Archive for the 'broadcasting' Category

Rumblings in the vast wasteland

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

Remember that big dusty box in the living room you used to sit and stare at for hours back in the good old days of 2007? I think it’s called a “television set”, and it’s slowly coming back to life after months of reruns and reality shows. First to return with new material since the Hollywood writers strike was settled last week will be The CW’s sitcom Aliens in America, which kicks off with eight original episodes beginning March 2. By April, most programs that are coming back this season will be on the air. Since sitcoms are produced with a shorter lead time, they’ll initially make up the bulk of returning shows; dramas will begin showing up in late March.

Here’s a list of announced returns, courtesy of The Miami Herald:

March 2: Aliens in America (The CW).

March 3: Everybody Hates Chris (The CW).

March 17: How I Met Your Mother (CBS); The Big Bang Theory (CBS); Two and a Half Men (CBS).

March 23: The Game (The CW)

March 24: CSI: Miami (CBS)

March 30: Cold Case (CBS)

April 2: Criminal Minds (CBS); CSI: New York (CBS)

April 3: My Name Is Earl (NBC); CSI (CBS); Without a Trace (CBS)

April 4: Ghost Whisperer (CBS); Numb3rs (CBS)

April 8: NCIS (CBS)

April 10: The Office (NBC); 30 Rock (NBC); Scrubs (NBC)

April 11: Moonlight (CBS)

April 14: One Tree Hill (The CW); Rules of Engagement (CBS)

April 15: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC)

April 21: Gossip Girl (The CW)

April 22: Reaper (The CW); Law & Order (NBC)

April 24: Supernatural (The CW)

Fox and ABC still haven’t issued comprehensive lists of post-strike programming, although ABC will present new episodes of Desperate Housewives and Lost this spring. Some shows won’t be back; for example, the CW has canceled entertainment-news program CW Now and sitcom Girlfriends. And the network hasn’t ordered new episodes of family-on-safari drama Life Is Wild, an ominous sign. On the other hand, NBC has announced that its first-year dramas Chuck and Life won’t be back this spring but have been renewed for the fall. Same goes for Fox’s 24.

Other shows renewed for next season: ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, Lost, Dirty Sexy Money, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, Private Practice, Samantha Who? and Pushing Daisies; CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, Cold Case, Criminal Minds, Ghost Whisperer, NCIS, Two and a Half Men, Numb3rs, Without a Trace, and all 200 versions of CSI.

As for me, I can’t say the writer’s strike affected my viewing habits at all — which mainly consist of The Daily Show, (endless!) reruns of Law and Order, and DVD movie rentals. Still, I’m glad the strike is over and scribes can go back to work earning their measly $50,000 per episode. It ain’t easy, you know. To quote the late Hunter S. Thompson, “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason. There’s also a negative side.”

End could be in sight for TV writer’s strike

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

Encouraging news for TV fans over the weekend: the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) has reached a tentative agreement with the studio conglomerates (AMPTP). The new terms set residuals on so-called “new media” which almost double the previous rates. While the striking Writers Guild (WGA) is a separate entity from the director’s association, it has been widely speculated that any deal with the studios achieved by the DGA would serve as a template for the writers to reach a similar settlement.

The leadership of the Writer’s Guild is closely examining the DGA deal, but issued a public statement today that I thought was a bit provocative, containing this less-than-conciliatory remark: “For over a month, we have been urging the conglomerates to return to the table and bargain in good faith. They have chosen to negotiate with the DGA instead.”

Nevertheless, most rank-and-file members are optimistic about the terms of the DGA’s contract. Noted director Oliver Stone said, “I’ve read the bullet points, and it is a step in the right direction, it shows that agreement is possible, and it brings a spirit of hope that hopefully will extend to the WGA and the AMPTP. If it is not taken in that spirit, that would be most unfortunate.” Many Hollywood notables attending this week’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT, are also eager to go back to work. “I’m very pleased with the new [DGA] agreement and I hope it helps speed up the negotiations with the WGA,” actor George Clooney said in a statement.

Talks between the writers and the studios, which have been at an impasse for weeks, could resume as early as tomorrow, according to Variety magazine. However, don’t look for your favorite shows from before the strike to reappear any time soon. There has been much bad blood generated on both sides by the walkout, so it’s likely that several more weeks of negotiations could pass before any agreement is hammered out. Also, the delay involved in ramping up the studios to begin production (even assuming that the writers already have scripts in their laptops that they’ve been withholding due to the strike) could be lengthy. Still, it looks like progress is finally being made.

The future of music

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

Foreword: I’ve written extensively in this space in the past about the sea change taking place in the music business from my perspective as a radio broadcaster. We are living in historic times, as business paradigms that have existed for most of the last century are changing right before our eyes. Recently I read a very well-written article by Skip Pizzi in Radio World magazine, which deserves to be reprinted here for anyone who might be interested in this topic. It opens with a provocative question: has it become optional to pay for music? In my opinion, if this is not yet 100% the case, it will be in the not-so-distant future. I believe nothing less than a full-scale revolution is taking place among consumers of music, and taken to its extreme conclusion, it seems altogether possible that the concept of “making music for money” will eventually become as outmoded as the buggy whip, to use Skip’s comparison. Whether or not this will be a good thing is certainly debatable: shouldn’t any artist deserve to be paid for their work, no matter if their medium is painting, sculpture, photography, or music? Will artists cease to write, record, and perform music if they can’t get rich from doing so? Or will it weed out the hacks who are in the business just for the “rock star lifestyle”, leaving only those who genuinely love music to continue to create songs we enjoy listening to? Here’s the article; what do you think?

Singing The Buggy Whip Blues

At a recent conference presentation on the future of the music industry, a fellow panelist asked the audience if they agreed with his contention that it had now “become voluntary to pay for music.” This provocative statement brought into clear focus the magnitude of change that the music industry has undergone in recent years — and by the way, no one disagreed with him.

The music industry faces a unique challenge, in which external forces have conspired to eviscerate its traditional business model, while everything else around it remained largely the same. Neither supply nor demand for music has abated — if anything, they have both grown — but through a strange set of combinational circumstances, the context within which the industry monetizes this process has shifted, and revenue thereby produced has dwindled substantially. Although some in the industry like to point fingers in blame for this predicament, no one element is wholly responsible. Meanwhile, musicians continue to create music, and consumers continue to listen to it via a growing number of venues and platforms, but the traditional marketplace has almost disappeared. It’s as if people suddenly sprouted wings and began flying themselves to distant destinations. They are still traveling just as much or more, but the airlines can’t fill their seats.

Certainly this is not the first time that new technology has caused an established business to suffer losses. The classic case of the automobile’s impact on the buggy whip is fairly apt to the music industry’s woes here. But the music industry’s revenue flow is far more arcane and complex than the simple sale of a tangible product. It is a complicated arrangement that includes musicians, composers, producers, studios, talent scouts, licensing agents (at multiple levels), concert promoters, broadcasters, manufacturers and lawyers — lots of lawyers. So some deconstruction is in order.

First, consider that when we talk about “the music industry,” we usually think of the labels, but clearly the industry’s scope extends well beyond this. Thus any attempt to re-engineer the industry must be holistic and fully inclusive. The labels do play a key enabling role, however, adding value to the whole industry primarily through their processes of aggregation. But now the very need for this “middleman role” is being questioned, as both artists and consumers seek their respective individual paths for access and commerce with one another. Therefore the labels are at ground zero of this transition’s impact, and are shouting the loudest about it.

Yet they are not alone. Radio has also played an important part in the traditional music marketplace, so as the current disaggregation trend continues, radio’s value as a collective promoter of content may also diminish.

The key to survival of this ecosystem is how sustainable the replacement business model will be. Or perhaps a better way to phrase this is whether such sustainability will flow from the entire range of new models as a whole, because it already seems evident that there may be myriad new approaches in concurrent use, and that no single replacement approach will prevail.

Recent months have provided much to examine in this respect. One notable foray is Radiohead’s label-free, self-release of its much anticipated album “In Rainbows” as an unprotected download or a premium-packaged CD. Even more groundbreaking was the band’s pricing of the download at whatever the downloader wants to pay, from free on up. This first overt application of true voluntary payment occurred a few weeks after the discussion at the conference noted above, and to date, the average “In Rainbows” downloader is paying about $8. Meanwhile, other artists from Madonna to Trent Reznor have announced they will forego their traditional label arrangements and seek some method of independent access to customers. (None have yet gone so far as Radiohead to allow the consumer to choose what they’re willing to pay, however.)

Yet another approach is the flat-rate subscription model, whereby a consumer has access to a selection of music content for a fixed monthly fee. This is more of a rental than a purchase model, however, since most of today’s subscription services do not allow unfettered copying of content (i.e., no burning to CD). A variation on this scheme allows blanket licenses to be purchased for music usage (including fair-use copying) by large, contained groups of users, such as college campuses. Some have suggested that this approach be applied to ISPs for all their respective customers, and the costs recovered in the fees that the service providers’ charge to customers — like a tax or surcharge.

Still other options include traditional paid music downloads but without digital rights management, so once purchased, no restrictions are placed on the music’s usage by the customer. This more consumer-friendly approach seems to be gaining traction, and it is no less secure a digital format than the CDs the industry has been distributing for a quarter of a century.

At perhaps the extreme end of the spectrum is the idea that music downloads should be universally available for free, and revenue to the music industry would come from concerts and collateral sales.

Again, the most likely outcome is some assortment of the above, including a bit of the old model and several coexisting variations of the new. There’s plenty of room for variety, especially when you consider that some models will apply best to well-established artists, while others will be preferred by emerging talent.

Another useful analogy is the residential real estate market, where some homeowners prefer the FSBO (For Sale By Owner) approach, but many still go with a traditional Realtor. And there are agencies somewhere in between, helping FSBOs via aggregated listings and other services. A few “lightweight” indie labels or Web sites are analogous to the latter, such as Magnatune.com.

From a loftier perspective, one could observe that the value of aggregation is now simply moving downstream. Time was that artists needed a recording contract to even get their songs recorded, let alone promoted and played on the radio, then pressed and shipped to stores. The enormity of the entire industrial process made it impractical for individual artists to consider doing any of it themselves. Not so today, where about the only place even an emerging artist really benefits from reliance on an aggregator is in the “last mile” to consumer — i.e., the music stores, either physical or online. Established acts don’t need even that aggregation, as Radiohead’s sales of millions of copies of “In Rainbows” as an end-to-end independent effort has shown.

