goin’ back

I’m doing the oddest thing: listening – with pleasure – to The Reagan Diaries.

Odd, for me, because my politics don’t run that way and more importantly because I’ve never been much for celebrity books or autobiography and such. Besides, I have too much present day stuff to read and listen to; I don’t really have time for something from 2007.

Yet the abridged diaries of President Reagan summon a complicated set of emotions. For one, regret and a little shame – I was one of the many people who believed he just wasn’t very bright or engaged. The diaries put paid to that. Reagan read a lot, paid attention, knew (mostly) what he was talking about, even if he still fell too easily for some ideas.

Second, I don’t get nostalgic very much or very often, but listening to President Reagan refer to events big and small from the ’80s brings up memories, makes them pungent. I suppose it’s good I can still remember so much.

Third, you can’t help but be struck by the contrast between Reagan and the current occupant of the White House. Where President Trump inhabits a dark, dangerous world, President Reagan looked for light; where President Trump finds the worst in people, and treats them as stereotypes, President Reagan often let himself be surprised for the better by others. Where President Trump lashes out, President Reagan was measured, even when he was angry. Where President Trump makes it up as he goes along, President Reagan was a traditional president who respected – though he knew how to push at the boundries – process.

There is a danger here; President Reagan came from an unconventional background. President Trump does as well. No matter the flow of tweets, no matter the Russian connections (and what would President Reagan think about just what’s on the public record already regarding Russia?) there is a temptation to draw parallels, to see Trump as a Reagan for the 21st century. The Reagan Diaries is a valuable corrective.


language matters

The big Republican tax cut passed this week. For all that the cut itself is important, worth dissecting, it’s the language on the day the senate passed it – and President Trump held forth publicly on his victory – that stops me cold.

New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen gets it right:

Political speeches are rarely occasions for truth-telling. But the good ones combine a description of shared reality with the expression of a vision, or with words of celebration. The mediocre ones consist of platitudes—well-intentioned but lacking the force of inspiration or recognition. And then there is the genre of the thoroughly insincere pronouncement that is all empty ritual. This is not normally observed in countries with functioning democratic institutions, because hollow words are the very opposite of accountability. These kinds of speeches are usually given in dictatorships: their intended audience is not the public but the tyrant. This is what we observed in Washington on Wednesday, and it’s the scariest part of Trump’s big tax triumph.

Read the whole piece here.

I don’t really have much to add, except listening to the men who spoke about President Trump so obsequiously, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, was profoundly disheartening. How have we gotten to this low place, so fast?

dark horse

I’ve tried all of the major music streaming services, and am currently subscribed to several – Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM, (part of my car subscription), Jazz/ClassicalRadio. I’m on the free tier of Slacker, though I’ve paid for it in the past, and have a six month deal for Microsoft’s Groove Music.

I think I missed an obvious winner.

It’s early days, but I’ve been using a service that’s been around longer than any of the above, that is absolutely free, but somehow doesn’t get much attention. It’s AccuRadio.

What’s AccuRadio?

It’s the brainchild of Kurt Hanson, who publishes the must-read RAIN: Radio and Internet Newsletter. If I understand the history of the thing correctly, Hanson created AccuRadio as proof of concept for the things being talked about in the newsletter.

In any event, AccuRadio is not on-demand – you can’t pick out songs or albums to play.  It is a whole lot of (the number that gets tossed around is more than a thousand) channels of just about any kind of music you’d want. So it’s on the Pandora/Slacker/SiriusXM/JazzRadio/ClassicalRadio end of the spectrum.

How does AccuRadio stack up? As a jazz/classical music listener, my initial answer is “very well.” As in, if I had to use nothing but AccuRadio, it would be more than ok.

Compare JazzRadio and AccuRadio: JazzRadio offers 40 channels, divided by era, style, instrument, mood. It throws in a couple of blues channels and some Brazilian/bossa nova. You can listen for free, but you have to pay to use the apps or to get the higher quality streaming. When I bought it, it was $60 a year, which also gave me ClassicalRadio and a couple of streaming services I don’t  care about.  I paid because I wanted the higher sound quality, up to 320 kbps for mp3s.

AccuRadio’s jazz section offers an astounding 76 channels, divided by era, style, instrument, mood, but also offering channels devoted to single composers (an all-Ellington channel!), a “top 50 jazz albums of all time” channel, even a channel for Chicago’s legendary AACM (Association For The Advancement of Creative Musicians). That’s deep.  And AccuRadio is free, as are its apps. Even if you wanted to, you can’t pay for it.

