Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Lion in Winter

While others in my household watched Hallmark holiday specials, I viewed a different kind of holiday film -- "The Lion in Winter." It's the kind of dichotomy that's become the norm here.

Although many don't, technically one could consider this a holiday movie. The plot involves a family with strained relations gathering together for Christmas, where they air all their differences, and in the end, reconcile somewhat with each other.

In this case, the family is the highly dysfunctional one of Henry II. Henry invites his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine who has been kept locked up for some ten years (after siding with two of his sons in an aborted rebellion), to the winter court for Christmas. He also requires the presence of his three surviving sons. The eldest, Richard is Eleanor's favorite, while the youngest, John is the Henry's. The middle son, Geoffery most bargain for what position and power he can.

Added to the mix is Alais, Henry's current mistress, who came over 16 years before from France with a dowry and a promise of marriage. Also guesting with Henry is young Philip II, the new king of France, come to demand either a return of the dowry or the long-overdue marriage to one of the king's sons.

Ostensively, Henry's gathered everyone to announce his heir apparent -- and all involved (save poor Alais) play everyone against each other to ensure the right son is chosen.

OK, so it's not the kind of "comfort food" drama normally served up on TV at Christmas time, but that's part what made it so appealing. Almost everyone's lived through some kind of familial awkwardness this time of year, and "Lion in Winter" takes some of those spats and distorts them to funhouse mirror proportions.

The cast is superb, and the writing absolutely flawless. Peter O'Toole plays Henry II masterfully. He previously portrayed the character in the 1964 film "Becket" (with Richard Burton in the starring role), and this film seems very much like a sequel, giving O'Toole an opportunity to further develop the role.

Katherine Hepburn plays the iron-willed Elanor, and the rest of the cast is equally strong. Anthony Hopkins plays Richard (historically to become Richard the Lionheart, and Henry's heir) as a brooding warrior with dark secrets lurking just beneath. Nigel Terry (later to win fame as King Arthur in "Excaliber") portrays the snivelling weakling John, who would later be Robin Hood's enemy (according to legend) and sign the Magna Carta (according to fact). The biggest surprise was the appearance of Timothy Dalton as the young king of France (I didn't know he started films that early).

The film is based on a stage play by James Goldman, which means it's light on special effects, but heavy on dialogue. And what great dialogue it is!

Here's Eleanor scolding her children and perhaps saying something that's relevant today.

After all, if as Elanor says, the whims of rulers -- rather than events -- determine whether there's war or peace, then what does that say about the actions of current world leaders?

Yes, I could watch "Love's Enduring Promise" or some other holiday fluff, but I think I'll revisit the dysfunctional Plantagenets. Whip-smart dialogue, fully-realised characters -- and I haven't even mentioned the air of authenticity achieved by filming on location and an amazing attention to historic detail. No wonder it won three Oscars.

In one scene Elanor chases Henry from the room, making him physically ill with a detailed description of her affair with his father (which may or may not be true -- such is the level of mind games in this film). As he flees the room, she calmly observes, "Well, every family has their ups and downs."

It sure puts mine in perspective!

- Ralph

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

How to Make Classical Music Boring

Yes, I know. Many people already consider classical music boring. But public radio has figured out how to make it even more so by borrowing a page from commercial radio.

Audiences continue to drift away from commercial radio, in part because each song is market-tested to within an inch of its life. Only the songs that test well and appeal to the broadest part of the demographic get in -- bland, generic songs tend to do the best, as they offend the least.

The New York Times recently published an article recently about how fewer songs were being played more often.

Tom Owens, the executive vice president of content for Clear Channel Communications, ... said that “Apologize” [the song that's the subject of the article] deserved such heavy airplay because it had received “off the charts” results in listener research testing, and added that the song is devoid of content that might prompt more conservative pop stations to limit its airplay. [emphasis mine]
The article goes on to explain:
Some analysts say that responding to the decline by repeating the big hits even more will set broadcasters on a path to losing listeners.
“What most of these folks do is retreat to a more safe position, and in radio, the safer position is to play fewer songs more often,” said Mike Henry, chief executive of Paragon Media Strategies...
So in November, the Public Radio Program Directors organisation announced the results of their in-depth study of midday classical listener preferences. By rigorously testing focus groups with 30-second excerpts, they were able to determine that
The High Appeal sounds were positive and uplifting, with a soothing or reassuring familiarity, in style and overall texture if not always in terms of the actual melody....

Familiarity was important to both Serious and Casual listeners. There was no evidence of “burn‐out” of often‐played music nor do Serious listeners show a great desire for obscure or challenging music on radio in middays.
In other words, music devoid of content that might prompt more conservative stations to limit its airplay.

And so public radio continues at an ever-increasing pace down the road commercial radio's travelled.

So what's the big deal? Well, first off it's a given that general managers throughout the public radio system will use/misuse this info to make their program and music directors keep middays mellow -- you know, the way they used to on those easy listening stations. Which means fewer pieces in heavier rotation.

