Thursday, August 27, 2015

Nothing Is Going To Change

The father of the young reporter killed on live TV by a disgruntled former co-worker told Fox “News” last night that next week, no one will remember what happened to his daughter.

And I think he’s right. No one, except TV news folks.

Sandy Hook was the turning point, which demonstrated once and for all, that this nation is not going to do anything about improving access to mental health care and limiting access to guns. And the vast majority of Americans are going to turn a blind eye to the statistics that show when it comes to gun violence, the U.S. is completely off the chart when compared to every other nation.

The nearly unbelievable story of yesterday’s live-on-TV-murders hit home to me and a lot of my friends who are broadcasters. My very first job in TV news was as a one-man-band with an 8-mm film camera, working as a Fox Valley “stringer” (news lingo for part-time reporter) for a Green Bay TV station.


When you’re on a TV shoot, whether it’s being broadcast live or not, you’re concentrating 100% on the task at hand, and you do your best to tune out everything else around you. That’s probably why the gunman was able to get so close to the young reporter, her photographer, and the lady they were interviewing. Thousands of "live shots”, as the TV folks call them, are done every day all across the nation.

But I don’t think there’s ever been one before involving the killing of a reporter on live TV.

My wife, Toni, did hundreds of “live shots” during the decade or so that she worked for Channel 3 in Madison. The only time I was ever concerned for her safety was a live shot she was on from Sun Prairie one evening on the 6 o’clock news. (Well, there was one other time, after a huge blizzard, that Toni crawled up onto the roof of somebody’s house to do a live shot about “ice dams” – but I knew if she fell off the roof it would be into a huge snowbank.) Back to the Sun Prairie live shot: I saw a bolt of lightning strike far in the background of her live shot. The technology that allowed live shots back in those days involved a remote truck with a tall mast and antenna that sent the signal back to the TV station – in other words, a lightning magnet.

The second I saw that lightning bolt in the distant background of her live shot, I was confident that the moment she finished the live report (which was about 10 seconds after I saw the lightning) that her photographer would run to the remote truck and take down the tall mast. TV news crews take that kind of risk – lightning anywhere in the vicinity – very seriously.  What they have probably never worried about – until yesterday – was being gunned down by a disgruntled former colleague during a live shot.

With the vast number of news people in the print and broadcast ranks shown the door in the past decade, Lord knows there are plenty of unhappy former news people out there.

This particular crime is getting far more in-depth coverage on all news media because, first of all, it involved people in the news profession. And because it involved TV folks, there’s a wealth of ready-for-news photos and videos of the victims. Had this happened to a used car sales person, the TV news folks would have relied, probably, on the person’s Facebook account, or the victim’s family, for pictures. So, in a very sad and twisted way, it’s a made-for-TV news story.

But, I think, as the young reporter’s dad said, a week from now people won’t remember it. The perp is dead, of his own hand, so there’ll be no arraignment, trial, or sentencing to report. You can bet that TV news crews are already paying a lot more attention to their surroundings when they’re on a “shoot”, the unfortunate TV term for these things.

But there’ll be no serious talk about gun violence, mental health access, or anything of the sort.

It’ll be business as usual in another day or so, until the next incident.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Too Many Cooks Spoiled The Stew

It was a simple idea, back on the 12th of May, 1982, when something called “The Weather Channel” first appeared on your TV screen. Cable channels were beginning to blossom.
ESPN, which went on the cable on the 7th of September in 1979 was born of a similar theory: now that this thing called cable TV is in a significant number of households, let’s start a service that highlights sports all the time. ESPN originally stood for the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, but you’ll never see or hear it referred to that way.

The Weather Channel gave the weather. That’s all they did. TWC quickly found a niche in the scores of self-proclaimed weather geeks like me scattered all over the nation. Any time you wanted weather, you tuned in TWC, and you’d never be more than a few minutes from your local weather forecast. They promised “local weather on the 8’s” and they gave two minutes’ worth of it at 8, 18, 28, 38, 48, and 58 minutes past the hour.

Simplicity; utility; beauty.

