Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Blogging About Radio: The Wacko Factor

There is always a risk when writing about any particular subject too much, that the writer begins to seem like a wacko. Whether expounding on the virtues of antique tractors, English football, knitting, microbrews or yes, even radio—if you start getting into facts and details that are too esoteric, arcane and/or minute, chances are you’re totally nuts and your readers will begin to divide into two camps: a few wackos who identify with you and who begin paying closer attention, and a majority of normal people who simply stop paying attention altogether.

So it is with this risk in mind that I prepared this post, and thus I will try to keep it brief.

A local news and talk station here in Seattle recently brought back the hourly CBS newscasts (after ditching them in favor of local newscasts for the past year or so—some 70+ years into their affiliation with the Columbia network). Anyhow, the CBS hourlies are back, but they're a little different. I’m not sure where the practice originated—at CBS or at the local affiliate level—but the hourly CBS newscasts now heard in Seattle end with a consistent, live, anchor-read tag, which is seamlessly followed by a custom-recorded (by the same anchor), station-specific outro.

It goes a little like this:

LIVE NETWORK ANCHOR: "This is CBS News . . ."


So, the casual listener might assume that Harley Carnes or Nick Young or whichever CBS anchor is at the helm of that particular hourly newscast is speaking just for that station. Pretty cool. I assume that it is the responsibility of the board operator on duty at the affiliate to know which anchor is on-air, and to have the correct pre-recorded outro ready to play. But what if the anchor is a new guy or a last-minute sub? Or what if the board op is new or otherwise distracted?

As I had hoped would happen, I finally heard a newscast where the live anchor didn’t match up with the taped outro played here in Seattle. Earlier today (Wednesday, September 30), CBS’ Jim Taylor was the anchor, but it was Nick Young who finished his sentence (and his newscast) for him and for all the listeners in the Pacific Northwest. The fact that I was tuned in via HD made the difference that much starker—though it probably sounded pretty bad in regular FM, too (while on AM, it may not have been noticeable at all). And, the same thing happened an hour later.

As I said in a far greater number of words above, minutiae is the curse of the blogosphere. I shall try and restrain myself in the future and stick to topics of more general interest.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Early Alternative Radio in Seattle

Please check out my piece about 1980s Seattle "alternative" (though commercial and, oddly, AM) radio station KJET posted on on September 23, 2009, the 21st anniversary of KJET leaving the air.

Also, be sure and click here for my homemade aircheck of KJET's final moments (which also includes the opening minutes of the "Cool Gold" oldies format that replaced it). Definitely stick with the whole recording until the end--there are some odd gaps and long silences here and there as, I imagine, the "Cool Gold" crew grudgingly played the last of the KJET stuff and figured out how to play their stuff.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Talk Radio Hosts, Rappers and . . . Jack Benny and Fred Allen?

In this past weekend's New York Times article by David Segal comparing talk radio hosts to rappers, among the parallels that Segal draws is the presence in these seemingly disparate industries of "feuds."

Here's what Segal wrote about feuding rappers and feuding talk radio hosts:

50 Cent vs. Ja Rule. Lil’ Kim vs. Foxy Brown. Jay-Z vs. Nas. Every couple of years, one rapper will pick a fight with another and battle it out with the winner typically determined by sales. This will sound familiar to anyone who has followed, say, Bill O’Reilly’s broadsides at Mr. Limbaugh (“Walk away from these right-wing liars!” Mr. O’Reilly said of an unnamed rival, described as someone who smokes a cigar and owns a private jet) or Mark Levin’s attack on Mr. O’Reilly. (“He has a fledgling radio show, that has no ratings,” Mr. Levin said in 2008, “and he’ll be off radio soon because he’s a failure.” Levin’s predication came true in January of this year.) Liberal ranters can partake, too, as MSNBC host and fulminator par excellence Keith Olbermann has proven with his long running O’Reilly spat.

To Mr. Segal's provocative take on this seemingly recent feud phenomena, I'd like to add my own two (historical) cents about where all this ratings-building feudin' really began more than 70 years ago. That's right, the Mother of All American Pop Culture Feuds was the long running battle between Jack Benny and Fred Allen.

Jack Benny and Fred Allen were popular radio comedians who had made the leap from vaudeville to broadcasting around the same time in the early 1930s. Though they were friendly in real-life, an ad lib remark by Allen on his show in 1937 about Benny's notoriously bad violin playing inspired the two to play out a rivalry on their respective weekly programs for years. The feud became one the best-known and most successful running gags in radio history (over a period of about a decade).

So, it's really nothing new that feuding is good for ratings (whether pushing downloads, politics or Jello). Jay-Z, Rush Limbaugh, Fred Allen, 50-Cent, Jack Benny, Lil' Kim and their colleagues in the culture business are all just part of that great American capitalist feudin' continuum.

Click here for a sample recording from (and more details about) the Benny-Allen Feud.

Friday, September 18, 2009

American Radio Networks: A History
By Jim Cox

Published by McFarland
Order via or 800-253-2187

236 pages $45 softcover
10 photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index
Available October 2009

Though the big media landscape is changing, most of the last 50 or so years of American television were dominated by the three major networks: ABC, CBS and NBC. Cable networks and latecomers Fox and the WB have obviously made their marks on television in the past few decades, but it’s only very recently that the future of the Big Three has become so tenuous.

