Greetings from ORD

Six O’Clock is just too early to get up. That puts me on the outs with most of America. I’ve always been a night person – even as a kid. Now, as an adult working second shift, it’s even more ingrained.

It had been foggy on the drive home from work last night and there was still a smudge in the air as I set out this morning. I-91 is normally lightly traveled during my works hours. That is changed at 7:00 AM. There was traffic but it moved smoothly up through Hartford and then into Windsor Locks where Bradley International is located.

It was an opportunity to tune around through morning radio. My friend Bob Lacey, who I met my first day in radio in October 1969, is syndicated, so I tuned around looking for “Bob & Sheri” out of Charlotte. Other than a few days spent in Charlotte itself a few years ago, I hadn’t heard them.

The show is great – woman friendly and FCC friendly. I caught a segment with an improv comedian from Florida. It was funny, thought there was probably more in studio laughter than he deserved. Studio laughter is important because it telegraphs to the audience that you’re funny. I’m serious. It creates a shared experience when you’re listening to the radio alone. As much as we hate ‘canned laughter’ or sweetening on sitcoms, it’s tough to watch them without it.

I found Bob and Sheri on “The Beach” from Long Island. As I drove north the signal faded around Meriden. Bob will be glad I finally listened.

I parked the car at a remote lot and started to pull my bags as the cell phone rang. No matter what I do, no matter how I set it, the cell phone reverts to the same ring… the sound of an actual bell. Most of the time it’s in vibrate only mode, but in the car, out of my pocket, I need the noise.

It was Helaine calling. She had been looking online and United didn’t have a flight with the number I had. Not only that, they didn’t have a flight to Chicago at my time! I told her not to worry… though how was I to know?

At Bradley I approached the United counter and was greeted by a large man with a huge bandage on one finger and that same arm in a sling. He was a fan, greeted me by name, and helped me get what I needed. I always hope at that moment of recognition the words, “and we’re putting you up front today” will follow. It did not. But, he was very nice and the boarding pass process went smoothly.

I’m not sure what happened with my flight number… and seat assignment. My boss, also traveling today, and I were supposed to have adjoining aisle seats. Instead, we’re both in the middle, deep in the upper teens on a flight other than the one listed on our reservations. The flight is overbooked by two.

There is a pecking order to seat assignments. Most casual flyer’s don’t know this, most business flayers do. The seat I’m in is normally reserved for someone’s aunt who flies once a year. Frequent fliers, of which I am currently not, are on the aisle and by the windows and much closer to the front.

The girl, sitting to my left, quickly fell asleep, leaning her head against the bulkhead and her butt toward the armrest. I wish I had retractable elbows. Though both of my ‘neighbors’ are slim, I’m really jammed in. This must be horrendous for someone who is large.

I had casually checked the Chicago weather over the last few days. Originally it looked like thunderstorms might coincide with my arrival. I remember circling Bradley a few years ago as a thunderstorm crossed the field. The pilot came on the PA system and said a thunderstorm was there and, “we don’t do thunderstorms.”

Now, the forecast had changed. By the time I left Connecticut, the front had already crossed through Chicago. In the terminal, with my boss and two others from our sister station in Springfield, I mentioned that it would be a bumpy flight and probably a rough landing (winds were predicted to gust at 50+ mph).

As I write this, we’re in the middle of the bumpiness. The plane has been shuddering as if we’re on a very rough road. A few minutes ago, the pilot came on the PA again, illuminating the seatbelt sign at the same time and telling the flight attendants to sit as well. It’s tough to type when the keys are moving away from your fingers.

He didn’t know if the turbulence would be light or moderate. I extended that for him as I listened to include severe. So far, the turbulence has been far short of that.

Soon we’ll be in Chicago. With no checked luggage, the trip to the hotel should be easy.

Another Media Prediction

After the Janet/Justin Super Bowl incident, I predicted there would be repercussions at MTV – even though MTV is not regulated by the FCC. It didn’t take long before some of the more explicit videos they play were pushed out of prime time.

