Thursday, September 29, 2016

Where Have Ye Gone, Tommy?

The first thing I heard when I flipped on the car radio this morning was Tommy Thompson, speaking/yelling in Waukesha last night, telling the crowd that it was time for everybody to get on the Trump Train.

A little bit of me died when I heard that audio clip.

I was worried when Tommy threw his support behind the Tea People several years ago.

The photo above, from the Madison newspaper Isthmus, shows Tommy at a Tea People rally in Madison a few years ago, the Tea Party flag flapping in the breeze behind him.

But hearing the audio clip of Tommy this morning made me abandon hope for Tommy.
When I moved from Los Angeles to Madison in the summer of 1988, Tommy was governor.

And he kept getting re-elected. History will show, I believe, that Tommy was the most popular state governor. Ever.

He built roads and bridges. Not just in Milwaukee and Madison, but all over the state. He tried to move people from welfare to work by giving them opportunities to get educated. He supported mass transit.

He surrounded himself with smart people – some of them, “libruls”. UW people. He supported the UW. He was a cheerleader for the UW, and many of our state’s other venerable institutions – and pro sports teams.

He sat down with people who did not share his political views and listened to them. Many times, he changed his mind – or modified his views.

He governed. He got things done.

When his party asked him to resign as Governor and go to Washington for a cabinet position with George Bush, he cried at his farewell party
People assume that I’m a Democrat, a liberal, or a progressive. I’m not. I used to say I’m a Tommy Thompson Republican; then I’d have to qualify it by explaining not the Tommy Thompson who jumped aboard the Tea Ship, or who ran against Tammy Baldwin for U.S. Senate, but the Tommy Thompson of the 90’s.

Now, I just say “I’m an independent”, and that’s the truth. Because Tommy has gone somewhere that I don’t understand, that I don’t like, and, I’m quite frankly, disgusted.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Sad Tale Of Brendan Dassey

First of all, I don’t know if Steven Avery killed Teresa Halbach. I’m not sure we ever will know who brutally took her life in 2005. I’m not one of those who immediately jumped on the “Avery is Innocent” bandwagon after watching the entire Netflix Docudrama “Making A Murderer”.  Too many questions remain unanswered.

But what I did see in the hours and hours I invested in watching that sad tale is how flawed the criminal justice system can be. Particularly when it comes to dealing with people like Brendan Dassey. And even after ten years of imprisonment after being convicted of helping his uncle kill Halbach, I’m saddened to think that Dassey’s worst days may still be ahead.

Last Friday a Federal Judge overturned Dassey’s conviction. The judge didn’t say Dassey was innocent; the judge didn’t say Dassey should immediately be released. What the judge did say was that the so-called “confession” the cops bullied out of Dassey was bogus.

And since Dassey’s conviction was as a result of this bogus “confession”, those who might appeal the Federal Judge’s ruling have nothing to stand on. There’s no evidence that connects Dassey with the murder of Halbach. None. No photos, no DNA, no nothing.

Those who saw the interrogation of Dassey by watching “Making A Murderer” saw a kid, a 16-year-old special ed student apparently without the mental faculty to be scared, telling the cops what they wanted to hear – after repeatedly asking for his mother to be present. Dassey had no idea what was at stake here, and any reasonable person watching that horrible browbeating would conclude that the kid wanted his mom and would say anything the cops wanted to hear, in many cases, just parroting back the words they essentially put in his mouth.

Then, after enduring that disgusting interrogation, Dassey’s first lawyer, Len Kachinsky, threw his client under the bus and essentially functioned as an agent for the prosecution. That much was also clearly apparent to anyone who watched the Netflix series. Kachinsy was working for the prosecution, not for his client.

The Federal Judge’s ruling can be appealed within 90 days, and I suspect we’ll know shortly whether that’s going to happen or not. It’s also a reasonable assumption that an appeal will fail, barring any remarkable new evidence, and that Dassey will be released from prison.

That’s why I say his worst days may be yet to come.

He will be released with no education, no training, no real job prospects, and extremely limited social services support. He will, in no way, be prepared to navigate life as a 26-year-old man. His mom will not be able to provide the array of psychological and other rehabilitative services her son will need.

He certainly didn’t get any such help in prison. And he won’t get it when he’s released.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A Good Gig, Producing Good Radio

A friend of mine, Jennifer, sent me a note the other day, proud that her son, who started his radio career in Waupaca, had just taken a new job with a radio station in Fond du Lac. The fellow her son replaced in Fond du Lac had been with that station for more than two decades.

One of Jennifer’s workmates threw shade (as they say nowadays) on the man my friend’s son replaced, implying that he must not have been good enough to work at a station in a larger market and his career had stalled there.

Two things that get me wound up easily are the idea that people who work in smaller radio markets aren’t as talented as people who work in larger markets, and people who say things like “oh, you’re in radio – do you think you’ll ever make it to TV?”