This is not to say that the traditional powerhouses of the music industry will go quietly into that good night. The RIAA continues to plow every field that appears remotely fertile, from suing users of unauthorized distribution sites to pushing for legislation and regulation that would mandate new royalties (including new performance royalties from local radio broadcasters). Meanwhile the labels themselves are pursuing a range of new revenue opportunities, as Chris (“The Long Tail”) Anderson recently noted in his blog.

He points out that while CD sales are indeed off, many other monetized industry elements are experiencing strong growth, such as concert tickets, promotional merchandise, digital music downloads, ringtones, licensing of music for commercials, TV shows, movies and video games, revenue from hardware (sales of some satellite radio receivers and MP3 players generate royalties to labels), and even vinyl singles — lots of club DJs out there, apparently.

A new reality is settling in for the music business, and there is certainly no shortage of differing reactions to it. Whether the old players adapt or a new industry emerges remains to be seen. In any case, the status quo is no more, and there will likely be no return to it.

© 2007 by Skip Pizzi, Radio World magazine

Day of reckoning arrives for Internet Radio

Monday, July 16th, 2007

Today is the day that crippling new fees for Internet Radio broadcasters mandated by the record industry and the Copyright Royalty Board go into effect, and I have a mixed bag of news to report on this subject. On the one hand, there’s reason for webcasters and their listeners to breathe a sigh of relief; SoundExchange, the arm of the RIAA responsible for collecting the fees, has announced that at least for the time being they will not “enforce” the new rates that are retroactive to January 2006, which would have caused many stations to be silent today. These outlets can continue to stream tunes while Soundexhange and representatives of the Internet Radio industry try to hammer out a compromise rate structure under the watchful eye of Congress.

But make no mistake, it is only due to the threat of legislative action that Soundexchange is being even remotely accommodating, and if you’re one of the millions of web radio fans who have contacted their elected representatives in the last several months, you can pat yourself on the back as your efforts really have made a difference. The public outcry has been phenomenal, and so far over 125 members of the House and Senate have co-sponsored the Internet Radio Equality Act in direct response to your concerns. This bill would cap royalty fees paid by webcasters to a reasonable 7.5% of revenue, the same rate paid by satellite radio broadcasters, and would address the outrageous “per-channel” fees which would bankrupt even commercial providers. But while many legislators are on board, the bill is not yet law — so please continue to contact your local officials and ask them to support H.R.2060 and S.1353.

The bad news is that as things stand at the moment, the March decision by the CRB remains in place; even though Soundexchange has announced it will not “enforce” collection of the fees, it still expects webcasters to pay them voluntarily. In a press release last Friday, the organization claimed that the “new rates and fees are in effect, and royalties are accruing”. This follows a ruling the previous day (July 12) by a federal appeals panel who dealt webcasters a setback by refusing to grant an emergency stay of the new rate structure. Therefore, lacking any legal remedy by webcasters, Soundexchange is simply saying, “the law is on our side and you owe us the money, we’re just not going to go after you … yet.” Of course, their benevolence could expire any time they damn well feel like it.

In any case, an uneasy status quo exists today while negotiations continue to try and reach a compromise to provide artists with fair payments yet allow a still-developing medium to thrive. But what does it all mean to you?

It means that there is a Battle Royale taking place for control over what music and other entertainment you are allowed to hear and see. Right now, this power is concentrated in a handful of media corporations known as “The Big Four”: Sony BMG, EMI, Universal, and Warner. For many years, the music industry has been mass-marketing whatever lowest-common-denominator product they can sell, making tons of money for themselves and for a very select few “star” artists. Smaller and independent artists who make music in what is known as the long tail of the popularity curve are effectively shut out. But suddenly, along came mp3′s, iPods, and the Internet — and the traditional methods of music production and distribution have been forever changed. To say that the music industry has not handled this well is the understatement of the century, and they are desperately trying to return to a business model that is evaporating right before their eyes.

In the last few days, I’ve searched the web looking for reaction and commentary from “plain folks” about this issue, and the results have been eye-opening. I think it’s fair to say that the music industry in general and the RIAA in particular is one of the most reviled organizations on the planet, in no small part due to their strong-arm tactics like this move to silence web radio as well as efforts to curb downloading. Here’s a sample of comments left on various web sites like this one that I’ve visited recently:

What the record industry is trying to control here is the ability of small, independent musicians to gain any audience at all – the kind of musicians the commercial radio stations and even satellite radio will never play. They’re trying to assure that real art doesn’t distract from their marketing of sex and violence dressed up as music. Any politician concerned with the state of our mass culture should recognize that the degeneracy is largely a corporate product. So anything that decreases the power of these corporations by allowing more real art to flourish in spaces they can’t control is key to restoring health to popular (and less-popular) culture.

-0-

The RIAA hates what it can’t control. It hates P2P (despite all the free promotion), barely tolerates iTunes (even though they’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars from ITMS sales), and has even sought to stop public libraries from lending out music (communists!) This move isn’t about revenue, it’s about killing net radio. The RIAA knows that it’s impractical (if not outright impossible) to strongarm every net radio station out there like they do with terrestrial or satellite radio, so they destroy what they can’t control.

-0-

Look, the goose is already cooked. Let’s face it, the RIAA has all but completely destroyed the recording industry rather than give up control. Putting all the internet radio stations out of business is a scorched earth move, merely a spiteful parting gesture from a walking corpse.

Let them do it.

Let them use their sweaty, mean spirited little pencil pushing lawyers to take their ball and go home.

Nothing short of this will precipitate the revolution that is needed in the media, and it starts with the smallest independent broadcasters.

You think these businesses will roll over and disappear without a fight? No way, they will merely adapt to circumstance.

The RIAA works by creating a false scarcity of content. In reality there is a glut of high quality Free content out there, millions of musicians and podcasters who have had a decade to become highly skilled content producers are just waiting for the death of Big Media so that their work can become valuable. The myth of “artists need to be paid” has been so completely destroyed only fools cling to it. Everybody knows how crooked the game is, that artists never get paid properly anyway, and that all the ones who have any merit produce because they want to and would do so even without an audience. Once they skulk off home to mommy taking their hyped manufactured rubbish with them there’s gonna be an explosion of new talent, new voices, fresh political commentators and documentary, new celebrity…. It’s ripe to happen, simple supply and demand. There is a vast reservoir of supply, and now the demand is about to kick in. I hope to God they pass this law, because it will be the death of the bastards. Once mainstream radio and TV get a sniff of how internet stations are surviving by bypassing corporate controlled material they will want a piece too. And thus the whole filthy mess begins to unwind….

-0-

Yeah well, every third person I meet claims that they’re a “musician.” So some slackers might have to get actual jobs and actually work for a living. I do not care. I look forward to the day Avril Lavigne takes my order for a cheeseburger. Musicians and artists tend to have an extremely high self-opinion in terms of what they think they contribute to “culture.” John Coltrane contributed to culture. The world would not be significantly different, however, if the last ten years in top 40 music had never happened.

Where’s the rock style life for the people who build bridges and clean up bathrooms? Where’s the rock star life for teachers who contribute something directly measurable to our civilization? Where’s the free booze and blowjobs for activists, community organizers, and people manning the soup kitchens tonight?

And for that matter, where’s the rock star life for the countless musicians in less lucrative genres like jazz or folk music? Some of the most mindblowing music I’ve ever heard was hardcore jazz played furiously with wild abandon on snowy nights in hole-in-the-wall bars in towns and cities you haven’t heard of by amateurs who had no chance in hell of ever making a living at it even in an ideal intellectual property/copyright environment.

What this all may portend is the end of the corporate-generated rock star and frankly, I couldn’t welcome it more.

-0-

This new technology has been sacrificed on the alter of old-technology profit-taking. What else do you expect from the US government with the jerks we have in power?

Are you sensing a theme here?

I predict that if webcasters and the RIAA are unable to reach a compromise and these new rates stand, several things will happen: (1) The largest internet radio services like Pandora, Last.fm and Live365 will begin charging subscription fees to cover the cost of the huge payments to Soundexchange; (2) The majority of stations who wish to remain law-abiding citizens of their communities will simply shut down, taking their independent voices and music with them; (3) A certain number of smaller broadcasters will thumb their nose at the new rates and continue to stream music until they are sued off the air by the RIAA; and (4) Most remaining stations will be located offshore, out of reach of the US legal system.

There’s been a temporary lull in the action today, but this battle ain’t over yet by a long shot. Please keep up the pressure on your Senators and Congressmen until we have a permanent solution.

LATE BREAKING UPDATE!

SoundExchange is already beginning to backpedal, with director John Simson saying late today that his organization never “promised” to not enforce fee collection (whether they do or not), and that barring any intervention by Congress, webcasters will still owe payments retroactively. Not only that, but Simson is adamant that any negotiations concerning fee reductions must be contingent on Internet radio stations adopting DRM technology — a.k.a. “copy protection” — to prevent listeners from ripping and recording broadcast streams. No matter that for decades it’s been considered “fair use” for people to employ conventional taping methods to record over-the-air radio stations; no, somehow this is different.

Internet broadcaster DJ Profusion quite accurately points out in this excellent article posted on the Daily Koz that Simson is “an unethical weasel who will say anything to further his own evil plans”, and SoundExchange is a corporate cartel which “has no interest in a negotiated settlement, they want to destroy Internet radio.”

We must keep this issue in the news – you can help by contacting your local Congress person to thank them for their support (or ask them to support Internet radio if they haven’t decided whether or not to support it), or your local reporter to bring the story to your news outlets.

Keep the pressure on!

Coming soon to your living room: Joost

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

I wrote here a while back about Joost; as a current beta-tester I can send invitations to anyone who’d like to try the service. If you’ve been curious to see what the noise is all about, just send me an email at mrtoast (AT) suddenlink (DOT) net, and I’ll be glad to wrangle an invite your way.

Since my previous Joost post, the latest news is that the developers are trying to get their content into more than just your PC; they would love to have it embedded into your home TV, as Tech Digest reports in this article:

New CEO, Michelangelo Volpi, said, “Joost is a piece of software and it can reside on a variety of platforms. It could be on a television set-top box. Or potentially it could be embedded in a TV set with an Ethernet connection, or on a mobile phone, or in some alternative device that might come out in the future.”

