Thursday, June 28, 2007

Pseudo Disobedience - Part 2

Last post we laid out the reasons (both purported and real) commercial radio broadcasters are trying to block the proposed merger of XM and SIRIUS satellite radio. Now let's get down to cases.

First up, an informational site -- If you just stumbled on the site, and didn't look to closely, you might get the impression that this is a grassroots protest site, but its not. The National Association of Broadcasters run it, and their logo's at the bottom of the page for all to see.

As you might expect, the news articles all have a particular slant. Some you can check, some you can't. The New York Times pieces, for example, are available by subscription only. As with any of these sites (even the pro-merger ones), it's always best not to take things at face value.

For example, one of the articles you can click through to is a USA Today op-ed piece by Jimmy Schaeffler, a recognized telecommunications expert. His bio says he's associated with the Carmel Group, whose principal clients are satellite TV providers. So does that matter?

Well, as it turns out, DirecTV offers XM programming as part of their service, and the DISH Network streams SIRIUS. So if the merger goes through, instead of these two satellite TV services playing XM and SIRIUS against each other for privilege of carrying their programming, they'll have to deal with a single provider. So the real concern isn't about a monopoly to the consumer, its about a monopoly to satellite TV providers.

Still, the site doesn't disguise its relationship to the NAB, so it's to be expected that the contents push their agenda.

But how about the Consumer Coalition for Competition in Satellite Radio? Everything on the site suggests that it's a grassroots movement by satellite radio subscribers upset about the merger. when I looked over the sign up page, though, I saw something out of place. It was a menu listing for HD Radio. With the exception of broadcasters who continually tout HD Radio, I have yet to run across anyone not professionally involved with broadcasting who's more than marginally aware of it, let alone considers it an important source for content. (And its not just me - here's how it stacks up in consumer awareness.)

The Corporate Crime Reporter did some serious digging, and published an interview with the founder of the movement, Chris Reale. In their report, they note

Reale works full time at Williams Mullen Strategies - the lobbying arm of the Williams Mullen law firm - whose communications practice is headed by Julian Shepard - a former assistant general counsel at NAB."

Reale won't say who is funding his "consumer group," but he says the NAB "supports" the group.

He refuses to identify the nature of NAB's support.
The purpose of this post isn't to vilify the NAB, but just to make a simple point. There are citizens pushing for change, and vested interests posing as citizens pushing for change. The beauty of the Internet is that it doesn't take a lot of effort to discover which is which.

- Ralph

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Pseudo Disobedience - Part 1

We've had some good examples of grass roots movements using the Internet to heighten awareness and more effectively bring about change. But there are plenty of astroturf movements that are using the same strategy to further their cause.

Sometimes they're easy to spot, and sometimes not -- until you do a little digging. This post I'll give you some foundation, and next time use that to spot Internet initiatives that seem to come from the public, but are actually businesses furthering their own agenda in disguise.

We'll take the proposed XM/SIRIUS satellite radio merger. The NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) is throwing all their money and influence at their congresscritters to sink this merger.

The mantra is that it would create a monopoly, allow the XIRIUS (or whatever it will be called) to raise rates with impunity, and decrease the programming choices for consumers.

OK, imagine a world where McDonald's, KFC and Burger King lobbyed a town council to block the merger of two upscale restaurants because it would create a monopoly, allowing the combined restaurants to gouge the consumer, and the total number of entrees would decrease, limiting dining choice.

Seems odd, doesn't it? Why would fast food chains care what happens to these restaurants anyway? Chez Francois' patrons don't eat Big Macs. If killing the merger meant both restaurants went out of business, though, then it begins to make sense. Because then those patrons would have to eat at the fast food places if they wanted to dine out at all.

And that's what this is all about. XM and SIRIUS need to merge to stay viable. Commercial radio wants to block it so both will die, and they'll return to being the only game in town (well, except for all the other media choices, but they're not focused on those, so we won't either -- yet).

