Saturday, June 27, 2009

On The Media: Missed Opportunity and What's With "Edited . . . by Brooke"?

I've been listening pretty religiously to the weekly radio program On The Media for the past decade or so and I generally love it (though I'd, not surprisingly, love to hear more criticism of radio content). The show is produced by public radio station WNYC in New York and distributed by NPR to affiliates around the country. In the past year or so, I've been doing most of my listening via the weekly podcast (the program is heard Sunday evenings in Seattle, but is available by download on the preceding Friday).

This week, the show apparently had the unfortunate timing to have been produced before Thursday's death of Michael Jackson and the web vs. traditional media frenzy that followed. I just listened to this week's On The Media (midday Saturday, June 27) and was dismayed to find no mention of what's looking to be a defining moment in new media (and what was being characterized as such as early as late Thursday, when TMZ was credited with breaking the story of Jackson's death). Granted, On The Media doesn't bill itself as a to-the-minute topical show, but it seems to me that if there were ever a time to pull an already produced episode and start over, or at least re-edit to include a story about the unprecedented quantity and nature of media coverage of Jackson's death, this would have been the week to do so (particularly since topics in this week's show included what could have been complementary stories: an interview with bloggers hired by old school newspapers and a piece about ambush interviews). I guess I have next week's episode to look forward to for what will likely be insightful analysis of the Jackson coverage.

While I'm at it, as much as I like On The Media, the little "audio editing inside joke" near the end of each episode when co-host Bob Garfield says that the show is, "edited . . . by Brooke" is sometimes cute, sometimes irritating. Not to kill a joke by trying to analyze it, but I assume that the pause between "edited" and "by" is made by Mr. Garfield so that co-host and editor Brooke Gladstone will have to make a manual cut using ProTools or whatever audio editing software she uses (though she never does make such a cut). Am I wrong? Is it an oblique tribute to Ed Murrow's "This . . . is London"? Am I over sensitive? Is there a backstory to this that I'm not aware of? Please set me straight!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Network Radio and Michael Jackson's Death

Here on the West Coast it was late afternoon on Thursday, June 25, 2009 as the news spread of Michael Jackson's hospitalization and death. Our Seattle ABC and CBS radio affiliates are fairly similar in format (ABC affiliate KOMO is mostly news with a few hours of midday talk, and leverages KOMO's TV news operation for content; CBS affiliate KIRO has a morning news block and then is all personality-driven talk, recently moved from AM to FM, and has no in-house TV news operation), but each supplemented local coverage (local reactions, listener call-ins) with frequent network updates, and each reported the early speculation of Jackson's death (attributing the TMZ website as the source), at least in KIRO's case, just before 3:00 pm Pacific Time.

This was a classic contemporary radio news moment--the talking heads on cable TV (cardiologists, pop culture experts, cable news anchors) speculating while video loops of Jackson highlights/lowlights and LA hospital footage played added little to the facts of the story. Also, given that the story broke late in the traditional workday and/or during the commute home (depending on your time zone), it was a story that could be easily followed in the "dependable portable live audio" (read: terrestrial radio) format. Add to that the abundant and accessible back catalog of Jackson's music for handy use as pre- and post-commercial bumpers, and the radio-friendly equation is complete.

The best coverage of the day came at 5:30 PM Pacific Time, as CBS Radio presented a 20-minute audio special anchored by Dan Raviv, beating the network TV specials by a few hours on the West Coast and including archival audio as well as newly-recorded interviews and reports. I heard much of it, conveniently, in my car. A few hours later, I saw the opening moments of TV specials presented at 9 pm Pacific Time by ABC and NBC; each began with "live" reports from correspondents standing outdoors in Los Angeles that had, from the bright sunshine, obviously been taped a few hours earlier to be "live" for the Eastern Time Zone broadcast.