For those who don’t know me, I’ve worked in both radio and TV, and in markets small and large: the smallest was the Oshkosh/Appleton/Fox Valley market, and the largest was Los Angeles. And there were a few big markets in between, before I landed in Madison. And I loved working in TV, but my heart is in radio. It was fun working in the nation’s second-largest market, LA, but even more fun in Madison.

One of my favorite stories about radio and talent is one that’s quite personal. Circumstances were such in 1988 that I was compelled to relocate from Los Angeles to the Madison area. It’s too long a story to go into here, but when the move back to Wisconsin - where I was born and raised - became inevitable, I called the CEO of the broadcast group I’d worked for in Oshkosh years ago, and asked if there might be anything for me at the stations the group owned in Madison.

He said the legendary, heritage AM station which they owned in Madison – which used to be called WISM-AM – had transitioned from playing Top-40 hits to what was then a relatively new format: talk radio. Perhaps I could help bolster the station’s news image, which had been impeccable in the WISM days, but had lost a bit of luster in the new incarnation as WTDY-AM.

The days of Wayne Wallace, P.K. Powers, Bill Short, and other household names from WISM were gone. The irascible Mark Belling – a co-worker from my Oshkosh days who now holds forth in Milwaukee and frequently subs for the world’s biggest blowhard, Rush Limbaugh – had assembled an eager and talented news team for the station, but they didn’t really have an anchor with “gravitas”, according to the CEO. He suggested I might be able to help there.

To shorten the story and keep it moving along, I took a redeye flight from L-A to Madison, got off the plane, rented a car, and put the radio on 1480 AM. The first voice I heard was a woman named Toni Denison, who was doing a newscast. I immediately thought to myself “this woman could easily be working in Los Angeles.” She had a well-modulated alto voice, delivered at an appropriate rate, enunciated clearly, had great vocal inflection, and kept the newscast moving. In other words, easily major market talent. That was my first impression, having never laid eyes on her. She had big-market talent.

Full disclosure: she and I got married a few years after I met her.

As I listened across the radio dial to the Madison market on that first trip in from L-A 28 years ago, I heard a vibrant chorus of talented, professional newscasters, and quite a few on-air personalities who had, to my ear, the presence and luster to be working in one of the nation’s largest markets.

Back then, Madison had dozens of radio news people. The group I worked for had 8 full-timers and several part-timers. So did the group my friend Jennifer worked for. And there was another group that had a similar number of news folks. Public radio in Madison had – and still has – an active radio news gathering operation.  But of the three commercial groups that had active, competing news departments back in the late 80’s – well, I’m not sure, but I think there are about two full-time radio news people at commercial stations in Madison now. It could actually be one. My apologies if I’m failing to count someone who does news, and only news, full-time.

As usual, I digress.

The point my friend Jennifer made in her note to me was that the gentleman in Fond du Lac who spent more than two decades at the same station, in the same market, was talented enough to land a job in a much larger market. It’s probably because he didn’t WANT to. It’s far more likely that, as is the case with so many talented radio folks, he “found a good gig where he could produce good radio for good people”. Those are Jennifer’s exact words, far more eloquent than I’m capable of writing.

Some very talented radio folks, making good radio in smaller markets, could easily go through the steps of sending out their resume and CD, landing a job in a larger market, packing up all their stuff and moving, and doing it again in a year or two until they finally figured out they're where they want to be and they’re tired of moving.

And some have different aspirations: they realize they’re in a good gig, where the paychecks don’t bounce, they have reasonable freedom to make good radio without some corporate tyrant breathing down your neck, and they can send down roots, get married, buy a home, raise a family, and be an integral part of the community.

Take a look at the people doing news reporting on the Madison TV stations. They’re talented young folks, by and large, who come and go. Madison, for them, is a stopping point on a career that will take them around the nation. They’ll move every year or so, and mispronounce the local names, exposing their lack of experience in the community. And then there are those - in most cases, the news anchors, but there are a handful of reporters - who’ve been around for years and are established members of the community.  You know their names. They’re the ones who know how to pronounce cities like Shawano, Waukesha, Oconomowoc, and Ripon.

You can’t do the same in Madison radio any more, because there’s only one group owner left in commercial radio that even bothers to have a “news department”. My former colleague, Robin Colbert, is the news director there, and now that her dad, John, has retired, Robin is, I believe, the only full-time news person on the staff. A few of the FM stations have part-time “sidekicks” who read the news, but don’t actually go out and gather it.

And I know a lot of radio and TV news folks in Wisconsin, working in our state’s many small markets, who put in long hours at city council and county board and school board meetings at night and work a long shift during the day covering news, writing news, and reporting news, who have the talent needed to land a job in one of the nation’s largest markets. But they love what they’re doing and have roots in their community.

There is still, as my friend Jennifer wrote to me, a magic to small market radio – and TV, as far as that goes. Some of these folks are the shining star of a staff which consists largely of underpaid young people just learning the trade. Some of them will move on to jobs in the big markets, where every staff position is held by a highly talented broadcaster.