Take a spin around the AM and FM dial sometime. Do you hear even a fraction of the programming variety offered by either satellite radio company? Merging would mean the elimination of duplicate programming, but let's be realistic. The reason why people voluntarily pay for satellite radio when they can get commercial radio for free is the programming. XIRIUS knows that's their primary asset. Don't expect that to significantly change.

Would a combined service charge more? It would be good news for the NAB. If the rates go up, more people will leave -- which is what commercial broadcasters want anyway. And while XIRIUS might be a monopoly in the sense that it will be the only subscription-based satellite radio available, it's hardly an all-or-nothing choice for listeners.

There are many other media choices. In addition to commercial broadcast radio, there's broadcast public radio. There's also Internet radio (for the time being), podcasts, music from MP3 players and cell phones, and more.

I've never subscribed to either XM or SIRUS. If the merger goes through I probably still won't. But I'll still have plenty of listening options.

My house gets its electricty from Dominion Power. If I want electricity, I have one choice and one choice only -- and not having power isn't really an option. Which sounds more like a monopoly to you?

- Ralph

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Moment of Silence to Get Your Attention

If you listen to an Internet radio station and haven't been following the controversy surrounding the proposed rate hikes in royalties, you might be in for a surprise. There's a good chance you won't hear anything when you go to your favorite audio stream.

Many Internet radio stations are going silent today. The purpose is to demonstrate what the consequences of the new royalty rates would be. So today, no No Live365. No Rhapsody, no MTV Online. No online streams from KCRW, KALW, or WAMU, and hundreds of others.

No one's arguing that artists should be paid a royalty for the music used. But when the rates go from a percentage of profits to a per-listener rate that in many cases exceeds the provider's total revenue several times over, something's got to go. And it either the rates, or the stations.

The Sound Exchange which came up with these rates wasn't interested in changing them; the Copyright Royalty Board which accepted their recommendation refused to listen to arguments on appeal. At this point only Congress can affect a change, through H.R. 2060 -- which is still in committee.

July 15 the new rates kick in. The silence this time will last 24 hours. Without action on your part, come July 15 the silence will be permanent.

- Ralph

Monday, June 25, 2007

Case of the Disappearing Discs

Long time readers know I couldn't let an article about WETA pass without comment. In Marc Fisher's blog at the this past Sunday, he talked about the resurgence of classical music on the Washington airwaves, thanks to WETA's return to the format after the demise of WGMS (you can find my thoughts on the whole mess here, if you need to get up to speed).

I was heartened to see general manager's Dan DeVany's comment that he planned to "stay the course." But he's speaking for the management team that ditched three decades of classical programming to chase public radio news listeners in the first place.

Which leads me to my real point. The final paragraph of Fisher's blog entry reads:
[DeVany] says the station will move to a greater variety of pieces as it builds its CD library from 4,000 discs to more than 50,000 in the coming months.

WHAT!?!? A station in a major market that broadcast classical for 30 years only has 4,000 CDs? When I worked at Nimbus Records, I was responsible for sending releases to key stations, including WETA. WETA should have received at least 100 titles just from our little label alone. And when you add all the releases from Warner, Harmonia Mundi, Universal, Sony/BMG, EMI and all the other minor independent labels, I'm guessing the station's probably received over 500 CDs a year -- every year since the mid 1980's.

So of the 20,000 or more discs WETA should have received, where did they go? Did they throw them out when they went to all news?

And where's the WGMS library? That was supposed to go straight to WETA as part of the deal. Is that the 50,000 discs they're referring to? (It could be -- that would be quite a cataloging job).

Here's what prompted this reaction. I have about 2,000 classical CDs in my personal collection. I've been putting them to good use -- as my Wednesday morning audience on WTJU can [hopefully] attest. Still, the concept that the most important classical radio station in the Washington area has a library only double the size of mine, seems somehow odd -- and wrong.

