Saturday, December 15, 2007

Rough Ice

No one likes a tease. You can't tell me that you have been married twice, have gone bankrupt and have had a daughter and just walk away! I haven't heard from you in 24 years. This is all you have to tell me?

It isn't often that you really long to read a book and reach its end. I was hoping that Dorothy Hamill's new autobiography, A Skating Life: My Story, would be that sort of book. She's the famous friend we all long to have. Sadly, everything you've been longing to know won't be found here. A Skating Life will only be palatable to Dorothy's most avid fans and admirers.

During the 1970s, Dorothy was a charismatic figure skater who brought inspiration and delight to all. Her gifted athleticism, combined with delightful style and grace, created a persona that was larger than life. Sighs of amazement would always be heard as she danced on the ice around the world. Dorothy was a living storybook character that we longed to watch.

When her life and career began to cool, Dorothy wrote her first biography, On and Off the Ice (Knopf - 1983.) She captured all the excitement and thrill of being an Olympic champion and the adventure of her worldwide travels. I remember this book fondly. When I heard she had written a new book, I couldn't wait to receive it. Sadly, my anticipation would not bear fruit. This is a chilly and lifeless book. It's not a reflection of someone known for their exuberance and charm. You haven't really become this person, have you Dorothy?

Just presenting the facts creates a lousy read. Dorothy's book certainly brings you up to date with what has occurred in her adult life, but we are left shallow and empty. Her first husband committed adultery and then smashed his fighter jet into a mountain. Dorothy still loves him. Tell me why! Her second husband conned her out of her fortune and also cheated on her. How did you handle it? Her daughter has become her savior and her raison d'etre. What is she like? Tell us about the moments you cherish! Tell us all about your joy!

Reading is an essential skill. You read for basic utility. You read to learn. You read for enjoyment. As a writer, you must always remember this: You may not be standing in a spotlight, with a live audience in front of you, but you are an entertainer. When you decide to write, it is your job to discover 'the good stuff' and bring it forth in the proper context and form to entice your readers to read more! You have to capture the emotions, the aspirations, the pain and the joy. A Skating Life doesn't. Is the title a dark and self-depreciating double entendre?

One thing is particularly puzzling. Dorothy points out her mother's terse disposition, depression, and alcoholism over and over again. Countless times she refers to her mother's habits of "self-medication." Her mother's struggles in life were portrayed so coldly it became like a bitter pill whenever they were mentioned. Without elaboration, these comments became burdensome with an immature tone. The end of the book reveals an illogical twist. Dorothy turns 180 degrees and writes a long passage about how she admires her Mom and thanks her for her dedication. Was this a remarkable revelation in later life or just poor editing?

I hope Dorothy doesn't wait another quarter of a century before writing another book. Although her current biography doesn't capture it, I think she has a lot to say and a lot to share. I'd like to suggest concentrating on the joys of her current life: skating, her daughter and cooking. I'm sure there is a lot of 'good stuff' we would like to hear all about. C'mon! Tell us a good story, Dorothy! I know you can do much better than this. Capture your smiles and enthusiasm on paper. Again, you will be a winner!

Sunday, December 9, 2007


Disney has reached a new maturity. For more than eighty years, the studio has enchanted us with its tales of fantasy and fun. No other source can compare to Disney's quality and consistency to cast a spell and steal our hearts. The world of Disney is a beloved place where we have always found happily-ever-afters. But what if the formula were reversed? What if a beautiful princess, an evil witch and a handsome prince came to visit us? Now we know!

Needless to say, a princess does visit us, and Disney's latest feature, Enchanted, takes us along for her amazing ride. This is not another cookie-cutter princess movie. Enchanted's six reel sojourn is an endlessly clever homage to all of Disneyana. Masterful satire both honors and pokes fun at all that preceded it. You'll delight and savor every minute!

This Disney princess can not only survive a trip to Manhattan, she can thrive there! Just ask Giselle, played effortlessly by Amy Adams. She first appears as a 'toon direct from Disney central casting. Evil Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) sends her off into peril pushing her into a wishing well that ends in Times Square. Suddenly, Giselle is no longer a 2-D character; she's an innocent 3-D royal lady, fully-costumed, in the middle of Manhattan. Giselle's adventures in The Big Apple are a perfect stage for Amy Adams' comic brilliance. How she kept a straight face throughout these scenes I'll never know, but she should receive an Oscar for her portrayal.

As anyone who has visited a Disney theme park would know, they are experts at glorious enthusiastic parades filled with jubilant characters. This joy has been artfully captured in a masterpiece musical gem, "That's How You Know," staged in New York's Central Park. Hundreds of actors, in brilliant costume, never miss a beat of their complex choreography from location to location. Watch Princess Giselle as she leads her entourage like a Pied Piper. What a magnificent moment in movies!

I won't add spoilers here, but there is a very happy ending! Giselle's devoted (and nutty) Prince Edward (James Marsden) shows off his comedic flair. Wait until you see where he finds his magic mirror! Gray's Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey shines as the straight-man romantic divorce lawyer who doubles as Giselle's knight in shining armor. Watch how he becomes enchanted himself! Susan Sarandon plays a most-wicked queen and a delicious ugly evil witch. Both of her characters should win awards for makeup and effects. You will be running from shiny red apples long after you see her dastardly offering to Princess Giselle.

Speaking of critters, another wonderful musical number, "Happy Working Song," may just change your mind about pigeons, rats and cockroaches. They can sing and dance and clean the nastiest bachelor pad you've ever seen. The cutting-edge computer graphics and special effects are first rate. Enchanted's finale, "Ever, Ever After," provides the backdrop for a perfect ending crooned by hot newcomer Carrie Underwood. The score was written primarily by legendary songsmiths Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. I guarantee you'll be humming long after the final credits end.

Enchanted is an absolute must-see for anyone who loves a Disney flick. Watch it four or five times (and make sure you bring your kids!) Each viewing will reveal more and more nuance and tribute for your delight and discovery! (See if you can pick out the performances of Disney regulars Julie Andrews, Jodi Benson and Paige O'Hara!) It would make a perfect romantic first-date movie, too! My advice: Go now while you can still see it on the big screen. You are certain to fall under its spell!

Friday, November 30, 2007

The WGA's Dirty Little Secret

In the past few weeks, America's front pages have been heralding the actions of the Writers Guild of America. Television writers are fighting for their piece of the new media pie! But the WGA is not an equal opportunity representative. One of their jurisdictions has not had a contract in nearly three years and little action is in sight.

Television is a high-profile medium. When a labor dispute threatens the daily routine of millions of viewers nationwide, the public certainly notices. The Writers Guild was quite cognizant of the attention they could garner by calling a strike. With television cameras and microphones chasing after their every move, the Guild's leadership acted swiftly and demonstrably. The television writer's contract expired on Halloween, and by November 5th, the entire membership was on the street with picket signs. The WGA deftly attracted America's spotlight and the press coverage was vast and dominant.

Life is good when you can demand attention and importance. Not so for those who work behind the scenes in the same industry. Another WGA group, consisting of CBS television and radio news writers, desk assistants and graphic artists, has not had a contract since April 1, 2005. Almost three years have now passed and the stalemate continues. These employees last raise occurred in April of 2004! Where has the WGA been for them year after year?

The situation is complicated. The WGA and CBS are equal partners in their disrespect of these employees. Their horns locked early and have never loosened. Negotiations started shortly after the last agreement expired and no progress has been made since. Talks have not convened for months and months. The WGA is seeking improvement in pay and benefits for their constituents. CBS is looking for give-backs, such as a reduction in night differential pay, along with no retroactive pay to compensate for the lack of raises since the last contract's expiry. A well-constructed stalemate it is!

The employees have every right to be infuriated. The Guild has showed a lackadaisical approach to negotiations. Early on, many proposed meeting dates, between CBS and the WGA, were rejected by both sides. As 2005 progressed, the WGA became distracted by another potential source of press attention: nationwide negotiations with ABC. This small group at CBS went on the back burner never to be seen again. They continue to work with no contract and poor representation. So far, the duel is a draw and the losers are the workers.

CBS Industrial Relations were cool and professional in their approach. They knew from past experience that the WGA could be easily distracted. CBS held firm in their demands, offered only token concessions, patiently waited and their actions bore fruit. For all intents and purpose, CBS has broken this union. Their behavior certainly has helped their bottom line but the morale of their employees has hit a new low.

CBS certainly knows how to sail their boat. Their most cherished employees have "personal service agreements" providing plus-scale pay and other compensation. For these elite, who needs a contract? The chosen ones are all content and cared for. Only a minority of employees ever become protected by staff positions. The masses are daily hire per diem employees. What a community this creates! Work can be quite uneven in availability. CBS might as well hang a sign saying "No Work Today." A worker might be hired four days a week for a month and then see no work for weeks and weeks. It is extraordinarily difficult for people to break into this business and maintain a family in this situation. Anyone with competency eventually finds "real" work. The temporary employee turnover is rapid and endless. The employees with "personal service agreements" are complacent and disinterested with union negotiations. A perfect situation? Only in the eyes of CBS.

The WGA has not been the best of friends to this group, either. More than a union, the WGA is an expensive business to run. The WGA East, for example, employs dozens of people, including highly paid lawyers and other professionals, and operates from a prestigious high-rise location in a mid-town Manhattan office building. Their conference room features an oval meeting desk appropriate for a sequel to the movie Dr. Strangelove. They need a constant rich source of income and they find it in membership dues.