I looked on the CBS News website to try and find the Raviv radio broadcast to no avail. If you can find it, please let me know. Lastly, as with previous breaking news of this tawdry nature, I didn't even think of tuning in NPR until a few hours later. I wish that wasn't the case!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Radio Criticism: Radio's Free Ride

You can’t open a paper or magazine or website nowadays without stumbling across critical reviews of movies, plays, TV shows, web videos, restaurants, chiropractors and plumbers. For some reason, the same can’t be said of, you guessed it, radio. In Seattle, we were lucky enough until a few months ago to have two daily papers (each of which, unusually, had a full-time TV critic until 2008). The now defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer (still online but no longer publishing a print edition) had a weekly radio column written by Bill Virgin. While Bill (who—full disclosure—is a friend) wasn’t exactly a radio critic, he covered local and national trends in the radio industry, previewed upcoming programs (including several radio dramas and documentaries produced by yours truly), and kept readers abreast of the constant personnel and format changes that are a fixture of local radio. Bill’s weekly column is deeply missed, and its absence calls attention to a larger issue many decades in the making.

Even though there are more than 600 million radios in use in the U.S., the average household has 5.6 radio receivers, and radio reaches 96% of people 12 and older weekly (these Arbitron figures are quoted here), it’s been years since a national publication has devoted significant and consistent resources to previewing and reviewing national radio programs. Most column inches about radio are devoted to controversy: statements made by Imus, Stern or Limbaugh; layoffs at NPR; stunts pulled by local FM jocks. Nobody looks at programming trends, history, technique, production quality, or treatment of subject matter—in short, radio content gets a critical free ride. Try to remember the last time you read anything thoughtful in a general circulation publication about the content or performance quality of This American Life , A Prairie Home Companion, All Things Considered, Air America, Phil Hendrie, Sirius/XM, Tavis Smiley, or Rush Limbaugh.

For examples of what radio criticism can be, one must look to the distant past, when writers such as Jack Gould of the New York Times, John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune, and Ben Gross of the New York Daily News regularly wrote about radio (and TV) for their respective publications, and (in the case of Crosby and Gross) published books of radio and TV criticism. Crosby’s Out of the Blue and Gross’ I Looked and I Listened (both originally published in the 1950s) can be purchased secondhand without too much trouble; a posthumous collection of Gould’s TV columns was published in 2002.

My hope for contemporary radio criticism isn’t simply to trash bad programs. Effective criticism is fair, but it recognizes good work, and holds accountable executives, producers and performers when the work isn’t so good (yes, there is subjectivity in criticism). Effective criticism examines what went well and what didn’t, and ultimately inspires creation of better programming and fosters more choices for listeners. Effective well-written criticism is also fun to read, and can inspire new audiences to tune in or download something they otherwise would have ignored. Especially in the age of podcasts and downloads, reviews and recommendations of audio programs can be more useful than ever, since the option to easily hear a program again is a fairly new phenomenon. Add to this the programming on web radio, HD radio and satellite radio, and the choices available to the average listener are overwhelming.

So, I’m going to try and occasionally fill this critical void where I can with the I Still Love Radio blog. Stay tuned. And tell me if I suck.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Radiography: Best Books About Radio

For my first post for I Still Love Radio, I thought I'd put together a list of my favorite books about radio. Sure, I like listening to the radio just as much as the next guy, but what I really like is reading about radio. Thus, the following books range from general audience to academic and are listed in chronological order, with the newest title listed first. My criteria for putting them on a list like this are that they were enjoyable and informative to read the first time around, and that they’re worth returning to every now and then for reference or pleasure. Most of these titles are too old to be still circulating in public libraries, but many can be purchased affordably secondhand. My favorite places to start are any good local used bookstore or

Are there other titles that should be listed here? Are there any that shouldn’t? Please let me know . . .

Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation (2007) by Marc Fisher
Highly readable, thoroughly researched look at the rise of radio in the television era by Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher.

Manipulating the Ether (1998) by Robert J. Brown
This is a fairly academic study of radio in the 1930s and early 1940s, with particular attention paid to FDR and to the October 30, 1938 broadcast and aftermath of the War of the Worlds. It’s readable and a good reference to an important era in radio history.

On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (1998) by John Dunning
As encyclopedic as its title suggests, this is a terrific reference work as well as a fascinating read. Many entries are multi-page essays that bring in additional contextual references and paint thorough, accurate pictures of particular shows, personalities, stations and networks.

Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952 (1997) by Michele Hilmes
A refreshing modern interpretation of radio’s golden era, from one of the most interesting radio scholars and authors working today. Michele Hilmes is also the author of a fascinating book about the relationship between Hollywood and broadcasting called, not surprisingly, Hollywood and Broadcasting.

