivers who came to work that day and tried the slowdown tactic. The odds of getting a spit shampoo would probably be pretty high. Boston commuters are a grumpy lot in the morning...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

An Epiphany for the Weak Minded

It's late so I don't have time to really flesh this out properly, but I was reading the esteemed Dan Kennedy's MediaNation media-criticism blog, specifically a post about how the town of Nantucket in Massachusetts somewhat inexplicably wanted to suppress details about a severance package a court granted a terminated employee. I'd already commented over there and someone else responded as well, and I had an epiphany of sorts.

I don't think this is really an epiphany, though. I suspect media veterans have been grousing about this for at least five or ten years, probably more like twenty. But hey, I'm not a real journalist - I just play one at my job. :-)

So here it is: it used to be that the media was the fourth estate. Newspapers especially, but radio and TV, too. It was to be feared, and respected. You could use the media to your advantage, but you had to be deferential and you had to treat the media right, or it'd utterly destroy you. But anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to this sort of thing knows that those days are long, long gone.


I mean, we've never lived in a more media-soaked landscape. Where anyone can bring a scandal to the limelight within minutes. We learned a right-wing Christian conservative governor was actually quite forgiving of unwed motherhood and premarital sex...solely because a hateful (and overall pretty stupid) rumor swept the series of tubes within hours of Palin being named McCain's Veep pick.

And yet, the press has never been more whipped and useless than during the eight years of the Bush administration. Used to be if a president stonewalled, lied and bullshitted the press as blatantly as Bush & company have...every newspaper in America would've turned on them so hard, there would've been impeachment hearings back in 2003. Obviously this isn't the case.

I have to think the obvious answer is that the press is so whipped precisely because we live in such a media-soaked landscape. When every yahoo and bonehead can have a blog and reach a national audience...like myself...then the meaning of "media" is diluted to virtually nothing. Can you imagine a President saying "If I've lost Cronkite" about anyone in the media anymore?

Couple that with the other side, that the "big media" have been so thoroughly bought and paid for. How can we truly expect anyone at the New York Times, the big three networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, or any radio news source...yes, even NPR...to keep the big & powerful honest? To do that, you must be willing to attack and destroy them. Assuming you even could destroy one of these mega-billion-dollar corporations (or the government) these days...in virtually every case, the big & powerful are the same people signing your paychecks. As a journalist, you can only get fired so many times before you stop biting the hand that feeds you.

I still consider NPR to be one of the most objective sources of news out there. That's part of the reason why I can manage an NPR station and sleep soundly at night. But it is rather dismaying how NPR so often steadfastly refuses to ever really smack around a news source. To insist on taking the high road at all costs. Nobody's really afraid of NPR...and with 20+ million listeners, if some corporate fatcat isn't afraid of NPR, then who? Who's going to keep them honest?

I'll end this with a call to action: I would like very much to see NPR get more commentators that aren't afraid to rip some jerk a new one. Who ask questions and expect a real answer because if they don't get one, they'll make you sorry you didn't give them one. Perhaps a Daniel Schorr for the modern age. I like Dan a lot, but he's just too genteel...give him some young, fiery interns who're out for blood and train them on how to sharpen their fangs.

Granted, thanks to the FCC making it next to impossible for non-commercial radio stations (as most NPR affiliates are) to endorse/detract against politicians, this task may not be easy. But I don't pay NPR fees because I want to be handed the low-hanging fruit. I pay them because I want them to give me the real story, even if it means it's speckled with a few drops of blood.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Scaling the Great Wall of Newsprint

Okay, okay, I know that this entire post is completely being unfair to Kinsey Wilson, the new SVP/GM of Digital Media of NPR. But dammit, this is something I've blogged about before (or commented about it...although I can't seem to find 'em at the moment) so I'll blog about it now.

I'm getting mighty annoyed with this vast influx of non-radio journalists into the radio business. Especially public radio. Just because you're a really good print or TV journalist does not mean you're a good radio journalist. And this further annoys me because I know a helluva lot of really good radio journalists who're struggling mightily to get ahead in the world.

In fairness, I think this is true of other positions within radio, like management and whatnot.

