Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Basement Tapes

At this time of year it's customary to take a look back at the year we just lived through. But since everybody else already does that, and most of this year will be Kardashians and Republican debates, I thought I would take a different path. You see I just unearthed a box of air check tapes in the basement that were buried during our move this year, and nothing is more humbling than air checks from the early days.

In days of old, when one performed a radio show, you put a cassette in a recorder that was typically hooked up to the output of the air monitor. In other words, you recorded yourself on the radio. But the tape only recorded while your microphone was on, so you didn't have to sit through Basia's Time and Tide in order to hear the next DJ break. The tape recorder was usually one of those things designed for office dictation or classroom recording with a little jack that made the tape pause if a switch on the microphone was pressed. Radio engineers would cut the mic off, attach the "remote" wires to a relay connected to the studio console's mic switch, and connect an output from the air monitor or a radio - in some cases a "boom box" was used to simplify all this. What the "remote" wire really did was nothing more than kill the power to the tape recorder, causing the tape to slow down while engaged against the recording head, creating an extreme speed distortion on the recording for a half-second every time the mic was turned off. The result was a tape playback that cut in just seconds before the jock starts talking, you hear the break, and then a second after the next song or commercial starts you get this loud ZWWWORP sound followed by the next DJ break. There's nothing else like it.

(over intro to Simply Red's cover of If You Don't Know Me By Now) "1220 WSUK with tickets to "Teddy Ruxpin On Ice." Keep listening for your chance to be caller number 8 when you hear Teddy Ruxpin speaking right here on 1220 WSUK!" (sung) "If you don't know-- ZWWWORP!"

"Ed Johnson has the latest farm news coming up right after Seals and Crofts on AM Stereo 950!" (sung) "See the-- ZWWWORP!"

The purpose of these tapes was to critique your performance with the program director during a ritual known as the air check session. We would listen to an entire four-hour show telescoped down to about 20 minutes on the tape so he could make comments like, "Don't cluster your essentials," which sounds like something nobody should be doing on the radio anyway. "Don't read the liner cards; say it to me," was another of my favorites, usually because a day later the air staff would get a memo saying, "Read the damn liner cards." Air check sessions were supposed to be private due to the extreme level of humiliation involved, but there was no mistaking what was going on behind that closed door with all those ZWWWORPs.

Most of the recordings were lost due to the tape wearing out, or having an unfortunate conflict of interests with a hammer after a particularly trying air check session. The better cassettes were recycled for entertainment purposes and now hold The Best of Simon and Garfunkel. But a few tapes survived and now sit in archival storage in my basement where they are rediscovered during a hapless search for Christmas decorations. And being the fool that I am, I will pop a few in the player - yes, I still have cassette decks - and listen. And it hurts.

God, I sucked.

But after listening for a few minutes, I come to realize there were a lot of factors working against me in those early days. It was the salad days of MTV, where VJ's could talk about the music in a more informal, one-on-one approach than most Top-40 or rock stations would allow. Working on a top-40 or "Q" format in those days was like booking a clown for your child's birthday party: nobody really does that anymore. The main media influence of the day was David Letterman, and an acerbic delivery and wit did not go over well with a program director of a Music of Your Life format. ("Here's Patty Page. She wants to know How Much is That Doggy in the Window, and can he program my VCR?") I didn't fare much better on a small town full-service format. ("1560 KRAP. Paul Harvey is here... and he won't leave. Somebody please give him a ride home. He's drinking all my beer!") When a station I worked for made the jump to all-talk, my show never really got off the ground. Why bash the liberals? We've just had two terms of Reagan and now Herbert Walker Bush is in the White House. We survived the crash of '87 just fine. Everybody's buying Game Boys. Relax. Yeah, that's not how talk radio works.

And so, listening to those tapes reveals a young performer struggling to find his niche, but it also reveals some of the telltale signs that radio, particularly AM, was headed for trouble. If you ever wonder how radio got to be in the shape it's in today, consider these situations and phrases from my air checks of 1989:

AM Stereo

"Here's the latest from Barry Manilow." (Remember, this is 1989.)

Bruce Springsteen's I'm On Fire, on an AM adult contemporary station.

"Your Trading Post of the Air. Call in with your item to sell at..."

"On tomorrow's Focus On [censored] County, the AIDS epidemic. We'll be talking with members of the gay community and address the misconceptions attached to AIDS and being HIV Positive, and we'll debate what should be taught in our schools regarding sex education, anal sex, oral sex, and the spread of STD's. Call in with your opinions during this frank discussion tomorrow at ten. And now, here's one from Andy Williams."

"It's the Sally Jesse Raphael Show, tonight at eight."

"It's a new era here at WSUK. Today, we switch from tape to CD. We've erased and thrown away all our carts. Here's our first song direct from CD. The Beatles. Yesterday. On WSUK. (sung) Yesterday... all my troubles seemed so fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-"

(panting for breath after running from the car after driving through severe weather at 1AM to get to the station to jump in for the panic stricken teenage board op.) "We interrupt Tom Synder to bring this weather bulletin. The National Weather Service has just issued a Tornado-- ZWWWORP!" (The power goes out.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

White Christmas

Ever wanted to know more about the holiday classic movie “White Christmas?” I didn’t think so. Nevertheless, here is

Useless Information About the Movie “White Christmas”

It was the first film released in Paramount’s VistaVision wide screen format, using 65mm film that ran horizontally through the camera. It turned out to be a hardy format, technically superior to CinemaScope. Reliable sources tell that some of the VistaVision equipment was pulled from the mothballs and adapted to make Christopher Reeve fly in “Superman.”

It was the highest grossing film of 1954, topping $12 million. That was a lotta dough back then.

The Bing Crosby we see in WC is the one we are familiar with: cool and debonair if in a slightly outdated manner. (His use of hep cat slang is a little bit like your grandmother getting a tramp stamp.) But the role that gained him an Academy Award nomination that year was in “The Country Girl.” Where his character, an alcoholic down and out signer, is a light year from type.

Danny Kaye was the third choice to play opposite Bing Crosby. First choice was Fred Astaire. (He appeared with Bing in “Holiday Inn” the first film to feature the song “White Christmas.”) Second choice was Donald O’Connor (“Singing In The Rain”) who fell ill.

Danny Kaye got $200,000 plus 10% of the gross. That’s also a lotta dough.

Kaye was given an honorary Oscar at the ceremony of March 30, 1955 for "his unique talents, his service to the Academy, the motion picture industry, and the American people." The academy failed to even nominate Kaye for any film performance, including “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1947).

The Irving Berlin song Count Your Blessings was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Song, but it was a very competitive category that year. The winner was Three Coins in the Fountain composed by Jule Styne with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Another nominee was Judy Garland’s signature torch burner The Man That Got Away written by Harold Arlen (“The Wizard of Oz’) with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Other musical highlights in 1954 include the score for “On the Waterfront,” composed by some new guy named Leonard Bernstein. And another newcomer shows up in the scoring for “The Glen Miller Story” in the name of Henry Mancini. On the dark side: Larry Adler did not get credit for his score for “Genevieve” due to red scare blackballing.

The song “Snow” was originally composed by Berlin as “Free” for the Ethel Merman musical “Call Me Madam.” The McCarthy era salute to democracy was reworked into a winter wonderland number after the song was cut from “Madam.” Try to imagine Ethel Merman singing “Free.”

He’s not dancing anymore. Reliable sources say that an uncredited Bob Fosse provided at least some of the choreography. That would explain the more modern look of some of the hot dance numbers, particularly “Joshua” and parts of “Mandy.” Dance legend George Chakiris (“West Side Story”) is quite visible.

