Category Archives: media

Anthrax Shed

Back in my TV days, it always worried me that the station could be targeted by a nut. We kept the place locked down pretty well, but now and then somebody would show up in the lobby with a messy folder stuffed with paper and demand to see a reporter. The receptionist had a panic button to push in case of trouble, but honestly I wouldn’t have wanted to be the one sitting out there.

I don’t remember anything like this:

Bomb threats are usually bullshit, right? But today, our president is telling his nutjob followers that the media is the enemy of the people — and some of these nutjobs are listening closely.

In 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, there was a spate of incidents where media outlets and politicians started receiving letters containing anthrax. This was no prank; people died and businesses were disrupted as their contaminated buildings were cleaned up. The best defense against an anthrax letter was to keep it isolated and away from the facility.

That’s when we got the anthrax shed.

It sat at the edge of the parking lot and looked like the shed behind your house, but this was where the mail would be sorted and opened before coming inside. Was it some highly trained specialist checking the incoming letters? Nah, they just gave the maintenance guy some dust masks and a letter opener and wished him good luck. Nice.

In a strange way, it was a more innocent time. The pain and trauma of 9/11 was still fresh, and the fear was very real. And we all felt something that today is all but forgotten. We stood together.

Cable Guy

Spectrum News keeps running a radio commercial for their weather that goes something like this:

“Weather in the Capital Region changes every minute — that’s why you’re lucky Spectrum news has weather every ten minutes.”

Hold up, there — I’m not Mr. Math, but aren’t you saying that the weather may change ten times before we hear about it on Spectrum News?

That’s some terrible copy.

These days, most of the weather you need is available every second, on the smart phone in your pocket. But TV weather remains popular, to the point that news stories almost seem like an afterthought. “An alien spacecraft blew up The Egg today — but first, we’re in for another hot one. Here’s Bob with the forecast…”

Weather is just one example of how all these digital platforms, streaming, and cord cutting can’t completely change stubborn viewer behaviors. If you don’t believe it, take a stroll thorough the cable world tonight. People will still sit and watch Fast & Furious 6 even when if it’s chock full of commercials — 50 minutes of commercials, to be exact. Shawshank Redemption, anyone?

Old-style, remote-in-hand TV viewing is far from dead, and that’s a good thing. What sort of world would this be if you didn’t have to wait through a commercial break to see who’s been Chopped?

Mr. Private Sector

Paul Vandenburgh of Talk 1300 claims to be a champion of the private sector, and an enemy of the tax and spend left.

But the truth is that his hands are deep in your pockets.

His radio station is located in the Times Union Center, a building that was built with our money and is still being paid for by Albany County taxpayers.

One of his biggest advertisers, CDTA, gets most of its funding from taxpayer money. To put it in context, their 2017 annual report says CDTA collects about $18 million of its revenue in fares — but nearly $70 million from government and taxes. No wonder Carm wants you back on the bus.

Last but not least, his station holds a license from the federal government to broadcast on the airwaves that we own. The licensing fees are negligible compared to the money an FCC license allows you to earn. It’s a form of corporate welfare, something Vandenburgh rails about on a daily basis.

So, does he hate taxes? Absolutely — except when the taxes benefit him. I guess he’s just like us after all.

Agitators

I wrote once that it’s pointless to get mad at Talk 1300 numbnut Paul Vandenburgh.

“Doing that would be like going to the circus and criticizing the clowns for — well, acting like clowns. That’s their job.”

I’m not here to lecture you on media literacy, but we all need to remember that some people are paid to be provacative. Columnists, commentators, opinion peddlers, pundits — and sometimes bloggers.

That’s what they do.

Let’s take as an example this headline seen recently in the Times Union blog section:

Good riddance to Grandma’s Pies

That’s how Times Union staff blogger Kristi Gustafson-Barlette titled a post about the closing of Grandma’s, a local restaurant and pie
shop.

She made it clear in the post that she was never a fan of the place, but I think the title was calculated to make people angry.

Not everyone bought it, like this person in the comment area:

Content-wise, your article captures the truth: Grandma’s had lost all  of what made the pies local favorites and it was time for a change. However, your headline implies your revelry in the closing of a local business. The disparity in tone between headline is clearly evidence of a lame attempt at clickbait – an insult to your readers.

But it worked. Her post rocketed to the top of the most-read list.

Whatever. Why are we so bothered about what’s in some blog or on a stupid talk radio show — especially when it can be argued that what you’re reading or hearing isn’t real, but cooked up to grow audience?

Probably for the same reason many of us can’t stop reading about Trump. It feels so good to be outraged.

Nielsen Family

A letter showed up from Nielsen lately asking for an 18 – 34 year-old-male who’d be willing to take a survey.

We’ve gotten mail from Nielsen before, and it’s always handled carefully; ANYTHING to do with measuring TV ratings is thrown away immediately. We’ve always had at least one person in the house working at a TV station, so participating in ratings research would be a big no-no.

Not everybody takes it so seriously.

Twenty years ago there was a sticky problem here in Albany when the family of a local TV salesperson was selected to receive a Nielsen ratings diary. Thinking they could sway the survey results, her family dutifully reported that they watched WXXA 24-hours-a day. No, nothing suspicious about that.

