Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Now This -- WJMA Past and Present

Last night I attended a viewing of "Now This." a documentary that chronicled the first 35 years of WJMA, a small-market radio station in central Virginia.

Long-time readers know I've written extensively about my local station, but watching the documentary and reuniting with former employees (yes, I was one, also) brought some things home.

Orange was a rural community with not much business to support advertising. WJMA, then known as Radio Orange, could also be heard in neighboring counties that also were basically rural with modest businesses: Culpeper, Louisa, Madison, and Fluvanna.

But then-owner Arch Harrison saw real opportunity. These communities all had a weekly newspaper, but (in the 1960's) no other source of information. So WJMA became that daily source.

At its peak, the station had two full-time reporters and stringers in each of the four outlying counties to phone in stories. There was a full-time sports director and some sports stringers. The high school coaches for each of the five counties were interviewed in a "Coaches Corner" segment.

As Tom Graves (no relation) the former sports director pointed out, WJMA not only broadcast local high school football and basketball. They sometimes used the AM for one game, and the FM for another -- covering two local sporting events. And in addition to an announcer and color commentator in the booth, there would be reporters on both sides of the field, and sometimes the referees were even miked.

How on earth could a dinky little station provide such coverage (and win broadcasting awards with predictable regularity)?

All of the former employees in "Now This" cited Harrison's hands-off management style, and -- most importantly -- the freedom to fail. It was OK to experiment. If it didn't work, you didn't lose your job. You just tried something different. And if it worked, well, then you tried to improve upon it.

It's all well and good to wax nostalgic about Radio Orange, but what does that have to do with modern broadcasting?


How can radio compete with all of the other media that draws away audience?

1) Local
2) Live

That means investing in people, not automation. It means staffing newsrooms, not subscribing to wire services. It means becoming an integral part of the community, not just handing out balloons at a car dealership sale.

Could Radio Orange work today? Absolutely.

They had a talented staff creating a ton of great local content every single day. Content that would work online. Content for videos. Content for podcasts. Content for web updates. Content for Twitterfeeds. Content to be shared with the local papers of each county, content to be shared with the local television stations, content to be shared with the public access cable channel.

Content the audience couldn't get anywhere else because no other organization would be gathering it.

Radio Orange was equally creative in their advertising structure as they were with their news and sports reporting. Everything was an opportunity for sponsorship, and at rates in line with what local businesses could afford. Ditto in the present day.

There's no reason every online and on-air element can't be sponsored. Not always with :30 spots, but creatively. Maybe just a single line and a link on a web page. A brief mention for the weather. A sponsor name and slogan for the sports scores.

It worked before -- and incorporating new media, I think it can work again.

- Ralph

Day 167 of the WJMA Podwatch. (OK, they finally added the news director's name to the metadata, but we still have no image, web address, etc.)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Citizen Journalism - Charlottesville and Beyond!

The New York Times recently published an article of interest to new media types and should be of especial interest to readers of this blog.

The Tehran Bureau, an Iranian news website that sprang up in the wake of the Iranian elections, is now working with (and receiving financing from) the PBS series "Frontline." So a website by citizen/journalists is now providing news to a respected old media news organization.

In the course of the article, writer Brian Stelter says:

Tehran Bureau is not the only nontraditional news source to find an old-media partner. Mr. Benton cited PlanPhilly, a Web site about urban development in the city affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, which is collaborating with The Philadelphia Daily News to produce a series about growth; and Charlottesville Tomorrow, a nonprofit Web site about issues in Virginia, which is sharing articles with a local newspaper, The Charlottesville Daily Progress.
That's right: Charlottesville Tomorrow, our own local example of citizen journalism at its best, is cited in the New York Times as an example of successful old/new media collaboration. No surprise here: I've talked about this unique service at length.

But it's nice to know that the New York Times agrees!

- Ralph

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles

I've spent three posts taking a close look at the comic strip art of Noel Sickles. But the three years he spent drawing "Scorchy Smith" only represents a small part of his career.