A substitute vocalist looped in Vera-Ellen’s singing. There is conflicting information on who did the singing, most likely due to more than one person doing it. Trudy Stevens gets mentioned most often. And for the “Sisters” number, Rosemary Clooney double-tracked herself covering the whole song, a trick she also used in her hit record of the same year Hey There where she talks back to herself.

Yep, those costumes are by Edith Head.

There are continuity errors galore: coffee cups and a pitcher of buttermilk magically refill, and dancers last seen in Vermont somehow perform with Betty in New York. But there’s a factual/historical goof that goes right by most viewers today:

The principle photography for “WC” was shot in late 1953, including the Ed Harrison Show scene complete with a real television camera with New York City’s WNTB call letters. By the time the movie was released in October of 1954, New York’s channel 4 had changed call letters to WRCA. Oops. And, unless you grew up in NYC during the period, you wouldn’t know WNTB was the production headquarters for the NBC network. So the inference is that the gang back in Vermont are somehow watching a local New York City TV station. Not very likely with that lousy set-top antenna. We’ll assume the General watches Ed Sullivan… sorry… Harrison on CBS on WCAX in Burlington, which began broadcasting in September of 1954.

Art imitates life: Rosemary Clooney's sister is named Betty. It was Betty who talked Rosie into performing in a sister act in their teens, and eventually performed regularly on WLW in the '40's.

Some beautiful friendships were born on that Paramount soundstage during the production of "White Christmas." Rosemary Clooney formed a bond with Bing Crosby that lasted the rest of his life. When Clooney suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by, among other things, the assassination of her friend Robert Kennedy, Bing helped her regain her confidence and invited her to join him on a major concert tour in 1975. Bing wrote the forward for Clooney's autobiography This For Remembrance just a month before he died.

Rosie also met actor and dancer Dante DiPaolo at Paramount, who eventually became her life partner. She said they'll never get married. Never And now you know where George gets it. They ended up getting married anyway.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Silent Doom

In my last post, I made a point of how important moments of silence can be in a dramatic performance. Trying to fill every second of air time with something quickly becomes noise. There are times, however, when too much silence can set off panic in master control.

It was back in the days when one of your local TV stations would air classic cartoons from the 40's and 50's... before Oprah and Dr. Phil, and Dr. Oz, and omnipresent reruns of "Everybody Loves Raymond" took over the afternoon schedules. Local stations bought entire collections of cartoons from distributors, originally on 16mm prints struck back in the 50's. Running a "Bugs Bunny Playhouse" kinda thing required master control operators to work more like DJ's: switching sources every six or seven minutes and threading film projectors during a two-minute commercial break.

The cartoon in question is a Tom and Jerry outing titled "Sorry Safari," originally released in 1962, and directed by Gene Deitch. At one point in the cartoon, Tom's owner, now a cranky white guy instead of Mammy Two-Shoes (Deitch despised the racism in the Hanna-Barbara directed shorts), takes his anger out on Tom by wrapping a rifle around Tom's head and pulling the trigger. (Deitch also despised the violence, but not enough to turn away a job.) The gun blast temporarily deafens Tom. The soundtrack goes silent so that we, the cartoon viewer, can get the joke.

Now, here's the problem: in a movie theater, where this cartoon was originally intended to screened, a point-of-view sound gag can be quite effective... and back in the projectionist booth the reel can would contain a note to the projectionist that there will be silence for 20 seconds during the cartoon. But, in a TV station, things are quite different.

Dead air, as we call it, is the bane of broadcasting. Extended silence on the air quite literally sets off alarms in the control room - silence detectors are set to warn operators there's something wrong - and invariably the phone rings with someone at the other end asking, "Do you know you're off the air?"

So here's this clever silence gag in the middle of what would ordinarily be a frantic soundtrack. Now you should know that master control operators can't always watch every second of every program they have to air. There are feeds to record, transmitters to watch, and the cute little number from the sales department who stopped by to ask a question. So when the audio suddenly goes quiet, after about five seconds, master control goes into Scramble Mode. Is it the playback? Did we lose the feed? Is it a transmitter issue? Check the link to the transmitter. Call the on-call engineer. Where's his number? Somebody get the phone! Where in the Chyron did they file the "audio difficulties" crawl? Oh crap, I'm gonna get fired. Not again.

And, of course, twenty seconds later the sound comes back, and watching Tom's reaction to being able to hear again, you realize you've been the victim of a sound gag perpetrated by some clever scoundrel. (That would be you, Gene.)

We put up with a lot of annoying sound effects in master control: an incessantly ringing phone, a crying baby, or somebody giving birth - again - on "Grey's Anatomy." But nothing livened things up quite the same as that twenty seconds of sheer panic we got during a Tom and Jerry cartoon...

Except for maybe the ending on "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

Yes, yes, Tom, we know there's a problem. We're working on it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Letter to Santa

Dear Santa,

How have you been? Did you have a nice summer? How is the missus? Are the elves giving you any trouble? Does the Air Force fire missiles at you when you fly over Washington?

I have been a good boy this year, but you already know that because you are omnipresent: you see me when I'm sleeping, you know when I'm awake, and you issue nationwide Elf Alert System (EAS) tests. Anyway, I've held up my end of the bargain, so could you please use your quasi deity-like powers to give me the following items on my Christmas list?

Please tell CBS I want to see more football and less promos of their lame prime time programs. Oh, and if "Two and a Half Men" is America's #1 comedy, then I'm dating a Kardashian.

The next commercial pitchman who uses the phrase "(holiday or season) is just around the corner," should have Rudolph drop a dukey through his open moon roof.

Please make the FCC require all news programs that air segments on The Muppets (a Disney/ABC property), Justin Beiber, SpongeBob (a Viacom property), or Lady Gaga, to run a banner at the top of the screen for the duration of the segment stating THIS IS NOT NEWS, THIS IS A PROMOTIONAL PIECE.

When an advertiser uses his offspring in a commercial, please ask the IRS to deny that child dependent status on the parent's income tax filing. If the kid can be a television pitchman, he's earning income.

Please limit the number of country music award shows to no more than one per year. There's not enough good country music to justify more than that. And while we're at it, just give Taylor Swift her own category.

I like Brian Williams, but when he is anchoring, his job is to deliver the news. Present the facts. Nothing more. Every time any news anchor tells me how I should feel about a news story, please have somebody sock him or her in the kisser.

Please change the name of HLN to TMZ and be done with it.

Please tell producers of television dramas that the most important element of their craft is something called Honesty. It comes from the actors giving a moving performance that is inspired by quality writing and illuminated by creative and thoughtful directing. One of the finest moments I've ever seen on television was Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker giving a eulogy for a coworker. Archie didn't know until now that his friend was Jewish. He is conflicted. He's forced to work through some emotions. The camera moves in tight... I mean extreme close-up tight. The studio is quiet. No mawkish music. No coached audience reaction. No motion control camera. No tricks. Just Archie, a mournful, confused, and frightened man realizing the world wasn't always as simple as he thought it was, and that look his eyes as he finds the right words. Please, Santa, tell the producers of "Parenthood" and other dramas to watch Archie in that scene and learn from it. Turn off the grating, manipulating music in the last five minutes, and let the cast and the writing shine. In a world filled with internet scams and politicians and talk radio snake oil salesmen telling us what they think we should believe, we want... we need more honesty.

That's all I want for Christmas, Santa... a little more honesty. That's a lot to ask of television. But it's worth a try.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Head Games

And now it's time to play every TV station manager's favorite game, "Wheel of Network Feed Screw Ups and Practical Jokes!" It's the exciting and unpredictable game where master control tries to outwit one of the Big Four network's technical operations center. Here's how the game is played.