Nielsen didn’t catch the problem, but there were rumors in town that something was screwy when the November 1997 ratings book came out. WRGB cried foul and an audit turned up the corrupted diary.

The whole thing was tossed out and recalculated. Oops.

According to Variety, a spokesman for Nielsen said it was, “The first time he can remember a local diary being contaminated to such an extent that it impacted the ratings and demographic results.” You’d think they might have caught such an egregious fraud.

In Albany, diaries are a thing of the past. This market is now measured by something called a “code-reader.” A device listens to the TV audio and records which station is being watched. Then, demographics are calculated based on viewer behavior collected in metered markets.

That may sound shaky, but it’s no worse than diaries. Think of the amount of influence those little books had. Untold millions were spent, businesses rose and fell, careers were made — or ruined.

Much of it was accurate, but the rest? It was what people claimed to watch, or thought they watched, or would want people to think they watched.

Still Waiting

How many people woke up to Carl Kasell? To public radio nerds, like me, Kassel was royalty, not just because of his years doing the news on Morning Edition, but for his quirky turn as announcer on Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me.

Years ago, I appeared as a contestant on Wait Wait — so long ago that WAMC didn’t even air the show at the time. It was 2001, and though streaming was still a crude and unreliable technology, I’d manage to hear the show online. Anyway, I called the toll free number and within a few weeks I was playing Bluff the Listener.

The show aired that weekend. My segment was heavily edited — which I managed not to take personally — and like most contestants, I won.

The story of not collecting on the prize, Carl Kasell’s voice on my answering machine message, is more complicated.

As it happened, this episode of Wait Wait aired on the weekend right before September 11. Most of us were stunned by that day, and in a lot of cases, trivial things suddenly seemed a lot less important. Getting my prize just fell off the radar.

It’s a tiny thing, of course, but interesting how the shock and horror of that day affected people.

It felt like that was the week when news stopped being funny, but thank God we were all wrong. Wait Wait and other shows help us deal with difficult times, now more than ever.

I like to think that Carl Kassel may be standing next to St. Peter when (if?) I make it upstairs. He’ll offer up a wry remark in that sonorous voice of his, and maybe I can still get him to record my voice mail message.

Slice of Life

Local TV news descended on Gloversville last week when word went out about a standoff police described as “armed barricade involving an emotionally disturbed person”  The situation concluded when the man was discovered dead in an apartment. A rough time for all involved — but not so bad for reporters, because they got to have a pizza party.

I’m curious what the man’s friends and family would make of this tweet. What happened Friday was a big deal to them — it may have been one of the worst days they’ve ever had. And there are the reporters, enjoying a slice between their live shots.

TV stations are drawn by the spectacle of cops and armored vehicles. Stuff like this makes for good video, and good video is the name of the game. Stories about complicated things? Boring and hard to do. Fires, standoffs, accidents, murders? Easy peasy.

So, there you have it. An isolated event a small town ends tragically — but how about that pizza?

Fake Promo

By now, you’ve all seen this amazing montage of the “fake news” promo that Sinclair Broadcast forced its local affiliates to record and air. It’s especially interesting around here because WRGB’s Liz Bishop is prominently featured reading the Trump-inspired propaganda.

A lot of people are angry at the local stations over this crap, but as much as I dislike WRGB, I can’t say I blame them. When your boss sends you a script and says he wants it on the air, you do it. And Liz Bishop? She’s got bills to pay, just like you and me — but I bet now she wishes that she made Greg Floyd do it.

Everybody walks away looking bad here, but mostly Sinclair. Are they really so stupid that they didn’t realize that this would blow up in their faces? Yes, I suppose they are.

A Visit by Erastus

It’s always interesting to see what people are throwing away, and a keen eye toward trash will sometimes yield treasure, large and small.

One day at WNYT, I hauled a bag full of crap down from my office (despite what you’ve heard, I really was the creative services director, not the janitor) and saw a bankers box labelled “archives” in the dumpster. Well, who would’t peek at that?

It was crammed with an assortment of old correspondence dating back to the 1950s — and a folder full of photos. If these are archives, I reasoned, they belong in my office, not the dumpster.

A lot of the papers dealt with the mundane matters of running a business, but among the photos were a few real gems, like the ones below. My favorite is this picture of good old Erastus Corning 2nd gamely peering into the WTRI camera for a PR shot.

And how about the look on this dogs face? Clearly, dogs have a lower tolerance for goofy photo ops than do politicians.

This photo is not quite so old. It’s from 1960 after they’d switched to the unfortunate call letters, WAST, for Albany-Schenectady-Troy. Add an “E” and you’ve got WASTE. The caption on the back identifies the woman as “Miss Nancy Doell, local Albany television actress.”

These pictures are from a time when television was still rather new and glamourous, but I think local TV still holds a certain fascination to people. I always enjoyed giving tours at channel 13 and seeing how much people loved looking behind the scenes. And the anchors and meteorologists? They’re the closest thing we have to celebrities. Well, I suppose in this town, politicians are also celebrities of a sort, just not always in a good way.