This word follows recent comments by David Clark, Joost’s Vice President of Global Advertising, who hinted that the company is talking to hardware manufacturers about embedding Joost software in various third-party devices. Details, including the names of other companies who might be involved, have not yet been revealed. But Joost’s founders are clearly on a fast track to work the same sort of magic with the upstart video-on-demand service that they did with Kazaa and Skype. Covering all the media bases, the company is also looking at creative ways for sponsors to advertise their products more effectively as well.

The company’s likely foray into big-screen TV is revealing. Following Microsoft’s failure with Windows Media Center to generate much interest among users for watching TV on their computers (something that apparently only hard-core geeks get enthusiastic about), Joost realizes that its content will be much more popular on that most familiar of living room media players, the TV set. The company is also ramping up its programming by making new deals with CNN, Sony TV, the NHL, Sports Illustrated and Cartoon Network, along with other recent offerings from CBS and Warner Music.

I think this is going to be huge. Again, email me if you’d like an invite to get in on the ground floor and check it out yourself.

The Broadband Boogie

Thursday, June 7th, 2007

One of the reasons I’ve been so vocal about internet radio on the blog here lately is that with my limited mobility, I find myself listening to it a lot during the daytime while Mrs. Toast is at work. I’ve become a big fan of Pandora, which is just one of the services likely to disappear from the ol’ Web Radio dial on July 15th if the RIAA is able to uphold the recent ruling that jacks up royalty fees to levels that are unsustainable by most webcasters.

If you haven’t visited Pandora before, it is awesome. Drawing on the practical application of the Music Genome Project, Pandora uses actual human beings who listen to and then classify songs by a number of musical attributes. Say, for example, you’re a fan of Bruce Hornsby as I am; according to Pandora, Bruce’s music features “vocal harmony, a vocal-centric aesthetic, major key tonality, and prominent use of rhythm.” By “seeding” my search list with this artist, Pandora creates a custom streaming radio station just for me that includes not only The Bruce, but other artists I’ve never heard of who make music containing these same musical elements. As the station plays, you can fine-tune it by giving each track a Tivo-style thumbs-up or thumbs down, which is taken into consideration as it makes future selections. After a little while, it gets positively uncanny in its ability to play little-known tracks that you really like, and it pisses me off to no end that this innovative site will likely have to shut down due to the short-sighted greed of the record industry.

Another artist I’ve recently (re)discovered through Pandora that has actually prompted me to buy their CD is the power-pop band Fountains of Wayne. Named after an outdoor furniture and landscaping store in Wayne, New Jersey, you probably remember them from their 2003 hit “Stacy’s Mom“, the video of which featured the lovely and talented Rachael Hunter appearing in the title role in a variety of provocative poses. A lot of people dismissed that song as a novelty and the band as a one-hit wonder, but these guys have a lot more going for them than just this ode to teenage lust. Frontmen Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood have perfected the ability to write short, catchy pop-rock songs with more hooks than your Dad’s tackle box; for example, Schlesinger penned the title track for the Tom Hanks movie “That Thing You Do!“, which landed him both a Golden Globe (1996) and Oscar nomination (1997) for Best Original Song in a soundtrack.

For further evidence of the band’s affable quirkiness, consider the first single from their new album “Traffic and Weather”, entitled “Someone to Love” (watch the video here). Like “Stacy’s Mom”, the song is populated by richly-drawn characters: protagonists Seth Shapiro and Beth McKenzie lead lonely single lives as they toil in their dull day jobs. Even though they live in the same building, they are unaware of each other even though it appears there’s a good chance they could be very happy together. That the narrative takes an unexpected twist at the end, and that this entire detailed mini-soap opera plays out in a mere three minutes and 54 seconds is a testament to Schlesinger and Collingwood’s formidable songwriting chops, and more than one person has declared the duo to be “The New Lennon-McCartney”. While that assessment may be a tad premature, it should be noted that a good while before they wrote the songs that would define an entire generation, John and Paul were penning lightweight pop ditties like “Please Please Me” and “Love Me Do”, so the seemingly audacious comparison may have some merit after all; only time will tell.

My favorite track on FoW’s new album, however, is a paean to the automobile, in the great tradition of car songs such as “409″ by the Beach Boys, “Shut Down” by Jan and Dean, “GTO” by Ronnie and the Daytonas, “Little Cobra” by the Rip Chords, etc. — although the vehicle in question here is a somewhat unlikely ’92 Subaru. But FoW manage to combine an engaging story line with crunchy lead guitars, an immediately hum-able melody, snappy woo-hoos and handclaps, and an awesome break near the end of the song that recalls The Who at their windmilling, power-pop best. Check it out for yourself:


In fact, I liked it so much after hearing it that I ordered the CD, and who knows, maybe you will too. But it’s not likely that the RIAA will keep people like us in mind when services like Pandora (not to mention thousands of other internet radio streams) must shut down rather than pay outrageous new fees that in most cases exceed any income they make. Not only do the listeners lose, but the artists lose exposure and record companies will see CD sales decline even further. So, great; nobody wins, and everybody loses. Who the fuck came up with this brilliant idea?For the latest news in the ongoing battle to save net radio, click here.

Battle over internet radio continues

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

The movement to save internet radio from the disastrous jacked-up recording industry royalty fees that will potentially shut down most webcasters is gaining momentum.

Background

If you’re unfamiliar with this issue, it’s a fairly complex subject, but here’s a quick recap: last March, a 3-judge panel called the Copyright Royalty Board, or CRB, voted to change royalty fees paid by net broadcasters from a straight percentage-of-profits model to a “per-song, per-listener” scheme, regardless of any income (or lack thereof) the station might have from advertising, subscriptions, or donations. Representing an increase of 300 to 1200 percent, the new rates which go into effect on July 15th are retroactive to January 2006 and will put most stations — including many Public Radio outlets — out of business. (See this Newsweek article for more info.)

To put this in perspective, imagine for a moment you have an income of $40,000 a year and you’re taxed at 15% by the IRS, so you pay them $6,000. Then one day you get a letter informing you that the new tax amount on your $40,000 income will be $72,000 (a 12x increase). Wouldn’t make much sense, would it — how can you pay more than you make? Now imagine you have zero income, but your tax is still $72,000! WTF??

Congress Gets Involved

In the weeks since the initial ruling, a grassroots movement has sprung up among internet broadcasters and their listeners seeking to overturn the CRB’s flawed decision. Two bills (H.R.2060 in the House, and S.1353 in the Senate), together known as the “Internet Radio Equality Act“, would establish fair and reasonable fees paid to those who create music, while assuring that net radio will not be killed off. Considering that most legislation languishes on Capitol Hill with very little interest from the general public, these measures have picked up phenomenal support in a very short period of time, as thousands of people (including myself, and hopefully some of y’all as well) have written or phoned their elected representatives to tell them that they do not want internet radio to become extinct.

Predictably, the RIAA (through its affiliated organization that actually collects the fees, known as SoundExchange) immediately cranked up the rhetoric by issuing a press release referring to the legislation as a “money grab by corporate webcasters”. Among other patently false statements, they claim that the bills are a “blatant attempt to strip artists and record labels of their hard-won royalties for the use of their sound recordings on Internet Radio”. (Click here to read a short article debunking the RIAA’s absurd propaganda.)

Business Week magazine’s online edition recently took an in-depth look at both sides of this issue, first presenting an article dated May 11th by SoundExchange director John Simson. At last count it had received over 60 comments, nearly all of them taking the view expressed in the words of one reader who said, “what a transparent load of crap from Mr. Simson.” In contrast, four days later BW published the reasoned viewpoint of Laurie Joulie of Roots Music Association to much more favorable reader response; it’s therefore quite easy to see where public sentiments lie on the matter.

Latest Skirmish

As a direct result of the outpouring of support for the House and Senate bills, SoundExchange got a letter last week from Representatives Howard L. Berman (D-CA) and Howard Coble (R-NC). Acting as part of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property, the Congressmen urged the RIAA to “initiate good faith private negotiations with small commercial and noncommercial webcasters with the shared goal of ensuring their continued operations and viability.” Sensing the tide of public opinion turning against them and fearing legislative intervention, the RIAA has made a so-called “compromise offer” to defer imposition of new fees to what it terms “small webcasters” until 2010, while proceeding with the increases as planned for everyone else. But this alleged “compromise” is a Trojan Horse that would still stifle internet radio. For one thing, it doesn’t offer to change the new fee structure, only to postpone it. This would be like the IRS in our hypothetical example above saying, “You still owe us the money, but we’ll give you until 2010 to pay it.” For another thing:

“The proposal made by SoundExchange would throw ‘large webcasters’ under the bus and end any ‘small’ webcaster’s hopes of one day becoming big,” SaveNetRadio spokesperson Jake Ward said. “Under Government-set revenue caps, webcasters will invest less, innovate less and promote less. Under this proposal, internet radio would become a lousy long-term business, unable to compete effectively against big broadcast and big satellite radio – artists, webcasters, and listeners be damned.”

SaveNetRadio said that this kind of charging w ould put internet radio out of business, and is not what was intended by US lawmakers.

“A standard that would set a royalty rate more than 300% of a webcaster’s revenue was not what Congress had in mind, and it must be adjusted if the industry is going to survive.”

You can still help

The Internet Radio Equality Act still needs your support. Even if you’ve already contacted your representative, don’t let off the pressure. This sort of lobbying is exactly how things are accomplished in Washington, so please use the handy tool below which will provide information regarding who to contact as well as some talking points if you need them:


The I.R.E.A. would establish that webcasters pay a fair and reasonable fee of 7.5% of their revenue in royalties, the same rate paid by satellite radio broadcasters. Traditional over-the-air broadcast radio does not pay anything because labels consider airtime to be promotional, an arrangement that has existed for the last 70 years. It’s based on the long-accepted idea that if you hear a song you like on the radio, there’s a good chance you might buy a CD by that artist. However, with recent CD sales in free-fall for a variety of reasons (not the least of which being the stupidity and arrogance of the record companies) the RIAA is becoming increasingly desperate, and terrestrial radio is very likely to be their next target.

More on that in another post.