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about how television works is the idea that local network broadcasters have full control over what they can air and when they can air it. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there are many times when a local station is at the mercy of conditions beyond their control. As a player of "Wheel of Network Feed Screw Ups and Practical Jokes!" your job is to try to predict what kind of out-of-left-field programming move your network will make, while trying to pour through the 50 emailed contingency memos and revised timing sheets they sent, and discovering they've told you absolutely nothing at all... at about the same time the network goes to color bars. The player who runs their station the smoothest without the viewers seeing this...

wins the game! Let's meet our contestants and see how they're doing.

On the Fox board we have Smedly Katrowsky, who is running the 2011 World Series. He has 81 emails from Fox TOC with attachments for contingency logs for a rain delay, stand-by programming if there's a rain out, and a map detailing the precise location of the Ark of the Covenant, but no format sheet for the actual baseball game! During the National Anthem he discovers he has to go to the Fox Affiliate Relations website and download the ball game format sheet. He's on the phone with his department head trying to get the password he needs to access the format sheet. Right now, somebody is hacking a bank computer and stealing Smedly's credit card number in order to buy four hundred Easy Feets, but Fox World Series commercial rundowns require a user name and a password that gets changed every three months.

Over on the NBC board we have Cynthia Narcolepsy, who should have an easy time of it because, as everybody knows, NBC has no sports. It's "The Biggest Loser," two hours of overweight people stepping on a scale in their underwear. NBC: Proud as a Peacock.

Running the Alphabet tonight, we have Waldo Rathskeller. He's going to need lightning reflexes, because ABC never sends a printout of timings; you have to scribble them down from an electronic display on a tiny network monitor screen as they scroll by like the end credits on "Entertainment Tonight." Whoops! What's this? A message on the monitor says affiliates taking the seasonal option should insert their legal ID upside down only at :05 past the hour, wear a fedora, put their left hand in, take their left hand out, and take their local breaks following this formula:

(S=program segment time, c=the speed of light, d=Disney's stock price, t=the number of men watching "The View")

Oh, and "20/20" is live tonight. Good luck with that, Waldo.

Whoops! Fox is jumping to regular programming. Seems that instead of going for an hour, the big Ultimate Fighting extravaganza took about 30 seconds when one of the participants - get this - threw a punch. Quick, Smedly, cut to your recording of the back-up pre-feed that was sent at 4:00 this afternoon. What? Whaddya mean, "What pre-feed?" Hooboy. Looks like this Fox affiliate will be treating viewers to an extra hour of infomercials. Smedly is going to finish the competition in-

Wait a minute! We have a development over on CBS. Willie Fugett has dead air during the Republican Debate! Seems the moderator just told viewers that here in South Carolina we'll see the last half-hour of the debate... * but now the Eye has gone dark. And... wait for it...

Oh! I'm so sorry, Willie. Not only did you get hosed by a network switching error, but you just triggered a conspiracy theory that WSPA is run by dirty hippie liberals. But we have some lovely parting gifts for you backstage. Enjoy your next job answering the 800 number to order Easy Feet.

*Apparently, airing a debate in its entirety would have been a violation of the Letterman Act of 1992, which states that if the late night programs slide past midnight, Letterman will give the president of Viacom an atomic wedgie he won't soon forget.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Football on TV

I worked a master control shift Sunday, the first time I've run the NFL golden time, and I've got to tell you it was a learning experience. At home, I watch football with a fleeting attention span. I don't have to actually pay attention to the procedure of the broadcast; all I have to do is work the remote and yell at the referees who seem bent on turning the sport into a playground tag football league. If things get boring, I change the channel or get up and eat something. In master control, as I've said before, we can't change the channel, and there's no MUTE button. Like or not, I'm taking the same ride as the entire network.

My first complaint goes out to whomever decides the Lima TV market deserves to see Cleveland lose... again... badly... instead of Cincinnati coming from behind to win again in a game against the Titans that would, along with the Steelers losing that night, put the Bengals atop the AFC North. I know there are a lot of Dawg Pound fans around here, and the Browns have a lot of history, but the Bengals have actually played in a couple of Superbowls and have a small chance at one right now. We know they'll get their helmets handed to them in the first playoff game, and yes last week the cast from "Glee" could've beat the Seahawks, but that's still more fun than being subjected to the Browns. Come on, CBS, cut us a break.

Fortunately, in our facility we run all four networks through one master control, so I had the Packers on the Fox channel. Throughout the day, I noticed a few things about the two competing networks:

The pregame shows start more or less an hour before kickoff. That's a lot of time to kill before anything starts happening, even with 16 minutes of commercials. As a result, the networks put five guys in suits at a desk on a set that costs more than your house and apparently instructs the "talent" to be as goofy as possible. The desk is made up of the following cast members: the ex-coach who's a little addle-minded but a legend so he can say anything, the ex-star player who looks good in Brooks Brothers and knows Payton Manning is gunning for his chair, the "character" ex-player who's meant to stir things up when he goes "off script" and talks smack to the ex-star player, the analyst who makes predictions my cat could've come up with...

"If the Buccaneers hope to beat the Packers, they're going to have to score more points."

and the serious African-American guy in Armani who is acts as the "anchor" of the show and keeps a straight face as best he can while the others make us all wish the network would just fill the time slot with Three Stooges movies.

Once the game starts, we begin the television cycle of break positioning. It goes something like this: kickoff, 3 and out, punt, commercials, run plays, score, extra point, commercials, kickoff, commercials, run plays, review the last play with a commercial break, the touchdown is good, extra point, commercials, network promos for Animation Domination or CSI, kickoff, commercials, 3 and out, punt, commercials, final play of the quarter, commercials... and all the while the "truck" inserts computer graphics to look like there are more commercials actually on the playing field. This practice really bothers me. I wonder of the players down on the field, bruised and sore, really appreciate the fact there's a commercial being electronically painted on the field they're getting beat up on?

CBS is the king of not showing us the game. After a commercial break, they'll show a single play, then go to a promo for the CBS comedy lineup. (On any given shift, I run "How I Met Your Mother" at least twice, sometimes three times. They should give that show it's own channel.) All the while, we're not able to see what's happening on the field. At one point during the Cleveland game CBS went an entire 10 minutes without showing us football. It wasn't halftime, and as far as I could tell nobody was injured. It was just a collection of let's-stand-around-and-not-play-football moments that had CBS running at least two, maybe three commercial breaks, a promo run, and showing us a lot of players standing around not playing football. It's the sort of thing that leads viewers to channel surf or go out and do yard work.

I noticed the NFL is running a public service campaign for young people encouraging them to get up and play for 60 minutes a day. Maybe they should encourage their players to do the same thing.

Thanks, for the inspiration, Andy.

Monday, October 31, 2011


And another hundred people just got canned by CC.

I don't think there's anything I can say about the latest round of firings at Clear Channel, the biggest radio company in America, that hasn't already been said. Certainly the post on Richards on the Radio blog says it as well as can be said. (See the new link to the right.) Misquoting Stephen Sondheim is about the best I can do.

The most hilarity from all this comes from the press release jargon regarding CC's new position of VP/Talent Development.

DENNIS CLARK's new position as VP/Talent Development will oversee talent development, working directly with key personalities, while creating a company-wide strategy to develop future talent.

Ever notice how companies who just laid off dozens of talented people at the same time find a way to create a dubious VP position for someone who most likely isn't qualified to park cars, much less be a VP of my cat's litter boxes? He'll work directly with key personalities, which at this stage of Clear Channel's demise means lame contest ideas will be exchanged when the three of them bump into each other at the urinals. As for developing future talent, that's going to be quite a challenge considering the small market stations, once the training ground for future talent, have all been turned into thousand-watt i-Pods with a sales department by the very same Clear Channel genius. This means Mr. Clark will be spending most of his time trying to corral first round rejects from "X-Factor" and offering the morning show to former pro football and baseball players who flunked the audition for Fox Sports Cleveland. Wonder what New Talent and Marketing Strategy the press release scribes will concoct to cover Mr. Clark's firing in few months?