The enormous turnover in temporary employees at CBS certainly works in favor of the WGA, although they will never admit it. The revolving door of new temporary employees brings a continual stream of exorbitant initiation dues. Since CBS does not offer temporary employees benefits, the WGA provides plans for health, dental and pension for all its members. Of course there is a catch: You must meet difficult minimum requirements in yearly work hours, and then wait three months, to qualify. Contributions to these plans used to be voluntary. The WGA, needing more money to fund these plans and their overall operations, decided some years ago to make their benefit plans mandatory. Like it or not, you must contribute. Many, many temporaries feed into The WGA's plans and see nothing for it.

Fame is fleeting and the WGA knows it. More logs are needed for the press attention fire! How convenient! We have another media group without a contract. Let's add them to the blaze! Ten days after the television writers walked out, the WGA decided to revive the dead and take a new strike vote for the CBS group who had been tucked under the rug for years. Some interest was earned as the main story was running out of steam. Coverage on page three or five is better than nothing! Of course they voted to strike. Yet no strike has been called. How obscene to be used as a convenient post script to someone else's story. Will these employees ever see justice?

The WGA also needs to re-evaluate their stance as a labor union. The Taft-Hartley Act has snowballed into quite a subservient universe by the year 2007. Not only is there no solidarity between different unions in support of strike actions, there is no solidarity within a single union itself! The WGA has struck the major networks' television writers, yet WGA members, in other job descriptions, still happily march into work at CBS in spite of it all. How is this logical? How is this allowed?

I posed this dilemma to a popular on-line media chat board. I suggested that all the AFL-CIO unions at CBS should walk out for a day, or even an hour, in solidarity and support of the CBS news writers, graphic artists and desk assistants. Here is one answer I received: "That would be illegal, and members who did it would be subject to termination. WGA members who work for CBS News operate under a different contract than the screenwriters and TV writers. They didn't walk out when CBS News staffers struck in 1987, nor were they expected to. As a former WGA shop steward who helped negotiate two of the more-recent contracts, I agree that the union has not handled the last 2.5 years well. But management has done much worse, and they're trying to lower themselves even further with the contract they're after."

If this is the case, and it seems it most certainly is, labor unions, and the AFL-CIO in general, need to re-think their strategy. Their direction needs to revert to one bolder and true to course. Many organizers, during the 20th century, gave up their livelihoods and lives to establish labor unions as a negotiating force versus the greed of America's industry. Decades of accomplishments should not be lost as they sift through the grips of today's conceding unions.

The news writers for CBS television and radio news, their desk assistants and the legions of gifted graphic artists, deserve a fair shake. The complete disregard of their importance, from both their company and their union, is heinous. These employees do not have irrational requests or wishes to disproportionately enlarge their wallets. They want fair wages for good work. Nothing more. The press could provide great service to this group with a little attention of their own not related to an irrelevant high-profile dispute. Will this day ever come?

If this group continues to be ignored, their future rests with them. They must first gain solidarity within their group and then seek alternative representation. The burden of finding a fair shake is becoming solely theirs. How pitiful that both employer and union shows so little respect for loyal workers. Hopefully, this tale's ending will be happy. The story now continues. Without writers, you may never know the conclusion.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Perfect Lunch

Confronted with a cloudy, rainy, dreary autumn day? The cure is simple: A perfect lunch. The necessary ingredients remind me of some of my earliest memories. Born in Scotland, my mother enjoyed the staples of the old country. The basis of all mid-day meals was a cup of good tea. A Red Rose box was always nearby. I would wait for each new purchase of Red Rose tea with anticipation. Every box contains (to this day) a small porcelain figurine of an animal or other little critter. These made endlessly durable playthings at no cost!

Add to the menu a piece of wheat bread toast. Prepared authentically, each piece of toast should be slightly burnt. A couple of scrapes with a knife will cure that! When I smell bread burning in a toaster, I always think of my Mom in our kitchen making an afternoon snack. No toast is complete without orange marmalade. Ordinary jelly will not do! The only brand acceptable is Keiller's Dundee orange marmalade made with an authentic recipe dating back to 1797. Imposters, like the watery Bonne Maman of France and the Swiss Hero varieties, can't compete with the real thing. Since 1988, Keiller's has been manufactured in the Robertson's plant in Manchester, England (horrors!) The taste is still intact. It is a thick, tangy delight packed with sweet, thinly-cut orange rind congealed in a perfect jelly. Look for Keiller's distinctive white glass jar. Yum.

If you require something more substantial for your tummy, how about some chicken vegetable soup? I'm sure this tradition dates back centuries when my ancestors served as falconers in Southwest Scotland. My memories of my grandmother making tasty soup goes back to when I was two or three years old. During my childhood, like most of us, the standard soup was the trusty chicken noodle soup made by Campbells. In the past few years, designer soups have come onto the market to raise the quality standard and provide alternatives for soup lovers. The closest equivalent to my grandmother's soup found so far is Progresso Traditional Chicken and Wild Rice. It is a tasty brew without being heavy in salt in fat. Writing this article is making me hungry!

No warm and cozy lunch would be complete without a dessert treat. My Dad's mother made the most delicious home-made apple sauce ever tasted. The recipe was rudimentary: Ingredients: Apples! Mash into a fine slush, spoon into a bowl and sprinkle a little sugar on top. How wonderful! Apple pie, from Northern Spy apples, is a close second. Now add a toasty fireplace and close friends and you are all set. Happy Holidays!

Happy Holly - days !

Sleigh bells ring. Are you listening? If you love to sing along, especially in your car with the volume turned up, November and December may be the best months of the year. Starting November 1st until New Year's Day, XM Satellite Radio broadcasts a Christmas gift to all its listeners. Holly XM channel 103 is a delightful blend of every great standard Christmas song that ever has been sung. What fun!

Holly features an artful combination of nearly every music style with perfect segues and continuity. Where else can you hear Perry Como, Brian Setzer, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Ella Fitzgerald, Burl Ives and Boney M all together in one place? You'll never hear a song you don't know by heart. How could anyone not like Christmas music? Oh, tidings of comfort and joy!

XM also offers specialized Christmas channels with traditional music from the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, Music City Christmas with a Country edge, classical 'Pops' Christmas music and the ever-wacky Special Xmas. My daughters love Special Xmas all season long as they air everything from kazoo orchestras and dogs barking to songs that are 'so wrong!'
Keep listening to XM and have a very Merry Christmas! Ho, ho, ho!

Friday, October 26, 2007

What's New?

Have You Heard?

Mobile Internet radio took two steps closer to becoming a household word this month. First, you have to select a station. Now it's easy! iHeard is a new search engine which allows access to thousands of radio stations from just one site. Other entities have experimented with this concept, but almost all of them simply refer you to the home page of the radio station. Wi-Fi listening was a laborious process.

Step one: Enter the world of iHeard. Pages and pages of stations are available with just one click! Name a type of music or talk show. iHeard has it. Who needs a shortwave radio? Pick a country, pick a station and you're there. If you like, you can also choose by musical genre, location, foreign language...the categories are endless. It is the perfect site to visit during those long, boring waits for appointments or at the airport. Your web surfing cell phone can now be a unique form of radio with a bottomless pit of programming possibilities. At home, connect your computer up to your stereo and you'll have the world on a string, literally! Check in today at:

Step two: Get in SYNC. Ford has announced the release of SYNC, an amazing in-car management system incorporating voice recognition. You can now control all your multi-media and communications devices with one computer application custom written for Ford by Microsoft. Providing you have continuous coverage of Wi-Fi, you can listen to Internet radio in your car without hassle. (Some communities have already installed public access city-wide Wi-Fi. Listening to "the stream" is closer than you think! Take a test drive at:

Let's Convert!

Rabbit ears users please note: February 2009 is growing nearer (only 15 months to go!) and the time to convert is right after Christmas 2007. {Convert from analog to digital TV, that is!} The federal government will begin issuing $40 credit vouchers on January 1, 2008 (up to two per household) to offset the expense of digital set-top-box converters for your analog TV. You may need a converter if you only view on good old analog television using an antenna. (Cable and satellite subscribers can relax. This change won't affect you!) In February 2009, all analog broadcast television will end. You'll have to watch digital TV or else! Details regarding ordering voucher coupons will soon be revealed at:

Manufacturers have already responded to this program. LG Electronics recently received official approval of their set-top-box converter to be released for sale just after the first of the year to meet the demands of the federal voucher program. The street price for the LG converter is said to be about $60. LG's converter (pictured above) will feature closed captioning, a variety of available aspect ratios, V-chip program rating filters, programming information screens and direct composite and RF inputs and outputs (no external video modulator needed!) Except for basic functions (channel change and power,) most of the LG's features require its remote control and on-screen display. Their unit is quite small and has no front panel display. It's simplistic, concise and attractive design should become a welcomed accessory. Put your analog television on channel 3 and use the converter box to view all the new (and expanded) digital television services now available. The big question: Will digital signals reach these converters as reliably as good old NTSC analog signals?

Another new product of interest: Best Buy's private label 'Insignia' is offering possibly the first hand-held portable DTV. The Insignia NS-7HTV offers a seven inch LCD screen and a built-in ATSC DTV tuner. It's been purchased on eBay for as little as $60. Friends from the WTFDA (Worldwide TV-FM DX Association) who have auditioned the Insignia have given it lukewarm reviews particularly regarding anemic reception. Even so, it's good to see the world of electronics adapting to the digital world that lies ahead.

