Wednesday, March 31, 2021

How I Met G. Gordon Liddy

 


It was 1994, and the radio station I programmed was carrying Liddy’s immensely popular talk show. Liddy had started out in 1993 as a talk show host on a Washington, DC station, and within a year his fast-paced and controversial show was nationally syndicated.

I deeply disagreed with his politics, but the guy knew how to grab and hold a radio audience.

My soon-to-be wife Toni and I were attending the huge annual NAB/RTNDA convention in San Antonio. For those not familiar with the acronyms, NAB is National Association of Broadcasters, and RTNDA is Radio-TV News Directors Association, which is now known as RTDNA, Radio-TV Digital News Association. Toni represented her employer, WISC-TV, and I represented mine, the Midwest Family Broadcast Group.

We had both chosen to attend the break-out session G. Gordon Liddy was presenting, the topic of which was something like “How To Get And Hold A Talk Radio Audience.” It was held early in the afternoon of the second day of the convention, in one of the many break-out session meeting rooms at the San Antonio Convention Center.

Toni and I wanted to get to the session a little early, to be sure of getting a good seat to hear “The G-Man,” as he called himself. As it turned out, we were the first to arrive at the room, and there, ten feet away from us, seated alone at the table in the front of the room, was the man himself.

The first thing we both noticed was Liddy’s eyes. Toni called them “dead eyes.” He had a piercing gaze that immediately intimidated you. They were the eyes of a man who’s seen a lot – and probably a lot of things you wouldn’t want to know about.

He was quite affable. “Hi, welcome, c’mon in” he said to us, holding us with that deadly gaze. “You’re the first to arrive,” he added. He extended a hand and we both approached, shook hands, and he invited us to sit in the front now, not more than six feet from him. I told him my station carried his show and his face lit up. “Great! Thank you! Hope you’re happy with me!”

He’s the kind of man you want to say “yes, sir” to. So I did. I mean, this guy has seen and done everything. He was an undercover White House operative and one of the chief dirty tricksters of the Nixon era.

I don’t remember much of his presentation, only because the years have dulled my recollection.

But I’ll never forget those eyes.

Those dead eyes.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Features and Benefits

 


While watching the Badgers in an NCAA Basketball Tournament game Sunday, an ad came on for a Kia vehicle. The announcer excitedly said the Kia SUV featured “torque vectoring – and, a center-locking differential!!!”

I waited for the overenthusiastic announcer to explain what torque vectoring is, and what a center-locking differential does, so that the 95% of the viewers who are not gearheads like me would understand what he was talking about. Suffice it to say he never explained it. I wondered who approved using such arcane language in a commercial supposedly targeted to a mass audience.

The ad violated one of what used to be the cardinal rules of writing ad copy: if you’re going to cite a feature, be sure to explain the benefit. But given my failure to understand the purpose of so many ads I see on TV today, it’s possible the old rule was tossed out decades ago. Now it all has to do with "branding" or some such, which goes over the heads of dinosaurs like me.

My first introduction to the features/benefits concept was in the early ‘60’s, when I heard a recording of Dr. Murray Banks, a then-famous psychiatrist, describing how vacuum cleaners were being mis-marketed by Madison Avenue. Dr. Banks said the sales pitches involved facts like how much power the electric motor in the vacuum cleaner has, how it rolls on fancy new wheels, how engineers used new research to modify the design.

“Forget all that stuff,” Banks said (or words to that effect). “They should just say to the housewife this vacuum cleaner works so efficiently it will add five years to your life expectancy,” Dr. Banks said, which got a big laugh from the audience he was speaking to.

Remember, this was recorded in the early 60’s, hence the outdated “housewife” reference. But Dr. Banks had hit upon one of the core flaws in the advertising business: a feature without a benefit doesn’t mean much to the consumer.

As a fledgling broadcaster, my concept of features and benefits was sharpened at a sales seminar I attended. The presenter said, “when your sales presentation says your station has fifty thousand watts of power, what does that feature mean to the average businessperson?” He answered his own question by saying, “Nothing. Not a thing, unless you hook that feature to a benefit, and explain it by saying the station has fifty thousand watts of power, which means your advertising message will come through loud and clear over the entire marketing area.”

