Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Worthy Supporting Actor

Ken's post reminded me of another outstanding African-American actor, Mantan Moreland. Beginning in 1933, Moreland's career stretched over 100 films and several TV appearances before his death in 1973. Considered a major star –- or as much of one as an actor of color could be at the time –- his sophisticated, deceptively simple humor made him popular among both black and white audiences (although probably for different reasons). In the 1940's it was not unusual for him to receive top billing immediately beneath the white leads.

I’ve written before about what the uncurious miss –- and without the continual exposure to new things I receive from podcasts, I would have missed Mantan Moreland. One of the ClashTV.com’s podcast episodes was “King of the Zombies.” a 1941 “B” picture. It was competently filmed and acted and without Moreland would have been another pleasant but forgettable movie to watch.

Moreland’s running commentary on the action and witty asides made his performance practically leap off the screen -- raising the entire film several notches in my option. The highpoint of the picture were his scenes with Marguerite Whitten, an actress who also pushed the limits of what African-Americans were allowed to portray in film.

Click here for a sample of their by-play.

I’ll continue exploring Moreland’s work, now that I’m aware of him. Just another example of what’s out there -– if you’re curious.

- Ralph

Monday, January 29, 2007

A Worthy Supporting Role

The Oscars are upon us yet again. This Hollywood ritual is noted as much for its mistakes as it is for its successes in honoring the best films. Debatable decisions by the members of the Academy are pretty much par for the course. "Rocky" for Best Picture? Really...

One of my favorite categories is the "Supporting Actor" (or actress). These actors' roles and performances often pump a lot of life into their respective films -- just think of Walter Houston's famous turn in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

But a small supporting role that I've always admired is in one of my favorite films, "Sahara." No, not that train wreck of a film made in 2005, but the really first-rate Humphrey Bogart World War II movie made in 1943.

No doubt about it, this film is a piece of propaganda. But it's good propaganda, and supports a just cause. In the film we follow an American tank crew, cut off from their unit, and forced to flee across the trackless desert to safety. Along the way the American crew picks up a veritable U.N. of supporting characters: an Irish doctor, British and Commonwealth soldiers, a Free French fighter, a sympathetic Italian prisoner, a bad Nazi pilot (deliciously played by Kurt Kruger), and most surprisingly, a black soldier.

Conveniently, this black man isn't an American soldier (too many issues there!) but is a "colonial Sudanese" -- Sergeant Major Tambul. Tambul is portrayed by the veteran character actor Rex Ingram, who invests him with a quiet dignity and professionalism that is totally at odds with the "Amos and Andy" stereotypes so popular in those days. Sergeant Major Tambul is skilled, professional, loyal, and brave. And in the end he sacrifices himself to save our band of heroes.

It's a well-written role, and well-played by Ingram. No doubt he found it a highly satisfying role, after many years of playing stereotypical African natives and the like. Ingram's character is treated as an equal by the fellow soldiers of his lost detachment.

Like I said, it's a piece of propaganda. But with a good message, and in the case of Rex Ingram's role, a message with a positive model, portrayed with dignity.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Spinning the Classics

I can't resist one final observation about the WGMS/WETA story. Even after my previous post on the subject, I remain awed by the sheer intensity of the spin exhibited by WETA's public pronouncements. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of working in the nation's capital. My comments are in brackets.

In a recent Washington Post article, Dan DeVaney responded to news/talk listeners upset about the overnight format change:

"We would expect people to be disappointed, and we're really sorry about that,. As we said before, we had no intention of changing our format. [The abruptness of the switch would suggest otherwise. How many of us promptly do things we have no intention of doing?] But events ensued that made us feel it was in the best interest of the station to switch, and we did". [An unintentional bit of candor? Even the attempt to gain more listeners and bigger pledge bucks by changing to news/talk was spun as a better way to serve the listener.]