On A Note of Triumph: Norman Corwin and the Golden Years of Radio (1986) (originally published as Norman Corwin and Radio: The Golden Years) by R. LeRoy Bannerman
Radio god Norman Corwin’s life story, with a focus on his most productive radio years. (Note: could be confused with Corwin’s own slim volume, On A Note of Triumph (1945) which is the script of his VE-Day radio broadcast.) Several books of Corwin’s radio scripts were published in the 1940s, and all are worth reading not so much for the individual works, but for Corwin’s wry production notes and other observations that accompany each. See This Is War!, 13 By Corwin, More By Corwin, and Untitled and Other Radio Dramas.

Radio In The Television Age (1980) by Peter Fortanale & Joshua E. Mills
So many of the best radio books focus on the glory years—the 1920s to the late 1940s. Thus, this refreshing title looks specifically at how radio stumbled and then adapted to the rise of television.

Don’t Touch That Dial: Radio Programming in American Life from 1920 to 1960 (1979) by J. Fred MacDonald
This is one of the first books about radio to go back and look critically (and not simply nostalgically or sentimentally) at the output of the major networks from the 1920s to the 1960s, and to look at the social impact of the medium and the programming. MacDonald has written a number of books about media, but this is his best.

The War of Words (1970) by Asa Briggs
Of the five volumes in Briggs’ monumental series on the history of the BBC, this is my favorite. Briggs’ mined the BBC Written Archives, and the series often feels like a procedural drama with more characters and acronyms than I can track—nonetheless, he is to be commended for taking on and completing a mammoth project. This is a must-read for anyone interested in WWII radio.

On The Spot Reporting: Radio Records History (1967) by George N. Gordon & Irving A. Falk
An entertaining look at the feats that only radio could perform, bringing live (and, in the oft incorrectly recalled case of the Hindenburg disaster, recorded) accounts of war, destruction, political conventions and other major events into the livingroom. In my favorite part, Gordon and Falk trace the origin of Ed Murrow’s signature “Good night and good luck” sign-off to his 1940 Christmas broadcast from war-torn London—something I’d done independently myself (though Gordon and Falk beat me to it by nearly 40 years).

It Sounds Impossible (1963) by Sam J. Slate & Joe Cook
An entertaining account of radio’s first four decades by two men who witnessed most of it. It’s short on citations, but the stories ring true with other accounts of the same period. This is the radio book for people who don’t like radio books!

Star Spangled Radio: Radio’s Part in WWII (1948) by Edward M. Kirby & Jack W. Harris
A mildly jingoistic account of all the great things that American radio networks and personalities did in support of the war effort. The much-underreported story of radio in the Pacific is given its fair share, along with an interesting tale of the American battle with the BBC to launch and then control a radio service for Allied troops headed into France in 1944 (several books penned by BBC types tell the British side of this little-known radio rift among otherwise allied forces—including Maurice Gorham’s Sound and Fury). Also includes the story of the creation of Command Performance, the radio program for the troops that begat the Armed Forces Radio (and, eventually, Television) Service.

News On The Air (1947) by Paul W. White
This is more of a text book, but it’s smartly written by Paul White, the production mastermind behind CBS’ rise to dominate radio journalism. While Edward R. Murrow, with whom White often battled for CBS founder William Paley’s praise and attention, was risking his neck atop a blitzed London rooftop, it was often White or a member of his staff back at CBS in New York making sure the American public could hear the live report over the Columbia network.

From D-Day Through Victory In Europe (1945) and From Pearl Harbor Into Tokyo (1945) by the Columbia Broadcasting System
These are pocket-sized paperbacks published by CBS within days of VE Day and VJ Day respectively. Each features transcripts of notable broadcasts made by CBS personnel during the war, including the oft-neglected corps of radio journalists working in the Pacific. (Note: WWII radio in the Pacific is covered by Kirby and Harris’ Star Spangled Radio (see above) as well as William Dunn’s Pacific Microphone and Cecil Brown’s From Suez to Singapore.)

The Stuff of Radio (1934) by Lance Sieveking
Sieveking was a BBC producer and radio playwright, and his book examines the early years of radio drama broadcasting in England. It is one of the rare early works to analyze and critique radio’s output and look to the future dramatic possibilities for radio (and for television, which began in London in 1936).