So what's wrong with that? Many people consider classical music boring already because they perceive it as a dead artform of little relevance to their lives. And, given the programming on most stations, they're not far wrong. According to the bulk of what's played, classical music apparently started around 1700 with Vivaldi and ended around 1880 with Brahms. And one would think that everyone either wrote for orchestra or solo piano; that no one wrote for other solo instruments (especially the organ), or chamber music, or the solo human voice, or choral music. It would seem that no female ever wrote classical music, and all the men that did died over a century ago.

If public radio stations programmed rock the way they did classical, you'd only hear doo-wop and early sixties pre-British invasion girl groups. If that was your only exposure to rock, would you think it relevant? Would you be surprised to find out that new rock music is being written, performed and recorded today?

Ditto with classical music. There are composers writing exciting well-crafted works right now, being played by young musicians right now, aimed at audiences who are alive right now -- and you will very, very rarely hear a note of it on public radio. And for stations that follow this study's findings and stick to the familiar few works, that chance plummets to zero.

And I have a concern with the methodology. I'm not convinced 30-second sound bites are an accurate way to evaluate classical music. For most genres, sound is pretty consistent throughout the song. In general, once the tempo's established it's set for the rest of the track. The timbre usually remains consistent throughout, and although it might vary in dynamics, in most 3-4 minute songs volume significantly changes perhaps once or twice.

Classical music is all about contrast. Tempos vary greatly between the movements of a work, or even within an individual movement. A full orchestra may consist of 80 members but rarely do they all play at the same time. Orchestral compositions routinely vary the combinations. You might hear a solo instrument one minute, all the strings the next, and then a brass choir after that.

Thirty seconds can give you a good idea of what an average pop song is like, but is it really a fair way to judge the character of a work lasting 10-40 minutes?

Here's a little test. If you were in one of those focus groups, which of the following selections would you like to hear on the radio? Which would you not?

1. Selection 1: Smooth orchestral sounds
2. Selection 2: Winds, brass and percussion ensembles
3. Selection 3: Operatic voices singing in a quartet
4. Selection 4: Full chorus

Of course, it's a trick question -- all four samples come from the same piece -- the final movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. So if you said "no" to any of the choices above, you've voted to ban the work from the air -- even if you said "yes" to the other choices!

In most markets, the public radio station is the only source for classical music on the air. Instead of continually narrowing their programming choices, what if those stations took the lead and began actively promoting the music of THIS country and/or THIS century? I'm not talking about contemporary music that sounds like a toolbox descending a staircase. I'm talking about the melodic music of substance that the casual listener, as well as the serious classical music fan, could enjoy.

It's not that hard. I do it every Wednesday morning on WTJU. Classical music really is an exciting, vibrant, living art form -- even if it doesn't test well in focus groups.

- Ralph

Sunday, December 16, 2007

So What's Different?

Last night I watched "Network" again. I remember seeing Paddy Chayefsky's masterpiece in the theater when it first came out in 1975. I thought then that the movie articulated everything wrong with television. Revisiting it 30+ years later, I'm surprised at how relevant it still is.

Most everyone's familiar with Howard Beale's rant "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore," but that's not the part that resonated with me throughout the years. Rather, it was one of Beale's jeremiads where he reveals that TV will tell us whatever we want to hear -- and we take it to be true. (Fox News anyone?)

Here's the bulk of the rant:

Why is it woe to us? Because you people and 62 million other Americans are listening to me right now. Because less than 3% of you people read books. Because less than 15% of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube.

Right now there is a hole -- an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube.

This tube is the gospel; the ultimate revelation. This tube can make and break presidents, Popes, prime ministers... This tube in the most awesome g*ddammed force in the whole g*ddammed world.

Woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.

So you listen to me. Television is not the truth. Television is a goddammed amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players.

We're in the boredom-killing business.

So if you want the truth, go to God; go to your gurus; go to yourselves! Because that's the only place you're going to find real truth.

Man, you're never going to get any truth from us. We'll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell. We'll tell you that Kojak always gets the killer, that nobody ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker's house, and no matter how much trouble's the hero's in, don't worry. Just look at your watch. At the end of the hour he's going to win.

We'll tell you any sh*t you want to hear.

We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true. But you people sit there day after day, night after night -- all ages, colors, creeds. We're all you know. You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal.

You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube.

This is mass madness!

You maniacs! In God's name, you people are the real thing. We are the illusion.

So turn off your television sets, turn them off now. Turn them off right now and leave them off.
Television's not totally evil, of course -- and neither is the Internet. But as I look at the rise of Facebook, and the increase of online gaming and virtual worlds such as Second Life, I have to wonder.

What if we substituted the word "Internet" for "tube" and "television" in the monologue above. Would it still ring true?

- Ralph

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Orange Odor Update

In Orange County, Virginia the wheels of justice turn slowly -- but carefully. While the ongoing investigation of the spurious websites creating during the recent Board of Supervisors election continues, a new complication has arisen to muddy things according to the Fredricksburg Free-Lance Star.

