Sunday, December 20, 2009

Oh, The Weather Outside Is Frightful

Working in television is usually considered a sexy job. By that I mean it looks like it would be fun, and there's a certain fascination with what we do. Proctologists are far more important, I think, but nobody considers their line of work to be glamorous or fun, therefore proctology is not sexy. Radio was once considered sexy, but the music industry and talk radio hosts have pretty much sucked out all the glamor the medium struggled to hang on to. Let's face it, Wolfman Jack's appearance on the original Battlestar Gallactica was the harbinger for a dying medium.

Yes, TV has it's wowie moments. These usually involve conversations at social events where a stranger says something like, "I hear you work at channel __. Tell, me. Is (female anchor) really as hot as she looks on TV?" This is typically followed by even more crude commentary revolving around the male viewer being in possession of a "jet stream" for the female weather specialist. It's for reasons like this I generally avoid social events that involve an open bar. But, the cold hard fact is behind the scenes TV can be a lot of hard, dirty, and decidedly unsexy work.

This weekend, along the east coast of America, working in broadcasting was most definitely unsexy.

A major snowstorm lumbered through Washington, D.C. and New York City, causing all the problems we associate with major snowstorms: traffic backups, power outages, convicts on the football field in Baltimore. No wait. That last one happens every game. For broadcasters, a storm like this creates some major headaches.

First, consider that television is a 24/7 business. You can't cancel the workday due to weather. The show must go on, especially when the show is the local news that is covering the very snowstorm causing all the trouble. In other words, the entire News Channel team, reporters, anchors, producers, directors, graphics operator, audio operator, master control operator, live truck engineers, and the guy with a pickup truck with a blade to clear the parking lot, all have to schlep their way into the station in order to tell you to stay home. You can't work in television and be (vulgarity for poultry feces) about driving in the snow.

Next, just like in aviation, ice is enemy number one in broadcasting. Ice coatings on the tower add substantial weight and stress on the guy wires. Ice on the antenna changes the electrical properties of the system by adding resistance, thus forcing us to run the transmitter at lower power unless the antenna has a built-in heater or weather-proof covering. Ice chunks falling off the tower when the wind kicks up makes working under the tower a hard hat area and conjures up images of an inglorious demise via the priest in The Omen. Many transmitter towers are located on hilltop locations that are barely accessible by Hummer even in the best of conditions. After about four hours of getting panic calls from management, the chief engineer's cell phone usually takes an "accidental" dive into a snow bank.

But the effects of The Big Snow reached far beyond the east. New York and Washington are the homes of the major networks and their satellite uplinks. Saturday Night Live is a high wire act on its own without a snowstorm keeping the studio audience home, not to mention the cast and crew. And even if all is going well in the cozy confines of 30 Rock, the show still has to blast its way through the icy moisture in the air to make the 22,000 mile trip to the satellite... and back through it again if you're taking the feed in another snowbound city. That's assuming the transmitting dish hasn't been iced over like a giant frosted wedding cake.
The ESPN site in Bristol, Conn. during sunnier times. Losing this uplink in a snowstorm means nobody can watch the 'Bama game, and that's just not going to happen.

Again, these uplink dishes aren't installed in most accessible places. Any uplink dish has an automatic de-icing system that, under most conditions, stop the snow from collecting inside the dish and blocking the signal, but a major snowfall can hit too fast for a heater to keep up. And that's assuming the power stays on. Emergency generators can keep the network on the air, but generators need fuel and maintenance. Replacing a fuel filter in a Volvo diesel engine is a long way from sexy. If I had known I'd be doing this I would've found a job in a truck stop.

So, a hearty salute goes out to all the engineers and maintenance technicians who kept the networks, TV, and radio stations on the air this weekend. What you do may not be sexy, but thanks to your four-wheel-driven muscle and fortitude, people got the information they needed in an emergency situation, TV stations across the continent could keep their schedules, and commercials. And we could watch the Cleveland Browns actually win a game. Who says the Holidays aren't a time for miracles?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

SOUND OFF!




Since members of the House of Representatives are now reluctant to discuss health care reform due to the fact that many of them have discovered a severe allergic reaction to tar and feathers at town hall meetings, they have moved on to more life-changing legislation. According to the Broadcast Rules Service, Report #138, a House subcommittee has approved a bill (H.R. 1084) to "prohibit television commercials from being louder than the programming surrounding them." The bill is sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) who wants you to forget I even mentioned health care reform.

At this point I'm sure you are thinking the same thing I'm thinking... Thanks, Anna, for taking precious time away from dealing with California's fiscal disaster, wildfires, stuff like that, and staying on top of this loud TV commercial thing. The bill is called - I swear to God I'm not making this up - the "Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act." That's right. It's the CALM Act.

Apparently, Ms. Eshoo has been blasted out her slumber one too many times while watching Grey's Anatomy and wants broadcasters to set the volume so that everything is at the same level. OK. Good luck with that.

Sudden changes is audio levels, aka volume spikes, blasting, or "WTF?'s" have been a concern since the early days of television. Back the 1950's viewers complained of commercials being louder than the shows... a tough point to prove since in those days most TV shows embedded the advertiser's message within the show itself and featured prominent product placement. (Zoinks. What a primitive approach to marketing. I'm glad we've progressed since then.) There have been conspiracy theories on and off throughout the years, until today when the problem seems to have reached epidemic proportions.

The real culprit is the conversion to digital TV and something called dynamic range - the amount of audio volume the TV transmission can carry from silence to the loudest sound. Analog TV couldn't reproduce a wide range of volume levels as digital can, thus your new digital TV is capable of being more annoying. Isn't technology fun? Many TV's today come with volume leveling options built in. Search the menu and you'll find an option that takes the blast out of commercials and changing the channel.

When asked about volume spikes your local broadcaster or cable company gives you vague or evasive answers because they honestly can't explain it. Viewers get blasted for a number of reasons varying from human error to collateral annoyance due to intentional spiking for entertainment purposes. The most common causes are:

*Producers of commercials employ a good deal of what's called compression/limiting to the sound. Compression (not to be confused with file compression) squeezes audio levels to a mean level, as opposed to a wide range of levels. As a result, operators ingesting the commercial into automated playback systems tend to set the input level higher, which is just the very thing the spot's producer wanted to happen. BLAST!

*Audio levels can vary when local stations cut away from the network to local spots. Network levels can go all over the place on the local board operator, while the local spots were ingested into the automation - you guessed it - at a higher than average level. Cable company local cut-in's can be even worse because there's no human intervention. ESPN is at one level; the local playback is louder. BLAST!

*Running movies on TV is the most extreme example of audio level du joir. Movies are produced to give the theater goer or home theater enthusiast a three-dimensional thrill ride. That's fine, except for when the commercials kick in. Let's say the movie just showed a scene between two people talking maybe two words at a time in a quiet room. The movie's sound engineer kept the levels down at maybe 30%. The next scene in the movie cuts to a sunny afternoon in Central Park. The audio level shift is sudden, but reasonable given the setting, mood, tempo, and style of the film. The director never in a million years intended for this transition to be interrupted by that weird Progressive Insurance lady. BLAST!

*Most TV shows tickle your ears with pleasing sounds, music, and voices. Many commercials are produced intentionally to be annoying, with screechy music, shouting voices, and what we call "hot mixes," meaning all of this is produced compressed to a level where every sound is fighting to be on top. You'd dive for the MUTE button no matter where the volume is set.

Many TV stations install audio leveling equipment that can minimize the abuse by reacting to changes in levels far quicker than any human. Plus, the autolevel available in newer TV's keep things steady. The need for legislation seems to be rather breathless at best; it may be another case of a politician trying to gain favor with voters by solving a pet peeve, rather than address an ugly but serious issue. Telling broadcasters to watch the meters is not necessary. Perhaps it's the politicians with nothing but pork to contribute who need a MUTE button.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Letter to Falcon


I have never told anyone about this. Not even my wife.

When I was in first grade, for whatever reason, we had some down time in the classroom. For reasons that escape all logic, our desks had been removed from the room, so the teacher told the students to arrange their chairs in a big circle. (It was 1969. Adults did weird things all the time.) And then we just sat there, talking and acting up while the teacher seemed to be doing nothing.

Now as it happened, my chair ended up separated from the kids I usually hung out with, so I was just kind of sitting there watching all this babble. And I got bored. And you know what happens when people get bored.

I don't know why I did it. It all seems so stupid, now. But for some reason, pushed on by boredom that had been brought on by adults creating a new way to waste time, I stood up, held out my arms, and not too loudly but loud enough went, "Tah-Dah!" You know. Like, "And now, on with the show." Well, it did look like we were in a big circus ring. And then I sat back down. And that was it.

What happened next probably really shouldn't have happened. I wonder if I had told my parents about it if there would have been one less teacher employed at my school after that. These days this sort of thing gets caught on video, makes the news, fuels an outrage, and causes people to hire lawyers. I'm sure you can relate.

The teacher silenced the room and told me to stand up. "OK, put on a show," she said.

Now remember, just seconds before the room was buzzing with the chatter, laughter, and messing around of about 30 kids. I knew, right then and there, I had been singled out. Up to this point, I had trusted her, felt like I could confide in her, and even drew pictures for her. I even felt like she had helped me overcome my playground fear of climbing the ladder to the slide. And now this. What was the deal? Why was she doing this?

