Friday, May 30, 2008

Mything the Point

John Amos had an excellent article in the Orange Review this past week (sorry, no link -- I'll see if I can get permission to reprint it here). Amos was talking about how Bible stories are no longer a part of our common heritage, and how that stunted a modern reader's understanding of classic literature.

His column comes on the heels of a recent experience my wife had. She's a social worker and took a new worker out on a child protective services call with her. Two divorced parents were fighting (literally) over custody of their children, and my wife explained that she was going to use the Judgement of Solomon to break the deadlock. She was met with a blank look.

On the way back to the office afterward, the worker revealed that she had never heard of Solomon, and had no idea what my wife was talking about.

According to Amos, that kind of ignorance is becoming increasingly common. While most people are fully conversant with pop culture references, Bible stories are almost unknown. Ditto for Greek mythology and other bulwarks of Western civilization.

One of my favorite books in elementary school was "D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths." I discovered it in 6th grade and read and reread it many times. It very simply (and with a lot of pictures) told the stories of the Greek gods and heroes. What a cool book. It's where I learned about Athena springing full-grown from Zeus' head, and Pandora's box, the punishment of Sisyphus, Jason and the Argonauts, Hercules, and the rest.

I've since read other more extensive tellings, but it gave me a good grounding in classical literature (just as Sunday School gave me a solid background in the Bible).

So why is any of this important?

Because these stories can still speak to us. I've used the illustration of the Sword of Damocles before -- and it was a perfect illustration of my point. I'm not a good leader, and when people insist on putting me in charge of their committee, I warn them it's like Phaeton taking the reigns.

Stomping out terrorism is likeHercules fighting the hydra -- cut off one head, and two grow in its place. Hercules defeated the monster by doing something different, and perhaps there's a lesson for us as well.

If you're not familiar with Greek mythology, pick up a copy of D'Aulaires' book, or Edith Hamilton's "Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes" and treat yourself. They're both enjoyable reads, and you'll be surprised at how much more conversant you'll be about other fields that reference Greek mythology.

The psychological condition of narcissism references the story of Narcissus (as does the flower that shares his name). Vulcanization refers to Vulcan ( the Roman name for Hephaestus) in describing this fire-based process. The Achilles' tendon is located at the one spot this Greek hero was vulnerable. The word "tantalize" comes from the myth of Tantalus -- and there's many more.

So I'm with John Amos on this one. Sure, its great to be able to catch that reference to "Jerry McGuire" (you had me at [fill in the blank]), but that's a much shallower form of cultural literacy. Having a working knowledge of Greek mythology will just make you a better-informed person in many ways.

And the Bible? Well, a thorough knowledge of that book can be even more rewarding.

- Ralph

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Clearing the air in Orange

Diana Wheeler, the Commonwealth's Attorney here in Orange County, Virginia, has finally dropped the other shoe. Long-time readers of this blog may recall the scandal surrounding two spurious websites that appeared during our recent board of supervisors elections. This spurred an investigation, the results of which were just announced.

The sites' URLs seemed to be for two candidates, Thomas Graves and Teel Goodwin ( was one example). When you went to the sites, however, you quickly discovered that they were anything but. The single-page sites were simply a list of charges against the candidates, and as I've previously discussed in detail, very poorly done.

As expected, although the sites were anonymous, the state police were able to determine who put up the sites and paid for them (with a credit card, no doubt). In my opinion, the construction of the sites showed the hand of someone only minimally conversant with the concepts of the Internet, and the conclusion of the investigation does nothing to change my opinion. The average person simply can't be anonymous online -- particularly if they're paying for services. And only those who are ignorant about web technology think otherwise.

Now things get sticky. Because the person who admitted to setting up and paying for the sites is Marcia Landau, head of the Orange County Taxpayers Alliance, an anti-growth PAC. She's also the wife of Zach Burkett, who won his seat against Thomas Graves (one of the subjects of the website).

Did Burkett have knowledge of his wife's activities? Does this taint his win? How likely is it now that Burkett and Goodwin can work together on issues for the common good of the county? And that's just for starters.

In an early post on these sites
, I said it was a stupid thing to do, and would probably backfire on the posters. It has, and now we all have to deal with the collateral damage.

Great play, Shakespeare.

- Ralph

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Mason Brothers -- Jarring the Music Industry

Recently I posted about advice I gave to some parents who asked how their son could break into the music business. I didn't tell them what they wanted to hear, which was how to get signed to a major label. Instead, I offered up some examples of how to go about building an audience in this post-major label era, citing Jonathan Coulton and Geoff Smith.

I also told them something else neither they nor their son really wanted to hear -- that you have to get out there and promote yourself every way you possibly can. The advantage of the Internet is that most of the ways to do this are free. The disadvantage is that they're all labor-intensive.

I was fortunate to get a copy of "The Sun, the Moon & the Sea," the new acoustic album from the Richmond, Virginia-based Mason Brothers. It's a well-crafted album of solid songwriting with some truly inspired arrangements. There's a nice balance between the guitars and the vocals that sit just right.
So how are the Mason Brothers getting the word out about "The Sun, the Moon & the Sky?" They're working the Internet every way they can -- and the results are starting to pay off. If you're looking for the Mason Brothers, you'll easily find them. And that's good -- because as their profile rises, more people will be seeking them out.

In addition to their website, you can also check the Mason Brothers out on They also have a band blog, entitled "Hood up, Hazards on" to keep the conversation with fans going. And they've worked hard to make their music as available as possible online.

