Friday, January 29, 2010

Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster on Radio

It's been seven years since the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost over Texas as it sped toward a planned landing at Cape Canaveral on the morning of Saturday, February 1, 2003.

Both NPR and CBS Radio interrupted regular programming to provide live coverage of what NASA described as a "contingency."

I was groggily listening to NPR that morning, and heard the 6:00 am Pacific Time hourly newscast that mentioned Columbia would land within the hour. I was still tuned in (and still groggy) when I heard the 6:40 am Pacific Time headlines that said NASA had "lost contact" with Columbia. That got my attention, and within a few minutes I had aircheck recorders running.

I wrote in last year about my memory of the NPR coverage of 9/11, and compared it unfavorably to NPR's coverage of the Columbia disaster anchored by Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon. In all fairness to NPR and Bob Edwards, 9/11 was a much more complex story with much more serious ramifications and far greater loss of human life. Also, I acknowledge that I'm a Scott Simon fan, and believe he's one of the most skilled radio broadcasters, whether anchoring a regular broadcast or a developing tragedy.

That being said, I listened to the Columbia recordings this past week and noted a few differences that are worth mentioning:

NASA Audio
CBS keeps the NASA audio feed going in the background, and the anchors (Peter King at Cape Canaveral, joined by Dan Raviv in New York) stop talking during live updates from James Hartsfield of Mission Control as they are happening, giving the listener a sense of being right in the middle of the story. Scott Simon and Joe Palca in the soundproof NPR studio (with NASA beat reporter Pat Duggins in Florida) occasionally play recordings of Mission Control updates, giving their coverage a more remote, delayed and antiseptic feeling.

CBS mentions damage to Columbia from external tank foam as a possible cause for the accident as early as 7:30 am Pacific Time (and this was ultimately determined to be the cause). Both NPR and CBS mention and downplay (perhaps even "discount") the possibility of terrorism, especially as it relates to the presence of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon aboard Columbia.

Eyewitness Reports
CBS provides a chilling live report from Rob Milford of "smoking debris" on the ground in Plano, Texas and a recording of a fire dispatcher describing human remains found on the Texas-Louisiana border (this comes about 7:45 am Pacific Time). Around the same time, NPR takes a more sedate approach, and does a live phone interview with a woman north of Dallas who, along with her cat, was knocked out of bed by the sonic boom, and with a man in Dallas who heard the sonic boom.

TV on the Radio
While CBS and NPR were covering the disaster on radio, the TV networks were also live and wall-to-wall. Anchors on both radio networks occasionally refer to what they're seeing on the TV monitors that are a fixture nowadays in radio studios (recent radio coverage of 9/11, the Miracle on the Hudson and even Balloon Boy all but depended on studio TV monitors).

The "TV Factor" is about the only difference between modern radio coverage of breaking news and the earlier, more robust days of radio journalism that depended on teletypes and telephones. Anecdotally, I would speculate that dependence on TV images likely dates to the JFK assassination and the technological advances around that time that made live remote video coverage more practical.

Only when the story happens someplace really remote (think the Gulf War in January 1991), does a flip-flop occur, and TV relies on what are essentially radio methods dating to the late 1930s: talking to reporters or eyewitnesses on the phone without live visual accompaniment.

While I don't deny that TV gives radio broadcasters valuable visual information, unless you're in your car or otherwise unable to get to a TV yourself, these live descriptions of what someone (albeit a professional journalist) is watching on a screen (rather than what an eyewitness is watching or has seen) sometimes feel a little cheap. Or is that just me?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Radio With Pictures: Iconic Cover Art from Books About Radio

As I said before in a previous post about the best radio books, it's sometimes more fun to read about radio (history and contemporary issues) than it is to actually listen to radio. For me, this is because much like radio, the words of a good book about radio get inside your head and make their own pictures.

Thus, as part of my ongoing campaign to raise the profile of books about radio, I STILL LOVE RADIO is proud to present the online exhibit Radio With Pictures: Iconic Cover Art from Books About Radio.

Over the past nearly 90 years, hundreds of books about radio have been produced highlighting various aspects of the industry, from gushing biographies for fans to technical manuals for aspiring broadcasters. While you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, publishers have rarely deigned to neglect the power of the cover to help tell the story inside, to make a book pretty, and (hopefully, for them) attract more readers and buyers. Publishing, after all, is a business (like radio!).