But, right then and there, I decided to go with it. Make this work. I reached in my pocket, and took out the only prop I had. A tissue. It escaped my hand and fluttered to the floor. The kids laughed.

Gotcha.

I picked it up and dropped it again. Laughs.

I picked it up, manged to hold on to it, held it for just the right amount of time, and then dropped it again, watching it fall every inch of the way. Big Laughs.

The teacher told me to sit down.

I learned to few things from that, apart from improvisational acting and comedy. I learned that it takes little or even no talent to draw attention to yourself. It's easy. Anyone can do it. But once you get the spotlight, you might not like the results. If you want attention, be prepared.

I also learned what it feels like to follow instructions, do what you're told, and trust in an authority figure only to be betrayed and embarrassed. I never trusted another teacher for the rest of my school life. "Steve, if you don't understand something, why don't you raise your hand and ask?" said many other teachers in the years that followed. You just read why. I learned to look it up for myself and figure it out. And to this day, with the exception of my wife and a few others who have long since died, I find it hard to trust an adult. Any adult.

You don't have to be like me. It's hard to understand the chain of command sometimes, but if a teacher makes you feel bad, tell the principal, or the councilor, or a teacher you like. If an adult... any adult... tells you to do something that just doesn't seem right, tell an adult who isn't a narcissistic dillhole. Sorry. Tell an adult who shows better judgment.

And finally, avoid the media. These people aren't journalists wanting to tell your story as only you understand it. They want to make money off of you. There's a word for this. Learn it. Exploitation.

It's not going to be easy for you. You'll have to live with that "Balloon Boy" thing for the rest of your life. But eventually, you'll get past it. You can even make it work for you. You'll grow up, even if the news media doesn't, and you can make something of your life. I know you can. You've already blown the lid off a scam, and that takes courage. Be strong. Listen beyond the words. Think with your mind as well as your heart. Trust those who earn your trust. And love those who make you a better person. And may you become all that you dream.

And I hope you get to really fly in a balloon. It's actually pretty cool.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ohio's First Radio Station?

You may already know that Bullova was the first watch company, or any company, to advertise on the radio. (“This is WEAR, New York. Bullova Watch Time: Eleven O’clock.”) But what I didn’t know until now was that Bullova was not the first watchmaker to use radio. In fact, it’s possible that a watch company was the first radio broadcaster in Ohio.


The life and death of the original Gruen Watch Company – not the current brand name you find today – is documented in Paul Schliesser’s excellent series of web pages. In those pages you’ll find the rise and fall of an American manufacturer not all that different from the foibles of the economic travesty that is American manufacturing in 2009. The key difference is that, in due time, Gruen may have faced doom regardless of managerial malfeasance, as sales of mechanical watches would eventually be pummeled by the onslaught of cheaper, more accurate quartz watches in the 1970’s. Still, one can’t help but wonder… What if?

In 1913, outgrowing their downtown Cincinnati facility, Gruen purchased a plot of land northeast of town that overlooked downtown and much of the surrounding area. They built a chalet-style plant, and renamed the hill Time Hill. (It had been dubbed Nanny Goat Hill. The less said about that, the better.) Gruen opened the plant in 1917.


Now, when you build a watch, you want to be able to set it correctly and test it for accuracy before it leaves the plant. Swiss made watches today go through a third party certification process to be granted “chronometer” status, but in those days no such service existed. Gruen horologists wanted only the most accurate source for their testing. The most accurate source is, of course, astronomical observation – where are we in the universe. The official timekeeper for the United States was the Naval Observatory in Arlington, Virginia. (This was in an era when naval observatories were actually near the ocean.) The observatory broadcast radio time signals to the eastern half of the country. And that is where Time Hill’s geographic position was put to use.


A state-of-the-art device known as a wireless receiver was installed at Time Hill, capable of picking up radio signals sent from the Naval Observatory. This relatively long-range reception was made possible by the fact that in 1917 there were few radio transmitters in operation, most of them operated by the Navy along with a scattering of experimenters struggling to make a breakthrough in wireless telephony. Radio was strictly Morse code in those days: bursts of pops fired through the ether by means of what is known as the Spark Gap transmitter. (Remember back in school those Van de Graff generators the teacher hooked up in science class that could throw a lightning bolt several feet? Or think of a giant spark plug. That’s basically a radio transmitter in 1917.) One pop represented the number 1, two pops meant 2, and so on. If all this sounds rather less exciting than Rush Limbaugh let me remind you that in the day telephones were noisy and unreliable, and the ability to hear a ship at sea giving the location of a German U-boat during World War I was nothing short of miraculous.


But if you look close in the photo on Schliesser’s web site that won't publish here due to some crazy html hoopla, you’ll see there are two antennae on the roof of Time Hill. Gruen was not content with just receiving time signals. In a precursor to the motivations that would lead to department stores, car dealers, and eventually a certain radio maker named Crosley to build radio stations, Gruen installed one of the most powerful radio transmitters in Middle America. (That’s one really big spark plug.) Schliesser’s web site claims a signal range of up to 3,000 miles, a signal that would dwarf the current WLW nighttime contour and allow a gentleman of the day to set his Gruen – or any other brand of watch – to “Cincinnati Standard Time” in Tijuana, for whatever practical purpose that could serve.


Thus, as early as 1917, Cincinnati was a leading broadcasting city. And the question must be asked: Is this Ohio’s first radio broadcaster? Certainly, there must be a ship-to-shore station along Lake Erie that can dispute this claim. But for sheer audacity and commercial enterprise, Time Hill must lead the way in radio history.



Today, Time Hill sits obscured behind the MacMillan Street overpass. A few blocks away WKRC would locate their studios and transmitter through radio’s golden era. That studio and transmitter site is now the home of WAIF-FM. Just a block and a half east of the Gruen site stands the WCPO-TV tower.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

And Now, A Public Service Message

Stay with me here.

The Columbus, Ohio ABC affiliate is WSYX - the call letters remind you to tune to channel 6.

Or they used to. After the analog shutdown, WSYX's digital signal is now on channel 13.

But the VHF signal isn't cutting through very well. So now, WSYX has applied to the FCC to move their digital signal to channel 48.

So, remember Columbus: be sure to rescan your digital TV in the coming months so you can receive Double-U Six on 48, not 13.

Television: making your life easier.

Friday, July 10, 2009

On Michael Jackson

I've been waiting until the time is right to post anything on Michael Jackson. I wanted to take it all in and gain some perspective. That's the luxury of blogs. I don't have a deadline. I also don't have an editor or news director yelling, "Get me a local angle on Jackson! And don't mention the child molestation thing! I want schmaltz. Besides, Sony Music won't pay if we don't play along. Did I say that out loud? God, I need a beer."

Back in the 1980's, the City of Cincinnati, caught up in Hit King Fever, decided to honor Pete Rose by naming a street after him. Second Street became Pete Rose Way. And there was much rejoicing. And then came the gambling scandal. It's Second Street now.

Whatever your opinion of Pete Rose may be - and having only talked to him over the phone for about 20 seconds, I can say he seemed like a nice guy and magnanimous with his time when it comes to baseball - we can all agree that he will, indeed, someday be admitted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Posthumously.

Michael Jackson has passed not only beyond our earthly confines, but beyond our media scrutiny. In other words, it's OK to like him again. In the name of sensitivity and good manners, we must now judge him only by his accomplishments in his chosen field, and not dwell on the sordid details of his private life. Radio stations that, in response to listener backlash and advertiser hand wringing about airing the music of a child molester, had quietly "de-emphasized" Michael Jackson on their playlists, substituting MJ hits with superficially urban but ultimately inferior Prince songs, are now free not only to reinstate The King of Pop back into their All '80's weekends, but actually run dedicated blocks of his music or even All Michael Jackson Weekends. We're off the hook. Let the Thriller begin.

But should it have ever ended?

Gary Glitter has been charged and jailed for child sex offenses more than once. Is this taken into account every time your local baseball stadium plays Rock and Roll, Part II to rally the crowd? I heard Gary Glitter on the radio on the way home yesterday - on a station that won't touch Michael Jackson with a ten-foot pole.

John Lennon was murdered. His signature song, Imagine, was produced by Phil Spector, a man who has just been convicted of murder. Will this tarnish the beauty and the meaning of the song? Will the recording live on? Or will your local Mix station quietly de-emphasize it?

This December, will oldies stations somehow manage to misplace their copies of the "A Phil Spector Christmas?"

Did we ever stop listening to Jerry Lee Lewis? (Married a 13 year-old cousin) Chuck Berry? (Jailed in 1959 for basically being a pimp) The Platters? (Busted in, where else, Cincinnati on "morals" charges) And The Rolling Stones? (The Altamont Concert fiasco that resulted in 4 deaths, one a homicide)

What made Jackson different? Was it the weird plastic surgery face? Was it the protracted news coverage of his trial - the likes of which no other celebrity had ever faced? Was it due to MTV programing shifting away from music videos? Or was it perhaps due to The King of Pop's lack of output during and following his legal troubles?

Whatever the cause, it's a moot point now. Michael Jackson is legend now. And if you think the overload coverage of MJ is going away anytime soon, think again. We have to compensate for at least a decade when he was relegated to Second Street.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Additional Note

If you are thinking about buying a microphone that costs more than a thousand dollars, and it will be used in your home studio, consider the fact that you will want to insure it.