Oldsters like me who began their TV life in the early ‘50’s watching two or three snowy channels pulled in via so-called rabbit ears on a huge, clunky receiver that barely rendered black and white pictures were enraptured when cable TV service arrived in our community. Cable started out as CATV, Community Antenna Television, an idea from Americans out in the Great Plains who, in their socialist fervor, pitched in to build a huge tower in their community to pull in TV signals and distribute them, via coaxial cable, to their homes.

On the first day of August in 1981, MTV was launched, and, as with ESPN, the rest is history. Both these “cable channels” spawned a number of offshoots, which now enable them to extort huge fees from the handful of giant cable operators left in our nation. Don’t blame the high cost of cable on your local station. ESPN is by far the biggest pig at the trough.

For years – decades, actually- TWC honored its promise and its premise: deliver weather information, and only weather information, every hour of every day. I was a heavy user, as the marketing folks say. Anchoring morning news on local radio and TV stations for four decades will do that to you, particularly if you live in the snowbelt and have to be in the studio at 3 AM. You need to know if you’re going to need extra time to get to work at that ungodly hour of the night. 3 AM is the middle of the night, not “early morning”, and it's long before the snow plow jockeys have their first cup of coffee for the morning.

TWC reliably gave weather geeks like me all we needed to know: what’s happening right now in the atmosphere, and what’s likely to be happening in the next day or so. We were able to catch the national weather information and the local information simply by having the TV on TWC for ten or twelve minutes.

Then, a decade or so ago, TWC lost its way. The corporate suits in the brass and glass towers in Gotham (TWC is actually headquartered in Atlanta) decided that TWC just wasn’t…well, wasn’t exciting enough, or something.

So they gradually added more and more programs which strayed from the core concept that had made TWC must-carry TV for every cable system in the nation. They began to add cheaply-produced “feature” shows to TWC. One of the first of these, which appeared in 2003, was called “Storm Stories”. TWC sent Jim Cantore, the biggest weather geek of them all, out into the wild with a camera crew and said “go chase some storms or something”. The show, when it premiered, wasn’t bad. Cantore was a hero to weather geeks, and he kept the focus on weather.

Gradually more such shows were added to the lineup. Shows with titles like “100 Biggest Weather Moments” (2007) and “When Weather Changed History” (2008).  It wasn’t so much that these shows were annoying; they were just off-mission.

Then, in 2008, TWC’s fate was sealed. NBC-Universal bought TWC, and swiftly applied the collective programming “genius” of all the suits in all the corner offices at 30 Rock. In ’09, they puked out a show called “Wake Up With Al”, featuring the once-rotund-but-now-slimmed-down has-been Al Roker, known more as a jokester and failed comedian than a meteorologist, and paired him (as is the fashion with network TV morning shows) with his granddaughter, a buxom young thing named Stephanie Abrams.

The picture at the top of the post shows Al and Stephanie in various poses for their fun-filled morning "weather" show.

At this point, to us core users – weather geeks of the world – we gave up hope on the weather channel. As the American Meteorological Association was spending millions of dollars to try and convince us that TV weather people are scientists with scads of math and physics courses in their training, Al and Steph clowned it up on what once was the premier televised weather service in the world.

Before long, shows like “Deadliest Space Weather” (2013) appeared; the same year brought us “Heavy Metal Monsters” and “Prospectors”. This crap, which does nothing but annoy the core users of TWC, culminated with the launch of “Fat Guys In The Woods” (I am NOT making this up) in 2014.

The boys in carpet corridor at 30 Rock must have been peeing themselves in excitement with the cheap programming they were able to produce and run; the synergy of using veteran NBC personality Al Roker on not one but TWO platforms (oh, the bean counters must have loved THAT); and the sheer genius of all that high-powered Gotham talent being brought to bear on TWC.

Except, their product stunk.

They were, no doubt, convinced that their market share would increase in leaps and bounds, and that they’d soon be right up there with ESPN and MTV in being able to charge confiscatory rates to the cable purveyors. Why, the number of clicks they dreamed of generating on TWC’s online platform must have been intoxicating!

The NBC brain trust said “hey – we got news; why don’t we stick a couple minutes of news on TWC; and while we’re at it, let’s add a couple minutes an hour of financial news…what a great idea”….NOT.

Except, their efforts failed.  As of this week, TWC is for sale.

Greedy corporate suits have ruined it. What started out as a place you could go to get the forecast any time of day or night became a dumping ground for poorly conceived and executed programs that had no appeal whatsoever to the core viewer, who cared only about the state of the atmosphere.

