Monday, October 25, 2010

Randy Michaels

Ah, but I was so much older then.
I'm younger than that now.
Bob Dylan

I don't know what your first boss was like, but mine started water pistol fights in the halls, stole memos from competing stations out of dumpsters, and called certain stupid people boneheads on the air. I would arrive in the morning to a talk studio festooned with empty beer cans and reeking of cigar smoke. And we always... always rolled air check recordings for legal protection, and ran all talk shows through a 7-second delay. Such were the working conditions at WLW in the 1980's when your boss was Randy Micheals.

It was paradise for the 20-something radio geek. I ate sponsor-delivered fried chicken at 10AM in master control. I took a hotline call from Pete Rose. I met Johnny Bench in the hall where he asked me for directions to the can. I fetched coffee for Joe Nuxhall. My name was playfully slandered on a fifty thousand watt signal by talk show hosts. And I drove the station van to live broadcasts and parked wherever the hell I wanted because I'm with WLW, sunshine. I was in the center of the universe where we could freely misquote the cowboy in "Blazing Saddles" with the line, "Piss on you. I work for Randy Micheals."

It worked at WLW. For one thing, the timing was right. Ronald Reagan was starting his second term as president. After the turmoil of the 1960's and the shame of the Watergate and in the eyes of many losing in Vietnam, America was feeling good about itself again. Superman, Rocky, Rambo, and Lee Iaccoca. It was in this era that Rush Limbaugh's show was born, while in Cincinnati The Big One began shaking things up on the radio.

By 1983 WLW had become the real-life WKRP: a sorrowful under performing AM radio station with an image stuck in the the Eisenhower era and an overabundance of agriculture programming. The personalities were playing Englebert Humperdink, and telling us news was coming up at the top of the hour as they voiced-over Herb Alpert's "Rise," rocking the volume up and down with each inane comment. The programming was boring on this three-call letter old lady of the golden age with tremendous signal coverage in the Midwest; the station relying heavily on being the flagship of a floundering baseball franchise whose fans still yearned for a bygone play-by-play man. It was nowhere near the top of the ratings. Something had to give.

What gave was Randy Michaels. After a successful stint programming rival WKRC to top billing in the market, Michaels gathered the finances to start a company to buy WLW, at a bargain price. From there on, it was simply a matter of luring away the best talent from WKRC and keeping those with promise already at WLW. Michaels paid big bucks for his air talent, going against the trend in most local radio. His philosophy was simple yet elusive for others in mass media to comprehend: The audience comes first. Without an audience, you have no ratings. No ratings means no sales, and no sales means you end up working at The Finish Line. Give the audience a reason to tune in, and everybody wins.

So, while other stations threw money at the cubicle farm hoping to raise sales revenue by offering incentives, deals, giving away sponsor mentions and naming the studio after a client as "value added," while firing well-paid talent and replacing them with a revolving door of mediocre card readers and wondering why clients balk at paying higher rates for lower ratings, Randy Michaels' "Audience First" approach propelled WLW to that rare position in the current radio status: a radio station that makes a profit.

By now you know how things turned out at Tribune. The same techniques that worked at WLW in 1983 didn't work in 2010. And I'm sure the phrase, "This ain't Cincinnati" was spoken more than once in the halls of the Tribune Building. True, it's not. Chicago, with its heritage of broadcasting legends and near legends, can be every bit as insular as any small market, and the infusion of Ohio upstarts invading the Trib was probably not well taken either inside or outside the studio. In the beginning of the "Audience First" approach on WGN-TV episodes of "WKRP in Cincinnati" aired back-to-back, interspersed with recollections by former Cincinnati DJ Pat Barry. I'm sure this was a ratings coup for cable viewers in Cincinnati, but even there a person has to be at least 45 to remember Pat Barry on Q102. For Chicago viewers, the closest this guy ever got to their hometown was a 1970's stint on WMEE in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. For Channel 9 viewers Barry was not exactly on the same level with Larry Lujack or Steve Dahl.