A Neumann purchased by a recording studio or broadcasting facility would be covered under that operation's business insurance. It becomes a line item on a balance sheet that can be recouped in the event of a fire, break-in, flood, or other catastrophe. A boutique mic you bought as an individual for home use can also be stolen or damaged, but the cost of replacement out-of-pocket is probably beyond your means. And even if you can afford to replace it, you won't be very happy about it. All the more reason a quality mic that's "Damn close" to the Neumann sound might be a better buy. Besides, if your CAD M9 takes a walk, you can probably buy a new one the next day at Bob's Music. Good luck getting a Tiffany mic replaced any time this week. (Scroll back to why I suggested keeping a Shure SM58 on hand.)

This also applies to the preamp, which can run you well over a thousand just for an Avalon M5. (It sounds great, but it's light on features.) Ah, that $65 ART preamp doesn't look so bad now, does it?

If you still want only the best in your home studio, call your insurance agent and check on getting your gear covered in your homeowners policy. Put on your Big Boy pants and pay the insurance. It's worth it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tiffany Microphones

If you followed my posts regarding home voice over studios and microphones, you noticed I haven't had much to say beyond getting started and settling in. I haven't reviewed Neumann mics or Avalon preamps and the like. This is because, as your experience grows, you need to listen to your ears more, and listen to people like me less. I can give you some advice if you ask, but overall you are the only person who can judge what works best for you.

A few months ago, I bought an AKG Perception 220 because of a low-low bargain deal I spotted. I paid about $160 all told, and I've been surprisingly pleased with the mic. My voice benefits from the mid to upper range sweetness of the AKG family. I started getting compliments right away, so the 220 has stayed on my mic stand and has become the workhorse. Not bad for under $200.

So, do I need a Neumann? Well, at the moment, my balance sheet says "No," and that may be all she wrote. But do you need a mic with a price tag over $1,000?

You should know that there are two mics that appear again and again in LA studios. One is the Sennheiser MHK 416, a hypercardioid "short shotgun" that rules the sound stages and Foley rooms throughout So Cal and beyond. It's a sleek beauty with a quality that makes your voice cut through the mix, not necessarily with balls, but with that "sweetness" I mentioned in the AKG. It's a different breed of mic than the typical studio condenser, and at an MSRP of $2,000, it's worth every penny. A nice choice if you don't like talking into a pop filter; the pattern on this baby lets you back off. But it will expose every bad habit you bring to it, and it can't make up for poor room acoustics. Yes, it will pick up your neighbor's dog barking... a block away.

The other is the stalwart of the recording booth, the one you're most likely to see in the behind the scenes voice recording footage of animated cartoons, the Neumann U87. At this moment, I should point out that Neumann is a religion all its own. They are that good. Neumann offers a wide selection of studio condensers with differences that range from the subtle - a U49 has a bit of high end loss when addressed off axis, which can be used to great effect to reduce mouth noises and sibilance - to the Holy Overengineered, Batman!" end of the spectrum. (Their most expensive mics, like the one that was on Jay Leno's desk, has infinitely variable pick-up patterns selected by remote control. Oh, and it comes in black.) The TLM series is transformerless design. The U's are old school Neumann. The M line is modernized classics like the 47. The BCM's are aimed at the broadcast market and contain the sole dynamic in Neumann's studio collection.

The U87 is a gentle, unforgiving, sensitive beast. If you're wearing headphones and have never used one before, the U87 will make you stop and go, "Whoa. I sound good." Unless you don't... then you'll stop and say, "Yeee cats! I sould like Gilbert Gottfried!" Your studio must be perfect. It too can pick up your neighbor's dog, but it'll be the best damn dog bark you'll ever record. At an MSRP of $3,800, that dog better sound like Harry Connick Freakin' Junior.

My advice is, if you can, test drive different mics at studios that have them, or a retailer, or make some professional connections and see if you can borrow one. (The friend that lets you borrow his Neumann is a friend indeed.)

Just like choosing a watch, you should pick the mic that you like. And you are the only person you need to impress. If you like what you hear when you test drive a Neumann, then by all means, get it. If you like Audio Technica, stay with it. And so on. Just don't be afraid to try something new once in a while. And grab a bargain when you can. You might be surprised.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Digital Rapture

It's here. The post analog era of television. The Digital Rapture. Were you left behind?

At the this writing, the panic calls to our station have been sparse. I suspect they'll trickle in as the days pass. As I put it in an inner-office memo, there's bound to be somebody out there who won't notice the analog is gone until they try to tune in Saturday Night Live. After all, we are NBC.

I'd say the majority of the issues with digital have something to do with the antenna, with the rest of calls falling into the "Can't get this f____ converter box to work" category. Most people used to aim an antenna in the general direction of the TV station and watch to their heart's content. Digital requires that the antenna be aimed with the precision of a surveyor's laser sight, and focused to a degree just slightly less demanding than that used for the Hubble telescope.

A year or so ago, some jackalopes got on TV with those "Make the Switch" spots and told people that rabbit ears would do the trick. Anybody with any working knowledge of radio and television signals knew that this was baloney. Guess what? We've turned off the analog, and the rabbit ears aren't working. That's because these guys never told you how to use them. With a few easy steps from me, you'll be watching I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here in crystal clear High Def. No need to thank me.

Rabbit ears - dipole rod antennae, to be technically and linguistically correct (One antenna, two antennae) - never really worked well even back when Jackie Gleason was on Saturday nights. They are a compromise that served only those in urban locales with strong signals that bounced off of every solid surface known to man. What's really happening here is that a reflected signal is reaching one rod of the antenna at a slightly different time than the other. When this happens the wrong way, you see ghosts in the picture. But, if you angled the ears just right, you managed to cancel out the effect of the bouncing signal, kinda like the way the IRS cancels out your yearly income. Oh, and did I mention they only work on VHF channels? UHF gets the hoop, that equally useless piece of metal little TV sets used to come with.

Like women in a singles' bar, digital receivers only want a strong signal, and have a low tolerance for weak reflected signals, so the phase cancellation method the rabbits ears use doesn't work all that well. You have to go for the direct pickup. We're still talking about TV reception, right?

First, as I said, rabbit ears only work on VHF, channels 2-13. Moving the rods around might seem to do something on UHF channels, but what's really happening is your body is changing the reception. Step away and the signal reverts to where it was. If you don't have any VHF signals in your area, you can still use your new rabbit ears as modern art, a cap holder, or for Halloween when you want to dress up as Uncle Martin from My Favorite Martian.

Second, digital television broadcast signals use what's called horizontal polarization. Easy, folks; that's not the name of a porn movie. It simply means the signal travels from the transmitter in wavy lines parallel to the ground. You know, like Lindsey Lohan returning home on on a Saturday night. That means the best antennae use horizontal rods to catch or reflect the signal, which is why an outdoor antenna looks a bit like something you could use to hang your laundry on. That means the rods of your rabbit ears have to be down in a horizontal position.

Third, this arrangement must now be rotated to present the largest aspect to the transmitting antenna. In other words, turn it until one of the rods pokes you in the eye every time you walk near it, and you'll get perfect reception - assuming you're on the second floor or higher and have a picture window looking straight out in the direction of the TV station.

And it's just that simple. So, the next time some technogeek who works in television tries to tell you rabbit ears won't work on digital, you can say, "Mine do... if you could just step a few inches to the left, and hold up your right arm."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Shout! Shout! Let It All Out!

These are the things I can do without:

"Jon & Kate." Who cares? Apparently, 9.5 million TV viewers, according to the Nielson numbers. What I want to know is who are these 9.5 million people and how can I avoid them? Okay, so here's the premise: this couple has twins, and then she pops out a litter of six. Once upon a time, to become a celebrity you needed talent at a legitimate art or craft, such as acting, dancing, music, or comedy. These days in America, you get over 9 million viewers just for doing the same thing a sow can do. Stop it.

This just in: some kids graduated from high school! There are roughly 50 school districts in my area of media influence. Every year around this time, they hold commencement ceremonies. They did it last year. They're doing it this year. They'll do it next year. It is a predictable event, and, unless the valedictorian accepts her diploma in the nude, not unique from any other commencement ceremony. Therefore - say it with me, news directors - This is not news. Stop wasting my time putting graduation stories in the newscast.

Sportscasts that forget to bring us the actual game. "And now let's go up in the bleachers and check in with Joe Schlock who's found some fans to talk to. Joe?" Joe then proceeds to yak with a fan, a group of fans who drove all the way in from Gemethefugoutta, West Virginia, or some old timer who remembers the big game on this day in 1957. "That was quite a day, wasn't it?" asks Joe. "Yeah. Yeah. It was quite a day," says the old timer. Meanwhile, the game itself is reduced to a postage stamp image on the screen, where we strain to see the grounder that got through the gap and the runner sliding at second. The only people who actually benefit from this is the local Radio Shack, who sees a run in replacement remote control sales the next day after hundreds of baseball fans threw theirs at the screen yelling, "Shut the **** up!"