There’s a saying in TV programming called “Jumped The Shark”, which came from the great old TV show Happy Days. When an episode featured The Fonz on skis, jumping a shark, even the numbskulls in TV programming land knew that Happy Days was dead. When NBC-Universal bought TWC, two things happened immediately: they poured a lot of money into new weather technology for TWC, which was a good thing; but it was as predictable as the sunrise time that within a few years, TWC would jump the shark, as it has.

All those big time “cooks” have ruined the stew; they’ve made TWC essentially unwatchable by the very core of us who proved that there are enough of us out there that you can dedicate a TV channel to weather, and enough people will watch it that it will be a viable commercial enterprise.

Anybody wanna buy a cable weather channel?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

I Can't Stand ABC-TV News

They speak a language which is so harsh to my ears that I am repulsed by their broadcasts. Apparently some consultant told all of the reporters, and many of the anchors, that the words “is, are, was, were, have, and had” are not to be written or spoken.

If you grew up as long ago as I did, you learned in grade school that these words, and a few others, are called “auxiliary verbs” by the grammar folks. Or, sometimes, just “helping verbs”.  Helping in the sense that they help us understand the meaning of the intended communication.

Take this sentence, for example: “Authorities looking for a cause.” It sort of makes your “inner voice” anticipate what comes next…and your mind may even begin to complete this sentence fragment by starting to form a complete sentence, like “Authorities, looking for a cause, are leaving no stone unturned”.

But in the horrible jargon that so much broadcast news has devolved into, particularly at ABC, the sentence fragment “Authorities looking for a cause” is foisted at us as if it were communicative, because the consultants (and the newsspeak people) won’t put the word “are” into the sentence, to make it a simple, declarative sentence, which is immediately understandable: “Authorities ARE looking for a cause.”

Just for fun, turn on an ABC-TV national newscast. Listen to see how many times during any given story the reporter will drop the auxiliary verbs out of his or her report. It will sound something like this: “A wildfire (is) burning out of control in central California. Authorities (are) still trying to figure out how it started. Residents (are) saying they had no way to escape and had to hunker down in their homes. Evacuation centers (are) being set up in neighboring communities.

This sort of newsspeak is supposed to give you a sense of immediacy, but for most of us, it’s just annoying, because no one except news reporters ever speaks that way. It creates what other consultants – those who advocate the use of conversational English – call “listener/viewer fatigue”. Your mind simply gets tired of having to insert all the auxiliary verbs the reporter leaves out.

Other network reporters, and plenty of local folks, to be sure, speak in this strange manner, but I’ve noticed that at ABC-TV over the past couple of months, it’s become nearly universal.

 This will all change again in a few years, when a new set of consultants holds sway with the networks. Meantime, I find ABC-TV News to be unwatchable.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Nobody Should Have Died That Night 3 Years Ago

On an early November morning three years ago, Madison musician Paul Heenan was stumbling home after a late-night gig and, apparently, some post-gig libations. He walked a few blocks and stumbled up the steps to what he thought was his near-east-side home. Except he was drunk and didn’t realize it wasn’t his house.

The owners of the home Paulie, as his friends called him, stumbled into, were roused by the noise and called 9-1-1 thinking a burglar was in their home. A few moments later, they went downstairs and saw their neighbor – Paulie – and told him he was in the wrong house.

Paulie walked out onto the front lawn as the cops arrived and approached him, weapons drawn. The owner of the house yelled to the cops that it was OK, that the guy was a neighbor who was drunk and stumbled into the wrong house.

Former Madison cop Steven Heimsness approached Paulie, and ordered him to the ground. Paulie got combative and – according to Heimsness – went for his gun. Heimness shot Heenan. Three times. Center mass. Paulie bled out and died.

Heimsness was drummed out of the police force a few months after the incident. He was never charged with anything. But, the cops got rid of him anyway.

And the incident prompted groundbreaking new laws about how police shootings are investigated in Wisconsin. Outside agencies now do the follow-up investigations, not the police department.

Paulie’s family sued, and now, nearly three years later, have won a 2.3 million dollar settlement, which the lawyers say is the largest settlement for a police shooting in state history. The City Attorney predictably said they could have won the case, had it gone to trial, but…roll of the dice, avoids years of litigation, and all that.

