In Brenda’s shade.

Tuesday, July 27th, 1999

This sure feels like a recovery week to me, after the madness that is Coverage These Days Of A Major Event. This just in: JFK Jr. is still dead, and, mercifully, the sidebars and "touching human stories" are fading away—except on Neal Boortz’s radio program, where he just can’t let go of any part of this story—er, issue—er, story.
They used taxpayers’ money to bury him at sea! (He always speaks in italics.) The liberal Democrats are pushing him as a hero on the unsuspecting public!
Okay, Neal, give it a rest. It’s hot out here, outside your air-conditioned studio. Is this the fabled mastery of the talk form that catapulted you to the cover of this publication? Mark my words: there is a Neal Boortz saturation point, and I’m pretty sure we’re there now. He’s always on, and if he isn’t, Clark is! Generic rich white guys! And not rich enough—apparently. That’s why a big chunk of their programs are syndicated beyond the Atlanta market (dead giveaway: whenever Boortz or Howard say it’s 12 past the hour, they’re not talking to Atlantans, but to generic radioland.)
I think it’s the heat getting to me, but I just feel a complete disconnect from this kind of concocted, syndicated radio mush. Thunk! Thunk! I have to poke the grimy ‘AM/FM’ button several times now on my broken-down 85 Honda to get it to bandshift. There’s 99X, increasingly generic outside the Morning X domain. The House of Retro Pleasure could be located in any city, anywhere, instead of crumbling on a corner off of Little 5 Points (as I’ve always visualized.) Poke! Mash! Why doesn’t WABE carry NPR’s fine Talk of the Nation in the afternoons? Who’s really listening to generic classical stuff? (And why aren’t they just enjoying it on AM stereo 1190?)
Thunk! Back to AM. The Honda’s a/c is wheezing. I detour slowly around the inexplicably abandoned construction site that has closed down Morningside Drive. And Boortz is letting Royal Marshall promote his show (which airs on AM 680, WCNN.) Boortz is an industry unto himself, a spawner of spinoffs. Next thing we know his Dodge truck or his pressure-washed house will have their own shows on WCNN, and WSB overnights will air reruns of Neal’s bathroom breaks.
It’s just too damn hot. I pull into the Harris Teeter parking lot and am shaded by an enormous billboard of Brenda Wood, who, as I realize, squinting upwards, looks great in this photo. Not the typical anchor preen—it looks like she’s actually thinking. But then there’s the ‘We want you to know’ tagline. Know what, exactly? On the radio, Howard’s show is starting, and his openings sound increasingly canned, syndicated, generic: "welcome to your daily consumer empowerment zone." And remember—don’t mention the name of the company that’s screwing you, don’t mention where you’re calling from, help us out here so that Clark can cash in and become more consumer-empowered his own bad self.
Poke! Thunk! I’ve got some sort of acoustic-y bluegrass-y stuff coming out of my trashed car speakers now. Ah! WRFG finally cools me down a bit—the aural equivalent of a drink of lemonade in Brenda’s shade.

Has anyone here…

Tuesday, July 20th, 1999

Has anyone here seen my old friend saturation coverage?
Listen and hear the voices in American newsrooms everywhere:
Can we call it a death? Is it a disappearance? How long can we say they’re missing? Can we get a graphic that says "Lost at Sea?" How does "America’s Hopes Dim" sound? Can we get a reporter up to Hyannisport? How about two? Let’s send Pruitt! We need an animation! Get me every frame of JFK video we have. Find someone who knew him. Find someone who flew with them. Find someone who was at their wedding! Find someone who lives down the street! Find me someone who has the same last name. Get down to the Varsity and find me some real people and find out what they think. No, that’s too real. Find me the people who left flowers! Let’s get the airplane company on the phone. Any airplane company! Let’s get a crew out to Peachtree DeKalb. Let’s talk to pilots and get their reaction. Take that flower footage and give me a slow dissolve between Kennedy’s flowers and Diana’s flowers. His wife Carolyn, she worked with Calvin Klein, was it? Get me some models! Find me some crying models! Find me some crying experts! Get me a Kennedy biographer…make it two! We’ve got a guy who taught them to ride horses-get a crew out there! How are we doing on the "flying is dangerous" angle? Give me the word "Cursed?" fullscreen, superimposed over a shot of the ocean at sunset! Take these CDs and pull for me every cut of sad music you can! You have who? She what? Christiane Amanpour taught JFK Jr. to clean toilets!? That leads! That rules! Get her in here! Sit her down with Mike! Find me some more college buddies of his! Did she have any friends in school? Get me the guy who knew the guy who saw the guy who took them to work! We’ve got what? Some crying models dressed in colonial wigs? Great work! Get them in here! We’re going to need kleig lights up in Hyannisport. I want live shots at one minute past all night long from there. I don’t care if they’re just sleeping! Find me a spokescop! Get me a graphic that shows what a plane looks like close to the water! No, I don’t think we need to put a little cutout JFK in therethat’d be going too far. Make it move! Make it look dangerous! Where’s that radar sweep thing you used last plane crash? Get a crew out to the FAA. Find the guys who taught him to fly. Find the guys who flew with him! Now make the graphic say "Is all hope lost?" No, bigger and more urgent! Make it say "All hope is lost!" Rewind it to where she says "He was our own royalty!" Take that part! Find the cut of the guy who said "he could be President whenever he wanted." Slug that in there! No, music up! Tell Stone to nod some more when he reads that! We need a new animation! Get me…
Commentator Andrei Codrescu on Monday’s Nightline: "but for now, can’t we all just be quiet?"