Videos are no longer a big thing on MTV, so this move isn’t as significant as it might seem. Still, a change is a change. It is certainly a reaction to an upwelling of public sentiment.

Now, in light of Howard Stern’s banishment by Clear Channel, I predict he’ll soon be gone from Viacom&#185 as well.

Let me preface my explanation by saying I have no political ax to grind. What will be will be. It’s fun to make these predictions in the blog because I really can’t hide from them later. Just remember – this is only my read on the situation.

Here’s the set-up. Tuesday, Howard Stern had the ‘other’ participant in the now infamous Paris Hilton video, on-the-air. They talked, and took some phone calls. One listener asked some questions which were crude and racist, to say the least.

Wednesday evening, Matt Drudge had a short transcript of the conversation on his website. I’m glad I got to read it. I’m just as glad it’s no longer there.

I would hope Stern has the ability to monitor and censor inappropriate material before it hits air. In this case, he did not.

On Wednesday, after hearing an aircheck, Clear Channel Communications took action and issued this press release:

“Clear Channel drew a line in the sand today with regard to protecting our listeners from indecent content and Howard Stern’s show blew right through it,” said John Hogan, president and CEO of Clear Channel Radio. “It was vulgar, offensive, and insulting, not just to women and African Americans but to anyone with a sense of common decency. We will not air Howard Stern on Clear Channel stations until we are assured that his show will conform to acceptable standards of responsible broadcasting,” Hogan said.

Though America’s largest broadcasting company, Clear Channel only runs Stern on a handful of stations. Viacom is the actual syndicator of the show, and also runs it in many markets nationwide.

In this case, the tail (Clear Channel) will wag the dog (Viacom)!

Viacom is between a rock and a hard place because of statements earlier in the week. From Reuters:

Viacom president Mel Karmazin reportedly has imposed a crackdown on sexually explicit material on Infinity stations, declaring in a recent company-wide conference call: “This company won’t be a poster child for indecency.”

So, what can they do? Considering the Congressional hearings post-Super Bowl and Karmazin’s own public pledge, how can they stand behind Stern… especially in light of what Clear Channel’s CEO said?

They can’t. End of story. Hang out the “Help Wanted” sign. Stern is done.

&#185 – Stern is syndicated by Infinity Broadcasting. Infinity, in turn, is owned by Viacom.

On The Radio – WTIC

This was my morning to be on WTIC. Even though I had been in radio for 11 years, I was apprehensive. I’ve only done talk shows a few times, and haven’t done one solo in better than 20 years.

I feared there would be no calls. What would I do or say? How could I fill that much time? And, what about topics I wanted to shy away from?

I have a rule to stay away from partisan politics because I work in a newsroom. Even though talk show hosts would normally be expected to let it all hang out, I had my ‘real’ job to return to. Even the weatherman should be ‘above’ the political fray.

I woke up early – around 7:15 AM. For me, who usually doesn’t go to bed until 3 or 4 AM, that’s the middle of the night! Actually, knowing I’d be home in time to catch a little nap made it easier to get into the shower and get dressed.

A definite advantage radio has over TV is the dress code. I could wear anything and not even shave. I went with a black pullover sweater and jeans with sneakers.

Remembering the last time, I left the house about 5 after 8 and headed directly to Dunkin’ Donuts. Medium coffee, cream and sugar, I was set. I had a long enough drive to allow the coffee to reach the correct drinking temperature.

This being the day after Christmas, traffic was fairly light. I absentmindedly blew by Route 9 on I91 and ended up heading to I84 in Hartford. Though I’ve been to WTIC before, I never remember how to get there. And, the directions are only moderately helpful because I never remember if the phrase “I84 West” means I’m driving west on I84 or coming from the west on I84!

WTIC is located in a nondescript, two story building in a Farmington office park. It’s a perfectly fine place for a radio station, I suppose. Deep inside, I really feel WTIC deserves to be in a free standing building of its own. It is one of America’s storied radio stations, with a long and rich history. It should be in a building that makes a statement. This building does not.