The attorneys for the Heenan family predictably said the money won’t bring Paulie back, but will help the family deal with their loss and suffering, and add to the national dialogue now going on regarding cops killing people.

When the news story about the 2.3 million dollar settlement went up on social media, the predictable factions divided and spewed their hate: “anybody that goes for a cop’s gun deserves to die” and horseshit similar to that no-brain reaction.

Here’s the thing: any cop who can’t subdue a drunken young man who goes for his gun, without killing him, should not be wearing a badge or carrying a gun. That person needs a great deal more training, or, shouldn’t have been allowed to swear the oath to protect and serve in the first place.

Cops have an often impossibly difficult job to do, and sometimes have to make life-or-death decisions instantaneously. Before we let anyone become a cop, we need to carefully screen that person, determine to the best of our ability that their mindset really is to protect and serve, and then give that person the absolute best training we can to deal with situations like Paulie’s.

Paulie should not have died early the morning of November 9, 2102.

But his death brought about huge changes in the way Wisconsin deals with police shootings. Hopefully, this settlement will bring some peace to Paulie’s remaining family members and friends.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

This Guy Is One Courageous Broadcaster

My friend Jim did a radio show yesterday. He’s done thousands of them, and he’ll do another one today. And tomorrow. But yesterday’s show was significant because it was the first show he’s done in many, many days. The first one since Jim’s wife Lisa suddenly died of a pulmonary embolism.

Jim Leach is News and Program Director at WMAY-AM in Springfield, IL, and he’s always done his talk show with plenty of heart and passion. Yesterday, as I listened in, I heard a few tears, too. From Jim and from his incredibly supportive callers.

Although I have a vivid imagination, I can’t imagine how I’d deal with such a circumstance, but it likely would not involve “going back to work”. We all deal with grief in our own ways, and it is a fool who judges how anyone else picks up the pieces and resumes their life.

We haven't had any contact for years, but I sent Jim a note of support and encouragement yesterday, including a few words of praise for his ability to pull off a show under such hugely emotional circumstances, not expecting any sort of response. But he thanked me for reaching out.

Years ago, in my days as a broadcaster, Jim and I had essentially parallel jobs at stations owned by the same company – Jim in Springfield, me in Madison. Similar markets, capital cities, similar programming, similar staffs, similar problems, yada yada. We’d see each other maybe a couple times a year at news and program management seminars put on by the company.

I’d been at WMAY several times in the 90’s in a minor role as a consultant – the guy from the “home office”- and it was on one of those trips that I first met Jim. The last time we were actually in the same place at the same time was in a different Springfield – Springfield, MO, where the company also owned several radio stations, and the site of one of these get-togethers for the news and programming folks. That was in February or March of 2007, as I recall.

One of the many national resource people the company brought in to address the group and encourage our further professional development was the nation’s top talk radio consultant, my friend Holland Cooke. Holland had a contract with our Madison news-talk station, but didn’t work with any of the other stations in the group of several dozen radio stations.

Holland was speaking about the importance of total community service in news and talk programming, and he was giving some examples of stations across the nation that excelled in serving their community of license. He talked about the importance of severe weather coverage, and began to play an audio file of an award-winning promotional announcement done by a news-talk station after a tornado devastated part of their city.

Holland’s setup was that we were about to hear a station that truly knew how to serve its community, a station which really distinguished itself before, during, and after a horrible tornado. The announcement featured the voice of a woman talking about how the station – HER station, as she called it- helped her get through the scary night, with constant updates and non-stop information.

As soon as the announcement started, several of us in the group exchanged glances. We knew the announcement was about Jim Leach’s tornado coverage on WMAY. I looked at Jim and his face was turning a bright shade of red.

The announcement went on with the woman saying something like “and all night long, Jim Leach kept telling us what was going on, where the danger was, where the power was out, what the emergency responders were doing, where we could go if we needed shelter. I wasn’t alone in my home, scared, because Jim Leach was there with me on WMAY, and I will never forget how Jim Leach and WMAY helped me get through that horrible night”.  It was an extremely powerful and emotional radio spot.

Holland noticed the group was all looking at Jim. Holland didn’t know that Jim Leach was sitting a few feet away. He thought he was just demonstrating to a group of radio people how our listeners count on us during emergencies, and giving us an example of the best of the best.

