Friday, April 25, 2008

Disappointing Interview

After watching the Bill Moyers interview with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright tonight on PBS, I was reminded what a real gentleman Bill Moyers is. He is gracious to a fault in person and on the air.

Reverend Wright, you’ll remember, is the black minister whose “damning” of America from the pulpit several weeks ago caught media attention, particularly because Wright is the pastor of Senator Barak Obama’s home church in Chicago.

The hour-long interview on Bill Moyers Journal demonstrated what we all should have known anyway, that Reverend Wright – like all of us – is more complex than can be reflected in a 30-second sound bite.

Nonetheless, I was sorely disappointed tonight by the lack of incisive questioning from Bill Moyers. Not so much over Wright’s “damning” of America statement, but his vitriolic statements about an unfeeling America that has killed innocent people in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

That innocents died – on both sides in these wars – is undeniable. That our troops, our government, and our nation did so as a matter of policy and with no feeling is blatantly untrue. Why did Bill Moyers not challenge Reverend Wright on this point?

Reverend Wright’s snipped comment about God “damning” America made national news, and Senator Obama promptly distanced himself from his old pastor. How, Moyers asked, did Reverend Wright feel about that?

In fresh candor, Reverend Wright acknowledged that Senator Obama is “a politician” and must say to his audience what is necessary; and as a pastor, he (Reverend Wright) must say to his audience what is necessary. Wright speaks at the National Press Club next week. I think I smell a book in the writing.

How unfortunate that Bill Moyers did not do what HIS audience expected: ask insightful questions and challenge the guest. Instead, it was kind of a “good ol’ pastors discussion down at the seminary.” Giving Reverend Wright 60 minutes to paint his own portrait on C-SPAN would have been equally revealing.

Bill Moyers has done some great interviews. This was not one of them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Turned off by the TV turn off

There was a time when I thought participating in a national “Turn Off the TV” campaign was a pretty cool thing to do. No longer.

Part of my disillusionment with letting the tube go dark has to do with its effectiveness, or lack thereof. It fits right in with the notion that – if we all don’t buy gasoline on a certain day – we can change the behavior of the big oil companies. Pardon me if I play the skeptic.

Expecting that a one-week TV turnoff may “prime the pump” to a lifetime of reduced television watching is, to my mind, disingenuous.

All of this is not to say I’m opposed to the concept. Spending 29-34 hours a week plopped in front of the tube – as the average American does – is probably too much. And it detracts from doing more productive things, especially if the viewer is consumed by reality shows and “shock” television. That's the cheaper fare that helps television production companies and the networks turn a better profit. Quality costs. Junk is cheaper.

Better, I think, however, to focus on the quality of television that is produced and watched. That’s a tougher row to hoe, but its outcome would have far greater impact.

It’s easy to be absolutely cynical about the prospects of television transforming itself and offering better quality programs. I suspect there’ll always be a market for shock television and pornography. I must confess that even until very recently, I didn’t believe there was any way to stem the decline of television programming into an abyss of self-absorbing muck.

But my cynicism has given way to a flicker of optimism for the future. It has been fueled mostly by the high quality programs of public television and a handful of cable channels (History Channel, C-SPAN, and a few others).

But the real clincher was to see veteran smut peddler HBO launch its seven-part historical series on John Adams. A superb series that stands head and shoulders above an earlier tripe-cast called “Deadwood” (with apologies to a few of my South Dakota friends who believe that distorted history is better than no story at all).

Turn off the TV this week? I don’t think so. But it would be a good idea to start pushing the industry for better programming and supporting those offerings with our viewership. Admittedly, really good television programs are few and far between – but they can be found. They and their sponsors should be supported.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"...Without the Rap!"

Part of the mystery has been solved about a new Rapid City radio station. Connoisseur Media’s new FM station at 102.7 played Christmas music for several weeks – becoming something of a curiosity, and leading some folks to wonder what music format the station would eventually adopt.

Well, the cat is out of the bag, and KXMZ/102.7 (Box Elder-Rapid City) bills itself as “Hits 102.7, Today’s Best Hits Without the Rap.” They’re streaming commercial-free music on their web site with a format that is clearly aimed at teens and young adults. We understand that Connoisseur picked up the 50,000-watt station in an FCC auction for just over $1 million. It’s one of 18 radio stations in the Rapid City market.

The more intriguing parts of the mystery remain: 1) When will they start generating some advertising revenue? 2) How successful will they be? And, perhaps most important to many of us: 3) just how much local service will 102.7 provide?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Memories of Biography

I became a Mike Wallace fan back in the early 1960s when I was Program Manager of WGBY-TV, the Armed Forces Radio & Television outlet on the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Those were the days before satellite broadcasts. Each week, we’d received air shipments of kinescopes from the mainland, including a wide variety of popular programs from all of the broadcast networks.