- Ralph

Tracking the Ethereal

Sean Tubbs of the Charlottesville Podcasting Network left an excellent comment on our last post. In additions to his thoughtful observations and sharing his first-person experience in broadcasting, he asked a very important question:
So, what does happen to old radio programs?
As fans of nostalgia radio know, many of the radio dramas, comedies and variety shows broadcast from the 1930's through the 1950's were recorded onto vinyl, and are readily available today.

Many stations also did airchecks, and some of these from the 1960's and later have survived and are shared by collectors.

(An aircheck is a recording made of a station's broadcast for the purpose of monitoring the on-air talent. Usually the aircheck is reviewed by the program director and sometimes by the announcer as well. Some stations used "skimmers," which basically only recorded when the microphone was turned on, and paused when the mic was shut off. This "telescoped" a 4-hour airshift down to about 20 minutes of tape by skipping most of the music.)

The best source I've found for aircheck material is The site specializes in AM Top 40 radio, but within that focus contains an amazing variety of recorded radio segments from the 1950's up through the 1980's. Some of these are skimmed airchecks, which give you the flavor of the announcer's style, while others are complete recordings and include music and commercials.

Thanks to Reelradio, I've been able to listen to the first DJ of rock and roll, Alan Freed, and relive some memories with Tiger Bob Raleigh on WPGC.

For the Washington area, there's the excellent DCRTV historical site, DCRTV Plus. For a small fee, you can get access to a variety of information about old radio stations, programs and air talent, as well as some audio clips.

Some stations have their own fan sites, such as WPGC, and WJMA (the station I started at) also have some audio available.

And some air talent have made their own recordings available. In his comment, Sean mentions Ed Walker. Ed Walker and Willard Scott (long before the Today Show weather gig) were known as the Joy Boys and produced some of the greatest radio comedy ever heard (IMHO), rivaling Bob and Ray (also IMHO). Many of their skits are available through the Joy Boys website.

But this is just a fraction of what went out over the airwaves. Most of it is lost forever, and what remains reminds me very much of what's usually recovered at an archeological dig. Small shards of pottery and fragments of tools that give us but a hint of what the original objects were like to hold and use.

- Ralph

So what other sources are out there that I've missed? Leave a comment and share a link!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Ethereal History

I listened to the final episode of the Tartan Podcast this week. After 2 years and 110 programs, producer and host Mark Hunter is closing out this portion of his podcasting career. The Tartan Podcast showcased upcoming independent artists in Scotland (especially Glasglow, where Hunter lived) and I discovered several excellent bands through the program, such as Gum and Kasino.

As the final episode played, I reflected on how the nature of audio has changed. Growing up in Northern Virginia, our family always listened to Harden and Weaver on WMAL in the mornings. They were brilliant broadcasters, entertaining and interesting in a low-key fashion. Although they had a successful 32 year run, and garnered several awards, little remains of their legacy (in fact, I couldn't even find an appropriate link for them).

You'll have to take my word for how great Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver were. To my knowledge there are no recordings of their broadcasts. It's not possible for anyone who didn't hear them on air to listen to examples of their craft now.

The Tartan Podcast is a different story. Mark Hunter will keep the website up, so anyone who is just discovering the program can listen to all 110 episodes. You'll have to take my word about Hardin and Weaver -- you can judge the Tartan Podcast for yourself.

But the purpose of this post isn't to contrast the transient nature of audio in the 1960's against the permanence of Internet audio. The Tartan Podcast has ceased production, but the show isn't frozen in amber for all eternity. Already some of the links on the site have gone bad. Kasino's called it a day, and the lead singer of Gum is now a solo artist.

The Tartan Podcast website will be around for a while -- as long as someone pays for the storage. Its possible that five, ten or even twenty years from now Mark Hunter will cancel the account, and the site and all its contents will disappear from public view.

