Wednesday, April 20, 2005

NAB/RTDNA: Second day

Between all the things going on here and a mix up in my ticket registration, it didn’t seem like a productive Day 2. But in actuality, it has been.
To start, I managed to win a super-cool Marantz digital recorder PDM660 in one of those business card contests. On the first day here, I happened to pass by the Marantz/Denon booth and saw they were giving a bunch away. The PDM660 is the latest in recording technology for radio journalists. It records direct to .wav, .mpeg or .mp3 files instead of using minidisk [MD] format, which is actually pretty productive, as well as low cost. For whatever reason - probably because they have some other format coming - Sony is discontinuing MDs and all the major radio purchasing sites are no longer carrying recorders. What stinks is that the PDM660 is a $700 machine - whereas the MD recorders are in the $200 range. However, I’m told that the PDM660 allows for the computer user to grab the file and put it directly into Adobe Audition. This is actually a huge time-saver, since MDs require the real-time transfer of audio from MD player to Audition. This should save a slew of time in production of audio, especially long press conferences or meetings, which in the end, saves time which saves money.
But enough of the gadget talk.
Because of the ticket mix up, I was unable to get into a discussion about getting news stories in a pinch when nothing is going on. After trudging all the way back to the main registration desk on the other side of the convention center, I was able to get a new pass and catch the tail end of “50 investigations in 50 minutes,” hosted by Duane Pohlman of WEWS-TV. I plan on looking into purchasing the CDR of the talk because the last 10 minutes of the presentation which I did manage to catch were very enlightening.
While the discussion was mostly geared towards television and newspapers, the stories can be presented in any format. Topics like campaign finance contributions, pollution and drug statistics, child endangerment, and other things were listed. Most good reporters know to look at these things anyway. But it doesn’t hurt to get an overview.
Later in the day, our group rushed over to the NAB luncheon which really opened my eyes to not only the power that radio has over people’s lives but also the ability to connect with the community in a positive manner.
NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts gave out Crystal Awards to 10 stations - narrowed down from 50 - for community service awards. To hear some of the things these stations did for their communities was truly impressive. Fundraisers, blood drives, voter reg. drives, charitable contributions and events, community meetings, hours and hours of assistance to communities they served was like nothing I’ve ever seen especially in these days of corporate-dominated media thinking of nothing more than the bottom line. It is also something to strive for in the future.
In the handout presented to luncheon attendees, all 50 stations really set out to serve their communities on a regular basis, however, a few of the 10 eventual winners really stood out. One station - KNOM-AM in Nome, Alaska - serves 150,000 square miles and flies 300 volunteers around the region to cover meetings and bring in audio clips to share with their listening public. Can you imagine that: Hundreds of folks, working for free, just to bring their regional news into the station? Amazing. What a community. Another station, WCMT in Martin, Tennessee, a 700-watt AM station, was also honored with an award, as was KLOS-FM in Los Angeles. A number of the other 10 stations named were under the ownership of Bonneville Broadcasting - a large corporate owner of more than 150 radio stations. Most of the speakers for those stations noted that the corporate mucky-mucks had encouraged GMs to reach out to the community - in big ways [I may talk later about NAB and the corporate owner issues. Right now, I want to stick to the positive]. I can’t stress enough how inspiring these awards were and all the work and time these stations put into the community - beyond an employee’s 40-plus hours a week. I couldn’t help but wonder how much good could get done if every employee of every company in media gave as much time. Of course, we all have personal lives too, and nothing is more important than taking care of one’s own family. But this part of the luncheon was really inspirational and really got me thinking about not only all the great things radio does but how much more we can do.
John Gage, the chief researcher and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, gave the keynote speech, speaking from random notes he put together from the day’s events on his Mac, which was then presented on large screens in the ballroom. Gage commended U2’s Bono for being able to galvanize thousands of people at concerts to use their cell phones to sign a petition to release the third world from their massive debts [As an aside, I am still waiting for Bono to take the initiative on this matter by going after the World Bank and IMF or even having U2 headline a massive tour in which the proceeds were donated to Africa aid relief. Can anyone say Live Aid II?].
Gage also discussed the benefits and dangers of new technology which was a bit compelling. Clearly, he had been gathering data, if you will, from the discussions at NAB, since this is a worry among broadcasters. Digital broadcasting to cell phones and other gadgets as well as the danger of RFIDs were also highlighted by Gage. He also introduced a new “product” his company worked on during the last two weeks - a converter for TVs which would distribute a digital signal to analog TVs which cost Sun about $30 in parts to build. Gage noted that current converters are about $300. He didn’t mention whether Sun would be getting into the converter business but his point was pretty clear to those folks who are working on the technology.