And from the press release on WETA's website, the president and CEO of WETA says:

“Classical music, in all its power and beauty, is an essential part of the cultural life of this city. [So why was it dropped in the first place?] As the exclusive home for classical music on local radio, Classical WETA 90.9 FM will celebrate classical music through our on-air programming and community involvement." [Now, would this be the same arts organizations that begged and pleaded with WETA not to end classical programming –- requests that went unheeded?]WETA changed to the classical format with the strong approval of the WETA Board of Trustees, which met December 14 to consider the changing marketplace for radio in the region. [That would be the lukewarm directive to allow the station to change -- if management felt like it.] Rockefeller noted that the decision required choosing between two strong options. [That is, the classical format they abandoned, or the news/talk format netted them less money and lower ratings.]

“We are exceedingly proud of our current format and the staff who have implemented it. [Even though they dropped the format in a heartbeat and immediately fired a significant number of said staff.] However, given the dramatic changes in the D.C. radio market, we had to consider how we should best meet the needs of our community.” [Which they did by going back to the format the community begged them not to change in the first place.]

And you thought CDs had a high RPM…

- Ralph

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Format fallout

The balloon's gone up. Bonneville flipped WGMS from classical to "George," one of those single syllable we're-crazy-we'll-play-anything (as long as it tests well) DJ-less formats. In response, WETA has returned to classical format. For the best in-depth analysis, I recommend DCRTV.

In this post, I'd like to keep the focus on the collateral damage. First off, the remaining WGMS staffers lost their jobs with the switch – a not so fitting a reward for decades of professional service and building tight bonds with listeners. But that's the biz.

At WETA, the ax fell as well, taking out Mary Cliff, host of "Traditions." This Saturday evening folk music program has been running for almost 30 years, and has become a mainstay for artists and listeners. It was a solid part of WETA's programming, peacefully coexisting alongside the classical music run on the weekdays. It also survived into the news/talk switch. Yet for WETA's triumphal return to classical, "Traditions" was terminated with extreme prejudice.

Dan Snyder wanted a sports/talk radio to help plug the Redskins. The deal fell through, and Snyder moved on. In the wake of the collapsed deal;

1) The most successful commercial classical station in the country is dead.

2) Dozens of people at two different radio stations are out of work.

3) Two locally produced programs at WETA – one dating back almost to the start of the station – are dead.

Was this trip really necessary?

- Ralph

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Man bites dog – public radio version

Northeast Indiana Public Radio (NIPR) recently purchased a commercial radio station from Summit City Radio Group – and plans to change its format to classical.

According to the station’s general manager Bruce Haines, "This will be a place that finally gives a greater voice to the fine arts in Fort Wayne. That is a voice that has been a whisper as of late."

Now consider the situation in Washington. WGMS, the commercial classical station is now seriously crippled as a result of wrangling surrounding an attempted purchase by Dan Snyder, owner of the Redskins to turn it into a sports/talk station. WETA, having already abandoned classical, has sort of offered to go back to classical if WGMS changes format – maybe.

Here’s a modest proposal: Bonneville want to sell WGMS. Snyder no longer wants to by. WETA would rather stick with their news/talk format. So perhaps WETA should purchase WGMS and make it a non-commercial classical station.

WETA would then be the good guys for saving classical programming, and still be able to keep their current format. They would also inherit WGMS’s audience, and with careful cultivation could probably hold on to most of the station’s market share.

Bonneville gets what they want, WETA gets what they want, and the listeners get what they want as well. Think it will happen?

Not in a million freakin’ years. In contrast to Fort Wayne, Indiana, no one’s interested in giving a greater voice to the fine arts in the nation’s capital.

- Ralph

Friday, January 19, 2007

Television's White Lies

At first blush, this will seem to be a post of only local interest -- but it doesn't have to be.