He went on to give several other examples of oft-advertised product features, meaningless without being hooked to a benefit.

A lot of businesses understand this basic advertising concept, but sometimes the failures, when as obvious as the Kia ad I saw, are mind-blowing. I’m sure Kia paid some ad agency a lot of money to tout torque vectoring and a center-locking differential.

What a waste.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

How I Almost Got Sent To Facebook Jail

 


As a former radio and TV news anchor, I have a lot of Facebook friends who have either retired from the biz, been thrown under the bus by the biz, or are still actively employed in the broadcasting biz. A lot of us enjoy posting and sharing screen caps of bloopers like the one below.



Yesterday, a former colleague who still hosts a daily call-in talk show in the Midwest (and is a recovering radio news anchor) posted a question: what are some of your favorite headlines or teases? There were quite a few interesting responses, including this one posted by a friend who works for Fox Radio News.



The New York Post is a rich source for stuff like this, including one of my favorites. Years ago, when I was still an on-air radio news anchor during the hunt for Saddam Hussein, I’d write and deliver colorful stories about the effort to find him and bring him to justice.

One morning, the station’s consultant was monitoring my broadcast online from his east-coast home, and he sent me an e-mail saying, “saw this in the Post this morning and it reminded me of you.”



So, I posted this on the string of comments, saying it had always been one of my favorites – particularly the “warm up the virgins” line.

It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes after I posted it when I got a notification that someone else had posted something on the string. When I went to look at the post, Facebook instead popped up a screen telling me they had put a warning over the image I posted, saying it contained an explicit image that might be offensive.

I wish I’d had the presence of mind to grab a screen-shot of the warning, but I was too astounded by this to have my wits about me. What on earth was offensive about a picture of Saddam Hussein – originally published by a New York City newspaper?

After reading the warning, I clicked around on some other stuff on Facebook for a couple minutes. All of a sudden, I got another notification from Facebook that I was being officially warned that my post violated Facebook’s community standards (again, I wish I’d grabbed a screen cap of it) and I was prompted to scroll down to read more about these community standards. I was warned that if I did not agree to uphold these standards, my account would be temporarily suspended.

So, I clicked on the thingy that said, “I agree,” to avoid being sent to Facebook jail.

With all the absolutely bogus crap that makes in onto Facebook – the political, divisive, demonstrably false memes, the hateful screeds, the racist stuff – my post of a newspaper page from 2006 gets me a stern warning.

Wonderful.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

I Want...



 

I want more warm, sunny afternoons with you and your wonderful family, on the patio in your beautiful back yard, watching our grandchildren grow up, listening to the laughter of the children and carrying on conversations with you and the outstanding man you married.

I want it to be an easy hour’s drive on the Interstate, like it used to be, to visit with our remarkable son and his talented wife and our fast-maturing granddaughter. I want Zelda the cat to sit on my lap while I pet Peach the dog, talking with your brother and his wife.

I want to roll back the years to the time when you and your brother would come over for Sunday brunch, share with your mother and me what was going on in your lives, and then go off to do the fun things young adults do.

I now understand why my late father was so happy when on the rare occasions after we’d all grown up and started our own lives, he could say, “all six of my kids, in the same place, at the same time.”

I want just one more evening when I could sit in my easy chair in the home where we raised you, watching TV with your mother on the couch a few feet away, our loyal and smart dog Shadow sleeping on my feet, and our happy, goofy dog Sunny to my left, laying wedged between my easy chair and the wall, with my hand resting on her beautiful coat of coarse, wiry hair.



I want one more warm, sunny day when I can get on the lawn tractor and mow our expansive back yard, loving the luxurious smell of fresh-cut grass, pausing along the south fence line to pick and eat those delicious raspberries right off the bushes, coming back into the house to be greeted by happy barks and wagging tails.

I want to be able again to walk freely and easily, without worrying about whether I can make it to the next “touch-point” without losing my balance, without constantly being afraid of falling.