And another hundred people just got canned by CC.

There's evidence that radio is not dead. In fact, ad revenue has shown an increase in 2011. So why the blood bath? Because the rise in revenue still isn't enough to wipe out the debt of buying hundreds of under-performing radio stations back in early 21st century. The ratings and ad dollars might be higher than a few years ago when the perfect storm of piss poor copycat content, persistent brain drain within the industry, a pop music industry woefully unprepared to replace the sudden career malfunctions of Michael Jackson, Prince, Paula Abdul, and the polarization created by rap, and lest we forget the Internet waylaid radio. But in terms of profit margins and media clout, we're still a long long way below the days of Wolfman Jack. The media choices available these days have pretty much banished radio to in-car listening, and even there it's hard to compete with my entire collection of MP3 files in a flash drive smaller than a car key.

The battle cry for government intervention to save radio is understandable, but I'm not sure it's practical or even obtainable - our current congress will gridlock over ordering a pizza if it'll put more distance between them and Obama's approval rating. (Now there's a guy with bad ratings waiting for the format change.) If you truly believe in a free market, then you have to ask the question: has the consolidation of radio killed the medium, or rather is consolidation a symptom of a media savvy public turning away from an increasingly antiquated delivery system? If CC sold your local station back to Mom and Pop tomorrow, would you tune in? If Mom and Pop stay with another ten-in-a-row of Today's Best Country followed by a four minute commercial break filled with snake oil for get out of debt, we'll buy your gold, and "male enhancement" pills, I'd have to say hell no. And if you think a local owner can engineer an overnight revival of a full service local format with gifted talent and knowledgeable news people plus a a sales staff with a conscience... in this economy... and generate a return on investment for the backers within a reasonable time...

Well, I have to admire your optimism.

The one thing congress and the FCC can do that would, in my opinion, make a difference is abolish the outdated rule forbidding the co-ownership of radio stations, TV stations, and newspapers within a market. A local TV station has the ready resources and talent pool and credibility in the community to take a reasonable risk on a radio operation. Sales people could make it part of a total coverage package that would consist of a relatively small additional charge, but the payoff for the advertiser would be substantial given people would actually now be listening to the radio station. It wouldn't have to turn a profit in a year, but it just might. The co-ownership rule was a product of a different era when radio and TV played on a more even field, and the FCC was under pressure to create a more diverse radio landscape. Today, diversity is easily obtainable on the web, and medium with virtually no gatekeepers. The co-ownership law has no effect on Internet enterprises that might originate within a geographical region, and let's face it, a web site has more traction these days than the printed-on-paper newspaper, so if the FCC is truly worried about diversity in the media... well, we wouldn't have Clear Channel.

And another hundred people just got canned by CC.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

How To Tell a Story

Scott Simon - you know, the guy on National Public Radio - has some helpful tips on telling a story that can be applied to the written word as well.

Geek notes: We're hearing Scott via a lapel mic, not the U87, but you can see NPR's house style of mic positioning from where the mic has been left. The sideways position allows reporters to rest their arms under the mic's position, while still having a clear sight line above it read the copy.

And now, an example of story telling in the Irish tradition.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"No Award For You! Go!"

Wouldn't this just make you sick? You get a phone call from the National Book Awards saying your novel is nominated in the Young People Literature category. You start dreaming big. Then you get a second phone call saying OOPS, we got the name wrong. You're not nominated after all.

That's what happened to Lauren Myracle last week with the announcement of the National Book Awards nominees. You see Myracle wrote a book entitled Shine. The NBA nominated a book by Franny Billingsley is entitled Chime. Somebody thought they heard Shine when it was really Chime. Nobody caught the mistake until they heard the nominees listed on the radio. And then somebody got the fun job of calling Myracle and telling her the news. Read the details here via Publisher's Weekly.

People commenting on the story bring up a good point: it never occurred to anybody at the NBA to put the author's name with the title? No. I was once involved in a situation where I read the wrong name at an awards ceremony, and I have a pretty good idea of what happened. Somebody got in a hurry and didn't take the time to write the titles and authors down. In situations like this, there's no substitute for a pen and a piece of paper.

I don't know for sure what happened in this case, but what typically happens behind the scenes at things like this is a list of possible winners gets printed, and then as nominations are announced somebody puts a star, or an asterisk, or a check mark (or in the case of one incident I was in, they write down the number of what place they won, only to mark them through and write another number) next to the title on the printout. It's a noisy, confusion-filled environment with people running around and almost all of them thinking this is easy. Somebody heard "Shine" when it was really "Chime" and there you are.

Since my unfortunate experience, I have learned to be prepared for this sort of thing. I bring a legal pad and pen to live announcer events, and when the winners are called out to me, I write them down in my own handwriting, asking for the name again, asking for spelling when needed (was that Miss Iowa, or Miss Idaho?) and then running through it slowly before a microphone gets turned on, or in this case a phone call gets made.

This is why, like him or not, Ryan Seacrest and other talent show hosts have an enormously pressure-packed job on live TV announcing winners on "American Idol" and its imitators. He can't carry a legal pad and look like me in reading glasses with my finger holding an earpiece in my ear. He has to look like Ryan Seacrest and read it from a card or a Teleprompter (which can freeze and crash on the air). And during those not-just-pregnant-but-going-into-labor pauses while we wait for the name to be announced, the director is on the intercom making sure he and his crew know who is who.

"Who's our winner? Repeat. Which one is Candy? The blonde? The one on the right? Are you sure? OK, camera two you're one the blonde on the right. Zoom in tight on my cue. Again, the winner is the blonde girl on the right."

Maybe the National Book Awards should hire Ryan Seacrest to make their phone calls.

[Blogger's note: The spellchecker on Blogspot thinks "blonde" is spelled b-l-o-n-d.]

Sunday, October 16, 2011


I finally got my picture taken with one of the cheerleaders... it only took 30 years.

Class reunions can bring about some strange and happy incidents and revelations, and now that a certain fan of my blog has promoted this blog to everyone at the Milford Class of '81 Reunion, the pressure is on for me to write about it. This is treacherous territory. In the pre-Facebook era a person could write things about former classmates without fear of the classmate actually reading it. Pen names protected our identities. (No one will ever know I'm really Mike Holden. Get it? I'm a radio jock named Mike Holden. Gads, I'm genius!) Oops! Not anymore. Facebook blows my cover. It also immortalizes really bad pictures. So, here is my gentle observations about our reunion with appropriate editing and censorship where necessary.

Yeah, that's right. We're a clique. Fear us.

First, let me set the record straight for anyone reading this who may be of a younger generation, particularly my wife. At the class reunion...

A. We did not dance or reminisce about Disco. We lived through the real thing, and that was enough.

B. We did not imbibe in Mary Jane. At my age, I have enough trouble remembering where I put my car keys. Grass is the last thing I need, thank you very much.

C. We did not get our reading glasses mixed up.

D. We did not subject each other to endless displays of photos of grand kids. That's what Facebook is for.

The event was held in a sports bar in that area between Milford and Loveland that we natives refer to as that area between Milford and Loveland. Nice place. Great band. But a word of caution for my friends from the Lima area reading this: I know you find this hard to believe, but this sports bar provides hard evidence of the fact that nobody south of the Dayton city limits gives a (vulgarity for a rodent's hindquarters) about the Buckeyes. There was no Ohio State regailia anywhere to be found. No talk about among any of us about that day's Buckeyes' upset victory over Illinois. Call out "O-H!" and you'll get deer in headlights eyes. Nobody in these parts knows the Ohio State fight song, and people here think Carmen Ohio is a local production of an opera by Bizet. This is my world. Welcome to it.