That’s when I was first exposed to a documentary film series entitled Biography, produced by David Wolper -- pictured here -- and hosted by Mike Wallace. Documentaries in those days were few and far between, and I was impressed with Wolper’s effective use of archival film footage and still photographs. These were well before the days of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (who would have still been in elementary school). Of course, Mike’s narration added significantly to the authoritativeness of the Biography programs.

While I can’t offer up a link to the old Biography series, I can steer you to a rich collection interviews done even earlier in a series called
The Mike Wallace Interview. This series ended up at ABC, and the University of Texas has managed to persuade the 89-year-old Wallace – who owns the copyright – to allow UT to make 65 of the programs available on the internet. Another nice touch: transcripts of the programs are also on the site at the Harry Ransom Center on the UT campus in Austin.


Couric to Leave CBS Evening News....Soon?

The media business is abuzz with much talk about Katie Couric possibly leaving her anchor job at CBS Evening News -- perhaps sooner rather than later. The New York Times offered up the story last week. It'll be interesting to see if the speculation of an early departure becomes reality. A key part of the Today show at NBC for many years, she's been unable to help CBS navigate its way out of third place in the evening network news competition.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Millage Goes Back to School

Long-time news executive Mark Millage is leaving broadcasting to head Kilian Community College in Sioux Falls. Millage has been with the KELO-land stations, based in Sioux Falls, for some 25 years, most of them as News Director.

KELO-TV is the flagship station for a network of transmitters that cover most of South Dakota. Millage was tapped from among more than 40 applicants to become President of the two-year school.

I don’t know a lot about Kilian Community College – or Mark Millage – but they both have good reputations. According to the news release posted by the college, the school was formed as a “joint venture” by Augustana College and two other institutions that used to be known as Sioux Falls College and the North American Baptist Seminary.

I met Tom Kilian in the 1980s when I was with South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He’s the long-time South Dakota educator for whom the institution is named. He is a class act.

Good luck to Mark Millage and Kilian Community College.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Here Comes Santa Claus? 102.7 FM

Radio listeners in the Black Hills who tune around the radio dial just for the fun of it discovered something a bit odd the other day. A time warp, right out of “The Twilight Zone.” What else could explain the gentle strains of Silent Night and Jingle Bells blasting from the radio in early April?

Perhaps someone at this station, 102.7 FM, forgot that Christmas is over for this season?

Maybe it’s a radio signal returning to earth after bouncing off of a distant galaxy.

It might be an April Fool’s prank.

Or….maybe it’s just a new radio station with a gimmick to get our attention. Well, it seems to be working.

102.7 FM is on the air from Connecticut, or wherever, blasting away at the Rapid City market with Christmas music. Clearly, it’s an effort that seems to be working. I first learned about it from Dan Daly's Rapid City Journal blog site. Dan reports that the station call sign will be KXZM and the city of license is Box Elder, while the transmitter is atop "M" hill in Rapid City. Who are these people and what do they want?

Well, it turns out they’re Yankees from Connecticut. The company is called Connoisseur Media, and it’s headed by Jeffrey D. Warshaw, a well-to-do businessman who says he’s a broadcaster. Mr. Warshaw sold his first Connoisseur company – a collection of 27 radio stations -- for a cool $258 million. The Connoisseur web site indicates their new operation is “characterized by well researched and targeted programming, intense training and development of its people, and dedicated local service.” They list 17 radio stations from Erie, Pennsylvania to Billings, Montana.

It’ll be fascinating to see just how many Connoisseur employees populate the Rapid City market. Even more interesting will be watching them scramble to provide a “dedicated local service.” That’s a refreshing concept that even many locally-owned broadcasters struggle to attain but seldom achieve.

My bet is that their local service is promotional hype…..that their local staff is comprised mostly of a few sales people – and perhaps a contract person to keep the satellite gear and transmitter operating.

In the end, I doubt that Mr. Warshaw is Santa Claus coming to town with a bag of local services for Rapid City and the surrounding area. I predict they’ll have a competitive music service – whatever that may be – with a strong promotion strategy, a local sales force, and a creative way of trying to “sound local.”
The measure of their local service will be how much they really become a part of the community. How many news staff will they have? How effectively will they report the weather? Just how much will they really become a part of the social fabric of the Black Hills? I doubt that “dedicated local service” is a big part of the holiday strategy unleashed by Connoisseur Media.

I could be wrong. I hope I am. Stay tuned.