I want to be able to take my mom to lunch, seeing the joy on her face as she excitedly rides in my car on a grand outing to a restaurant she’d chosen and had looked forward to going to many days in advance.

I want one more night of fishing for walleye on the Wolf River with my dad. I could use a lot more of his pointers on how to navigate life’s challenges.

I want one more time to feel the electricity and thrill of playing with a really good band, with outstanding arrangements, everybody’s road chops up, performing for an appreciative and enthusiastic audience.

I want one more sunny day behind the wheel of my ’68 Chevelle SS-396, the engine roaring as I shift gears while weaving through traffic, then cruising on the open road, wind on my face, joy in my heart.

I want to be able to go back and change all the times when I treated people harshly or impatiently and said intemperate things.

And I want my wife – my best friend - to always be happy, and for my children and grandchildren to live in a world much better than the one we left them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

BREAKING OVERNIGHT!





My displeasure with what’s come to be known in many corners as “NewsSpeak” has been registered here frequently over the years.

I realize that my personal war against NewsSpeak is a lost cause.

NewsSpeak is a dialect found mainly in broadcast news, where the remnants of consultant-driven news writing still flourish. Hardly any broadcast operation can afford consultants any more, but when they traveled from market to market, most of them would try to get news writers to inject “excitement” and “immediacy” into their writing.

Never mind that nobody ever talks that way, in forced present tense, or distorting time to give the illusion that what the audience is getting is so hot off the presses (see what I did there?) that they’re truly getting the latest stuff.



I was saddened this morning when the above item appeared on my phone. Although we moved to coastal Connecticut a few months ago, my wife and I still try to keep up on news from our old stomping ground in Madison.

See the word “overnight”? That’s a TV news thing, where all news is either breaking, breaking now, breaking overnight, or some similar variant. The Supreme Court didn’t make that ruling overnight. It made the ruling yesterday.

But NewsSpeak almost never allows the word “yesterday” to be written in copy. The consumer would get the impression that it’s stale news if it happened yesterday.

I’m sad to see that the virus has crept into my former hometown newspaper. Overnight, my butt.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020


Living In The Nation’s #1 Media Market



The New York TV news market is staffed by people who are really good at what they do. There are no beginners fresh out of college. The anchors are polished, the reporters are veterans, and the production values are through the roof. The pace is quick and mistakes are rare, which is really saying something since so many of the anchors take turns working from home during the plague.

WABC-TV7 is the most-watched TV station in the nation, and while my wife and I have sampled the newscasts on WNBC-TV4, WCBS-TV2, and WNYW-TV (Fox 5), we find ourselves watching more WABC-TV Ch 7 news than any of the many others.
The writing is crisp, sharp, grammatically correct, and seldom if ever will you hear any “news-speak.” Phrases like “fled on foot,” “the incident remains under investigation,” “officials say,” and similar cop-talk or officialese are absent from scripted copy and live ad-lib reports.

I’d expected WABC-TV would sound and look a lot like ABC-TV’s morning show, Good Morning America, but it does not. To me, GMA is largely unwatchable because the language their reporters speak is a horrible bastardization of standard English. Auxiliary verbs (is, are, was, were, has, have, had, and the 16 others) are almost never used. (Example: “Arizona authorities (are) looking for suspects…”)

GMA begins almost every story with “overnight” or “breaking now” or “this morning.” Everything is written and delivered in what news consultants call “forced present tense” which supposedly gives immediacy to the content, but in actual practice is quite difficult to listen to. Subjective adjectives like “shocking,” “amazing,” “terrifying,” “stunning” and others are frequently sprinkled in.

But you won’t hear any of that on the network flagship TV news operations. They speak conversational English without the newswriting clichés so often heard on network news presentations.

The weekend presentations aren’t quite as good as the weekday product. You’re likely to hear some news-speak, and some tortured usages like “ten-year anniversary” and outmoded descriptors like “wheelchair-bound.”