The illustrators, photographers, graphic designers and layout artists responsible for the cover art presented in Radio With Pictures: Iconic Cover Art from Books About Radio are largely anonymous. Each drew on a vocabulary of images that now seems cliche, but that during the period these books were published (mostly 1920s-1940s) were likely fresh and exciting. We see microphones (American carbon mics, RCA 77s, RCA 44s; and BBC-flagged models), studios, sky-scraping transmitter towers and brave broadcasters doing their jobs no-matter-what. It's hard to think of another industry that provides this range of icons, from the tiny and inanimate, to the human, to the gargantuan and electric.

Radio With Pictures: Iconic Cover Art from Books About Radio
Prepared by Feliks Banel for I STILL LOVE RADIO

Radio emerged a mass phenomena in the early 1920s, and writers and publishers leapt on the ethereal bandwagon.

Radio Drama and How To Write It (1926)
by Gordon Lea
The art for this British book from the 1920s is positively spiritual, as a single person stands atop the earth, broadcasting to the Universe and all its life forms (or those smart enough to build receivers, anyway). A hauntingly simple, hand-drawn pen and ink.

The Electric Word: The Rise of Radio (1928)
by Paul Schubert
This art nouveau-inspired cover entangles rectilinear man-made towers with stars and roiling, fluffy clouds. A great visual representation of how radio was sometimes talked about in this era, as an unseen force harnessed and put in service to man. Illustration by Constance Garland.

Throughout broadcast radio's first three decades, drama was a fixture on the daily schedule. While popular comedies and mystery programs of the "Golden Age" are most remembered nowadays, great playwrights and poets also found a home on radio and many published their works as books.

We Stand United and other Radio Scripts (1945)
by Stephen Vincent Benet
The transmitter and towers seen here on Benet's collection are a beacon of freedom for a world at war, a Statue of Liberty of free speech and a free press. The rocky outcroppings look as if they might be the northern coast of Maine, as close geographically to the conflict in Europe as any piece of American soil.

They fly through the air with the greatest of ease (1939)
by Norman Corwin
Unofficial poet laureate and bard of American radio is Norman Corwin, and this book of one of his earliest plays (inspired by the Spanish Civil War) is hauntingly illustrated by Laszlo Matulay.

World War II was radio's finest hour, and it also inspired some of the most articulate accounts of radio's potential (for good and for harm).

Radio In Wartime (1942)
by Sherman H. Dryer
Sherman H. Dryer's collection of critical essays about American radio during World War II puts a ribbon mic atop a stand in martial formation with flag standards, capped with big and bold letters and all bathed in an eerie red glow. Radio has been inducted, and is marching to battle.

Voices in the Darkness: The European Radio War (1943)
by Tangye Lean
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, refugees from European countries overrun by the Nazis are broadcasting back to their native lands with the help of the BBC. We see as much in the brightly lit control room and darkened studio, as the title curves across and bridges the divide.

The Axis on the Air (1943)
by Harold Ettlinger
Swastikas (at least two of them) figure prominently on this frightening cover from the midst of World War II. That the otherwise black and white images are soaked in blood red makes it all the more menacing.

The Complete Biography of Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen (1940)
by Jonah Barrington and Fenwick
What was menacing in black, white and red photographs, is, in a mostly yellow cartoon, absurd. Jonah Barrington's tongue-in-cheek "biography" of the Nazi broadcaster known as Lord Haw-Haw (aka William Joyce) shows the resilience of wartime Brits through comic illustrations by Fenwick.

Voices From Britain (1947)
by Henning Krabbe
The drama is gone from this collection of wartime scripts, collected after the war was won. We look skyward, following the towering transmitter tower as it points into the heavens.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, books about radio were a little bit about the present and a lot about the future. By the 1950s and 1960s, they were mostly about the past.

Modern Radio (1944)
by Kingdon S. Tyler
Radio is darn near (pre-Hiroshima and Nagasaki) atomic in this futuristic take on the broadcasting industry published toward the end of World War II.

This Fascinating Radio Business (1946)
by Robert J. Landry
According to the muscular cover art, this post-war look at the radio industry by Variety radio editor Robert J. Landry is all about bright, victorious colors and looking optimistically skyward.