A fact often overlooked in the doom and gloom speculation about the future of the Big Three is the roots of these entities in the very earliest days of mass media, when radio was king. ABC, CBS and NBC all trace their origins to the late 1920s—more than 80 years ago. Nowadays, It’s hard to point to any American company with that much history that continues to dominate its sector. That the networks even still exist could be considered remarkable given the technological, cultural and economic shifts of the second half of the 20th century.

Jim Cox’s highly readable new book, American Radio Networks: A History, takes a long overdue look at the origins, early history and contemporary status of the radio networks of the American Broadcasting Company, Columbia Broadcasting System, National Broadcasting Company and the now defunct Mutual Broadcasting System.

The most effective portions of the book are the chapters that deal respectively with the origins and history of each of the four major American radio networks, as well as the rivalries between them. This information and these stories have not been told with this detail in one place before, and previously were only found far less comprehensively amongst a scattering of titles. Even among the earlier titles, most woefully neglected among the four radio networks was the Mutual Broadcasting System, which, unlike the others, was organized as a cooperative of sorts, with independent affiliates producing and sharing programs around the country. Cox provides the most thorough account of Mutual ever published.

Cox’s account of the government-forced separation from NBC of its “Blue Network” and its sale to Edward Noble in the early 1940s is the most detailed (while still accessible) description of this fairly significant event that I’ve ever read. It’s little known by most people these days that the Blue Network was eventually renamed ABC, and that ABC and NBC are essentially competitors as well as fraternal twins separated by a custody battle.

What would have been a helpful means of providing context to the histories of the networks would have been a thorough explanation right up front of how radio networks and radio stations made money—explaining why the Paleys and Sarnoffs and Nobles of CBS, NBC and ABC, respectively, organized in the first place and why and how they needed and used affiliated radio stations around the country. I wanted to read more about the so-called O&Os—the lucrative individual radio stations in major markets “owned and operated” by the networks, and about the affiliate agreements that made network radio profitable for the networks and for the affiliates.

I also have a few minor quibbles with Cox’s breezy, sometimes jocular writing style which occasionally results in some long-winded sentences, as well as his unfortunate use of the word “web” as a synonym for “network.” In the Internet age when everything is web this or web that, it’s distracting to read about programs on “the web” in reference to the 1930s. A section of the book devoted to specific network programs is interesting, but it seems tacked on to the more relevant material. A brief paragraph about NPR is jarring, and doesn’t belong in this book.

Cox is at his best when he sticks to the period roughly from the 1920s to the early 1960s—he’s obviously a master of this material, and has a lot to say. I’ve read several of the radio histories that Cox has written, and American Radio Networks is an essential addition to any media history collection or reference shelf, and a fascinating look at pivotal times in American history for an influential industry.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

All-in-one AUDIOBIQUITY L-900: Radio, iPod, Zune, Web, Satellite Gamechanger

Hallelujah! That’s all I can say about the new Audiobiquity L-900 portable media device. Finally, a consumer electronics designer has created a product with solely the end user (the consumer in “consumer electronics”) in mind. I’ve just had a sneak preview of this $300 wonder that will be available in time for the holidays from the geniuses at AuralVix GmbH. I not-so-daringly predict that the L-900 will be a gamechanger for terrestrial radio, iPods, Zunes, and for just about every other form of audio entertainment (other than maybe your uncle telling old jokes).

Rather than a single audio broadcast medium, the all-in-one Audiobiquity allows the discriminating listener to tune in AM radio (for ballgames and talk); FM radio (for music and local NPR); HD Radio (for better FM sound and subchannels, often with commercial-free, specialized content); web radio (via wifi for Pandora and the infinite number of web-based audio options—including streaming signals from distant stations); and Sirius (for Howard Stern and other offerings from Radio Sputnik—paid subscription required, ‘natch). Plus, the Audiobiquity includes an mp3 player (with 60 gigs of memory in the L-900) and, in a brilliant move, a TiVo-like "audio DVR" feature called “Deja V.U.” allowing easy recording and storage of hundreds of hours of radio programs for playback later (with fast forward and rewind, commercial skipping, etc.).

Another cool feature called "BroadPod" is not yet available on the Audiobiquity L-900 (but is planned for the L-950, which is scheduled to be released next year—and, I'm told, will also likely be available as a firmware update on the L-900). BroadPod is awaiting FCC approval, availability of additional bandwidth and broadcaster consensus on technical standards. Once enabled, a listener tuned in to a live terrestrial broadcast of, say, Rush Limbaugh or All Things Considered, will, at the touch of the BroadPod button, automatically schedule a free download of an mp3 of the program. Depending on transmitter proximity and sophistication of encoders used by your local station, downloads will typically take place within minutes of the program’s conclusion (or right away if the "live" program was actually taped earlier).

For those of us who regularly cart around an armload of audio entertainment devices to satisfy our diverse habits, the Audiobiquity is an answer to our prayers. The L-900 retails for $299, and includes earbuds and a USB charger. The unit is a little heavy at roughly 13 ounces, and the vinyl carrying pouch that's supplied feels a tad downmarket. (The generic accessory makers are sure to start offering better furniture for the L-900 and its siblings before too long.) Available autumn 2009 from Amazon, J&R and several other online retailers.