Because we live in Bridgeport, the largest city in Connecticut, 40-some miles from midtown Manhattan, all the New York City stations treat us as local. They include Bridgeport news and weather in all their newscasts. Our New York City-headquartered cable company, Optimum, also gives us several Connecticut TV stations from Hartford and New Haven. There, you’re more likely to hear fractured grammar, news-speak, and silly usages.

Sitting through a TV newscast with me is no picnic, but my wife, who’s accustomed to my constant commentary, puts up with it.



For those who don’t know, my wife was an on-camera TV reporter for many years in the 90’s and early 2000’s for the Madison CBS TV affiliate. Above is a screen-grab from one of her many live reports from the Chicago Bears Training Camp in Platteville in the summer of 2001.

For many years, I lived and worked in the nation’s second-largest TV market, Los Angeles, where the ABC flagship station there, KABC-TV 7 was my choice. I can still hear the late Jerry Dunphy’s famous opening line, “From the desert to the sea to all of Southern California, this is KABC-TV news.” Dunphy was born in Milwaukee and after paying his dues at smaller markets all over the country, became the lead anchor at KABC-TV and an icon of Los Angeles TV.

Another one of my favorites from my SoCal days is Ann Martin, who worked for nearly two decades at KABC-TV before KCBS-TV lured her away. There was absolutely nothing flashy about her style and delivery. She spoke plain English and never used any of the many horrible news-speak clichés. I remember one particular evening in 1988 that encapsulated her style for me. I had the TV on in the living room and was doing something in the kitchen, when I heard her say “if you’re somewhere else in your home listening to this broadcast but not in front of the TV screen, I’ll give you a moment to get in front of your TV because there’s some video here you’re going to want to see.” Although I don’t remember what the video was, I remember her lead-in.



Because of my job at the time, I was privileged to meet a lot of the Southern California TV news people. And I got to see first-hand the inner workings of the nightly newscasts on several of the Los Angeles TV stations, including KABC-TV, KNBC-TV, and KCBS-TV, where I met sports anchor Jim Hill, who played for the Packers in the mid-70’s.

Like most of Southern California, the atmosphere in these newsrooms and studios was laid back. You can’t be wound too tight and expect to get along well in SoCal. There was a sense of urgency, as there always is in TV news, but folks were seldom hyper. That seems to contrast with the prevailing vibe I’m getting here in the New York City metro, where people can be brusque and impatient.

Back in the mid-90’s I did a 10-minute Monday morning feature for WISC-TV in Madison called “The Week Ahead.” They had a TV camera in my radio newsroom on the other side of town, and I’d chat live on the air with WISC-TV news anchor Cheryl Schubert Hartung. We’d talk back and forth, previewing the major news stories we expected to cover during the week ahead.

Last week Cheryl and I were visiting on social media, talking about the higher intensity level on the east coast. Earlier in her TV career Cheryl was a reporter for a station in Albany, NY, and she told me a story about what that newsroom was like. She said a lot of the producers and anchors were refugees from the New York City TV market, and they were wound pretty tight. They didn’t want to raise their kids in NYC so they migrated to more family-friendly environs.

She told me one day, the news assignment manager was pitching a fit about something, ranting and hollering. He unplugged the phone that was on his desk and threw it into the newsroom, barely missing her head. She said after the storm calmed down, the News Director called her into his office and told her she was “too nice” and needed to “toughen up.”

I suspect a New York City TV newsroom is probably not the kind of place I’d like to visit in my advanced age. I can’t dodge flying telephones as quickly as I could have when I was younger.

RADIO

Since I spent so many years programming and anchoring news radio stations, I’m compelled to give my two-cents-worth. There are several really top-notch radio news operations in New York City. The station I have on the most in the car is 1010 WINS. “Ten-ten WINS: WINS wins New York” is one of their many slogans, along with the evergreen “where the news never stops,” and their heritage slogan “Ten-ten-WINS: you give us 22 minutes, and we’ll give you the world.”

Fox News Radio actually plays it pretty much right down the middle, not like the Fox TV news product. But they often write sentences without auxiliary verbs, the most prominent form of news-speak, and force present tense. My wife’s ex-husband, Rich Denison, is one of the principal anchors at Fox News Radio in New York City, although since the onset of the plague he’s been delivering newscasts from his home studio in New Jersey.