Joost Crazy

Friday, May 11th, 2007

For the last month or so, I’ve been a beta-tester for the new interactive video-on-demand service called Joost (pronounced “Juiced”). You’ve probably heard of it; Joost is being hyped by many as the Internet’s next “killer app“, and is the brainchild of Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, those two wacky Scandinavians who brought you Kazaa and Skype. Joost positions itself as “Internet Cable TV”, but to me it’s more like a large collection of videos grouped by common subject matter into “channels”. In this way, it resembles YouTube more than your local cable service, except the videos are all high quality and professionally produced; there’s none of the “user-generated content” found on YouTube and other similar sites.

Programs on Joost range in length from one or two-minute shorts up to full-length features of 90 minutes or more. You can pick and choose from an inventory of about 150 channels, including offerings from CNN, The Comedy Channel, MTV and many others. (See the full channel overview here.) Note that these are NOT exactly the same as their cable TV counterparts. If you select MTV, for example, you can choose only from a limited selection of programs, mostly episodes of “Laguna Beach”, “Punk’d”, and “My Sweet 16″. Other channels feature game shows, music videos, comedies, sports, and a few (but not many) movies.

All the video is streamed directly over the web to your machine, in real time, on demand. You pick the program you want to watch and start viewing it, no worries about it being “in progress”. When the show’s over, if you do nothing Joost will play the next program in the list, like a cable TV station. However, you can stop it at any time and come back later, or pick another program on another channel. For the geek minded, Joost is technically known as a “hybrid peer-to-peer application”, which uses the same technology its founders developed for Kazaa. A diagram and explanation of how it works can be found here.

Here’s a few screen shots of the basic interface (click each pic for a larger version):


The quality of the video is pretty decent, which came as somewhat of a surprise to me after being used to the small-sized, grainy content found on most other sites. Joost can stream either in a window or full-screen, and looks quite good in either.

Up until recently, Joost was available only to a very small and select number of beta testers. I had submitted my request to join way back in October, and just got my “invitation” to sign up last month. The first few weeks after I began watching were pretty rocky; evidently a lot of people got their invites at the same time I did, and the service had trouble handling the sudden increase in load. Videos would stutter or not play at all, and for a while I was jokingly referring to Joost as “The Error Message Channel” because most often what I saw was this:


I was not the only one, either, as the developers noted on their blog:

As you might have discovered already, we’re having some problems with the central servers in Luxembourg… We’ve been flooded with demand, which is fabulous and ultimately will make the system stronger, but since it’s unaccustomed to this level of usage it’s stumbling a bit, whereas we’d like it to be sprinting.

However, a new version of the program was released this week, and most of these problems seem to have been fixed. It still burps occasionally, but I’ve been able to watch for several hours at a time without any major interruptions. Some of the shows have been quite interesting. For example, I like documentaries, and found a fascinating film on the National Geographic Channel called “Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories“. An ordinary guy by the name of Mike Shiley just decided one day, pretty much out of the blue, to pick up a camera, go to Iraq, and shoot a movie about normal, everyday life there; it’s a point of view you definitely won’t get from the US military’s PR machine. Another favorite has been “The Saturday Morning Channel”, which features several old cartoon series that I loved as a kid, including Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Joost claims they’re adding new content all the time, and have made deals with some big-name distributors to feature their programming. Record companies are beginning to take notice of Joost as a way to promote their artists, so there are quite a few music videos on the site. You’ve probably never heard of most of them, but that’s the whole point.

The best part is that it’s all free to watch. Joost makes money by inserting occasional commercials into the program stream, just like a regular TV station does, but the good news is that they limit the ads to two or three minutes per hour as opposed to the ten to twelve minutes per hour that you’re subjected to on broadcast TV.

At the moment, Joost is still in the beta stage and requires an invitation to sign up and start watching. However, as a current beta tester, I can “invite” as many people as I want — so any readers of this blog who would like to try it out, just drop me a note to mrtoast AT suddenlink DOT net, and I’ll be more than happy to send you one. A couple of caveats to keep in mind:

1) You MUST have a high-speed, broadband internet connection. Dialup will not work, and the fatter your pipe is the better. 1 mBs downstream is the bare minimum, 2 mBs is recommended, and 3 or 4 will rock. (If you’d like to test your connection speed, click here.)

Note that Joost has the following to say on their web site about bandwidth:

“Joost is a streaming video application, and so uses a relatively high amount of bandwidth per hour. In one hour of viewing, approximately 320Mb data will be downloaded and 105Mb uploaded, which means that it will exhaust a 1Gb cap in 10 hours. Windows users should note that the application continues to run in the background after you close the main window. For this reason, if you pay for your bandwidth usage per megabyte or have your usage capped by your ISP, you should be careful to always exit Joost client completely when you are finished watching it.”

Since my cable-modem service provider charges a flat monthly fee and does not cap my bandwidth, this is not a problem for me, but may be an important factor if yours does. Call them and ask if you’re not sure.

2) Joost requires a fairly snappy machine. The newer your PC and the more memory you have, the better it will work. The following system specs are recommended:

  • Windows XP Service Pack 2 with DirectX 9.0c
  • Pentium 4 processor (or equivalent), 1GHz
  • 512Mb or more RAM
  • A modern video card with DirectX support and at least 32Mb of RAM
  • About 500 MB free disk space

3) Like any other form of TV, Joost will be a HUGE time sink. You will find hours of your life disappearing in front of the screen, so be sure you have lots of spare time on your hands.

4) Finally, remember that Joost is still in BETA. It is not guaranteed to work. It might conflict with other stuff on your computer (although I haven’t had any real problems). No technical support is provided. It might scare your dog. It may cause cramps, nausea, headache, irritability, sleeplessness or warts after prolonged use. Not responsible for direct, indirect, incidental or consequential damages. For educational and recreational use only. Not recommended for children. Close cover before striking. May be slippery when wet. Use only in a well-ventilated area. No purchase necessary, void where prohibited, your mileage may vary, etc.

Seriously, I don’t mean to scare anyone off — as I say, my experience has been pretty good, with no conflicts or serious problems. As with any new software that hasn’t been fully tested yet and may still be a bit buggy, I would advise at the very least setting a system restore point before installing Joost. A backup wouldn’t hurt either, but like any smart computer user, you’re doing that on a regular basis anyway, right? Of course you are.

Will Joost ever replace “real” TV? Probably not, especially once HDTV really gets off the ground in 2009 when analog goes dark. The founders point out that Skype hasn’t put the phone companies out of business either, and is merely an alternate method of providing a service. But Joost is still a very big step in a direction that many broadcasters have been thinking about for a long, long time, and it will only get better as both the quality of the content Joost can deliver and the technology behind it continues to improve. Even with its current limitations, I’m still quite impressed. Again, if you’d like an invitation to check it out for yourself, “joost” let me know.

NBC’s Brian Williams on new media

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

The NBC news anchor and managing editor spoke before a crowd of NYU journalism students last month on the challenges that traditional journalism faces from online media. The following quotes from his speech have been widely circulated since then, but in case you missed them:

On bloggers:

“You’re going to be up against people who have an opinion, a modem, and a bathrobe. All of my life, developing credentials to cover my field of work, and now I’m up against a guy named Vinny in an efficiency apartment in the Bronx who hasn’t left the efficiency apartment in two years.”

On YouTube:

“If we’re all watching cats flushing toilets, what aren’t we reading? What great writer are we missing? What great story are we ignoring? This is societal, it’s cultural, I can’t change it. We should maybe pause to think about it. Because like everybody else, I can burn an hour on YouTube or Perez Hilton without breaking a sweat. And what have I just not paid attention to that 10 years ago I would’ve just consumed?”

More details here. Not surprisingly, Williams has been roundly criticized for these remarks in the blogosphere for coming off as “self-important” and a “knucklehead“, but I’m not so sure that he doesn’t have a good point. Remember that he was addressing journalism students, not the general public. These folks will graduate from college trained to become our next generation of professional newspaper, magazine, radio, and TV reporters, and the landscape today is vastly different than 10 years ago when people like Williams were learning the craft. We now have an army of “citizen journalists” who, armed with their cell-phone video cameras and blogs, have the ability to reach a potential audience of millions.

But in any creative field, whether it be music, art, or journalism, there will always be tons of chaff for every few kernels of wheat. It’s up to the consumer to sort it out for themselves and choose what they think is most valuable, whether it’s NBC, Fox News, the Daily Kos, Michelle Malkin, the New York Times, or any other source. I think Williams was simply saying that there are a lot more choices available these days, and the value of that information can be difficult to determine when everyone writing on the Internet presents themselves as an “expert”.

“On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

More on internet radio

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

For anyone who might be unclear about the effect of the new fee structure recently set by the Copyright Royalty Board on small internet broadcasters, let me draw an illustrative parallel. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it should give you a rough idea of the problem.

Let’s say you’re in a band. For the last year or two, you’ve been playing at a club called “The Royalty Lounge”, and charge $5 a head to get in. You’ve agreed to give the club a 12 percent cut of your door proceeds; each week you average about 100 people, so you pay the club $60 and split the remaining $440 with the rest of the band. Fair enough, and simple too.

Now one day the club owners have a meeting and decide they’re not getting enough money from you. Instead of a flat percentage, they want you to pay them a fee of 12 cents per song per person for every song you play. So the first thing you have to do is count the exact number of people in the club during each and every song in your set (which is a pain because it adds a layer of record-keeping you didn’t have to deal with before), and tally up all the figures at the end of the night. But let’s assume for this example that it averages out to the same number of 100 people. You play four sets of ten songs each, which means you owe the club 40 x 100 x 0.12 = $480, which is 800% more than you had to pay previously! That leaves you only $20 for yourself and the band.

Now let’s take the analogy one step further, and add this wrinkle: due to increased competition from other clubs who don’t charge a cover, “The Royalty Lounge” decides it’s going to become non-commercial, which means that you can no longer collect the $5 entrance fee, so you now have no income whatsoever. But, at the end of the night you still must pay the club 12 cents per song per person. How long could you and your band survive under these conditions? It wouldn’t be long before you were forced out of business.

