Monday, April 30, 2012

A House Divided

The photo above is stolen from my friend of long-standing, Bill Kiefer, with whom I had the pleasure of working in the Fox Valley’s biggest radio newsroom three decades ago.  Bill is now a senior news executive at Channel 11 in Green Bay.  This photo, taken on Oak Street in Green Bay, which Bill posted on his Facebook page last week, pretty well sums up the state of the state.

Wisconsin is truly a house divided.

This past weekend, I made a quick trip up to Appleton, and returned home shaking my head about the state of poisoned politics in Wisconsin.  Here in Dane County, Governor Walker has far fewer friends than he does in the Fox Valley.  His budget measures have hit a lot of people who live in Dane County very hard and very personally.  Political yard-signs supporting Walker are few and far between around here.

As you travel north from Madison on Highway 151, you know you’re getting closer to Walker country when you begin to see more and more Walker yard signs.  When you turn off Highway 151 to take Highway 26, the “short-cut” to Highway 41, you begin to see a smattering of Walker yard signs.  In Rosendale, the state’s best-known speed trap, there’s a spectrum of political yard signs: some for Walker; some for Falk; even a few for Barrett.  A few miles north of Rosendale, there’s a big yard sign – about six feet long and four feet high – that says “Walker for Governor”.  But the person who put up the sign spray-painted a black X over the word “Governor” and added the word “President” under it.

Now you know you’re not in the state’s bluest county.

When you hit Highway 41 just south of Oshkosh and begin the trek up what I call “The Main Street of the Fox Valley”, Walker signs proliferate.  Every quarter-mile or so, there’s a Walker sign or billboard of some sort.  But just north of Oshkosh, I saw a humongous billboard – probably twice the size of a normal roadside billboard – and my jaw literally dropped when I read what it said:


The spoiled few.  Who are they?  Teachers?  The women who work in school kitchens, preparing the meals for our children?  The men who plow our roads in the winter?  The man or woman who checks our stores to make sure the cash registers are not cheating us on prices, and our gas pumps to make sure that when it says it’s delivered a gallon, it’s really delivered a gallon?  The people who work in nursing homes taking care of our elderly?  The ones who pick up our trash when we set it on the curb? Are these the spoiled few?  Was it 950,000 spoiled people who signed recall petitions?  It sure wasn’t “out of state union thugs” who signed those documents.

All the way through Neenah and Menasha, Walker billboards are predominant; and just before I exited Highway 41 at Wisconsin Avenue in Appleton, there was a big sign that said “I Stand With Governor Walker”.  As I made my way east on Wisconsin Ave and then turned north on Richmond Street, into a more residential neighborhood, there was an intriguing mix of signs, some supporting Walker, some encouraging his impeachment.  It looked not too dissimilar from the photo above.

When I got to my friend Greg’s house, on Grant Street, he had the American Flag flying proudly from his home, and a yard sign that said “I Stand With Governor Walker”.  Across the street, his neighbor’s yard sign said “Impeach Walker”. 

My friend and I didn’t talk politics; we talked music, our common bond as old-time tuba players a few years apart at Hortonville High.  We did our business – I bought one of Greg’s reconditioned bass horns – and then talked music for another half-hour, glad to have renewed our acquaintance and solidified our bond as “back row boys”.

As I headed back down to Madison, I spent a lot of time thinking about how our state has become so deeply divided.  It’s not just Scott Walker.  The Tommy Thompson of 2012 is not the Tommy Thompson I knew in the 80’s and 90’s.  It’s two parties that can’t talk to each other about anything, can’t put out a news release without sniping at the other party.  And I kept thinking regardless of the outcome of the recall election, it’s not likely the hyperpartisanship will change.

We will remain, I think, a house divided.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Dean Berquam: FAIL

UW Dean of Students Lori Berquam made one of the most fundamental mistakes you can, when dealing with young people: trying to dictate their behavior.  If you’re not familiar with her recent gaffe, Isthmus covers the story very nicely here, including her FAILED You-Tube video.