Shock and Stop IBOC

Last month, I bemoaned the arrival of AM in-band on-carrier digital signals during nighttime hours. Lots of beehive-like noise rippled through the band often ending long-distance reception that had been relied upon for decades. Many AM radio DXers saw this move as the end of their hobby. The battle is not over yet. The first couple of weeks of operation were rocky. Listener complaints were being received from all over the country! What could be done?

One group, Citadel Broadcasting, went on record as retreating from the IBOC experiment (at least for the time being.) A dominant station owner, Citadel controls 66 radio stations nationwide. When Citadel decided to cease broadcasting IBOC signals, many listeners could again listen in peace! For local listeners, this would include Citadel's WABC 770 New York City, WJR 760 Detroit and WLS 890 Chicago. WABC and WJR certainly did strong battle with each other during their brief IBOC trial. WLS 890 is only one channel away from another IBOCer WCBS 880 in New York City. You can rest assured that their dueling IBOCs were not easy listening! WCBS, and sister station WFAN 660, have also been noted with their IBOC systems off many nights recently. The jury may still be out, but the verdict is clear: The AM Radio IBOC system needs substantial modification to co-exist during nighttime operations. The beehive noise must desist!

Another downside of IBOC 'HD Radio' is time delay. Here is an excerpt from the WCBS Radio website: "WCBS now broadcasts in high definition. It takes 8 seconds for HD to encode and then decode at a HD receiver. Consequently, the regular analog signal must be delayed 8 seconds in order for the broadcasts to synch. Also, it is not as simple as starting the time tone 8 seconds earlier to make it hit the airwave 'on time.' The issue is much more complex. However, WCBS is working to find a solution as HD radio becomes more main stream."

Editorial comment: Analog AM Radio technology dates back to before 1920. It remains an extraordinary means of delivering radio to a wide area of listeners using very inexpensive and low tech. receivers. Why reduce this amazing medium to a tentative local-only scenario that requires sophisticated expensive receivers to enjoy? It's time to scroll back to basics and allow AM Radio to do what it does so well. Put digital radio where it belongs: in a separate specially-allocated band where it can thrive on its own without the challenge of being compatible with older technologies.

Do I Rate?

What do people listen to on their satellite radios? Now we know! Recently, the Spring 2007 Arbitron ratings book was posted on the Internet revealing the winners and losers of both Sirius and XM Satellite Radio. Sirius is really Stern Satellite Radio! Howard's two channels on Sirius command a huge audience, around 1.7 million listeners a week. Compare this with Stern's alleged 20 million listeners in his heyday on terrestrial FM radio. Sirius pays dearly for Stern.

Beyond the land of Stern, the most popular channels are mainstream popular music. XM's 20 on 20 rules with over a million listeners a week, while Sirius Hits One registers about 650,000. XM's channels for 60s, 70s and 80s music have similar ratings just above 600,000. One thing for sure, XM listeners love to listen and listen at length. A telling comparison: popular Fox News has 485,000 listeners a week on XM while the exact same programming on Sirius only draws 133,000. My personal opinion: Sirius listeners prefer an expanded version of what traditional radio has to offer. It attracts younger men in droves. XM listeners seek a more eclectic and adventuresome stew and listen to their satellite radios as constant companionship. The entire report can be found at:

For some great listening fun, check out XM's 'Igor' Halloween micro-channel to be heard on XM 120 from Monday night, October 29th at 9pm through Thursday morning, November 1 at 6am Eastern time. Then, switch channels to XM 103 and begin the Christmas season early! A yuletide tradition, XM's Holly begins for a two-month run November 1 until the week after Christmas. Ho! Ho! Ho! Break out the mistletoe!

Saturday, October 20, 2007


Let's play fair. Large AM radio stations should be in parity with smaller stations that don't have big-station funds (or interest) in HD Radio. If a major-market 50 kilowatt station can participate in legalized IBOC jamming over 30 kilohertz of spectrum space or more, smaller stations should be allowed to remove their NRSC filters and compete with a high fidelity signal of their own.

Even better: If NRSC filter removal is not appealing to stations already participating in HD Radio, how about a deal with Ibiquity? Maybe Ibiquity would allow trade-ins of old equipment for new HD encoders! Let's the back room we must have a C-Quam stereo encoder we don't need. Do you think they'll accept a license for an expanded band allocation? How about that Sony SQ quad encoder or this great FMX box? I'm sure Ibiquity would love to corner the market on used NRSC filters!

Just leave AM radio alone! Please turn off HD Radio IBOC, pull out the NRSC filters and let a grand old medium serve its public well! No other technology can achieve direct nationwide distribution using a ten dollar hand-held receiver. And, no, I don't want to listen to all my radio via the Internet quite yet. Get back to basics and let AM radio shine again. Have you ever heard two or three IBOC beehives phase together? Oh, my poor ears! Here comes the train! Let's stop it before it's completely out of control!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Heading For The Door

Can a $15 million dollar a year anchor help? How about new sets, new lighting, new hair and makeup, new features and commentary? Let's try some new producers, fantastic graphics and endearing publicity campaigns. Warm and fuzzy road trips peppered with pretentious town meetings can't miss! Kate listens and listens across America, but the message is not received. How far do audiences have to shrink before someone gets it? Will anything cure ratings decay?

The desperate dance never ends: How can we improve the ratings? How can we entice that illusive extra point or two in the Nielsens? You'd be amazed the levels of exasperation reached during these pursuits. Dozens of production people can lose sleep about this week's meaningless trivial aspect of a broadcast. A slight change in lighting, a new color scheme in electronic graphics, how much a news desk reflects its surroundings, a heated behind-the-scenes debate regarding hairstyle or makeup. None of these things are important!

Another worthless cure-all attempt, seen time and again, is the new feature. (No one has tried this before, I swear!) 22 minutes of nightly broadcast time flies by. Let's kill our precious time with commentary from 'cutting edge' authorities on what-not. Let's take a trip across America attempting to make our news relevant. Broadcast from a hotel balcony situated overlooking a war zone. Nothing's working? 'Let's hire a new Executive Producer. You know... the one who put Charlie and Diane together on GMA. Can't miss!' Stop! Stop! Stop this nonsense!

Take a lesson from the classic movie 'The Year of Living Dangerously.' A cub reporter, played by Mel Gibson, exclaims all sorts of generic dribble back to his editor. The editor wisely replies: (paraphrasing) 'When you are ready to tell me what makes this event different and exciting - then call me back. Tell us what you experience, not what I can report from here!' The CBS Evening News led with a story, one day this week, proclaiming an unbridled increase in lost luggage at airports. Would you watch this stuff?

No one will admit it, but news distribution is a lazy process. In essence, there are only three major sources of national news: The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post. You can rest assured that if The Times features revelations regarding a 'stay slim' gene or banning drug distribution to the world's poor, every nightly newscast will feature it tomorrow. Novel independent reporting is increasingly rare!

(By the way, forget about learning anything about international news unless it has some sort of American hook. '345 people died in a plane crash today in Africa. 3 were Americans.' If no Americans were aboard, the other 342 victims would never be covered!) Watch Canada's CTV or the BBC TV news on-line for a glimpse of what's going on in the rest of the world - and - excellent views of America from outside our self-created bubble looking in.

The Associated Press, arguably, is the most powerful source in news today. They provide standardized and homogenized accounts of news events that are accepted, without challenge, by thousands of newspapers and broadcast outlets daily. To public relations firms, coverage by The AP is the holy grail of success. Rest assured: If The AP picks up on the waterskiing squirrels in Florida, the entire nation will witness this nonsense within 48 hours.

Why does this happen? The industry has lost its sense of public service and is now driven by finance. Today's goal is to fill a newscast without investing in any independent reporting (spending money.) An arrogant attitude exists: The audience will eat whatever we prepare for them because there are so few options on the menu. News directors often forget that viewers can opt to tune out entirely!

Is this threat totally without merit? I don't think so. America's callous news distribution system 'jumped the shark' the night Bush and Gore fought for votes in The State of Florida. I was in the belly of the beast that night, working in one of the election data centers of a major network. The panic I witnessed was a disturbing product of a serious disease. It was quite a moment. America's viewers indisputably had caught the news system with its pants down...way down! All anyone could say was: 'Oh my God! What do we do now?'

The election results consortium had called the state of Florida for Gore. Everyone ran with the news trying to upstage the competition. The result estimates proved wrong. The news broadcasters felt shame. After brief apology, it was back to business as usual. Unfortunately, this dry rot continues to weaken network news every day. Fact checking has become as obsolete as the typewriter. Without these necessary checks and balances the networks will never earn the public's trust.

So, what is the answer? It certainly isn't million dollar anchors and sets! It's CONTENT. News broadcasts need to be intriguing, essential and habit-forming with novel, aggressive and accurate independent reporting. Show me diversity in perspective. Tell me what I don't know. Tell me why this event counts. What is it like to be there? How will it affect me? What will make my life better? How can I help my kids? What should I know that I haven't heard of yet? It's primal and basic. The only reason these avenues are not pursued with zeal is money. No one wants to invest in building an audience by offering great reporting. All we get is fast food news: here today and gone tomorrow. You really want ratings? Broadcast what no one else is willing to work for - and - make it count!

