Category Archives: journalism

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.

 

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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.

 

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.

 

the great war

Before I have to return it to the inter-library loan system, I want to note a book that will stick with me for a long time and, really, should be read by anyone practicing media these days.

It’s from 1995, it was written as an academic study and as far as I can tell, has had no afterlife. Which is a shame, because “Media at War” is superb history and most relevant to the current moment.

(By the way, there are a few books with that main title; the one you want is “Media at War: Radio’s Challenge to The Newspapers, 1924-1939” by Gwenyth L. Jackaway.)

What’s it about? Back when radio was first becoming a thing, it toyed with broadcasting news bulletins. Newspapers, which used stories about radio to goose circulation, treated the new medium with gentle condescension.  Except it turned out that radio in all its forms, including news, was phenomenally popular. It rapidly became a threat to the utter dominance of newspapers as the public’s source of news, prompting a 15 year “war” is which the newspapers tried to beat back radio by, variously, withholding access to national and international news, setting up their own “radio bureau” by which a trickle of news to radio could be tightly controlled and, most interestingly to me, making appeals to morality.

My takeaway is threefold – and remember, this slim book (168 pages) was written before the real rise of the web, and maybe more important, before the rise of smartphones. Takeaway 1, and this is minor: newspapers had roughly the same attitude toward the internet that they did towards radio, and it’s ended about as badly; Takeaway 2, and this is more important: that the war between old media and challengers is about economics but it’s never just about economics – it’s about who gets to say what’s news and be paid attention to; Takeaway 3, and most important: whether it’s newspapers, radio, TV, whenever an established medium feels threatened, it falls back on a handful of responses, most of which are self-interest disguised as something else.

None of the internet stuff is explicitly in the book, though the author pretty clearly was writing with one eye towards the immediate future, but it’s right there in the text anyway.

Two paragraphs from pages 147-148:

“New communication technologies threaten to replace older ones. By definition this means that they threaten to render the established media institution functionally obsolete. If the new technology can perform the same communication function as the older one, and do a faster, more efficient job of it, the older institution is no longer needed. Not only is this an economic threat, but it is also quite threatening to the social, cultural and political power enjoyed by the established institution. The established media institution fights back in self-defense. One of the best ways to defend one’s own interest is to link it to the interests of society at large. The use of democratic or other “sacred” rhetoric effectively masks the self-interested nature of the argument, for who can argue with someone claiming to be protecting democracy?

“At stake in battles between old and new media is the struggle for the enormous power that comes with controlling the channels of communication. It is a power that derives from serving certain communication functions in a society. The story of the Press-Radio war suggests a pattern: Faced with the possibility of being displaced from a long-established role, communication institutions are likely to fight back by accusing the new medium of being dangerous to one of society’s sacred values. They will wrap their own interests in the flag of democracy, the family, the church, or whoever appears to be the best ideal to hide behind. They will take this sacred rhetoric to Congress, the FCC, the courts, or whatever regulatory or legal body has the power to protect the communication status quo, and they will argue that unless they retain their role and continue to serve “their” institutional function, this sacred ideal will be endangered or destroyed entirely.”

Those two paragraphs come at the end of the book, so by quoting just them you don’t get the detail the book is built on, the careful recounting of how the press tried to tame radio, then oppose it, then make a sort of peace with it, and finally, simply lost the argument. It’s well-written, carefully researched history, and is a model of good academic writing.

Of course, the current moment, with its severely partisan media, its viral fake news, its increasing concentration of the public’s news sources in two or three places – Facebook, Twitter – is different from the newspaper-radio conflict. History doesn’t repeat itself; it echoes and yes, the downside risk to democracy is greater now that it was 80 years ago. But perhaps those of us who practice media for a living can take a page from what happened then, and realize that all the disruption of the last long while is new – but not entirely so.

the nub of it

The thing about dystopias is, they’re only fun to consider if you’re not actually living in one. My guess is a real dystopia is not very interesting, and what is interesting is probably scary.

That said, I was intrigued by President Obama a week or so back, responding to Donald Trump’s latest invocation of fear and loathing. (You’re not safe! You don’t have a job! You have no hope!) The president said something like ‘America is not a dystopia.’ He’s right of course, as you’d expect the adult in the room to be. But did I hear just a little of “he’s trying to convince us” mixed in?

So of course we’re not a dystopia, but one would imagine a dystopia doesn’t happen all at once; you don’t wake up to a blighted landscape, martial law and neighbors from Neuromancer. With that in mind, I note the following from the New York Times front page Saturday:

Bonus reference: from NPR (and a bunch of other places) “Anthrax Outbreak in Russia Thought to Be Result Of Thawing Permafrost.”

Money quote: “That means anthrax outbreaks in Siberia could occur every summer, she says. And it’s not just anthrax that could be a problem.

“People and animals have been buried in permafrost for centuries. There could be bodies infected with all kinds of viruses and bacteria, frozen in time. She says scientists are just starting look for it.

“So we really don’t know what’s buried up there,” she says. “This is Pandora’s box.” ”

Yes, I know you could cherry pick examples like this every day. Yes, I know you could push back with other, optimistic examples. It’s just that sometimes, it feels like we’re roaring headlong for the 11th century, complete with iPhones.

on not writing

There is a sad reflex among blogs as they die in which the author, not having posted for three or six months, makes some apologetic noises and promises to do better.