I Looked and I Listened (1954)
by Ben Gross
The whimsical sketches on this book of columnist Ben Gross' reminiscences were created by Paul Galdone, who would not surprisingly go on to illustrate dozens of children's books.

Radio, Television and Society (1950)
by Charles A. Siepman
Radio, television and society were in upheaval in 1950 when this book was published, as the cubist-inspired cover illustration, replete with giant vacuum tube, circuitry and other unidentifiable elements, clearly shows.

On The Spot Reporting: Radio Records History (1967)
by George N. Gordon and Irving A. Falk
Published in 1967, this book romantically looks back to radio journalism's glory days. The cover seems to combine Pearl Harbor and the Hindenburg Disaster and one well-positioned, brave broadcaster.

Broadcasting has always been about personalities, and radio produced more than its fair share going back to its earliest days of the 1920s.

Ten Years Before the Mike (1935)
by Ted Husing
We see legendary broadcaster Ted Husing's profile superimposed on a carbon mic, since the man and the tool that lets us all hear him are useless without the other.

I Live On Air (1941)
by A.A. Schechter with Edward Anthony
Early NBC Radio news director A.A. Schechter's tell-all finds a ribbon mic planted like a flag on basketball-like planet.

Hello America! (1938)
by Cesar Saerchinger
The big worldwide carbon mic of CBS was pointed by Cesar Saerchinger (who preceded Edward R. Murrow as European Director of Talks) at all kinds of big heads, including the Duke of Windsor, Benito Mussolini, George Bernard Shaw, Hitler and others.

The Power Behind the Microphone (1941)
by P.P. Eckersley
The BBC's famous ship-like Broadcasting House glows in the background, while a giant BBC microphone in the foreground emits its own peculiar radiation.

It didn't take long for radio stations to become settings and radio people to become characters in novels and films. These are but a few of the many titles produced in the glory years.

Ginny Gordon and the Broadcast Mystery (1956)
by Julie Campbell
Radio was in its awkward phase when this book was published in 1956, that is, all but abandoned by the networks, and not yet an outlet for selling rock and roll records. The painting here shows a stiff, buttoned-down formality.

Go Ahead, Garrison! (1940)
by A.A. Schechter
War rages (albeit without Americans yet) and waters rise (and a football game ensues) as our heroic radio newsman looks on and brings it all to us live from the scene.

By Feliks Banel

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Radio and Genocide

Radio's role in the Rwandan Genocide is the subject of a research paper by David Yanagizawa for Stockholm University. I first came across this in a January 14, 2010 post on the New York Times' "Freakonomics" blog.

That broadcasting can play a role in fomenting violence is a concept virtually as old as the medium, and skillful propagandists exploited radio in support of their respective aims in nearly every 20th century conflict. However, I can't recall any previous research in this field as thorough as Yanagizawa's work appears to be.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Various Dial Positions

Okay, I'm running out of clever names for catch-all posts such as this that are a round-up of recent items and links. Let me know if you have any better ideas for a title I can use consistently (without getting sick of it).

First, I wrote a piece for Crosscut late last year that wasn't published until a week or so ago. It's called In Search of a New Radio 'Sweet Spot' and is another lamentation over automated radio.

Second, longtime Seattle Supersonics broadcaster Bob Blackburn passed away last Friday. Casey McNerthney wrote a nice story for the that included a link to audio of a panel discussion I moderated on the 25th anniversary of the Sonics' one and only NBA Championship.

Bob was a panelist and was incredibly nice. At some point, I mistakenly called him "Blob Backburn," and, as my ears reddened in shame, Bob said not to worry, Steve Allen had called him that back in the 1940s when they both were in radio in Los Angeles. Bob got a laugh, and I felt a lot better in spite of my blunder.

Third (and last), here's another piece of cool old radio ephemera, this time a promotional booklet produced by CBS after the Anschluss in 1938 (the official title is VIENNA MARCH, 1938 - a footnote for historians from the Columbia Broadcasting System). The graphics are fabulous, and the booklet itself is a nice synopsis of the crisis and CBS' coverage (including the first-ever "round up" from multiple foreign capitals).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Radio at War

This is just a short, self-congratulatory post to demonstrate that I have finally figured out how to add images to I STILL LOVE RADIO. I know, kind of lame that it took this long (especially because it is so simple to do).

