Thursday, April 29, 2021

Baseball Is Alive And Well


It was an epic matchup: the green-clad O’Reilly Electric little leaguers against the maroon-clad boys of Fairfield Rotary. The game would begin at the stroke of noon on a beautiful early-Spring Saturday at Highwood Park.

The young ballers, most of them 5 years old, had been practicing at home with their dads, and already had a 3-inning game under their belt. But this was serious stuff: word had it the boys of Fairfield Rotary were not to be taken lightly. Big hitters, those guys.

This is T-ball Little League, organized by the Rec Department of the City of Fairfield, Connecticut. Our grandson, Joey (Joey B to his teammates) plays in this league, and my wife and I have every one of Joey’s games on our schedule. We moved from Madison, Wisconsin to coastal Connecticut a year ago, at the height of the plague, to be closer to our daughter and her family. It was exactly this sort of thing – the prospect of watching two of our grandkids grow up – that led us to weigh anchor after more than 30 years in Madison and set sail for Long Island Sound.

We live in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city. It’s a beautiful and very safe neighborhood, bordered by the vast expanse of Long Island Sound on the south, and the city of Fairfield on the north.

Make no mistake about it: Fairfield is a wealthy community. As my wife and I roll into a parking spot at Highwood Park in our late-model high-end Chevy SUV, there’s a Range Rover parked ahead of us. We’re surrounded by BMW’s, Audis, a few Benz sedans, big Volvo SUV’s, a Lexus or two, and the occasional Honda. Our big white Chevy would fit right in at Lambeau Field or Miller Park… er, American Family Field. Whatever.  I still call it County Stadium. But here, we’re outclassed up and down the parking lot.

However, everyone we meet is friendly, down-to-earth, and most cordial. Many of those we meet are grandparents, like us. We are all eager to engage in conversations about our darling children/grandchildren, and how they’ve taken to the Great American Pastime.


The young man with the bright blue glove and the perfect infield stance playing first base is our grandson, Joey. He’s got great form, we think. On the right side of the photo, the dad overseeing things is our son-in-law, John – Joey’s coach and mentor. John and Joey have been working on catching, throwing, batting, and running since February, when the snow disappeared.

Nearly all the dads are present, coaching their sons, being patient and encouraging. A couple of the dads are missing, but the grandparents’ grapevine informs us that those dads are “away on business.” The moms are just as supportive.


As the dads dispense advice and give tips on form and style, moms provide the loving nurture of assuring their kids that they’re doing a great job and dispense kid-friendly granola bars and hugs. Pictured above, our daughter Mallory assures Joey that his uniform looks awesome and that he’s really throwing the ball well.

Many, if not most of the moms, have solid sports credentials. You can overhear them talking about the team sports they played in high school and college. Sitting to our right is Brandon’s mom. The family lives in the same neighborhood as our daughter, but their son plays for Fairfield Rotary. Both he and Joey wear uniform number 8.

I comment that Joey’s dad is a Yankees fan, so Joey’s number 8 is the same number Yogi Berra wore. “My husband grew up in Maryland,” she says, “so Brandon’s 8 stands for Cal Ripken. You know, Ripken not only was a star with the Orioles, but he was also actually born in Maryland,” she adds.

These ladies know their baseball.

My Chicago-born wife and lifelong Cubs fan quietly assumes Joey B’s number 8 is for Andre Dawson.

The boy who’s a favorite with all the moms is a spirited lad nicknamed Chip. Chip’s family lives just a few houses from our daughter and son-in-law, and he and Joey are good buds. Chip is a bit small compared to the other 5-year-olds but possesses an indomitable spirit and plays with reckless enthusiasm. He has a huge head of light blonde hair that flows from under his baseball cap to his shoulders. When Chip runs, his hair flies wildly, and everyone cheers for him.


Not surprisingly, all the boys like to bat far more than they enjoy playing infield. Here’s Joey B swinging for the fences. He knocks the ball off the tee and follows through, something his dad has been coaching him. The first practice we went to, the concept of running to first base after you hit the ball off the tee was something that didn’t come naturally. The boys would whack the ball into the infield, then stand and admire their work – as the dads and moms yelled, “run to first! Run to first base!”

The boy at bat would then dutifully run toward first base, after the vocal cues from the parents and assembled fans. At the first practice, most of the boys carried their bat with them all the way down the first base line. By the second practice, the dads had managed to coach that out of them.

My love of baseball started early, and I have a tremendous coach to thank for that. When I first played organized baseball, the late Russ Tiedemann was our summer rec league coach in Hortonville, WI, where he was also the high school varsity baseball coach. He drilled us on fundamentals in every practice session and taught us the beauty of in-game strategy. His love of the game was contagious.

After several years at Hortonville, Coach Tiedemann was hired by UW-Oshkosh to be varsity baseball coach, where he established a true baseball dynasty, winning 15 conference championships and a national championship in 1985. Coach Tiedemann has sent more young men to careers in Major League Baseball – 28 – than any other baseball coach in Wisconsin history.

It was my great fortune to have been coached by an icon like Russ Tiedemann.


But, before Coach Tiedeman, my coach was my dad – just as Joey’s coach right now is his dad, just as all the young t-ballers on the field, as shown above, are being coached by their fathers. In the photo above, Joey is standing on first, looking right at me, saying, “Papa – I got a hit!” And, considering the formidable infield Joey faced at bat, that single was quite the accomplishment. There’s not much need for an outfield in t-ball for 5-year-olds, so everybody plays infield.

Perhaps Joey will grow up to be a singles machine, just like Papa (me). Thanks to Coach Tiedemann, I could always make good contact with a pitched ball. It was the running part that did me in. What would have been an extra-base hit in the many bar leagues I played in over the years was usually a single for me.


But there was that one night, years ago, when our radio station team was playing a team of county sheriff's deputies, that I blasted a ball over the fence and out of the ball park. I had to run/trot/walk all the bases on that sweet summer night. It was the game-winning hit, so the guys made me a little trophy engraved with the date and the legend "Game-winning homer - boy, am I good!" I still have the trophy.

So many great memories - from the sandlots of my youth in Hortonville, to the bar-league games of my adulthood, to the t-ball games of my grandson.

As long as there are dads who volunteer their time as coaches, and young men like Joey who love to get together and have fun playing t-ball, baseball will remain alive and well.

And there’ll always be grey-haired grandpas like me to cheer them on from the sidelines.

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.