One thing became very apparent within the first hour: you ladies certainly have a lot more energy than we guys. The men stood around holding our bottles of beer and talking, while the gals whooped it up. Eventually, the ladies drug us out on the dance floor, which caused a good deal of gasping, heaving, and groaning... some of it from the people watching us. But you ladies... Wow. I never imagined a woman of [censored] years of age could dance the way you did. Things sure have changed over the years. When my mother was [censored] the only time she moved like that was the time she found a mouse in the dryer vent. Damn! You looked good. I've been trying to figure out why the ladies were full of energy while the guys were out of breath after the first chorus of "Mony, Mony." I think the kind of stories we tell might hold a vital clue to this mystery:

Women our age tend to tell stories that end with sentences like, "...and that's how I met Oprah." Men our age tend to end our stories with sentences like, "...and that's how I ended up in the ER."

One former classmate is involved in agri-business. Now since I have a connection with agri-business as well, it was easy to strike up a conversation on the subject. Actually, it's not really hard to get ag people talking. My father-in-law taught me well the simple starter phases for farm talk:

"Get any rain at your place?"

"Beans do any good this year?"

"!@*&ing government!"

And then there was the phone call to [censored] to make her feel like a part of the festivities in spite of being a long, long way from Milford. Somebody handed me the phone and told me to make her guess who I was.

"Hey. Remember me?"

Uh... no."

"I played trombone in band."


"Remember when you filed the restraining order?"

"Steve! Ohmygod! How are you?"

And there were the old photos, the old yearbook, the stories, and the memories. I ended up driving home with the classic rock channel on the satellite radio. A soundtrack for a fun evening.

A lot of people, once they leave high school, say goodbye, amen, and leave that world as far behind as possible. I can't say that I blame them. High school can a difficult time filled with insecurities, embarrassment, regrets over things said, and deeper regrets over things left unsaid. Many of us don't have the best of a home life, and once we move out to college we never look back. When we get word of a reunion, we may find even after all these years the idea of looking back too painful, and choose to stay home. Or maybe our jobs, family commitments, the distance is just too much. It happens. It's life. It's not always kind.

By our guess, there were about 300 people in the Milford class of '81. Since then, it seems like the world keeps finding new ways of tearing people apart. I'm not one of you, and you're definitely not one of us, and if you're not one of us, then to hell with you. Ohio is the Rust Belt; get out while you can. There's a lot that pulls us away. The fact that about 20 of us could get together and swap stories and compare hairlines is actually pretty impressive. You might even say magical.

After all, who would've guessed I... me... would dance with and get my picture taken with one of the cheerleaders. Wait'll I show my...


Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Wonderful World of Color

Happy 50th birthday, color TV!



Well, not really. A few media sources are celebrating the 50th anniversary of color TV just a bit early. Yes, the first color broadcasts aired in 1951, but these were in the CBS Field Sequential system, not the compatible RCA system that would become the NTSC standard for North America. The real birth of color TV as you, me, and that Quasar I've got down in the basement is concerned, was in 1953. It took two years of litigation and an FCC TV license freeze before that got settled, and even then the first color TV sets sold like... well, not like hot cakes. More like Edsels. There were only a few color specials that aired infrequently until around 1960 when better cameras, the advent of color videotape recording, and a more reliable "film chain" to transfer color motion picture film to electronic TV made more regular colorcasting possible.

According to The New York Times archives, the very first experimental show transmitted in the CBS system starred Milton Berle, which is rather startling considering Berle's regular show aired on NBC. Apparently, greater New York wanted to see Uncle Mitly in a dress in color.

Oh yeah, that was the other thing; color only existed in New York and Los Angles for many years. There was no Internet to download the shows, and no computers to download it with. No satellite distribution; Telstar was a decade into the future. Even the relatively simple coast-to-coast cable that would eventually link network affiliates was years away. Networks existed through TV stations picking up each other's broadcast signals and retransmitting them in a "daisy chain" configuration, or via cans of 16mm film shipped to the LA stations in transcontinental flights that surely must've strained the network budgets. (And in this grand tradition, most live prime time programming to this day is delayed to air at 8PM in the Pacific time zone. And now you know why you know why California gets the "American Idol" finale three hours after everyone on Facebook in the East has been spoiling it.) Coast-to-coast live color was science fiction until about 1953 after the FCC standardized the RCA/NBC color system. The video below, an NBC promotional piece of the period, tells us when the first Tournament of Roses parade aired via the network cable "backwards" from west to east. The images you see in this film, however, are film. This is a 16mm film. Remember: there was no color videotape yet. All the color imagery lavished over in this puff piece is not the work of RCA/NBC, but in all likelihood a product of Eastman Kodak. (And then somebody had to encode it to run on this viewer.)

But by whatever means, we had color TV in 1951. Got that? You see, America must have color TV before anybody else. There was talk that the ruskies were starting color TV broadcasts, and we don't want to be behind the reds, now do we? So... even though only a few hundred people in Manhattan could see it, we had color TV in 1951. Period.

Even after a compatible system was put on the air, Americans, by and large, preferred to wait until they could stop making payments on the black and white set they just bought before plunging into color. Television sets were expensive, and color was considered a luxury well into the 1960's. It really wasn't until around 1965-6 that the networks put a big push on color, upgrading nearly all prime time shows into color and putting "in color" on the opening title. The biggest impetus for buying a color set in those days, however, came from the increase in NFL and college football games now broadcast in color. The Baltimore Colts in color? Honey, you can get by driving that Falcon for another year. We're getting a new Zenith!

So happy birthday to color TV. Yeah, it was born in 1951. But like most children, it took about 15 years for it to show signs of maturity. And then we could see Barbara Eden's lovely pink costume in "I Dream of Jeannie" in beautiful color. But we still couldn't see her navel.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Idol Thoughts

Every now and then I get spam linked to an older blog post. In this case the email message went something like this:

Anthem belligerent uprising inspired consistent information ranking Anna Nicole Smith naked within the judgement of the cast of Friends buying cheap soup direct from the warehouse at amazing prices higher than mortgage rates dropping by the hour unless you count the last episode of Lost was hacked smartphone can connect to any carrier before the recall while sitting on a corn flake I am the walrus coo coo ca choo.

I have no idea what these kinds of emails are meant to accomplish, other than leading me to write about them. It's bad enough when I get another address book robbing-trojan-malware-scam-chain mail message from my mom:

Watch this incredible video. It will bring a tear to your eye and show just how America was God's favorite nation... until we let the queers in the Army. Send this to 500 of your friends right now if you are not a communist.

Anyway, another worthless "comment" sent to my blog lead me back to a post I made on "American Idol" back during the 2010 season. (Read the rant from April 14, 2010 here.) Upon reading it, I discovered something rather intriguing. It comes down to one sentence...

Doesn't anybody show up at Idol auditions who knows who Garth Brooks is?

Of course, you know who won Idol in 2011... Garth Jr.

Holy crap.

Did Simon read my blog and steer the show on a correction course towards America's current taste in pop music?

Well, of course not. America voted for the contestant they liked the most, and that would happen to be someone who reflects America's current taste in pop music: someone finally showed up at an audition who knows who Garth Brooks is. The laws of probability finally caught up with Idol. It was bound to happen.

Still, it is an interesting coincidence.

Looking back on old blog posts is a bit like having that angel from "It's a Wonderful Life" come along and force you to look back at all the stupid things you said over the years. Or maybe photos from college dorm parties would be a better analogy. Sometimes my writing doesn't seem to make much more sense than those scam emails. One thing is clear: I devoted more time to the blog back then. My personal life has been a bit hectic during recent months, and as it happens a blog for which I gain no monetary benefit and bare no deadline responsibility is not a priority.