Want a copy of the CD? You can purchase it from, or

Prefer digital downloads? Well, you can find them on iTunes and, as well as,, and That last one is interesting because bands are promoted on the site through social networking. The tracks start out as free, and as the recommendations and downloads accrue, the price starts to rise until it tops out at 0.99. In other words, the more popular a band is, the more they can earn at Amie Street.

And the Mason Brothers have social networking covered, too. MySpace takes care of some of that, but they're also on, and You can also find mentions of them at,,,, as well as various blogs.

The band's reaching out another way, too. They've placed some of their music with, which makes it available for use in movies, TV shows, and other forms of entertainment. And unlike with major label artists, the band gets all the licensing money, not just a small percentage.

Now constructing websites, providing content for blogs and Myspace pages, and getting music registered with all those download sites takes a lot of time and effort. The Mason Brothers have done what's necessary to lay the foundation.

And now the band seems to be moving to the next level of Internet presence. A video of the band was just posted on YouTube. And the post wasn't from the Mason Brothers, it was from the venue, the Gravity Lounge in Charlottesville.

When other people start freely promoting a band, that's when things start to happen. There's still a lot of work for the artist to do, but as more people come on board it gets easier to get the word out. That helps sales increase. And since all the money goes straight to the Mason Brothers (as opposed to 10-12% as it would if they were signed to a major label), the total volume of sales doesn't have to be very large to start generating a nice return on their investment.

And here's the important thing. None of this works if the music isn't good, which is why major label flacks have met with indifferent success with this Interwebtube thing.

The Mason Brothers are very, very, good.

- Ralph

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How to Murder Your Wife, in Print

Yesterday I shared what I didn't like about the 1965 Jack Lemmon comedy "How To Murder Your Wife." As promised, today I'll talk about what I did.

The movie revolved around a cartoonist and his daily comic strip, and so sequential art took a prominent role. Although they were only shown briefly, about ten different daily strips were drawn for the movie. The great Alex Toth (designer of Space Ghost among many others) was to be the "stunt cartoonist" for Lemmon. Toth actually drew ten weeks of "Bash Brannigan" (the comic in the film) as part of the publicity campaign leading up to the premier.

Apparently, there was some disagreement during filming, and Toth was replaced by Mel Keefer. Keefer was a seasoned comic artist, and he ably pulled off a difficult assignment.

The challenge of an adventure strip is to move the story forward daily while providing a little bit of recap to new readers. In this case, not only did Keefer have to fulfill those requirements, but also duplicate the film sequences that corresponded to the panels. And, the strips had to tell their story immediately in the brief screen time each had.

Keefer's posted some of the surviving sequences on his website -- I hope they all become available someday. (click on images to enlarge)

Notice this sequence from early in the film (when Bash Brannigan was still a secret agent). You can instantly see what's going on. Brannigan's tracked down a stolen microfilm and dispatches the bad guys after it. The character looks something like Jack Lemmon (playing the cartoonist who draws from photographs of himself in action). The art's fairly realistic, yet at the same time, it's very clean and spare. It doesn't take the eye a long time to scan the entire sequence -- perfect for something that's just flashed on the screen.

Here's another example from later in the film when Stanley Ford (Lemmon) outlines his murder plot in his comic strip. In this case, we see this sequence after it's been acted out in the movie. Yet Keefer doesn't slack off. The dialogue balloons are real, the action clearly outlined.

Look at the last two panels. In the film, the doctor who gives Ford the goofballs says when mixed with alcohol, they go up (which he demonstrates with a rising hand gesture), and then they go down (also shown with a hand gesture). The last two panels mirror those hand gestures.

The wife's hand goes up, the arc described by the sound effect. And when she crashes, her arms are still in the same position, only upside down. And if you follow the lines of the sound effects from the two panels, you'll see an "S" curve that swoops and dives.

These panels were only on screen for a very short time -- and yet Keefer executes them with all the care that he would if they were to be published for real. This artist is a true professional. And thanks to "How To Murder Your Wife," he's come to my attention. I look forward to discovering more about this artist.

- Ralph

Monday, May 26, 2008

How to Murder Your Wife

I watched an old film over the weekend and learned a little something. The movie was a 1965 Jack Lemmon comedy, "How to Murder Your Wife." Like the Doris Day/Rock Hudson flicks of the period, its a breezy look at love (ably recreated in the recent "Down With Love"). It's a sophisticated New York comedy that's, well, made me a little uncomfortable about halfway through.

The plot involves Jack Lemmon as cartoonist Stanley Ford. Ford, a confirmed bachelor, writes and draws the popular "Bash Brannigan, Secret Agent" daily comic strip. A nut for authenticity, he acts out all the action sequences on location with some hired models, all photographed by his manservant Charles (Terry Thomas).

After a particularly rowdy bachelor party, Ford wakes up married to the girl who jumped out of the cake, the luscious Virna Lisi. Soon his well-ordered life is a mess, and he's well on his way to being just another middle-aged hen-pecked husband. Ford works out his frustration in his comic strip, which has the hero get married and turn into the domestic gag-a-day strip, "The Brannigans."

Eventually, he decides to regain control of his life. To symbolize his resolve, he has Brannigan work out a way to kill his wife and return to being a secret agent. True to form, Ford goes through all the steps of the plot that he has Brannigan do, including drugging his wife! (This is where it started to get creepy).