Sarah Honenberger, the author of "White Lies," will be appearing on WTVR, Channel 6 in Richmond, Virginia. She'll be a guest on "Virginia This Morning," on Monday, January 22. In olden days, only those who actually tuned in at 10 AM would see Honenberger -- a vanishingly small percentage of people. The publicity boost for her book would be welcome, but minimal.

But as anyone who's visited YouTube.com knows, things that happen on local television can now be viewed by anyone in the world. What does that mean for a small publishing house trying to get the word out?

Consider: if WTVR posts the video to thier website, or perhaps allow it to be posted on YouTube, Honenberger could link to it from her site. All of a sudden a five-minute piece that would have vanished into the air becomes something that folks can view again and again, garnering a much larger number of viewers potentially from anywhere in the world. And they can watch it next week, next month or even next year -- whenever they discover and want to know more about "White Lies."

A YouTube posting can be great publicity not only for Honenberger, but for WTVR as well. KZSW, a small local station in Temecula, California is now regularly posting local news segments on YouTube. They understand the potential of this new media stream. Does WTVR?

- Ralph

Thursday, January 18, 2007

An Arbitron Observation

I found the Fall 2007 Arbitron ratings for the Washington, DC market an intersting sidebar to the WGMS story, and the plans to turn it into a sports/talk station. According to that list, WGMS was #11 with 3.1 percent of the market (the top station had just double that). The highest sports/talk station on the list, WETM had 1.1 -- a third of the classical station's audience. And the Red Zebra sports/talk station had 0.7. Public radio stations don't show up in the official Arbitron rankings. The best I could find was a citation in Current that in 2005 WETA was around 2 percent.

So WGMS has a healthy 3.1 percent of the market. Dan Snyder wanted to buy it to convert it to sports/talk -- a format that pulls a combined pull of 1.7 percent of the market between two stations, or about half the audience size of WGMS. And WETA, which seems in no hurry to return to classical, sticks by their assertion that they went to news/talk to serve a wider audience -- an audience that seems at best to be roughly two-thirds the size of WGMS's classical listenership.

Is this making any sense?

- Ralph

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Netflix Stream

As most have probably heard, Netflix will begin offering streaming movies and TV programs shortly to subscriber's computers. The key words here are "streaming" and "computers." As Ralph pointed out recently, the promise of "convergence" -- computers and home entertainment working in tandem -- is being prodded along by the introduction of Apple TV.

Yet the promise of online movie delivery is being held back by commercial and tech obstacles. Movie studios don't want to give up their distribution businesses, and fear even more prevalent and piracy and file-sharing if users can download movies.

By streaming the movies exclusively to user's PCs, Netflix does an end-around these problems, and gives customers another reason to choose their service. You don't have to pay anything extra for the service -- you just get a set amount of time you can stream movies every month, based on your Netflix subscription level. Initial reports and reviews are encouraging, and there may be a good market for this, particularly for those on the go, like business travelers who can link into WiFi networks.

At any rate, time will tell, and it's nice to see Netflix make a creative move in this direction.


The Digital Subdivision

As the Internet buzzes with the latest news about the iPhone, Apple TV and the new devices introduced at CES, let's keep in mind that the sweeping changes predicted won't be universal. Not everyone in this country is plugged into the Internet, and thereby are excluded from a lot of the benefits these devices bring.

Much has been made about the "digital divide" separating those with Internet access and those without -- the "haves" and the "have-nots." Let's take a closer look at the "haves" side of that divide. It's not as uniform as you might think.

A great many of my friends and acquaintances can only be considered marginally online. Some are hampered by dial-up (still an issue in the hinterlands of Orange County, VA). Even if they wanted to, the difficulties of accessing sites with extensive graphics, flash animation, downloadable audio or video content with a slow modem effectively cuts them off from most of what the Internet has to offer.

Overlapping that line of dial-up vs. broadband is another division. I don't know if anyone's come up with an official name, but I call them the minimalists. This group is an offshoot of those who think of the computer as a typewriter with a screen. Their use of the Internet is minimal, and they seem uninterested in expanding beyond their extremely limited knowledge and skill.