Newscasts depend on building teams of loyal viewers. Have you ever recruited a team of workers? Each hire is another hard-earned step forward. It takes great effort and time to build long-term strength and reputation. News reporting is no different. Knowing the right people to contact can make your day! If your reporting is thin and superficial your audience will leave you in search of more satisfying meat. Word of mouth is powerful! Create it with your reporting!

And...the content needs to be relevant to the old and the young (read under 55 years old.) The three existing newscasts will need to change their demographic focus in the next ten years because most of their current audiences will die of old age! Don't the Senokot and Depends ads give you a clue? Your target audience has to broaden now!

My prescription: Use the 6:30 pm half hour as a loss leader to promote your Internet-delivered content. Become the pivotal source of information available on an immediate basis. Embrace new technologies like RSS to deliver your news. Appeal to a broad spectrum of age groups, young adults through seniors and sort the information appropriately. Make your service easy to use and search.

Right now, news junkies are on life-support barely surviving with the half-hearted attempts of CNN or Google News. Network news' Internet sites are cumbersome and clunky. I don't want to put clips into a playlist to discover what I should be able to access with one click. The three major networks all have about 180 affiliate stations each and deep resources (if they can discover how to manage them.) Spend your $15 million dollars to fund top reporters and crews who chase and discover revelatory news instead of lazily following up an AP news lead automatically placed in your lap! Doors will open and, who knows, ratings might follow!

It would be a national tragedy if our free press disintegrates any further. So little true investigative reporting creates a poorly informed public - and - a public who can be steered by a single source of news. The current alleged leaders in the network news business need to address their obligations to the public. Strong reporting has often served as an essential balance of power between government, business and the general populace. Without a strong press our freedoms are endangered (and so are the network's ratings!) Let's see some real reporting instead of processed white bread sludge. A reminder from the banner of The Old Grey Lady: Deliver 'all the news that's fit to print' and entice your audience to want more. Otherwise, we are all heading for the door!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

What a Wonderful Life !

George Bailey and I lead parallel lives. Would the world be better without us? Hardly! Friday night, I witnessed a wedding like no other. Magic and joy combined for a wonderful experience. Around me were so many people, all so happy, together for a special moment in time. My work created this event. Let me explain!

For ten years, I held a demanding job in Manhattan that stressed me for everything I was worth. One of my responsibilities was maintaining a creative staff to meet the demands of all my clients. In a world dominated by per diem temporary help, continuous recruitment was the rule. I met a lot of people! I also introduced them to each other and watched the drama unfurl. It was often quite a show in itself!

Without my passion for discovering new talent, this evening's event would not be happening! I hired the groom in 1997. I hired the bride in 1999. I hired one of the bridesmaids in 2000. I also hired Stephanie, Deborah, Kevin, Bob, Christine and Jody. David, Chuck and Larry worked for me too. If I hadn't created this community, so many things may not have occurred. Now they were all together and two of them were getting married! Even if I had the smallest role in creating this event, I was so proud!

The affair was charming. Staged in a historic mansion overlooking the Hudson Valley, the view and the sunset were stunning. A passing rain cleansed the air. During the informal ceremony, a single brown bat soared in the distance gathering its dinner. (Was it an omen?) Bagpipers, delightfully echoing throughout the evening, made the wedding whole. It was a night to remember.

From the moment I arrived, I felt like George Bailey (from the classic movie 'It's a Wonderful Life') right after he regained his mortal soul. My enthusiasm for life, and this moment in time, was boundless. I had retired from my exhausting job and lifestyle about a year ago and had not seen my old employees in a long time. Both the bride and groom were two of the best people I ever hired. I was so honored to be invited to their wedding. All my other ex-employees were remarkable, unique and so much fun to be with. Attractive, charming, creative and artistic, my friends were all perfect complements to each other, especially the bride and groom!

Everyone needs a boost in their self esteem from time to time. This was my night. My wife was so enchanting, heavenly and beautiful. The evening reminded me of our night years ago. How I loved being there with her sharing this delight! The wedding and reception was a touch of class. The music and food added perfection. Can you tell I had a great time? I was so glad to be alive and know so many exceptional people. I'll always remember this night as a culmination of ten years of strenuous work. Now, the bride and groom are off to Tahiti. On the night of their wedding, I was in paradise too! No man is a failure who has friends. On this night, I was the richest man in town. What a wonderful life!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Three For Fall... #1 Pushing Daisies

Are you ready for the Fall season? Here are three confections to look for as you are getting out your sweaters and getting ready for Halloween:

This Fall, clean up your yard, frolic in the leaves and discover flowers blooming on your TV! How can you make it happen? Simply mix together the scripts of Twin Peaks, Ally McBeal and Gilmore Girls and add a pinch of playful morbidity! Voila! Now enjoy an (almost) new twist in TV screenwriting. Set your Tivos for ABC on October 3rd and watch the latest spin on quirky, clever patter and panache known as Pushing Daisies.

New face Lee Pace discovers, early in life, that he can revive the dead with just a touch of his finger. Flirtatious tension never hurts, so let's revive a recently murdered unrequited love (Anna Friel.) The ensemble cast can be found in a cartoonish dive dubbed The Pie Hole. It's as crazy as it sounds with eye-popping visuals that are bound to be Daisies' signature style. I've seen the pilot and I can't wait for more! We hope audiences won't want to see the show go six feet under!

...#2 Tinsley Mortimer

I'm sure that you have had quite enough of Britney and Paris. Fear not! The new 2007 'It Girl' is on her way! Here comes the next perfect face: Tinsley Mortimer. Unlike her fictional namesake Tinsley Carmichael, Ms. Mortimer is the one to adore at every Park Avenue party. Married to a renowned investment banker named Topper, Tinsley's favorite pal is her sister-in-law Minnie Mortimer. Tinsley began as a stunning tennis player who launched her career at Vogue before a stint at Harrison & Shriftman, a high profile New York PR firm. Then she got married!

Now Tinsley is everywhere! She'll flash her curls at fund raising charity events, appear at high profile show openings and will always be seen at the beguine. Her line of Japanese handbags is now the Jimmy Choo you can carry with you. A graduate of Ivy League Columbia University, petite Tinsley is known for being genuine, confident and lots of fun. Intellect and style is always a thrilling combination. Welcome Tinsley to the mainstream!

...#3 Natalie MacMaster

If you want to come back down to earth, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia might be a grand place to land! It is the centre of nouvelle Gaelic culture - a place very close to heaven. While you are there, you might want to hear angels sing (and play fiddle.) May I introduce you to Natalie MacMaster, possibly the finest performer to ever travel The Cabot Trail. Beyond her music, she also has a teaching degree, two honorary doctorates, is a member of The Order of Canada and the mother of two children. A fine lass she is!

Her performances have brought audiences to their feet for nearly 15 years. A live audio CD captured some of her charisma in 2002. Canada's CBC Television aired one of her concerts several Christmases ago, but unless you taped it, the joy slipped through your fingers. At long last, Natalie is releasing a full-length DVD "Live in Cape Breton" on November 6th. It will also be seen across America in March 2008 on PBS. I have already ordered my copy, but I can't wait that long. I'll be catching her on tour next month!

The joy produced by Natalie and her band will make the darkest soul dance! Her energy has no bounds. She is a fine and gifted fiddler, a playful dancer with a voice so versatile. Her sweet voice can portray the saddest lament or the elation of love. Traditional ceilidh music is only the beginning of her repertoire. Natalie loves to stretch her limits with every show. Catch her if you can! (Check out today!) With Natalie's music, what a fine Fall you will have!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Night of the Bees

Radio listeners across America are trying to hide from a monster, but there is no shelter. After spending its adolescence in technical trials during daytime hours, IBOC has now come out at night. IBOC is the acronym for in-band on-channel, a method of sending digital audio along with old-fashioned analog radio signals. It's marketed, confusingly, as HD Radio. In theory, HD Radio should be transparent to the end user listener. In reality, the system is anything but on-channel. It actually uses about five channels to convey its information.

For example, in New York City, WOR broadcasts on 710 kilohertz. When it turns on its IBOC equipment, the digital noise it produces can be heard on 690, 700, 720 and 730 kilohertz with a reduced fidelity analog audio signal remaining on 710. During the daytime, AM radio signals only travel, at best, 100 miles, so the effects of IBOC's digital noise are somewhat contained. At night, AM radio signals can been heard long distances from their origin. With thousands of AM stations broadcasting simultaneously every night, the result is a chaotic soup. Now add wideband digital noise via IBOC. Only the very strongest signals can survive to provide useful reception.

Adding to this problem, the receivers that can decode HD Radio require a very potent signal to resolve digital audio. The end result can be digital audio delivered via the AM band, but it is only available to a limited audience with close proximity to the broadcaster. So many of us hear the noise, but so few of us can hear the intended clear signals! It sounds like a thousand bees relentlessly heading in your direction!

The signature of AM radio has always been highly reliable and resilient long distance communications. With the advent of HD Radio, AM has been scaled back to a local medium with limited distribution. Shows that enjoyed nearly nationwide coverage, like WSM Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, are being shattered by all the new interference produced by the wideband nature of HD Radio.

HD Radio broadcasters are also in conflict with themselves. CBS owns both KDKA 1020 Pittsburgh and WBZ 1030 Boston. AM radio DXers have noticed that both stations have only been operating their HD Radio equipment irregularly at night trying to reach a compromise to keep both station's coverage area whole. We have met the enemy and he is us! The effects of HD Radio interference may be the final death blow to struggling small local radio stations trying to compete in very difficult market situations. This noisy hash may extinguish all hope of local stations being heard in the clear ever again.

A similar IBOC system is being used on the FM band. FM allows for more bandwidth allowing IBOC stations to broadcast more than one audio source on their frequency. Noise to neighboring channels is similar, but the relative short range of FM contains the melee. The FM version of HD Radio also requires a very strong signal to be decoded. Reception can be finicky in nature. These signals need to be received perfectly to provide the intended results to the consumer.

HD Radio may be a short term band-aid for aging over-the-air technology. Multi-channel digital satellite radio and WiFi delivered radio and television will probably be the standards for the future. Large conglomerate broadcasters, who own hundreds or thousands of stations, are desperate to counteract the onslaught of competition from the Internet, iPods and various other methods of streaming. It seems ironic that the industry that insisted on narrowing the fidelity of AM radio to 10 kilohertz over a decade ago to clean up adjacent channel interference now allows 30 kilohertz or more bandwidth to compete with other digital media!

AM DXers are hoping that two strategies may help silence nighttime HD Radio. The rallying cry has already begun to complain directly to the FCC and the offending broadcasters about the reduced coverage and noise that HD Radio brings. Possibly more significantly, our neighbors in Canada and Mexico are not yet participating in HD Radio or endorsing its use. The deluge of interference American HD broadcasts inflict on their signals may create quite a dilemma that can only be solved by silencing HD's use at night. Time will tell! If you notice new broadband noise on AM radio, you are probably listening to the sound of 'progress!' Stay tuned, (if you can stand it!) Even better, hear it for yourself at:

Sunday, September 9, 2007

I Love Lucy

Last night, I saw Lucy Kaplansky perform at The Towne Crier. It’s a little restaurant, bar and club nestled into the mid-Hudson Valley in New York. You would be hard-pressed to find a more intimate setting and better atmosphere. Picture Lucy, dropping by your over-sized living room, casually singing and discussing her tunes with fifty of her best friends. Endearing. Wonderful. Memorable.

Lucy is a proud mother of a four year old girl named Molly. Her delight in her parenthood was the theme of her set. She glowed telling stories and singing tales of her experiences as a Mom. Lucy also shared her warm memories of her Dad who passed away last year. I did not know very much about her work before this performance. Afterwards, as she greeted the crowd as they left, I felt as I had rediscovered an old friend.

She also has a passion for sorrowful songs of lost or unrequited love. This is the standard ‘good stuff’ songwriters thrive on. Lucy didn’t wallow in remorse. Her lyrics were heartfelt and telling about her personality. Recollect for us about all the things you miss, all the things you crave, all the things you feel. Lucy has a gift for sharing her heart with originality and grace.

Lucy is part of a community of performers that include her friends Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dar Williams, John Gorka and Greg Brown. Superficially, she could be categorized as a folkie singer-songwriter, but a label like this would not do her justice. Her persona is quite genuine and mature. She is not trivial and sing-song simplistic. Her lyrics are thoughtful and succinct. Each song was a tasty gem that had been developed and honed over many performances around the country.

Listening to Lucy inspires you to dust off all the experiences of your life to recall and contrast with her lyrics. She inspires you to search your soul. There is no flash and glitter here. I admired her self-esteem. With Lucy, barriers are lowered and all the nuances of her emotions and experiences are shared willingly. Her frankness was unexpected and almost disarming. See her perform and you’d want to invite her over for coffee the next morning!

Fellow singer-songwriter Patrick Fitzsimmons opened for Lucy. Patrick hails from Vermont and has a casual style singing mostly about happy events in his life. His signature move is his ability to use an acoustic guitar as a percussion instrument. Patrick provided a very pleasant warm-up to a memorable evening.

The Towne Crier is a treasured resource for all who seek fine music. Their food is surprisingly good, too! Check them out at: Lucy can be found at Take a look. You may discover good times and great thoughts.

Towel Bar Fix !

How do you replace a missing towel bar? You have two matching ceramic towel rack supports but nothing to hang things on. Wood will not flex enough to fit into place. Adjustable bars, with a hold-down screw, are not continuous and are ugly. After many days of thought, I devised the perfect solution: I used a carefully measured and cut piece of half-inch white PVC pipe. It flexed enough to be wedged into place and is firm enough to support plenty of weight without bowing. I know this is a simple idea, but I am quite proud of the results. It looks quite presentable and cures a problem, with a custom fit, at very little cost. Sometimes the simple things provide the most satisfaction!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Soul?

Superficial analysis would find that a stuffed animal is composed of a couple of plastic eyes, maybe some other ornamentation and a large wad of polyester fiber all contained by a few pieces of cloth sewn together. This is what it becomes after your dog mangles it, it is left on a highway shoulder for a month or it winds up in a land fill. Is that really all it is?

Added value begins in many ways. The first step is usually when the toy is given a name. Now the stuffed animal counts, at least a little, to its owner. It helps if they are fuzzy and cute. Feel has a lot to do with how you feel about them. If they are soft and fit into your hand, they are a good candidate for endearment. Attachment seems directly proportional with age. If the toy has traveled many miles and shared days, months or years with you, it gains more sentiment. As the fuzzy nap begins to wear, imperfections in color, a stain or two and random (possibly memorable) dirt all add to the level of satisfaction it can bring you.

It doesn't need to be a stuffed animal. It can be a doll, a blanket, a shirt, a pillow or even a plant. Blankets can be loved to death. I have seen blankets become frayed, fall into pieces, shredded, tied into knots to retain some resemblance of a whole and, finally, become a sacred thread or two. No matter how worn it becomes, it constantly increases in value in huggabilty!

The amount of soothing satisfaction and comfort provided by a cherished object is immeasurable. When personal relationships collapse, or during periods of great loss, the things you love to clutch can certainly become your best friend. Their services are never-ending and nothing is asked for in return. It's a one-way street. You can take all you want without any obligation to return the favor. What a great arrangement!

Just imagine what you would hear if the object you clutch could talk! You would remember how you first met your "friend," when you decided it was special and all the fun and horrible events you both lived through. The trip to the hospital when you got your first stitches after a fall. The night your cat did not come home. The horrible predicament in sixth grade when you thought everyone was looking at you. You know you can never part with it no matter how old you grow. Certainly, it is a guilty comfort and pleasure.

But do these things really have a soul? Is there more to their part in your life than what you might expect from a couple of yards of cloth? I think it is all in the eyes of the owner. Reaching back centuries or more, endeared fetishes held much greater powers than simple soothing. VooDoo Ouanga dolls held the most tremendous powers known. Look into their eyes. Are they magical? Are they spiritual? Is there anything going on inside them?

The relationship between "friend" and owner is passionate and personal. In a random survey, when asked what makes these things special, the number one answer was 'I don't know.' It's personal and it's remarkable. It's a reminder of past events, good and bad. It's comfort. It's security and love. Does it have a soul and spirit all its own? Only you can decide. Just don't take it away from me!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I Own A Polar Bear !

What weighs a thousand pounds, comes out only at dawn and lives for Morse code? It's Brutus, the silly polar bear. Born in January, 2003, his natural habitat is on shortwave radio. Brutus lives in Northern Westchester, right outside of New York City. He has also been sited at the home of a fly-fishing lawyer in Savannah, Georgia. We are never sure what he will do next, but he is always out of control ready for comic adventure!

Brutus had an unusual beginning. Believe it or not, in the year 2007, there are still many people who communicate with Morse code. Most all of them are ham radio operators who always seek new adventure and fun. It's not easy to become fluent in Morse, and newcomers cringe and pale when faced with fast-paced dits and dahs from afar. To keep the Morse community fresh and alive, several enthusiastic clubs actively train others in this skill.

One dominant club is called Fists, (referring to the anatomical part needed to operate a key.) I met Gil, callsign KG4VCG, through the Fists' tutorial Code Buddy program. (That's Gil above!) Gil was learning the code and I was his teacher. It all started, via shortwave radio, in the first days of 2003. We mutually decided to meet on the air daily at 5:30 am, right before we both left for work, to practice Morse code on the air with our amateur radio transmitters. At first, it was rough going. I had to send very slowly to Gil so he could register each character accurately. Not much was said, but we were communicating! Gil's comprehension improved rapidly, and before long, the basic material was not enough to fill a conversation. After a basic exchange of name, location and signal strength we needed more to talk about!

Suddenly, Brutus was born! One technique I had used with other Morse code students was to send text that was highly illogical. It demanded that the student receiver of the coded message be very accurate in their "copy." One morning, I told Gil I had a big, white and furry visitor sitting next to me. He was kind of a big guy and really liked to eat nearly anything he could. His name was Brutus and, by the way, he was a polar bear!

Gil was very cool about this! He understood my goofy message word perfect! His response did not miss a beat: "OK on the bear. I'll send up a bucket of fish!" This story went on for days and days and the story grew. "When will the fish get here?" I cried. "The bear is getting really cranky!" I can only imagine what passersby must have thought if they were casually reading our "mail." Was this a spy operation speaking in a cryptic code?

Over the next few weeks of practice, the stories became more and more elaborate. Brutus the polar bear participated in a parade in downtown Savannah, took a specially-arranged plane trip up to New York City and befriended a group of nuns who adopted him and tried to provide him with spiritual guidance. The amounts of fish and ice Gil and I needed for Brutus' well-being were enormous.