For some, it’s the journey, not the destination. Kudos. Here’s hoping you have a great career doing what you love, and that leaving your job is a decision you’ll make – and not have it made for you by some clueless overlord.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Day At The Ball Park

First of all, there are a lot of people who should stay home. Just not go to the game. Why pay a hundred bucks (or more) for a great seat behind home plate and then bitch about everything from the heat and humidity to the pace of the game?

More on that later.

It’s actually been a couple years since my bride and I ventured to the ball park for a game. In our advancing state of decrepitude, we often decide that the lounger in front of the 66-inch HDTV is the best seat for watching a major league baseball game. But this year, my wife said she’d like to see a Cubs-Brewers game for her birthday, so yesterday we packed the cooler into the venerable road warrior SUV and headed to Milwaukee.

The first mistake was forgetting how miserable the traffic is, with all the construction going on once you get about 8 miles from Miller Park. Even though we’ve made the trek to Milwaukee lots of times in the past few months, to visit our son, his wife, and our granddaughter – before they moved to Brussels, Belgium a few weeks ago – we spaced out the construction factor, and wound up spending more than an hour going from Exit 300 on I-94 to exit 308A. That’s right. 72 minutes to go 8 miles.

We like to get to the ball park early and watch batting practice and all the other stuff that never gets televised before they throw the first pitch. But, that went out the window with the traffic jam. However, we were able to get into the ball park well in advance of the first pitch, to see all the honorary first pitches (there were three “first” pitches Sunday) and to grab a brat and a soda before the action started.

My wife and I might have a beer or two during the course of a game, but we agreed that with 92 degree heat and a dew point of 74, water would be the beverage of choice. Maybe a soda. So after we chowed down the pre-game brat, the water vendor made his way down the steps of Section 118 and my bride got a 20-ounce lemonade.

This was at 12:52, 18 minutes before the first pitch. I note this only because that was the ONLY time the man selling water and lemonade made his way through our section right behind home plate. Oh, the beer man and the Long Island Iced Tea man traversed the steps at least once every half-inning during the game, but the water/lemonade man did not come through ONCE during the game. Note to Brewers: this is a big bowl of WRONG.

Did I mention it was 92 degrees with a dew point of 74???  (A dew point of 65 is considered uncomfortable; 70 is tropical; I’m not sure what they say about dew points higher than 70, except maybe “miserably and unbearably humid”.) And the water man doth not cometh.

Most adults are aware that there really is nothing you can do to change the weather. If you can’t deal with the heat and humidity, stay home in the a/c. But for a particular group of women seated right behind us, the entire game for them consisted of bitching loudly about how hot and humid it was, and how slowly this particular game was progressing, and how they hated baseball and hated being there. Not at a voice volume you’d expect regarding personal chat during a ball game, but in a tone of voice loud enough to be heard by half the people in Section 118.

And one of the guys with this group of women was the unavoidable obnoxious drunk, one of hundreds (if not thousands) who are the bane of baseball fans at every game. There’s at least one in every section. In the THIRD inning, after he’d yelled obnoxious crap for an hour, he tapped me on the shoulder and said “who’s pitching?” I said “Lester”. (Why he didn’t know, in the bottom of the third inning, gives more evidence to the argument that some people just shouldn’t go to ball games.) After I told him it was Lester, he stood up and wobbled a bit, and screamed at the top of his lungs “Come on Lester! Jeezus!!!!!”.

One other thing about the “game day experience” that I’d forgotten, since it’s been a couple years, is that there is constant noise from the PA system during the game. There is no time, except when a pitch is actually being thrown, that there is not noise emanating from the PA system. Tiny snippets of songs for the “walk up music” and even smaller snippets of music-like noise BETWEEN PITCHES. Constantly. At a hundred decibels or more.

When you watch a ball game at home, you don’t hear this constant din. The TV and Radio audio guys adjust their systems so it’s not as intrusive as it is when you’re actually sitting in the stands.

In the fourth inning of Sunday’s game, there was some long, drawn out on-field controversy. Joe Madden came out of the Cubs dugout and confronted the umpiring crew chief, a veteran ump by the name of Feildin Culbreth (yes, I know who a lot of the umps are) and the two engaged in a long discussion with a lot of pointing. Culbreth was working 3rd base for Sunday’s game, and the two kept pointing across the infield toward first base.

While all this was going on, there was nothing from the PA system to tell the fans what was going on; no nuggets of information; no insight; not even after the incident was settled, ten minutes later. Just the annoying beeps and boops of music-like noise. So, when you WANT the public address system to function as a PUBLIC ADDRESS system, and tell you why there’s this huge delay on the field while Joe Madden and Feildin Culbreth are going back and forth, there’s not a word.

Despite the uncomfortable heat and humidity, it was an interesting game with fascinating twists and turns, with the Brewers blowing a big lead and the Cubs rallying in the 7th inning and holding on for the win. The sausage race in the middle of the 6th inning is always fun, and there are diverting and somewhat interesting features on the giant center field scoreboard to entertain the 40-thousand-plus fans during the long TV commercial breaks between half-innings.