I’m guessing the sound quality isn’t as good as the paid-for services, but listening on my Sonos Play:1s, I’m hard pressed to hear much difference. In theory, there are commercials, but over a couple of days of listening, I have yet to hear one.

Oh, and if the jazz section’s Brazilian channel doesn’t do it for you, you can find another four Brazilian channels in their own section.

The classical section is equally good; I especially like the channel devoted to the conductor Herbert von Karajan – you could spend weeks sampling what he put on record – and the channels set aside just for European and American orchestras. Like ClassicalRadio, AccuRadio gives you channels for composers, instruments, types of composition (symphonies, string quartets), eras, moods.

Did I mention it’s free?

Hanson and company apparently regard Pandora’s “build your own” model as a bug, not a feature, because even though there’s an interesting way for you to hear your favorite songs more often, in general AccuRadio has already done all the selecting work for you. That said, you do have a degree of control: you can skip songs and ban an artist or song from a channel.

There’s a dedication to craft and detail that pervades the whole operation – even though it appears AccuRadio runs very lean. You want Broadway on Pandora? You’ve got a handful of choices. SiriusXM? Just one. AccuRadio? Try 45 channels. Reggae? There are separate, specialist channels for both dub and instrumentals.

AccuRadio has branded itself a few different ways. The current slogan is “Better radio for your workday,” and Hanson has said he’s not chasing young listeners. The service is aimed squarely at people from their mid-30s to their mid-60s, sitting at a desk with a browser tab open, quietly playing something while they work. AccuRadio supposedly doesn’t quite hit the top 10 of streaming services, but the strategy they’re using strikes me as smart, going at a demographic the other services seemingly aren’t all that interested in.

I’ve struggled a little to describe exactly how good I think AccuRadio is, so here’s my best shot: it’s the Linux of streaming services. In almost all respects, it beats the ones you pay for. You can’t get much better than that.


news blues

As noted earlier, I was impressed with Houston’s KTRH, which did what good radio should do in times of crisis – go extremely two-way, passing on news and information while hearing from listeners live, on the air.

KTRH had hosts who did just that from the git go; I listened on and off for three or four days and got a perspective on the flooding I didn’t get watching the national news. It was good, though I kept wondering – where are the station’s reporters? After all, KTRH calls itself “Houston’s news, weather and traffic station.”

As it turns out, KTRH isn’t – as I assumed – an all or mostly news operation. It’s really a talk station, with Limbaugh, Hannity and Levin chewing up big parts of the broadcast day. As Tom Taylor’s radio newsletter put it, “Houston’s a market with no all-news station and just one big talker, iHeart’s KTRH/740.”

So two things: I’m even more impressed by KTRH doing what it did – going and staying live for an extended period of time – without the backing of a large newsroom. The station did hook up with one of the local TV stations, which helped with things like live press conferences.

The other thing is: how is it that the fourth largest metro area in the U.S. doesn’t have a full time radio news operation? One was tried in Houston a few years back, but it was abandoned three years ago in favor of, if I recall correctly, classic rap. All-news cost too much, the owners said at the time.

Yes, news is expensive, but it can also bring big rewards. Witness WTOP in Washington, DC, a commercial (as opposed to public) all-newser that’s consistently number 1 in the market. And I believe it makes Hubbard Broadcasting a great deal of money.

So what’s changed in the world when a market with millions of people can’t support a robust news station? I remember 25 years ago in Syracuse NY, a much, much, much smaller town, when there was not one but two radio stations with news staffs of nine or 10 people. Seems to me Houston should have one with at least that many, because it’s not getting any quieter out there.


well done, so far

Houston got hammered overnight. Rain of biblical proportions was no joke; the pictures Sunday are hard to believe.

I’m listening to Houston radio today through the iHeart and TuneIn apps, as I did with Corpus Christi last night, with one notably different result. Houston’s all-news KTRH, which is an iHeart property,  is doing exactly what I didn’t hear in Corpus Christi – using radio as a giant community bulletin board.

I’m not hearing reporters out on the street, which is a big weakness; that said, two hosts are gracefully fielding calls from the public, getting callers to describe what they’re seeing and doing, passing on emergency information and bringing in a Weather Channel meteorologist, not as a substitute for local knowledge but as a valuable addition.

The web site’s not great, but they’re posting closings and – this is different from what I typically see on commercial radio sites – they’re making a real effort to keep things updated on-line.