The Internet has changed the way we listen to audio, and how its distributed, and even what happens when a program completes it run. For the Hardin and Weaver program, the show winked out of existence after their last sign-off; for the Tartan Podcast, it's the long goodbye. The time between that final post and the disappearance of the website might be measured in months, years, or perhaps even decades, but it will still be a finite period of time.

If you haven't discovered the Tartan Podcast yet, there's still time.

- Ralph

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Cyber Disobedience

A friend's son recently returned from a seminar at Warren Wilson College on the mechanics of protesting. His assessment was that many of the attendees wouldn't be effective protesters.

His point was that unless you are prepared to be arrested and taken to jail, you shouldn't go out to protest in the first place (and apparently many of the attendees weren't).

I agree that many wouldn't be effective protesters, but for a different reason. In my opinion, effective protesting has moved online.

Rest assured, I'm not someone who thinks the Internet is the be all and end all, but look at what's happened within the past few months.

1) A spontaneous protest against bone-headed DRM caused the HD-DVD hexidecimal code to show up on millions of websites. Angry consumers, fed up with being treated like criminals by the MPAA and RIAA, took action. They not only showed unequivocally that the emperor had no clothes, but commented on the inadequacy of his physique as well.

2) An attempt by the Sound Exchange (whose key members are the major record labels) to crush Internet radio with bankrupting fees was thwarted by an intensive and well-organized e-mail campaign that crashed the Congressional servers. Congress got the message, and legislation was hastily drafted to block the action (this fight isn't over yet -- but I'll save that for another post).

3) While not quite as world-shaking, fans of the CBS program "Jericho" were angered when the program was canceled, and their requests ignored. A "Nuts to CBS" campaign began which flooded CBS' corporate headquarters with bags of peanuts sent from all over the country. The program's been renewed.

The advantage of these cyber actions is that they're quantifiable, and impossible to ignore. One can frantically wave a placard outside the G8 summit, but the powers that be never see it -- and the news media seems to be less interested in covering protests, beyond the soundbite.

Congress knew exactly how many people e-mailed in to protest the Sound Exchange rates -- and the numbers were large enough for them to take action. CBS was shown in a way they couldn't ignore how many viewers "Jericho" had, and that number was more accurate than any Nielsen survey. The AAC, which developed the HD-DVD encryption key, threatened legal action against posters of the code, but when millions stood up to be counted, that threat didn't materialize.

While an Internet campaign won't work for everything, one that is focused can achieve real results. It's not as cool as getting arrested for unlawful assembly, but it can be much more effective. And isn't the real purpose of protest to change the system?

- Ralph

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Tooting my own horn

In addition to this little blog, I do a few other things to occupy my time -- such as host a classical music program on WTJU, 91.1 fm in Charlottesville, VA. I decided when I started the program that would do something different. In order to fully explore the world of classical music, I began a no-repeat policy.

Each piece of music is aired on "Gamut" only once. Since 1984, when this peculiar experiment began, I've aired quite a body of work -- including unfamiliar works by famous composers, and works that deserve to be heard more often by lesser luminaries. And I still haven't gotten to all the basic repertoire yet!

Many people have asked for copies of the playlist, and so I've started a blog to oblige them. In time, hopefully, the playlists for all 743 three-hour programs (and counting) will be available for folks to look over. And I've also made a PDF of the master playlist available for download as well.

Want to know what's been going on in C'ville every Wednesday from 6 to 9 in the morning? Here's what I've been doing while most of my friends are just getting out of bed.

And why a picture of Gabriel for this little piece of shameless self-promotion? Well, he is the Patron Saint of broadcasters!

- Ralph

Friday, June 08, 2007

Learning about Lloyd

I received another DVD of Harold Lloyd movies the other day, and discovered how much I still don't know. "The Kid Brother" is acknowledged as one of Lloyd's best films -- but I didn't know that when I sat down to watch it. All I knew was that it was an utterly charming comedy with some absolutely brilliant camerawork and some of the best sight gags I've seen.