Berquam, in the two-minute rant, repeatedly says “Don’t go” when talking about the Mifflin Street Beer Blast, which is now just a weekend away.

I learned when dealing with my nearly-fully-adult children a few years back (both are fully functioning independent adults now, and have been for several years) that, just as when they were younger, TELLING them how to behave is seldom effective.  They’ve both heard the talk from me several times, about how I’m no longer in a position to control their lives or their behavior, and I wouldn’t want to, even if I could.  Once a kid gets a driver’s license and access to a vehicle, it’s game over.

Besides, I firmly believe control is an illusion.

I also believe that most kids and young adults often deliberately do the opposite of what authority figures tell them to do, a lesson many parents never seem to comprehend.  What most kids want is to think THEY’RE in control, so my approach with our kids was to tell them unequivocally where I stand on whatever issue is under discussion.  Then, I try to give them information to help them make “their own decision” on whatever it is.  I’ve learned to aim for communication, not dictation, even in situations and circumstances when they may make a mistake from which they'll never recover.

Just like the mass e-mails Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema have sent ‘round about the obscene chants in the student sections at Badger football games, the net effect of Berquam’s YouTube rant will likely be exactly the opposite of what was intended.

Dean Berquam admits, much to her credit, that her rant was wrong in tone, wrong in message, and just plain wrong.  Within a few hours of her release of the video rant, enterprising UW students “re-mixed” her video mocking her constant repetition of “Don’t go”.

The Mifflin Street Beer Blast has long outlived its usefulness, and has become a huge waste of taxpayer money and police resources.  I’ve said many times before the event should be put to an end.  But Dean Berquam TELLING the students not to go? 


Monday, April 23, 2012

More Media Duplicity

Some of the biggest corporate media owners on the planet are playing a game of “do as I say, not as I do” when it comes to informing the public about who’s behind the political ads we see on TV and hear on radio, and how much they’re paying for the ads.

We’re talking outfits like NBC, USA Today, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, ABC, and dozens of other media owners, large and small.

They’re actively (and expensively) lobbying the Federal Communications Commission against a measure that would require broadcasters to post data about political ads (who paid for the and how much they paid) to an online site that anybody could check.

We’re hearing the usual crap about why this is such a bad idea, from outfits like Disney, which complained about the logistics and burden (oh, the burden!) of putting information about political ads online.  NBC and Fox News told the FCC posting the data online would allow their competitors to get “highly sensitive pricing data.”


The FCC already requires broadcasters to keep exact track of such data, but the way the policy reads now is like something out of the 1950’s: the station must make the political ad data available to the public in the station’s “Public File” – a hard copy of every political ad the station sells, to whom it’s sold, how much it cost, and who paid for it.  The Public File is quite literally a file cabinet (or part of a file cabinet) where the station must keep its FCC license, the names of the owners of the station, letters and correspondence from the public about program content, and – all the political ad information, and a bunch of other stuff.   This “Public File” must by law be available for ANY citizen to inspect, at ANY time during regular business hours, without an appointment.

Want to make a broadcast station manager nervous?  Stroll into their lobby and tell the receptionist you’re there to inspect the station’s Public File.

Oh, and that “highly sensitive pricing data” NBC, Disney, and Fox whined about?  Another open secret is that by FCC regulation (since the public owns the airwaves), the station is allowed only to charge the lowest ad rate to any political organization.  “Lowest one-time unit rate”, in the lingo of the broadcasters.  So, those horrid attack ads you see in prime-time every night – political organizations are getting one whale of a bargain on the price, because the station can charge them only the lowest rate they offer.  Everybody else pays higher rates for prime time, but political organizations get the ads, by law, at the lowest price, no matter what time slot they run in.