Photographed by Charles, Ford uses a mannequin to finish the sequence, throwing the "body" into a cement mixer. The next morning, Mrs. Ford wakes up and seeing the sequence on her sleeping husband's drawing board, sadly leaves.

Of course, as the strips get published, various people Ford got equipment from for the murder plot come forward, and -- with his wife really gone -- is soon on trial for murder.

Now the nature of these New York comedies is to do whatever's necessary to forward the plot, regardless of realism. This is especially true in courtroom scenes (like the finale to the James Garner/Doris Day "Move Over Darling"). This one, though, takes the cake. Ford represents himself and convinces the jury (all male) that they ought to find him not guilty because it would send a message to wives everywhere to think twice before pushing their husbands around (I was definitely creeped out at this point).

Of course, it all ends happily, with Ford renouncing his stance, but still. Usually, I can enjoy a movie on its own merits, watching it in context to the era it was produced in. This time, though, I couldn't quite move my sensibilities aside (perhaps it's because my wife works in social services and regularly deals with husbands who damn near murder their wives).

So this will remain a movie I won't recommend -- except for the curious link to comics. It turns out that for sequential art fans, "How To Murder Your Wife" is well worth exploring -- as I'll explain in my next post.

- Ralph

Friday, May 23, 2008

G. Smith and the Special Song

Some well-meaning parents asked recently me how their talented son could break into the music business (me being a record label owner and all, they thought I should know). I outlined some of the strategies artists are using today, such as Jonathan Coulton -- strategies that increasingly don't involve a major label.

They weren't entirely happy with my answers -- they were still thinking that a major label recording contract was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

For most artists, that's just not going to happen (was ever thus). But that's OK. For the truly creative, there are as many ways to get music out and build an audience as there are URLs on the Internet. Geoff Smith springs to mind.

Geoff Smith is a musician living and working in Nashville, Tennessee. He's a very good songwriter (not uncommon), and a big fan of the "This Week in Tech" podcast (not so common). He wrote a song about his favorite program, and sent it to Leo Laporte, the host, and producer of "This Week in Tech." (TWIT).

Laporte liked it and played the song, "I'm a TWIT." on his podcast (he used it as TWIT's closing theme for the last program). It generated a lot of interest, and a video appeared on YouTube.

Now if you've never heard of TWIT, then all of this probably means nothing. However -- TWIT.TV has almost a half a million regular listeners and about 2.6 million unique downloads of their shows.

Most of that audience heard Geoff Smith's song about their favorite show. I suspect quite a few followed the links from TWIT to his website. Laporte also talked about Geoff Smith's business, Ringtone Feeder, which brought that website to the TWIT audience's attention. And in case anyone missed that particular episode, the blogosphere's been chattering away about the new hit song, "I'm a TWIT, " all with the appropriate links.

"I'm a TWIT's" been viewed over 15,000 times on YouTube (as of this writing), and there's plenty of places you can buy an MP3 of the song, including Amazon and iTunes.

Geoff Smith isn't getting any radio play, nor is he signed to a label, but so what? He's connected with a sizable audience that likes (and potentially will buy) his music. If nothing else, if Smith can keep the conversation going, he should be able to draw some nice crowds when he travels. Perhaps he won't fill stadiums, but audiences should be large enough to make touring profitable.

And consider these numbers. The song sells for $0.99, of which Geoff Smith gets just about $0.99 (less any overhead). If one percent of people who download TWIT purchase the track, that's $26,000 going straight to the artist. And if that number's closer to 5%, then it's more like $100,000 -- and that's major label-sized money.

So now when I'm cornered at parties by hopeful parents, I'll point to Geoff Smith along with Jonathan Coulton. After all -- I'm a TWIT.

- Ralph

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Orphan Works Act

Since I'm blogging about politics this week, there's one other piece of legislation worthy of everyone's attention -- the Orphan Works Act, H.R. 5889 and S.2913.

Orphan works are copyrighted material that has been abandoned. A book published by a defunct publisher is a good example. Although the copyright may not be expired, the copyright holder no longer exists -- and the work cannot be used by anyone else. As I've pointed out in an earlier post, this can be a real problem, especially for archivists.

As the law's currently written works copyrighted after 1922 are protected for 95 years (and ones after 1978 even longer). So everything between registered between 1922 and 1978 is off-limits until 2019 at the earliest. Which means that books, films, and recordings from the 1920's deteriorate beyond recovery, while libraries watch helplessly. They're unable to make copies of this material because it would violate the rights of an owner who no longer exists.

There's more to this, of course, which is why the Orphan Works Act is a hugely controversial bill. Currently, there are massive penalties for the unauthorized use of copyrighted material. So if you used something you thought was an orphan work, and the owner showed up, you could be on the hook for huge punitive damages.

The bill basically tweaks the law a little. It would require the user to use "due diligence" to seek out the copyright owner. If one can't be found, then they can proceed. And if later the owner shows up, then they are entitled to the proceeds and profits from the unauthorized use of their material, but not punitive damages.

Artists are up in arms. As they see it, someone could take their work, claim they didn't know it wasn't public domain, and pay them peanuts. Well, the key is actually what "due diligence" entails. The most current artwork is pretty easy to trace -- especially online -- so there's some recourse. If someone just claims they "thought" it was in the public domain when the owner steps forward, then they're still liable for punitive damages. The onus of proof is on the user that they made a reasonable effort to determine who owned the work and to contact them.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's weighed in with their view. The EFF's take on it is similar to mine -- protection is still in place for the artists, but now it's been added for users who can prove they thoroughly researched the copyright before appropriating the material.