Of course, what really led to Michael's downfall was what's been described as a frat house atmosphere under his management. Lee Abrams' emailed PG-13 video was the last straw on the camel's back... or the last beer can in the studio trash can, if you prefer. You should know that Lee Abrams, the man who took underground FM in the 1960's, gave it a playlist, and called it Album Oriented Rock, is considered a god in radio circles. Many in the biz would sell a vital organ in order to work for this man, even if "Chief Innovation Officer" is the most fabricated title in the history of Mankind. Sending a porno email is neither smart nor correct, but it is Radio. If you pursue a career in Radio, you pursue in order to, among other things, work in an informal - dare I say frat house atmosphere. Female air talent I have known don't just put up with this sort of thing, they give it right back. As I've said more than once, sexual harassment in this workplace is not tolerated... it is expected. Going to work in a radio station and complaining about the atmosphere is like joining the Army and then complaining that nobody else in your company likes show tunes.

But maybe I'm wrong. Time moves on, and these days I'm not sure I want to be a part of that sort of thing anymore. I thought about sending Randy a resume a few months ago. But family matters intervened along with an overall sense of - no, I won't call it maturity. Maybe it's just that I've moved on. The world has. We don't rely on radio like we once did, before the Internet and HDTV. To work in radio now one must admit to something that Garrison Keillor has said before: radio is an antique. To work in antiques means you must love the object for its own sake. And in the case of radio that's an awfully expensive hobby. So, I've freed myself from thinking of what I can do as a career simply in terms of radio. Call it adapting to the New Media if you like.

Randy Michaels may have thought he was trying to force Tribune to adapting New Media, but perhaps what was really in his heart was a chance to play with WGN radio, and once again revive a boring three-call letter old lady of the golden age with tremendous signal coverage in the Midwest; a station relying heavily on being the flagship of a floundering baseball franchise whose fans still yearn for a bygone play-by-play man. Randy wants to dabble in antiques.

I hope he finds one. It would be nice if there was at least one radio station somewhere that was fun again.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Brought to You By...

There's nothing new in stating that it seems like everything on television is a commercial. Since the days when Milton Berle starred not in The Milton Berle Show but in the "Texaco Star Theater," sponsorship placement has been the prime directive in television broadcasting. It can traced even further back to the golden age of radio when Jack Benny opened his show with "Jello, folks." During the late 1960's and through the 1970's the line between ad content and program content was drawn more deliberately, perhaps sparked by new rules on children's programs that required a definite announcement of a start of a commercial break and a return to the show. Talk show hosts made their departures to commercial declarative, but polite. The "toss" is the most important phrase a show host says all day. It's said that Merv Griffin's headstone reads, "I'll be right back."

So why does the current trend in "advertiser creep" seem more annoying than ever? Did I miss a subtlety somewhere - an ironic twist that sent up the whole affair - or was Thursday Night's installment of "Community" nothing but a 28 minute commercial for KFC? What was the point of that episode? Was there a media awareness message in there somewhere? And the live "30 Rock" got a plug gag in as well. They've done it before, and as before they handled it deftly. They made the joke, got the laugh, and moved on. The key difference here being "30 Rock" got the laugh.

But for the most part, advertiser creep is just annoying. You can make a game out of counting the plugs during major - or minor, for that matter - sports events. I would suggest drinking games based on taking a shot with every plug, but the danger of alcohol poisoning would be too great a risk. Every move on the field is sponsored event. The players now enter the Verizon Red Zone. Really? They've found another way to squeeze another dollar out of football. Most stadium names are now product placement, some of them causing no end to befuddlement to the national network announcers who have to enunciate the corporate market research-based idiosyncratic name of the home field. It's my understanding that being sent to Qualcomm Stadium is considered a punishment for past transgressions.