It’s also no secret that broadcasters and cable TV outlets make a ton of money from political ads, even though they’re sold at the lowest rate.  In 2008, the only thing that kept a significant number of local radio and TV stations from going under in the recession was the revenue from all the political ads that ran.  Here in Wisconsin, political ad revenue is the life-blood of broadcasters, with the recalls accounting for a highly significant part of the station’s income.

Organizations like The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign do yeoman’s work in collecting all the political advertising data from stations, compiling it, and making it available to the public online.

And the organizations that are so quick to send a news crew to some offending politician’s door, to demand transparency in government, and to editorialize about the public’s need to have free access to political information – these are among the loudest voices of those who are lobbying the FCC against implementing a simple and common-sense rule about public access to political ad information.


Monday, April 16, 2012

The Face of Ignorance and Irrelevance

The visage above is a recent photo of United States Representative Virginia Foxx, a  Republican Member of Congress who alleges to represent people from the great state of North Carolina.

What she really represents is a snapshot of many of the things wrong with the United States Congress: out of touch, living in a different world, backward ideas that stem from a past so distant as to have no relevance to 2012, the inability to acknowledge or admit different points of view, and the endless practice of personal indulgence in doing “the people’s business”.

In other words, Foxx, like the US Congress, is ignorant and irrelevant.

A few days ago, the old bat was on G. Gordon Liddy’s radio show, opining that student loans (one of the biggest, if not already THE biggest source of debt in the United States, surpassing Credit Cards) should not be more than they were back when she went to school.  Her website says she holds degrees granted in 1968 and 1972.

Foxx told the G-man “I went through school, I worked my way through, it took me seven years, I never borrowed a dime of money.  I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there’s no reason for that”.

For the record, I have not taken her words out of context to make her appear out of touch with reality.  The two sentences above represent the essence of her rant to Liddy.

The comments clearly illustrate how out-of-touch Foxx is with tuition costs in 2012, and the other salient reasons driving the explosive growth of student loan debt – not the least of which is a Congress that essentially ‘privatized” the student loan business, as if higher education were some sort of undesirable social value, and allowed the private lenders to jack rates up to the sky.

A point I’ve made many times to illustrate the growth of tuition cost: when I was an undergrad – pretty much the same time Foxx was – you could nearly afford to pay for an entire year at the costliest public school in the state (which then was called “The University of Wisconsin”) with a decent summer job.  In the mid-60’s, all-in cost of two full academic semesters at the UW was just under $1500.  That’s tuition and fees, books, room and board, and about one pizza and six beers a week.  If you could bank about $125 a week on your summer job ($3.50/hr x 40 hrs, minus 15 bucks a week for summertime drinking and hell-raising and gas), you could spend the next nine months getting yourself educated.  If your job paid only a couple bucks an hour, you could still do it without borrowing, by availing yourself of “work-study” jobs at your institution of higher learning.

You simply cannot do that now.  College costs have escalated dramatically; many students have to work a 30 or 35 hour week to pay their bills and stay afloat, and that means you can’t carry an 18-credit load, which means it’s going to take you 6 or 7 years to get through school, and if you’re the typical UW student now, you’re going to graduate with around 30 grand in student loan debt – unless you’re in a profession like law or medicine, where you can typically run up nearly six figures in student loan debt.

And that’s NOT because you’re lazy or a spendthrift; it’s because it’s that expensive now.

This whole student loan debt thing is a huge monster that’s going to bite the economy in the ass very hard in the next decade or so, and this post doesn’t even scratch the surface of the problem.

But when we have people like this old Foxx woman “leading” us, we’re in deep doo-doo.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Wizard of West Bend

The temptation is to think of Glenn Grothman as some sort of moron, a Neanderthal throwback, an outlier, someone so impossibly backward as to be unable to function in society.

He isn’t.

I believe he is a product of his environment, and that he comes from one of those small sub-cultures you still find in various tiny enclaves of Wisconsin.  If you’ve spent any time with the people in Glenn’s senate district – places like Oostburg, Kewaskum, and Fredonia – you’ve encountered plenty of people who think, act, and even talk like Grothman.

