Category Archives: media

Me and My Mummy

People still ask me if I miss my old job. Not really. Well, yes and no. Yes, it was always interesting and it was work I excelled at, but do it today? No thanks.

But allow me to reminisce.

Lon Chaney Jr. as The Mummy

Early in my career, I produced cheap local commercials and we were doing a spot for Halloween Hall in Ballston Spa. We’d done a lot of shooting in the store, but this season they had a unique new item they wanted to show off: an elaborate mummy costume. This would require a special shot that could only be done back in the studio.

Our plan was for the mummy to emerge from the darkness into a beam of light — and to make it extra dramatic, we rented a smoke machine. Nothing makes things look cooler than a smoke machine.

We were all set — but someone would have to swaddle themselves in this mummy suit. Normally, I’d persuade an intern to do this, but that semester we didn’t have one, so I wrapped myself up and went to work. It looked terrific — exactly as planned — and with the studio full of smoke, I got out there and lurched around doing my best Lon Chaney Jr.

That’s when the station’s chief engineer ran in screaming.

“What is this smoke? Do you have any idea what it can do to these cameras? The PARTICULATE MATTER in this could corrode the circuit boards! Destroy the optics! How are we going to do the news in three hours with no cameras?”

Oh, shit.

Yes, we were in the same studio as used for the newscast, and in moments, a crew from engineering started disconnecting the hulking cameras and dragging them into the hallway.

It should have been funny, me standing there in a mummy suit getting yelled at, but my blood ran cold. I skulked off to my office and waited to be fired.

Later in the day, my boss, the director of sales, called me to his office. He said something like, “Hey, no more smoke machines in the studio,” and sent me on my way.

That’s the day when I learned a valuable lesson: TV stations are not run by the engineering or news departments, they are run by sales. The only media literacy lesson you need is this: it’s a business — and if you think the media is biased, you’re right. They’re biased toward making money.

Rolling Boil

Dominick Purnomo grew up around the work, stress, and pain that comes with carrying the weight of a restaurant. His parents, Chef Yono & Donna Purnomo are local legends in the food world, so he saw the business at its best too, with all of its triumph and joy. It’s a tough game. Restaurants are a place of great successes and epic failures. 

Dominick’s parents may have tried to steer him away, but he jumped in with both feet.

On Thursday, he tweeted a copy of a letter he was sending the Times Union, setting off a skirmish on social media where food and journalism collided.

You can read Susie Davidson Powell’s review here. To say she hated Boil Shack is understating things, for her review wasn’t just negative, it was gleefully nasty.

It’s fair to say that some people find Powell’s reviews annoying. When she started at the Times Union, her pieces were thick with Britishisms, so full of pip-pip-cheerio nonsense that they sounded like parody. Not so much now. Thank God for editors.

The president has taught us that Twitter is a great place to show how thin skinned you are, so Purnomo’s post drew a tart response from several prominent TU folks, like managing editor Casey Seiler.

Maybe Purnomo will get a polite and reasonable response to his letter from a senior manager at the paper, but that time isn’t now.

I don’t completely agree with Dominick Purnomo on this. A restaurant can have a bad night and fix it the next day, but your bad night may have ruined somebody’s special occasion. Or maybe you took the $100 bucks they put away for a nice dinner and you didn’t deliver. There’s no taking that back. 

As for Susie Davidson Powell,  her schtick is unfair and unprofessional. She may have been right, but she was not just.

Congressman Jackass

He loves puppies and has eclectic taste in music. His sisters were his role models and his kids have become his best friends in many ways. His first heartbreak? At six, when Timothy the turtle died.

What is this — some middle aged guy’s lame online dating profile? No, it’s from the 20 Things You Don’t Know about John Sweeney.

It doesn’t mention the former congressman’s three divorces, the drunk driving arrests, the domestic strife, the ex-stripper, those frat party pics, that assault involving his kid, the ski trip thing — but hey, that’s stuff we already know.

I always read these 20 Things features that Kristi Gustafson Barlette writes, and I wasn’t surprised when the Sweeney item left a few readers bent out of shape. One guy wrote, “I’m looking forward to next week’s segment, ’20 Things you don’t know about me: Chris Porco’.” Kristi says her subjects are folks who are “interesting and people know them — or know of them.” By that standard, a Chris Porco 20 Things is not off the table. And you know we’d all read it.

So here comes John Sweeney again, reimagined as the cool, sensitive guy in recovery who “used to party with the band U2.”

Yeah, right.

Mr. Sweeney, do us all a favor and go away. Go away and quietly pick up the mess you’ve left in your wake. And I’ll tell you what: we’ll say a prayer for your recovery, and another prayer that you don’t fuck up again and damage the lives of more people around you. Best of luck, sir.

None of us are perfect. I may not have accomplished huge things in my life, but at least I’ve been a good husband and father. I’d like to think that’s enough.

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.