Monday, June 29, 2009

The Boal-Weevil

This just in... local television is in a world of shit. The economic downturn has crippled stations across the country. Way too many TV stations have been flipped or sold a half dozen times in the last 20 years at ever increasing pressures to increase profits. I've worked at a few of them including a one time Kansas City powerhouse WDAF TV.

I started there in October 1980. The station was owned by the tight fisted Taft Broadcasting. We were #3 in the market but young and hungry. In a couple of years we were #1 and stayed there until 1987. The station was sold that same year in a Bass brothers cash cleansing special that left the new company, Great American Broadcasting, a billion dollars in debt.

The station's been sold four times since. A reprieve of sorts came in the mid-90's when Rupert Murdoch and FOX purchased the station. Other than Taft and FOX ownership at WDAF has been less than stellar.

Local TV is the newest owner. They snapped up TV 4 and a host of other stations more than a year ago in deals that are leveraged to the hilt. The timing couldn't have been worse because the ad revenues have tanked and Local TV has been forced to do nothing but cut and cut and cut.

That brings us to Frank Boal, the Boal-Weevil, AKA Pudgy Play Pal. He's "retiring" at the end of June. Frank came to WDAF about six months after I did. He was an all time great co-worker. There are a lot of men and women like Frank Boal right now in TV news. They all have 25 plus years of experience and they are all being forced out the door by the corporate bean counters. This wave of forced retirements is killing local TV news. It will only go to make local TV news less relevant than it already is.

Believe it or not experience and ties to the community do mean something just look at Kansas City's long time market leader KMBC. They employ a host of expensive veteran reporters and anchors. The only saving grace is that the station's owners, Hearst, is a broadcast company. The bean counters haven't ravaged the company like they have so many others. But in this economic climate even companies like Hearst must be feeling the squeeze. The Kansas City market will be interesting to watch over the next year.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


I was sitting at my desk this afternoon wondering who the third one would be. It used to be and still is a joke in every newsroom in America, major deaths come in three. Michael Jackson's passing is much like his life. It was fascinating but revolting at the same time.
I can still remember when the Jackson's reunited in 1984 and kicked off their national tour in Kansas City. At the time I thought our coverage was overboard but looking back we probably didn't do nearly enough. After all, in the world of popular music there's Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson. I never purchased or cared to listen to his music but I don't deny his place as one of the true greats in the world of music. I also want to point out that he made MTV, and I'm stunned at the fact that MTV isn't doing squat but showing his old videos right now.

As for Farrah Fawcett, she never really did much for me. I never watched Charlie's Angels. I couldn't take her seriously as an actor or a star. She was beautiful woman and it's a shame she had such a terrible struggle with cancer.

Who couldn't help but love Ed McMahon. I grew up on The Tonight Show. Some of my best comedic memories from television come from Carson and The Tonight Show. He was an icon as a second banana, but I guess this week, Ed will have to move down two seats.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Run ragged

As much as I want to complain about the heat, I can't. I just looked at the heat index in Kansas City at 8 p.m. It was 108. It's been boiling here the last five days. The Czarina and I like to run in the evenings after work. In the spring hitting the roads at 6 p.m. is a pleasure. But now we try to hold off until 7 p.m. or a little later to try and mitigate the heat. The Czarina in the cooler climate of Riga

The last two days have been especially brutal. The Czarina ended up walking, not only because of the heat, because of bathroom problems. It's not a pleasant thing to be out on a run when there are no facilities in sight. I've had to head to the bushes about a half dozen times in my life. She made it to the county park about two miles from the house but they had already locked up the restrooms for the evening.

It was even worse for her last week when a fierce thunderstorm forced us to the clubhouse for our evening workout. She was trying like crazy to make it to a mile and a half on the treadmill before heading to the toilet. Unfortunately her judgment cost her big time. Fortunately there were showers in the clubhouse restroom. The Czarina was in ill humor after this accident, not her first I might add. It seems to plague her more than it does me. I took her to Dairy Queen to soothe her angst and by the next day she could laugh about it.

The one thing I've learned through the years of running is to never eat a salad before a run or the night before a race more than a 5K. I found that out the hard way at the St. George Marathon in 1988. The only thing that saved me was the porta-potty that magically appeared about two minutes the urge had hit me at about the ten mile mark. The detour only cost me a minute. The weight loss must have helped that day because I ran a PR by about a minute that day.