Also, KUHF, the University of Houston’s public radio, was taking the audio feed from one of the local TV stations Sunday morning. TV has greater resources, and I heard a reporter out in the weather. I’d still rather have radio people doing radio, but the information on KUHF was good.

(Update late Sunday afternoon: at some point, KUHF took back its air. I’m listening now and like KTRH they’ve got a couple of hosts fielding calls. No sign of reporters in the field yet; my assumption is that it’s proving impossible at this point to move people into position. The major TV networks got people in place only because they rolled early, and even then most of the crews are having to improvise from where ever they are, as opposed to going to the absolute worst spots.)

Now, none of this should surprise you: Houston is a huge media market, and you would expect radio to be at least as good as I’m describing. But radio tends toward disappointment, so when I hear good work it’s worth noting.

Other notes from Houston:

  • KPFT, the Pacifica community station, appeared to be in regular programming Sunday morning.
  • From my easy chair a thousand miles away, I’m surprised some other stations aren’t breaking format. There’s an AM conservative talk station, KNTH, that’s still playing weekend filler. (I wrongly noted it was an iHeart station earlier; it’s a Salem operation.) Also, KPVU, Texas A & M’s public, was playing gospel Sunday morning.
  • There are a lot of Houston radio stations and I won’t get to listen to every one, but if KTRH ends up being the only locally originated, continuous radio coverage I’ll be disappointed. (Update: As noted above, at least one other station, KUHF, is also on the air with special coverage.)
  • iHeart owns a lot of Houston’s radio. This shouldn’t surprise me or anyone, but the sheer scale of the operation – it feels like every third or fourth station I click on is an iHeart property – is impressive. Most of them are going about their weekend business, though there are banners on individual station web sites directing people to KTRH for hurricane news. One radio they don’t own, KSEV, calls itself “The Voice of Texas” and specializes in conservative talk. There’s a big picture of the hurricane on the front page of the web site, but the accompanying story is two days old. Why even try?
  • And…I missed what the CBS radio cluster was doing. They’ve thrown themselves into hurricane mode as well; as far as I can tell, CBS doesn’t have an all-news in the market, but they’re apparently simulcasting on all the stations they have, including KILT, normally all sports, and KMPX, a “hot AC/adult top 40” station, says Wikipedia.

emergency non-broadcast system

The captains of commercial radio spend much of their working lives in a defensive crouch; if nothing else works – given how often they suck –  they’ll tell you ” You need us when there’s an emergency, like a natural disaster.”

That’s at least part of the argument, for instance, for pressuring cellphone manufacturers and carriers into activating the chip inside phones which allows you to pick up an FM broadcast, assuming you’re wearing headphones.

So this weekend, with Hurricane Harvey unleashing a biblical amount of rain in parts of Texas, is a fine field test.  Cell service is out in a lot of areas, and I heard a guy from the Red Cross say people should have hand-cranked radios, in order to get emergency information.

If I were in, say, Corpus Christi, with my Galaxy 7 and Koss PortaPros, or had a hand-cranked radio,  how well would I be served? I’m a long ways from Texas, but as far as I can tell, the answer is “not very.”

I spent a couple of hours this evening listening to every radio station I could stream  from Corpus Christi, and reading their web sites. Now Corpus Christi isn’t small; the population is well over 300,000.  But as far as I could tell, there isn’t a single local station on the ground in Corpus Christi, telling the stories of the worst affected areas, explaining peoples’ fears and frustrations, while also reporting on what local officials have planned.

What is there? Well, there’s an iHeart cluster, which includes News/Talk KKTX. But this evening, KKTX and other iHeart properties in Corpus Christi were carrying the chain’s San Antonio news/talk station. What they did wasn’t..awful, but there wasn’t much local, specific-to Corpus Christi news in the hour or so I listened.  Worse, the San Antonio station was relying on audio from the Weather Channel for much of its coverage. So the local station was getting its news from out of the market, which was, in turn, getting its news from a national source. Whatever happened to being the local guys who knew what’s going on?

There’s another news/talk station in Corpus Christi, KEYS, but according to the station’s web site they were knocked out by the storm. Which wouldn’t stop the station from updating its web site, but that wasn’t happening.

And so it goes for every station I could find: from Christian to contemporary hits, little or no current, local information about the hurricane. A note about web sites: almost all TV station web sites have problems of one sort or the other, failings, inadequacies, but at least they try. Radio stations don’t appear to even try.