It was only after I had enjoyed the movie that I found out how highly it was esteemed. I recommended it to a friend, and he happened to research it online -- and there that's when we found the critical reviews that all basically agreed on the quality of the film (which was also in line with my viewing experience).

Who knows what I'll learn next?

- Ralph

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Six Degrees of Bacon -- Without the Bacon

Several friends of mine marvel at my apparent vast range of knowledge on seemingly unrelated subjects. It's not really that remarkable. I happen to believe that most things are interrelated, and I enjoy following the connection from one thing to another.

Case in point: the other night I stumbled across a silent film on TCM, "The Monster." It was a horror/comedy starring Lon Chaney (a still from the movie appears on the right). The bumbling amateur detective seemed familiar, so I did a quick search on IMDB and discovered that Johnny Arthur had a long career in movies, and had played Spanky MacFarland's father in a couple of Our Gang comedies (which is where I had seen him before).

I also saw he played a Japanese character named Suki Yaki in a short series of Hal Roach comedies during the 1940's. It turns out that Roach did some comedies portraying the Axis leaders as buffoons. In addition to Arthur, the series starred Joe Devlin as Mussolini, and Bobby Watson as Hitler, a role he made a career of playing.

I was already familiar with Watson -- I had seen him as Der Fuhrer in "Hitler -- Dead or Alive" a very strange B picture starring Ward Bond as a wise-cracking gangster (older readers may remember him as the wagon master in the 1960's TV show "Wagon Train").

Curious about these comedies, I popped over to, and found "Nazty Nuisance." Jean Porter gave a standout performance as a native girl, which prompted me to look her up. Sort of a Noel Neill type, she had a good mid-level career as an actress, and was married to director Edward Dymtryk, who was blacklisted in the 1950's for being a Communist.

So here's the result of my channel surfing:

1) Watched "The Monster," and discovered that comedies based on horror movies cliches were being made in 1925 - 50 years before "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

2) Watch "Nazty Nuisance" and gained more insight into the worldview of America during the Second World War -- the Japanese were treacherous, the Italians ineffectual bunglers, the Germans bullies, and the Axis would be stopped by average American joes with no pretension about them, a good sense of humor, and good old Yankee ingenuity.

4) Found out more about an actor I knew very little about.

3) Added Dymtryk's "Murder My Sweet" to my Netfix que (we'll save the discussions about my admiration for Dick Powell and Raymond Chandler for other posts).

4) Added a film or two with Jean Porter to said que.

As I say, nothing remarkable. Just follow the trail through six degrees of separation and see where it leads. I'm seldom disappointed.

- Ralph

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Raining Lemons at WETA

According to a story in the Washington Post, the WETA/WGMS saga had a happy ending. WETA's total listenership is up, they've had the best pledge drive ever, and even more people have signed up to be member supporters of the station. WETA is now #5 in the Metro DC market.

One would think this would be cause for rejoicing, but remember WETA only returned to classical because their attempt to grab a younger news demographic fell flat on its face – and "rescuing" WGMS was the only way for them to save face.

Look at the remarks of Dan DeVany, WETA's general manager:

"It looks like a combination of things are working for us, People have realized that classical music on the radio resides here. It appears that WGMS listeners have found us."

"It looks like…" "It appears…" It reads like someone grudgingly admitting that something distasteful worked -- but they still don't want any parts of it. Even DeVany's picture accompanying the article communicates this conflict – IMHO it looks like he just bit into a lemon and is trying to force a smile.

Perhaps he's thinking about the other radio news – WAMU's audience is also larger. Without WETA's "me-too" news format diluting the market, WAMU now serves just about all of the public radio news listenership.

Leaping to the #5 spot with a format you couldn't wait to ditch – and watching your rival thrive with a format you couldn't get off the ground -- has got to be a bittersweet victory indeed.

It rained lemons, and WETA reluctantly made lemonade. They ought to put some sweetener in the batch and enjoy it.

- Ralph