Monday, January 28, 2008


Robert Heinlein readers are familiar with the concept of "tinstaafl." Tinstaafl is an acronym for the phrase, "there is no such thing as a free lunch." The concept goes back to the late 1800's when saloons would lay out sandwich fixing and invite patrons to partake of their free lunch. But the lunch was only available to those who purchased, at least, one drink -- which paid for the "free" meal.

Sunday the Internet was all abuzz with an announcement from a new P2P site. The press release from Qtrax trumpeted:


Largest Legal Music Catalog Ever Assembled: 25 t0 30 Million Copyrighted Tracks from Majors & Independents

30 million tracks for free? Sounds great -- but remember tinstaafl. The tracks may be "free" in terms of cash, but potential customers pay in terms convenience and privacy.

NOTE: Subsequent news stories revealed that Qtrax hadn't really got all the majors on board, and the whole business seems to be unraveling online. Nevertheless, I still think it's instructive to take a hard look at the Qtrax model, because as long as old school music biz types are in control, this bad idea will just keep coming back.

If you know you have to pay for that free lunch somehow, it's usually not too difficult to find the catch. The Qtrax site is a little short on information -- their "about" page has this, though.

Music lovers can discover new music and legally download full-length, high-quality versions of their favorite songs while compensating both the artists and the record labels through non-intrusive and relevant advertising. [emphasis mine]

Uh-oh. Embedded advertising is never a good sign. Better take a look at their legal disclaimer:

Qtrax is a free, Gnutella-based file sharing software allowing users around the world to make peer-to-peer connections with each other.

OK. So you have to register with Qtrax and download some new software. And what happens when you do?

Any information collected by us is used to communicate with you in order to tailor our products and services to you effectively. We also use your contact details to inform you of any updates to Qtrax, and for the purpose of targeting advertising on behalf of our advertisers. You agree to accept receipt of banner and pop-up advertising only when using the Qtrax application in return for using our free Qtrax file sharing software.

We reserve the right at all times to monitor, review, retain and/or disclose any information as necessary to satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request.

- So what does that mean? What kind of monitoring? And clearly there's no expectation of privacy. They've just said they'll roll over on you if the RIAA comes calling.

You agree that in order for Qtrax to work properly, Qtrax will from time to time automatically download updates to your computer in order to update the Qtrax software. You hereby irrevocably consent to allow such automatic updates to take place.

You know, most programs tell you when updates are available, and you have the option of getting them (or not). This software you've brought into you computer will update itself whether you want it to or not (I wonder how hard this thing is to uninstall).

So the music is free as long as you
  1. Install their player which will then be updated automatically (and/or modified) by Qtrax as they desire
  2. Give Qtrax your contact info and demographic information for them to sell to advertisers
  3. Put up with pop-up ads as you navigate your player
  4. Put up with other embedded advertising

There are a few other catches, such as the heavy DRM the files contain that track and report back on your usage to Qtrax, and a mandatory agreement to allow targeted marketing e-mails to come into your mailbox.

This is lunch is not free. And even if it does manage to survive its current trouble, I know I'm not willing to pay the price Qtrax is asking for their free music.

- Ralph

Thursday, January 17, 2008

WMRA -- Dropping Classical with Class

Long-time readers of this blog may recall my series of posts taking WETA-FM to task, first for dropping classical music, and then bringing it back. It wasn't so much the format change that I objected to, it was the intellectual dishonesty displayed by WETA surrounding the decision.

Despite WETA's high-minded statements about abandoning classical music to reach out to audiences unserved by public radio, kicking the format to the curb was really only about one thing -- chasing after the bigger pledge dollars pubradio news and talk format listeners cough up. WETA's return to classical was partially due to circumstance, and partially due to the fact that both listenership and pledge dollars dropped significantly after the change.

Down our way, public radio station WMRA-FM in Harrisonburg, Virginia changed over from NPR news/classical to primarily news/talk this week. And while the underlying reasons were precisely the same as WETA's, how WMRA presented their decision was very different -- and refreshingly honest.

WMRA also operates WEMC, a sister station just down the road at Eastern Mennonite University. WEMC has a weaker signal and smaller coverage area than WMRA. Basically, the two stations switched formats, with WEMC now running mostly automated classical programming, and WMRA going to news/talk.

On their website, WMRA explains the reason behind their decision. In a question-and-answer section, they lay it all out quite candidly.

We have an opportunity to offer more diversity of programming to most of our listening area, giving people a choice between music and information throughout the day. Almost all of our classical music listeners will still be able to hear music on another station during the midday, whereas most of them could not hear midday information programming.

Not quite the bafflegab proffered by WETA -- especially since WMRA didn't completely eliminate classical music. Check out the answer to the following question (emphasis mine):

What do you hope to gain from these new programs?

Foremost is increased public service, indicated by more people listening to public radio with this additional choice available to them. We are excited by the prospect of better fulfilling our mission by having a larger impact on the civic discourse in the communities we serve. We anticipate, of course, that serving more listeners, and serving them better as they listen longer, will turn into fundraising success so that we can provide even better service. Our long range plans call for increasing our community involvement, more coverage of Virginia news and issues, and expanding Virginia Insight to a daily live program once the resources are in place.
And there it is. WMRA changed the format to increase listenership and pledge dollars. But unlike WETA, they said so.

The other big difference was this: when WETA made the switch, it was consistently one of the top-rated stations in their market. WETA was making money -- it just got greedy and tried to make more money. WMRA had a much tougher row to hoe, as they themselves admit.

The audience for WMRA has not grown over the past 5 or 6 years, despite a rapidly growing population. In the past year and a half, the audience has actually declined significantly, particularly during the middays. On top of that, the average time spent listening has also declined. We have seen the effects of this on our fundraising. The number of members has decreased, and although the average gift has grown, the trend is not a sustainable one. We came up short of our goals in most of our recent on-air fundraisers, and have had to add a third fundraiser in recent years. We had to cancel some programs and reduce staffing two years ago. Because almost half of our operating budget comes from listener contributions, successful fundraising is essential to our being able to provide a quality service.

I applaud WMRA for their integrity. They could have spun it, but instead, station management chose to present the real reasons for the change. The thoughtful nature of their comments indicates to me this was a difficult decision not entered into lightly.

WMRA closes their explanation page by listing all the public radio stations in their listening area that play classical music (even WTJU gets a mention). They even provide program times, so WMRA's former classical listeners can find the music they love elsewhere.

WMRA may no longer play much classical music, but they still have plenty of class.

- Ralph

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sick Day at the Movies -- King of Kings

Like Ken, I had a sick day at the movies (although in my case, it was more like a week). Unlike Ken, I'll hold off on the three-word reviews -- the movie I watched, "King of Kings" (1961) deserves a little more than that.

One might assume that based on about forty years of derivative and uninspired low-budget religious biopics, that the "King of Kings" would be a yawner. It's not. And unlike long-winded films such as "Pirates of the Caribbean: At Franchise's End," the over two-and-a-half-hour playing time didn't seem excessive -- it merely gave this expansive story room to breathe.

I could probably do a series of posts about different aspects of "King of Kings" that work and work well, but I'll just touch on a few.

Despite the subject matter, the production told the story in an understated fashion, which somehow made it more compelling. There're no special effects for God -- His presence made known indirectly through the characters on screen. When Christ is tempted in the desert, the devil is heard but never seen. Is Jesus wrestling with an outside tempter or an inner one? Most of us have experienced something of the latter, which gives us an emotional connection to the character.

A tenet of mainstream Christianity is that Christ was both fully human and fully divine. Conveying that convincingly takes a lot of acting chops -- and Jeffrey Hunter succeeds admirably. Although he doesn't have much dialogue, the range of expressions play across his face speak volumes. Hunter effectively shows the inner peace of Christ and has an intent stare that shows something of divine power and understanding.