The late Jack Buck, a St. Louis-based baseball and football broadcaster, was given the NAB Hall of Fame Award. His second wife, Carole Buck, accepted the award and told humorous anecdotes of his life and charity and 50-plus years of sports broadcasting.
After the luncheon, I attended the last half of “What’s the future of radio news?” with a bunch of the big national radio news organizations as panelists: ABC, CBS, Clear Channel, NPR, and Sirius. The moderator, Thom Callahan, is the GM of AP Radio. The discussion, however, seemed less about “the future” of radio news and more about the current state of radio news. There was also some discussion about bloggers and how they can’t be trusted and neither could information on the Web.
Interestingly, a few of the panelists joked about wanting “world domination.” While it was a lighthearted comment by Robert Garcia, bureau chief of ABC Radio, others in attendance seemed to agree, including the guy from Clear Channel, Gabe Hobbs, the VP of programming for news, talk, and sports, whose corporation owns more than 1,200 radio stations. Hobbs made a couple of self-deprecating comments about his network, which were pretty funny.
There were some good, solid questions from the audience about where the new generation of radio news reporters was going to come from, and other issues related to employment issues. There was a guy from something called The Next Generation, apparently a group working with NPR, trying to come up with ways to get folks into the radio news industry. A couple of questioners asked about employment issues and a few of the panelists talked about their internship programs and how they were making new hires. Hobbs said he was unable to find good folks to work which garnered some scuttles in the audience and at least one college kid who stood up and said he would be looking for job in two years. He also deflected some criticism from a guy complaining about one to two person news teams serving multiple stations and pointed to a train derailment in upstate New York which spew chemicals into the community yet none of the stations were on the air live with a news team to report the incident. I don’t know if the stations were Clear Channel owned and operated but if they were, Hobbs handled the question well. He noted that in the case of the train derailment, the Emergency Broadcast System was not issued by authorities - leaving the stations in the cold - and therefore, it was the fault of authorities for not letting the public know about the incident.
I also made some comments which led to a question about the tabloidization of the media. First, I commented that bloggers - while often motivated by opinion - relentlessly research to prove their points, essentially doing the jobs that the media is supposed to do … like cover important stories, such as the foreign nations buying American debt. I then tied that into the question. While not naming the network that the station I work at carries, I noted that the Michael Jackson coverage had been particularly dark and disgusting, which could also harm listeners who might have been molested and would have to listen to the Jackson trial coverage ad nauseam, on the hour, especially during the accuser’s testimony phase of the trial [I could go into the perverse descriptions that were relayed by the news reporter over and over again but then, that would make me as bad as said network, right? You've all heard about the case. You all know what child molestation is about. 'Nuff said]. I also was critical of the Martha Stewart coverage [not knowing that Sirius had just signed Stewart to a radio show] and noted that Dave Ross of CBS News had a hilarious short radio commentary which aired on the day that Stewart was released from prison, collecting audio from all the networks and comments they made and wondering whether this was all that important a story to cover. What is the future of the important stories that radio news is supposed to cover?
Needless to say, there was some unease with my concerns.
All of them pretty much agreed that they didn’t think bloggers could be trusted and that the public was driving the tabloid coverage of the news and that there wasn’t anything they could do about it. The Sirius guy, Jay Clark, EVP of programming, jokingly said he hoped the news departments would keep talking about Stewart. Hobbs said he thought it was dangerous for news departments to not cover what the people wanted and instead, cover what news directors and departments want - or thought - they should cover [Note to Hobbs: What is the point of having a news director if they can't suggest important stories to cover instead of Michael Jackson?]. Harvey Nagler, the VP of CBS Radio News, grimaced during my comments and his answers, probably knowing that yeah, I was talking about his crummy network, and he gave me the evil eye for much of the rest of the discussion. He also reiterated that the tabloid coverage was driven by the listeners. Hogwash. Try not covering it for one day and cover something and see what happens. Challenge yourselves to inform and educate the listening public and not just titilate - or disgust - them!
These comments were pretty shocking to me but not surprising. They lend credence to the extremely important comments by Valerie Hyman which I wrote about in the previous NAB post - journalists are patriots, the only job protected by the Constitution, and whose jobs make for a better democracy. It also leads one to wonder about the state of the news and its future, something the panel didn’t seem to answer very well at all.

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