There's now an additional question of print ads being run without proper attribution, which complicates the case somewhat -- especially if it turns out the same parties are responsible for both the newspaper ads and the websites. And that seems to be very likely.

Related to this story, I must acknowledge a correction. Teel Goodwin had objected to the mention of his son on the website. I said I didn't see the mention, so what was the problem?

An alert reader did, though, and pointed it out to me. Under the header "On Education:"
Teel Goodwin says: "We must provide our citizens the best educational system possible." source: campaign brochure
But, as the privileged son of one of the largest landowning families in the County, Goodwin is a product of private schools. And his son does not attend public schools either. source: public record [emphasis mine]
I could go back and edit my original post, but I won't. Let the record show that I was wrong (like that's a novelty).

But the exchange demonstrated what I like best about the Internet, especially when it comes to op-ed pieces -- accountability. No one has to take my (or anyone else's) opinion at face value. You can always check the supporting facts for yourself by just clicking on the provided link. If I'm wrong, call me on it and show me your documentation.

And if a post or a comment is curiously lacking in links? Well. That should tell you something, too.

- Ralph

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Radio Daze

So is ignorance really bliss? Or is it self-destructive?

As I've commented before, the problem with the digital divide is that it's completely insular. The firestorms of controversy and criticism that sweep through the online community are completely unknown to those offline.

Commercial radio thrashes about desperately trying just about anything to hold on to a shrinking (and aging) audience. The frantic pushing of HD Radio shows that commercial broadcasters know that something's wrong -- and their approach shows they have not a clue about what audiences want, or how to provide it.

The answers are online -- and the answer is to move online. But the decision-makers at these stations live offline. And so they never see the solution -- or are even aware it's out there in (virtual) plain view.

Here're three examples of where we are:

1) Audiographics bids adieu
Ken Dardis, a radio professional who's been pushing and prodding the industry for years, has finally given up. In his final post he writes:

...the decision will be either to stop writing altogether (because it doesn't seem that radio is interested in how to step into the future), or to write about these new things I'm learning which are turning the advertising industry on its head (and which have been brought up in this column hundreds of times).
After writing, and documenting and analysing the path radio needs to take, Dardis is through trying to shout across the digital divide. He's moving on. And who could blame him?

2) Hear 2.0 turns up the heat
Mark Ramsey, another radio professional, has continually commented and pointed the way for radio. In a recent post, he took the gloves off (and not for the first time):

It's time for radio to stop imagining that success can be achieved by consolidating and cutting until one day your entire group is run from a PC in a locked room like W.O.P.R. in the 1983 movie Wargames. No need for PD's or air talent in that world. No need for marketing or research or promotion or staff. No need for anything but sales and - if you're lucky - an ever-diminishing number of listeners. It's Dabney Coleman and a big Central Brain that asks millions of listeners at once: "Want to play a game?"
Is that the kind of radio industry you want? Because if you mistake the current down market for a cycle rather than a trend, that's exactly the one you're going to get.

Looks like Ramsey is also getting a little tired of shouting across that divide.

3) At WJMA, nothing's changed
It's been a little while since I offered up an analysis of the ramshackle website of our local radio station WJMA. It's been a while, but the DJ's page is still "under construction," the job page still wants someone for "overseas programming" and the news page is still blank with a date of November 9.

Lots of people read those posts -- even some in the Orange area. And yet, no comment for any of the posts, and no change. Piedmont Communications remain incommunicado -- offline.

It's one thing for an individual to opt out of the online experience. But for a business in decline to steadfastly refuse to consider investigating the most important cultural tool of the 21st century? That kind of ignorance can be fatal.

- Ralph

Virtually Repeating Myself

Something curious is happening with increasing frequency. I find myself saying "it's in my blog."

No, its not vain self-aggrandizement or a pathetic attempt to build readership one person at a time. Rather, its because I've shared thoughts and opinions about various topics in this public forum -- and prefer not to repeat myself.

In a radio listserv discussion recently, someone asked about Tom, the new Charlottesville station. Instead of writing out my opinion about it and all the supporting arguements again, I simply referred to my post about it.
Two weeks ago, someone who travels infrequently to Washington, DC remarked that WETA had returned to a classical format. He asked if I knew about it. Oh yes, I said, and rather than run through the whole story again, referenced my posts:
From time to time things that I've been familiar with for a while bubble up into the awareness of the general public. Claiming I've known about something for months when the subject comes up always seemed to me a bit pretentious -- especially if it was unsubstantiated.

Blog entries, though, provide clear documentation of exactly what I thought (or knew, or thought I knew) and when.

While perhaps not always evident, I do put time and effort into these posts, and try to provide as much documentation as possible. And that's really why I prefer to refer. Because all the links are here, and the reader can check my sources and judge for themselves whether or not my conclusions are sound.

As Omar Kayyam wrote:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Well, I'm not so sure about the last part (although I generally don't revise blog posts once they're out), but now that my thoughts about various subjects are publicly available, this finger's free to move on.

- Ralph