And then there’s the most listened-to news-talk radio station in the nation, WABC-AM. Like WINS, WOR, and the other major New York City AM stations, it sounds like a million bucks: tight and bright, forward motion galore, and flawless execution.

The signature element for every AM radio station is what we broadcasters call the “top of the hour ID” or “legal ID.” (“Legal,” because the FCC used to require all stations to identify at the top of the hour, with the station’s call sign and city of license.) The Legal ID is the ten or fifteen second production element that serves as the audible logo of the station, the element that’s the station’s unique identifier.

Hearing WABC-AM at the top of the hour is a joy. I’ve simply got to go full radio geek on this one. Just before the end of the hour, you hear the jingle begin. And it’s a dandy – written by the late Mr. TM himself, Tom Merriman. More than a hundred musicians were used on the session to create the WABC top-of-hour jingle, and a small chorus of singers with Merriman’s signature tight harmonies.

You hear the jingle start to play, and Mr. Deep Voiced Announcer says, “reaching more Americans than any other news-talk station in the nation!” Immediately, the jingle singers come up to full volume singing “NewsTalk Radio 77, WABC” -and suddenly the key changes dramatically as the singers intone “New York City!”

Suddenly a voice comes in over the jingle, giving the time, saying “In the greatest city in the world, it’s five o’clock!” The jingle comes to a cold musical ending, immediately followed by the beginning of the ABC Radio Network News sounder and the start of the network newscast.

It’s the kind of thing that makes us old-time veteran AM radio guys giddy – that big, orchestral jingle, the deep-voiced announcer, perfect timing – it never fails to get me when I hear it.

The media mix is one of the fun things about living in the New York metro for me. Hopefully my long-suffering wife will continue to put up with my running commentary during the broadcasts.

Friday, May 15, 2020


THE GREAT ADVENTURE: Part 3, The New Place


We decided that when it was time to sell the Compound and move east, we’d lease a “luxury” apartment rather than buy a house or a condo. No maintenance, no mowing, no shoveling, no HOA fees, no hassles. In January, my wife bought a ticket to fly to Connecticut and spend the first week of March with our daughter and her family. She'd go apartment-hunting during the day. Or so we thought.

By mid-February, we were concerned about the feasibility – and, the possibility – of her actually making the trip. To avoid the incredible hassles of flying to LaGuardia or JFK airport in NYC, we’ve always chosen to spend a few bucks more and fly to the Westchester County Airport in New York, which is about a 20-minute drive from our daughter’s home in Fairfield, CT. By the second week of February, we were seeing news reports that Westchester County was rapidly becoming a Coronavirus hot-spot.

By the first week of March, we knew that the trip was off. New Rochelle, NY, a short distance from the airport, had been declared the hottest Coronavirus hot-spot in the nation. The mayor had closed the city. So, my wife began her search for a new place for us, relying completely and exclusively on the internet and a lot of phone conversations. For weeks, we evaluated properties she’d deemed viable. In April, we pulled the trigger on a luxury apartment in the very nice Black Rock neighborhood of Bridgeport, which is the largest city in Connecticut. We’d be about 10 minutes away from our daughter’s home in neighboring Fairfield.

We did the deal sight unseen, having reviewed a lot of photos of the inside and outside of the place, and relying on our daughter’s assurance that it was a nice place. She said it was just a few blocks from the office building where she and several other psychotherapists had established their practice.



The little blue ‘x’ on the photo above marks the spot where we now live. That big body of water a few blocks south of us is Long Island Sound, i.e., the Atlantic Ocean. We’d checked out the place, from the outside only, when we first arrived in Connecticut early in the evening on April 29th. We held our breath as we turned off Fairfield Avenue onto Ellsworth Street, and took a deep breath of relief when we first saw the exterior of the place in person. It looked very well-maintained and quite nice.