They believe, like Glen, that men should be paid more than women; they are staunchly anti-abortion. A former member of the U.S. Congress used to tell his friends confidentially of the story of the man from Oostburg who said, in full seriousness, that a woman should be allowed only two children, and after the second child, “that hole should be sewed up, and then we wouldn’t have to worry about the abortion”.

The last two words were pronounced “thee  a-bar-shun”, and the article always preceded the term: “the” abortion.

Like Santorini, whose campaign button the senator wears in the photo above, there is no small number of people in these rural enclaves who publicly proclaim sex is for procreation only, and anything else can lead to bad consequences.  I had a college fraternity brother from Kewaskum who firmly believed anyone who had “recreational sex” was doomed to eternal hellfire.

Long before Wisconsin’s ridiculous adaptation of the “Castle Doctrine”, these folks firmly believed that a man’s home (and it is a MAN’S home) is his castle, and any sumbitch stoopid enough to come wanderin’ onto my property without my specific invitation is gonna get more than a load of buckshot to warn ‘em off.

Like Santorini, Grothman is quite suspicious about higher education of any sort, though it may surprise you to learn Grothman has a BBA and JD (he’s a lawyer) from the UW.  I can’t begin to explain the mindset of enigmas like Grothman or Santorini, who obtain an advanced degree (Santorini has a BS, an MBA, and a JD) and then regard higher education as the sort of thing a snob pursues.

There are other throwback enclaves scattered across the Wisconsin countryside.  You don’t have to travel that many miles west of Madison to find tiny communities where people keep goats in their yard and hold a set of beliefs similar to Grothman’s.  And you don’t have to get too far above Highway 8 in Wisconsin to run into a lot of people who were clinging to their bibles and guns long before Barack Obama talked about such people during his 2008 campaign.

People like Grothman, who actually believe money is more important to men than women, that men rightly have dominance over women’s bodies (Adam’s rib, and all that), neither realize nor accept how far the rest of the world has come in the past century, and certainly aren’t aware that it’s exactly because of people like them that we have made laws forbidding discrimination against women in pay, reproductive rights, and a wide array of other elements of daily life.

This is part of pharmaceutical-grade conservatism: change is BAD.  Things should be kept the way they ARE.

Call Glen Grothman what you want, but don’t call him stupid.  I think he really believes what he espouses.  To him and his kind, it must be a very scary world indeed.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Crying Wolf

The folks at the National Weather Service are again tinkering with the wording of their tornado alerts.  They ARE getting better at warning people who are or soon could be in the path of a tornado, but to me, it’s wasted effort.

I think the old saying has a lot of truth in it: “There are two kinds of people: those who know what’s happening, and those who wonder what’s happening.”  I’m not sure whether my profession is what caused me to try and stay informed and alert to what’s happening in the news and weather, or if it was the other way around.  But I’ve known countless people over the years who basically are unaware of current events.  They seem astonished by a snowstorm that’s been predicted for days by the weather folks; they’re shocked when a new law takes effect, a law that was passed months ago and about which there have been scores of news reports.

When it comes to weather, I think there is a further subdivision among the “people who know what’s happening” category:  the people who are scared into their basement every time the sky clouds up, and the people (like me) who stand on their porch looking at the sky, waiting for the tornado to pop out of the clouds.  I don’t put professional storm-chasers into either sub-division; they’re pros doing a job.  As you are no doubt aware, there are quite a few amateur storm chasers, who are in a category of their own which I will not name.

If you haven’t followed this blog for some time, you may not be aware that I firmly believe the majority of TV weather folks – local and national – are mainly over-the-top nannies, augmented by a marketing department that creates messages saying in essence our families will die if we don’t watch their weather broadcasts.


OK then.   They’re doing this, while admitting to and fully aware that somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of people think the weather folks cry wolf ALL the time.  They’re making the language even MORE over-the-top, while at the same time acknowledging that most people think they’re blowing smoke.

I’m going to bet that if you stopped a hundred people at West Towne or East Towne Mall in Madison and asked them to differentiate between a Tornado Warning and a Tornado Watch, far more than half would get it wrong or wouldn’t know.  Every time there’s a storm forecast, there are still arguments on social media about whether a watch is more urgent than a warning.  Posts like “but it’s only a warning, they haven’t made it a watch yet” are common.

If the National Weather Service thinks more education about terms is necessary, I can understand their frustration and why they’d want to make the language even more stringent.  But every time they warn us, using strong language like above, and the tornado doesn’t form or doesn’t come anywhere near us, they add to the “cry wolf” problem.  It’s a dilemma: two choices, neither one of them desirable.

If I’m swept off my back porch into the vortex of a tornado this season, I’ll die knowing damn well I was taking a risk.  But I won’t kick the bucket thinking “what the hell is happening?!"

Monday, April 2, 2012

This is What Happens When You Fire All the REAL News People

One of the many bad things that happen when you have managers with no background in news, making decisions about staffing levels in the news department -whether it’s print or electronic medium -is that you wind up with people completely unqualified for the task making stupid mistakes.

Case on point: the “April Fool” that the “news” announcers at Magnum Communications (12 radio stations scattered around Wisconsin) thought was real, and put on the air without checking.

Years ago, before news budgets were so severely slashed in the broadcast medium (particularly radio) there was a disgusting practice called “rip and read”.  It referred to ripping a piece of news copy right off the Associated Press teletype and reading it on the air.  No re-write, no scan for mistakes, just straight from the “news wire” to the air.  In the digital age, there’s no teletype any more; the AP feed is digital, direct to the newsroom computer – in those few station clusters that still spend what it costs to have AP news delivered.

Rip and Read also refers to the process of ripping a story right out of the local newspaper and reading it on the air – no rewrite; no attribution (“The Wisconsin State Journal is reporting  xxxx”); just outright theft of the newspaper’s product.

That’s what happened late last week when the Ontario County Line, a western Wisconsin weekly newspaper with a couple thousand circulation…ran its annual April Fool story.  Karen Parker, who’s been the editor of the paper for three decades, does an April Fool story every year, and tries every year to write something even more absurd than the prior year, as a lesson to readers to be skeptical about what they read.  That’s what she told Jim Romenesko, the veteran media critic who blogs at

Parker’s joke this year was a story saying Disney had purchased the popular Elroy-Sparta Trail from the DNR.  She told Romenesko Saturday afternoon “Oh my God, this thing just boomeranged all over the state. The worst thing is our radio stations around here don’t spend any money on reporting, so they just read our news. Magnum Radio has 12 stations and they all read the story as a regular news story. “

Suffice it to say the DNR was inundated with calls from people who said “say it ain’t so!”

It used to be that when you worked in a broadcast newsroom there were enough old hands around, who’d been burned enough times by making mistakes, to teach the youngsters about verifying information, being doubly certain that what they were going to report as news was accurate, and having a healthy dose of skepticism when they encountered a story about something as wild as Disney buying a state recreation trail.

Not now.  All too often, it’s just some young person who wants to be on the radio, and the only open job is the “news job”, and they take it, just to get on the radio – with the hope of “advancing” to the high calling of “disc jockey”.  Not all that long ago young men seeking a career in broadcast sports would apply for broadcast news openings, hoping that this “foot in the door” would eventually lead to an on-air sports job.  Never mind that they had no journalistic or news training or experience whatsoever – it was their way in, for a shot at a sports reporting job.

I’ve said many times radio is dying the death of a thousand cuts.  I know Dave Magnum, the owner of Magnum Broadcasting.  He’s a responsible broadcaster.  He was probably more embarrassed about this stupid mistake than the “news” people who committed it.

But it’s stuff like this that’s killing what’s left of radio.