It was a good thing we’d tossed several bottles of water into the ice chest in our venerable SUV. After we left the game, before we were at the Waukesha County line on westbound I-94, my wife had already downed nearly a full quart of water. We had been sweating profusely during the entire game, and knew we needed to rehydrate.

Despite the many negative things I’ve mentioned in this rant, we agreed that we had fun going to the game. That’s what really counts.

Oh, and the picture at the top of the rant?  That guy is the game scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks. So, when the Brewers play their series against the D-Backs this week, this guy is the one who will have provided the D-Backs with his analysis of what the Brewers do.

It’s all part of the experience you can get only at the ball park. So, yes, we’ll go again. And I’m sure we’ll have fun.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Everything But A Lake

Every June for the past five years I’ve made the 325-mile trip from The Morrissey Compound in Madison to my friend Tom Plummer’s house in Lake City, Iowa. It’s a place similar to Hortonville, the small Wisconsin village where I grew up. I chuckle every time I turn off Iowa Highway 4 at Highway 175 and hit the city limits. The sign says “Lake City: Everything But A Lake”. Iowa humor, I guess.

Tom is the music man of Lake City; once again this year, his high school Jazz Band won the Iowa State Jazz Championships. Tom has more state championships than just about anybody, with the possible exception of his mentor, Larry “Boomer” Kisor, who established the kind of dynasty at Sioux City North High School that Tom has at Southern Cal High School in Lake City.

For those who haven’t followed my annual reports on these treks west through tall corn country, Tom is a fellow tuba player who grew up listening to me (and a bunch of guys a lot better than me) play tuba with various bands on LP albums. Remember vinyl LP albums? Big, flat, round black discs that preceded CD’s.

Back around 2009 or so, Tom tracked me down via Facebook, and after establishing via social media that we have a zillion other things in common besides tuba playing, in 2011 our friendship changed from virtual to actual, when I made the first trip to his house for a weekend of watching baseball and having a few beers and playing tuba.

In the seven years that we’ve been friends, we’ve both gone through a number of life changes. Tom met a wonderful woman, Wilma, a couple years ago, and got remarried. Both my kids got married and both have given my long-suffering wife and me grandchildren. Tom's son, Lee, married his girlfriend Rachel last December. Two great "kids" and both fine musicians. Life moves along.

Tom and I are both dog-lovers, and one of the first things that happens when I arrive at Tom and Wilma’s house is the annual tug-of-war with Tom’s dog Hank. That’s little Tiger looking on. We watch Cubs baseball and do some catch-up visiting after I arrive early Friday afternoon.

A lot of people who know me now have no idea that for years, I was a musician, and did hundreds of TV shows, dozens of recording sessions, and toured domestically and internationally with various groups. My mentor, Ernie Broeniman, another tuba player, opened the musical doors for me when he took me under his wing at Hortonville High School in 1962, and for more than 20 years I performed regularly. Then, broadcasting became my sole focus.

I sold my “axe”, as musicians call their instrument, and broadcasting took me all around the country – again. When I met Tom, he inspired me to buy a horn, practice, and Tom has even made it possible for me to do some playing again.

This time, it was once again with Malek’s Fishermen Band, a first-rate territory band that books out of Garner, Iowa. Syl Malek founded the band with his brother Ed in the 1930’s; and two generations of Maleks still play with the band: Bob and his son Eric, and frequently, Eric’s wife Kimberly. The gig was at the famous Hessen Haus in downtown Des Moines.

Tom and I loaded up a tuba, a trumpet, and a bunch of other stuff in my venerable Road Warrior SUV in the middle of the afternoon Saturday and we headed southeast for a two-hour trip from Lake City to Des Moines. Since my regular gig-playing days are long gone – the last regular gig I had was a marathon recording session in 1984 where I laid down about 28 tracks for two LP albums – a lot of what I do now consists mainly of playing along with CD’s in my music room at home.

Tom and I talked on our way to Des Moines about “the gig experience”, and how it’s really impossible to recreate that experience when you’re sitting behind your horn in your music room, playing along with CD’s. There’s a whole gestalt surrounding the gig experience, from the trip to the venue, the load-in, to the setup, the mike checks, to the actual gig itself and the camaraderie and musicianship involved, to the load-out and the trip home.

Above is a nice shot Tom took of me at the gig, sitting behind Tom’s horn. Tuba guys are used to photos like this – try as you might, that big horn usually hides us. But you can see Charlie, the keyboard man, that’s Dale Baker behind the drum kit; Bob Malek is the distinguished gentleman in the center, and at the right, that’s Eric Malek, strapping on a classic concertina which once belonged to Elmer Scheid.

For those not familiar with old-time music, the drummer, keyboard player, and tuba guy often do not have sheet music to guide them. Like the concertina player, they know the tunes from memory. For some of the ensemble tunes, there’s often a “chord sheet” for the bass player, and you improvise a bass line based on the chord structure and progressions of the melody.

I have now had to face the hard fact that my playing these days will never be near as good as it was back in the 60’s through the 80’s. I took way too many years off, not touching a horn from 1988 to 2011, and that 23-year break – along with a life-threatening bout with pneumonia in 1995 – has taken a steep toll. My “road chops” are long gone, and my lungs just don’t move as much air as they used to.

