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.