When the announcement ended, we all turned to Jim and applauded. We demanded that he stand, which he reluctantly did. Holland said “so you’re Jim Leach. Nice to meet you. Congratulations. I didn’t know. You’re the one who should be giving this presentation.”

Real radio professionals make solid connections with their listeners. Jim’s connection to his listeners is legendary. And yesterday they showed Jim their love and support in his time of darkness and turmoil. And I know they’ll continue to support Jim as he moves forward in his grief.

I’m honored to know you, Jim. My thoughts and prayers are with you. Strength and Godspeed, my friend.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Scott Walker Is Running For Vice-President

I’m not the first person who’s suggested this is what’s really going on. Dave Cieslewicz, to name one fairly well-known Madison political commentator, has been saying it in public for a while. Walker can’t possibly be elected President, with his Tea Party politics of division and regression. The election will be decided, as it usually is, by the voters who live in the urban areas of our nation, and they won’t pull the lever for Walker. And the party officials know it.

So, what I (and a lot of others) think is going on here, is that Walker for the past few years has been polishing his bona fides as an arch-conservative fundamentalist Christian politician, so that when the party picks its nominee, that nominee will name Walker his (or, unlikely, her) running mate, in an attempt to pick up some of those who oppose abortion, immigration, gay marriage,

That moves Walker up another rung, and positions him for a real run for the Oval Office.

One thing seems pretty certain: Walker has no interest in governing Wisconsin. Long after he’s gone from the state’s political scene, there will be no public buildings named after Scott Walker. No state parks will bear his name. No endowed chairs of higher education will be established in his name. His legacy won't be much.
As he proved during the recent budget battle, he had no interest in helping his state party – which holds the majority in both houses – do the work of shepherding the document. He just inserts the far-right language that boosts his Presidential run, and then heads off to another state for a fundraiser or campaign event.

Please understand, and this may shock you, that I’m closer by far to being a Tommy Thompson Republican than a Jim Doyle Democrat. Not the Tommy Thompson who ran that horribly ungracious campaign for U.S. Senate against Tammy Baldwin, where an openly gay Madison liberal thoroughly trounced what was left of Tea Party Tommy. (That’s Wisconsin: we elect a progressive liberal lesbian to one of our U.S. Senate seats, and an arch-conservative Tea Party darling to the other one.)

I’m talking about the Tommy Thompson who so clearly loved his home state, governed effectively, built roads, presided over the expansion and improvement of our state’s public education system from K-12 public schools to the great UW System, championed mass transit, and expanded health care options for his fellow ‘sconnies.
Among many other things which today would be viewed as very un-Republican.

I'm talking about the Tommy who openly wept when the Republican bosses told him he had to move to Washington DC to serve in Dubya’s cabinet.  Tommy before he changed into a partisan hack. Tommy who loved to govern, before he started barking the Tea Party lines about how government is bad in his last run for public office. Tommy the Wisconsin cheerleader-in-chief.

Now, I’m in that large, middle-part of the electorate which is essentially politically homeless. Mike McCabe talks about this segment a lot in his new Blue Jean Nation movement. I’m disappointed by the Democrats and disillusioned by the Republicans. I can’t stand people who preach about how bad government is, while running for government office; I can’t stand those who do nothing but denigrate those who hold public office and talk about how horrible those people are.

I want somebody with ideas to make government BETTER.

Which brings me back around to Walker. He has always had his sights set on the next rung of the political ladder. Not that others haven’t, but it seems to me Walker is more intent on moving up, than really establishing a record or accomplishing a common-good goal. I don’t think he wants to make anything better. I think he wants to improve his lot, not help other people improve theirs.

My former colleague, the irascible conservative commentator and frequent Rush Limbaugh fill-in host Mark Belling, says when the campaign for President is done, Walker has no reason to hang onto the job of Wisconsin governor. Belling points out Walker is not yet wealthy, has two kids in college, and that there’s a ton of money to be made on the lecture circuit. Since he’s not shown any discernable interest in being Governor other than as another notch on the belt, it’s entirely conceivable Walker will pull a Sarah Palin and just quit the job of Governor, leaving, omigod, Becky Kleefish in charge - to make bank as a talking head.