This is the position that small internet broadcasters find themselves in as a result of the new CRB rules. I may seem a bit reactionary about the sinister motives of the RIAA in this matter, but there’s no question in my mind that this is anything but a coincidence. The music industry was totally blindsided by the mp3 phenomenon back in the Napster days, and is determined to avoid any loss of control over their “product” as technology continues to change the way music is made, distributed, and consumed. Sure, they want to keep selling you CD’s at inflated prices, but despite outward appearances it’s not about the money from webcasting fees; killing off internet radio is an attempt to turn back the clock to the days when the major labels had total control over who could hear what, as Lucas Gonze says on his website:

To the major labels, revenues from webcasting royalties are not significant in comparison to revenues from the iTunes store and comparable online distributors. The iTunes store, mainly. If the webcasting industry disappears from the face of the internet, that is an acceptable level of collateral damage as long as revenues from premium services like iTunes rise enough.

Lost in all of this is any concern whatsoever for the public’s exposure to new and eclectic artists, or for independent commercial-free stations that play what they want to play without pressure from labels or advertisers. The music industry wants whatever remains of internet radio after this debacle to become a boring corporate medium overrun with ads, mediocrity, and payola — just like commercial broadcasting is today. And their lobby is powerful enough that they just might get away with it.

UPDATE:

A recent development offers some hope; last Friday, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) introduced legislation co-sponsored by Rep. Donald Mazullo (R-IL) and captioned H.R.2060, The Internet Radio Equality Act” which would set aside the flawed CRB decision, establish an equitable fee schedule on a par with other radio services, and keep independent voices from being silenced.

Today (5/1), webcasters will be converging on Washington for a “Hill Walk” to make members of Congress aware of the measure and petition their support. If I were closer and physically able, I would be there — but instead I’ve done what I can do, which is to contact my own representative in the House, Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX). He sent me this reply:

There are many Stations in East Texas that are operated by volunteers and radio enthusiasts that are harmed by the CRB’s ruling. It is my hope that Congress will exercise oversight in this matter and come to a resolution that ensures these Stations will be able to continue to offer listeners a broad range of music and program content.

All right! So it would appear that Louie “gets” the issue and is on board; with any luck there will be enough noise from the general public that this legislation will move forward. If you’d like to help, see here for details, including links to write your Congressperson.

Ask them to please support H.R.2060, The Internet Radio Equality Act. Thanks.

My good buds in the Senate

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I took my own advice a while back, and wrote to my representatives in the House and Senate about the recent disastrous ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board which will most likely result in the extinction of internet radio. Somewhat to my surprise, last week I received the following reply from Republican Senator John Cornyn:

Thank you for contacting me about the important issue of music performance rights. I appreciate having the benefit of your comments on this important matter.As you are aware, rapid advances in communications technology have led to the development of digital television and radio, as well as subscription satellite television and radio services. These new capabilities expand the range of choices available to consumers; subscription satellite radio is one of the most successful examples of quickly advancing technology. I welcome such consumer-driven innovation and enjoy a personal satellite radio subscription.As expected, technological innovation also brings with it the threat of copyright infringement. While recent technology advances represent important achievements, we must, on principle, protect the intellectual property rights of those responsible for such innovation. You may be certain that I will continue working with my Senate colleagues to strike a balance between copyright protection and technological advance and that I will keep your concerns in mind should the Senate consider relevant legislation during the 110th Congress.

I appreciate having the opportunity to represent the interests of Texans in the United States Senate. Thank you for taking the time to contact me.

Sincerely,

JOHN CORNYN
United States Senator
517 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

And then, today I got this message from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison:

Thank you for contacting me regarding copyright protection. I welcome your thoughts and comments on this issue.Copyright protection has been central to America’s prosperity and job creation. Movies, books, computer software, television, photography and music are among our unique American products and some of our most successful exports. United States industries depending on copyright protection employ nearly 4 million workers and produce over $65 billion of our exports ( more than agriculture and automobile manufacturing.

Protecting content in a high-technology age is a new and daunting problem, and copyright protection is an important challenge as the broadband revolution offers even more far-reaching possibilities and opportunities. With new speed and interactivity, the entire store of movies, music, books, television and raw knowledge can be made widely available. I believe copyright protection is a foundation of innovation, and copyright law should work to ultimately protect the best interests of consumers. Intellectual property is the creative core of the information age, and I agree this is a pivotal issue for Congress to address.

I appreciate hearing from you and hope you will not hesitate to keep in touch on any issue of concern to you.

Sincerely,
Kay Bailey Hutchison

There are two ways to interpret these replies. The first is that these responses are the typical Washington Waffle; you will note that neither reply is especially committal one way or the other, nor do they exactly address the subject I was writing about. In all probability, some lowly staff member reads all incoming mail and tries to determine its general subject matter and whether the writer is “fer” it or “agin” it. You can almost hear them thinking, “Hmmmm. Internet radio? Well lemme see, it’s not exactly telecommunications, but it’s sort of commerce-related. Maybe science and technology? No, it doesn’t really fit any of those. Wait, how about Music Performance Rights? Yeah, that’s it. Close enough.” Senator Hutchison’s office tagged the issue as “copyright protection”. In either case, the staffer fired off a boiler-plate form reply and the Senator never actually read the message.

But on the other hand, perhaps the lawmakers do indeed give thoughtful consideration to the concerns of their constituents, personally and carefully reading every word of letters they receive from them. Hey, it could happen. So just in case i actually do have an ear in Washington, I sent this message to reinforce my points. Note my persuasive yet diplomatic style:

Dear Senator:

Thank you very much for your reply to my recent contact to your office concerning music performance rights (copyright protection). I appreciate that you are cognizant of this issue and working to strike a balance between the interested parties.

I am a lifelong broadcaster, and a fan of Internet radio. Since my initial message to you two weeks ago, the Copyright Royalty Board met on April 16th and refused to reconsider their initial action to raise royalty fees paid by Internet broadcasters to stratospheric levels which would force many of them to shut down. As I am sure you are aware, National Public Radio led this drive for a rehearing, arguing that the CRB’s decision was an “abuse of discretion”.

Unfortunately, the Judges did not appear to fully consider the ramifications of the new royalty structure, and that avenue of appeal has now been closed. I am therefore urgently asking for your help.

In addition to being a former broadcaster, I am also a musician and understand that those who create the music we all enjoy deserve to be fairly compensated for their efforts. I am not opposed to reasonable royalty payments for musicians and songwriters. But the key word here is “fairly”, and the CRB’s new rates are simply unrealistic and unreasonable, with markups of 300 to 1200 percent from the previous payment structure. Even though the director of Sound Exchange, Mr. John Stimson, said he “look(s) forward to working with the Internet radio industry”, there will be no “industry” left to work with if these disastrous fees go into effect. Few Internet broadcasters will have the financial capacity to pay these exorbitant rates which in many cases exceed their incoming revenue, and will simply be forced out of existence.

In the last week since the CRB refused to consider a rehearing, the news media has been full of dire stories from Internet broadcasters facing imminent extinction. Here is but one example: AccuRadio founder and CEO Kurt Hanson says he makes money by selling advertising time, but the new royalty rate increase would far exceed the revenue that ads bring in. “This rate hike would absolutely shut us down if it’s put into effect,” he said. “Our revenues last year were about $400,000. We thought our royalty obligation under the previous deal would have been about $48,000. Our royalty obligation under this new deal would be $600,000.”

Mr. Hanson’s story is typical of many, many Internet broadcasters who now face the prospect of crippling royalty payments. Even more appalling, noncommercial webcasters who do not sell advertising and have no income whatsoever would still be forced to pay huge fees under the CRB-mandated royalty structure. This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that I am very concerned that this action is the death knell for Internet radio, a medium that has brought unprecedented choice and diversity of entertainment to myself and countless other Americans. Webcasting also serves as a valuable conduit for many independent artists who have a difficult time breaking through on other forms of radio.

There is one last chance to save Internet radio, and that is intervention by the House and Senate to demand that the CRB determine fair and reasonable royalty rates that will not bankrupt web broadcasters. However, time is of the essence as these fees go into effect on May 15th.

I implore you and your colleagues to take whatever steps are necessary to keep this date from being forever known in the future as “the day the music died”.

Thank you very much for your time and interest in this matter.

Sincerely,
“Mr. Toast”

Of course, in case you were wondering I did use my real name. It will be interesting to see if I get anything but another form letter in reply to this message, but at least I’ve done what I can do. As I mentioned to the good Senators, time is growing short and a groundswell of public outcry over this travesty of justice might actually prevent these rates from going into effect on May 15th. Want to help? Write your own representative and let your voice be heard. Feel free to copy and paste any of the above if you like, or visit this Live365 page for more specific suggestions.

More on this topic to come.

My comic life

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

Man, I seem to have a thing for comic strips lately, so apparently I have the intellectual capacity of a 14-year old. Hmmm. But as a former (and occasionally current) radio disk jockey, I got a good chuckle out of today’s “For Better or Worse” strip; here’s an abbreviated version with just the setup and the punch line:

Like yesterday, click the image above for a larger version — or better yet, go to creator Lynn Johnston’s web site for the full strip.

Speaking of disk jockeys, I suppose I should weigh in on the Don Imus affair, as he was one of my idols when I was a struggling young jock many years ago. While I think his remark was tasteless, insulting, and stupid — that’s what he does. Why do you think they’re called “shock jocks”, for heaven’s sake? The man is not a racist, and had the sense to realize he’d stepped over the line and sincerely apologized for it. The good that the I-man has done for disabled and disadvantaged kids over the years, as well as his thoughtful public discourse (admittedly weaved in with a liberal dose of offensive comments as well) on significant issues has been virtually overlooked in the headlong rush to condemn him. But look for Imus to resurface sooner or later on satellite radio alongside Howard Stern, yet another sign that traditional terrestrial broadcasting is continuing it’s inexorable march toward becoming a bland, boring, politically-correct, over-regulated vast wasteland.

You may also know that renowned Hawaiian crooner Don Ho passed away last week. (This may seem like a radical shift in subject, but bear with me here.) Although unmistakably hokey, the entertainer will always be special to Mrs. Toast and myself. We spent our honeymoon in the Islands at the legendary CoCo Palms Hotel on Kauai (later destroyed in 1992 by Hurricane Iniki) where he was the resident performer. We’ll never forget attending his dinner show at the resort; as he strolled through the crowd singing his signature tune “Tiny Bubbles”, he stopped at our table and sang directly to us for a brief period. At that exact moment, thousands of little tiny bubbles erupted from some sprinkler-type system in the showroom’s ceiling, filling the air to provide a special effect for the tune. Many of them landed on our dinner table, and for years afterwards we jokingly sang “Tiny bubbles/in the salad” to each other.