He shows compassion in his final meeting with John the Baptist, clearly knowing what's in store for them both. He stares down Judas with steely resolve at the Last Supper, advising him to do what he must -- just do it quickly. His face shows the warring emotions within as he stands on the brink at the Garden of Gesthemane, and while "King of Kings" may not match "The Passion of Christ" for graphic torture, Hunter still shows us Jesus suffering convincingly (perhaps more so, as we've come to know Hunter's Jesus in good times and bad over the course of the film).

Like many other books, the first four books of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) underwent the Hollywood treatment -- parts of the narrative were deleted, characters rearranged, back stories changed, and so on. Herod's daughter dances provocatively for the head of John the Baptist a la Oscar Wilde's play. And that dance is no less provocative for being filmed almost a half-century ago.

Barabbas gets an expanded role in "King of Kings." Both Matthew and Mark say this prisoner the crowds chose to free instead of Jesus was an insurrectionist. In "King of Kings" he's the head of the Jewish resistance, waging a guerrilla war on the occupying Romans.

Judas Iscariot also gets some back story, which helps his motivation considerably. There's always been something of a problem with Judas. As one of the disciples he was in close contact with Jesus on a daily basis, learning from Him and seeing him perform miracles -- and yet he betrayed Him in the end for money. It seems odd that someone so close to divinity would be so unaffected by it, and the assumption that Judas was just bad just doesn't measure up.

According to "King of Kings," Judas is an associate of Barabbas, and while becoming a disciple of Jesus, maintains his friendship with the would-be liberator of Israel. Judas comes to understand that Jesus is the Messiah, but like Barabbas has a hard time fitting him into the then-popular notion of the Messiah as warrior-king.

As the story unfolds, Judas witnesses the miracles and finally understands the divinity (and power) Jesus possesses. He also knows that Jesus chooses not to use that power to topple the Romans. After Barabbas' insurrection fails, Judas comes up with a simple plan. He reasons that if Jesus was captured by the Romans and his life was personally threatened, he would act.

So Judas betrays Jesus because he believes in His power, and to place Jesus in a position to use that power to free Israel. It makes sense, and has a certain irony as earlier when Christ was in the wilderness he rebukes the devil's challenge to demonstrate His power, saying "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." In a sense, that's what Judas did. And the results were not those that anyone expected.

While lesser actors in subsequent films tried to emulate Jeffrey Hunter's performance by staring blankly up at the ceiling, so too lesser composers tried to copy Miklos Rosza's inspired score. But there's more to providing music for a religious film than just a wordless chorus and hymn-like chords.

With deft orchestration, Rozsa captures not just the mood of the scene, but also the milieu. His music for Salome's dance, while his Roman march personifies the unstoppable nature of this military force as it conquers all before it (and if you listen carefully, I think you'll hear a pre-echo of John William's "Imperial March" from "Star Wars").

At Christmas, I often use Rosza's Nativity music on my radio program. Its childlike theme use flutes, representing the shepherds, with an Oriental flavor for the Magi. The delicate scoring of his cue for the "Lord's Prayer" underlines its spiritual simplicity. And who could doubt -- after hearing the climatic finale -- that they've just seen the greatest story ever told?

I thoroughly enjoyed "King of Kings." But remember -- it's a story filtered through Hollywood. It's pretty accurate, but don't treat it as gospel.

- Ralph

And I highly recommend Telarc's recording of this score with Eric Kunzel conducting the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Great stuff!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

WJMA -- Frozen in Time

After an extensive examination of our local radio station's website (and some concrete suggestions on how to fix it), I promised to keep checking from time to time to see if anything changed. Since their headline news seemed frozen on November 9, I've made the ninth day of the month the time to officially revisit the site and report on any changes.