Minimalists use e-mail, but primarily to forward urban legends, jokes and cute photos as opposed to active communication. One of our friends sends us several e-mails weekly, and over the course of several years we have yet to receive an original message.

I know of other friends and family members who only visit game sites like Puzzle Pirates. Some just play online bridge. Anything wrong with this? Not at all. But while a minimalist may spend several hours playing some flash animation game, they're usually oblivious to the web's other resources. The burning issues covered by online newssites, blogs and forums go unread. To minimalists, the global network that some of us live and work in simply don't exist -- just as it doesn't for those on the "have-not" side of the divide.

As we continue our discussions about the impact of technology, keep in mind that a significant part of those on the Internet are only marginally so. And that group, the minimalists, can slow the rate of change we postulate. Time's "Person of the Year" may have been "YOU," but it wasn't necessarily them.

- Ralph

Sunday, January 14, 2007

...there's Apple TV

We privately joke that when it comes to posts, I excel in quantity, Ken in quality. This time he also beat me to the punch with commentary about the iPhone. I, too, want to draw the reader's attention away from this epicenter of media commentary. Rather than go retro, I'd like to focus on the other device Steve Jobs unveiled –- Apple TV.

When coupled with the new AirPort Extreme, Apple TV has the potential to significantly impact the way we use media in our homes, and the creation of media for the home. And that’s good news for me as a consumer, and me as a producer of new media.

The Apple TV is basically a 40GB hard drive with audio and video output. With the WiFi network and USB connectivity the AirPort Extreme brings to the party, things get interesting.

With the Apple TV system you can display photos, play videos and music –- including audio and video podcasts -- on your HD-ready TV. And most it will look and sound pretty darned good.

You can also connect an external hard drive to the AirPort Extreme's USB port, and access that for display on the TV. And use the external hard drive as a backup for your computer.

And you can access anything stored on the Apple TV's hard drive as well, although I haven't found any info that suggests it works as a DVR – yet. The system also supports up to five computers (both Mac and PC) with wireless connections. So videos/photos/music libraries on other computers (providing they have iTunes) can also be added to the mix, without having to hook anything up.

So how do I think things will change? Now that it's easy and convenient to store and access all your media, I predict an increased demand for new media to fill up that space. Some video podcasts are already shooting in 720p and higher. As viewing on a full-sized TV as opposed to an iPod's screen becomes widespread, I think we'll see video podcasters get more creative and visually more interesting.

Apple TV places podcasts in the main navigation menu, along with TV shows, movies, music and photos. The easy access of podcasts through iTunes spurred the first creative boom – look at the success of Rocketboom, Ask A Ninja and This Week in Tech. Having it front and center on Apple TV will unleash a second wave, and like before, the best programming won’t necessarily come from the Big Three, either.

I think indie film making will also increase – especially for shorter films. Who needs the studio system when you can sell downloads of your film through iTunes? I also expect to see more network TV content available for download. And if the networks are smart, they'll also start creating new content specifically for download rather than broadcast.

There were MP3 players long before iPods. Apple’s took off because of their seamless integration between online store, computer software, and portable device. The rest is history. Apple’s not the first with a computer media center. They just created one with seamless integration between their online store, computer software and your PC (or laptop).

As a podcaster, I’ve very excited. And its potential for a new creative renaissance makes the Apple TV much more interesting than the iPhone.

- Ralph

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Who needs an iPhone, when...

I'm an archaic fossil, I guess, having just gotten my first cell phone (a MotoRazor v3m if you're keeping score). But after listening to a hail storm of publicity for the new iPhone this week, I found myself yearning for the days when life was simple.

There was a phone company.

You had a phone in your house (in the kitchen). Maybe another in the bedroom if you were "with it."

You didn't have many choices of phones, either.