Sickles was first and foremost an illustrator, and he could readily adapt his style to the assignment at hand -- yet approach the subject in an original manner that raised the artwork beyond the conventional.

The best source for finding out more -- and appreciating the work of -- this extraordinary artist, is the Fantagraphics book "Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles," by Bruce Canwell and Dean Mullaney. In addition to containing Sickles' complete run of "Scorchy Smith," the book also has excellent examples of his later work.

One such is his work for the United States Postal Service. In 1962, Sickles did the art for the Battle of Shiloh commemorative stamp. Notice the economy of line (click on the image to enlarge). It's really a simple stamp -- just one soldier in combat. We can't see his face, and it's not clear which side he's on. This one soldier represents the over 109,000 men who were involved in the struggle.

Sickles wanted to emulate combat sketches of the period. While he captures the essence of a hastily drawn image by an eyewitness, it still has a contemporary look. The stamp successfully combines the styles of two centuries -- appropriate for such a commemorative.

Scorchy Smith wasn't a fluke -- almost everything Sickles drew professionally worked on multiple levels. If you're interested in illustrative art at all, "Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles" is a worthy investment. - Ralph

Friday, September 18, 2009

The CE Classical Challange

I've written a lot about classical music programming on public radio stations.

Recently, one of my Twitter colleagues challenged some of my assumptions. He gently pointed out that not every station only plays European orchestral music written 350-100 years ago (and also provided some examples).

Fair enough.

So I've decided to do a somewhat scientific survey of what stations are playing. Ideally, I'd like to look at playlists for an entire month from each station airing classical music, cross reference each work, and do some serious number-crunching.

The reality is, though, that I'll be doing this survey in my spare time, so the scope will be much more limited. So the results won't be definitive, but I think they'll be representative.

Each week I'll take a different station's posted classical playlist for the day. I'll be looking at several factors: style periods, composer demographic, musical forces. Here's the breakdown:

Style Period (dates are approximate)
- Medieval (up to 1300)
- Renaissance (1300 to 1600)
[I may end up lumping these together as "Early Music"]

- Baroque (1600 to 1750)
- Classical (1750 - 1820)
- Romantic (1820 - 1910)
- 20th Century (1910 - 2000)
- 21st Century (or Modern) (2000 - )
- Crossover (this would include show tunes, movie scores, Beatles songs for brass choir, etc.; the 20th and 21st century categories are reserved for mainstream classical works. John Corigliano's symphony would go under "20th Century"; his music for the movie "Coma" would go under "Crossover")

Musical Forces
- Orchestral (includes concertos)
- Chamber (generally nine instruments or less - chamber orchestra would be "orchestral")
- Solo Instrument (includes works which has one solo instrument and one accompanying instrument, such as a violin sonata w/piano accompaniment)
- Choral (either a cappella, or choir plus instruments where the choir has the lead role, such as an oratorio)
- Solo Voice (either voice and piano (lieder), or solo voice with orchestra, such as an opera aria)

Composer Demographic
- Male/Female
- Living/Dead
- European/American/Other (this would include Latin and South America, Asia and Africa)

So every week I'll look at a different radio station's playlist, tabulate and post the results. And I'll also provide an updated PDF report with all the stations and their playlists, so you can check my work.

Should be an interesting experiment. If there's a station you'd like me to look at, just leave a suggestion in the comment field. Otherwise, next week we'll start close to home (well, my home anyway) with a survey of WVTF, Roanoke, VA.

- Ralph

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Noel Sickles and the Art of Sequential Art, Part 3

It doesn't matter if you're a student of sequential art or not -- just take a moment and let your eyes revel in the masterful images below. And as you do, remember this. Noel Sickles churned out such images every day, six days a week for three years.

Part one I talked about Sickle's depiction of night. In part two, I looked at his mastery of negative space. This time, it's all about location.

One of the problems with modern comic strips is their small panels. Most strips have little more than talking heads with the merest hint of scenery. But even in the 1930's when comic strips had more real estate, not everyone took advantage of it.

