Friday, May 30, 2014

He Did It His Way

Rob Starbuck is one of the most pleasant and straightforward folks you’ll ever meet.  This morning was his last broadcast as the long-time anchor of the News 3 morning show on WISC-TV in Madison. He was given an appropriate send-off by his friends and colleagues.

The photo above shows Rob recording his last news cut-in for the CBS morning show.


During the broadcast this morning, Channel 3 showed a whole bunch of recorded inserts from Rob’s former colleagues – including my wife – wishing Rob well on his retirement.  Rob has accomplished something which is extremely rare in broadcasting these days – he was able to retire on his on terms, on his own timetable.  Far too often nowadays, TV news folks are simply shown the door when they reach a certain age. Their contract isn’t renewed, or they’re simply “let go”.


Kudos to Television Wisconsin, Inc. for allowing Rob to retire and not tossing him to the curb.


I’ve known Rob for decades, going way back to the 70’s when I was working in radio in Oshkosh and Rob was working a few miles west in Ripon at WCWC radio…..”wick-wick radio” as we called it.  Once in a while something would happen between Ripon and Oshkosh, some horrid car wreck or barn fire…and either I’d call Rob’s newsroom or he’d call mine to say “you got anything on this?”  Rob made the move to Green Bay TV, where I watched him every weekend.  He was a consummate TV pro from the very beginning.


Here’s a nice shot of Rob with his “work wives” and his real wife, Joy Cardin.  (Yes, THAT Joy Cardin, of Wisconsin Public Radio fame.)  On the left is Cheryl Shubert , who co-anchored the TV3 morning show with Rob back in the 80’s and 90’s.  For a couple years in the mid-90’s, I would do a live TV segment with Cheryl and Rob called “The Week Ahead” every Monday morning, where Cheryl and I would talk about the big news events we expected to report on in the coming week.  Tim DeLay would drive the Channel 3 remote truck over to my radio news studio, set up a camera, and we’d do the 7-minute segment live at around 6:45 AM.  I still have lots of videotapes from those days!


Second from the left and next to Rob is Susan Siman, the News 3 veteran who does the Live at Five show now but was Rob’s morning co-anchor after Cheryl left. On Rob’s other side is his real wife, Joy Cardin, and on the right is the young woman who’s co-anchored with Rob for the past several years, Charlotte Deleste.


Above is a great gag shot of Rob tossing a chair into the air from the Channel 3 “Back Yard Weather Patio”, with News 3 morning show Meteorologist Haddie McClean looking on from the left and Rob's co-anchor Charlotte Deleste on the right.  It’s a great shot because the LAST thing Rob Starbuck would ever do is actually throw something in anger.  He is probably the most even-tempered person you’d ever meet.  I’ve never even heard Rob raise his voice. Sometimes in jest he’d say something like “I want to just pick this desk up and overturn it” but everyone knew he wasn’t serious. That’s why this shot is so funny – it’s Rob doing something Rob would never do!


I wish Rob all the best in retirement – and sure hope we can connect for coffee once in a while, now that he doesn’t have to get up at oh-dark-thirty (literally, 1 AM) to be in to work.  Rob’s going to teach yoga in his spare time now and enjoy life, and, finally, get a chance to listen to his wife’s morning show on Public Radio!  Rob is the consummate pro, respected by every one of his peers and every one of his viewers. I’m so glad he was able to “do it his way” and retire on his clock – to figuratively have his cake, and eat it, too.


Godspeed, Rob. I’ll call you about getting together for coffee.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Farewell To The State Journal

Ever since I ended my career as an itinerant musician decades ago, I’ve had a daily newspaper delivered to my home in every state and town I’ve lived in.  I’m sure the same is true for my wife Toni. We’re both still newsies at heart, so we had a serious discussion this weekend about the letter that came in the mail from The Wisconsin State Journal, which we’ve had delivered to the Compound since we bought the joint in ’98.


The letter informed us that the next time they took a chunk of money out of our bank account, the amount would be changing to $29.25 a month. A buck a day. They of course did not list what they’re charging now, so I looked it up, and it was pretty close what I thought it was: $22.65 a month.


Math is far from my strong suit, but I think that’s about a 29% increase.