And there's a LOT of examples of it... (name: home / former print or TV home)
  • Tom Ashbrook: WBUR / Boston Globe
  • Jon Marcus: WBUR / Boston Globe
  • Paul LaCamera: WBUR / WCVB-TV
  • Rob Bradford & Michael Felger: WEEI / Boston Herald
  • Sacha Pfeffier: WBUR / Boston Globe
  • David Boeri: WBUR / WCVB-TV
  • Wen Stephenson: WBUR / Boston Globe
  • Michael Barnicle: WTKK / Boston Globe
  • ...and now Kinsey Wilson: NPR / USA Today
Of course, I suppose I can't overlook that - in general - most of radio is crashing and burning hard, and has been for a decade. Not exactly a strong track record and quite possibly an argument for hiring "outside of the family" to bring in some fresh blood.

But I don't think that argument really flies when you're talking about public radio. In general, pubradio has done quite well over the past two decades. Admittedly, this begs the question: has part of that been due to hires from print and TV? Frankly, I have no idea. I don't think it has, but I have no evidence one way or the other really.

And admittedly, I've seen the reverse migration, too. Two good friends of mine worked with me at The Infinite Mind. One came from print (a national magazine) and went back to it...the other went to a local newspaper's web division. I don't think either of them is unhappy with the transitions. Although off the top of my head, I don't know too many high-end radio folks that have transitioned to print or TV.

On the other hand, I also want to point out that part of the reason why so many young folks aren't interested in a radio career is because the possibility for advancement is so blatantly slim. Hiring non-radio people for radio jobs certainly doesn't help that. And between print being a dying medium and TV careers being incredibly hard to break into to begin with, it's not like this radio people can realistically "work their way up" in another medium and then back into radio.

I want to point out that Wilson might well be the most qualified hire. And even if there were more qualified people, Wilson could easily end up doing the job the best. That sort of thing happens all the time.

But it's still a little disappointing that more radio people aren't getting these top jobs.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

It's Quiet...TOO Quiet...

Sorry for no posts lately...my wife and I moved to new digs last weekend and we don't have internet yet at the new condo. Not much time to blog at the job, either...too much sports going on.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Wait, Wait...Don't Cannibalize Us!

So despite the apparent dismal failure that is the Car Talk TV show, it appears CBS is going to make a TV show out of Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me.


WWDTM is a top earner and top listener-getter. And with good reason, the show is consistently funny, consistently intelligent and - perhaps surprising for a comedy program - it's consistently informative as well. Taken with Car Talk (the radio show) I would say it's sort of to NPR what The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are to Comedy Central.

I wonder exactly what form the show will take. Arguably you could just use TV cameras to record the Thursday evening tapings of the show and that would still be fairly compelling television. Just tell the panel guests that they're on TV as well as radio and they'll ham it up appropriately. It'll make editing a little tough, simply because the live version of the show usually runs 20-50% longer than one hour, and they re-take several intros/outros at the end for later editing into the 59 minute program that radio listeners hear. That's still perfectly do-able for a TV audience, but as I said, it's a little trickier.

Getting back to the program style, I have a hard time imaging any formula BUT the "radio on TV" model actually working. Certainly you can't have a scripted show...it'd be a disaster. At least 75% of the humor comes from how the panel reacts on the fly to the goofy news bits that host Peter Sagal feeds them, and most of that reaction comes from the feedback from the audience. You can't script this stuff.

But as a manager of an NPR station, my immediate concern is dilution of the brand, and dilution of the listener base. Right now the chief way listeners get WWDTM is through affiliate radio stations (although podcasting is, not surprisingly, a large and growing audience). If the TV show is good but is effectively duplicating the radio program, that could easily cost me listeners. If they intentionally wait to release the TV show to give time for radio stations to air it first, you risk having the "news" on the TV show being very stale by the time it airs.

Margaret Low Smith, VP for Programming at NPR, is quoted in the article as saying:

From the very beginning of our discussions with CBS, we have been guided by the principle "first, do no harm." We know that, above all else, we must protect the Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! brand, the radio show as we know and love it, and the important relationship between the show and Member stations. We are confident that our agreement with CBS will provide those protections and benefit Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!, NPR and public radio.

To which I reply: bullcrap! If WWDTM the TV show takes off like a rocket, you can bet CBS will ride that eagle 'til it screams...brand (and NPR) protection be damned. If the WWDTM TV show sucks, that's still not good because it reflects poorly on the overall brand. It's lose-lose for stations no matter how you slice it. Please tell when, in the last twenty years, has a successful TV show ever driven people to listen to the radio?