The next year I returned to St. George, skipped the salad, and ran a PR by nine minutes. 2:39:24!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Steely Dan

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and their creation Steely Dan were musically the best thing to come out of the 70's. I know Eagles fans will object to my verdict but here's why I believe this. The Eagles were an extension of bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Poco. Steely Dan was an original.Fagen and Becker's creation of jazz/rock was much more sophisticated than the horn backed bands (which were actually spawned in the late 60's) like Blood, Sweat, & Tears or Chicago. The playing on Steely Dan records was flawless. It was one of my great regrets that the band only toured for three years in the early 70's and by 1981 this dynamic duo had quit.

Fast forward to 1993 and a much anticipated reunion and tour. Fortunately thanks in large part to Lew Jetton, a fabulous musician in his own right, I got to catch Steely Dan in 1994 at a concert in Nashville. It was pure heaven.

Ten years later the Czarina and I went to Tampa for another Steely Dan concert and another fabulous show. That brings us to last night and another epic performance in Fort Myers. This event helped mark the tenth anniversary of getting hitched to my Russian princess. The actual anniversary falls on Friday.

It was great to see this band in an intimate venue. The one thing that struck me is Becker's improvement on guitar. He's light years better than when I first saw the band in Nashville. Becker's got a smooth, uncomplicated style, that's complimented by Jon Herrington who can hold his own ripping through classic's like "My Old School." Now it's a four month wait until our next big concert, U2!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The All American

The state of Kansas has a history of producing some quality milers and distance runners. Fans of the sport know the likes of Glenn Cunningham, Wes Santee, and Jim Ryun. Hardcore fans will know John Lawson, Randy Smith, and Christian Smith. Occasionally one of these distance running gems will escape the clutches of Kansas, Kansas State or Wichita State like Steve Fein who went to Wisconsin before heading to Oregon or Dwight Davis who landed at Tulsa.

Then there are the kids who saw talent and potential in high school but lack the credentials to go to a Division One school. I saw one such youngster run a couple of times his senior year at Free State High School. One race in particular I remember watching Mujahid Hassaballa run was four years ago at the 6A cross country regional. He chased Tim Testa from Junction City for most of the race but came up short.

Hassaballa is originally from the Sudan. He came with his parents to the United States in 1999. While he was a very good high school runner, Mujahid was never a champion. I don't think he ever broke 4:25 for the high school mile.

Like a lot of good Kansas high school distance runners that the big schools turn there nose up at Hassaballa ended up at Pittsburg State. The Gorillas are better known as a Division 2 football factory but more than a few quality track and field athletes have landed at the school located in the southeast corner of Kansas. Turns out Mujahid is one of them garnering All-American honors this spring in track. He ran the metric equivalent of a 4:07 mile. That's a pretty darn good time... and it makes him a runner that both Kansas and Kansas State would be more than happy to have on their team.

Its athletes like Hassaballa that may speak to why Kansas fired its distance coach. Doug Clark was first rate at turning very good runners into great runners. But he was having a heck of a time recruiting kids like Muhahid Hassaballa to KU. The Jayhawks have always had a problem recruiting in state with a few notable exceptions. Here's hoping that the new coach doesn't let kids like Hassaballa slip away.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

11 miles and many, many years ago

It's a run that has always stayed with me. It's a run I will never forget. I had just gotten the boot from the K.U. cross country team. For reasons I can't recall I made the trek over the hill from Memorial Stadium where Coach Bob Timmons had just delivered the bad news to Lawrence High School where I had graduated just four months before.

I found my young acquaintance Jon Blubaugh aching to go for a long run. Though he was just a freshman in high school, I knew him by reputation as an up and coming 800 meter runner. That run would cement a lifelong friendship. One other older guy joined us that day. He was the new Lawrence High basketball coach. His name was Bob Frederick.

We went 11 miles that day sharing stories and enjoying each others company. I can still remember Coach Frederick's shock near the end of the run to my confession of occasional marijuana use. It drew a pretty shock rebuke. For some reason I was offended my his words but instead thought that here was a serious, upright, kind of guy.

What's sad now is that both Bob and Jon are dead. Jon was a state champion, an outstanding student leader at Kansas, who drowned in a hot tub after a night of serious partying in 1988. He wasn't even 30 years old. It's a death that took me years to get over. Jon and I shared many incredible runs and adventures together.

Bob Frederick's life went on an incredible arch. I covered his first year as the hoops coach at LHS doing the games on radio. It was an undersized team that overachieved. Coach was on a career path to overachieve eventually becoming the athletic director at Kansas and was directly responsible for the complete restoration of Kansas basketball to national glory when he hired Roy Williams.

