Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Time for the FCC to Roll Back the Clock

Television is at a crossroads and the FCC is at the steering wheel looking the wrong way.  The issue is whether or not five or six companies are going to control 90 percent of the television stations in the United States or if the FCC is going to serve the public interest by reigning in these corporate behemoths.  There are growing calls for the FCC to take a second look at its lax rules for television ownership and management.

Sinclair's purchase of KOMO in Seattle has stirred a hornet's nest because of the companies typical handling of a newly acquired property.  Sinclair goes through its new stations with a meat cleaver cutting staffing to the bone.  In a hyper-competitive news market like Seattle, KOMO will have to play the news game from now on with one hand tied behind its back, or actually with that hand chopped off altogether.

Sinclair has been a station buying binge for the better part of 20 years.  The company has dangled perilously close to bankruptcy anytime the nation's economy takes a dive.  Sinclair has piled up more debt than a 30-year-old heroin addict.  If the economy takes another dump anytime soon, Sinclair will likely go bankrupt after its latest binge of buying. 

Sinclair owns or operates 162 television stations across the United States.  Let me repeat that, Sinclair owns or operates 162 television stations across the United States.  When I started in television the FCC had the 7-7-7 rules.  That was the number of TV ,along with AM and FM radio stations, any single group could own.  By the mid-80's that rule went to 12-12-12.  Now ownership is based on reach, meaning the percentage of the population your combined television signals reach.  It's supposed to be less than 40 percent. 

Also there are rules in place aimed at stopping duopolies and triopolies in any given market.  Companies like Sinclair work around these rules by setting up shadow companies to "own" stations it actually operates in many of its markets.  So you have a single staff running two or three stations.  Ah, deregulation, you've got to hand it to those job creating Republicans. 

Politics aside, the losers in all of this are the viewers.  It just means there are fewer local voices delivering them the news.  Let's take a look at my television market, for example.  For years, the NBC affiliate WBBH, has openly flouted FCC rules by running the ABC station, sharing staff, management, reporters, even anchors.  One of those pesky shadow owners allows Waterman Broadcasting to run both stations.

The CBS affiliate, WINK, railed against the Waterman operation for years.  That all ended when the power behind the throne at WINK picked up the CW affiliate.  Now WINK staffers do news for both stations. 

That leaves my station, WFTX the FOX affiliate, the lone soldier going it alone.  We're profitable, don't get me wrong, but WINK and Waterman are hyper-profitable.  Plus, we have about a third of the staff, but I digress.

Fort Myers television viewers can watch 5 different stations doing news, but in reality they are only hearing 3 different voices.  By the way, WINK also owns and operates a number of radio stations in the market to boot.  The next step will be for Gannett (which owns the Fort Myers newspaper) or Scripps (which owns the Naples newspaper) to scoop up one or more of the local television stations.  The way the FCC is operating right now, it's a real possibility.

 The FCC reportedly considering whether it needs to stop the monkey business practiced by companies like Sinclair, Linn, Hoak and Nexstar to name a view, to get around long standing rules regarding station ownership and operations.  My guess is that the FCC will stay mute on the whole issue.  With the economy thriving we're going to see more and more consolidation.  Smaller broadcasting companies, will slowly but surely disappear, while lousy operators like Sinclair will be bigger and bigger.

 Maybe less choice is better.  After all it only means fewer voices for the viewer to choose among, fewer jobs for aspiring journalists and a horrible environment for strong journalism.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Rock 'n' Roll Animal

I cringed when I saw the news.  Lou Reed, dead at 71.  It was if someone came up to me and told me that you can never be a teenage and, you can never love rock and roll music.  Lou Reed was an important figure in evolution of rock and roll.  I write this, even though I only own a handful of his albums. 

Yet, I dare you to find anything better on a live album than the opening guitar riffs on Reed's "Rock 'n' Roll Animal" which came out in 1974.  Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter wail on each other as they ramp up to the classic Reed ode' to heroin, "Sweet Jane."  That 90 seconds or so of blazing guitars would pretty much capture the best of 70's rock and roll to me.  The only thing that I loved more at that time was Eric Clapton's "Layla."  It's hard to compete with Eric and Duane Allman.

I never enveloped myself in Reed's early work with The Velvet Underground.  His passing may require that I spend a little coin and download their groundbreaking debut album.  The critics will talk about that and his second solo album "Transformer" as some of his most important work.
I would challenge you to download "New York" and give it a listen.  One listen will tell you what a great songwriter he was.  Lou Reed may not have generated the volumes of work of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, or Neil Young, but he certainly merits the comparison when it comes to his best work.  He was no slouch.