Shows that have no ending. The Season Finale has become a tired excuse for not bothering to write a proper climax and wrapping the story. In other words, if they didn't slather it "A gripping finale that will leave you breathless" promotional blather, you'd swear it was just a show without an ending. Southland left me absolutely dumbstruck. Someone want to tell me how the policewoman and the gangbangers traded multiple rounds of serious firepower outside her house without anybody hitting anything? Come on. That getaway car should've looked like Swiss cheese. A blown tire, at least. How did the banger completely miss the policewoman, the house, the trees, Planet Earth with an automatic going like blazes? Then, on Sunday night, NBC reran part one of The Last Templar without bothering to tell anyone watching it was a two-part movie to be continued Monday. Oh, no, let's leave that to the affiliates to explain to the viewers who called to basically ask WTF? The difference between "Who shot JR?" and "Who cares?" is in the construction of solid storytelling from beginning to end... within this episode. That's called a "Cliffhanger." To do otherwise is called, "Cheating the audience."

Dramas that ask me to endure a badly sung, maudlin song during the final five minutes. This ain't Titanic, folks. ER was the worst. It's gone. Let's just let it go. If I want a reason to kill myself, I'll just look at last quarter's 401k statement.

Radio stations that stop the music at 4:20AM only to run six minutes of PSA's and a spot for a "get it up" pill. Hey. If you didn't sell the time, shut up and play the music! Corner the 23 year-old program director (an honorary title, at best) about this malady, and he'll eventually blurt out that the automation makes him do it. No, asswipe, you are supposed to run the radio station, not the computers. And if somebody in San Antonio tells you to subject your listeners to this crap, you say, "Okay." And then you go ahead and do the right thing anyway. Because a company that's a kabillion dollars in the red obviously doesn't pay attention to the details in the individual markets. And maybe one of the reasons you're so deep in debt is because you've pissed away your listeners playing six minutes of clutter for no reason. Grow a pair, Sparky.

Publications with web sites that take decades of credibility and prestige and flush it down the toilet faster than you can say, "Mortgage rates are lower than ever." Hey, US News and World Report... do you have any idea how difficult it is to focus on an article on North Korea's nuclear ambitions and whether or not China's condemnation is nothing more than lip service, when the there's an animated horse's ass wiggling along the right column? Either ask me to subscribe, or switch to reporting on Jon & Kate. At least I can read about horses asses while I'm looking at one.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Complaints

Wow. You guys are angry. I mean mad as hell, and you're not going to take it anymore. Or has someone already said that?

Both Family Guy and Saturday Night Live last week ragged on pop-up promos, those annoying little graphics for upcoming shows that wedge themselves over your favorite programs. There's an article in the Chicago Tribune today joining in the rage. And I understand.

The industry slang for these things is "snipe." It's a simple technique; all you do is key in a source with the snipe material in the lower edge of the picture at the master control level. It's the same as when you see "This just in: a tornado warning has been issued..." or sports scores crawling, only this is promotional, not instructive. The recent innovations that have led to these things sprouting up like video weeds is: computers dedicated to doing nothing else but inserting snipes, and master control boards capable of keying in four or more sources over the main program source. That's right. I can, and occasionally do, lay in FOUR MORE THINGS over your favorite show. Some of them with sound.

Example: It's a Wednesday night, and Law and Order is on. As the show enters it's second segment after the first network commercial break, it is 10:09PM. I already have our local station's "crystal bug" keyed in on keyer #1. A "crystal" graphic is transparent, thus you can see it, but see through it and still see what's going on behind it, even though it's pretty small to begin with. The "crystal bug" is put there in part at the insistence of NBC to remind you that you are watching NBC on your local channel, but also to, and this is important, to discourage piracy. This is really important during sporting events that can end up on YouTube in five minutes. A local bug appearing on YouTube can help NBC/Universal track the pirates to their lair. Argh!

So, one source is already keyed over at the local level, when somebody at 30 Rock hits a button and starts keying in their own snipe. The peacock turns from crystal to solid color, and if the local station is doing their keying just right, it appears that the crystal bug changed right before your eyes. A banner opens up across the bottom of the screen, and we're told that we're watching Law and Order now - no shit, Sherlock - and coming soon it's America's Got Talent! As these things go, NBC seems to have the least offensive promotional snipes in the biz, with a general lack of images, moving or otherwise, and no sound. Of course, NBC is still waiting for Cheers to come back, and they've never really recovered from CBS stealing Jack Benny, so give them time.

As this is happening, the Wilmington, Ohio office of the National Weather Service has just issued a Breeze Warning for Wherethefugarewe County. Following our policy of keeping you informed with the News You Can Use, from the Station Where News is First, Live, and Local, with Late Breaking Developments, On-the-Spot Reporting, from reporters who Know the Miami Valley, we are honor bound in master control to activate the second keyer and insert a Weather Alert graphic in the upper left corner of the screen.

So, you now have 2 local key-overs, plus the network snipe... and for the first ten minutes of Law and Order the actual film of the show itself will continue to drop in their own title graphics telling us who wrote, directed, produced, executive produced, catered, and groomed Ice T's goatee. Somewhere underneath all this is a dead body - at least that's the inference I get from the dialogue.

Then, after the local break at 10:30ish, and I'm not making this up, I am required to use the keyer #3 to insert a local snipe about the transition to Digital Television. This not my idea. The FCC demands that we do this. Yes, that's right. The government is adding to the clutter. But is that really much of a surprise? I have to wait for my cue on the NBC timing sheet to insert this snipe, in order to prevent my local snipe from interfering with the network's snipes. I swear, I'm not making this up!

Put this same senario into an episode of Dateline, and we add keyer #4, the keyer that inserts the columns of fill graphics along the sides of the screen during standard definition 4:3 ratio programming. Viola! I've just maxed out our master control board. There are four things going on the air, and somewhere underneath it all is your favorite show.

We get complaints about other things, like commercials. One common question: "Why do you have to run that annoying song for cable TV over and over?"

Simple answer: Because the cable company pays us to do it. Same thing goes for all the other commercials. But I think the real question you're asking is, "Why do advertisers use the most annoying music ever foisted on a group of humans since the Waco Compound?"

Ever notice how a train whistle sounds? Or car horns? Or any other warning device? Those things are pitched out of tune on purpose in order to get your attention. (For you musicians reading this, they use augmented 4ths, diminished 5ths, minor 7ths, and chromatic steps. In other words, dissonance. Hey, it worked for Mozart. FYI: The old EBS tone still used in EAS emergencies is really two tones at half-step intervals.) Pretty harmonies won't wake you up and stick in your brain. Think of the first line of The Beatles' Michelle. What the heck is that chord when Paul sings "Ma belle?" You remember that, don't you? The difference is that McCartney is using the technique of tension and release to create one of the the most popular songs of all time. Advertisers use lots of tension with little, if any, release to jangle your nerves. A woman singing above her range in a whining voice while the musicians seem to be playing in another key grabs your ear and won't let go. The current state of pop music feeds this machine quite well. The ad agency geniuses who dream this stuff up hope it leaves a memorable impression. Based on the number of bitch calls we get, it apparently works.

Finally, we reach into the mail bag for this real letter from a concerned citizen. Here is an unretouched excerpt:


dear w*** at what point does it stop the filthy things you allow over the air I was watching my name is earl the other night for a few minutes and the flithy things so we have to start a boycott of your advertizers


I swear to God, that's real.

OK. Sir or madam, in respectful response to your letter... You only watched a few minutes of My Name is Earl? You didn't give us a fair chance. You needed to watch the whole show, and then The Office, and then Southland. Next, you needed to watch our late night lineup, starting with the monologue on The Tonight Show. Then you needed to catch Saturday Night Live. Had you watched a fair representation of our programming, you would've realized that we hadn't begun to offend you. Besides, how could you see anything objectionable through all our snipes and inserts?

Damn! There's only one solution to this problem... We'll add more snipes.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Take It With You

So, what media do young people prefer these days? Here's a clue.

Last week, my wife and I took a trip to the Columbus Museum of Art. There, we saw the Ancient Egyptian collection "To Live Forever," including a few actual mummies and sarcophagi. The exhibit was geared to all ages, and there were number of kid-friendly details. At one point, there was a bulletin board posting the answers to the question: "What would you like to take with you in the afterlife?"

Zoinks. That's a big question for anyone at any age. As you might imagine, the answers ranged from the simple, ("My Qu' ran," "My Budda,") to the touching. ("My memories.") But a lot of young people want to take their i-pods wherever they go. I would say based on what I saw in this sample, portable music players rank number one as the media of choice. Something to remember if you want to connect with kids.

As for the museum bulletin board, my favorite answer read something like this:


"My savior Jesus Christ will provide me everything I need in Heaven.

But I'd still like to take my i-pod, my laptop, and my cell phone."


Let's hope Heaven has broadband. You know, if you go into your cell phone's contact list, and replace a person's name with "Heaven," then whenever that person calls you, your phone will display, "Heaven calling." I dare you to let that call go to voice mail.

Speaking of not having the nerve, during the past few months, I've programmed my TiVo to capture all the episodes of NBC's detective show Life. I really like the show, and I didn't want to miss any of it, but now the season is over, and I'd like to clear some space on my hard drive by deleting the show. So, I go into the options menu to do so, only to be faced with a display message that asks me,

"ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO DELETE ALL LIFE?"

I just can't do it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Let's Put on a Radio Station!

Every now and then, a friend, former co-worker, or professional colleague will send me an email, or approach me in person with a Great Idea for a Radio Station. This happens every now and then. You see, for the benefit of those of you reading this beyond my home town, radio is dead in Lima, Ohio.