I'd see Bob running from time to time or at the Kansas Relays where we would exchange pleasantries. Injuries finally left Bob to just one athletic outlet, cycling. Unfortunately he had a habit of getting into some bad wrecks. One last Thursday on the streets of Lawrence took his life.

I still miss my friend Jon and the community at the University of Kansas will miss Dr. Bob Frederick.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Neil Young overload

I was like a kid on Christmas morning a couple of days ago. A big box arrived and within it was a long promised treasure. Since the early 1990's my favorite performer Neil Young had promised to begin releasing his archives. Young has dozens if not hundreds of unreleased treasures that serious fans trade amongst themselves. The only other artist that compares in terms of the quality and volume of unreleased jewels is the master himself, Bob Dylan.
So the first of five promised boxed sets arrived on my doorstep. It's overwhelming. There's a book, ten discs, and a download card. The set covers the years from 1963 to 1971. This bounty comes with a catch. It's on Blu Ray. I don't even own a Blu Ray player.

There is method to my madness. Sure I could have bought it on traditional DVD or CD but the Blu Ray boxed set comes with the aforementioned download card. This will allow me to download all of the material onto my PC and I can make my own CD's or put them on my mp3 player. The other wonderful thing about Blu Ray is it's upgradeable. Neil has promised that when he finds material that belongs to that archive set, you'll be able to download it to your collection. In fact he's already got the first download ready to go. Now how cool is that?

The set is a game changer. Other artists with vast catalogs looking to cash in on the buying habits of their loyal fans are going to have to take a serious look at what Neil has put together. The collection includes files full of personal photos, video clips, and in the instance of this set, a complete movie that he filmed back in 1971.

I plan to start downloading the music this weekend. The Blu Ray player will have to wait. In fact, I may buy a PS3 which is even better because then I can play games, but don't tell the Czarina!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Rematch

The trash talking started innocently enough in our hotel room on Sunday night. My son-in-law and I debated whether I could beat him at a longer distance. The week before he had destroyed me at 5K. The Czarina interjected herself claiming she could take both of us. It didn't take long before we were on Google earth sizing up a suitable race course at an abandoned car race track in Riga.
But before we could race it was off to Jurmala, a resort town on the Baltic Sea, renowned for its spas. Much to my displeasure we were going to spend a night there in celebration of birthday for one of the Czarina's friends. That meant non-stop Russian for the next 24 hours. I was tired, road weary, and ready to return to the U.S.A.
I believe for the Czarina, it was a chance to share with me a part of her life that she remembered with a lot of fondness. Each summer she would spend a month at a small dacha with her friends having what amounted to one big party. Unfortunately I wasn't in a party mood.
I managed to be on my best behavior around her friends. But I was quite boorish in private. It didn't help that dinner had taken about three hours to be served and consumed. I had simply run out of steam which is ironic because we spent Tuesday morning in and out of various steam rooms, salt baths, etc;.
I was in better spirits Tuesday afternoon. We landed in our last hotel, a beautiful spot right next to the U.S. embassy. It was time to get ready for the challenge of a match race, approximately seven miles around an old grand prix track.The race went down at 5 p.m. The son-in-law, the Czarina, and myself would circle the mostly shaded course which offered a couple of small climbs five times. Lap one went about as I expected, the son-in-law was 100 yards in front of me a half mile into the run with the wife in between. It wasn't long before he was out of sight.Somewhere around two miles I moved past the Czarina. About a half mile later I finally caught sight again of the son-in-law. Slowly, methodically, I began to cut down the distance between us. Just after lap three, about four miles into the race, I caught him. I could hear him fighting to stay on my tail and that only made me dig deeper to put him away. The sound of footsteps disappeared before the end of four laps.Then something strange happened. Just about a mile from the finish I started thinking about the little Princess. She was on hand with her mother rooting on the son-in-law. I thought she might be disappointed if daddy didn't win. The thought went away but resurfaced with about a quarter of a mile ago. I looked back and saw the son-in-law a good 150 yards behind me and stopped. I waited for him to catch me and when he did I said Masha should see her daddy win. He sprinted away with a 100 yards to go. I felt pretty good about it.
The Czarina on the other hand got pretty mad. She wanted me to win I guess. The son-in-law understood and appreciated the gesture. I had run pretty good, made my point, and best of all, I was leaving Riga for home in less than 12 hours.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Riga Redux

An early morning ride with Andrei Firtich deposited me at Pulkovo terminal at St. Petersburg's airport. Pulkovo has to be the ugliest terminal in the world. It offers up a cold, gray, exterior. Across the tarmac sits a sparkling new terminal but it's for domestic flights.