Ah, but what phones they were! The phones of my youth were built to survive a thermonuclear detonation and were heavy enough to knock a hungry mutant dog senseless if you were one of the fortunate survivors. But those happy days are gone...

Or are they?

Seems there's a pretty good market for restored vintage phones out there. I don't know if they're being bought by old-timers with a nostalgic bent (kind of like me), or by young urban hipsters looking for the ultimate ironic addition to their Tiki bar-styled living room.

A quick Google search turned up many UK sites, so if you want an old-school continental look, there are plenty of options. The Robert Opie Collection impressed me the most. I especially liked the Swiss Wall Model.
Uncommongoods.com has some real beauties. These restored Argentinean phones have a pleasing roundness to them, with lovely pastel shades. Eva would have used one of these (if she'd lived long enough).

But in my book, you've got to go with the classic Bell System phones. CustomPhones.com has a great selection, including the classic "500" model, in black or colors. But if you've made a big investment in shag carpeting, you can't go wrong with the "Princess" model. Pink, anyone?


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Parsing the possibilities

Undoubtably the best source for Washington area broadcast industry news is Dave Hughes’ DCRTV.com. DCRTV’s coverage of the WGMS debacle has been outstanding –- especially this past week. In quick succession it was reported that

1) Bonneville would kill the classical format even if Dan Snyder didn’t by the station.
2) When the story broke, Bonneville officially denied it, stating they were “absolutely commited to doing everything possible to keep classical music in this market.”

While there was some speculation that the deal was just stalled rather than dead, Snyder was quoted in the Washington Business Journal that he probably won’t buy it.

Make sure you read DCRTV’s analysis of the whole thing, it’s well worth it.

What I want to hold up for consideration is the danger of assumptions. As you read the Washington Post and the various other news and industry sources commenting on these events, it's assumed that should WGMS change formats, WETA will, too. There’s also a certain amount of wishful thinking that WGMS will remain intact.

Look at the language. Bonneville doesn’t say they’ll keep WGMS classical. Read the quote again. They’ll do “everything possible” (as defined by them) to “keep classical music in this market.”

WGMS as listeners knew it, is already dead. The staff’s been fired, services have been discontinued –- if the deal goes through Bonneville’s already in the position to flip the station to another format. Sports/talk appears to be the front runner. They could put classical on one of their other stations, but hold that thought for a moment.

The second assumption is that WETA will automatically go to classical if WGMS changes. What actually happened was that WETA’s board authorized management to consider reverting to music programming. Not quite the same thing.

So Bonneville can dump classical, and WETA doesn't have to change. Bonneville can say they did “everything possible,” but it was too difficult rebuild the station with a classical format. And besides, they thought that WETA would pick up the slack. WETA can point to Bonneville as the bad guys, and say they considered the change, but it wouldn’t serve their listeners as well as their current news/talk programming.

And no one’s done anything they said they wouldn’t.

Too cynical? Possibly. Stay tuned and we’ll find out together.

- Ralph

And what makes the picture appropriate? While everyone's watching the battle, I'm looking at the unnecessary path of destruction created by these monsters that, in the end, will just walk away no worse for the wear.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Major Label Misperception

Ethan Smith's recent article in the Wall Street Journal (Music Industry Changes Its Tune on Podcasting) talks about the major labels' first tentative steps towards licensing music for podcasts. I have no gripe with the primary point of the piece. As Mr. Smith accurately points out,
"…podcasts have been blocked from using [major label] music, at least legitimately. That has stopped music-oriented radio programming from being available as podcasts."
A casual reader could easily interpret this to mean that there is no legal music podcasting available. I did the first time I read it, and judging by the commentary rocketing around the Internet, so did many others. It is true that you can't use major label music in podcasts –- which has been a godsend for independent artists and labels.

Even if I wanted to, I couldn't possibly list all the independent music podcasts available. Some of them sound just like radio shows; some sound better. Any kind of genre you can think of is being offered, and there are some damn fine artists waiting for you to discover them.