There's a fine review in the The New York Times that points out the issue in NBC's "School Pride." Here's a brief quote from the article:

No science classroom or computer laboratory is refurbished without getting a huge Microsoft logo over the door. The camera lingers on a Hewlett-Packard logo; students and teachers shriek with delight during shopping trips to Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

OK, so these sponsors are footing the bill for these school makeovers, and they certainly deserve credit where credit is due. But the question comes to mind: is this the right place to give credit? It's one thing for the show host to drop a sponsor name. It's quite another to have a corporate logo permanently affixed to a classroom door for students to see day after day. Aren't schools meant to be one of the few sanctuaries free of sales pitches and underage marketing? Isn't it bad enough scores of little girls walk the school hallways carrying Hannah Montana book bags, lunchboxes, and the like, while the boys trade Pokemon cards that tie-in with the computer games, that tie-in with the cartoon? I'm not sure I would like the idea of my child being subjected to corporate product placement in the classroom. I would think local school boards would take a similar view, but let's face it, many schools can't turn down the offer. I think that fact that a show like "School Pride" can even be made in this country is a sad, sad statement of our priorities in America. Someone watching this show would not be blamed if they came away from it believing that in America children are not gifts to be treasured and nurtured, but rather fledgling consumers to be exploited and manipulated.

And Another Thing...

A Fox News commentator (I won't mention his name in order to avoid making a star out of him) just had to make a joke out of the Chilean minors being trapped for 69 days. Really? Did they teach you that in journalism school? Or did you just forget you're not in the frat house anymore?

It appears most people prefer to get their news from the Animal House News Network. Fox scored just over 7 million viewers Wednesday night from 8PM - 9PM, compared to CNN's 2.67 million.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Random Thoughts

In a broadcast television station, we are required to keep logs of everything that airs throughout the day. Every show, every newscast, every glitch, and - especially for billing - every commercial. These logs are legal documents subject to FCC inspection and corporate audit. They must be accurate in every detail... including the titles of the programs aired. Spelling counts. Therefore, the official, proper, legal title of this particular show is actually spelled as printed here, "$#*! My Dad Says."

Not "#&^% My Dad Says,"
Not "S___ My Dad Says,"
And not "Beep My Dad Says," as it comes down on the CBS affiliate timing sheets.

The legal title of the show is "$#*! My Dad Says." That's the title that must be printed on every single program log of every single CBS affiliate across the country.

During last Thursday's broadcast of "Private Practice" on ABC we were still seeing credits for co-executive producers at 16 minutes into the show. I don't know how many co-executive producers were credited, but I stopped counting after four. At 17:30 into the show ABC triggered the affiliate transparent logo because the program finally stopped putting up credits. The show started at 10:01 Eastern, which means we had credits from the content up to 10:18:30 on the clock. What I want to know is what exactly is a co-executive producer? How do I get that job? If I fetch Courtney Cox's Aquafina do I get a co-executive producer credit 19 minutes into "Cougartown?"

And now it's time for a visit from the man who loves to ruin action TV shows, Mr. Physics. The special effects in "The Incredibles"... sorry... I mean "No Ordinary Family," are quite good. But watching the wife run at Mach 2 would be far more believable if she wasn't doing it in heels. Those shoes would be melted down to nothing in about two miles. When she blew past the Arizona state line sign I kept expecting the coyote to light the dynamite.

Public service announcements (PSA's) tend to get loaded into the computer automation and are forgotten. They only pop up in the rotation at unfriendly hours when the station needs a time killer, so nobody in a responsible position notices the cobwebs growing on them. Some cable networks and local stations are still airing a public service announcement that's meant to inspire us to volunteer to help feed the hungry. It features President Obama speaking to an audience telling us that Elkhart, Indiana has been hard hit by layoffs and economic downturn. Yeah, it was... back in 2008. What's next, the Indian crying by the side of the road?

Sportscaster quote of the week: My wife caught Herbstreet on ESPN emitting this nugget of genus.

"I think Auburn can win this game, but they'll have to outscore Kentucky."

I wonder how much ESPN pays Herbstreet for that kind of in-depth analytical expertise?

And we end with a Lima sighting in "Glee." People have been sending local stuff to the show, and finally, after all these years, the impossible happened: a local Lima radio station got love on TV. Check this enhanced photo. (You'll have to click on it to really see it. Many thanks to the Gleek who made it.)