Going through security produces something of a knot. In Russia you need a visa to get in. When you arrive you fill out a confusing card that goes into your passport. Plus, I needed proof that I had stayed in a hotel, which I didn't. Nevertheless, I had all of the proper papers and got on the plane headed back to Riga.

The Czarina, the stepdaughter and the little Princess were all there to greet me and it was off to our second hotel of the Riga leg of the trip. We stayed in an massive old mansion that the Communist had taken and used as a composer's building. Now it was a very European hotel and we enjoyed a massive suite for only 85 dollars a night!
The little Princess enjoyed jumping on the bed and running around the room making sure to stay just out of arms reach of Grandpa.
The Czarina had promised that this would be a day of rest in an email earlier in the week but she changed the plan. We were off to her college for a massive reunion, just for a half hour I was told. It was a transportation school that covered all phases of travel. It was a big crowd, well over two thousand.
It was a regular hen fest with a lot of her good friends in attendance including a couple from the United States that I had met three years before. The husband came up to me and spoke to me briefly but he was anxious to hang with his buds and just as quickly slipped away.
The half hour quickly turned into 90 minutes including a sweltering hour in a packed hall. A group of notables including an old Cosmonaut dressed to the hilt in his military uniform adorned with tons of medals talked our ears off. Of course every word in Russian.
I finally got a reprieve from the Czarina and we headed out to a taxi because she planned to stay behind for the party. The cab driver had this insane look about him and when it quickly became clear that he had no clue as to where my wife wanted me deposited I bolted out of the cab and made way for the tram.

That was a trip in and of itself with me almost falling on my ass when the tram took off with a jolt. By the time enough old ladies had exited I sat down next to one Bobka who looked me over and started speaking to me in Russian. I said "American" and she said "Thought so!" We both chuckled.The wife made it back to the hotel after a mere three hours later. Riga was beginning to wear thin. It was now Saturday and I had wanted to return on Monday, Memorial Day, but the Czarina had other plans. The ante on this Russian fun fest was about to go up.

Monday, June 1, 2009

St. Petersburg Redux

January 2008 offered a once in a lifetime opportunity when the U.S. State Department invited me to speak to college students and a group of smaller market Russian television journalists about American TV news.
It marked my first trip overseas and I landed across the street from one of the great treasure tr oves in the world, The Hermitage.
I spent a week in this beautiful city visiting museums and churches, all in the dead of winter.

It was something of a wake up for this resident of Southwest Florida but I was spared any truly brutal weather.Besides the college sit downs I visited one of the local channels TV 100 and toured the home of the Russian national channel. The contrast was striking. TV 100 was spartan but very modern. The national channel was Stalinesque with a face life here and there.Ironically my wife was visiting her family in Riga at the same time and couldn't join me in a city she had visited as a teenager. Fast forward to February 2009 and not more than a week after booking our first trip together to Riga, the State Department came calling again wondering if I might be interested in sitting down with TV 100 ( this May to do a little story telling workshop. My trip to Riga and their worked out perfectly.
I even made a return visit to the college to meet with students just beginning their studies in journalism. That event was a huge success.Now here's the truly interesting part. The plan called for Andrei Firtich to pick me up at the St. Petersburg airport. That happens to be my stepson's name. And I was going to stay at Tatyana Firtich's apartment. That was my wife's name prior to our marriage.

Now before you assume that Firtich is a common Russian name think again. It's quite rare. As it turns out the St. Petersburg Tatyana and Andrei are related to my wife and stepson. My wife's late husband Boris had a half brother. One he never met. That's a long story not worth going into. The half brother Georgy Firtich is a relatively well known Russian composer.

Gregori has long since divorced his Tatyana. He has no interest in his American/Riga branch of the family. The same cannot be said of his ex-wife and his son. Tatyana and Andrei were both excited to hear about their relatives. It was wonderful return to a fabulous city. It was a shame my wife did not join me.

The rest of the trip went just as well. Unfortunately I forgot my camera and my friends at the State Department haven't seen fit to email me their pictures. This time instead of staying in a five star hotel I called a small Soviet era apartment home. It was on Basil Island, about two miles from the heart of the old city. I learned to negotiate the St. Petersburg Metro thanks to my new friend from TV 100, Evgeny.

The trip went so well that my contact at the U.S. Consulate wants a follow up visit sometime in the near future. I guess it's time to make an effort at learning to speak Russian!