So is this a good bill or no? To answer that question, I went to the source, read the legislation for myself and then decided. OK, I know I've made my views fairly clear in this post, but for anyone reading about this bill for the first time, I suggest you don't take my analysis on faith. Go to the source and read the bill for yourself. Then you'll have a point of reference for considering the pros and cons of this debate.

After all, the idea here is to promote more democracy in action, not democratic inaction.

- Ralph

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Scannin' the Senate

Using my interest in H.R. 2060 and S.1353, I've been showing how I use to research the legislation that interest me, and make sure my elected officials get (or stay) with the program. Yesterday I outlined how digging into my representative's history helped me figure out how to most effectively present my case for his supporting H.R. 2060.

Today I'll do the same for my congresspersons. And remember -- I'm just using this legislation and my interest in it as an example of what you can do for the bills that you're concerned about.

My two congressmen are John Warner (R-Va) and Jim Webb (D-Va).

Warner's had a long and distinguished career in the Senate. His most recent legislation (ignoring the resolutions of only local interest -- hey, he knows how to keep his constituents happy) is primarily concerned with the military. I doubt Internet radio royalty rates are of much interest to him, but I've conversed with Senator Warner before and I'm pretty sure he'll give my e-mail some consideration.

Jim Webb is a freshman senator, so I don't know as much about him. He also seems mostly concerned about military matters (his sponsorship of S.729 is interesting). What's more interesting is that Webb cosponsored S.Con.Res.82 supporting the Local Radio Freedom Act. That resolution basically said that record labels shouldn't charge performance royalties to radio broadcasters.

Well, it's a short step from that concept to S.1353, which reigns in the royalties attached to Internet radio. And that's how I'll approach Senator Webb's email.

I don't like sending copied emails to my representatives. They see plenty of them and know that the senders didn't put a lot of effort into them. If nothing else, I'd like my letters to be read and thought about -- even if my representative disagrees.

Thanks to Open Congress I've been able to write three e-mails that (I believe) should be effective. When I get some responses I'll post them so you can see if I was right about that.

- Ralph

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Reppin' the House

Yesterday I posted about a new bill introduced in the House and Senate designed to bring royalty fees for Internet radio down to a more reasonable level.

I'll show how I use Open Congress to make sure my elected officials know how I feel about this issue -- and what I expect them to do about. Now these posts aren't really about H.R. 2060 and S.1353. I'm just using them -- and my own representative and congressmen -- to provide a real-world example of e-democracy in action.

You can use these same tools to research the bills most relevent to you, discover where your representatives stand, and help you decide what you'd like to communicate to said officials.

OK, here we go. I'm starting with H.R.2060, and my representative, Eric Cantor (R-Va). The bill has three Virginian representatives listed as co-sponsors: Rick Boucher (D), James Moran (D), and Frank Wolf (R). Cantor's name isn't on the list. Hmmm. I'll have to mention that in my email to him.

Sometimes I wish Boucher was my representative. He's on the Telecommunications and Internet subcommittee, and he really seems to understand the Internet. He's a sponsor of bills such as the Community Broadband Act (H.R.3281), and has been pushing for equitable royalty rates since 2002. Oh, well.

I'm hoping that Cantor isn't sitting this one out because of partisan politics. But I've been hard-pressed to find any bills that he and Boucher have voted together on.

Cantor hasn't sponsored quite as many bills as Boucher. His most recent bills have been concerned with business. H.R.5169 wants to reduce the maximum taxes on corporations (hmmm - who benefits from that?), and H.R.4995, the "Middle Class Jobs Protection Act." And that act? Decrease the maximum on corporate tax and increase depreciation allowances.

Okay, pretty much Republican party line legislation -- cut taxes, grow business. So that's how I'll present my case to Representative Cantor. H.R.2060 is looking to grow business by cutting royalty rates (a stand-in for taxes here).

Thanks to Open Congress, I've got a pretty good idea of what my representative is doing, and what's important to him. Like the Liberty Bill Act (H.R.4856) which would require the Preamble to the Constitution be put on the back of U.S. currency. (Um, don't we have better things to do with our legislative time?)

I'm looking forward to his response to my e-mail.

- Ralph

Monday, May 19, 2008

Internet Radio Returns

Long-time readers of this blog know that I've been vocal in my support of Internet radio. For those who came in late, the Copyright Royalty Board who sets the royalty rates for webcasters enacted a ruinous rate hike this past year. In a nutshell, the Board only listened to one side -- the SoundExchange (ostensively representing the artists -- but still very much a creature of the RIAA that created it). The Copyright Board steadfastly ignored the testimony -- and, more importantly, the math -- of the webcasters (including NPR) that explained that a royalty rate that could take up to 150% of a company's income might not be a viable business model.

And that's pretty much where things have been since January, with the SoundExchange having the power to shut down the majority of netcasters by just calling in their tab.

But this past week a bill was introduced in both the House and the Senate to change all that. S.1353 and H.R.2060 move to overturn the ruling of the Copyright Board and institute a more equitable rate -- basically about 7.5% of a netcaster's income.

This is higher than the previous rate, (and everyone agreed the rate needed to go up), but at least, this is reasonable. If a web caster's only bringing in around $12,000, then artists will get $900. But if they're making $1.2 million, then the artists make $90,000.