As I’ve said to Tom many times, it’s a blast to be able to play again, but the frustrating part is not being able to do it anywhere near as well as I used to be able to. Tom was kind enough to make some videos, and here’s one on which I’m playing almost passably. There’s another video Tom made – which I will NOT link to – of me attempting to play “Echoes In The Hills” with Eric Malek, and resorting to the dreaded “search bass” mode, where the tuba player just can’t figure out the chord changes and clumsily plays various notes looking for the dominant chord (or even the tonic or sub-dominant chord) with no success.

On the other end of the performance spectrum, my friend Tom plays every tune flawlessly, with tremendous tone and range and really interesting improvised bass lines. And Bob and Eric Malek, whether they’re playing trumpet or trombone, blend perfectly. They have mastered many styles of performance, and it’s a real treat to hear those two perform perfectly together on song after song.

A big part of the gig experience is the crowd. At the Hessen Haus on this particular Saturday night, there are a small core of dancers who are there to start the night, but then an hour or so into the gig, a bunch of college kids – from Drake University, or Iowa State, or the U of Iowa, I’m not sure which – come in to drink boots of German beer and they really liven the place up. They hoot and holler and dance, and that really fuels the band.

Eric, who fronts the band, has fun with the crowd by making outrageously false statements after some of the tunes. For example, the band will play a Dixieland standard like “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In” and Eric will say “another great tune from the fabulous Broadway musical ‘Guys and Dolls’”. Once he followed a classic old-time waltz with the announcement that it was from “South Pacific”. He turns to me afterward and says “they have no idea!” and we share a laugh. That’s another part of the gig experience that just can’t be duplicated!

It makes no difference what kind or style of music you’re playing at a live gig – rock, country, old-time, whatever – a good crowd absolutely makes the band sound better. You feel the energy and your playing goes up a notch. After the college kids move on to their next adventure for the night, a bridal party comes in, and merriment ensues. They get right into the spirit and sing and dance along with the band.

Another part of the gig experience is the repartee among the musicians during the engagement. Stories are told during the short breaks between sets, observations are made, jokes are told, pranks are played. During one of the breaks, Eric and Tom are talking about how musicians speak of each other. Eric says “you know you can’t play for squat when people say ‘oh, he’s a really great guy’ or something like that.” Tom agrees heartily, saying unless the first words to describe a musician are about his or her skill, they’re not that good a player.

The four-hour gig comes to a close, and the drudgery of packing up and loading out begins. Eric takes some pictures for the band’s Facebook page, and he took the picture above of “the tuba guys”, Tim and Tom. The van is loaded, good-bye’s are said, and another gig is in the books.

Since my night vision is so crappy the last few years, Tom gets behind the wheel of my venerable Road Warrior SUV and we start the two-hour journey back to Lake City. It’s a long, desolate drive through miles and miles of flat land with only a few towns to break the vistas of corn and soybeans, but Tom and I talk non-stop through the Iowa night. A clear sky and a nearly full moon are our companions.

We talk about life, our kids, our wonderful spouses, and, of course, about music. About how in the world of old-time, like many other idioms, artful performance depends on the “feel” of the musicians playing the tune, and how it’s really impossible to notate that feel. We talk about how Bob and Eric Malek play the old Blossom Waltz with an “eastern Wisconsin” interpretation, like the old Bernie Roberts band or the Don Schleis Band played it. You simply cannot put notes on manuscript paper that reflect the way they interpret the melody.

Whether it’s jazz, Dixieland, big-band, or old-time, so much of the performance depends on the stylistic nuances – the rhythmic feel – which simply cannot be put into musical notes on paper. Sometimes it’s just ahead of, or just slightly behind the beat, that gives the feel; sometimes it’s bending a note a certain way, as in blues; but that’s the kind of thing that separates “he’s a great player” from “he’s a great guy”.

Finally we arrive in Lake City and pull into the parking lot behind Tom’s new band room at Southern Cal High School and put the tuba and trumpet and the other stuff away. Then it’s back to Tom and Wilma’s house, where I’ll grab a few hours of sleep and start the six hour trip back to Madison as soon as the sun comes up. This year, I’ll have to miss the Sunday noon tradition of beef roast and veggies in the crock pot.

Next year, perhaps. 

But one thing’s certain: it’ll be fun, and we’ll make more great memories.  

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Farewell To Sly’s Mom

Some of my most memorable moments as a broadcaster came during the many years that I worked with one of the best bad-boys of radio, John “Sly” Sylvester. During that span of well over a decade, with Sly dishing out the jabs and me doling out the news, Sly and I got to be pretty good friends. I got to know his family; he got to know mine. My wife and I would go to Sly’s bachelor pad and the evening often ended with Sly and me smashing something to smithereens with a sledgehammer and my wife loading me into the car and driving us home; when he came to our home for dinner, for high school and college graduation parties for our kids, or whatever, we often ended the evening by blasting unlawful fireworks off my front porch.