Like a red shirted random extra on the old Star Trek, it went off on its own behind a Styrofoam rock formation, let out a scream, only to have Dr. McCoy pronounce, "He's dead, Jim." Only this is the episode where Kirk and Spock have found a time portal that might take them back to a point in time before the red shirt died. OR it might take them back to the 1970's where Kirk sleeps with Joan Collins and she ends up bitch slapping some blond alien in a fountain. OR it could take them back to the 1980's where Kirk disguises himself as a policeman in order to sleep with Heather Locklear. In the end, Spock says, "Captain, may I remind you of Starfleet's Prime Directive. Don't do anything that might interfere with the development of a species or otherwise exceed the special effects budget for this episode. Besides, Heather Locklear is out of your league, Dawg."

What was I talking about? Oh yeah. Radio.

Every now and then, somebody comes to me with an idea for starting a new radio station in Lima. "We've got the building," he'll say, "and the equipment, and this town is crawling with ex-radio jocks and news hounds. All we got to do is get advertisers, and believe me, pal, they'll be lining up to get on the air. We can do this!" Then they ask, "Are you in?" which really means, "Got any money for this?"

And, of course, I say, "No."

It's not that these people don't have business experience, or good moral character, or the common sense to know that Spock would never say "Dawg." The problem is this person is playing Mickey Rooney in one of those movies where he says, "We've got a barn, lights, musicians... Let's put on a show!" (If you're too young to have seen one of these movies, let's just say they're kinda like the original Scooby Doo in terms of story crafting and realism.) The idealism overcomes the reality.

I hate to break your heart, guys. I really do. I'm on your side when it comes to reviving radio. But the truth is, and this is going to hurt, but the truth is... nobody wants you to.

People used to rely on horses for transportation. Now I like horses. There's a lot of romanticism about horses, especially in an old western. A horse could be your best friend, a true companion, and even save the day. But the fact is horses must be fed, groomed, given medical attention - with a vet bill that exceeds the gross domestic product of Uruguay - and then you have to shovel out the stall. Believe me, no matter what romantic ideals some people have associated with travel by horse, the fact is as soon as the first cheap reliable motorcar was available, people bought a Model T, sold the damn horse, and never looked back.

Think of radio as a horse. I work in television now, and I make some pretty good extra money doing voice overs for ad agencies. You can wax nostalgic for radio all you want, but I'm not going back to cleaning out that stall ever again.

But the real problem is the need to see the medium in the scale of the larger world view. Let's take a look at another medium that was once a part of everybody's life, only to fall to a new technology. Movies.

Back in the early half of the 20th century people went to a movie house. Some may have gone two or three times a week. And the nightly lineup was like a night of prime time TV: a cartoon, a newsreel, a B-serial (with characters saying things like, "Let's put on a show!"), coming attractions, and then a feature film. And people liked it, but put up with some inconveniences to see a show: getting dressed for the show, getting to the theater, and enduring the clown behind you who talks through the movie. And most of the movies were rather mediocre.

Along comes a new technology, television. Suddenly, movie ticket sales fall. Why go to all the trouble to see a lame movie when you can stay home, put on your PJ's, and watch Milton Berle wear a dress? And it's free - once you've bought a TV. But you can watch now, pay later. People now have credit.

The movie industry could no longer operate under the assumption that there will always be an audience no matter what crapola they threw up on the screen. The entire business model of the industry had to change. It went from a production line type of system, where product rolled out regularly with lower quality, to what we now call the Blockbuster Mentality. You have to aim high. Go for broke. Everything has to be the next "Godfather" or "Star Wars" or "Titanic." Movie producers have little time for someone to waste on little movies. These days, a film that makes only $10 million is a disappointment. We want at least $100 million in the first weekend.

Radio needs to change its business model. And anyone thinking of diving into the business needs to be willing to approach it the way Steven Spielberg would. Go big, or stay home.

Radio cannot and will not survive with the current practice of having groups of stations up and down the dial playing ten-in-a-row of the same lame ass product that the record companies keep churning out. (There's another industry searching for a new business model, but I'm not about to punch that tar baby in this article.)

Nor will signing up for Rush and his imitators save your bacon. While P.T. Barnum's axiom about a certain audience demographic being born every minute certainly holds true in terms of sophomoric right-wing talk radio, and the advertisers willing to support that particular midway attraction, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that its influence is on the wane. El Rushbo himself is rarely a participant in conservative cable news outlets, but rather the subject of discussion. And Rush himself freely admits he is not a member of the "mainstream media," be that by whatever definition he chooses. No. Right wing talk radio is exists within the domain of the AM band, an abandoned and archaic means of transmitting our message to those who huddle around their wireless sets like so many refugees of a dictatorial regime. If only they actually had a dictatorial regime to huddle against... ah, but that's hardly the point.

If you seriously, and I mean seriously, want to start a new radio station, or revive an old one, follow these ten commandments to the Blockbuster Mentality.

1. Thou shalt not aim for mediocrity. "Bob and Tom" in the morning won't cut it. You need to pay major dollar for major talent. IN THE HOUSE! I don't mean Big Johnny Sunshine reading "This Day in History." A good way to judge major talent: if he showed up at the mall, would he draw a crowd to the point that the police would need to be called? Seriously, I mean drop a call to Harpo Productions and see if Oprah is looking for a little extra touch. I'm not kidding.

2. Thou shalt not do stunts. Stunts are passe. Leave the schoolboy practical joke crap to Howie Mandel.

3. Thou shall pay for professionals. That goes for all dayparts, all positions, in all departments.

4. Thou shalt have a bigass signal. In this age of WIFI and wireless phone coverage everywhere, nobody will have the patience to listen to a piddly class A FM with a signal that chatters at the city limits. On the AM band, anything less than 50,000 watts is a waste of time. Daytimers will be going the way of analog TV in the next decade. Don't sink money into one. Period.

5. Thou shalt spend major Bennies on promotion. Suck it up, Buttercup. You're in the big leagues now. If you're not comfortable writing a big check for a major multi-media promotional campaign, then open a sports card store instead.

6. The production department shalt not be thine sales staff's bitch. See commandment #3. Without the air talent, the sales staff will be back to telemaketing within the year. Remember that, Chukles, before you just assume a talent will do your lousy remote without being consulted.

7. News is King. Thou shalt worship no other god other before the News Director. If you can't figure out how to get a tornado warning on the air NOW, you might as well turn off the transmitter.

8. Thou shalt tolerate no hurtful messages. With the exception of the reasonable "hell" or "damn," no foul language. I'm not a prude, but there are kids in the car, and you should take that seriously. NO gay bashing. NO ethnic slurs, of any group. That includes Arabs and Persians. And if you don't know the difference between a Persian and an Arab, may I suggest a career in sanitation management.

9. Thou shalt avoid "fire sales." If you find the sales staff ringing bells, it's time to put the station on the block.

10. Thou shalt take pride in thine work. You have chosen a difficult task, trying to ride a horse-drawn carriage down a modern city street. But a horse-drawn can be beautiful for the sake of nothing more than itself. So enjoy it. Have fun.

And get a red shirt to clean out the stall.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

This Just In...

I thumbed through a magazine in the doctor's waiting room when an urgent voice came on the television. "We have breaking news," said the anchorwoman. "The FDA is advising consumers to avoid pistachios until the source of the salmonella outbreak can be traced."

Pistachios? Is that it? You call that "breaking news?" For a moment there, I thought we were under attack. Or someone was holding hostages. Or the president had fired another car company executive and ordered somebody to resurrect American Motors and the Gremlin - just for fun. Hell, somebody would buy one. But, no, this "breaking news" turned out to be about nuts.

Now don't get me wrong. I like pistachios. In fact, I almost bought some right before that recall was issued. They're tasty and they make my pee turn green, and anything that makes my pee turn green is way cool. But I wouldn't call this a "breaking news" story. The story had already been broke (Is that good English?) several days before when the salmonella outbreak had been discovered. That's when a story breaks. Additional information from the FDA is not "breaking news," but rather, it's additional knowledge about to be added to my information overload.

But proclaiming it "Breaking News" got my attention, and that's just what CNN, Fox, et al, want. As you scan the cable with your remote, you're not going to stop on a channel running a banner along the bottom of the screen saying, "Everything is fine, right now. Just fine. Nothing wrong. Nothing to see here. Just turn your TV off and go to bed." Your thumb lifts off the button only if you see "Breaking News," or "Developing Story," or anything with the words "Alert," "Crisis," or "Brittany" on the banner. The Royal Flush for news directors at these channels is the Continuing Coverage of the Breaking Brittany Crisis. I'm not joking.

The TV in the waiting room was tuned to CNN. I haven't been watching CNN much since the days when I worked in news/talk radio, and I kind of miss it. But after a bout of non-stop Crisis Coverage Television, I remembered why I didn't miss it all that much. In the 45 minutes or so I watched, CNN gave me 2 Breaking Stories, 3 Developing Stories, a Crisis in the Mid-East, (that doesn't even qualify as a Continuing Story so much as a Status Quo.) 5 updates, and at least one News Alert regarding Michelle Obama touching the Queen of England. My wife left the doctor feeling great. I needed a sedative.