But there are a few gems: times when I had something worthwhile to say and I manged to say it well. Call this my collection of Greatest Hits.

It may not be Christmas, but my tribute to the late animation director Bill Melendez is worth a look.

With severe weather, earthquakes, and the never-ending economic turmoil in the news lately, my post on the news media serving up a constant stream of crisis coverage seems to still ring true.

Take this post about broadcast operations struggling to stay on the air along the east coast, replace mentions of a snow storm with Irene, and you have a current topic.

Tired of getting blasted by sudden audio spikes during your favorite TV show? We're still working on it.

But my favorite post isn't obviously relevant, unless you consider the disturbingly high number of local advertisers who continue to insist on putting their kids on TV. Remember Falcon? Perhaps you know him better as the Balloon Boy, the child who's father started a media freak out when he claimed the boy was stuck in a runaway hot-air balloon... only he wasn't. This open letter to Falcon is very personal, and at least for me, poignant. I hope he's doing well these days.

Hope you enjoy the look back. This post is something like a sitcom reverting to the clip episode: the ones where the characters say, "Remember the time..." and we see clips from previous episodes. It's a cheater. I'll probably look back on this post and wonder why I couldn't come up with something better. Hey, they can't all be gems. Maybe the trick to life is not seeking perfection, but simply doing something you love.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Do You Feel Fresh?

"What were the worst commercials on TV back in the '60's and '70's?"

A female coworker asked me this question after witnessing one of the more inane ads for a feminine hygiene product in master control. In our line of work, you can't hit the MUTE button, and you can't change the channel; it is our professional duty to sit and stare at the horrendous blunders ad agencies often make, especially when it comes to sensitive personal matters. This comes between the frequent acts of murder and mayhem necessary nowadays to make a TV crime drama believable; if one is of a squeamish nature, and one is snacking on peanut butter crackers, one learns a hard lesson to look elsewhere from the Fox program monitor during the first five minutes of "Bones."

Prime time stopped having The Family Hour back when "All in the Family" moved to Saturday nights at 8, and during the late night schedule all the gates are wide open. Nothing surprises us. Ads for boner pills stopped offending us years ago. K-Y jelly spots are rather entertaining, and since there are no children working the night shift, questions about a woman's "big moment" don't arise. In fact, considering the preponderance of the Geico gecko versus Progressive's Flo 24 hours a day, and the never ending tit-for-tat warfare between mobile phone companies, the occasional humorous spot about sexual enhancement is a breath of fresh air. Still, somehow ads for feminine hygiene products just haven't caught up with the times.

Click here to see one of the Summer's Eve spots that recently did nothing but cheese off a lot of people. I would rather you read about it via AgencySpy than link the video direct, lest I give someone the impression this spot is gaining popularity. I can see how someone would feel this is racially insensitive: the voice actress is about two shades way from Mammy Two Shoes in a 1940's Tom and Jerry cartoon. And by the way, why do ad agency creatives think all African-American women have linguini hair? McDonald's spots aren't much better at this. I have never met a woman of any race who wears her hair like a potted fern. Some Ad agency creative saw Whoopie Goldberg on "The View" and thought that must be how all black women look. (Here's a clue, dear CD... the woman's name is Whoopie.) Wow. It's still a long way from Madison Avenue to Harlem.

There were commercials for such products back in the '60's and '70's, and one in particular is legend. I don't remember the exact line, but it had to do with a woman feeling "fresh." It's been lampooned more than once in comedy skit shows. Why are the women out in a sailboat? I dunno. Of course, back in those days commercials like that aired pretty much only during the four to five hours of daytime "soap opera" dramas carried by all three networks. They weren't very likely to pop up in the middle of an episode of "Lassie" or "Bonanza" or "The Wonderful World of Disney." (Hey Mom, can we buy some of those napkins and put them on the kitchen table?) When women's products did start showing up in prime time - like the fresh girls in the sailboat - it drew snickers and criticism, but everyone had to admit it dealt with a quality product that dealt with a legitimate health issue. Guys may have rolled their eyes, but the intended audience - women - respected the honesty, such as it was. The spots may have been unrealistic, but no less so than Mrs. Olsen walking up to her neighbors with a can of coffee, and certainly more down to earth than the portrayal of women in Hai-Karate spots.

Which brings back to the original question... what were the worst commercials back then?

Feminine sprays?

Loud jingles for laundry detergent?

Toys that encouraged violence or anti-social behavior?

Super sugary breakfast cereals?


After some thought, it occurs to me that the worst commercials are the ones for products you don't see on TV anymore... not since they were banned starting in January of 1971. Before that kids like me thought the Theme from The Magnificent Seven was the Marlborough theme. We knew before the coming of the metric system how long a millimeter was because it was oh so important to the enjoyment of a Winston. Filtered, menthol, less tar (I still don't know what that means) were all common phrases spewing from the television in the corner day and night. At least they didn't run during children's shows, but that hardly made a difference. If they had been around back then, the omnipresent Flo would be lighting up a Virginia Slims to the tune of You've Come a Long Way, Baby, and the gecko would sport a black eye while drawing on a Tarryington because He'd Rather Fight Than Switch.

Yep. I still remember them. Do you? That's what I'm talking about.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Stop Kidding Around

Ever see a quote on a movie trailer and wonder what the reviewer really said? You know those quotes like (hypothetically speaking):

"...better than the first Potter." says Rolling Stone, or

"...recommend you see this film..." says The New York Times.

If you were to look up the actual review you might discover the full sentences to say:

"The first film in the Harry Potter franchise was so abysmal that by sheer effort this one couldn't help but be better than the first Potter." and

"I would only recommend you see this film as a cure for insomnia."

That's the Cut & Paste method of getting quotes. For the movie biz it's fairly harmless and somewhat amusing. In journalism it's misleading, sensationalist, unethical, and perhaps even slander.

WBBM in Chicago got caught with their journalist pants down as revealed by TV SPY via this link. The reporter gets the full context; the boy will have a gun when he grows up because he's going to be a policeman. But as you can see in the video right after the child says he's going to have a gun we wipe to another interview. You can't make an edit like that in a recorded pack without knowing what you're doing. And you can't say the reporter was a victim of some editor's hack work: I don't know the division of labor at WBBM, but in many stations the reporter does his own editing, or at the very least tells an editor where to cut. Furthermore, exploiting an adult's words in such a manner is at best borderline slander; doing this to a 4 year-old is heinous.

This incident also violates one of my personal rules of journalism and television in general: don't put kids on TV. Yeah, he's cute. I hate cute. Cute gets you in trouble. Cute leads to an entire heard of children on "America's Got Talent" getting into the competition when the judges, producers, everybody involved knows damn well a bunch of children can't be awarded a million dollar Vegas contract without severe legal issues, not to mention the fact the children may find it difficult to share the same dressing room with the guy who impersonates Joan Rivers. In commercials, cute leads to incomprehensible babble eating away at precious airtime the client should be using to reinforce the message instead of turning our TV sets into captive "look at my grandkids" albums better suited for a Facebook page. And cute in a newscast leads to unreliable and often insensitive reporting. The fact that children are far too often witnesses to crime is tragic enough. Putting one on camera and milking a quote out of him is exploitation. Not to mention a nightmare for the legal teams. Maybe not in this case, but when a child is a witness both prosecution and defense have to worry about the capricious statements of a 4 year-old on the witness stand. While I'm not a lawyer, somehow I think most 4 year-old children would be deemed an unreliable witness long before he ever reached the courtroom. And that's my point: if he's unreliable in court, he's unreliable on the air. And puts the reporter, TV station, and the company that owns it in legal jeopardy.

And then there's the whole issue of negligent and perhaps malicious editing making a 4 year-old minor look like a gang banger in the making. Oo, there's a civil suit every station manager looks forward to.