Seriously, if you can tell me, then I'll gladly revise my opinions...but I can't think of one at the moment.

I also have tremendous reservations about doing this on network TV. I was leery enough about This American Life appearing on Showtime (and I'm still not convinced that was a good thing) but I took comfort that at least Showtime had the willpower and resources to let TAL TV stay on the air to build an audience (I think the contract was for four seasons). With network TV, if you're not wildly successful after two episodes, you're toast.

On the other hand, I'm not so high-minded that I'm above being bribed; if this deal means more money for NPR, and NPR turns around and charges me less to be a WWDTM affiliate, then it certainly ease my conscience. :-)

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Flipflopping in the Modern Media Age

A funny thing happened when WRKO conservative talk host Reese Hopkins (inset) told listeners 17-year-old Bristol Palin's pregnancy makes him question VP hopeful Sarah Palin's parenting skills. Angry Republican listeners blew up his e-mail box, claiming Bristol's condition is family business. And Hopkins, who talked extensively on-air about the suspicious Gloucester teen pregnancy pact, was a little shocked. "You called these girls sluts, you said their parents were horrible," he said of his listeners. "But in 125 e-mails I have stacked in front of me, you're telling me [Bristol Palin's pregnancy] is not a big deal." Hopkins went back to the e-mails he received on the Gloucester story and compared them to his Palin e-mails. He found 70 listeners who flip-flopped on the teen pregnancy issue and invited them to explain. On Monday, Hopkins will broadcast live from George's Coffee Shop in Gloucester with Gloucester Daily Times reporter Patrick Anderson and editor Raymond Lamont.

WRKO is the local conserva-talker to the Boston area. Now I've made a general promise that I won't get into politics on this blog. Given what a political animal I am, this has not been an easy promise to keep! So instead of the inherent political angle of the above quote, I'd like indeed to point out something: flip-flopping isn't as easy as it used to be.

John Kerry got hammered, and perhaps rightly so, for being a "flip flopper" in the 2004 election. For whatever reason, nobody could easily turn that around on the Republicans. But avoiding the flipflop charge seems to be getting harder and harder in the modern media age. Jon Stewart and The Daily Show have used this to GREAT effect over the years, especially lately.

But if it's creeping into a usually-reliable mouthpiece for the right, against its own party, then it strikes me that pretty anything that anyone says can - and will - come back to haunt them, and before much time has passed, either.

An optimist might think this would encourage people to put more thought into their invective, but realist that I am, I fear this will ultimately force public speakers to scrub anything they say to have even less content than it does now.

Here's the question, though...what happens when the technology advances to the point where anything someone says can be fact-checked so quickly...as in, within seconds...that if they're contradicting themselves, you can show a video of it while the real-time speech is still going on. I mean, context is key in everything we say, and it's so easy to take things out of context when you're just talking 10 or 20 second video clips.

When, not if, that happens...who exactly decides what clips to air?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Everybody Makes Mistakes?

From the New York Times
At a reception for educators at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Sandra Ross, a special-needs high school teacher from Orlando, Fla, said, “She’s going to be a good role model for the country.” Of Bristol’s pregnancy, Ms. Ross added, “Everybody makes mistakes.”

I know this is a cheap shot, and I'm sure that's why the Times put the quote in there, but dammit...is this what we, as a nation, find acceptable in a potential Vice President? I don't care what your political party is...when your office is in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, I don't want you to make any mistakes. Too much is always at stake!

I fully understand that this is an unobtainable goal, but nevertheless it is a goal worth striving for! If McCain becomes incapacitated or dies, and Palin becomes President (a distinct possibility), are you comfortable knowing that (she) "makes mistakes"?

Look, I don't mind elected officials being idiots just like the rest of us. Yes, they are human. But does it have to be so obvious? As far as I'm concerned, I want an elitist in the West Wing, not Joe Six Pack. Shouldn't the very best people hold the most important jobs in the country? Don't we, as voters, deserve the very best? Or at least people trying to be the very best? Or least people smart and clever enough to fool us all that they're trying to be the very best?

I know it's cynical but I'll settle for that last one - and be comforted that you've gotta be pretty smart and clever to accomplish that level of fooling.