Unless, of course, the nominee picks Walker as a running mate.  Then, when the Republicans lose the national election again, Walker won’t be like Paul Ryan and just return to his political job. No reason to.

So whether he ends up as a Vice Presidential candidate, or as just another face on Fox News, or a hot air machine on the lecture circuit, or whatever, I’m confident this is his last term as Wisconsin governor, and that he’s not going to be our next President.

Monday, June 22, 2015

An Unsustainable Business Model

My long-time friend Doug Moe got the ax at the State Journal last week. Years ago, when my wife and I were doing the “Madison’s Morning News” show on a local station – a station which no longer exists – Doug would often sit in for me when I was on vacation. Doug was editor of Madison Magazine when we met. Through Doug, I met a number of influential, intelligent, witty, and curmudgeonly Madison characters like the late Jim Selk and civil rights lawyer Jeff Scott Olson.

These guys and other local illuminati regularly set up shop at the bar at the old Fess Hotel. For those unaware of this piece of Madison history, the Fess – a landmark at East Doty and King Street, which closed up in ’94 and became the Great Dane Brewpub – was a regular gathering place for itinerant writers, lawyers, and legislators, back when politics was the art of compromise and not the asinine partisan blood sport it’s become.

Doug eventually moved on from Madison Magazine to the Cap Times, where he wrote a fabulous “who’s in town and what’s going on in Madison” column, and then, as the death rattle of print journalism got a bit louder, Doug became a columnist for the State Journal several years ago.

And now, in a paper that once featured some of the best columns ever written, by some of the best people who ever did it – people like Doug, George Hesselberg, Bill Wineke, Susan Lampert Smith, Pat Simms, and other luminaries – we have Chris Rickert.

Since Doug was thrown under the bus and Rickert wasn’t, I can only assume that Doug commanded (and deserved) a much larger salary than Rickert. That’s how these things work in today’s print and broadcast news industry. He who makes a decent living shall be fired in due time, or have his/her benefits stripped or hours reduced.  Like my friend George Hesselberg, the brilliant State Journal writer, who’s down to around 25 hours a week now, as I recall.

It’s an unsustainable business model, this journalism thing, whether it be the print version or the TV version. The captains of industry who run these outfits demand a rate of return on their investment that is certainly not supported by earnings, and is reminiscent of the days before Craig’s List took over the job of classified advertising in nearly every community. Unreasonable dividend goals must be met, and unsustainable debt must be serviced, so – as the old saying goes, firings will continue until morale improves.

Let me also briefly mention the decline of local radio news. When my wife and I were doing that morning news show years ago, there was huge competition in radio news in Madison. Each group of stations had a thriving news department and part of our motivation was to beat the other guys. Now, there’s one news department left in commercial radio in Madison (the WIBA stations) and a respectable local news gathering operation supported by public radio. The rest of the stations are one-man bands or “sidekick” news hosts, who give “news” about the Kardashians or items purloined from some other news-gathering operation.

Doug wasn’t the only one shown the door in the latest bloodletting. Let me note the other two household names in Madison news who were also given the bum’s rush by the paper.

Sports writer and columnist Andy Baggot, whose writing I’ve enjoyed for a long time, was “downsized” or whatever the current euphemism is. He knew his stuff and he wrote in a clear and compelling style. Along with Tom Oates, Baggot is synonymous with college and pro sports coverage in Madison.

Sports writer Dennis Semrau, who covered high school sports for the paper, was summarily dismissed as well. Somebody on Facebook said this weekend “how many people have an athletic profile of their son or daughter written by Semrau clipped from the paper and placed in a scrapbook – or still hanging on the refrigerator”.

I wish all three of these veteran journalists the best, and hope they land on their feet soon.

As so many of us who were in the biz, and got fired because we did our job well enough to command a decent salary have said, after being thrown under the bus: pity the poor souls who are left behind in the newsroom. They’re the ones who will be expected to do still more, with less support and diminishing resources. They’ll have to deal with the pressure from the owners and managers who will feign astonishment when subscriptions (or ratings) decline.

It’s an unsustainable business model. I may live to see the end of the printed newspaper.
Good luck, you guys.
The photo of Doug Moe at the top of this column is copyright property of Madison Newspapers, Inc.