We started to build a small audience. When Morse code operators sign off, they often use a quick signature borrowed from the classic vaudeville jingle of closure. One station sends (in Morse code dits) "shine and a haircut" and the other station replies "two bits" (dit dit.) When other stations were listening in, they will also sign "dit dit" to indicate they were monitoring the conversation. I heard extra "dit dits" more and more often as the adventures of Brutus continued.

In the end, Gil became the finest student I had ever tutored. I must have had quite an influence on his perspective on amateur radio. Gil changed his callsign from KG4VCG to NN4CW. This was quite an honor for myself and Mr. Morse! NN refers to the U.S. Navy where many of the finest telegraphers practiced their trade. CW stands for Continuous Wave, the kind of radio signals telegraphers send through the air. Gil kindly sent a couple of momentos of thanks for my tutelage: a Navy sparkproof Morse code key and a keepsake tie clip, in the shape of a code key, embellished with the old logo of RCA (The Radio Corporation of America.) I will always treasure these gifts!

Brutus lives on to this day! Gil and I still mention him frequently in our e-mails and, of course, any time we meet on the air. Pass the seal meat and fish and shovel the ice! Here comes the polar bear of the airwaves! If you are lucky, maybe you'll hear us talking about him someday (especially if you understand Morse code!) For more information regarding the Fists club, surf to: or write to me at Dit dit!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Just Don't Shoot !

Kivetsky was finally becoming the cover band for good times and fun. Every weekend we gigged at the best college bars on Long Island: Tabard's Ale House, The Oak Beach Inn, Rumrunners or The Dublin Pub. We earned a loyal following of collegiate girls (and sometimes their boyfriends.) Kivetsky was ready for its first big single. Were we big? We had our own blue Ford Econoline van with a sometimes-working radio! Fame was around the corner and we could even drive there!

It was the summer of 1973. Viet Nam was winding down, The World Trade Center had just opened and Watergate was in the headlines. My good friend Doug and I were both done with our spring semesters and we needed a job. Not to turn down any source of income, whenever there was a gig; Doug and I were roadies for Kivetsky. (Yes, THE Kivetsky!)

Lots of extra cash filled our pockets as we worked an endless series of prom gigs. Proms meant short sets, early evenings and big dollars. We were having a blast (even allowing for the nightly croon of Chicago's 'Color My World'.) The venues were extravagant. Huge country clubs, wedding halls and even The New York State Pavilion at the old World's Fair grounds in Flushing. The Pavilion was a restaurant in the round, many stories high, with spectacular views of Queens and Manhattan.

It wasn't a bad gig. The load-out of the van was easy. The elevators were large and roomy. The restaurant was expansive and the crowd thought we were bigger than McCartney and Wings. They loved us and by eleven o'clock black limousines were taking the partiers to The City for more revelry. Doug and I packed the band in record time and we headed down to the parking lot to open the van. We had a minor problem: The van was gone!

In 1973, the cell phone had not yet been invented. Near-immediate communication could be had with a dime in-hand and a pay phone nearby! Doug and I called one of the band members, Bruce Smith, and gave him the bad news. We couldn't rent a van that late at night so we begged the restaurant to keep our equipment locked up until morning. Bruce eventually picked us up in his Dad's car and got us home.

The van was registered to our lead singer Charleen Rhindress. We called her around eight the next morning and gave her the bad news. Her Dad contacted the 105th Precinct and made an auto theft report. Doug and I got together with our bassist, Don Lipari, rented a van with cash from last night's gig, and ran over to The Pavilion to re-claim our equipment in time for that night's gig.

The next few days were tense. We didn't have enough money to keep renting a van and we didn't have enough to buy one, either! After working a long three or four set night at the college bars, we had just enough to break even. This wasn't fun. We conspired for a solution when the phone rang at Charleen's house.

Kivetsky had just finished their first set when we got the message to call the Rhindress household. Charleen's Dad said The New York City Police had found our van abandoned in the parking lot of Bellerose Lanes, a local bowling alley, right in our neighborhood. I had my car with me, a not-so-sexy Dodge Demon, and we ran off to retrieve the van. We could hardly wait to see it hoping it wasn't too damaged and still moved forward. (This was a challenge even before it was stolen!)

It took us just over half an hour to reach the bowling alley, and on a Saturday night, it was hard to find a parking spot. Sure enough, when we cruised the parking lot we found the van with it's driver's side window still intact. Doug and I parked and walked slowly over to the van. I was hoping my key would start it and we could finally get rid of the rental. This was great! They found the van!

I looked into the van's window to see where we stood. It didn't look bad, but I could see that the door lock was damaged. Doug and I exchanged satisfied looks and I decided to open the door. I pressed the button on the handle and it opened right away! Cool!

Just as I was about to step up into the driver's seat, a low-riding long sedan screeches up in front of us. Four guys jump out and the driver pulls a small-caliber pistol on us and yells: "DON'T MOVE!" The other three guys grab us from behind and hold us tightly. Not a word is said. They frisk us down and pull our wallets out of our pockets. 'Take whatever you want. Do whatever you want. Just let me live' I say to myself. Every moment felt like an hour. What the hell was going on?

The driver, with scraggly beard and rock-star long hair, finally says "What's your name?" Doug and I reply with a quiver. "Who the hell are you? You trying to steal this van?" (We give up. Are these the guys who stole it? Are they going to mangle us for trying to swipe their catch?)
"The police told us it was here and told us to pick it up. It belongs to Charleen Rhindress. I've got the registration in my wallet" I reply.

"Shit!" the driver yells. 'We are so dead' I say to myself. Doug and I are looking at the ground, spread-eagle against the van, still being held by the posse. A long pause passes. The driver retorts: "Do you know what you've done? You've just blown a $10,000 stake out. We've been waiting here for hours waiting for someone to come back to this van. What the hell is wrong with you?" OK. Who are these guys? Are we going to live?

The accessory thugs release us. The driver, who resembles Don Felder of The Eagles, gives us twenty questions. I feel like I am trying to talk my way out of getting pummeled by the school bully. "Well, the cops told us we could pick it up and we didn't know it was being staked out and...(Please don't hurt me! Please don't hurt me!) I babbled away. Doug and I now get the hint that these guys ARE the police. The driver points to Doug and says "You come with me - and you (pointing at me) - get in the van and drive it back to the 105th Precinct. You know where that is, right?" You bet I know. Holy cow. Maybe we are safe.

Doug gets into the back seat with the posse and I climb in the van. Oh, crap! My key won't go in. The lock has been bashed. I jiggle and fumble with it. I can't turn it. It won't start. I'm thinking: 'What are they going to do to me now?' I sit there for what feels like hours trying to turn the ignition. The sedan screeches back. The driver yells "What the hell is wrong?" "It won't start!" He mumbles something to one of the guys in the back seat. A guy opens the door, walks over to the van, reaches into the ignition and starts it in a second. (Do I know how to do this? Jeez!) I put the van into drive and slowly follow the sedan down Jericho Turnpike and Jamaica Avenue back to the police station.

The gang escorts Doug and I to the main desk in the precinct. We are still shaking like a leaf. Suddenly we are in a bad episode of 'Car 54 Where Are You?' The desk clerk trumpets "State your names." After a brief stern speech, they tell us that only Charleen can claim the van. It will be held at the precinct for a day and, if not claimed, it will be impounded. We are happy. We will live! One of the officers even gave us a ride back to the bowling alley so we could get back to my car. What a night!

Believe it or not, it's now only about 9 o'clock. Doug and I decide to go back to tonight's gig and wind down for awhile. The entire band was relieved to hear the van was OK. Charleen and her Dad reclaimed the van the next morning. In a few months, the van's engine would die and Kivetsky would be looking for another van for a few hundred bucks. The price of fame!

Eventually, Kivetsky did find fame of a different sort. The drummer became a high school math department chairman. The pianist entertained the masses as an accomplished dentist. Our friend, Bruce, stayed in the business as a booking agent. Charleen became a housewife and lived happily in the suburbs. Doug and I are just happy to be alive!

Monday, August 20, 2007

I Have Seen The Future

Over-the-air analog television is scheduled to take its final breath on or before February 17, 2009. By federal regulation, all analog television broadcasting must cease. Television will only be broadcast digitally from that day forward. It will be quite a landmark day in the history of television broadcasting. Not only will the mode of transmission change, the frequencies used will change dramatically, as well.

In the New York City area, eight out of the fifteen major over-the-air broadcasters will flip channels during the analog to digital transition. WCBS-DT, now on 56, will revert back to its original DTV channel 33. WPIX will vacate 33 and use channel 11 as its digital home. Similarly, WABC and WNET will also switch digital transmissions to their current analog channels 7 and 13 respectfully. A couple of UHF stations will do the same: WLIW 21 will use 21 for its digital future. WPXN 31 will also swap analog for digital.

WNBC will remain on DTV channel 28. Fox's WNYW will continue on channel 44. WNYE, the City of New York's educational channel, will drop analog channel 25 and remain digitally on 24. WWOR will vacate channel 9 and continue on their current DTV channel 38. Spanish speaking WXTV will close analog channel 41 and use channel 40. WFUT will move from analog 68 to digital 41. WNJU will be using channel 36 after the transition. Finally, WLNY, the independent TV station from Long Island, will move digital operations from channel 57 to channel 47. You'll need a chart to follow all these changes! You will also still need a VHF/UHF antenna. Early plans to transmit DTV only on UHF channels did not bear fruit! However, television broadcasting will be limited to channels 2 through 51. Channels 52 through 69 will be reallocated to other uses. Remember when television was broadcast as high as channel 83?