One night, years ago, during the days when Sly was known to take a second drink…and third, and fourth, and…well, you get the idea…the grown-ups ended the evening far too inebriated to even think about getting behind the wheel of a car. We called upon our son and his pals, who were playing video games in the lower level of our quad-level home, to take Sly back to his home.

Showing how poor one’s judgment becomes after drinking, I gave our son the keys to my Cadillac to transport Sly safely home, and one of our son’s other pals followed in Sly’s car. My son and a couple of his buddies piled into my big black Caddy with Sly, and their adventure began. I’ll never know exactly what happened on the trip between our house and Sly’s, except that apparently Sly directed the young men on some sort of detour that resulted in an odyssey that our son and his pals laughed about for years.

When my wife’s father passed away in ’06, we were sitting in the funeral home in South Holland, a far south suburb of Chicago that’s a good two and a half hours from Madison, when my wife pointed to the parking lot and said “I think that’s Sly!” Sure enough, driving a vintage Chevy station wagon that was part of his fleet of unusual vehicles, Sly emerged from behind the wheel and came in to pay his respects – a gesture we will never forget.

Although we parted ways professionally in late 2008, Sly and I have maintained our friendship, and when my cell phone rang around 9 PM the evening of April 16th, I figured he was just calling to set up a luncheon date. I was saddened when Sly told me that his mom had passed. Just as Sly is a part of our family, I became part of his family and got to know Sly’s parents.

Jack and Doris were two of the finest people I ever had the privilege to know. And now, they were both gone.

The memorial service for Doris was this past Saturday at the Good Shepherd Church off Whitney Way at Raymond Road. When we got out of our car, the first person we encountered walking toward the entrance of the church was Joe Wineke, former Assemblyman from Verona and former head of the state Democratic Party. We had a nice, short visit with Joe and then entered the church.

The place was packed with people who had come to pay tribute to Doris. The first person we saw inside was our friend Steve Bartlett, and we had a nice visit with him. Shortly after that, former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, one of Sly’s best friends, entered and we had a nice catch-up visit with Russ and talked about his campaign to get his Senate seat back from Ron Johnson. A few moments later, we encountered another old friend, U.S. Congressman Marc Pocan, and my wife and I had a long visit with him.

As I signed the guest book, the next person in line was Scot Ross, the executive director of One Wisconsin Now, the organization which is presently engaged in exposing the hypocrisy of the state’s new voter photo ID law, among other things. We had a nice, short visit. A few moments later Mayor Paul Soglin entered the crowd. Then the recently-retired head of Madison Teachers Inc., John Matthews joined the throng. Right behind him was John Nichols of The Nation and The Capital Times.

It was like a who’s who of Democratic power-people, who’d come to honor Sly and Doris.
Then we encountered a number of people my wife and I knew from our broadcasting days – “Radio” Bob Lewin, Reggie Risseeuw, Rick Schuh, and Trevor Hoffmann. Next I spotted Shawn Prebil, friend and former morning show partner during the days when some consultant-du-jour had banished Sly to afternoons.

After finally getting to the place where Sly was standing and greeting people, my wife and I had a “group hug” with Sly and gave him our condolences, and reminisced a bit. Then, so as not to monopolize his time, my wife and I went into the church and waited for the service to begin.

We had a quick visit with Robin Marohn, financial and marketing whiz and king of social media. He and I have ties that go back to our Oshkosh days. Katie Crawley-Dybevik spotted us and came over to greet us. Before she was with the Mayor’s office, she was a radio news reporter in Madison, and we reminisced about those heady days in the late ‘80’s when there were literally dozens of radio news people working at various stations around town, and the fun we had competing with each other to be the first with some scoop or other.

Just before the service started, I looked a few rows ahead of us, where UW Professor Barry Orton, a nationally respected expert on telecommunications and acquaintance of long standing, was giving me the high-sign. When he and I communicate via e-mail, he signs his message “The Other Barry at UW”, so as to make sure I won’t confuse him with Barry Alvarez.

Stepping into the aisle directly in front of us was Casey Hoff, another refugee from broadcasting, with whom I had the pleasure of working with for a couple years. Casey slogged his way through Marquette Law School and is now a highly successful defense attorney with his own practice in Sheboygan. With Casey were his lovely wife and their adorable toddler son. It was good to catch up with them.

And then I looked to my right and saw that Dylan Brogan, who was a part-time jack-of-all-trades at the radio station just before my demise, had just entered. I quickly crossed the aisle and shook his hand and congratulated him on his meteoric rise in Madison media. Dylan is now a brilliant writer and reporter, who writes for Isthmus and does the news on WORT-FM, as well as running Sly’s professional social media presence.

Then we were told to be seated, and Sly and his sister Julie came down the aisle and took their seats at the front of the congregation. Silence fell over the crowd.

Then, from behind us, came the mournful sound of the bagpipes. Madison Fire Department Lt. Ted Higgins, in full Scottish/MFD regalia, marched down the center aisle playing a dirge.

