Thursday, May 30, 2013

WTMJ Lawyers to FCC: Talk Shows Are "Bona Fide News". REALLY? SINCE WHEN???

There was a time, many years ago, when the logo above had at least an element of truth: WTMJ-AM was sort of like the “official” station of Wisconsin.  As the broadcast outlet for the Milwaukee Journal (the call letters stand for “The Milwaukee Journal”), WTMJ had fact-filled newscasts twice an hour all day and all night, and some of the best on-air personalities ever to work in Wisconsin.  WTMJ’s signal pretty much covered the entire state.


That was a long time ago.


Now, WTMJ is just another radio station, featuring extreme right-wing “talk personalities” and highly slanted news.  Often, it’s the stories WTMJ does NOT report (anything negative regarding Governor Walker or a member of the Republican Party) that clearly indicate the news department’s editorial bias.


No one under 40 years of age views WTMJ – or any other radio station – as “Wisconsin’s Radio Station”. All radio stations are equal in the digital age; whether a station has 500 watts of power or 50,000 watts of power; whether its signal reaches one neighborhood or seven states; whether it’s connected with a TV station or not, every radio station is equal on the internet.


WTMJ has become such a sycophantic voice for extreme right-wing politics that a petition was filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by a group called the Media Action Center asking that the station’s license be revoked for supplying Scott Walker half a million dollars or more worth of free air time during the recall election, and refusing to give ANY time to supporters of Walker’s opponent in the recall, Tom Barrett.


This is the verifiable truth, although that seems these days to be an abstract concept for legions of citizens who feel entitled to their own facts and their own truths.  WTMJ simply refused to allow on the air anyone who had anything bad to say about Scott Walker.


The FCC has pretty much gotten itself out of the content-monitoring business, even though that was once one of the most important duties of the huge federal bureaucracy.  But there are still a few rules that have not been de-regulated, one of which is called the “Zapple Doctrine”, which states broadcasters must give supporters of both major party candidates comparable air-time.  The only exception to the Zapple Doctrine is a “bona fide news program”.  The exemption is given to allow and encourage real-time, live coverage of candidates’ events, news conferences, and public appearances.


Oh, there’s still some FCC content monitoring:  if a woman exposes her breast at half-time of a big football telecast, the FCC will be knocking on the control room door before the end of the third quarter.


Anyone who’s listened to WTMJ talk-show hosts Charlie Sykes or Jeff Wagner can discern within a few minutes their political bias.  And on a talk show, that’s fine.  There are just as many lefty yammerers as there are right-wingers.  The problem is that so many Americans have lost the ability to discern between “news” and “talk” programs.  (Where would they get that idea that talk programs and news programs are the same thing…..certainly not from the host of the highest-rated talk show on American radio, who refers to himself as “America’s Anchorman”.  At least the late Paul Harvey clearly labeled his broadcasts as “News and Comment”.


Now, for the first time in American history, attorneys for WTMJ have responded to the FCC regarding their license challenge – officially and in writing, mind you – with the assertion that its local political talk shows are “bona fide news”, and are thus exempt from the Zapple Doctrine.


This assertion that talk shows are news programs is complete BS.


But, if the industry trade publications are right, there’s a 50-50 chance the FCC will decide that Charlie Sykes is indeed, a “newsman”.


If so, it will be a sad day for Democracy.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Stand By For Astonishment

It’s “Spring Sweeps” for the TV industry – from April 25th through May 22nd – and if you’ve been wondering why you’ve been seeing a barrage of promotional announcements on the local news channels for sensational stories coming up on the news at 6 or 10, you now know the answer.

It’s ratings time.

This is why one of the local news channels just did an expose’ about prostitution in Madison. And why you’ll likely see stories about germ counts in local restaurants (“would you eat here, knowing what you know now?!?!?!?!), merchants caught swindling folks at the cash register (can you trust ANYONE these days?!?!?!?!?), and bedbug infestations at local hotels (“would you want to sleep here?!?!?!?).

OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but – there was that local prostitution story.

Married, as I am, to a woman who worked in local TV news for many years, I can attest that most of this sensational stuff is the bane of the local reporter’s existence.  The spring rating period is one of the most important ones for the TV industry, and while the local ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox affiliates can’t do much to control the ratings for the network shows they carry, they can – and do – vie for your attention in their local newscasts.  And sweeps month is when they do it the most aggressively.

In some markets, it’s far worse than it is in Madison.  Reporters will be ordered to do outrageous things like spend a week as a homeless person, to “show us what it’s like”; and they’ll trot out the most absurd stretches of the concept “could this happen here?”, which has been a staple in the broadcast news industry for decades.  Houses in a small subdivision in northern California are slowly slipping into unexplainable sinkholes, and people’s homes and huge investments are crumbling – COULD THIS HAPPEN HERE??????????

Take it all with a grain of salt.  They do what they have to do to get your attention, to make you watch, to drive up the ratings.  It’s simply the way the game is played.

What’s sad is the story behind the story, which you can hear from broadcast news practitioners when they gather at local watering holes to commiserate: the legitimate investigative stories that they’ve done, documented, and produced – where they really get the goods on somebody – only to have the story be “spiked” by the station’s legal counsel as “too dangerous to air – we might get sued”.  Well, that’s the point, isn’t it: when you get the goods on somebody, they’re going to sue you!

So, relax and enjoy the expose’s of dirty restaurant kitchens and bedbug-infested hotels ….laugh at the outrageousness.  