We got our first peek inside on April 30th. The management company said they’d have a representative meet us at 5 PM at the building to give us the keys. We made the short trip from our hotel in Norwalk to Bridgeport and waited in the lobby at the appointed hour. The representative from the realty management company showed up, appropriately attired (as were we) in mask and gloves. She handed us a large envelope and said, “here’s your keys and stuff; if they don’t work, let me know. Take the elevator to the fourth floor and turn left.” And with that, she turned on her heel and went back to her car.

We didn’t expect to have a long, guided tour of the building and all the amenities. And we were starting to get used to the brusque style of people in the NYC metro. But to just hand us the keys and walk off, without even a “so sorry that because of the plague I can’t give you a fully guided tour, but I know you’ll love the place” – even by New York City metro standards, that was not much of a “welcome to your new home” speech.

We took the elevator to the 4th floor, turned left, discovered that at least one of the sets of keys worked, drew a deep breath, and unlocked the door. Thank heaven, we loved the place. It was even bigger and more spacious than it looked in the photos. Brand new coat of paint in every room; brand new, never-been-used high-tech appliances; woodgrain floors throughout; and tons of closets and storage space.

I hugged my wife and said, “you done good, dear!”

During the next few days, waiting for the moving van to arrive with our furniture, we made several trips from our hotel in Norwalk to the new place in Bridgeport. We stocked the new, hi-tech fridge and the pantry. We talked about which things would go where, once the furniture arrived.



On Sunday, May 3rd, we finally got to see our daughter, her husband, and their two kids. While none of us put on masks or gloves, we were careful to observe the social distancing guidelines. My wife and I stayed in the car with the windows down, visiting with them. Among other things, we talked about what we were going to do once the plague had been mitigated and the rules had been relaxed.

Even though it had only been a few days since we started “living” in the hotel in Norwalk, we’d sort of fallen into a routine. Days were spent doing preliminary set-up work in our new apartment, breaking for a burger or chicken sandwich at noon, and learning the streets around our new home. Our evening meals consisted of either stopping at a drive-though on the way back from Bridgeport to Norwalk, or having food delivered to our hotel. It’s truly contactless delivery – they call you when they’re in the hotel lobby; you go meet them and they place the food somewhere that you can pick it up while maintaining social distancing.

We got the bad news from our moving van driver on Monday, May 4th, that he wouldn’t be in Bridgeport with our furniture until early Wednesday afternoon. Something about a delay with a load he was dropping off in Lake Placid, NY. Nothing we could do about it – United Van Lines had an 8-day window to deliver, and they were still in the middle of the time window.
We checked out of the hotel in Norwalk late Wednesday morning and drove to the new place. We were excited about actually moving in!



To kill time while waiting for the van driver to call, my wife stretched out on the bare floor and caught a quick nap. Finally, the phone rang and Mike, our van driver, said he’d be backing in with our stuff in a few minutes. His crew of three hard-working young men made short work of lugging 5,100 pounds of our stuff up three flights in a tight stairwell. 

The property management company had warned us – and United Van Lines – that using the elevator to move furniture was strictly verboten. They pointed out that one of the many cameras surveilling the interior and exterior of our secure building was inside the elevator and was being monitored to make sure the movers didn’t use the elevator.

The crew helped us set up the huge sectional, my overstuffed recliner, our king-size bed, and the other big, bulky stuff. My wife carefully checked off every box and item as the movers brought it in, to make sure all our stuff was unloaded.

As we signed the Bill of Lading, Mike told us that in the past two days he’d had four cancellations. People were re-thinking their plan to move in the middle of the plague. He wished us happiness in our new home, and we thanked him and wished him safe travels.



There were boxes piled high in every room. Now we faced the task of opening the sixty-odd boxes of stuff we’d packed in Madison, and starting to find the right place for everything.

But, we’re retired, and with the tight restrictions in the New York City metro because of the plague, there’s not much else for us to do. We’re tackling it in bits and pieces, and before too long, we’ll have everything where it’s supposed to be.

Meantime, two weeks in, we’re enjoying life in our new digs, as the last great adventure continues.We look forward to the day when we can explore the museums, restaurants, and other attractions around here. Most of all, we're anticipating the day when we can actually hug our daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren.