Monday, August 18, 2003

Gathering Around the Old Wireless

Blackout 2003 will no doubt be remembered for many things. But I'll remember it chiefly through the lens of the radio.

A wise person once observed that radio is better by far than television "because the pictures are better," a reference of course to the fact that radio listeners are forced to use their imaginations to add context to the audio in ways that they don't with TV, which doesn't demand much of anything, and surely not imagination. And that's all the more true of splendid NPR, which routinely crafts beautiful little audio hymns for the richly imaginative to feast upon. But during the blackout last week, with our local NPR affiliate WCPN caught without backup power (tsk-tsk, more about which later), I got the chance to go back to the AM dial in ways that most people haven't been in years.

With the power going out just after 4, I hurried home and found the family calm but bummed out about the power loss. With reports and rumors growing rampant in that first hour, I sought out one of the kids' small boom boxes with batteries, and took it out to the back yard to listen in. The family eventually joined me, prompting me to tease 14-year-old Michael and 13-year-old Patrick: "Isn't this great? This is what it was like in the 30s, with everyone gathered around the radio, listening to the news and talking about their day." Patrick's reply: "Was this like the 30s, too, dad?" as he chucked a nerf football at my head.

Anyway, the boys soon lost interest in radio news, but I stayed with it for hours. And here's what I found. Cleveland's WTAM, which has always staked its rep as the news giant, actually got a chance to deliver, with probably hundreds of thousands of TV-deprived people listening. Even the ordinarily lowbrow sports talk jock Mike Trivisonno smoothly shifted out of his ordinary routine and calmly moved into a more serious public service mode, taking call after call from listeners from around the area reporting in on the situation in their suburb. It was oddly soothing, even compelling, to hear this tapestry of ordinary folk become reporters, which of course had a special resonance for bloggers. Even more impressive, the station seemed to grasp just the right blend of that local input with periodic feeds from ABC news, reporting on the larger picture around the country. All in all, I'd give WTAM an A+. Too bad they don't get to serve this role more than once a decade or less. Who says Clear Channel (the station's new owner) is a heartless, mindless corporate drone? Now that they know the world is watching, they seem to be acting a little more responsibly--for now, at least.

As I moved around the dial, something else occurred to me, though. Unlike Pittsburgh (unhit by the blackout) and Detroit (which was very much affected), Cleveland doesn't have a station with historic call letters harkening back to the early days of the radio era. Steel town has KDKA, the first commercial station in the country, and Motor City has WJR. Judging by what I heard the other day, it would seem that each has retained something of its former primacy in their towns. Our equivalent would be WHK, one of the first six stations in the country, and while it still nominally exists, there's hardly anything still there of its former glory. Sad, but not really the end of the world, I suppose.

While I was quite impressed with KDKA's coverage, one ridiculous comment made me wonder about everything else. In response to a caller who mentioned the Internet, the DJ proceeded to opine that people would "be surprised at how so much of it is located in a single room." When I finished laughing out loud, I did wonder about how many more millions of Americans are that utterly ignorant of the Internet in 2003.

Still, the funniest and the most interesting observations about the Blackout came via the tube, after the power came back. Humorist Andy Borowitz observed on CNN that he called his parents in Cleveland to try to discourage them from looting, before dryly noting that despite the blackout, no one was observed trying to loot Madonna's new CD. And CNN's Jeff Greenfield, possibly the best journalist working in television right now, got off a good line about the spirit of the Blackout in New York. He called it "Like the (London) Blitz without the bombs."

As for WCPN, I can't imagine why it was nearly alone among local radio stations in being without back-up power. The million dollars-plus challenge grant that Peter B. Lewis has given the station has gone to good use recently, helping the station's long-mediocre news operation pick it up a notch (our Coolio Clevelander Tom Mulready sounded like a veteran radio DJ during a WCPN appearance last week, with the pipes of a younger Walter Cronkite). And the great job that they would have undoubtedly done during the blackout would have only solidified their growing position as Cleveland's electronic hearth, or audio town hall. But they never got the chance. A pity...