As the service got underway, the pastor made some remarks; the congregation was invited to sing along on “I’ll Fly Away” and then after a scripture reading, Sly took the microphone to eulogize his mother.

If you don’t know Sly personally, you may think of him in terms of his bad-boy image on the radio, his fiery rants, and his often over-the-top rhetoric. But those of us who know Sly personally know his deep intellect, his abiding loyalty to his friends, and encyclopedic knowledge of politics and many other topics. There’s a lot more to Sly than what might meet the ear from one of his broadcasts.

The eulogy he delivered for his mother was structured like classic Greek literature, complete with a recurring theme and wonderful personal asides and observations. He talked of his mother’s many marches, literal and figurative: to and from Milwaukee Washington High School as a student; her battle against cancer; her final journey to her eternal rest. It was one of the most beautiful, poignant, touching send-offs I’ve ever heard.

Doris, you and Jack can be proud of your son. He’s a good man, and I’m proud to say, a good friend.

Photo credit for all 3: Kathryn Forest

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Sometimes I Don't Understand My Fellow 'Sconnies

Watching the CNN Town Hall telecast last night left me still scratching my head this morning. I guess I really don’t understand a lot of my fellow Wisconsinites’ admiration for Donald Trump. Perhaps the talking heads are right, and it’s largely that Trump is not at all like anything or anybody else that’s come out of or been involved with Washington. As far as I’m concerned, the performance of our national government has been abominable for decades.

But I still don’t get Trump’s appeal.

The CNN telecast started last night with a produced opening that was more like a come-on for some wrestling event: a horrible announcer, with a style of delivery we call “puker” in the broadcast biz because they sound like they’re puking out each word instead of just speaking, narrated a montage of images designed to make us think we were about to view some sort of cage match between three brawlers.

That’s the way a lot of media love to portray national elections: they focus on the competitive aspect, the polls (who’s “up” and who’s “down”), and avoid at all cost any lengthy discussion involving ideas of substance, because that’s just deadly boring.


I sat through the opening hour of Ted Cruz, and he gave the kind of responses that scores of other candidates for national office give, with the appearance of thoughtfulness and reflection, and then a carefully-worded limited response. I don’t agree with a lot of his positions, but he gave lengthy answers, not just sound-bites crafted by a staffer who conducted focus groups.

Then, for the second hour, they brought out Trump.

I realize the crowd at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee was probably 99% Republican-leaning people, and I didn’t expect that there’d be many truly challenging questions from the crowd. As Trump and Anderson Cooper got in their 15 minutes of arguing about Trump’s campaign manager’s behavior at a recent Trump event, I began to notice the facial expressions and body language of the crowd as they reacted to Trump.

Every time Trump said something you’d never hear another candidate for office say, the crowd ate it up. When Anderson Cooper said Trump was acting like a 5-year-old regarding (for lack of a better term) “wife-gate”, the crowd quickly took Trump’s side. Never mind that “he started it” IS a five-year old’s reaction to being called on the carpet for fighting; the crowd loved it when Trump actually behaved like a five-year-old arguing with Cooper.


On to questions from the audience.

They brought out a couple of cops who were actual heroes (I hate the way that word is so overused today) in the attack on the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek a few years ago. The officer who was shot more than a dozen times in the gunfight asked Trump how the rights of minorities could be protected while still aggressively fighting radical Islamism.

Trump, of course, never answered the question, but deflected it and rambled on about something else, which apparently was designed to not disrespect the hero’s question, but rather talk around it. Trump is really, really good at that. Kind of like the kid we all knew in high school who didn’t do his homework but could BS his way through an answer regardless. At least it wasn’t the kind of thing we’ve heard so much from politicians in the past couple decades, the “dismiss and redirect” technique of responding with “what you’re really asking is….” and then changing the question and giving their canned response.

The question from the man who said he was CEO of a cheese company was particularly telling. The guy talked about not being able to hire enough qualified workers for his many open positions, and how would Trump solve the problem.

It boiled down to education, according to Trump, and his idea would be to take all the federal money allocated to education and sending it back to the states, which he said were far better able to decide how to spend it than Washington. That, of course, drew huge applause from the crowd, just as it was designed to do.

If that cheese CEO had his wits about him – or if the moderator, Cooper, had really done his homework – either would have said on follow-up “you know what? That would never work in Wisconsin, because we have a governor who absolutely refuses to take any money from Washington. He’s turned down hundreds of millions of federal dollars, for everything from expanding rail transportation to expanding Mediicare coverage. He just won’t take federal money, so your solution wouldn’t work here”.

Another question from a man who said he ran a dairy operation, milking five thousand cows. First of all, that’s not a dairy operation; it’s what’s now called a CAFO – concentrated animal feeding operation, and commonly referred to as a factory farm. The man’s question was about the immigrants necessary to run his operation, and how could Trump help solve the problem of letting the “good ones” stay while keeping out the “bad ones”.

No surprise, Trump deflected, talked about grape growers in California who have similar issues with migrant workers. He also said it was a “seasonal problem, like yours”. I’m not sure why the “farmer” or the moderator didn’t interject “since when is milking five thousand cows a SEASONAL business?” but they didn’t.