Now that works much better than the current bone-headed rate. Because right now a webcaster that makes $12,000 could be on the hook for $18,000 -- which means they'll very soon be out of business and the artist gets zero. And the netcast never grows to the $1.2 million level, and the artists trade $90,000 for zero.

So this budding industry still has a chance -- depending on this legislation and the support it receives.

Time for a little democracy in action, I think. Next post I'll show you how I'm putting Open Congress to work on this.

- Ralph

Friday, May 16, 2008

Mantan Moreland -- Chasing Trouble

I've written before about the forgotten African-American film actor Mantan Moreland. In the 1940's this quick-witted comedic talent was popular enough that he was a bankable star. When Moreland's name appeared in the credits (usually under the two leads), the film was sure to make bank and then some.

Monogram Pictures paired Moreland with juvenile actor Frankie Darro and hit box office gold. In their seven films together, Darro usually played an enthusiastic, impulsive character who always brought the pair into a murder mystery or other trouble through his headstrong (and wrongheaded) actions. Moreland played the reluctant sidekick, the more sensible and cautious of the two.

What makes this combination interesting is that it was very unusual for the late 1930's. African-American characters usually only appeared onscreen as servants or unskilled laborers. Often they were shown as lazy and/or slow-witted. Mantan Moreland was neither. And the result is a series of buddy pictures with a dynamic that reminded me of the Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise.

"Chasing Trouble" (1940) is a good example of the pair at work. Frankie Darro plays an enthusiastic florist delivery boy who wants to play matchmaker to Marjorie Reynolds. Mantan Moreland just wants to keep his job (and after Darro gets them involved with Nazi spies, his life).

Here's his take on the fix they're in.

It's a fun little film, and the chemistry between Darro and Mantan holds up well with age. I found this film on

I'll be searching out the rest of the series.

- Ralph

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Public Radio Blogs, III

I heard from Tom Morgan from WWOZ, New Orlean's jazz and heritage music public radio station. He responded to my post about public radio blogs. WWOZ started a blog to document the Jazz Fest event, and hope to soon have an official station blog.

I've still been unable to find any kind of directory for public radio blogs, so I think I'll start my own. If you know of any public radio station blogs, please post a comment to the Public Radio Blog Directory. As I visit different sites, I'll add any that I find as well.

- Ralph

BTW - If Charlottesville readers find Tom's name familiar, they should. Tom Morgan used to be a volunteer for WTJU, where he hosted the early jazz program "Bartender's Bop," as well as "The Jazz Roots Show," still going strong online and at WWOZ.

Public Radio Blog Directory

Iowa Public Radio

Minnesota Public Radio

WETA - Washington, DC

WFMU - Jersey City, NJ

WITF - Harrisburg, PA
WAMU - Washington, DC - No radio station blog found!

WBFO - Buffalo, NY

WVTF - Roanoke, VA - No radio station blog found!

WWOZ - New Orleans, LA

WXXI - Rochester, NY

Additions? Corrections? Please leave a comment.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Public Radio Blogs, II

Monday I tried to define what I thought made a good public radio blog, and cited a couple of examples. Purely by coincidence, the same day in one of the public radio listservs I subscribe to, someone at a station asked for examples of public radio blogs -- specifically, blogs from classical music stations. And some stations responded, including WITF in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Now here's a station who understands how blogging can help develop relationships with their audience.

WITF actually has a family of blogs, each one specialized enough to appeal to a different group of readers. The Reporter's Notebook lets the news staff provide added detail to the stories they cover (comments enabled). There's a blog for their newsletter (comments disabled), and even a specialized one for politics -- Voter's Voice PA (with comments enabled).

And WITF has three staff blogs. Dr. Dick's Blog, by music director Dick Strawser, is about classical music from a personal view (no comments, but an email link for personal reply). Composing Thoughts is on-air host John Clair's blog about contemporary music and musicians (comments disabled). I've read this blog for some time, and I'm embarrassed I forgot about it when I wrote Monday's post.

And John Clair also writes the New Releases blog for WITF (comments disabled). At first blush, this may seem similar to WETA's "blog," but there's a significant difference. WITF's blog is talking about the new releases being played by the station.

Further, there's a pick-of-the-month feature (displayed prominently in the sidebar) with a link to Borders Books. So even though the communication is one-way, the content is about the station. And the link lets listeners respond and earn some money for the station as well. Now these are folks who "get it!"

Are there more examples of public radio blogs? I'll keep digging (and reading posts). If you know of one, let me know. My comment field's always enabled.

- Ralph

Monday, May 12, 2008

Public Radio Blogs

MaSvo raised some good questions in her recent comment on my post "Blogging Explained."
Although I largely agree with your assessment of the WETA blog, I think it is a mistake to think that the defining (or necessary) element in a weblog is the interactivity.
After all, can't a blog be anything you want it to be? Who's to say whether WETA's blog is or isn't a blog?

While that's certainly true in the most general terms, I think we can make some distinctions between personal and corporate blogs.

IMHO, a personal blog is simply an individual expression. Some personal blogs primarily chronical the poster's everyday life, such as Constance Crabstick's "Fatuous Observations". Others are built around a particular topic that interests the poster, such as the "Comics Curmudgeon." And there's everything in between.

The personal blog most fits the model Common Craft described in their video. Post about what you're interested in, and eventually others join in the conversation and you've become part of a community.

The corporate blog has a slightly different function. Rather than being a gateway into an individual's personality, it's part of the public face of the company. It has to be consistent with what the company is about, and should reflect its corporate culture.