A Few More Scattered Blackout-Related Observations. I think the PD hurt itself by choosing to go with only half a news hole on its abbreviated next-morning edition. For reasons only publisher Alex Machaskee can say, it offered up five pages of so-so coverage and five pages of ads. It reminded me of the famous case study of the New York newspaper competition: During the paper rationing accompanying World War II, the NY Times was alone among the dozen or so papers there at the time in reducing the space for advertising. While a difficult financial decision in the short term, in the long term it was considered one of the prime reasons that the Times emerged as the strongest competitors. Having chosen the public good when push came to shove and it meant losing some money, it also served to hook a loyal readership that rebounded to its long-term benefit. Couldn't the Newhouses have forgone just a single day of ad revenues in the face of this historic crisis, even though they no longer have to worry about competition?

Motor City Pillar of Calm. I also came away charmed in a couple of ways by watching repeated TV clips of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (what a name combination!), who calmly took control of the situation from behind a podium in a way that our Jane Campbell, who looked rattled and high-strung, so clearly did not (and her ridiculous strategy to have her clueless press secretary try to dictate coverage may have just gone from momentary embarrassment to full-fledged disaster, with Sam Fulwood's PD story now gone national via a prominent link on the national media's favorite site, Romanesko Media News, complete with a photo of Jane--guaranteed to draw even more attention since few entries carry a photo of any kind. Romanesko, you should know, is widely credited with infusing oxygen into the NYT Jayson Blair story, keeping it alive as a national story for weeks. Jane may have to put off her plans to run for governor for awhile). Anyway, to my delight, I noticed that Mayor Kilpatrick also appeared to be wearing a small earing in his left ear lobe, surely making him the first male mayor of a major American city to be so adorned. I made sure I pointed that out to my oldest son, who's been taking some serious abuse from the parents of some of his friends over a similar decision. See, Michael, you've got some defensive ammunition now...

And speaking of my beloved Michael, who starts his high school career this week at St. Ignatius (whose well-stocked website is maintained by our friend Mark Geyman), he has decided in recent weeks to join the ranks of bloggers, with the debut of his weblog, devoted to all things basketball (the name of it, KingE23, is a reference to the sainted Lebron). To release his adolescent angst, I've encouraged him to write and articulate in any medium with which he's comfortable, which led to one especially memorable rant against his parents, in the medium of rap lyrics (which I'll of course keep private--but trust me, it was pretty interesting). So the blog is merely his most recent venture into those waters, which I hope will be a lifelong progression in using language. In just four blog entries, he has already done a couple of interesting things: posted from a remote location (while at hoops camp with his cousin on the west coast), and gone collaborative, by letting his buddy Tyler write the most recent posting. Good luck on your writing, Michael. Maybe in a couple of years we'll see if you'd like to get involved in this cool news collaborative for and by young 'uns, begun by a visionary 25-year-old BBC reporter as a way for fledgling reporters to gather some quality clips.

It seems National City's long-awaited refresh of its massive website has been postponed due to the blackout, which strikes me as a pretty good excuse. It was due to debut on August 15th, or Day 2 of the blackout, but thus far hasn't yet arrived. I'd guess we can look for it sometime this week, though. It was on this giant project (it can now be told) that I labored fulltime as an outside resource during all of May and into June. So I'm rather looking forward to the unveiling.

Bullshitter-in-Chief. I know George W. wasn't trying to be funny, but he again came away with the howler of the day/week/year, with this ridiculous bit of blackout-related BS: "I view it as a wake-up call. I've been very worried that our infrastructure is old." Is there a living, breathing person who believes that he's been worried about infrastructure of any type? The Prez seems to outdo himself each day in the lengths to which he will go to lie to us. Which is why we all need to join together in the solemn task of sending One-Term George off to a well-deserved early retirement...

And finally, congrats to our George Nemeth on his appearance in today's New York Times. Goes to show you that it pays to put your phone number on your blog. I also got an email from the Times's Amy Harmon Saturday morning (I only have my email address above, not phone #), but couldn't get back to her before her deadline. Still, it was nice to be stumbled upon by the NYT, presumably via Google. And even nicer to see George's comments (though it would have been nicer if they'd have published his URL).


At 12:04 AM, Blogger Timothy Parry Jr said...

Check your facts there, WTAM=Where the Artists Meet, were the stations original call letters in 1923 until 1956 and brought back in 1996 after being WWWE 1100 AM Cleveland,Ohio


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