That’s usually followed by an entry or two, then a longer, more final silence.

From what I’ve seen, many of these blogs had pretty good runs before they hit the skids; there’s usually a year or two of steady work, followed by some months of sporadic posting, followed by the above. Which is to say, they aren’t examples of failure to launch – the people who put up six entries and run out of things to say don’t generally bother to apologize – and blogs that gets past year two or three are apt to keep going.

So this is not that note, but writing here has been oddly difficult for the last several months. That’s not a lack of interest in the world; if anything, I’ve read more – and more deeply – lately. The Soviet Union has caught my attention, as has, belatedly, the Iraq war. I’m poking at climate change, though for all that’s written I have yet to find a book that works for me. And I’m drawn as always to the history of technology.

But writing is another matter; I follow the race for President closely but there is so much written about it every day – and then so much written about what’s written and so much written about that, a pile-up of self-referential stuff – I have nothing new to add. Trump and Clinton exhaust me, though like everyone else, I can’t look away.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about cell phones and writing about the minutiae of the ones I use, and that’s fine – I think the FM radio business is a real issue – but the topic has its limits. I have not noted (until now) that the Moto E I enjoy so thoroughly died an unceremonious death 10 days back. For no particular reason, the speaker made a loud buzzing noise and quit. It’s at Motorola for repair/replacement now. Motorola will likely just send me a new one, and then I’ll have to beg Verizon to waive $30 in activation fees. It’s a hassle, but I don’t think it means anything; there’s no larger lesson to be extracted from it, not even “It’s a $29 phone.”

In honor of my 60th birthday, our daughter delivered a set of Sonos Play:1 speakers to me, which I have now set up as a stereo pair in the family room. For the moment, they’re on top of my regular stereo, and I’m not sure how to handle my very, very large collection of CDs, but I can see the day when I get rid of most of the stuff under the TV and just go with the paired Sonos for listening. They’re that good. I got a three month trial to Spotify, and am impressed by the depth and breadth of the thing. But I think it’s a terrible deal for musicians, and don’t know how to resolve that.

So, writing. If I had to describe what stops me before I start it would be – I’m tired of the sound of my own voice. The cure for me traditionally has been to get very, very interested in something or things outside of my own head, and get the itch to talk about it. (Hence the title of this blog.)  My current reading gets me part way, but only part way, there. I may read two or three more books about the Cold War or the run up to World War II and be well satisfied, but have nothing to add.

Meantime, I fashion little bursts of words and am going on the assumption that at some point the wheel turns, the gears click and there’s more where this came from. I’m reading Neil Gaiman’s “View From The Cheap Seats,” which is a collection of non-fiction, much of it about writing and writers, and it helps. Gaiman reminds me this is work, and that the simple truth, as always, is that writers…write. (Except Douglas Adams, but that’s a different story.)

 

lost in space

Saw “Independence Day: Resurgence” on its opening weekend. It’s not very good, but then neither was the original, and I’ve watched it at least a dozen times over the years. This was more of the same, and I think the critics are maybe being too hard on the new movie – yes, if it’s possible for an already ridiculous movie to get even more CGI-ed ridiculous (an alien ship 3000 miles wide?) this certainly qualifies. But it’s basically the original movie told all over again, and that’s fine.

One thing: the real science fiction of “Resurgence” isn’t the weapons or the alien ships or the giant alien queen. The real science fiction is that in the 2016 of “Resurgence,” the world is at peace. There are, the President says early on, no more wars and the planet is united. Back in this world, it feels very much like an old and faded dream.

Reading and listening:

Finished “Eccentric Orbits,” a captivating new book on a topic I knew nothing about – the strange history of the Iridium satellite phone.  (I think a couple of Iridiums make cameo appearances in “Resurgence.”) Because I cared nothing about cell phones for the longest time, I missed some big stories. This is one of them.

Cued up: “The Network.” A book about David Sarnoff and Edwin Armstrong and the early crushing of FM by Sarnoff’s RCA. I’ve known for a long time that Sarnoff tried to kill FM, which he saw as a risk to his AM radio business. This new book is a deep dive on the subject.

Also, Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial.” I’m belatedly reading some history of the Iraq War. Even though Woodward gets criticized for being a captive of the insider accounts he writes, he still gets an enormous amount on the record that might otherwise stay submerged. 10 years down the road, it’s easier to see just how good a piece of reporting this book was.

Cued up: George Packer’s “The Assassin’s Gate.” I got to both the Woodward and the Packer by way of John Gray’s “Black Mass.” Gray pretty much defines the idea of a sobering read.

Listening: I traded in a bunch of box sets I never listen to and ended up with a few hundred dollars credit at the record store in Syracuse. I made a dent in it this weekend: Bill Evans, “Some Other Time”; Allen Toussaint, “American Tunes”:  Giles Peterson/Sun Ra, “To Those of Earth & Other Worlds”; Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, “Multishow Live.” I listened to half of the Evans, half of the Veloso and the Toussaint so far. Money well spent.