The BBC even has a podcast devoted to indie artists. "The Best of Unsigned" has the host of their Unsigned show, Huw Stephens, interviewing acts and showcasing their recordings –- just like he does on the radio.

I've been listening to fantastic music podcasts for almost two years now, and have discovered several really great artists. I also expanded my record collection in the process, gladly purchasing CDs knowing that most –- rather than 12% -- of the money went straight to the deserving artist.

Don't know where to start? Below are some recommendations, but that's only the beginning. The majors may control of 75% of the music recorded, but there are still thousands of great artists and tens of thousands of killer tracks waiting for you to discover in the remaining 25%. C'mon, there's more to music than Fergie, American Idol winners and Il Divo.

After you've explored a while, post a comment and let us know what you've found.

- Ralph

Association of Music Podcasting – an international association of over 50 music podcasters.

Podcasting News Music Podcast Directory – over 2,000 different music podcasts categorized by genre.

Podcast Directory
– 50 musical categories to choose from. There's 75 music podcasts in "Classical" alone (including the DCD Classical Cast).

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Barnes & Noblise Oblige

We received another comment from Sarah Honenberger for our post "Ignoble White Lies." According to Sally,
"Barnes & Noble confirms they can and will order WHITE LIES for any reader who asks at any B & N store. It's in their warehouse (they're actually on their second order from publisher's distributor), but they won't stock it right now. They will have it in Charlottesville store for the February 21 author's talk and reading."
Of course any additional distribution is always good news (especially for smaller publishers), but I'd like to take a closer look -- and not to knock Barnes & Noble (although creating the headlines has been fun). It can, though, show the difficulties of a large retailer trying to match swift changes in the market.

First off, the book was released on November 30. On the second of January I get word through Sally's post that B&N is finally "officially" carrying it. Well, there goes the holiday buying season.

Secondly, B&N says they'll order the book for any reader who comes in and asks for it. So.... you can't find it on the shelves, but if you know the title and author, you can order it at the help desk. Well, if you know title and author, why not order it online? I suspect most already have.

Thirdly, the Charlottesville store will have copies in for the author's reading on February 21. But apparently not one second sooner than they have to (at least that's the way I read it).

B&N seems to be doing the absolute bare minimum they can with this book. And that's the point. Even with their whole-hearted support, "White Lies" probably won't do the numbers of "Hannibal Rising" for B&N. The big retailers can only put their support behind the big titles -- which is why the Internet is good news for authors and readers alike. B&N isn't the bad guy here. They're just too big to react quickly or appropriately.

The Charlottesville Barnes & Noble won't have Sally's book in stock for another full month -- at which time Amazon will have enjoyed three months of healthy sales. And that's what this post is really about.

- Ralph

BTW: Ken brought up an interesting point. I haven't had a chance to check local bookstores. If any reader goes to the New Dominion Bookstore or the University Bookstore in Charlottesville, please let us know in a post if "White Lies" was in stock.

Good criticism and where to find it

Ralph and I see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues, and criticism is one of them. In the previous post, Ralph lamented how often viewers don't stop to think about why they enjoy a film -- they just watch it without worrying about the context of the film or the techniques involved. How sad.

Criticism isn't, of course, just a negative act. And critical writing, be it about art, food, books, or film, is often some of the most entertaining writing around. Think of the film criticism of James Agee, or Pauline Kael. Their classic writing defined and legitimized a new art form.

With the abundance of blogs, criticism is alive and well. Although finding good critical writing can be a challenge. If you want to read more good criticism, take my suggestion and go "old-media" by subscribing to The Atlantic. You'll find outstanding writers in residence, like food critic Corby Kummer and literary reviewer and jack-of-all trades Benjamin Schwarz.

As a bonus, you'll get excellent writing on foreign and current affairs, technology, and travel, to name a few. It's something I look forward to every month.