What about public radio? In a lot of towns, the local NPR station has taken the responsibility that used to be shouldered by the dominant commercial station, that of providing basic news coverage. In Corpus Christi’s case, the local NPR affiliate is KEDT. As far as I can tell, KEDT doesn’t stream, so I can’t hear what the station is up to, but the web site is not encouraging. Other than canceling a station event because of the weather, there’s no Harvey-related news.

To be clear, what I’m looking for is a station that’s on the air 24/7, with reporters out where the weather hit, lots and lots of weather updates and – here’s the important part – a continuing conversation with listeners, reporting in on what streets are in the worst shape, who’s missing, lost and found animals, etc. During a crisis, radio can be one big community bulletin board, but I didn’t hear anything remotely like that today.

So what I hope for is that amateurs, hams, have stepped in where the pros aren’t, and are supplying the kind of neighborly, boots-on-the-ground information that’s needed to get through a crisis like this. What I fear is that commercial radio is so weak, so ineffectual, that it can no longer even go about special pleading for itself (“you need us when the weather’s bad”) and have anyone believe it.


signing off

The valuable Engineering Radio blog is defunct.  It’s a shame and a loss.

For eight years  the blog’s author, Paul Thurst, explained radio from the inside. Thurst keeps radio stations in the northeast up and operating, and he wrote an up-close-and-personal look at how the industry is mostly – but not always – failing.

Being an engineer has a way of focusing the mind; you can’t fake or argue about broken equipment, poorly maintained transmitters, workarounds that really aren’t.  You learn something about the business people who allow things to get that way.

Unfortunately, it wore Paul down. In his valedictory post, he wrote “Radio can still serve the community in times of disaster or distress. However, the absolute soul crushing mediocrity of automated programming is killing the entire industry.

“Of course, the cause of this is the equally crushing debt load being carried by the majority of radio station owners. That reality, intersecting with declining advertising revenue and segmentation of market share, spell the end of the commercial radio business model.”

He’s a lot closer to it than I am, but I’m slightly more optimistic. I work for a decent, small media company that believes in spending on good people, being as local as possible, investing for the future. In my case it’s TV, but I have to believe there must be a radio company or two out there that doesn’t suck, that hasn’t ceded the job of informing and entertaining  the community to the local public radio.

Also, Paul’s blog was more than just engineering stories and dark meditations on radio’s problems. He got on some interesting tangents over the years, and the good news is, he’s leaving the blog up for the time being. If you care about radio, read it before it vanishes.

ask me now

Even though I’m fascinated by sound, by music, by radio and by radio journalism and its derivatives, I have a wary relationship to podcasting.

On the one hand, yes, podcasting is a big deal, a way of doing things with sound and words that is outgrowing its origins – its not talk radio, or blogging, or the kind of sound art and documentary exemplified by Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North.  Nearly a quarter of Americans report being monthly podcast listeners. So here’s a medium that’s both new(ish) and popular, and the bar to entry is low.

On the other hand, there is a precious quality to podcasting; it feels like there are too many people trying to do it, too many people thinking out loud about “the podcast space,” too many companies chasing – still – too few listeners. It’s a land rush for hipsters.

So I’m flummoxed by the fact that my favorite podcast right now is “The Turnaround.” It’s very meta, as younger and smarter people said back in 2012. Each episode runs an hour or so, and consists of the host,  Jesse Thorn, talking to famous and semi-famous people about…talking. More specifically, Thorn talks to people who specialize in interviewing.

So what keeps Turnaround from swallowing its own tail? Well,  Thorn is an engaging host and he asks good questions, knows how to keep the conversation going; there’s an emphasis on the real-world craft aspects of interviewing; and as it turns out, it’s just interesting to listen to interviewers talk about how they feel about what they do. There’s alchemy to Turnaround, the whole (Thorn plus interview subject) is greater than the sum of its two parts.

I’ve listened to four or five of them this weekend, and bits from several stick with me – how Errol Morris ended up liking Robert McNamara; Susan Orlean on being so into music that she was more comfortable interviewing musicians whose music she didn’t care for; Brooke Gladstone explaining why she’ll edit answers together, but won’t re-record her questions after the interview ; Louis Theroux talking about  how having a British accent can help, when it comes to getting people on the fringes of American society to trust you.