Later in his career, he would make fun of the song’s swaying, silly lyrics. “I hate that song,” he often joked to his audience. He said he saved it for the end of his show because “people my age can’t remember if we did it or not.”

Anyway, we were sorry to hear of his passing at the age of 77 due to heart disease. Mr. Ho had ten children, and some of them are in fact curly-haired. Therefore, could it have been possible that Don Imus was merely comparing the Rutger’s women’s basketball team to the offspring of the legendary Hawaiian performer?

Nah, I didn’t think so either.

Radio Rant

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007

There’s a few things that set me off on a rant, and today’s topic is one of them. It’s pretty lightweight compared to truly serious issues like global warming and Iraq, but as a former broadcaster it hits close to home for me. I love listening to music over the internet, and recent government actions will likely doom internet radio to extinction.

In a nutshell, internet broadcasters (like all other radio stations) pay royalty fees to the copyright holders of music they play. Previously, this fee was based on a percentage of the station’s income from advertising. This is a logical method of doing business; a station making, say, $1,000 a month can afford to pay more than a station making $100 a month, or zero in the case of many so-called “hobby” broadcasters who run stations out of their homes strictly for fun instead of for profit. This has resulted in a wide and eclectic variety of streaming choices for the listener. Now, our good friends (!) at the RIAA want all internet stations to pay PER SONG, PER LISTENER, regardless if the station doesn’t make a dime. Please read the details below, and if you feel strongly enough, click the link to send an email to your congressional representative requesting reasonable royalty rates for internet broadcasters. Thanks.

Who, What, and When

Corporate interests are hard at working making sure you don’t have a choice, because they make more money when you have no choices. On March 2, 2007, The CRB (Copyright Royalty Board, a division of the US Copyright Office) approved new royalty rates that will bury any small webcaster, and create a heavy burden even for big broadcasters like Yahoo, AOL Music and Pandora. How high will these rates be? In most cases, around 100% of a small webcaster’s revenue! Yesterday (4/16), the Copyright Royalty Judges caved in to the RIAA and issued an order denying a rehearing which had been requested by numerous parties including National Public Radio, who objected to the new provisions requiring that noncommercial stations must pay the same royalty rates as commercial broadcasters. (Latest stories here.)

How did this happen?

The RIAA told the CRB that’s what they wanted, and the CRB just gave it to them. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) is a lobbying group formed by the five largest record labels. They are embedded in Washington D.C., and make sure laws are written to keep them rich, no matter what. They made headlines by filing lawsuits against elderly people, stroke victims, single mothers and children for trading music online, even though some of them didn’t even have computers. They are currently involved in a massive campaign of extortion targeting college students, sending thousands of letters threatening them with lawsuits unless they part with four and five figure sums of money (conveniently payable via “MasterCard, Visa, and Discover”) to avoid being taken to court. Check out the latest RIAA headlines.

The CRB is charged with setting the royalty rates that would be determined by a willing buyer and a willing seller in a marketplace transaction. They decided to jack up the rates far beyond a webcaster’s ability to pay, despite decades of royalty rates being between one and two percent of broadcaster revenue. The new rates would force webcasters to pay outrageous fees even if they have no revenue whatsoever! Raise your right hand if you want to take away consumer choice, hurt working artists, damage small record labels and put small webcasters out of business!

This determined campaign of extinction is supported by most licensed broadcast stations, who see internet radio (along with satellite radio, personal mp3 music players, podcasts, and virtually all other alternate forms of content delivery) as a threat to their business. While commercial stations who stream audio over the web would also be required to pay higher fees under the new scheme, they have sufficient sources of income to offset or subsidize increased royalty fees. It’s the “little guy” who will be forced to shut down, and that suits commercial stations just fine. Radio listenership has been declining steadily for years, and corporate broadcasters and the RIAA would rather litigate the competition out of business than admit that people are tired of hearing stupid commercials, inane DJ’s, and the same tired old musical crap, picked by “programming consultants” and duplicated on cookie-cutter formatted stations nationwide.

Take Action Now:

Protect your right to hear eclectic independent radio and discover new artists. Your continued support and action is needed; for example, consider not purchasing new CD’s (only used), and pass the word to anyone you know that loves or makes music.

You can help save internet radio with less than five minutes of your time by writing your congressional representative and telling them:

I do not support The Copyright Royalty Board’s (CRB) March 2nd decision to substantially increase royalty rates. Not only will it impact my choices, but the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) manipulation of these rates, and the CRB’s indifference will hurt working artists, damage small record labels and force law abiding small webcasters, already paying a large portion of their revenue per month in royalties, out of business. This decision will also damage hundreds of small businesses providing goods and services to working artists, small record labels and small webcasters.

I respectfully ask that you evaluate the CRB decision and do whatever is necessary to establish a reasonable royalty rate for all the parties involved.

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Controversy For All

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

Perhaps you’ve heard that the Mars Corporation, makers of Snickers®, have responded to protests by several Gay and Lesbian groups over its Super Bowl commercial (featuring two “manly men” who accidentally kiss while enjoying the candy bar) by yanking all further replays of the spot. The company also pulled the plug on a planned extensive follow-up campaign around the ad, which had been on the web at www.afterthekiss.com. Protesters called the theme of the ad “violent” and “homophobic”, and in a statement announcing the cancellation, a spokesman for the candy maker said “We know that humor is highly subjective and understand that some people may have found the ad offensive. Clearly that was not our intent.”

You probably know as well that the American Association of Fast Food Workers also complained about the Kevin Federline Nationwide ad, saying it demeaned employees in that industry. Apparently, this means it is no longer politically correct to say “you want fries with that?” in a jocular manner. Remember that the next time you’re trying to be funny at a party.

But most amazing to me is that just when you thought it was again safe to watch the half-time show, religious conservatives and some journalists are complaining about Sunday’s acclaimed performance by Prince. It was not enough for them to decry the thousands of children who would forever be doomed to a life of crime and moral depravity by their 9/16-of-a-second exposure to Janet Jackson’s right breast in 2004, they are now upset that Prince’s silhouette, projected on a flowing curtain during his rendition of “Purple Rain”, contained (gasp!) phallic imagery. New York Daily News TV critic David Bianculli called it “a rude-looking shadow show,” and “embarrassingly rude, crude and unfortunately placed.” A spokesman for the NFL countered, “We respect other opinions, but it takes quite a leap of the imagination to make a controversy of his performance. It’s a guitar.”

Look at the photo and see what you think. All I can say is if the image is meant to be anatomically correct, the man must have a hard time picking out a pair of pants at Wal-Mart. (Not that Prince would shop there anyway.)

Anyway, I think what we’re seeing here is just the tip of the iceberg. If controversy can be sparked by this somewhat overzealous interpretation of Prince’s act, then a lot of other special-interest groups are missing the boat and should jump on the bandwagon of criticism as well. For example:

  • Atheists should be upset that Prince sang a portion of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” during his show, a direct reference to the official publication and website of The Jehovah’s Witnesses. Has no one else picked up on this? Prince became a Witness in the 1990′s, and obviously used his halftime appearance to deliver thinly-veiled religious propaganda to millions of Bowl viewers.
  • The National Association for Mental Health and Mental Retardation should be all over Prince for his song selection as well: his opening number, “Let’s Go Crazy”, is clearly a derogatory term and a stereotypical slur to the mentally handicapped. At the very least, they could force the Purple One to change the lyrics of the song from “Let’s go crazy/let’s get nuts” to “Let’s exhibit situationally inappropriate behavior/let’s have a learning disability.”
  • The NAACP can complain that Prince wasn’t a “black” enough choice for the Super Bowl crowd, while the Aryan Nation can be offended that he wasn’t “white” enough. Every other ethnic group could follow suit, including Asians, Hispanics, etc. NOW could protest that he’s not female, and the Anti-Defamation League could protest that he’s not Barbra Streisand.
  • Any person of British descent should be appalled by Prince’s choice of his own name, an obvious slap in the face of The Royal Family. Unfortunately, this is a no-win situation for the entertainer, as when he changed his name back to Prince some years ago, he received howls of protest from The Association of Artists Named After Unpronounceable Symbols at his defection from their ranks.
  • The Fashion Designers Guild must protest Prince’s choice of his outfit. I mean, a light orange umber shirt under a light-aqua-blue jacket? What was he thinking with that abominable color scheme? What horrible message does this send to our esthetically-challenged youth?
  • Finally, a newly-formed group, the Association of All Recording Artists On The Planet Except For Prince must no doubt find it highly discriminatory that sales of Prince’s album catalog jumped by an astonishing average of 653% after his Super Bowl gig. “The Very Best of Prince” moved from No. 710 to No. 71 on Amazon.com’s Top Sellers list, and following his soaking-wet rendition of the song, “Music from the Motion Picture ‘Purple Rain’” moved from No. 432 to No. 53 on the chart, an increase of 715 percent.

In a related story, the NFL announced today that due to the controversy over Prince’s halftime performance, there were only three “safe” acts left in the world being considered for future shows. Viewers of the 2008 Super Bowl will see either (a) Pat Boone, (b) Michael Bolton, or (c) The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

I feel safer from depravity already.

Radio contests (good and bad)

Friday, January 19th, 2007

Today’s post continues the “radio” theme from earlier this week, and is a peculiar mix of humor and tragedy.

A first-year marketing student will tell you that contests and promotions are the life-blood of any radio station. The radio broadcasting business has a unique and intangible “product” in that it’s something that you can’t see, smell, taste or touch. It exists only as waves in the ether, something which can only be “consumed” by the end-user if they take the pro-active step of turning on their radio receiver and tuning it to your particular spot on the dial.

Therefore, radio is as much a state of mind or “image” as anything else, and throughout the history of radio, stations have relied on contests and promotions to make the potential listener aware of their existence and get them to tune in. Of course, once you get them to listen, you then must figure out the best way to keep them listening, but that’s another story.