While an individual blog can be about whatever interests the writer, the corporate blog must be related to the company and what it does. But a corporate blog isn't just another place to park press releases. It's a real opportunity to let customers "get inside" the company a little bit, and for the blogging company to develop conversations -- and a community -- with its readers and customers. This helps builds brand identification and loyalty.

So what about radio? See the previous paragraph. Especially in public radio, which asks its listeners to fund the stadion directly, this kind of communication can be invaluable.

According to an Edison Media Research post about this very thing, Tom Webster wrote:
The blog is an equally important and increasingly more relevant outlet for consumer opinions, feedback and suggestions for improvement.
How important is it?

The web puts your station and your brand smack dab into the middle of the largest public marketplace in the world--vast and intimate at the same time. Because the distance between consumers and corporations is effectively reduced to zero, any conversation occurring on the web about your station is a conversation going on right outside your booth and right under your nose.
You have a choice--you can ignore the crowd congregating in front of your little stand in cyberspace, or you can welcome them, greet them, and give them an outlet to converse with you and with other listeners about your brand.
So while WETA's blog may fill the broadest definition of a blog, how well is it at doing any of the above?

Here's the point I was trying to make. WETA did have that kind of informational blog that invited comments, and then it changed to a record review column that said nothing about the station -- and let the readers say nothing at all.

I think they changed because they didn't like the comments they got. Webster had something to say about that, too:
If you are genuinely worried that you will be flooded with exclusively negative comments, maybe it's not the listeners who have the problem. One thing about taking the plunge into business blogging--you better have a good product, or you will hear about it.
So which public radio stations have good blogs? Researching for this post, I did find a few. Unfortunately, there's not a list (that I'm aware of) for public radio station blogs. Iowa Public Radio and Minnesota Public Radio both do blogs that fit the Tom Webster outline. They talk about things going on at their stations, relevant news -- and both allow comments.

But for the best examples of stations that "get it," I recommend KCRW and WFMU.

KCRW has a battery of blogs, (all with comments enabled) about the announcers, the engineers, and music news. Collectively they present the character of the station, and further the conversation between listeners and staff. KCRW has a huge Internet presence, and these blogs just strengthen their profile.

WFMU does the same thing in a different way (also with comments enabled). "Beware the Blog" is as eclectic and freewheeling as the station's programming. WFMU also has a massive Internet presence and gets a significant amount of contributions from listeners outside their coverage area (sometimes halfway around the world).

But what makes WFMU's blog unique is that it doesn't talk about the station per se, but about the kind of things the station airs. I've seen posts on this blog show up in many other pop culture blogs (like BoingBoing), and WFMU's posts are often the only ones from any non-commercial radio stations that appear on these more general-interest sites.

So what does that mean? It means that WFMU is reaching beyond the insular world of public radio listeners. Folks trace back the stories and discover the station. Then they become listeners -- and supporters.

Yes, WETA has every right to post professionally written record reviews and call it a corporate blog. But is it really serving that function?

Where's the conversation?

- Ralph

1) My criticism of WETA's blog is in no way one of Jen Laursen's writing in any way. He's a solid reviewer and essayist.
2) If anyone has other examples of public radio blogs they enjoy reading, please leave a comment! Short of visiting every station's website in the public radio system, I can't think of any other way to discover these elusive beasts.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Some People *Really* Don't Get It

This post may seem like a rant about something very small and local, but it's really not. At the heart of it is a concept that's relevant to any business looking to increase traffic to its website -- especially a media company.

According to a recent We Media/Zogby Interactive poll (as reported by Reuters)
Nearly 70 percent of Americans believe traditional journalism is out of touch, and nearly half are turning to the Internet to get their news.... While most people think journalism is important to the quality of life, 64 percent are dissatisfied with the quality of journalism in their communities.
Radio stations and newspapers across the country are looking at shrinking audiences and circulation numbers as more people move to the Internet for information and entertainment.

As content creators, these businesses have the potential to successfully transition to this new market. But only if they understand why it's important to do so, and how the demands of the Internet differ from their offline business models.

Let's make it country simple: people go online to get instant information. And if potential customers don't see it on your site, they'll search on until they do -- and it's not likely they'll be back.

Real world example (rant time).

Tuesday we had Town Council elections in Orange, Virginia. Wednesday I wanted to find out the results. I started with the two local sources of information -- the Orange Review, and WJMA FM.

The Orange Review is a weekly paper, but on the bottom of their website's front page is a box titled "from the Continuous News Desk." So how current was the Orange Review's news? Over 24 hours after the election, the top story was:

Six scramble for two seats - Published 6 days, 11 hours, 40 minutes ago

News flash: a weekly post is not equal to continuous news.

So I went to the WJMA website and clicked on headline news. Their news was even less helpful:
Incumbents won in Culpeper and lost in Orange in yesterday's town council elections in Culpeper & Orange
WTF?!? We've had this discussion about WJMA's "news" before, and things haven't changed. WHO WON? WHAT ARE THEIR NAMES? They won't tell us who won, but they repeat the names of the counties twice in the same headline!

So I went to the Daily Progress, which is the regional daily paper based in Charlottesville (about 40 miles away). Their headline?

Orange voters pick Gibson, Higginbotham

Thank you. That's all I wanted to know (although the rest of the story was well worth reading and had lots of additional helpful information).

So count me into that 65%.