It must be an exhausting life working at a news network these days, constantly working in a state of Code Red. Back in the pre 9-11 days, a producer could kick back and drink in those periods in a news day when, especially at the local level, nothing happened. A reporter could dig deeper into a story on political corruption. A videographer could grab some B-roll that could lend more context to a package report. Facts were checked. Mistakes could be caught and corrected. Voice overs could be rehearsed. Awkward sentences could be rewritten. Spelling errors in the graphics could be ousted. Trust me, the down time was well spent. These days, a producer is charged with the responsibility of making every event in life a crisis in order to grab restless attention spans. I don't think I could work like that. I know I can't watch it.

I've never really thought about it before, but the current state of TV journalism could explain why it can so difficult to hold a conversation with certain family members and coworkers. For example: within my lifetime, the price of gasoline at the pump has risen and fallen more times than I can count. Believe me, the oil embargo of 1973 lives in my memory, when gas prices jumped 60-70%, shortages caused lineups at the gas stations, everybody was driving 4-ton Detroit behemoths that got 8 miles to the gallon, and rationing was mentioned for the first time since WWII. We were not happy campers. While last summer's surge in gas prices was not pleasant to say the least, compared to '73, it was hardly a Crisis. And yet, every time gas prices take even the slightest rise, it's a Crisis. Which leads to me getting e-mails from coworkers or family telling me about a day when I'm not supposed to buy gas to protest the prices. Yeah, that'll change everything, just like it hasn't for the past 35 years.

Most disturbing of all is the coverage on our economy. Yes, a 7,000 point drop in the Dow is certainly newsworthy, and in-depth coverage is justifiable. But I can't help but wonder how many "Internet Investors" switched on a cable news channel, saw "Alert: America's Financial Meltdown" or "Breaking News: Economy Flat Lines" on the screen, and immediately dove for their laptops to sell off their stocks. Who is the worst culprit: the overreaction in the media, or the person who overreacts to the overreaction in the media?

I can't help but think this current culture of overreaction has spilled over into other aspects of life. Road rage. Mass shootings. The bitch-o-grams I get in the company e-mail when somebody leaves something smelly in the break room refrigerator. Whenever an injustice has been committed, we expect on-the-spot Breaking News coverage of our victimization, whether it be Chris Hansen from Dateline confronting the wrongdoer on hidden camera, or Dr. Phil or Oprah giving us a new car to salve our heartbreak. The copier is jammed! Code Red! Initiate full document recovery procedures!

Yeesh. I think I'll just go buy some pistachios.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Smatterings

Just a stream of unconsciousness this time. Let's start with this classic Sinatra photo from The Atlantic.


Frank appears to be thinking the same thing I am: What the hell is on my microphone, and should I try to flick it off? Apparently, for this session, the engineers at Columbia Records brought out a new experimental model - the Whathefunken OMG. The dedicated team of scientists at WTF took a perfectly inoffensive omni or bi-directional mic, and changed it to a cardioid by smunching a big glob of Silly Putty on it and wrapping a harmonica around it. Either that or it's Ethel Merman's pop filter. No wonder Ol' Blue Eyes switched to Capitol. Looks like an aftermarket air cleaner for a Corvette. One of the greatest voices of the 20th century and he still had to sing into a carburetor. Seriously, if anybody out there can explain this to me, please hit me back. I mean, really. Do you sing into it, or put your cigarette out with it?

Stoopid Commercial Alert: I like Bertoli Italian dishes. From all accounts, they make good food. And I like the ad campaign featuring frustrated Italian chefs singing in opera, bemoaning how Bertoli is taking away their business. After all, Italy is the birthplace of opera. Trouble is, the producers picked the wrong opera. In the current ad, the chefs are singing their curses at Bertoli to the tune of "The Troubadour's Song" from Bizet's Carmen... an English opera, that takes place in Spain, written by a Frenchman. Oh well. It still sounds a lot better than those dreadful Comcast spots.

A now, a look at the weather... and a farewell to our FCC license. Here is weather segment that aired on WSPD-TV in Toledo back in 1978, with guest weatherman Paul Lynde. I have to believe some smartaleck put that temperature for Seattle up there on purpose. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dora Grows Up - Too Much For Some

The latest fury in children's television isn't over Miley Cyrus pictures on the web - or why such a pretty girl has a name that sounds like a medical condition - but rather over a dress. Dora the Explorer's dress.

Seems the folks at Mattel and Nickelodeon ran into a problem. Little girls who watched Dora the Explorer were growing up, and aging out, thus no longer buying carloads of Dora the Explorer backpacks, clothes, shoes, lunchboxes, notebooks, coloring books, hair bands, jewelry, key rings, and the carrying case to hold all the backpacks, clothes, shoes, lunchboxes, notebooks, coloring books... Something had to be done.

The answer, in direct opposition to the trend of aging down established characters, (Muppet Babies, Tiny Toons, Sex in the City YA novels... I'm not kidding) was to age up Dora, letting her grow up to become Dora the Tween.

That, by itself, isn't the issue. What triggered the outrage among some parents were the details... or rather, the lack of details.

Seems as a teaser for Dora 2.0, Nickelodeon released a silhouette of the character.
Without the visual references of the leggings and few other details, it's easy to see how the imagination can fill in the blanks and leave you with the impression that Dora has gone "Brittany."

Now that a full color version of the tween Dora has been released, we can see she's a perfectly respectable, fun-loving young lady of indeterminate Latino heritage. Dora is still the same sweet girl we've all come to know, just a little more grown up and without that annoying red-booted monkey. So, everybody can just calm down.

Of course, Nickelodeon and Mattel knew exactly what they were doing when they released the silhouette Dora. It got Mom all worked up about a negative role model. And just like a boy with a bad reputation, nothing scores points on a young girl's Cool Meter faster than making Mom go all spaz.

Slick move, guys.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Upgrading Microphones

I've really been debating with myself about this post. (There's an obvious joke I could use here about what debating with yourself makes you. I will avoid that joke.) You see, I promised that I would give some advice to voice artists starting a home studio regarding the next microphone: the step up from the basic. The trouble is, this is the jumping off point where an individual finds his or her voice, quite literally. What I like may not work for you.

I could be Mr. Mike Envy, and tell you things like, "Nobody will take you seriously unless you drop a grand on a condenser." Really? I've never had a potential client ask me what mic I'm using. On the other hand, I have had potentials ask me for a demo, and that's what your next priority should be. If you can't get a good demo with the equipment you have, then an upgrade is definitely in order, or you should fine tune what you have. Otherwise, I wouldn't get anxious about spending money on a new mic.

The only reason you should upgrade mics is to sound better. That's it. If you buy a Neumann because you saw some other guy use one, you may be buying the wrong mic for the wrong reason. This mic is for you and nobody else.

For the most part, when you look at mics priced above $200, you're entering a level where the mics give you rich, full sound, bringing out your lower frequencies naturally without artificial enhancements. These mics are designed to be mounted on a boom and connected to a preamp that can bring out the best in that mic. These mics come with a switchable hi-pass filter/low end roll off. Now you decide if you want to record everything down to 20Hz. In this price range, you get to decide if you want a cardioid pickup pattern, or a figure-of-8, or a mic that can switch to any pattern. Had you started out with one of these mics, you wouldn't have known what to do with all these choices. Now, you know what you want.

This price range includes The Three Amigos of broadcasting: the ElectroVoice RE20, the Sennheiser MD421, and the Shure SM7. All three of these stalwarts of radio are cardioid, and all are dynamic mics, simply because most broadcast mixing boards do not have phantom power. (!) Plus, the myth persists that condensers are too fragile for the likes of Hopalong Cassidy on Froggy 93. Even so, it's hard to beat the price for performance on these models. The RE20 is the ballsy one of the bunch. (Don't believe the ads. This mic has proximity effect... starting about a foot away.) The MD421 now ships as the "Mark II" version with a 5, count them, 5 position bass roll off switch. And the Shure SM7 now ships as the SM7B with 2 windscreens, the best choice if you work so close you can taste the mic. (The jocks at WEBN used to swap mic condoms for each shift. The joke that used to go around was that if the windscreens ever got mixed up, you could tell which one was yours by sniffing for your brand of cigarette.)

Heil dynamics have been getting some good press lately, and Neumann has just lowered itself to making its first and only dynamic for broadcasters. Just in time for American radio to go out of business. It's hand-crafted, it's ugly, it's $900. I don't know, but to me buying a dynamic from Neumann is like ordering a hamburger at a five-star restaurant.

Just gotta have a use for that phantom power button on your preamp? Go condenser. The myths about condensers are just that. There's more affordable studio condensers these days than you can shake a mic cord at, and they'll stand up to abuse about as well as a dynamic. Condensers are sensitive to extreme weather, but who doesn't have air conditioning these days? Even if you pay full retail for an Audio Technica AT2035 it's still a reasonable price. I've read raves about the Studio Projects C1, Rode has some serious contenders, and the Shure KSM27 gets high marks. And if you have the money and you insist on world-class quality, okay, fine, drop about $1,300 for the Neumann TLM103. Just don't be surprised if your spouse puts your car on EBay in retaliation. You've been warned.

Bottom line: get the mic that makes you sound good. It's your money, and it's your business. Don't get suckered into a $4,000 vintage ribbon unless you plan on recording the Kronos Quartet. Don't know what the Kronos Quartet is? Good. Then you don't need to flush $4,000 on a microphone. Problem solved.