I never saw him live.  The closest that I came to it was in 1992 when U2 on their Zoo TV tour.  It was the best rock and roll show I ever saw.  When Bono launched into "Satellite of Love" and Lou Reed flickered onto big screen to join him in a video duet I gasped.  It was just an amazing touch to an overwhelming visual spectacular that captured the music.  Even Lou Reed would have liked it, I think.

The Walk to Nowhere

In the battleground of television news, differentiation is a thing of the past.  Local news operations mirror each other by and large.  The number 2 station in any given market will try to outdo the strategy employed by the number 1 market and so on.  Staking out a different approach, a different path to success, has disappeared for the most part.

So it is in the Fort Myers news market.  The two long time news leaders used to take starkly different approaches to their newscasts.  WBBH took an in your face, aggressive approach, if it bleeds it leads approach to its story selection.  WINK was a little more thoughtful, a lot more conservative, more interested in the story than in sensationalism.

The FOX station, where I currently work, was an also ran.  The station lacked the staff and a clear vision of what it should try and be to be a real competitor.  I think I can speak to all three news operations because I've actually worked in all three.  

The economic downturn which strangled newsroom budgets hit Southwest Florida in 2007, a full year before it would hit the nation.  It marked two changes in the direction of WINK and WFTX.  Forrest Carr brought the In Your Corner concept to WFTX.  The FOX station now had a clear mission to advocate for the little guy and to hold public officials and institutions accountable.

WINK became less thoughtful and conservative and began to mirror WBBH.  As the years have passed WINK has become an exact imitation of their competitor at NBC, right down to the promotions.  About six months ago or so WBBH started running a promo showing their lead anchors on the street, walking to various offices, making pronouncements about what it takes to dig up a story.  Not long ago WINK started running a similar promo, the anchors on a walk to nowhere, spouting platitudes about what it takes to find a news story.  The anchor women look like their ready to go to a cocktail party, rather than dig up a news story.

FOX has stuck to its course of In Your Corner.  It works, and it differentiates us from the other guys.  And despite the fact that we have about half the staff of our competitors, we break our fair share of the stories.  I don't mean to imply that WINK and WBBH don't do good journalism, they do.  The point of this missive is to point out the lack of real choice for viewers.  I haven't mentioned the ABC station, WZVN, because it's part of a duopoly with WBBH and simply takes the scraps given it from their NBC brethern. 

News managers wonder why audiences have slipped away from their newscasts and the answer is simple.  The answer is dare to be different.  In this day and age, personalities are not enough to draw viewers into the tent.  Content remains king, but if it all looks the same than there really isn't a choice.  I don't have a simple answer as to what different would be, but I can say that copying your top competitor in terms of approach to coverage and even their promos isn't a way to do that.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Time Fades Away

40 years ago today Neil Young released a live album that to this day is misunderstood and at the time was widely panned.  From the moment I dropped the needle on the title track "Time Fades Away" and heard the jangly piano I was in love with the album.  Yes, the recording is a patch work mess of a boozed up, stoned out Neil, but it's as vibrant as anything he's ever recorded.

"Time Fades Away" is the only album in Neil's vast catalogue not available on CD or Blu-Ray.  He says it's because it doesn't sound right on CD.  Everyone knows that the disastrous tour that produced the record is an embarrassment to Young.  He went out on the road with a bad back and a huge pall hanging over him after the death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten due to a drug overdose.

The album is part of Neil's legendary "ditch" trilogy.  The incredibly dark album that followed, "Tonight's the Night" and almost apocalyptic "On the Beach."  Remarkably in the midst of all of this gloom Young made the never released "Homegrown" which showed rays of light.  The few tunes that have surfaced from "Homegrown" over the years on other albums bare that out. 

If you search YouTube you can find "Time Fades Away" available for a listen.  It's worth the 37 minutes or so to catch an out of control Neil Young.  The angst of the biographical song, Don't Be Denied makes it worth the listen alone.  Hopefully TFA will surface when Neil gets around to releasing his next batch of archives.