And there's an economic impact to this story as well. In the future, I'll go to the Daily Progress website for local information. Which means traffic for their site will go up, and traffic for the Orange Review and WJMA sites will go down. And since traffic impacts online ad revenue, the Progress' site just generated a little more money for their company. Sure, I'm just one person, but how many others in Orange County have learned the same lesson?

- Ralph

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Some people just don't get it...

Witness the wilderness geek in the picture. For the good of all, he subjected himself to two grueling nights in the woods, testing out gear that would keep him connected to the Internet during his wilderness sojourn.

Why bother? Look, I'm no Luddite -- I'll take a digital camera, a small sports radio, and a cell phone for emergencies with me when I go backpacking, but our hero misses the point. If you've got to stay connected that badly, stay at home.

The wilderness has a powerful effect on me. I find that the time I spend there refreshes me mentally and physically. There's something powerfully meditative about focusing on a goal as simple as walking from here to there, carrying all your necessities of food, fuel, and shelter on your back.

Sure, I love the convenience and connectivity of modern life, but there's something to be gained personally by leaving that behind for a while sometimes. Our internet Davy Crockett just doesn't get it.


Ken's Jeopardy Adventure

Short version:

The weekend before last, the Jeopardy contestant search was in Charlottesville, and I took the contestant test on a whim. I qualified!

Long version:

I'm one of those people who watches Jeopardy and shouts out the correct answers all the time, so when the Jeopardy contestant search came to town I thought "what the heck," and went to try out. They were set up on Saturday at a local auto dealership. I walked in, sat down, and they handed me a 10-question test. Easy stuff, and I sailed right through in a couple of minutes. Handed it over to the guy running the test, he glanced at it and handed me a couple of sheets of paper.

"You did great -- come back tomorrow tomorrow to the Omni Hotel downtown at 11:30."

"What? I've got a race in Richmond in the morning."

"What kind of race?"

"A duathlon."

"Is that some kind of shooting race or something?"

"No. Run, bike, run. Kind of like a triathlon, only drier."

"Can you win money there?"

"Me? No, I'm not a pro."

"You can win money on Jeopardy -- you'll do well -- try to make it."

So, there I was on Saturday night -- not only getting my gear ready for the race, but packing a sports coat, shirt, and tie (the test invite for Sunday said to come dressed as you would if you were on TV). If I got the race done in about 2:30 and drove straight back, I might make it to the hotel by 11:30.

Race over, I hustled back to my car and hit the highway, zooming up I-64 back to Charlottesville. A quick change of clothes at a rest area and a dab of deodorant, and there I was, at the hotel at 11:25. A crowd of about 125 or so of us was ushered into a ballroom and sat down at tables. After a quick intro, and a video from Alex Trebeck, we took a 50 question written test. Eight seconds for each question, then on to the next. Pretty easy stuff, mainly. The tests were taken up to be graded, and a young lady on the Jeopardy crew took questions from the audience. Amazing how many people want to know what Alex Trebek is like in person.

Here comes the big moment. They start reading out names -- I've made the cut! The losers are ushered out, and the 20-25 survivors gather at the front of the room. A few forms to fill out, and a quick sample game and interview (our screen test, in effect) and I'm done.

Now the wait -- I'm in the contestant pool for 18 months. If they call me, I fly out to LA and give it a shot in person. No guarantees I'll actually make it onto the show, but I'm already starting to study -- I think I'll brush up on Shakespeare first.

- Ken

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

I Voted -- Did You?

While the Democratic primaries dominate the headlines today, a democracy of a much more humble sort moves forward. Today was election day for the town council of Orange, Virginia (and I expect a number of other localities across the country).

It wasn't a hotly contested race (that I'm aware of). Just some local folks looking to help lead the town in the direction they think best. All the candidates have a vested interest in the community. Some are pro-growth, and (not coincidentally) are involved with businesses that would benefit from that. Others are concerned about higher taxes and are in positions likely to bear the brunt of said increases.

You could say that all the candidates share the same platform -- enlightened self-interest. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Unlike national or even state officials, members of the Orange Town Council reside and work in the area they govern and, therefore, have to live with the consequences of their decisions.

And unlike most political leaders, town councilmen are anything but inaccessible. Their constituents have no problem voicing their concerns, not just at public meetings, but in the check-out line at the grocery store, on Main Street or wherever they run into their representatives.

I got to the polls about an hour after they opened -- and I was number 20. Not many participate in these "small" elections, and that's very foolish. While the future president may decide what happens in Iraq, and the next governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia may impact road construction, it's the local officials that most affect daily life.

Our new town council will have to make some tough decisions concerning our infrastructure. With stalled or even shrinking revenues, what gets funded and what gets cut? Fewer police officers for a growing population, or less street repair? And what about new development, and the shifting of traffic patterns? What's the balance between a tax rate high enough to pay for everything that needs to be done and one that most people can afford?

It's a big job, and the decisions made by these non-professional politicians can make a huge difference in my disposable income, the character of my neighborhood, and the quality of my daily life.

You bet I voted.

- Ralph

Monday, May 05, 2008

Joan Woodbury Redux

Thanks to, I enjoyed another forgotten film starring Joan Woodbury. This time, around it was "Northwest Trail," a 1945 film set in the Canadian wilds. Bob Steele, the venerable western star plays the lead as the forthright Mountie Matt O'Brien, but it's Woodbury who steals the show.

Here's the opening scene, where Mountie O'Brien meets Kate Owns (Joan Woodbury) for the first time. Owens sets the tone for the relationship, shows who's in charge almost immediately (although primarly through O'Brien's forbearance). Woodbury's delivery makes the comments pointed, but it's her facial expressions that really gives them barbs.