Mike Constantinou, my producer, was waiting in the parking lot when I arrived. The lot itself was 10% full. WTIC and its three sister stations were, in essence, still closed for Christmas. Only the air staff was on hand, and even then it was a smaller staff than usual. There was a sub for traffic, a sub for news, a sub for weather, and me subbing for Jim Vicevich.

We walked inside and I said hello to Ray Dunaway, who along with the vacationing Diane Smith, does the morning drive show. Ray has the deep, ballsy voice I always wanted, and never got. Like me, he had known from childhood that he was going to be in radio and then just followed through.

Before long I had headphones on and was schmoozing with Ray. We talked global warming (both of us are somewhat dubious of the gloom and doom) and how kids growing up have a misconception of the cleanliness of our air versus the pollution I knew as a kid.

He’s used to working with a partner and plays well with others, so I had no problems.

Ten O’clock came along and Ray left… leaving me the studio. I had told Mike that I wanted to run the board for the phones, but let him handle the commercials, news and traffic. As the news played out from a small studio off to the side, I sat down and got as comfortable as possible.

The studio is average sized for a radio studio. There are three mikes at the table surrounding the audio console, and one mike at the console itself. Off to the left were two computers – one for the commercials and logged content and another for communications between the producer and me. Slightly behind me and also to the left a lone PC on the Internet.

I had noticed a memo in the newsroom admonishing the staff not to use company computers to check their private email accounts whether they be Hotmail (actually, in the note it was Hot mail), Yahoo or anything else. At the same time, I couldn’t call home on the studio phone because you needed an accounting code to place an outside call. This is 2003 and I’m paying 3&#162 a minute for long distance service at home; they must be paying less. What are they worried about? After all, the studios are full of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and there’s the liability that comes when the air staff is live. Internet and phone access should be way down the list of concerns.

News gave way to traffic and weather and then I was on. It was like getting back on a bicycle. I was ready to go.

In a talk show, you throw out topics in much the same way bartenders seed the tip jar. You’re trying to get your idea out to the audience. And, if they deviate or find a better place to go, you go there too.

Quickly, I started taking calls. After the fact, Helaine said I was trying too hard… and maybe I was. I didn’t have tomorrow to correct my mistakes. It was now or never. I wanted to limit calls – keep bringing in fresh ideas.

The common wisdom in talk shows is, it’s very easy to let someone go on too long. You’re better off moving through many calls. Of course to do that, you need calls.

A few minutes into the show, I started having technical troubles. It was my fault without a doubt. The controls for the phone lines were straight forward, but not very well marked. After a few calls I started pressing the wrong buttons and got trapped in some sort of talk show hell where I was camped on a line with someone who had been dispatched and no way to get to the next listener. Bad for the rhythm of the show.

I had received a note with the names of my traffic and news reporters. Next to the traffic reporters name, Rachel Duran, was a note saying, “Don’t call her Jill.” In some sort of radio insanity, the folks who report traffic on many different stations use many different names.

Best line of the morning (spoken on air but directed to Mike the producer): “Some people don’t call because they’re worried about being on hold too long. There should be a policy. If there are more than two callers waiting, we’ll open up another register.”

A woman called from Bristol. She had no idea who this new voice on the air was, and when I told her, she still didn’t know who I was. After nearly 20 years in the market, I’m entitled to have a little fun with that, so I told her we had given out $1,000 to each of our TV viewers last week and she had missed out.

From then on, I began to ask all the callers if they had gotten their $1,000 and everyone seemed to go along with the joke. Later, I began asking if anyone had gotten a hot tub from a friend… a not too veiled reference to Governor Rowland who had accepted a hot tub and is now in hot water.

I made it to the top of the hour newscast with only minor cuts and scratches.

Things went well as we began the second hour, but then trouble. The phone lines dried up. Beads of sweat began to form. I made a crucial mistake – a rookie mistake: I said we were out of calls.