My bride’s reaction was simple: we ought not be on the hook for paying down Lee Enterprises debt. I’m still not exactly sure how the ownership arrangement works; it involves entities like Lee, Capital Newspapers Inc., The Wisconsin State Journal, The Capital Times; one owns half of this and part of that; one owns part of this and some of that; yawn.  But Lee Enterprises seems to be the one in control.

I was saddened a few years back when Lee pulled the plug on the Capital Times, the “liberal” Madison daily paper. But, given the times, it wasn’t that surprising. The Capital Times is now essentially an online operation, but their print product is delivered as a section of the Wednesday morning Wisconsin State Journal, and I looked forward to getting it every Wednesday. I enjoy Paul Fanlund’s columns a great deal; I like Mike Ivey’s stuff; I enjoy the several pages of op/ed the Cap Times provides, too.


My wife and I are…..well, were….big supporters of the State Journal. We read it every day. At least, when it’s delivered before 6:30 AM on weekdays, we do. But lately, that’s been slipping. Too often it makes an appearance after 7 AM, and by then, Toni’s gone off to work and I’m at work in my home studio in front of this computer.  The State Journal still has some really top-notch reporters and columnists. George Hesselberg’s stuff is top-shelf. Dee Hall is a tremendous reporter. David Wahlberg is a formidable health-beat reporter. Our friend Doug Moe’s column is the quintessence of Madison. Pat Simms, a great reporter, still does some part-time work for the paper.  I know I’m forgetting some names; but – let me make it clear that our cancellation has NOTHING to do with their excellent work.


But the product the State Journal puts on our porch in the morning (and I mean literally on our porch – we tip our delivery man $50 at Christmas and $50 on the 4th of July to drive up the driveway and toss the paper right on our front porch) does not merit in any way a 29% increase in cost.  News content has steadily declined over the past few years, as the reporting staff was constantly downsized; overall, the quality is, in our estimation, lower. Again, not the quality of work being done by the reporting staff, but the overall quality of the paper.

Here’s the home office building for Lee Enterprises, in Davenport Iowa - certainly an unassuming edifice for a company that owns a lot of media properties.  I do not know a great deal about the finances of Lee Enterprises, but I do know that they made some gambles a while ago and racked up a huge amount of debt acquiring more media properties. Their stock has tanked a couple times in recent memory and was nearly de-listed not that long ago.

Above is a map representing Lee’s various media holdings. They have a pretty big footprint across the nation.

Mary Junck is the CEO, and, unflattering caricature above notwithstanding, I’m sure she’s had to make some “difficult decisions” in the past decade. Usually, the way I see it, the decisions have involved firing a lot of reporters, photographers, and content-creators in general, while taking huge bonuses as the stock tanks and the quality diminishes.


When I called Monday afternoon to cancel, the young lady who answered the phone didn’t even try to resell me.  She simply said “your last paper will be June 15th”. I had to ask how much it would cost to get the paper on Sunday only - $15/month, or, $3.46 per Sunday paper – an absurdly high rate for a paper which is mostly paid advertising.  I don’t expect Og Mandino (the so-called “world’s greatest salesman”) to be on the other end of the line, but perhaps a few dollars spent in sales training for the phone staff over there on Fish Hatchery Road (or wherever they are) would pay for itself in a hurry.


There is no joy here.  There was no sense lecturing the phone-answering-lady about the outrageousness of a 29% rate-hike. It’s a decision my wife and I did not make lightly, and I hope our friends who still work at the State Journal and Cap Times can hang on long enough to leave on their own terms.


As Ed Murrow used to say, good night, and good luck.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Why ESPN's NFL Draft Coverage Sucks

To me, the reason ESPN's draft coverage sucks is simple: ESPN decides the narrative in advance, plans its event coverage based on that narrative (shot selection, graphics package, everything), and sticks with their manufactured narrative rather than simply letting the event unfold and relying on their talented camera crews, producers, and wealth of on-camera talent to synthesize a narrative as the event (the draft) unfolds. That's the main reason.  But there are other reasons.

First of all, this guy, Boomer, has become to me (and apparently quite a few of my friends, if social media is an indicator) a net negative. Once one of the more talented and promising announcers, a trained broadcaster who could cover a live event with the best of them, Chris Berman has in the past decade become a parody of himself. He gets in the way of coverage with his bombastic assininity.  He created a style which in the early 80’s helped give identity to and establish ESPN as a formidable brand, back in the days when ESPN actually stood for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.  But now, he’s a buffoon past his prime who should go “back-back-back” to the archetype he himself developed.