Friday, March 6, 2009

More on Paul Harvey

I was working at a news/talk AM station where a new program director was brought in to "age down" the audience... in other words, get somebody younger than 60 to listen. One of his directives was that no commercial or PSA would air without a music bed - period.

Of course, this station aired Paul Harvey something like four times a day. Harvey didn't exactly fit into the "younger, hipper, MTV generation" the program director was aiming for, but letting him go meant losing him to a dreaded rival station. And besides, I don't think ABC would let us drop the Harvey with our affiliate deal of the day.

Like many big city stations, we tape delayed Paul Harvey shows in order to fit them into our programming. Affiliates had strict limitations to this practice, but it was understood that in a top-50 market a station couldn't cut to Harvey at the times the shows were fed down the network. With the advantage of tape delay, the program director decided that I had nothing better to do in production than to add music beds to all of Paul Harvey's commercials. And we did.

Somehow, ABC got wind of our blasphemy - probably via the dreaded rival - and our station was given a one-time warning: don't tamper with Paul Harvey commercials, or else you'll lose Harvey completely. And so, we did.

Such was the power of the Harvey.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Paul Harvey, RIP

Your next pizza delivery will be late and cold.

On Saturday,February 28, 2009 radio lost it's voice for a generation. Paul Harvey died at the age of 90.

For over fifty years, Paul Harvey supplied AM stations what can best be described in radio vernacular as "keystone programming." Long before Rush Limbaugh became the Voice of the Republican Party - make of that what you will - listeners made it a point to tune in to hear what Paul Harvey had to say about the day's events. To work in radio anytime during the last fifty years meant that at some point in your career you either taped the Harvey feed from ABC (channel 52 - Harvey's was such the presence that the network dedicated a satellite channel just for him.) or you made damn sure you back timed correctly into his feed live. And once he was on you could eat your lunch, because the next fifteen minutes was all Harvey. And you marvelled at him. All the rest of the day, the slightest pause in programming was condemned as "dead air," triggering a tirade from the program director. Paul Harvey swam in silence to the point where the union engineers would sometimes bolt to make sure the transmitter was actually still on. There was nothing else like Paul Harvey.

For a kid growing up watching Woodstock, civil rights protests, Viet Nam protests, and Nixon self destruct on TV, Paul Harvey was like listening to a slightly out-of-touch uncle at Thanksgiving. His flag waving made post boomers like me squirm a bit. His transitions straight into "Page 2" for a commercial for Wells Lamont work gloves ("SSSStub-burn about quality.") walked right over the line of journalistic neutrality. He probably left this world still bemoaning the Beatles and disgusted with Elvis the Pelvis, but by golly you knew exactly where he stood on things.

Or did you? In the 1950's he championed Senator McCarthy's red baiting, until he came to realize it had gone too far when the McCarthy hearings aired on live television. But video did not kill this radio star. Harvey admitted his change of heart and moved on. He backed the US involvement in Viet Nam until his son's number came up in the draft. Ah, so it all changes when it's your own son headed for Cambodia. Harvey's generation wasn't accustomed to their newsmen telling the president point blank, "You are wrong." Paul Harvey: the Original Shock Jock.

Those reversals did not lessen my respect for the man. If anything, I gained a new respect. Unlike the blowhards that populate talk radio today, Harvey was more than willing to admit he was human, filled with faults and fears and not always fully understanding the crazy world spinning around him. I don't pretend to know how to write for Paul Harvey. That was his son's job. But I can imagine what he might say to today's 7,000 point plunge in the stock market.

"Another round of Chicken Little on Wall Street today. Stocks down... seven... thousand... their lowest level since 1997. This latest dive was a reaction to the Asian market's dive, which was a reaction to economic news from the US, which was a reaction to world market news. (chuckle) You know, maybe it's time we need to stop reacting and start... leading."

So, with the loss of roughly five hours of Paul Harvey programming AM radio had come to rely on, you have wonder how much of a financial hit these stations will take. According to Forbes Harvey was responsible for about $30 million for ABC. Figure in the local advertisers, some of whom I'm sure only wanted to run during Harvey, and you're looking at a major revenue loss. And, although there are those who can try, there really is no successor to the Harvey throne. The time slot might be filled for a while, but there's certain to be an audience erosion over time, and nearly 1,300 local stations who depended on the Harvey linchpin in their programming will have to hope Rush can fill the void.

And he can't. Not in my eyes.

And so, that's why today, March 2, 2009, 1,300 hapless radio station managers are turning in their applications for the only job for which they are qualified... Dominoes Pizza. So, the next time you order a pizza, and it arrives in 45 minutes... cold... with the delivery person apologizing for getting lost... then you'll know... the rrrrest of the story.

Good day.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Answers to Questions

One person who asked for advice on home studios is responding to me via email, which is why you don't see her comments on this blog. That's OK. She asked a few questions I thought I should post here for everyone's benefit.

The Audix OM3 is a good choice, but don't pay too much for it. Comparison shop against the Shure SM58 for the best price. Since bands and major road tours order SM58's by the dozen, Shure can afford to sell them at lower prices. And CAD wants to undercut Shure, so there's a real bazaar going on for handheld dynamics. Take advantage of the free market.

You'll want a some kind of pop filter. Ask for a windscreen when you buy the mic. If possible, you want one made for that mic. Although they cost more, it's worth it. If there isn't a custom muff, a generic will do. Quick lesson:

Windscreen: aka "mic condom" fits over the mic itself. They tend to "warm" the sound. The way to go for most dynamic handhelds, since you want to get close.

Pop Filter: an annoying screen that is attached to the boom stand and held in front of the mic. Some are nylon, others are metal. They are more sonically transparent than windscreens and have no effect on the mic's frequency response. One pop filter can serve all your mics. Highly recommended for touchy condensers, and a must for ribbons. See the photo of Don LaFontaine.

Blast Filter: the internal screen built into a mic by the maker. Some are quite good. Most are not enough for close vocal work. Fancypants boutique mics barely put one on, that's why you can see the capsule through the screen from across the room. My Trion 7000 basically has a metal grid around it to protect the innards and that's all.

I recommend a good solid boom stand because it'll let you put the mic right where you want it. Quality stands won't tip over easily. Straight stands can be hard to position around a music stand, and I tend to to step on the feet while working, which creates rumble and knocking in the recording. Table stands can pick up rumble from the table, but they're nice if you have limited space.

Handheld dynamics roll off the low end of their frequency response usually at about 80 Hz. That means the mic itself is designed to ignore the sub-sonic rumbles of being handled on stage, and the thunderclaps of dancing and cavorting about on stage - another reason they make a good choice as a first mic. You shouldn't have to worry about shock mounting one of these as long you stand still while working.

I do like the so-called shock mount clips that come in the box with some mics. They hold the mic with a tight grip. Don't rely on just gravity to hold your mic in the clip. Quick-release clam-type clips are great on stage, but not very secure. If you start collecting mics, you'll find yourself leaving the mic on the mount it came with, and unscrewing the mount from the stand when you want to switch mics.

My friend has a friend in Scotland with a Numark DJ mixer. I'm not familiar with the Numark mixer, but it's certainly worth a try. Dynamic mics work well with DJ mixers. Put on the headphones, turn off the speakers, and turn up the mic pot all the way without a mic connected to the back. You'll her some hiss come up, but if you get a lot of hiss, you might want to do some more shopping. At normal operating levels, the mixer should not add hiss to your sound. If you are buying the one from your friend in Scotland, make darn sure it can operate on US voltage. 115-125 volts at 60 Hz.

High strung studio condenser mics don't usually get on well with DJ mixers because
A: no phantom power
B: the mic exceeds the limitations of the printed circuit preamp built into most of these mixers.

Trying to use a ribbon mic with a mixer preamp will make you babble and drool until the men in the clean white coats come to take you away.

There's no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to mic cables. While there are variations in how the connectors lock, the XLR connector is an international standard. Ask the dude at the music store for mic cable, and you'll get the right stuff. Any dynamic mic made since approx 1960 uses the same pins for the same thing. The Audix safely fits into the international standard. If it clicks, it fits.

Some fancypants condenser tube mics use special cables. Another reason we'll steer clear of those for now. Vintage mics made before Rock and Roll may have different polarity or different connectors, and we won't even try to start on impedance matching those mics. Keep it simple in the beginning, and you'll get good results.

And yes, I have seen supposedly pro gear with incompatible XLR connectors. A certain audio board at a certain civic center I know has XLR "line out" connectors that are not standard, thus rendering all output from that board out of phase with a certain television station's equipment. You have no idea how fun it can be to build a phase reversing 3-conductor cable connection in less than a half-hour.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Right Mic

My wife pointed out that in last week's post I never really got around to recommending a particular microphone for the starter studio. Maybe indirectly I did, but I covered lot of ground on the entire studio last time, so this time let's just talk mics and get specific.

The Starter Mic: Less Than $200.

There are dozens of brands making - or rebranding - hundreds of models of microphones for vocal use. That's far too many to choose from. That's the bad news. The good news is that there are a lot of pros out there with years of experience to guide you, either in person or via the web. Now, some of these guys are blowhards with a severe case of Mic Envy, but even those guys wouldn't spend their hard-earned money on a tube condenser if it didn't make them sound good. So, don't just listen to my advice; check around and get as many points of view as you can. You can learn something from any one of us.

It's my opinion that anyone starting their own studio should buy a dynamic vocal mic like the Shure SM58. Alternatives include the CAD D189, the Audix OM3, or comparable mics offered by Audio Technica, AKG, ElectroVoice, and any brand that sells PROFESSIONAL GRADE mics. If you've been in broadcasting or advertising for a few years, you might qualifiy for skipping straight to the Less Than $1000 level. "I've been pounding out the spots on an RE20 for years, dude. I got skills." True, but I'd still suggest a handheld on a good quality boom stand for your studio even if you can afford the RE20. Here's why:

The mics I mentioned are road-worthy hammers, built to take the punishment dished out by musicians on tour, in clubs, and even on The Tonight Show. Museum pieces like Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and Elton John have been signing into SM58's for decades. Lather on the duct tape and Roger Daltrey can play bolo with one all night. These mics can be dropped, stepped on, sneezed on, barfed on, held in a toilet, (Liar by Three Dog Night) run over by the tour bus, and still sound great. If they an take all that, I'm thinking your Golden Retreiver cheweing on it won't put you out of business. We're talking bulletproof mics, here.

Second, these mics are available in your hometown. Chances are, if you walk into your neighborhood music store and ask for a Shure SM58, the dude behind the counter will hand it right to you. Or, he'll point out one of the equivelents I mentioned with a sale price. (CAD's are the Hyundai's of microphones: cheap, but reliable.) If your 3 year-old knocks over the stand and the mic is, against all odds, actually knocked out out of commission, you can easily replace it, without going bankrupt or waiting a week for delivery.

Third, even if you hit the Powerball, or Uncle Willie dies and leaves you his vintage Neumann U47 with the correct tube, you'll still want that hundred dollar high ball. Because the world is filled with Golden Retreivers and 3 year-olds, you'll keep the Neumann in its box when danger lurks.

And fourth, the shallow pickup pattern of these mics will make up for your lousy studio acoustics. Sure, you could buy a nice Audio Technica studio condenser for under $200, and get nice recordings of your room ringing, your neighbor's lawn mower, an ant walking on a cotton ball, and anything else that wants to compete with your voice. It's uncanny how the fire department knows when you hit the record button and sends every piece of equipment they have down your street.

Next post: the upgrade mic.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

There's Nothing Like Home Cookin'

By coincidence, I've had several people ask me lately about my home recording studio. Since the advent of the internet as a means of sending professional quality audio to practically anywhere around the world, home studios have been springing up all over the place. Radio jocks who were prone to building something at home anyway, now find a practical use for all their junk. VO artists can work at home and get more done by spending less time driving from one client to another. Snowstorm? Mudslides? Alien invasion? No problem.

But what is involved in building a home studio? Do you need to hire a professional to acoustically deaden the room? How much should you spend on a microphone? Do you need a mixer, or just a preamp? And do you even need a preamp? How do I get my cats to stop playing with the mic cords? ARRRGH!
Dig that crazy pop filter. Frank Sinatra during a '50's era Capital session working with a classic Neumann U47 with a homemade pop filter taped on. See, even the Chairman of the Board needed duct tape engineering. Ring-a-ding-ding.

I ended up sending a very elaborate email to a friend about all this, and I thought I should post it here as well to help anyone else who might have these questions. So, sit back and enjoy.

I wish a had a digital camera to take a photo of this office, but all my money goes into this office. That's the thing about home studios. It's always something. You would be appalled at the ceiling that was damaged by a leak last year. The floor is littered with books other junk that has nowhere else to go. And there's a cat sleeping in my chair in the corner. On certain days I record things in between "panic barks" from the dogs next door. One day I had to wait a few hours until the city finished cutting down a tree on the next block. It's never perfect, but the convenience of a home studio outweighs the drawbacks. When gas hit $4, I was living high on the hog.


The Late Great Don LaFontaine used a Manley reference condenser in his home studio. He made millions voicing movie trailers. He needed it to pay for that mic.
















My equipment is very basic, as the studio has to pay for itself in billing. If were pulling in $2,000 a month, I'd spring for a Neumann U87, because the mic would pay for itself within a few months.




The U87. $3,800 last time I checked. And I check often. Forgive me, Father, for I have coveted my neighbor's microphone.












BUT, in order to get the most out of that mic, I need an ART MPA Gold Preamp 'cause I want to be able to use my ribbons. And so on... So, I keep things simple.

My current go-to mic for spots and high energy stuff is a CAD D189. http://www.cadmics.com/D189.php
It's a dynamic road mic that compares well to the Sure SM58, the industry standard for that type. In fact, it's a little too hot. (a preamp issue) so I put a windscreen on it and work it close. A dynamic mic will sound great this way. Between the close miking and the hypercardiod pattern, the room echo is almost gone. The mic is held in its shock mount clip on a boom stand.

Who says China can't build something right?

You gotta have a boom to position the mic where you want and reduce rumble. Spring for a good boom stand now, so you'll be ready when you screw on that two pound studio mic in a year or two.

Don't skimp on the mic cable. Get 22 gauge or better. If you start getting police calls on your recordings, mic cables and connectors are your first suspect.

Yes, there are mics that connect straight to your computer via the USB port. These are called, believe it or not, USB Mics. They are condensers powered by the USB port. The Samson http://www.zzounds.com/item--SAMC01U is probably the best you'll find. Personally, I'm not sold on them. They can be noisy, as they are intended for podcasting or quick and dirty rough tracking. (The real advantage is using one with your laptop on the tour bus.) But I won't hold it against anybody for trying one.

If you're in a hurry, and all you have is a laptop, a podcaster kit like this one from Samson is a cute little outfit. But you'll want to upgrade soon.


In my opinion, you want a mic that can be plugged into PROFESSIONAL grade equipment. For the same money, you can buy a CAD D189 like mine and use it with any preamp or mixer on the face of the earth.

Yes, a preamp makes a difference. I started out with an old Shure PA type rig, the kind you'd find broadcasting high school football games. It died. My emergency fix right now is a Radio Shack 4-channel mixer, and it sucks. (Sorry Tandy. But, you guys are great for consumer grade stuff, or if I need a mic cord RIGHT NOW!) I just put in an order for an ART Tube http://www.zzounds.com/item--ARTTMPPS that'll let me select the impedance for my new Trion 7000 ribbon mic. Lesson learned: don't try to cheat by skimping on the preamp.

This little gem will warm up my mics, as well as my studio in the winter.
If you were doing a radio show live, or recording a 50's-60's Boss Radio style show, you would need a mixer, turntables, etc. Otherwise paste it together in a digital audio work station (DAWS) which is how everybody does everything nowadays. I'd go with a good preamp rather than a mixer. The big market pros turn up their noses at mixer in-board preamps. Snobs.

Computers: you want a desktop, in case you decide to upgrade the soundcard. My Gateway came with a B+ card that gives me a noise floor of about 110db. That would be unacceptable in a pro recording studio, but it works for a voice track. The good news is just about any brand name computer these days can handle audio editing without breaking a sweat. Just make sure you have "line in" and "line out" jacks on the back. Don't use the mic jack on the computer. It's a noisy, nasty thing that will send noise back into your pro mic. (It'll destroy a ribbon.) This jack is for toy mics. Put a piece of tape over it and forget it.

How much memory? As much as you can afford. How much hard drive? Same answer. Buy memory sticks for backups and use them often. Archive stuff you want to get off the hard drive with the CD-ROM burner.

Of course, you want good headphones and/or speakers.

High-speed internet is a must.

Anti Virus Software: Avoid Norton. Norton refuses to obey your commands and starts a full scan right in the middle of a project, locking up your editor for minutes at a time. I use AVG's free version. Works great.

DAWS: Try Audacity. I love it. It's free, and it doesn't crash. http://audacity.sourceforge.net/ This is "open source" software, which means it's free and legal, but you can make a contribution if you want. You can also hack in and change the code, if you're into that. Let's see, hundreds of dollars for a DAWS, or a free app that'll do everything. You do the math.

If you must pay for one, DAWS fans come in two religions: The Adobe "Cool Edit" folks, and the Sound Forge folks. Usually, if you love one, you despise the other. If you've been using one at a radio station and you like it, stick with it. My only advice is steer clear of old versions of "Cool Edit" that tend to crash.

All DAWS create a mountain of files that form the giant squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when you save a session. That's where your hard drive goes. Get organized from the start. Name your sessions in a logic you understand and stick with it. Set up a regimen of deleting old sessions after you've archived it. I save sessions for six months on hard drive before they go bye-bye.

Studio Acoustics: This is the part that will test your nerves. You don't need to spend hundreds on fancy foam or carpet on the walls. Grab some carpet cutouts at the bargain store. Use heavy curtains on the walls. Or, stick the mic in a closet full of clothes. Furniture helps. I just bought a decorative screen at Hobby Lobby for about $50. Throw a blanket over it and I've got a sound baffling. I still need to deaden this room more, so the work continues.

Well, there you are. That's a lot in one sitting, so let me know if you have any questions. Oh, and about those
ribbon mics I keep mentioning. You have to love them to put up with them. Don't get into a big hurry to upgrade to "boutique" mics or something expensive. VO guys tend to get into Mic Envy competitions. My wife says she knows what that vintage RCA 44 is really representing. But to misquote Freud, sometimes a microphone is just a microphone.


This? I don't need this. I bought because it was on sale. Yeah.