As soon as I said it, I knew I had crossed some sacred talk show line. Sure, it’s not my job, but I’ll still kick myself every time I remember I did it.

With no traffic in Connecticut, every time Rachel (not Jill) came on the air, I asked her for a traffic report for some obscure area of the state, like Occum or Forestville or Union. She laughed and took it like a trooper.

The first rule of improv is going along with the bit. Rachel (not Jill) played the game correctly. Her willingness to have fun made the bit funnier. Actually, without her laughter it wasn’t funny at all. She made the bit.

As noon approached I was rolling and actually dreaded the end coming so soon.

I’m sure if I did it again, I would do some things differently. And, when I listen to the aircheck I brought home, some of my talk show shortcomings will come into sharp focus. I still have my amateur status, so that’s not a big deal.

Maybe there will be another time. You never know.

Kennedy Assassination As a Universal Experience

I remember, with vivid clarity, the moment I found out about John Kennedy’s assassination. I am not alone. It has been said that no one who lived through November 22, 1963 will ever forget where they were, what they were doing, when they found out.

For me, it was a sunny, late fall day, in Mr. Friend’s classroom on the back side of the first floor at Harold G. Campbell Junior High school. In New York City school names are ceremonial, at best. It was JHS 218 or JHS 218Q (for Queens).

Mr. Friend was told first and he relayed to the class that Kennedy had been shot. That’s all we knew. I can’t speak for the class, but I can tell you that whatever I thought at that moment, I wasn’t grasping the significance of the moment or that anything more could happen.

It was a time when TV news was much less crime and picture oriented. The grit and grime of violence may have been played out every day in the Daily News or Mirror (in 1963 the New York Post was a liberal newspaper which tended to play toward organized labor and its causes, not crime and debauchery)… but I read The Long Island Press, published in Jamaica, Queens. Violence outside of war didn’t exist as far as I was concerned.

November 22, 1963 was the day newspapers lost their position as ‘news of record’ for most Americans to television.

The windows from our classroom faced east, across open space and toward Queens College. Within a few minutes, someone in the class noticed a flag at Queens College being lowered to half staff. That’s when it hit me.

We were dismissed early and I began to walk home. I know I was with friends… maybe Dennis Westler, possibly Marty Ingber. I’m not really sure but I know I wasn’t alone. We discussed the fact that the president was dead and Lyndon Johnson, the vice president, had suffered a heart attack. I know now that was wrong – I didn’t then. We speculated what would happen. I was 13.

Still, we were discussing facts and the emotion had still not hit me. We were cavalier.

As I came home and turned on the TV, I realized this was major. All regular programming was gone. News, in a somber manner, was on all channels. Slowly, from the adults around me, I began to become aware of the gravity of the situation. We all sat, glued to the television.

Though I was born during the Truman administration and remember Eisenhower in a sketchy sort of way, Kennedy was the first president that I really knew. My parents were good Democrats in a lower middle class area of trade unionists who were also Democrats. The huge apartment complex we lived in, made up of dozens of three and six story buildings, was financed and built by the Electrical Workers Union Local 3 and called Electchester. Our friend Morris Scott, on the first floor of our six story 72 unit building, was a Transport Workers Union and Democratic functionary. He was not an exception in Electchester. The two went together.

During the campaign for the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy spoke at a campaign rally at Parsons Boulevard and Jewel Avenue, a block from our apartment. I found the photo on the left at an NYU site – amazing it’s preserved on the net. The facade of the building behind Kennedy is from the Pomonok Housing Project, which was across the street from us. The camera is shooting from the SE to the NW, across the intersection. My memory is of a huge crowd, but I was 10 at the time. This busy intersection was closed and a wooden platform was built.

Richard Nixon had nothing to gain by coming to my neighborhood. He was everything we weren’t, Kennedy was like us, though nothing could be further from the truth.

Anything I thought or felt about Kennedy during the campaign was based on those things that affect a ten year old; my parents, grandparents and the folks we lived around. I knew nothing about his policies, politics, social standing or any of the things we know today… and there’s no doubt we know a hell of a lot more today.