One interesting aspect of this momentous event: ABC is in a heated argument with New Jersey Public Broadcasting Network (NJN) over WABC-DT's pending use of channel 7 for digital broadcasting. NJN's WNJT, licensed to Trenton, New Jersey, has been allocated channel 8 for its long-term digital transmissions. WABC must move from their current DTV channel 45 to protect digital allocations on 45 slated for Pennsylvania and Connecticut. If WABC-DT operates on channel 7, WNJT-DT, at least in theory, will be limited in its useful coverage area. NJN and WABC are searching for a compromise to eliminate interference between these two broadcasts. One solution was to allow WNJT to co-locate antennae with WABC at Four Times Square in Manhattan. The FCC has yet to decide this dilemma.

How will things look when the transition is over? To continue to see anything over-the-air with an analog TV, you will need a digital tuner or a converter box. The Federal Government has established a program to provide needy viewers with $40 credit vouchers towards the purchase of up to two DTV converter boxes per household! From January 1, 2008 through March 31, 2009, everyone in America will be eligible to apply for and use these vouchers. The Department of Commerce has $990 million allocated for this program. Another $510 million is available, if necessary! The first allocation alone would provide vouchers to cover 2,465,000 converter boxes! One would think it would be more cost effective to simply buy a new TV!

The voucher plan has a fundamental problem: DTV converter boxes are nearly non-existent. DTV set top box tuners are pricey and usually need to be special ordered by mail. A couple of manufacturers also offer computer cards capable of DTV reception. Another option is to buy a DVD recorder, or similar device, that includes a DTV tuner. Anyone looking for an inexpensive converter box will have a challenging hunt! Radio Shack offered a stand-alone DTV tuner, under the Accurian brand name, for about $90 last year. They are now extremely hard to find.

Cable television viewers will probably not notice any change at all. Analog television signals will continue to pour out of their cable set top boxes for a long time to come. DirecTV and Dish Network users are no different. No new converters or televisions will be needed in these households. It will only be the folks who still use antennas for reception (including me!) that will have to deal with digital conversion havoc! Will CBS, NBC and Fox still call themselves 2, 4 and 5? Probably, since their programming won't move off those channels on most cable TV systems.

TV DXers will enter a new world. Although some exceptions exist, the low-band VHF television spectrum, channels 2 through 6, will be nearly empty of domestic broadcasting. When E-skip season arrives in June, July and December, international analog TV will sporadically drift in from The Caribbean, South America and Canada for the first time without domestic interference. (Canada has yet to announce a plan for complete transition to DTV.) If you always wanted to log CTV, Venezuela's RCTV or Cubavision, wait until the summer of 2009! Turn on your old analog TV and wait for results! It might be all you will ever see!

Seeing Green

While most hams were getting ready for Field Day, I was getting ready for a field trip! My destination: 3100 miles to the east to visit the land of the green. I touched down in Dublin on Saturday morning, June 23rd at about 9 am. From the first moment I left the plane I felt relaxed and at home. What a beautiful place it was! In many ways, Ireland is quite similar to America, but many things were interesting and new. Let me tell you all about them!

Plugging In

Adapting to the Emerald Isle is easy, at least electronically! Ireland’s power grid provides a standard 220 volts at 50 hertz instead of America’s 110 volts at 60 hertz. Many “travel” voltage step-down converters can covert 220 to 110 volts, but most can not change the frequency from 50 to 60 hertz. American clocks may run slower than expected! A/C hum is also a couple of notes lower at 100 Hz instead of the familiar 120 Hz we all know and love. Inspect all the electronic devices you bring abroad. Many computers and battery chargers (iPod, Nintendo, etc.) accept both 220 and 110 volts by design. If that’s so, then all you’ll need is a simple plastic plug adapter! No heavy power converter would be required! Ireland uses a more rugged power connector larger than our standard three prong plug. This style is universal throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland, with one exception: If you want to use an electric shaver in a hotel it needs to be fitted with an old–fashioned two round pin plug. Also, modern A/C wall receptacles all feature individual on/off switches for each outlet. Take a look at the light bulbs! Ireland uses an interesting twist-lock bayonet style with two connection prongs in the lamp base.

What’s On the Telly?

Four Irish channels are seen most everywhere: RTE One and Two, independent TV3 and RTE’s Irish Gaelic TG4. RTE is “owned by the people of Ireland” and is somewhat similar to our PBS. Each household in Ireland is required to purchase an annual TV licence (158 Euro - about $218) to support RTE's expenses. Most of the hotels I visited also offered Britain’s BBC2, Sky News and Sky Sports and CNN International. A few satellite-delivered channels might also be available such as SkyOne.

The four basic Irish channels were well-balanced and filled with variety. Most viewed are the soap operas Fair City and the British EastEnders, Saturday Night with Miriam (a very popular talk show) and any coverage of Gaelic football or hurling (Ireland’s two great sports.) The world stops every Saturday night around 9:35 pm to watch Miriam O'Callaghan chat with the famous on RTE One. There was no shortage of programs imported from America and Britain, but many shows seen are produced in Ireland. The Simpsons are enormously popular in Ireland seen at 5:35 pm on RTE Two. I caught Wimbledon tennis on the BBC in English with a second match on TG4 with commentary in Gaelic!

Irish television is transmitted using the Pal-I standard at 625 line resolution. (America uses a different system called NTSC.) It looks a little sharper than American TV, but you may see a little bit of on-screen flicker due to the slower alternating 50 hertz power standard.

Television distribution is interesting and diverse. RTE 1 and 2 can be seen in most areas over-the-air on UHF. Two companies, NTL and Chorus, provide most of Ireland’s “cable” television via cable or over-the-air microwave similar to America’s MMDS. NTL and Chorus have recently merged nearly creating a terrestrial monopoly. Irish MMDS antennas are fitted with block downconverters shifting the received microwave signals to UHF television frequencies. In some homes, a “converter” box processes the signals and presents them for viewing. Digital MMDS provides more channels by incorporating signal compression. The widest variety of channels can be seen via subscription service Sky Digital employing 10 GHz Ku band transmission via geosynchronous satellite. Unlike our DirecTV or Dish TV satellite services, a host of channels can be seen free-of-charge using Sky equipment. Of course, Sky wants you to subscribe to one of their many pay packages!

Another interesting quirk is the proliferation of “deflector” transmitters in rural areas of Ireland. When reception is poor in an outback area, many locals have established unofficial repeater transmitters to bring wanted signals to their community for both television and radio. Deflector transmitters date back to the early days of TV and radio when the Irish public was anxious for more diverse (or any!) content. In the early 1950s, deflectors brought the first available television broadcasts to Ireland using high gain antennas on towers installed to snag and repeat BBC signals from nearby Wales. Deflectors are generally tolerated by ComReg, the Irish version of the FCC.

Turn on your television and you’ll immediately know you are not in America! First, most sets sit idle in standby mode. You “wake up” the telly by entering a program number. The power button is only used to put the set back in standby when you are done. TV surfing is arranged by program numbers, not channel numbers. Your television’s auto-scanning set-up allows you to scan the Irish VHF and UHF bands for signals. When they are captured, you assign each a program number and an ID. After your TV is programmed you will never see a blank channel. You will only see the TV services saved in your presets. Manual tuning is very difficult, if not impossible, on modern Irish TV sets.

Irish television also features RTE Aertel, an extraordinary teletext system. Aertel cleverly transmits text data along with regular TV programming. Your home TV set receives and stores the data for your use on-demand. Information worthy of an elaborate newspaper can be seen on-screen using your remote control. First, press the text button. You’ll see the familiar RTE Aertel front page. Then, you can either enter specific page numbers or use the four coloured buttons on your remote to access teletext sub-groups: Full Index, News Heads, TV Now and Sport. You can even see detailed descriptions of RTE transmitter maintenance! Try it out for yourself at:

Closed captioning is available on most RTE programs using Aertel. If you are watching BBC channels, a similar text data service called CeeFax can caption your show, as well. Open the appropriate teletext service (Aertel or CeeFax,) and simply press 888 on your remote to activate. Captions appear in several text colors to distinguish who is speaking. Many Sky channels also offer teletext. Most TVs allow you to superimpose any teletext screen over live programming so you won’t miss a beat!

Aerials Above

Oh, the things you can see in Ireland! My fascination continued by looking up! Irish TV antenna designs are amazingly diverse. I almost thought there was a prohibition on aerial use in Dublin. You have to look very carefully to see even one TV antenna in the city (and it would probably be abandoned in poor condition.) Most everyone here is on cable or watches Sky satellite. Leave Dublin city and the aerial fun begins!

The Irish use both vertical and horizontal polarities to transmit over-the-air TV signals. (The United States uses horizontal polarization exclusively.) The advantage is more efficient spectrum use allowing tighter spacing of multiple transmitters to fill in all the nooks and crannies common to the terrain. Most popular are long inexpensive Yagis. You’ll notice their unusual flat metal grid reflectors and little black button weather-sealed baluns. Other UHF designs use a few elements mounted in a V as a reflector as you would expect to see in The States. UHF bow-tie arrays, with screen back grids, are quite popular as well. Depending on your location, you’ll see any or all of these types of antenna mounted horizontally or vertically and sometimes both!