Past resolutions…

Tuesday, July 13th, 1999

Ah, I remember it all as if it were a flashback…
For those of us for whom Nick at Nite and TV Land are indeed repositories of TV memories (as opposed to watching something your parents watched just because it’s like, you know, retro), the past is so crisp I gotta wear shades.
Have I mentioned we don’t have cable? That of course makes it all the more special when I’m traveling and I have an extended chunk of time (usually late in the evening) to plop on a motel room bed and watch these fine, fine channels way into the wee hours.
I especially enjoy TV Land’s interstitial graphics (no, don’t go diving for dictionaries-interstitial means that stuff between programs). Based on road signs and found roadside 60s art, it’s reminiscent of stuff I did a decade ago-but much nicer, and with a budget. And like the programs they surround, they’re so crisp and clean!
That’s also exactly what’s so odd about itand I promise to put my TV-techno-hat on only momentarily to explain. Watching these reruns (and others like the restored original Star Trek on the Sci-Fi Channel), we’re seeing the past much, much clearer than it ever was. These resurrected programs have been re-transferred from their original film to (digital) videotape using equipment that’s simply generations beyond anything they had even at the networks in the 1960s.
So when I Dream of Jeannie first aired on NBC (during that time that shows made the transition to "living color") viewers were actually seeing a shakier, blurrier, smearier version of the image, even more so after it made the trip from a "film chain projector" in New York to your local station and out into the air to land in your enormous RCA Victor color TV. Similarly, the audio came off of film in glorious tinny mono, with fidelity not unlike an AM radio station.
Now when we tune in, say, Dragnet 1968 on TV Land, we see in excruciating detail the cheesiness of the sets, of the makeup, of the bad rear projection, of the obvious stunt doubles in the cars-it’s like getting a new prescription for your glasses. On Lost in Space, you can see the seams in the fake sky just above the cardboard horizon and the wires holding up the Jupiter 2. And since colorful shows sold color TVs, these oldies sure are ultra-colorful. the riot of vivid hues hitting the walls of the 1960s USS Enterprise. (The cinematographer on that show, Gerald Finnerman, went on to win Emmys and Oscars, and really, the show’s lighting is quite beautiful-and completely unrealistic.)
Similarly, these revitalized shows have taken the audio into the digital realm with simulated stereo, and did sneaky digital things to clean up and expand the quality of the sound, just to bring it up to our standards and expectations of present-day (and not even high-definition) television.
All in all, it’s (appropriately) kind of an acid trip experience (especially in a motel room at 2 am): a purified, digitized Petticoat Junction can be almost terrifying in its clarity-and an example of a rememberance of things as they weren’tquite.

Behind the brands

Tuesday, July 6th, 1999

Brand loyalty doesn’t start from sheer nothingness. Often there is some reason why you choose a particular gas station, bank, grocery store, clothing store, soft drink, network newscast, or weekly newspaper. You tried it once and you liked it. You felt as if you got value for your dollar, or at least, a quality product. You draw the simple a-to-b conclusion if I go back to that brand, I will have the same satisfactory experience.
Fox gave me The Simpsons, they must know what they’re doing when they give me Family Guy or Futurama. When I see John Pruitt’s face on the screen (a brand in itself), I trust him to bring me the news. That Gap t-shirt looked so cool, if I go back I will find more cool stuff. I like Coca-Cola, so if I buy new Coke…oh, wait. Hmm.
Behind the surface level of a brand image, past shiny logos and warm, fuzzy commercials lies an increasingly ugly truth: consolidation, mergers, outsourcing (a clever way to say we sell it, but we don’t make it) and handshake deals make it more and more likely that no matter what brand you buy, the product or service you’re actually getting could come from darn near anywhere, or anyone-including people you don’t want to do business with.
At the gas station, fill up with Texaco or Shell-it doesn’t make a difference-literally. They’ve merged their gas refining operations. They make basically the same stuff for both pumps. Does your car run better when it comes out of a pump with an Exxon logo? They may have bought it from Chevron. In a Wall Street Journal article last week, these examples were cited as new challenges for marketers-how do they keep you caring about what kind of gas you put in your car? Well, my answer (not theirs) is if Chevron or any of the others offer real value-cheaper price, faster service, heck, even a free car wash, free coffee, and a smile-I’m there. If not, the mystic allure of ‘Techron’ isn’t going to make a bit of difference.
Hate America Online? Don’t choose CompuServe as an alternative. Although marketed as a completely different company, it’s now owned lock, stock, and server by AOL.
Have a problem with Delta or another airline? Choose your alternatives carefully-with codesharing, you may well be taking a trip with-and handing money to-the folks you want to shun.
So what’s the point of loyalty? Folks traditionally define loyalty as something that is earned, in the same category as respect. It’s also a deal, a two-way street. I’ll be loyal to you-whether you’re a person, a product, a company, or a local TV channel-and you’ll keep giving me whatever it is I want the way I want it.
And blind loyalty-a one-way street-is what most marketers are counting on. They hope you’re not paying too much attention-that you’re too busy to investigate and make a smart choice every time.