In my sphere of influence, Kennedy was like a god. I know that sounds foolish or naive now, but that’s the truth. To me, he was much larger than life. And he was the first adult I knew of to die tragically.

I had tickets to see a Broadway show on the Saturday following the assassination. It was probably my first Broadway show. Like the NFL schedule the next day, Broadway went on. In hindsight, both football and theater performances were bad ideas. Even so, with a bunch of my classmates and Mr. Friend, we boarded the bus for Flushing and the IRT subway (actually it was mostly above ground) to Times Square to see “Enter Laughing.”

I now know, this show was an autobiographical sketch from Carl Reiner. Then, who knew who Carl Reiner was? I remember it being funny in an irreverent sort of way, but the day being gray and gloomy in every other sense.

Sunday morning we sat home in our tiny apartment, 5E. I lived in an apartment with only a northern exposure. At no time in the 16 years I lived in this apartment… and decades longer my parents lived there, did we ever see the sun!

The TV in the living room, our only TV, was tuned to CBS. Along with millions of others, I watched Lee Harvey Oswald being shot, live. Being live, coast-to-coast, from that Dallas Police Department Garage was quite a technical achievement 40 years ago. Today, we see the videotape replay as grainy, dated black and white. Back then, it was live and vivid. Grainy black and white was the norm.

I was stunned. We were all stunned. How was this humanly possible? Today’s metal detecting, secure area-ed society was light years away. I had never seen a pistol, but in Texas, they were much more the norm.

Monday was the funeral. I think my dad was home, which was not a scheduled day off from work. Certainly every school was closed and my guess is most businesses too. By this time we had a common grief and stunned disbelief in what had happened. If it is possible, I remember being a 13 year old who was depressed.

The country stopped for the funeral. It struck me then, as it does now, that there are people who actually know how to plan an event like this with the proper protocol and deference to tradition. What a morbid field of expertise.

It was an awful, rainy day in Queens on that Monday. The funeral was long and sad and more than anything else I remember the riderless horse, the muffled drums and the crying. We’ve all seen the photo of John Jr. saluting. I believe that was only seen by still photographers. I don’t think we saw that live.

People think it was live because it’s been published and seen so many times. A similar situation is the film of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, with dust flying and the shadow of the lander on the surface. That too was never seen live on TV, though we did hear the voices of the astronauts and Mission Control.

Five or six years after the funeral I was marching down those same Washington streets, protesting the war in Vietnam. In 1963 there was no thought that you might protest what your government was doing. But after JFK’s assassination, everything changed.

Lyndon Johnson became the president and used the Kennedy aura to pass Civil Rights legislation that began to bring this country out some draconian policies that survived even the Civil War. Johnson also inherited Kennedy’s involvement in Vietnam, which would be his undoing as a president. The war accelerated, halfway around the world.

Before Kennedy’s assassination we were innocent and invulnerable. World War II had taken place without any conflict reaching America’s shores. Korea too was fought far away. The strength of our military, combined with the breadth of the ocean, protected us from harm. But now we found that harm could come from within and that nothing would ever be safe again.

A generation only knows about the assassination through Oliver Stone’s movie. Shame on him. Shame on them. Stone’s powerful use of the medium told America a lie, packaged as the truth.

Forty years ago. I remember it like it was yesterday.

(This entry originally posted November 22, 2003)

You Can Smell the Giblet Gravy

Helaine, Steffie and I have decided to take a little getaway (this being the Internet, I won’t say when) to New York City. Part of the reason is to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary.

I made hotel reservations on Priceline. Right now, I have buyer’s remorse. Not that the Millennium Hotel – Broadway won’t be nice. The reviews I’ve read were great. I only saved $15 or $20 from the rack rate and then, when I asked for a rollaway bed for Steffie, was told that would be an extra $50 for the 2 nights.

I wonder if there would be that charge had I made my reservation directly? I have never ever paid for a rollaway bed and have never heard of anyone being charged for one before.