Anyhow, the arresting artwork below is from the cover of a 1945 promotional publication highlighting the Blue Network, the precursor to ABC (and former secondary network of NBC).

Stand by for more images in subsequent posts!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Insignia Portable HD Radio from Best Buy

Have you heard about the new Insignia Portable HD Radio from Best Buy?

Nobody has, apparently, including the clerk at the Best Buy near where I live. Okay, he actually had heard of it, but he wasn't sure what it was, and he didn't know if they had any in stock. He typed a few keystrokes, and the computer told him there were three in the store, but it didn't say where, and he couldn't find them. Another clerk helped, and the radios eventually turned up on an unassuming endcap, hanging from a peg way down at the bottom. Let's just say that HD Radio hasn't exactly caught on, at Best Buy (or anyplace else, for that matter).

As esoteric as it is, HD Radio is a neat idea, with better sound than regular FM stereo, and the ability for broadcasters to offer "subchannels" with alternate programming in addition to their main terrestrial signal. The Seattle area is awash with subchannels, particularly via KING-FM, KPLU-FM and KUOW-FM. I'm not sure exactly how many people own HD Radios, but I'd venture a guess that it's a pretty small number.

My Best Buy expedition took place a week before Christmas, when I was inspired to buy a small HD Radio that I could easily plug into my home stereo, so that we could pipe KING-FM's commercial-free Evergreen Channel (KING-FM 98.1 HD-2 and also streaming via their website, if you want to get really specific) and its "all Classical Christmas" format all through the house. I already have an HD Radio in my kitchen that I bought two years ago (the Radiosophy HD100), but it's too unwieldy for this particular application and it doesn't travel well, even just around the house (it has a very LARGE power supply).

The Insignia is certainly affordable at $50, and it performed its "all Classical Christmas" task with flying colors throughout the holidays. The unit is compact (smaller than a pack of cigarettes, if it's still okay to use that as a comparison), and the built-in batteries charge up quickly via the provided USB cable, and the charge lasts at least 10 hours. It has 10 station presets, which is more than enough for most listening areas (I still have two empty presets), though the presets only register the main HD signal of any particular station (and NOT the subchannels). For example, I couldn't make the KING-FM HD-2 channel a preset, I was only able make the KING-FM HD-1 channel the preset and then have to click up the dial one step. The wire to the earbuds (provided) or, in my case, the cable to my stereo, functions as the antenna.

My only complaint with the Insignia is the responsiveness or sensitivity of the control buttons. It seems like you have to first "awaken" the radio by pressing any of the eight or so buttons, and then press the button again to activate whatever it is you're trying to do. Also, it seems like I always have to press the power button (and hold it down and wait several seconds) two or three or even four times to shut the radio off.

Now that Christmas has past, I've taken the Insignia with me on a few writing assignments where I've needed audio isolation, and it's been a snap to plug in my headphones and tune to KING-FM or to Jazz 24 (heard on KPLU 88.5 HD-2 around these parts). Next time I have to take a long drive I'll see what the reception is like between here and Portland (probably pretty good) or here and Spokane (probably non-existent in the Cascades and across most of Eastern Washington).

Meanwhile, I'll be waiting for "all Classical Christmas" to return (and hoping the HD format will still be around) so that the Insignia can get back to doing its real job.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Schorr & Simon as the Clark & Seacrest of NPR?

A couple of short items about LIVE broadcasting today . . .

New Year Things Considered
I heard part of NPR's live Toast of the Nation broadcast on New Year's Eve and wondered in a Crosscut piece about how to make it better, including bringing in Daniel Schorr and Scott Simon as the NPR equivalent of Dick Clark and Ryan Seacrest.

Evolution of Radio Drama
The old-time radio website posts an episode of the Great Gildersleeve every week, and I've been listening now for about six months. The episodes are posted sequentially, and this week's episode is from early September 1945. While all the previous episodes I've heard were recordings of live broadcasts with live studio audiences, this one was done in a studio without an audience. The effect is staggering, as the jokes don't get any laughs (no laugh track back then), and the whole thing comes across as a lifeless struggle. I need to do a bit more research about the 1945 season--appears there was also a new music director, new theme music, etc.

I freely acknowledge that I am obsessed with the superiority of historic and contemporary live broadcasting over the tape-delayed variety . . .