In the panel below (click to enlarge), Scorchy Smith visits Colonel Patterson, who wants to use the aviator to crop dust his Louisiana plantation. In this one image, Sickles conveys everything we need to know -- including a strong sense of place.

The plantation house in the background has the columned porch typical of Southern architecture (at least in popular imagination). It's also large, an appropriate home for a rich and successful planter.

And check out that stand of pine trees. Very typical for the area, which also adds to the sense of place. The trees also help establish depth to the scene. And their shadows show the time to be late afternoon.

The figures are on the extreme left, and Patterson's word balloon pulls the eye forward, first to the house, and then on across the scene on its way to the next panel. That long journey also gives the impression of spaciousness -- this is a big plantation.

Below is the sequence the panel comes from (click on image to enlarge).

Patterson's daughter gazes wistfully in the first panel of the bottom sequence. And if you look carefully, you'll see her in the second as well. She's not that hard to find, as her silhouette is just below Patterson's last word.

The final panel has a lot of exposition, so Sickles just draws the figures. But that's OK -- with the richness of the panel before it, that white space makes a nice balance.

Take another look at that image at the top, and think about drawing in all those trees and shadows. Who would go to that much work for something that was only read once and forgotten? Only a master craftsman such as Noel Sickles.

And I'm glad he did.

- Ralph

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Now This - The Story of WJMA

One of the coolest things about the media revolution is that resources formerly only available to professionals are now accessible to all.

I'll be attending the premier of a new documentary film on September 28. "Now This" will be shown at the Orange County Historical Society. It's a movie outlining the history of the first 35 years of WJMA, a station that holds a special place in the Orange community.

In the bad old days, this movie would have never happened. The focus is far too narrow, the potential audience far too small to justify the investment of production. But current cameras and video editing tools mean that folks who are interested in the history of this remarkable radio station can produce their own film. And from the trailer, it looks to be a fine film.

- Ralph

Day 150 of the WJMA Podwatch. (Will any of the of the current owners be at the premier? Don't know, but I'm sure they were invited.)

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Noel Sickles and Art of Sequential Art, Part 2

In part one we looked at one aspect of the remarkable work Noel Sickles in an essentially disposable medium. As I said then, this series isn't necessarily for the hardcore comics fan, but rather for anyone interested in creative work that's better than it has to be.

Noel Sickles had a long and distinguished career as a commercial artist. He only spent three of them as a comic strip artist - but his work on "Scorchy Smith" set the standard for many artists since.

One of the reasons has to do with his mastery of light and shadow, such as the panel at left. The scene takes place in the early afternoon somewhere in the southwest.

How bright is the sun? Bright enough to wash out some details. Sickles doesn't draw in the door panel, nor does he completely line out the undercarriage seam. And that sun's bright enough to cast some long, deep shadows! Note the shadow of the rear view mirror. Sickles also uses negative space effectively to depict the mirror by only showing its shadow. The line from the top of car door is interrupted by the mirror, but the object itself isn't outlined.

And speaking of negative space, look closely at the radiator. A single black blot would work, but Sickles uses it to also show the composition of the radiator. The irregular edging suggests grille composed of vertical rods (and of course the black shadows stop to outline the shape of the car horns).

The front bumper is also primarily depicted by negative space created by the shadows around it. And same with the wheels -- instead of an oval outline, they're shown where their white spaces intersect the black underside of fenders, and the shadow cast by the car itself.

Below is the original sequence the panel comes from (click on image to enlarge).

It's pretty dialogue-heavy, which tends to crowd the art a little. Even so, Sickles manages to keep things moving. In the top sequence, he places the caption at the bottom of the panel to break up the eye motion (otherwise the reader could hjust skim across the top of the comic and never really see the art). What prevents skimming on the bottom sequence? The placement of the word balloons. In the second panel Ann's response is underneath Scorchy's balloon, so the eye enters the next panel about three-quarters of the way up, leading straight to Scorchy's balloon -- but not before being lead past the courthouse and the car, setting the scene.