So far, nothing. The DJ profile page is still under construction, they're still looking for someone to "oversee" production, and there's still no news at all.

Mark Ramsey's current posting at Hear 2.0 expresses his frustration at commercial radio's inability to adapt to the new realities of media.

The crisis in our industry, radio, is that we are so ridiculously narrow about our potentialities.
But were we looking the other way when every other form of media exploded into every conceivable distribution channel and dimension (including satellite radio)? Were we looking the other way when we dragged our feet on streaming? Were we looking the other way when we nixed any Internet investments unless they could be liquidated on day one? Were we looking the other way as we celebrated radio's new status as a "reach medium" at exactly the time advertisers are moving away from reach and towards accountability? Were we looking the other way as we chose to consolidate our way out of trouble and fire our way out of red ink?
Why do we keep looking the other way?

Unfortunately, Piedmont Communications proves his point.

We'll see if the WJMA website continues to "blink 12:00" on February 9. Or if they finally looked this way.

- Ralph

Monday, January 07, 2008

3,700 Sundays of High Adventure

"Prince Valiant," the weekly adventure strip that started February 13, 1937, and is still published in Sunday papers, celebrated its 3,700th installment yesterday. While there are still some strips around that began in the 1930's (such as "Blondie"), "Prince Valiant" is one of a kind.

I've grown up reading the strip, and I'm always surprised (and disappointed) that I rarely run across anyone else who's a fan of "Prince Valiant." That's too bad -- because "Prince Valiant" is a reading experience like no other. And it's one that (in my opinion) should appeal to many people that don't normally read comics.

First off, it's something more than a gag-a-day strip. "Prince Valiant" is a classic illustrated storybook, published in weekly installments. There're no word balloons; all the text is told in third-person narrative, with illustrations placed just as they would be in a book.

The story itself is pure romantic adventure. A young Viking prince comes to King Arthur's court to become a squire. He's cursed with wanderlust, and so is pulled from adventure to adventure literally across the world. Prince Valiant's first son is born in Thule (Greenland) after Val discovers the New World. Val's also been to China, taken several trips to the Holy Land, explored Africa, traveled Europe, sailed the Mediterranean, and visited Russia.

From the beginning, Hal Foster (the artist and writer of the strip) wanted something that would capture the reader's imagination. His successor, John Cullen Murphy expanded the romantic world of King Arthur's court even further -- his son who wrote the strip had a degree in medieval history.

As a result, strips in the 1980's and 1990's brought in more authentic details of the period -- Queen Aleta (Val's wife) had to fight off the unwanted attentions of Byzantine emperor Justinian in an extended sequence set in Constantinople. And more medieval lore became fodder for stories as well. Val, for example, met Prestor John in India, and often found himself on an island that rises from the mists and offered an allegorical test -- a standard plot device in medieval stories.

The current artist and writer (Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz) continue the same high standards of illustrated storytelling while bringing their own sensibilities and experiences with creating modern comics to the strip. Rather than a shuffling zombie forever recycling the gestures of its dead creator (such as "Dick Tracy"), "Prince Valiant" continues to offer up compelling and entertaining stories set in the medieval world both real and imagined.

And at the heart of the strip is the large cast of characters that have grown and matured with the readers over the years.

Prince Valiant is now a family man in his late 30's, torn now between his desire to remain at home with his beloved Aleta, and a wanderlust for adventure that can never be satisfied. His wife, Queen Aleta of the Misty Isles, has grown from a young girl into a mature, thoughtful ruler who still displays something of a temper -- especially if she jealously thinks (as with the current storyline) Val's somehow gotten tangled up in an adventure with another woman!

I've talked before about the aging process in "Prince Valiant,"
which let Val's family grow up, marry and have children of their own. This march of time just adds to the appeal of the strip.

The continuing story of Prince Valiant isn't just a never-ending sequence of adventure -- it's the story of one man's life in an extraordinary time and place.

Here's to the next 3,700 Sundays!

- Ralph