Friday, October 11, 2013


Long ago I professed my love of Sandy Koufax.  The tall Dodger lefthander is why I fell in love with baseball.  But it was a nasty righthander that sealed the deal for me when it came to a game that was still America's past time in 1965. 
Bob Gibson glowered at hitters.  He willed a team that honestly wasn't filled with stars, to two world titles.  It probably should have been three or four (yes the 63 Cards should have made it to October) but two is pretty damn good.  Gibson dominated hitters with an overpowering fastball.  Gibson first came to national prominence when he willed his Cardinals to a World Series victory by winning game 7 on short rest over an aging New York Yankees squad.

He led the Cardinals to another world title in 1967 over the Red Sox despite suffering a broken leg mid-season.  The Redbirds should have gone back to back in 68 against the Tigers but Mickey Lolich out dueled Gibby in a memorable game 7.

Gibson had ten straight years where he was just a complete beast on the mounds.  He ended his career with 251 wins and 7 more in the World Series.  I remember reading his biography as a kid and marveled at the fact that he was a standout college basketball star at Creighton.  I even remember a commercial he did for where he blasted a fastball at a pane of glass that was shatter proof.  Bob Gibson is the greatest righthander to ever pitch for the Cardinals and that's saying a lot for a team that had Dizzy Dean and Grover Cleveland Alexander.

Gibson's 1968 season is without a doubt one of the five greatest in baseball history.  Granted, pitchers had the upper hand that season, but Gibson's stellar 1.12 earned run average that year will never be approached again by a starting pitcher with more than 200 innings, never.

The reason I started this particular missive is there was a shot of Bob Gibson in the Cardinals' dugout tonight the telecast of their game against the Dodgers.  I was shocked by what I saw.  Gibson looked 45 to 50 at best.  He's  approaching 78.  I still think he could get guys out in the big leagues.  He was certainly one of my heroes as a boy growing up in small town Kansas and still is.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Stephen Stills vs. Neil Young

First off, I must admit, it's not even a real contest.  Neil Young's career as a musician stands way, way above Stephen Stills.  But I got to thinking back 40 years ago all because of Graham Nash's recent appearance on Howard Stern's radio program.  I can't wait to read Nash's new book, "Wild Tales." 

That interview got me to dig out my Crosby, Stills and Nash albums and of course the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young discs as well.  I did some listening while out on my runs.  Stephen Stills helped bring out the best in Neil Young and vice-versa.  Anybody with any knowledge of rock and roll knows it. 

The chemistry started with Buffalo Springfield.  It's a band in which Stills was the much bigger star.  It can be argued that Neil wrote better songs on the whole with that band, "Mr. Soul" and "On the Way Home."  But Stephen Stills' anthem "For What It's Worth" is powerful stuff and "Bluebird" is an amazing tune.

Then Stills lit it up with David Crosby and Graham Nash.  CSN's debut album is one of the best first attempts any group has ever made, period.  "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" is an incredible song.  The guitar playing, the vocals, the tune has it all.  Plus you toss in the solo stuff and Stills was light years ahead in terms of commercial rock and roll by 1970. 

"Deja Vu" is one of the best albums of the 70's.  Stills' work on the album shines through although Neil's contributions, namely "Helpless," certainly stand out.  Their guitar work on "Almost Cut My Hair" showed some of the fire those two could have as they played off one another.  But it's Stills' production of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" that stands out.  His guitar work is blazing.  Of course it bums me out when Neil told the story years ago of how Stills went in and erased his original guitar solo from the track which Young called epic.

So by the time I saw Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young live in Kansas City in 1974, I think it would be fair to say that Stills was considered the "biggest star" in the quartet, even though Neil had scored a number 1 single two years prior with "Heart of Gold."  But by the end of the 70's Neil's reputation had soared past that of Stills and it made me wonder what went wrong.

Stills is a much better guitar player and used to be a better vocalist.  But his song-writing paled as time passed to Neil's prolific output.  Plus I think Stills close association to CSN and the rapid deterioration of David Crosby hurt him and the group.  I also don't doubt that Stills himself had a pretty healthy drug habit which couldn't help.

I got to see him solo in 1988 at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.  He kicked ass for an hour for about 2,000 or so gathered journalists.  I didn't see him again until 2000 in Kansas City with CSN&Y.  By then his voice was pretty much shot.

I think Stephen Stills is under appreciated.  However, I think that once he became mega-rich and mega-famous I don't think he followed his muse with the serious passion that Neil Young did.  But take time to go back and listen to some Stephen Stills.  Whether it's the blues powered "Black Queen" or the poppy "Love the One You're With," the man had chops and knew how to write and produce some great music.