Second, the talent package ESPN put together with Berman is suspect.

This guy, Mel Kiper, belongs on the set. He is “Mr. NFL Draft” and ESPN has established Kiper as the go-to guy for draft coverage.  He’s knowledgeable, concise, “gets” how sports TV works, and makes great pithy comments and observations.

This guy is the Energizer Bunny. Jon Gruden has two modes: full tilt, and off. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the NFL, brings a huge amount of energy to the broadcast, is always ready with a cogent and insightful comment, and understands how TV works.

This guy – Ray Lewis - is one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the NFL.  But when he’s up there on the anchor desk with Boomer, Mel, and Jon covering the draft, he’s way out of his league. He looks nervous and comes off as unprepared. His comments appear forced, as if he’s saying something because the producer is saying “say something, Ray” in his ear.  He’s not Dandy Don Meredith’s down-to-earth foil to Howard Cosell’s smugness. He’s not John Madden’s loosey-goosey counterpoint to Pat Summerall’s buttoned-down control.  Lewis is out of place, and it shows.

Then, there’s – at least to me – the fundamental reason ESPN’s draft coverage sucked last night: they forced the narrative.

They made it all about Johnny Football.  The story line ESPN decided long before the draft actually began was that it was going to be all about Johnny Manziel, who would certainly be one of the first picks very early in the draft. They had three cameras – two from fixed positions, one mobile – focused on Manziel, and showed him at least once every three minutes for the first hour of the broadcast, until it became painfully – and I do mean painfully – apparent that Manziel was not going to be one of the first selected. Painful because the director or producer or whoever of the ESPN telecast insisted on showing Manziel constantly, and having the anchor crew talk about him.

Well over an hour into the broadcast, after Manziel had swilled about ten bottles of ice water (his throat must have been parched from the anxiety of not being chosen), ESPN finally backed off its constant exposure of and discussion about Manziel. The last few times they went to a shot of Manziel, Boomer, Mel, Jon, and Ray were hard-pressed to come up with anything to say.  After Dallas passed on Manziel, there must have been suicides among the ESPN brain trust that decided it was going to be all Johnny, all night.

Last night’s draft telecast was a metaphor for the way the TV networks cover sports. They define a narrative for the event ahead of time, and have the announcers focus on that narrative, regardless of how the event unfolds.

For a few years in the 90’s, I had the pleasure of working every morning with the guy pictured above, the Voice of UW Hockey since ’73, Paul Braun. Paul worked out of the same big studio I did, giving morning sports reports on a couple of the radio stations in the building where we worked. We had similar routines, doing reports –Paul with sports, me with news – custom-tailored for the stations we were on. This was during a time when Badger hockey was in the process of moving from telecasts exclusively on the state’s public TV network to what has now become Fox Sports Wisconsin.

Paul did not thrive in the new Fox Sports environment.  He would shake his head as he told me how he was being “coached” to do the hockey broadcasts by the Fox producers.  In their pre-game meetings, the producers would establish the narrative of the contest. They would develop three main “talking points” for the game, and Braun was told to hammer home those three talking points and to follow the narrative during the entire broadcast.

Rather than describe the action as it unfolded – often, as sports fans know, unpredictably – with unexpected twists and turns that come from game situations like penalties, injuries, coaching decisions, officiating,  and the myriad other things that can affect the outcome of a live sports event – Braun was told the stick with the pre-ordained script.

That’s why I’m so disappointed in ESPN’s draft coverage Thursday night.  They hammered home their narrative – that it was going to be all about Johnny Manziel – and weren’t flexible enough to make the telecast compelling by playing up the unpredictable nature of so many of the elements of a live event like the draft.

Spoiler alert: if you plan to see the movie “Draft Day” you might not want to read the paragraph below.