It’s sweeps month.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Sad Day In Iowa Radio

Broadcasting has lost an icon with the untimely death of Mark Vos, who was felled by a fatal heart attack this past weekend.  Mark was only 58, but he has left an indelible mark on radio broadcasting, and leaves a legacy of respect and admiration from his scores of friends and former colleagues.

The picture above, a promotional photo for KRNA, was taken “a few years ago”……when Mark, on the right with the bass guitar….and my friend and business partner Glen Gardner were busy dominating eastern Iowa radio as “Those Guys In the Morning” on KRNA.  When Mark took over as Program Director at KRNA in 1986 and teamed up with Glen to do the morning show, the duo opened a new era of great rock radio and total dominance of eastern Iowa ratings for a decade.  KRNA is licensed to Iowa City, but the studios are a few miles north in Cedar Rapids, and the KRNA FM signal booms over five states.

Mark Vos was universally regarded as a programming and promotions genius, with an uncanny ability to bring the biggest names in rock to Cedar Rapids for concerts and promotions with KRNA.  He worked in Cedar Rapids, but his name was known by rock radio programmers from New York to Los Angeles.  And those who had the privilege of working with him – I’m sorry I never had the opportunity – have nothing but praise for his ability to organize, manage, and inspire great talent.

Here’s a more recent photo of the same duo, lifted from Glen’s Facebook Page, at a recent reunion concert put on by the “KRNA House Band”, Jif and the Choosy Mothers, at the Chrome Horse in Cedar Rapids.

When Glen and I were doing a morning show in Madison, he often spoke of his former days with Mark at KRNA.  Glen lives in Boston now, but – he’s in Cedar Rapids today, a trip he makes frequently as a consultant to the radio station.  I already knew Mark by reputation long before Glen moved across town in Madison from MidContinent to MidWest in the 90’s, when we became colleagues instead of competitors, and while Glen is one of the most brilliant rock programmers in his own right (he took WJJO from a middling-at-best radio station on a rocket ride to the top of the pack), I’m sure he learned some of his tricks from his days with Mark Vos.

As is the case in so many professions, us old radio guys are all seemingly connected in one way or another.  In recent years, I was honored to have Mark as a frequent commenter on this blog when I posted rants about radio.

Gone too soon, but never to be forgotten.  Rest In Peace, Mark N. Vos.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Job Creators Have No Clothes

Sometimes it’s hard to figure ‘sconnies out.  We elected two of the most diametrically opposite political personalities you can imagine, to U.S. Senate – a Tea Party Crypto-Conservative born-with-a-silver-spoon-in-his-wife’s- mouth Republican from one of the most conservative areas in the state; and a wildly liberal open lesbian Democrat with an undergrad degree from one of the most liberal east-coast colleges (Smith) and a UW Law degree from by far the most liberal county in the state.

Go figure.

I think it has more to do with the political wind blowing at the time of any given election, rather than the true “will of the people”, and I think it’s the same thing that gave us a Republican governor and legislature.  It wasn’t that ‘sconnies loved Scott Walker; it was more of a “meh” about Tom Barrett.

I can’t think of an institution other than elected government where so many people who profess a distaste for the institution hold positions of power.  Radio broadcasting failed as an industry when bankers, rather than broadcasters, started calling the shots.  The auto industry has long known that you really need to have a “car person” running things – somebody who is really into automobiles.  The beer industry is run by people who love beer; the sausage industry is run by people who love grinding meat. Yet now we seem to have a lot of people in positions of power in our state and national government who openly dislike government.

It was this anomaly - politicians who hate government - that resulted in the creation of WEDC, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.  In July of 2011, Scott Walker and his government-hating pals over at WMC on East Wash and their political cronies (the ALEC crowd) decided to do away with the state government institution which was charged with, among other things, creating jobs.  Out went the state Commerce Department and in came WEDC, a quasi-private outfit which was supposed to create the quarter-million jobs Walker promised in his campaign.

The failure has been spectacular.

WEDC was supposed to be the centerpiece, the showplace, the masterpiece of the job-creators: it would lead the state out of the recession, attract and encourage businesses to locate here or be created here, with the attendant jobs for ‘sconnies, and show exactly what can happen when the private sector takes charge of a once-government-run agency.

By any metric, our state’s performance in the area of attracting business, creating jobs, and emerging from the recession has been dismal, bordering on abysmal.  The WEDC has been a laboratory experiment on exactly how NOT to run a business: cronyism, corruption, weak or nonexistent fiscal control, a revolving door for leadership positions; a dysfunctional human resources effort - as witness the brief tenure of WEDC’s latest PR-meister, John Gillespie, who lasted a month before somebody bothered to check his background and discovered he was a big tax cheat and apparently a huge unemployment cheat.  (I thought business people HATED unemployment compensation.)

The paragraph above isn’t just my opinion.  Every item I mention has been fct-checked and reported by the state’s responsible mass media, and confirmed by an audit.  These bozos have pissed away tens of millions of dollars they have no way to track; doled out perks like Badgers sports tickets and the like to their pals; awarded money before contracts were signed….in other words, the agency is corrupt and out of control.

The job creators have no clothes.

A couple observations:  government is NOT a business and should NOT be “run like a business”; and, those who hate government should not run for political office.

And ‘sconnies should learn not to elect people who claim their “business experience” will translate to helping government run more efficiently.  WEDC has disproved that claim forever.