We decided we’d see two Broadway shows while in The City. I’m sure I love Broadway as much, maybe more, as any straight man in America. Hopeful, I’ve passed some of my love on to Steffie, who has seen many shows with me.

We chose Tennessee Williams “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and a new play “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” with Polly Bergen and Mark Hamil. SDLSW opened last night.

The New York Times was savage in its review which ran in this morning’s paper. This show is such a turkey that you can probably smell the giblet gravy as you enter the lobby. Let me just quote from the last paragraph:

Toward the end of Monday night’s performance, an elderly man in the front row collapsed, gasping for breath, and the Emergency Medical Service took him to a hospital, where he recovered. It turned out he had choked on a candy. Now that’s a metaphor.

We’d better find another show. This one won’t last until we get there.

This was originally written on a computer without access to a spell checker. I’ll try not to do that again. Ouch.


Recently, I had an email conversation with my Statistical Climatology teaching assistant (quite an important person, as she controls my grades!). We talked about Innumeracy, the book by John Allen Paulos.

His, unfortunate, conclusion is that most people are mathematically challenged. Not knowing math leaves them less capable of dealing with the world around them.

Out of curiosity, I asked some folks at work to tell me the relationship between a million and a billion. Not many knew it was 1:1,000.

Since our government is now throwing billions and even trillions around (a trillion is 1,000 billion or a million million) it seems like this is something we should know.

Flash forward to this past weekend. My friend Bob called me on IM and sent a link to an article in Time Magazine about America’s problems with weight and obesity. On the first page was a chart which said Americans eat “600 Billion Big Macs a year.”

Wow. That’s a lot… something like 2,000 apiece per year. Obviously, we’ve got a problem here. That number’s wrong.

Dear Mr. Fox:

Thanks for writing to us about TIME’s Oct. 20 cover story and the figure of how many Big Macs are consumed by Americans each year. It appears in the online version as 600 billion, but that’s not accurate. The correct figure of 600 million appears in the print edition of the magazine.

We appreciated hearing from you. Sorry for any confusion.

TIME letters

Don’t be sorry to me. Feel sorry for all the people who looked at that stat, wrong as it was, and never realized what that number meant.

Emmy Judging

This has been an exercises in frustration. I volunteered to coordinate judging of the Weathercaster Emmy for the Mid-America region (basically St. Louis and Kansas City) and sent out dozens of invitations to other weather people around New England, including many who I know enter themselves… and got very few responses.

If it weren’t for the fact that it was summer, some folks were on vacation, the AMS convention had taken place last week, I’d name names because I’m pissed. I don’t mind that only a few people said yes. I’m more upset at how many didn’t respond at all!

Anyone who enters the Emmy’s expects more… and deserves it.

Our Emmy panel was comprised of Matt Scott and Gil Simmons and me from WTNH, Michael Friedman from Fox61 (WTIC TV) and Jayne Smith (meteorologist and former weather intern turned weather producer). We watched 9 tapes. Helaine was the ‘caterer’ and as is always the case, we ate wonderfully… and then had pizza for good measure.

The rules say I shouldn’t discuss individual tapes, and I won’t, but I will discuss the general quality of the entrants and the tape content itself. No one really stood out. There were two who I thought were better than the rest… but not by much. There is less of an edge or style to these Midwestern folks than what we see here in the East and a lot more nuts and bolts meteorology (which I’m by no means criticizing).

By and large, there was not enough “talent at chromakey” on the tapes.

It seems all but one of these entrants confused a good location with a good presentation. Because you’re somewhere, and something beyond your control has happened, doesn’t mean what you’re doing is special.

Don Fitzpatrick, TV talent guru, used to talk about reporter audition tapes that included a live shot from the president coming to town. Unless you got that exclusive one-on-one with the prez, ditch the tape.

At this hour, all our score sheets (which I haven’t sneaked a peek at) are in the Airborne envelope, waiting to go out with the tapes on Monday.