Program directors and promotion managers are always under pressure to come up with innovative, wacky ideas to intrigue listeners. Many years ago, when I was the P.D. of a rock station in Sarasota, FL, I cooked up a partnership with a local drive-in movie theater (anyone remember those?) to do a weekly “Friday Night Fright” promotion, where the theater would show all-night horror films on Fridays. The station gave away free tickets during the week leading up to each show, and as a bonus, we also featured a live appearance by “Count Dracula” — me, in costume — who would go around to the cars on the lot during intermission, giving away free stuff and scaring the crap out of little children. Every Friday night that summer, I donned my full Drac regalia including cape, fangs, and gruesome makeup. I had a blast doing it, and the listeners loved it too.

On another occasion, I devised a contest for a Pizza restaurant which we dubbed “The Big Quacker”. It starred a fictional giant waterfowl who was located “somewhere on the North American continent”, and the person who could call in and guess exactly where would win a respectable cash prize. The station gave out cryptic clues to his location over the air (increasing our ratings), and additional clues were available at the restaurant (an incentive to visit the sponsor). Much to my surprise, the prmotion was wildly successful and the whole town got caught up in “Quackermania”; after someone finally won the prize, I naturally had to get dressed up in a giant duck suit and make a highly-promoted appearance at the restaurant to award it. Not only was it a lot of fun, I got free pizza there anytime I wanted it from then on. (Ah, the perks of show biz.)

So, many of you have no doubt heard of or participated in similar radio station promotions: concert ticket or record album giveaways are common, and the bigger the market, the more money a station can afford to spend on prizes. Elaborate contests, sometimes offering glamorous trips and thousands of dollars in cash or prizes, can have a significant impact on listenership and make the critical difference in ratings that generate huge advertising revenue for a station.

Sometimes a station will pull out the stops, and the more wacky and crazy a contest is, the more “buzz” it tends to generate; listeners have shown time and time again that they’re willing to do almost anything to win a prize and get their name on the air. Last June, for example, Chicago’s WLUP-FM offered baseball fans a chance to win tickets for the sold-out “Crosstown Classic” game between the White Sox and the Cubs by participating in what was advertised as the “Crosstown Classic Ass Kissing Contest.” Listeners who had qualified earlier were summoned to plant a kiss on a live donkey outside of Wrigley Field. “The fan who keeps their lips on the donkey the longest wins tickets to the game,” according to the contest rules.

These contests are called “marathons”; they of course have their roots in the classic old-time radio dance marathons of the 30′s, and tend to generate a lot of publicity. Who hasn’t heard of the car dealership contest where a number of challengers try to keep their hands on a new car or truck longer than anyone else, with the winner getting to drive the vehicle home? In these events, the health and safety of the contestants due to such factors as sleep deprivation, dehydration, etc. can become an issue, and it’s understood that any responsible planner of such a contest will have medical personnel on hand to supervise potential problems.

Therefore, I was shocked to hear about a station in Sacramento, CA, who recently sponsored a contest that went horribly awry. Called “Hold your wee for a Wii”, the contest at Entercom’s KDND(FM) was to see who could drink the most water without going to the bathroom; the prize was a Nintendo Wii video game system. A few hours afterwards, Jennifer Strange, a 28-year old mother of three who had participated in the contest, died in her home of what the local coroner’s office called “water intoxication“. Reportedly, Strange drank nearly two gallons of water in the kitchen of the station’s Madison Avenue office.

To make matters worse, an audio recording of the show reveals the DJs joking about people dying from water intoxication. As contestants chugged bottle after bottle, a listener called in to warn the disc jockeys that the stunt was dangerous, and could be fatal. “Yeah, we’re aware of that,” one of them responded. Another DJ laughed: “Yeah, they signed releases, so we’re not responsible. We’re OK.” At one point, they even alluded to a Chico college student who died during a similar hazing stunt in 2005. “Hey Carter, is anybody dying in there?” a DJ asks during the show. “We got a guy who’s just about to die,” the other responds, and all the DJs laugh. “I like that we laugh about that,” another says. “Make sure he signs the release. … Get the insurance on that, please.”

Not surprisingly, the two DJs — and eight other people responsible for the contest — have been fired. Attorneys said they plan to file a wrongful death suit against the station, and the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has launched a criminal investigation into the incident. Earlier in the week, Entercom Sacramento VP/GM John Geary (a respected broadcaster well-known to me and others in the industry for his visionary programming skills during the 80′s and 90′s) had posted an online statement that the “Morning Rave” show had been canceled. “All of you are probably aware of the tragic death of a contestant, Jennifer Strange, following her participation in a contest on the Morning Rave last Friday,” he wrote. “First and foremost, our thoughts and sympathies go out to Jennifer’s family and loved ones. I also want to assure you that the circumstances regarding this matter are being examined as thoroughly as possible. We are doing everything we can to deal with this difficult situation in a manner that is both respectful and responsible.” However, no doubt due to the pending legal action, any mention of the contest or the station’s reaction to it has recently been pulled from the station’s web site.

You can bet that this tragedy will be discussed in staff meetings at virtually every radio station in the country over the next few weeks as an example of how not to do a contest. Ironically, KDND’s on-air tagline is “107.9-The End”; unfortunately for Jennifer Strange, the “Hold your wee for a Wii” contest was exactly that.

ABC “hate radio” blog war

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

As someone very interested in both blogging and broadcasting, a developing story out of San Francisco has caught my attention today. ABC’s KSFO-AM 560 is one of those “conservative” talk-radio stations that have taken over the AM dial in recent years. The station features the typical right-wing rubbish of syndicated blowhards like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Dr. Laura, but the station’s own local morning team of Lee Rodgers and Melanie Morgan is especially offensive; in recent days they’ve made headlines not only by insulting Muslims, but have also hinted at the assassination of new liberal Democratic house speaker Nancy Pelosi by saying “we’ve got a bulls-eye painted on her big wide laughing eyes”. This is just the latest in a long spew of venom from Morgan and Rodger’s “Morning Show” which has earned the station the nickname of “Hate Radio”; among other things, the pair have advocated stomping war protesters to death, the public execution of liberals, clamping the electrodes of a Sears Diehard battery onto the testicles of a black man, and burning down the New York Times for revealing the government’s illegal domestic wiretap program. Last week, one local blogger known as “Spocko” decided he had finally heard enough of this garbage: he posted audio clips from the station on his site, and asked his readers to write the station’s advertisers to make them aware of exactly what was being said under their sponsorship. As a result, some high-profile sponsors such as Netflix and Bank of America pulled their ads from the station.

Before long the Mouse roared back: Disney Co. (parent company of ABC and the station) brought out their big legal guns, first issuing cease-and-desist orders to pull the clips from the blog, then persuading Spocko’s Internet Service Provider to kill his web site altogether. Morgan and Rodgers also attacked Spocko on their program almost daily after the incident, calling him a “coward” and claiming the station was a “victim” of an “anonymous internet smear campaign”.

The next salvo in this skirmish has been fired by bloggers, demonstrating the truth of a new adage: “Don’t Fuck With The Blogosphere”. Spocko’s Brain is back with a vengeance at a new site, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of “little blogs” like mine are spreading the word far and wide that we’re fed up with this crap polluting our airwaves. The story was also picked up by the mainstream media, including the Bay Area’s CBS affiliate, KPIX-TV channel 5, as well as this article in the S.F. Chronicle.

If you’re interested in helping out, visit Spocko’s Brain and leave an encouraging comment. If you really want to get involved, support organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation, who are working to protect the digital rights of “little guys” such as Spocko (as well as you and I) from censorship and legal harassment by big media conglomerates like Disney. But the most important thing you can do is to simply remain vigilant: as Spocko says on his site, “Bloggers on the left want journalists to do their jobs because it is important, on the right they want them hanged. That is a fundamental difference and one you should all notice.”

Rant o’the Day

Thursday, November 16th, 2006

I really hate it when…

television commercials address me as a geographical area, as in “Hey East Texas, stop by and check this out!” or “Buy our product, America!!”. It’s lazy advertising, and makes me feel like part of an amorphous glob instead of a unique individual. Speaking of advertising, can someone please tell the owners of car dealerships and furniture stores that insist on using their precocious little son, daughter, niece or nephew to pitch the tag line for their company that viewers outside of the immediate family do not find this cute and appealing? The only reason such advertising might make us want to run in to your place of business is not to buy your product, but to find that annoying kid and bitch-slap the shit out of them.

Thank you, I feel better now.

Breaking News from the bathroom

Thursday, August 31st, 2006

No, don’t worry. While I promised a more detailed analysis of my road trip, I don’t plan to go into that much detail. The title of this post actually refers to Kyra Phillips, anchor of CNN’s “Live From…” , who unwittingly upstaged President Bush’s speech in New Orleans Tuesday with on-the-air analysis of her husband and the marriage of her brother — all live from a CNN ladies room.

As reported by The Associated Press, Phillips was unaware that her wireless microphone was “live” during her potty break, and could be heard overriding Bush’s prepared address as he marked the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

The intrepid reporter, in conversation with an unidentified woman in an echoey room, dismissed most men as “assholes”, but called herself “very lucky in that regard. My husband is handsome and he is genuinely a loving — you know, no ego — you know what I’m saying? Just a really passionate, compassionate, great, great human being. And they exist.”

A few moments later, she slagged off her sister-in-law to the CNN audience, observing that “brothers have to be, you know, protective. Except for mine. I’ve got to be protective of him.” Why? “His wife is just a control freak.”

At that point, another voice cut in: “Kyra!” “Yeah, baby?” replies Phillips. “Your mike is on. Turn it off. It’s been on the air!” (In case you missed it, you can see the YouTube video clip here.)

As a former broadcast engineer, I love it. The “accidently live” mic is one of the great technical boo-boos in the television news business, which has resulted in some fabulously unintended quotes from politicians (and others) who should know better. Who could forget Ronald Reagan’s famous “the bombing starts in five minutes” reference to the Soviet Union during the height of the cold war? More recently, on July 17 at the G8 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, George Bush engaged in a personal and supposedly private conversation with Tony Blair that was broadcast worldwide. Beginning by casually asking the PM, “Yo, Blair, how are you doing?” Bush then offered his World View on the recent violence in the Mideast: “See the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over.”

Phillips later apologized to viewers, while Bush has yet to do so. Since the FCC is cracking down on “indecency” by fining offenders up to $250,000 for any utterance of an obscene word, I think it would be only fair to slap Dubya with the penalty, don’t you? “No President is above the law”, yada yada.