 The Johnny Manziel story, as pre-ordained by ESPN Thursday night, reminded me a great deal of one of the major plot elements of the Kevin Kostner movie “Draft Day”, which my wife and I saw together a few weeks ago and enjoyed a great deal.  In that movie, which takes place entirely on NFL draft day, from early morning to late night in the first round of the draft, there is, as it turns out, somewhat of a parallel with the Manziel situation last night. Everyone thinks this particular quarterback – and, in the movie, it’s the quarterback of the UW Badgers – is going to be one of the first picks.  But Costner’s character has some hard-earned inside information. It revolves around the fictional UW quarterback’s 21st birthday party, and who the Madison police did – and did not – arrest when the celebration got rowdy. Round after round of the draft goes by, and the Badgers quarterback is NOT taken, although the media keeps constantly focusing on him.  That’s all I’ll say.  The movie is fun, and worth seeing.

 Anyway, I hope Ha Ha turns out to be a wise pick for the Pack, and I hope Manziel can suck up his ego, take some coaching, and learn to be a pro quarterback.  And I hope ESPN learned something from its mistake, but I'm afraid the egos involved are too large to admit they did anything wrong.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Only Obey Good Laws

The title of this post was the campaign slogan of Eddie Ben Elson, one of the most colorful characters in Madison’s history.  He announced his 1970 campaign for Dane County DA in the nude at the Dangle Lounge, a long-since-disappeared strip joint downtown, telling anyone who'd listen that we ought to obey only the "good" laws.


More on Eddie in a moment.


The “Only Obey Good Laws” bit came to mind when I read an account of the important business our state’s Republican Party will be dealing with at its convention in Milwaukee this weekend.

For the uninitiated, the Republican Party was born right here in Wisconsin – as the logo above points out – in, I believe, an old schoolhouse in Ripon. ‘sconnies know that Ripon is pronounced RIP-en, but it pops up every so often on national broadcasts, where the nooz person invariably says “ri-PAHN”.


Among the important business our state’s Republicans will discuss this weekend is a much ballyhooed proposal to “reaffirm Wisconsin’s right to secede from the union” – hence the image at the top of this post, which I’ve dubbed “Cheesehead Secession”.  The image is from The Daily Beast. You never know when it will be important to secede from the union.  Best to make sure all ‘sconnies are aware that if the need should arise, the Republicans will be ready to guide us.  I think they borrowed the notebook on this from Governor Perry in Texas.


And there’ll be the sideshow put on by one of the looniest Democrats Madison has produced since good old Eddie Ben Elsen, namely Brett Hulsey.  Here he is in a Fox News photo (above) preparing to hand out KKK hoods to the Republican conventioneers this weekend.


But back to the “good laws”.  Another important piece of business the Republicans will take up this weekend is something – I can’t get a clear read on the exact wording – about Wisconsin being able to ignore federal laws.  The ones we don’t like, I guess.


The Republicans have been doing this sort of thing for a long time – putting up items for discussion that are so far out of left field that they’re not even in the ball park.  Like the time a few years ago when they put up a proposal to never hold their convention in a building that did not permit carrying concealed guns.


So let’s talk a bit about Eddie Ben Elson. (The photo of Eddie above is from the Wisconsin State Journal.) My friend Doug Moe, who’s been writing great stuff in the public prints in Madison for decades, probably knows more about Eddie’s history than anyone.  The year before Eddie announced his candidacy for Dane County DA in the nude on stage at the Dangle Lounge – with the “Only Obey Good Laws” slogan – Eddie ran for Mayor of Madison. That was in 1969, and among his campaign promises in that campaign was a plan to paint the city’s police cars in psychedelic colors.  Hey – it was still the 60’s.  That sort of thing was big back then.


Another of Eddie’s stunts was selling tickets to the Comet Kohoutek in 1973. Eddie, like many others at the time (others who may or may not have been under the influence of psychedelic drugs) believed the comet was actually an intergalactic spaceship, coming to Earth to save only the chosen ones.


Yes, Eddie Ben Elson would be right at home at the Republican convention in Milwaukee this weekend. Even though he was decidedly a very liberal personage, he’d fit right in with the arch-conservative fringe that comes up with these schemes to secede and ignore federal laws.

Eddie passed away in February of 1983 – carbon monoxide poisoning, in his car, in the driveway of his home in McFarland.  My friend George Hesselberg wrote a wonderful obit for Eddie. I can't find a link to it right now or I'd post it here.


Eddie's long gone, but his spirit is still very much alive this weekend, at that gathering in Milwaukee.