Again, the ‘sconnies there – who should be aware that their governor won’t take federal money, and that milking cows is not a seasonal business – lapped up the Trump non-answer and applauded him, every time.

I know, I know – it’s a friendly audience; it’s not a “debate”; but geez, doesn’t anybody challenge such obviously uninformed responses?


By this time, I was tired of watching the proceedings, and I didn’t stay tuned to watch how Governor Kasich would handle the ‘sconnies. I turned off the TV and went to sleep.

And, no surprise, the main takeaway from the Milwaukee event on the national network news this morning was the ongoing pissing match about whether Trump’s campaign manager lied, and how badly was the lady reporter injured when he grabbed her. Or didn’t. Or whatever.

They did mention the three-way repudiation of the pledge to support the Republican nominee, no matter who it is, but that news was secondary or tertiary to the pushing and shoving donnybrook.

After all, there was compelling security-cam video of that…..and that’s what drives news coverage. The "visuals".

Tuesday will be an intesting day in Wisconsin.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Women In TV News: Judged By Their Appearance

The lady with the legs who graces the top of this post is Laurie Dhue, who, until a few years ago, was an anchor at Fox News. Yes, a news anchor. I mean, you can see just how much gravitas she has. And yes, I’m judging her by her appearance.

As my mom used to say, sometimes the way you look says more than what comes out of your mouth, although I’m sure mom didn’t have Laurie Dhue in mind when she was giving that advice.

Chicago media critic and blogger Robert Feder wrote a column this morning about an order issued by the Executive Producer of Fox 32 News in Chicago, to his female reporting staff, telling them that they were no longer allowed to wear hats while on live-shots outdoors.

Unless it’s colder than 20 below.

Nice to see more evidence that TV news too often has little to do with substance and a lot to do with style, or appearance. Feder declared that even though it’s early in January, he felt safe in declaring the guy who issued the order the Dumbest TV Executive of the Year.

No need to name the guy; he’s one of many who hold positions like this across the nation, and issue similarly stoopid memos.

Feder’s column immediately went viral among news people all over the country, who linked to the column with posts on social media lamenting the shallowness of such a directive. As a female radio news anchor who’s a former colleague said on a social media post reacting to Feder’s column, “As opportunities for women increase in most spheres, TV is getting more sexist. Men on TV news are judged on the job they do, women are judged first by how they look. And it's getting worse. Honestly, it's the main reason I chose to do radio instead of TV. The sh** my female friends in TV news have to put up with is unbelievable, between management and viewers. It's brutal. At least on the radio, people LISTEN to what I say. They can imagine I look however they want.”

As the husband of a woman who was an on-camera TV news reporter for many years, I know what my friend was talking about first-hand. My bride used to privately grouse about being told to bundle up and go outside to do a live TV report for the 6 o’clock news, when the first really cold blast of January hit Wisconsin – to tell people not to go outside.

At least they let her wear a hat and heavy coat.

Sorta like the nooz folks who are ordered to go out and do a report from the Beltline when it’s snowing, to tell people to stay off the roads.


Here’s the photo Feder ran with his column this morning. The young lady’s name is Natalie Bomke, and the picture is a screen-capture of her from several weeks ago – with a sensible hat on – reporting on the first heavy snowstorm that hit Chicago this winter.

Guess what? It snows in Chicago in December, and here’s proof! See this big piece of snow I’m holding?

Another friend, who used to be one of the nation’s leading news consultants and chose to get out of the business, more than once groused to me about how women were completely objectified by many of the news managers he worked with. It was always about style, and not substance. One time after we’d had a couple beers, he thundered “When CBS-TV News has a ratings problem, they tinker with the set, they tinker with Dan Rather – whether he should wear a sweater or not – they tinker with the lighting, they tinker with everything but never give an ounce of consideration to the journalism – the content of the newscast itself”.

From the Dan Rather reference, you can tell it was more than a few years ago that my friend made his observation.

I’ve told stories before about the things my wife had to put up with from the “high-powered consultant” at the TV station where she worked. The consultant, mind you, was not interested one bit in the content or quality of the journalism my wife was doing on a daily basis. It was completely about her appearance. The color of scarf she should wear. The kind of clothes she should buy. The color of lipstick she should wear.

The crowning glory, to me, was when my wife told me the lady at the hair salon the station worked with  told her she had to dye her blonde hair to brunette, with a reddish tinge. Why? Because the station had too many blondes on the air.

At least the station paid for her hair color and styling.

I have many, many female friends from my years in news broadcasting, and whom I’ve met through my wife’s years in the business. These ladies are smart, polished, ethical, compassionate, talented, and disciplined. They’ve all paid their dues in the biz many times over. And whether they’re doing news, weather, or sports, they’ve frequently been judged by their appearance rather than their competence.

I’m not sure if that will change in my lifetime. The “no-hat-memo” that made the rounds today makes me wonder if we’ve really made any progress at all.