But don’t count on it.

Gimme that good ol’ rock and roll

Monday, May 1st, 2006

I’ve just realized that since I started this blog some eight months ago, I haven’t really mentioned my radio station. So, this seems like a good a time as any to post a shameless plug gracious invitation for you, gentle readers, to check it out for yourselves.

But first, a bit of background: before crossing over to the “respectable” side of the broadcasting business as an engineer, I was a DJ; for many years I roamed (in the words of the theme song from WKRP in Cincinnati) from “town to town, up and down the dial”.1 In addition to being part of South Florida’s legendary underground rocker WEDR (“The Miami Heavy”), I also spent time in such lesser markets as Santa Cruz (California), St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands), Sarasota (Florida), Galveston (Texas), as well as a number of other towns too small to mention. Now, many people think that being a disc jockey is a highly-paid, glamorous, “show-biz” sort of career, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth. The hours are long, work conditions can be difficult,2 there is no job security whatsoever, and unless you really make it big (and very few ever achieve the god-like status of people like Opie & Anthony, Ryan Seacrest, Don Imus, or Howard Stern) the pay is lousy — barely minimum wage in many cases. In fact, it was a regular joke when I was on the air that standard pay for DJ’s was “a hundred dollars a week and all the records you can eat”.3 This saying, however, does hint at the one major fringe benefit to working in radio: free music!

Yes, record companies inundated stations I worked at with truckloads of albums and CD’s, and it was all we could do to find a place to put them all. At one station, I literally had to rent warehouse space in which to keep the crates of records that promoters would heap upon us. Many, many of these were “no-name” artists who were, quite frankly, terrible. But the DJ’s got their pick of the cream of the crop, and there was enough good stuff that over the years I managed to amass a rather respectable music collection.

Several years ago, after moving into our present home (which required the schlepping of what seemed like several tons of records and CDs into and out of a U-Haul truck), I decided that the time had come to digitize my music collection. Computer hard disk drives had finally reached a cost/capacity point where such storage was feasible, so I accomplished this task over the next few months. Once all the tracks were ripped, starting my own Internet radio station just seemed like the next logical thing for an ex-DJ sort of guy to do, so “Star 98″ was born.4

One of the great things about programming your own station is that you can play whatever the hell you want to. (Everyone is able to do this now, of course, but I-pods hadn’t exploded into their present phenomenon-status when I began my station.) What I mostly like is classic rock, so that makes up the bulk (roughly three-quarters) of what you’ll hear if you tune in. I start with the mid-60′s Beatles/Stones era, up to (but not including) 80′s heavy metal. Some sample artists: Crosby Stills & Nash (& Young), Steeley Dan, Moody Blues, Dylan, Aerosmith, Springsteen, Eagles, Allman Brothers, ZZ Top, Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, The Who, etc. No bubblegum, disco, rap, or headbanger music; the hardest thing you may hear is an occasional AC/DC cut. The remaining 25% is composed of a very select and eclectic mix of more modern stuff (like Goo Goo Dolls, Collective Soul, STP, Matchbox 20, Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc.), funky old blues (such as Taj Mahal, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King), and soul oldies (i.e., James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, or Junior Walker) — but very little in the way of “traditional” Motown.5 And because it’s my freakin’ radio station, dammit, I also throw in a liberal smattering of my own favorite artists, some of whom don’t get much airplay these days, such as Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Hornsby, Delbert McClinton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Jackson Browne.

With such a diverse collection you’d think it would be a pretty bizarre mash-up, but it actually works quite well. The best part is there are absolutely no commercials, ever; you should know that I don’t make a dime off of it and don’t care if I ever do. The only reason I do it is for fun. I don’t have a very big audience, but I get a kick out of seeing people from all over the world tuning in now and then to sample it, sometimes listening for many hours at a time.

During the week it’s all automated — non-stop rock, 24 hours a day. But on Saturday nights, I allow my old DJ self to step out of his padded cell for five hours from 9PM to 2AM (central time), with a show I call “The Trance Mix”. Along with my demented live ramblings, I play a continuous mix of electronic dance music, which is rather strange when you consider my un-hip age and professed musical sensibilities.6 Many people find trance music to be repetitive and boring, and while much of the cheesier stuff is indeed exactly that, some of it is uplifting and exhilarating … and those are the tracks I try to search out and play on the show.

If any of this sounds remotely interesting to you, I hope you’ll give it a listen. (Hint: it makes great background music during the day at work.) You’ll need Winamp (free) or a similar player installed on your computer to listen to the Shoutcast stream. Click on the “Star 98″ logo there to the right for my station page, and then select either high-speed if you have a broadband connection, or low-speed if you’re on dialup. (Naturally, the broadband feed is in stereo and much higher quality.) If you do listen, please leave a comment here; I’d love to know what you think of my little hobby.7

______________________________

1 “WKRP”, despite being first and foremost a hugely underrated sitcom, was respected by many of us in the business for also being an extremely accurate representation of life at a real radio station, right down to the cart machines in the control room. We could all identify with the quirky personalities of the characters — we had known actual people just like clueless manager “The Big Guy”, slimy salesman Herb Tarlek, nerdy news reporter Les Nessman, or my favorite, the caffeine-addicted Dr. Johnny Fever. For what it’s worth, I envisioned myself as the charming, intelligent (ahem), but beleaguered program director, Andy Travis. And believe it or not, I thought Jan Smithers as Bailey Quarters was way hotter than busty receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson). Go figure.

2 It is a little-known fact that Led Zeppelin’s seven-minute “Stairway to Heaven” was recorded by the band for the express purpose of allowing DJ’s the opportunity for a bowel movement during their 6-hour board shift. To this day, if you should happen to hear this song on the radio, the chances that the DJ playing it is taking a dump at that very moment are better than 95%.

3 In case anyone reading this may be too young to remember, “records” were large, round black vinyl platters used for the purpose of listening to music back in the days before CD’s. They were played by dragging a sharp needle across them while they were spinning in circles on a device called a “turntable”. I swear I am not making this up.

4 Yes, there is a popular station named “Star 98″ in Los Angeles, but I was unaware of this fact at the time I picked the name. It just sounded cool to me. I didn’t steal it, honest.

5 I admit there were in fact some great Motown songs, but really, they’ve all been played to death. And you definitely won’t hear any Supremes or Jackson Five.

6 There is a long story as to how an admitted musical snob such as myself could have possibly developed a fascination with mind-numbing electronic dance music, but I will save that for a future blog post. Let me just say that it involves a trip to The Netherlands (where such music is much more popular than it is here), and a fateful day spent in a “coffeeshop”. If you’ve ever been to Amsterdam, the rest should be self-explanatory.

7 Mrs. Toast will strongly disagree with this word as a description of my activity; she would instead likely choose the word “obsession”. Whatever.

Blows against the empire

Monday, April 24th, 2006

It’s rant time, folks.

To my utter delight, broadcast television stations are saying they have had enough, and are fighting back against the heavy-handed censorship imposed on them in the name of “decency” by the Federal Communications Commission. The major television networks and their affiliates are asking appeals courts to overturn decisions by regulators finding broadcasters violated so-called decency standards.

The Fox, CBS, NBC, and ABC networks have filed suit with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York to declare the decisions by the FCC unlawful. More than 800 other television network affiliates have joined the court efforts, including those of the Hearst-Argyle chain. The broadcasters say privately that this could become the test case long awaited by those who seek to challenge the government’s ability to police the airwaves.

In the last several years, the government has slapped millions of dollars in fines against broadcast stations, including a record $550,000 for a single incident — Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Other offenses have included an episode of “NYPD Blue” in which the word “shit” was used, and U2 frontman Bono’s exclamation of the phrase “fucking brilliant” while accepting an award at the 2003 Golden Globes.

According to the Reuters article:

“The FCC overstepped its authority in an attempt to regulate content protected by the First Amendment, acted arbitrarily and failed to provide broadcasters with a clear and consistent standard for determining what content the government intends to penalize,” the broadcasters said in a statement.

The key phrase above is “clear and consistent standard”; what is or is not considered acceptable to be aired these days is extremely unclear. There is one set of standards for over-the-air broadcast stations, another for cable-only networks, and yet another for pay-per-view and premium subscription services. Throw in “safe harbor” rulings that permit certain words during specific times of the day but not others, and the whole situation becomes very murky. Rules are enforced inconsistently, leaving program producers and stations unsure about exactly what might trigger the ire of the FCC.

Not surprisingly, the action does not sit well with the Parents Television Council, better known as “Uncle Taliban” for their unrelenting efforts to sanitize the airwaves by applying their own conservative religious and moral standards to TV programming. PTC President Brent Bozell called the lawsuit “shameless”, further claiming, “The networks’ principles have now been unmasked for everyone to see. Their actions today are indecent in and of themselves.”

This bit of twisted logic comes from the organization singly responsible for approximately 95% of all complaints lodged with the FCC over matters of “decency”. The PTC’s founders would prefer that TV shows had never left the 1950′s, when married couples slept in separate beds, Father Knew Best, and the strongest expletive ever uttered was “Gosh!”. Their stated goal of “protecting children” may be noble, but it’s misguided; responsibility for what children see is best left to parents, not the government. And I certainly don’t want self-righteous watchdogs like the PTC or Donald Wildmon and the “American Family Association” telling stations what they should or should not broadcast. (The AFA regularly rails against the so-called “Homosexual Agenda”, and thinks the greatest TV program ever made was “The Waltons”.)

In my mind, there is no doubt that the FCC has exceeded its mandate and is clearly operating beyond its Constitutional limits. It’s about time that stations stood up to the FCC, and I think it’s also time for ordinary people like you and I to say that we are sick and tired of these conservative goons pushing their alleged “decency” standards on those of us who have enough brains to figure out for ourselves what is or isn’t acceptable viewing in our own living rooms. Let’s join newsman Howard Beale when he exorts us, in Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning 1976 movie “Network“, to say, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more.” There are enough lawyers, lobbyists and flacks in this country to ensure that “community standards” are self-enforcing. We don’t need Uncle Taliban telling us what is obscene.

One final note: it is apparently a little-known fact that every single television set found in use today has a special built-in electronic device to prevent unwanted material from being viewed in the home.

It’s called the “off” switch.