This incident brings to mind a recent gaffe during NBC's coverage of the US Open at Washington, DC. Somebody thought we needed a production piece about... well, nothing really... that featured children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while golfers swung their clubs. (??) It was a collage - an artful marriage of images and sounds - NOT an actual bona fide Pledge of Allegiance. Sort of like the Star Spangled Banner in the Naked Gun movie in that you're really not expected to stand up and salute. Lost in the clever editing were the oh so hot button words "under God." The commentators, who had nothing to do with this, ended up issuing an apology while the gang in the truck must've been marveling at how two simple forgotten words could send the entire day into a tailspin.

All because somebody thought we needed cute kids on TV.

The WBBM incident will blow over... for most of us. But I imagine reporters from all Chicago media will face a backlash that may last for years to come. Want to get an exclusive from the mayor or any other source any time soon? "What, so you can hack edit me into saying anything you want? F___ you," will be the only quote those stations may ever get.

Friday, July 15, 2011

7 Easy Steps to Make a Superhero Movie

Yesterday I took a break from the studio, and the moving, long enough to turn on the telly. There on a movie channel was the first Batman movie - you know, the one with Michael Keaton and Kim Bassinger. And I was hooked. It was the scene where Bruce Wayne tries to entertain Vicky Vale in the formal dining room, only to end up in the kitchen with Alfred telling boyhood tales on Bruce. I couldn't help but think that for all his reputation for the weird, Tim Burton's real genius was in this scene.

It's a warm moment counterpointed by the creation of the Joker. Bruce is trying to let his normal side come out and allow someone else into his life. Jack has been betrayed, and with a heaping helping of physical deformity is shutting everybody out and killing the one who betrayed him. Bruce doesn't know quite how to go about kissing Vicky... or is it part of his Bruce Wayne act? The Joker is enraged that he was betrayed over a woman. Both Keaton and Jack Nicholson are fascinating in their roles, and Tim Burton's juxtapositions make those performances pop. Only a commercial break pulled me away.

These are the things that are easily forgotten in the making of a superhero epic. A good director knows how to reveal character in deceptively trivial scenes of the mundane. We don't need to start from Day One to know who Bruce Wayne is, and he becomes even more intriguing with some of the mystery left to our imaginations. Yes, we are seeing the origin of The Joker, but Jack doesn't need a montage of disciplined training to get there; much of The Joker already existed in Jack's personality long before. The Joker's face is created overnight, but the psychosis, the deformity of a personality, was there all along. In other words, Nicholson's character was already a head case, so we enjoy watching him go over the edge and over the top.

This is fun. And that's what superhero movies are supposed to be. We came to watch Wolverine kick ass. I want to see Superman be super. I want Spiderman to climb the side of a building and throw a web at the Green Goblin. And I want to see Storm get her meteorological freak on. It would seem like an easy thing to do... but often times Hollywood drops the ball. And I fear watching the trailers for "Green Lantern," "Thor," and now "Captain America," the ball keeps getting dropped.

Why? How? I don't know exactly, but there does seem to be a system of rules in place in Hollywood for making, and consequentially blowing up a superhero movie. After years of exhaustive research in front of the TV, I think I've formulated those rules.


1. Acquire the rights to a superhero (a "property" as we say in the biz) who is a part of our pop culture heritage. He... or she (why haven't we had a Wonder Woman movie? What's up with that?) is legend. Their every nuance is a part of our daily conversation: Faster than a speeding bullet, Your friendly neighborhood Spiderman, It's clobberin' time! Don't make me angry... you wouldn't like me when I'm angry. You want a Brand Name property that is guaranteed box office gold with its familiarity. Everybody knows this guy.

2. Hit the "reset" (as we say in the biz). Reinvent the origin. Be sure to spend 90 minutes with Peter Parker searching for his raison d'etre. Batman can't get to ass kickin' until the Batcave has achieved perfect feng shui. Make sure we get to see Tony Stark invent every single detail of the Iron Man suit. In doing so, you are sure to annoy the casual moviegoer, and bore the fanboys right into going to see "Winnie The Pooh" instead. (Note: the original "Superman: The Movie" may be the one that started this trend, but it was justified. There were some contradictions and misconceptions that had to be put right. And besides, it was epic. Clark leaving home still gets to me.)

3. Cast somebody I've never heard of as the lead. (Yeah, again, "Superman." Nobody heard of Christopher Reeve. But that movie was freakin' epic.) Half the people who went to Tim Burton's "Batman" wanted to see just how in the hell Micheal Keaton was going to pull it off. Patrick Stewart as Professor X was good. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark... now you're talking.

4. Get the love interest all wrong. What's so hard about casting Lois Lane nowadays?

5. Market the living daylights out of it starting at about six months before the release. Snag your opening weekend numbers. Then vanish from the face of the earth faster than Rupert Murdock's credibility. Then shrug when the box office tanks the second week. Blame Harry Potter.

6. Release the Blu-Ray three months later. Market the living daylights out of it.

7. Oh, and speaking a marketing, be sure to tie in with a cheesy promotion with a retail chain. My favorite: the "Green Lantern" tie-in with Subway featuring - for a limited time - sandwiches graced with the refreshing taste of avocado. Yum.

And it's just that easy. Follow these rules and you're sure to have a somewhat hollow and disappointing movie that creates enough fan buzz on Twitter to convince the suits that we can green light the next installment in the franchise saga. ("Sequel" as we say in the biz.)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Big Move Part 2: Moving in a Monsoon

It rained 32 days in the month of March this year. When we weren't sleeping or working at our jobs we were crouching in the basement from the tornado warning of the hour. It was not the best conditions for moving.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before you can move from somewhere, you have to have a place to move to. A home studio was not in the plans when we bought our first house, but I was able to take advantage of the 100+ year-old house's quirks... a servant's quarters off the main residence has its advantages. This time we could choose a house with a studio in mind. Location, taxes, availability, and an upside-down buyer's market all played a role in our decision. After months of searching and negotiation we found our new home.

The basement would seem like an ideal spot for a studio, but basements have their disadvantages: proximity to the HVAC system, dehumidifier noise, bat cave acoustics, overhead footsteps, and the possibility the VO booth becomes Grand Central for plumbers and pipe fitters if the water heater expires. With every house we checked out it became more and more clear to me that I wanted my studio above ground. The winning house has just that.

The desk and some other furnishings were already in place when this photo was taken. A child's bedroom offered everything I wanted: quiet location isolated for the most part from plumbing and HVAC noise, three interior walls, a large closet, and a labyrinth hallway leading from the main section of the house. The single window faces the deep back yard. The central air condenser unit sits just a few feet away from the window, but the walls of this 1959 vintage homestead are thick enough to negate the noise down to a level I can muffle with acoustic dampening. That same dampening would also cut the flutter any bedroom without a bed tends to have. Nothing above, nothing below (the basement does not extend to this room, so there's a crawl space instead) and the only person who would be flushing the nearby toilet would be me, and I usually call a halt to a tracking session when such duty arises.

But first, there was a utility issue to address. The house has only a 100 Amp load center that was pretty much full, and almost all of the outlets in the house were original. A professional electrician was called in, and he agreed an upgrade was needed.

This is one of the decidedly un-sexy parts of home studio gear. This is the new main electric line running from the power company drop line to the meter. The power company replaced the meter, while the electrician installed a 200 Amp load center with plenty of room for expansion. The circuit running to the studio is isolated from the HVAC and kitchen side of the service, which eliminates those tube-surging, computer crash inducing brown outs from the studio power supply. Code-compliant outlets were installed to augment the existing Eisenhower era outlets, so there's no need to use a power strip to load a dozen devices onto one plug. And everything is properly grounded, a big plus from the old studio where the ground tended to disappear without provocation.