The movie's plot has some bafflegab about smuggling gold from Canada to the States, and as a mystery doesn't present much of a challange for the viewer. The pacing is a little slack, and I often had to wait for the characters to figure out what was already made obvious to me. But watching the sparks fly whenever Joan Woodbury's on the scene still makes for enjoyable viewing (in my opinion).

I wonder how different her career would have been had she appeared in higher-profile films (I'm hesitant to say better films, as the major studios churned out just as many clunkers as the poverty row).

- Ralph

Friday, May 02, 2008

Old Radio/New Laughs

This week I've been talking about the old-time radio programs I now receive as podcasts from Radio Time Zone. I subscribe to their comedy channel, which sends me a selection of different programs. I've heard episodes of "You Bet Your Life" with Groucho Marx, "Life of Riley" with William Bendix, "Our Miss Brooks" with Eve Arden, and many more.

To folks who've only known the offerings of current radio, it's easy to equate audio comedy with shock jocks. After all, there hasn't really been anything else for some time. People in my parent's generation were often quick to point out that radio humor in "the good old days" was clean and, therefore, better.

I don't totally agree with that. I'm not so concerned with clean vs. dirty as I am with the quality of the humor. Wordplay, comedic timing, delivery of lines -- those are some of the elements that make for humor that can be revisited again and again, even after the punchline's well-known.

Here's a good example from the "Jack Benny Program." Over the years, Jack Benny carefully constructed a public persona as a cheap, vain and somewhat shallow individual who often found himself put upon by others. Jack Benny's show wasn't a sitcom per se, it was about Jack Benny and his cast putting on the "Jack Benny Program." Of course, a real studio wouldn't have an outside line that could ring in at any time, nor an unattended door that anyone could knock on -- but these few simple sound effects allowed many different characters to be injected into the conversation.

In this broadcast from 1945, the cast is entertaining the troops at Mitchell Field. Jack Benny, Mary Livingston (his sometime girlfriend on the radio; his wife in real life), and bandmaster Phil Harris (best know today as voice of Baloo from Disney's "Jungle Book") talk their plans for after the show with guest star Ann Sheridan, a popular actress who starred with Benny in "George Washington Slept Here."

Notice the rapid-fire byplay of the dialogue, and how jokes are built one upon the other to provide even more humor. The description of Benny's girlfriend is funny in itself, but when it's referred to by Elmer towards the end, it seems even more so.

So can something over a half-century old still be funny? After listening to more than a few of these programs, I have to say "yes." Is Jack Benny, et al. better than the current crop of comics? Not necessarily. It's a different kind of humor, and it works on a different level.

All I know is that when I listen to this podcast I laugh all the way down the road.

- Ralph

BTW - you can hear the complete episode here.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Old Radio/New Insight

Yesterday I talked a little about the old radio programs I now receive as podcasts. One of the feeds I subscribe to from Radio Time Zone is their mystery/crime/horror channel. It's an interesting mix of well-known radio programs, such as "Dragnet" with more obscure efforts, such as Vincent Price starring as "The Saint."

But I learned something new when I listened to "Rocky Fortune." I found out Frank Sinatra had his own radio program -- and he was darned good in it.

"Rocky Fortune" was little more than a vehicle for Sinatra, and only ran for one season back in 1953. Radio dramas had just about run their course by then, but it was an easy gig for Sinatra. The programs were pre-recorded (or "transcribed" as they said on the air), and it was just a matter of coming in, reading the script, and going home again.

Sinatra basically plays himself. Rocky Fortune's a casual happy-go-lucky guy, who happens to get in a lot of scrapes. He doesn't start out to solve the crime he stumbles across, but he usually has to because he's in the thick of it (and more often than not, being used as the patsy).

The program's narrated by the title character, which gives Sinatra a lion's share of the voice work. But that's OK because -- well because it's Frank. And that's an asset the writers worked with.

Listen to this scene from "Rocky Fortune," and perhaps compare it to the example from the "Lone Ranger" I posted yesterday. In "A Hepcat Kills a Canary," Rocky's helping out a friend who's a band leader by filling in on bass. The regular bass player's on a drunk, and can't make the gig. Rocky doesn't have an instrument, so the band leader sends him up to the bassist's room to borrow his.

Like the "Lone Ranger" scene, there's a lot going on with a lot of people. But listen to how it's handled differently here. Fortune sets the stage and then enters the scene. We don't get a lot of description, but at least, in my mind's eye, I see it all. I can picture the small, shabby hotel room with Johnny stretched out on the bed (with perhaps a blinking neon sign intermittently shining through the window). I can picture the tilt of the eyebrow on Dolores' face and a brief smile flashing across Rocky's as they banter back and forth.

How can I picture all that without a lot of sound effects and other audio clues? Easy. I just picture a very laconic Frank Sinatra, and the rest just falls into place. Because Sinatra was such a well-known personality, a certain amount of detail is filled in just by who's acting the part.

There weren't that many episodes of "Rocky Fortune," and perhaps it's just as well. Being placed at the center of a murder by accident is a premise that wears thin very quickly (after a while I thought of Jessica Fletcher as the angel of death).

Nevertheless, it's a breezy 25-minute drama that doesn't take itself too seriously. I didn't know Frank Sinatra had a radio program. I'm glad I found out.

- Ralph

BTW - you can listen to the original episode here.