More to the point, taken together “the Turnaround” episodes are a master class in how to talk with people. I’ve been doing journalism for a long time, but there is still something reassuring when Susan Orlean, best-selling author and New Yorker staff writer, says that being uncomfortable is just part of the gig, and that if you’re going to ask strangers to talk to you, expect to get rejected a lot. And while it wouldn’t work as a plaque in your local journalism school, Errol Morris’s advice on interviewing (‘Shut the fuck up’) should be burned into all young reporters.

I’ll be interested to see how long Turnaround lasts; they’ve posted 13 episodes since late June, have already hit a lot of the obvious choices. I’m not sure how they keep up the pace. Regardless, what Turnaround has already accomplished is considerable and – here’s a metric for the nascent podcasting ratings industry – if it cost money, I’d gladly play it.





listening in

I have watched Anthony Scaramucci – his ‘taking the stage’ turn last week when he was announced as the new White House communications director – and I have read him, the New Yorker’s recounting of the profane and strange conversation Scaramucci had with staff writer Ryan Lizza.

But on balance, it seems clear the best way to get Scaramucci is to listen to him.  He talked to CNN’s Chris Cuomo Thursday. It was a phone call to CNN, not an on-camera interview. And this is the part that caught my ear:

“As you know from the Italian expression, the fish stinks from the head down. What I can tell you two fish that don’t stink, okay, and that’s me and the President. I don’t like the activity that’s going on in the White House. I don’t like what they’re doing to my friend. I don’t like what they’re doing to the President of the United States or their fellow colleagues in the West Wing. If you want to talk about the Chief of Staff, we have had odds. We have had differences.”

Read that. Does it conjure up any sound in your head? I heard it and one word popped into mine: wiretap. It’s the way some men talk when they don’t know they’re being recorded, when their guard is as down as it ever gets, not that it’s ever completely down. Scaramucci’s conversation with Chris Cuomo is a haphazard jumble of truth, hard feelings and dissembling, topped with menace. There is a chilling intimacy to it, as if he could reach through the telephone line and grab you by the neck if he doesn’t like what he’s getting from you.

But this was no surreptitious recording; it was done in pubic with Scaramucci’s full knowledge and participation. That it still succeeds in sounding like something you hear when you put a glass against a neighbor’s wall is no small wonder.

It’s unfortunate no recording of the Lizza conversation has surfaced; it would make a fine doppleganger to the Cuomo interview. And I hope someone is carefully archiving this audio, along with some of the sound from President Trump’s public utterances. When a future student of American history studies the Trump administration, scratches her head in bewilderment and says out loud to no one in particular, “What were they talking about?” you could do worse that to play them 29:48 of Anthony Scaramucci on CNN, grievances and arguments included.





sound & vision

The Trump administration has lately taken to doing something I like, and I hope they keep doing it.

For whatever reason, the public relations apparatchiks now insist that some of the press briefings be audio only. No cameras allowed. Presumably the point is to make the briefings – which cable news hypes incessantly and which rarely end well for the Trump side – less entertaining because, well, there’s nothing to watch.

I suppose it’s a loss that we can’t see Sean Spicer or Sarah Huckabee Sanders taking incoming, or get the sense of the press room as MMA ring. You can’t see them sweat, as we learned when studying the difference between the 1960 presidential debate on TV, (Kennedy won as Nixon sweated and scowled on camera) and radio (generally scored for Nixon on points or at worst a draw).

You do, however, get to concentrate on the words themselves, how they hang in the air. Today, former FBI director James Comey  repeatedly used the word “lie” in connection with President Trump. Asked about it at a briefing later, Huckabee Sanders responded “I can definitively say the President is not a liar.”

The “definitively say”caught me, because it’s the language spokespeople use to suggest they’ve gone and looked into something and are bringing the results back to the unwashed mass of journos. Maybe it’s just me, but the answer sounded a lot like “Yep, I went and checked it out, asked around, talked to my sources, and we’re now sure he’s not a liar.”

I might have missed it, had I been watching instead of listening.

By the way, the President himself is a great listen. He’s word salad, all the way down – I find watching him distracts from the doubling back/vamping/free association/fall back on patented riffs that is a Donald Trump speech. I love it when he does something  like ‘And we’re going to bring the jobs back for the coal miners, the miners who’ve been treated so badly, so badly. You know, I love coal miners. They gave me a great victory here…’ Sometimes he finds his way back to the text. Sometimes we’re off to the races. Regardless, for as long as it lasts, this is a great time to be listening to what’s coming out of the White House. What was once said about jazz applies here too; it’s the sound of surprise.