While there's a lot of virtuoso artistry going on here, you can also see where Sickles took a little time-saving shortcut. Four of the panels has Ann looking over her shoulder with the same light source -- Sickles essentially draws the same image four times.

But considering the pressures of producing a comic strip six days a week, 52 weeks a year, it's a small concession. And really -- considering the quality of the artwork, how many readers would actually notice?

- Ralph

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Great Race and Steampunk

When it comes to any creative work, the reference point of the audience changes over time. I thought of that while watching "The Great Race." This 1965 Blake Edwards comedy chronicles a mythical 1903 New York to Paris road race. Tony Curtis (the Great Leslie) and Jack Lemon (Professor Fate) represent good and evil in a way that was meant to mirror the conventions of silent movies of the 1920's -- although Professor Fate seemed to be more a cross between Snidely Whiplash and Wile E. Coyote.

Blake makes his intentions clear, right from the opening credits. He's paying homage to early film comedies of the 1920's.

The movie featured imaginative and retro-looking automobiles, including Professor Fate's formidable Hannibal 8. This vehicle had everything needed for Fate to win the race by cheating. It came with a smoke screen, a heat cone, a retractable cannon (!), and a body that could be raised and lowered (as you can see below).

For 1965 audiences, the quaintness of turn-of-the-century technology and actions was amusing. But when I watched this movie in 2009, I had a different thought. Professor Fate's inventions are straight-up steampunk.

There's an entire sub-genre of science fiction devoted to retro-futurism, extrapolating devices from late nineteenth and very early twentieth century technologies. Which is exactly what Blake Edwards does in "The Great Race." It seems to me this film potentially could attract a whole new audience from steampunk devotees, many of whom the film predates by at least twenty years.

Reference points change over time. Has the time come for "The Great Race" to be popular again -- for slightly different reasons?

- Ralph

BTW - Henry Mancini's ballad "The Sweetheart Tree" alone is worth the price of admission.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Radio Performance Tax - It's not just me

Recently I weighed in on the controversial "performance tax" that commercial (and some non-commercial) broadcasters have been nattering on about.

To recap, record labels want broadcasters to pay a fee for the music they use. Stations already pay such as fee to the writers (publishers) of the music, but now labels want money for the performers, also.

My position is this: this fight was lost a long time ago -- and broadcasters have no one to blame but themselves. And apparently, I'm not alone.

Media professional Ken Dardis recently shared his view of the matter in an Audio Graphics blog post, "Radio Performance: A Fee or A Tax?"

[in] 1998, I was calling for the radio industry to become involved in the Copyright Royalty Board's excessive rates against internet radio. That cry was a forewarning; my chant was that CRB was going to eventually catch up to the radio industry.

The radio industry, not having acted when those first and subsequent calls were made in 2002, 2005 and 2008, put itself in the bull's-eye. Only the blind could not see that the record labels were ultimately positioning this as a "parity" fight. Cable access, then satellite radio, with internet radio and downloading were set up by the record labels and conquered one by one. Radio industry leaders sat silent as the dominoes fell. Parity is the reason that the radio industry should now be made to pay.

Radio hoped that those other media outlets be crushed by crippling performance fees and either be put out of business or so overburdened financially that they could no longer compete with terrestrial broadcasting.

The outlets weren't completely crushed, and audiences have voted with their ears. And now the finger's pointing at the last -- and largest -- a target of the record labels' onslaught.

But let's be clear. It's not a tax. It won't be administered by the government.

It will be a royalty fee paid by commercial businesses (radio stations) for the use of other commercial business' property (labels' recordings) to attract customers (advertisers impressed with audience numbers).

I'm not rooting for either side in this, but I'm with Ken - I've got no sympathy for the companies ensnared in the trap they hoped would catch others.

- Ralph

Day 140 of the WJMA Podwatch. (And yes, WJMA's calling it a tax, too.)