Many areas still have a remnant or two of the days when VHF transmission was prevalent here. Simple classic design VHF Yagis still stand on chimney mounts. I caught a few built as an upper VHF Yagi in one polarity along with a couple of low VHF elements in the reverse polarity reminiscent of a 2 meter / 70 cm combo familiar to hams. Satellite dishes also have a different look: You can see through most of them! Unlike American home dishes that are solid in construction, Sky dishes are manufactured using perforated mesh. Their current design is oval. Some older dishes, still in use, are nearly identical to our familiar DirecTV designs.

Ireland’s MMDS aerials are equally unusual. You’ll see LNB assemblies much like America’s designs, but the mini-dish reflector is actually a piece of metal screening that has been pressed into a parabola for economy. They are prolific all over Counties Silgo, Galway and Clare. Microwave Internet distribution is quite common using small square antennas resembling white mini-roadsigns seen on many chimney mounts or miniature Yagis usually polarized vertically.

Irish Radio

Things are a wee bit different on the radio in Ireland, as well. Bring a simple radio with continuous analog tuning! Frequency allocations on FM are in 100 kHz increments across the 88 to 108 MHz standard FM band. You’ll find stations in unusual places like 102.0 MHz. Your American digitally-tuned FM radio will only get some stations clearly since they are programmed to receive only “odd” frequencies like 92.7 or 100.1 FM. (We use a wider 200 kHz spacing standard.) An analog radio is also essential for listening to AM since stations are separated 9 kHz apart unlike America’s “even” allocations every 10 kHz. Most European stations also follow these frequency allocation schemes on AM and FM.

Many Irish car radios incorporate the BBC’s RDS (Radio Data System) on FM. Using RDS, you simply set your radio to the network you wish to hear and the radio takes it from there! You’ll only see the name of your chosen network on the front panel display. Chances are, you’ll have continuous reception wherever you go! The radio automatically searches for the strongest signal available for your chosen network and always keeps you tuned in. If you have sharp ears (or a very quiet car) you may hear a slight difference in audio level or processing when the radio swaps to a better frequency. FM stations are allocated in groups of frequencies nationwide. RTE broadcasts four networks: RTE 1 (full-service radio,) 2FM (pop rock and chat,) Raidio Na Gaelachta in Gaelic (news, sports and lots of traditional Irish music,) and Lyric FM, their classical music service. Two independent networks are also heard: Today FM (top 40 pop and chat,) and Newstalk with the motto “different station, different nation” expressing their independence from Northern Ireland. Many areas have smaller independent FM stations that serve one county or area exclusively.

As you travel you will find these networks in the same order across the dial: RTE 1, 2FM and RnaG in a row from 88 to 95 mHz; Lyric shows up midband, followed by Today FM. Newstalk is always at the top of the band up around 106 to 108 MHz. Local FM broadcasters were usually found shuffled into the middle of the FM band. Even at the most remote outposts, I managed to hear at least 5 or 6 FM stations. Many, many transmitters are used to achieve good coverage, especially in rural areas, making RDS nearly a necessity.

Local medium wave “AM” radio is almost extinct in Ireland. RTE 1 is relayed, via a 500 kilowatt transmitter, from Tullamore (located dead center in Ireland) on 567 kHz. You’ll hear it effortlessly, nearly everywhere, even during the day. RTE 1 is also available on longwave via the former Atlantic 252 transmitter in County Meath, also in central Ireland. I searched several electronics shops and never found a modern radio capable of receiving long wave. I also heard a non-identifying (pirate?) AM station in Donegal (far north) playing endless traditional American country music.

Ireland sits much farther north than our native New York at about the same latitude as Canada’s Labrador. In the height of summer, nights are quite short! You won’t see complete darkness until about 11:30 pm, and dawn’s early light peeks in around 4:30 am. Late in the evening, the medium wave band in Ireland begins to sound like shortwave in America. Without any competition from local stations, the world starts to arrive at your receiver.

Possibly the most dominant medium wave signal at night is Radio China International relayed through the facilities of RTL Luxembourg on 1440 kHz with 300 kilowatts. This is the same frequency once used by the famous Radio Lux (208 metres) that delivered rock ‘n’ roll to all of post-war Europe until the end of the 1960s. It is very odd to hear China so clearly in Western Europe on medium wave! Sweden’s 600 kilowatt station is equally prominent on 1179 kHz in English from 9:30 to 10 pm. You’ll hear them in Swedish and other languages throughout the night. Many stations can be heard in French, German and Slavic languages. You’ll also find a host of frequencies airing the BBC’s Radio Wales, Radio 5 and Radio Scotland along with independent Virgin Radio from London. A lifetime could be spent logging all the mysteries heard on Irish medium wave. I only had nine days and a little transistor radio!

Blaupunkt seems to be today’s car radio manufacturer of choice throughout the Emerald Isle. Old German-design wooden table radios, quite popular in the 1960s, can be found seemingly everywhere in quantity as antiques. I saw dozens of them during my trip in hotel lobbies, restaurants, and shop windows. They all share the distinctive Grundig design and shape with dual speakers behind the front grille cloth, two big knobs, volume on the left and tuning on the right, and white “piano keys” for turning the set on and off and changing bands. Most sets offer three bands: Long wave, medium wave and shortwave. The dials note where to look for broadcasts from places like Hilversum, Paris and Munich. You’ll also find a piano key to switch to your Gramophone (record player!) A radio restorer could easily establish a career here. I never met one of these radios that still worked!

New Technology

Ireland is a nation in waiting (for HDTV.) Many hotels and taverns have 16 x 9 sets and some of them actually display HDTV! All HDTV programming arrives from abroad via Sky satellite. Sky TV offers 9 channels of HDTV including BBC HD, the HD channels of History Channel, National Geographic and Discovery and 5 exclusive channels produced by Sky. Nearly every place I went had some sort of widescreen display, but most often it was filled with Irish sports coverage (in zoom mode) or even RTE Aertel’s teletext showing listings of Euro (currency) exchange rates. A late update: RTE aired their first experimental HDTV sports broadcast this past July.

Digital radio is beginning to be broadcast on a new band around 225 MHz via two experimental multiplexes in select areas around the country. Multiplex one carries ten RTE channels including the classic four basic services widely heard throughout the country on analog radios. Multiplex 2 features national independent services Newstalk and Today FM along with 4 local stations from Dublin. A special receiver is required to hear these tests. Ireland decided not to try in-band on-channel digital currently used here in America.

The Places You See

The most fascinating experience of my trip was not fully appreciated until several days after I left The Emerald Isle. I visited the most northerly point in Ireland called Malin Head in County Donegal. As our bus approached the site, we passed a rather elaborate small radio station. With very limited knowledge of the area, I could only guess its purpose. A quick scan with my AM/FM portable produced no clues!

We finally reached our destination: A high bluff featuring gale force winds and gorgeous expansive views. Sailors beware! The seas below were rampant in turmoil and treachery. Two abandoned buildings stood at the summit. One was a three story lookout tower and the other was a concise low profile concrete hut. Both buildings were of a similar vintage - old but not ancient. They were obviously abandoned long ago. I did not give them much thought.

As we drove away, I asked our bus driver if he could pause at the radio station so I could take some snapshots. My curiousity was piqued when I noticed the station was an outpost of the Irish Coast Guard. Outside the small buildings at the station were two short towers, about 150 feet tall, supporting a complex array of wire antennae. I wished I had a back yard like this at home! I documented the site with my digital camera as best I could. On we went!

Only after I had arrived home in The States did I understand what a magical visit that was! Some quick research on the Internet revealed the answers to my questions. The little radio station was Malin Head Radio - callsign EJM - a primary centre for marine communications and rescue support.

Today, EJM operates primarily on 1677 kHz, and the standard safety frequency 2182 kHz, in SSB. The station is home to four one-kilowatt Rohde and Schwarz transmitters, a 750 watt Scanti transmitter, a one-kilowatt Navtex transmitter and an array of professional HF receivers. Malin Head Radio is also the control point for many VHF radio transceivers installed throughout a wide area of the Irish seacoast. It is a beehive of activity for navigation and life saving support.

The abandoned hilltop site proved more remarkable. This bluff is properly known as Banba's Crown. This three-story lookout was built in 1805 by Lloyd's of London as a signal tower to communicate with passing ships. Semaphore and telescopes were used initially along with signal lights. In 1902, Marconi wireless equipment and antennae were installed at the site. The station itself was situated in the tall tower. The low profile building housed the connections and tuning unit for the antennae strung aloft. The original spark transmitter operated at 250 watts.

The Post Office took over the station in 1909. Four years later, in 1913, the station was rebuilt at its present site, two miles south of Banba's Crown, with a 5,000 watt transmitter feeding one tall mast and antenna. The average range of the new station was about 450 miles during the day. At night, Malin Head's signals could be heard 1200 miles away and beyond. The site was ideal for medium wave radio transmission. Malin Head Radio was one of scores of stations worldwide who operated and monitored 500 kHz for CW traffic. The last 500 kHz CW transmission was completed on December 31, 1988. The station now operates exclusively with SSB on medium and shortwave. They have not missed one day's operation since opening day January 1, 1902!

Journey's End

Over the nine days spent in Ireland, I never lost my smile. We traveled north into Donegal followed by a long pleasant journey south through Counties Silgo, Galway, Clare, Kerry and Limerick before casting off from Shannon. No matter where we went, rolling hills of green meadows followed us everywhere. With only six million people living in Ireland, the sheep and cattle far outnumbered people! The sights, the heavenly music, the memorable food and drink all conveyed a single message: You're very welcome! What a lovely place to be. Try it out for yourself and see!