Next came the Internet connection. It is possible that I found that one house in America that did not have Internet in the boy's bedroom. Then again, they could've had a wireless router somewhere else. A shout out goes to Time Warner Cable's installation dude who showed up on time and created a very stealth cable passage. They also hooked up a new modem, but didn't take the old one I brought from the old studio. So now I have a backup modem.

Incidentally, there's nothing wrong with your monitor; that carpet is orange. So is the accent on the drapes. I think it's supposed to be brown... as in Cleveland Browns. You know, as in the boy living here was allowed to be a Browns fan. Alas, the things some parents will tolerate.

With the power and Internet ready, it was Go Time. The move was on... as soon as we could get the "all clear" from the weather service. At one point we were loading the car to the sound of tornado sirens wailing in the neighborhood. The National Weather Service does not condone loading a computer into your car during a tornado warning, but given it was the third warning for the day, and we were averaging around three a day for the past week, we had pretty much grown immune. During the first warning you run for the basement. During the second day of warnings you sit in the kitchen and watch it rain. By the second straight week of living in Code Red you just go about your business. In the TV station master control we were slapping off the weather alert radio every five minutes the way a college student ignores his alarm clock during Pledge Week.

Despite the weather, the move went fairly smooth. Here are the things I managed to do right:

Back up your data. Then... back it up again. "Triplicate" seems to be the buzzword for data protection these days. Get your sessions off the C: drive and use an external or second internal drive. Then back it up on a flash drive like this... it's surprising how much memory you can get on one of these things nowadays. CD ROM or DVD seems to be passe now, and a pain to burn. Consider a web-based backup if you tend to lose small objects. Otherwise, be sure to keep a backup OFF-SITE somewhere safe... like a locker at your workplace, or even a bank vault if you feel that strongly about it. Make sure your system and apps are backed up as well either with their original CD ROMs or on a mirrored drive. I came through with no problems, but prepare for the worst.

Save your boxes. I know it's pain to fill your closet with these things, but the package your gear came in is the best way to schlep it in your car. The padding and dimensions of the box help protect things from bumps and jolts. The original box is about the only way to carry headphones safely. They're not shown here, but my studio monitor speakers were still in the box used to ship them in the first place.

Most studio mics come with these handy flight cases. They were designed to take a beating from the airlines or a clumsy roadie. (I never met a clumsy roadie. I assume they don't stay in the business long.) Handheld mics often come in soft pouches that don't offer as much protection, but the original box adds a layer of shock absorption. Roadie Cat is checking the inventory.

Not shown: the pop filter was hauled by itself in its own box to protect the nylon screen.

Be prepared to buy a replacement for something. I got through mostly unscathed, but a power line to my printer developed a weak spot - probably from getting caught under something or maybe Roadie Cat decided to test it with her teeth. Don't be surprised if something hard to move gets nicked or dinged, such as printers, monitors, or a bull moose sound stage-sized mic boom.

What I didn't do was make out a check list of everything in the studio. A check list keeps you on track, and prevents inventory from wandering away... especially if you hire a moving company.

Coming up on the final chapter.... furniture chess: assembling the new studio and the art of acoustic dampening for fun and profit. Until next time... cheers!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Big Move, Part 1

So we decided to move. It wasn't a long distance move - only about 10 miles - but the distance hardly mattered. As I sat in my cozy little tuned-to-near-perfection voiceover cave I felt the dread of taking it all apart, jamming it in boxes, hauling it, and reassembling it. As I figured it, under the best of circumstances I would lose about 3 days of work. If anything went wrong...

Let me explain how this got started. Some people build a studio in their house in order to start a side career as a voice artist. Others are actors or radio talents (or both) who find themselves on the road schlepping from session to session and would like to cut the windshield time and get some leisure time back. I fall into that second category. It all started with a borrowed $50 mic and a Radio Shack mixer fed into my computer. Winter weather had endangered a session the previous week, and the producer at the ad agency suggested if anybody should be working from home, it should be me. Besides, my background in audio engineering and radio production would get me through the technical stuff. And so, holding the mic in one hand, and the script emailed to me in the other, I started cutting tracks. They didn't suck.

The equipment grew in number and expense. I employed some acoustical slight of hand to kill the flutter - a homemade gobo and a quilt on the wall. I moved up from a handheld karaoke mic to an AKG Perception 220 on a shock mount on a boom stand. I dug out my music stand from my days as a musician and stopped blowing takes with paper rattle. I even put a light on the stand as the little room in my 110 year-old Victorian had been wired sometime around prohibition, allowing for only a single overhead bulb. And speaking of Victorian wiring, the barely insulated stuff in the walls made for some careful configuring to avoid blowouts and buzzy audio. (One of the reasons I switched to a condenser was to kill the dynamic mic buzz.)

It wasn't Skywalker Ranch, but it made money.

And now I had to move it all.

This would have to be coordinated. First, there was the high-speed Internet to consider. A date had to scheduled when I would lose the least amount of work. Local TV work would not be a problem as our station's booth was set up for just that purpose, and if things got tight I could bend the rules just this once and do a little outside work in the booth.

The date was set. The Internet switchover was planned. Everything was a Go.

Everything, that is, except the weather.

Next post... moving during monsoon season.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Say What?

The New York Times reports on a brilliant new idea from the bosses at CBS Radio... Let's try this: when the DJ's go on the air after a song has played, let's have them tell the listeners the name of the song and who performed it. And then they can announce the next song. Whaddya say, gang? It's just crazy enough to work.

Dan Mason of CBS Radio explains that at some point during the 1980's it was decided that announcing the songs was "clutter," unwanted talk that caused listeners to reach for the tuner. My guess is it was a byproduct of the MTV/VH1 age (remember when they played music, back in, back in, nineteen eighty-five) where the VeeJays didn't have to announce the song because there was a graphic on the screen doing that for them. Of course, by the mid-80's the profession of VeeJay had quickly deteriorated into being a mousse-haired ditz, and the radio waves were already filling up with youngsters trying to audition for that gig. It's hard to be a video jock on the radio because you don't have "the look" to back you up. You actually have to know what you're talking about. It's around this time when acts like The Clash, Sting/The Police, REM, U2, Don Henley... musicians who played instruments and provoked thought... were pushed aside by acts such as The Beastie Boys. Meanwhile, more seasoned jocks found themselves wondering why they even bothered to drive in to work. When "Here's the new one from Madonna" gets you a wrist slap for "clutter" a shift at Taco Bell starts to look more enticing.

The 21st century trend in voice tracking - mp3 filing your out-of-town DJ's into your local playlist log - hasn't helped. Many jocks don't have to sit through the songs they're not announcing. Why should they back sell a song? They don't even listen to the station. They don't even have to listen to radio, which is quite apparent when you hear some of the breaks they record. Suggest to a morning show host that he actually give the time and temperature, and maybe a quick forecast, and you'll get the deer in headlights look.

Which is why the CBS decree, and the fact that they made it public, is a faint flicker of hope for radio. It recognizes that air talent actually serves a purpose, even if it's only at the utilitarian level. Perhaps the idea that a DJ can be a personality to whom the listener can relate and trust will eventually follow. Maybe the idea that personalities who, given the right direction and allowed to stop tweeting and texting and not prodded into useless remotes at bars and tattoo shops, but instead encouraged to prepare their next show and even think about what they want to say can actually drive listeners to their station. It's a radical idea, I know. But it just might happen.

But first, we gotta teach these kids about ID, title, artist. We gotta teach them to mirror the music: after the last note of "Arms of an Angel" don't burst in like you're the emcee at an ultimate fighting match. Don't mention "American Idol" every time you crack the mic, and please learn how to pronounce the artists names.

In other words, don't blow this, guys. We're actually making progress.