Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for February 2016

Antonin Scalia and Public Radio

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Antonin Scalia 2

It’s worth noting that back in the early 70s, when President Nixon was looking for ways to curtail federal funds to public broadcasting, he received advice from his then council for public broadcasting, future Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.  According to Andrew Giarolo, a doctoral candidate at Seton Hall in 2013 and author of, “Resolving the Debate on Public Funding for National Public Radio”, Mr. Scalia “crafted a policy by which local stations would drive programming choices.”

This was important at the time because there was a division within Congress between those who thought NPR should be a national network vs. those who thought federal funding should focus on stations developing a local-only programming policy.  Both camps knew that the size of the voice affected the spread of the message.  And since public radio had by then gained the reputation of being an “Eastern liberal institution”, conservatives in the White House, Congress and the courts wanted to make sure federal money wasn’t supporting it too strongly.

Programming is key because programming is expensive and needs to be paid for.  Local stations didn’t have the budgets to create the kind of investigative reports that infuriated the Nixon adminstration, but networks and dedicated production facilities did.  So attacking CPB funds was a key strategy by the right.

Although Scalia helped prepare legislation for submission to Congress that contained ideas for local stations to drive programming rather than NPR, it went nowhere.  But, years later, NPR would itself create a system of diversified funding sources that included local stations, that would protect funding for programming and save it from budget attacks in the future.

 

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Written by Interviewer

February 17, 2016 at 01:16

Same but Different?

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same but different

What differentiates public radio from commercial radio isn’t the wordplay that distinguishes a commercial, which is what commercial radio calls the paid statements from advertisers between music or talk, from underwriting, which is what public radio calls the paid statements from companies between programs.

The main distinction between a commercial and underwriting is that commercials have verbs like, go, do, see or call.  They constitute what is known as “The Action Step”; words that tell the listener to perform some act.  Public radio, instead, tells you everything about the company except to patronize it.  Ideally, public radio and the underwriting that financially supports it, avoids the action step.

Not because it wants to.  Public radio’s history is speckled with instances of stations with creative station managers who wanted to see exactly how close they could get to telling listeners what to do.  And they’ve gotten in a lot of trouble for it from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the FCC – two entities that tell public radio stations what to do.

Getting listeners to act, especially if they do it, can be very profitable.  It must be.  It’s a model that financially supports commercial radio to the tune of millions of dollars each year.  But public radio, unlike commercial radio, is also accountable to Congress to maintain its, shall we say, purity.  To be a public radio station, with all of the non-profit, tax exempt perks that come with it, a station must not sell commercials.  And commercials are full of action steps.

When President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the goal was to create a system of radio and TV stations that weren’t focused solely on money and didn’t act or sound like it. Think of radio stations with 45 minutes of music and 15 minutes of commercials, or a TV program with 12 commercials in a row, and you get an idea of how it looks like all they care about is money.  But, … at least they’re straightforward about it.

Which is why the pledge drive can be so confusing.  Pledge drives are one of the ways public radio stations get the money they need to provide the programming they offer.  In a pledge drive, hosts come on during program breaks and ask listeners to donate money.  But if you listen to a pledge drive, it can be a non-stop commercial for more than 20 minutes an hour.  And you hear those asks in the places between programs where you would normally hear underwriting;

“Call now.”
“You need to do this.”
“We’re waiting to hear from you.”
“Don’t wait.”
“Head on over to your phone.”
“Get out your credit card and become a member.”

I’m not sure why public radio can’t have underwriting with action steps but it can have pledge drives that tells listeners to call a telephone number up to 40 times an hour.  Maybe it’s a little loophole in the law – a gift from Congress who realized it’s hard to get people to part with their money without a little direct cajoling.

Perhaps the letter of the law is distinctive.  But for the ordinary listener, it can certainly sound like a distinction without a difference.

P.S.

After I posted this blogpost, I had the idea to title it, “Tomayto, Tomahto”, but it was too late.

Written by Interviewer

February 16, 2016 at 12:53

How to Be Smooth

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Wireless Microphone

This is a quickie.

TV and radio are technical professions.  Everybody depends on everybody else for a smooth outcome.  Mistakes happen; lights burn out, things fall over, the wrong button gets pushed, a graphic disappears, a computer crashes.  But when they happen, people work to make them as unnoticable as possible.  That doesn’t always happen.  Reporters, anchors and hosts get caught off guard by flubs, both those of other people and their own.  They might apologize, do double takes, start something over, laugh or do any one of a thousand things people do when they’re surprised.

But being smooth is part of being professional, and sometimes, someone is so simply casual about fixing a fix that you have to admire them for it.  Such was the case with KOIN’s Sally Showman this morning.  At the 8:30 local news, traffic and weather break, the camera cut to her giving her weather forecast.  Her lips were moving but nothing was coming out.  There was a problem with her audio.  And smoothly, almost unnoticably, she reached around behind her own back, switched on her wireless microphone, and, as they say in the Army, “continued to march.”

How did she know we couldn’t hear her?  Possibly someone on the studio floor motioned to her that her mic wasn’t working.  Maybe (if she was wearing an earpiece), the director told her to turn it on.  But considering the blooper tapes I’ve seen in my life, even pros can sometimes make something as simple as pushing a button look like a Steve Martin routine.

Live broadcasting is an acquired skill.  It is a dance; gear, people, timing and electronics all choreographed while you drink your coffee.  You’ve seen so many dances that you, discerning audience that you are, know when somebody is stumbling.  So, when there’s a problem, it’s not enough to just fix it.  The fix must also be as ordinary as it is elegant.

Smooth.

Written by Interviewer

February 11, 2016 at 00:01

The Importance of the “Witness”

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Obama No

This is a quickie.

This photograph is currently circulating on Linkedin.  The poster is apparently suggesting that President Obama never hugged active duty troops, which in some circles is code for saying that President Obama has disdain for the troops, the American missions in Afghanistan/Iraq, American exceptionalism and the Constitution.  Many current and past political pundits, politicians and wannabees have said as much.

The interesting thing about this suggestion is it is flatly uninformed and untrue.  Photographer Erika Barker, who works for a communications firm in NY and has worked for Conde’ Nast, the NFL, DIRECTV among others, apparently happened to see the poster’s post and said, “I sure do. I was there”, and posted a photo of President Obama hugging troops.  In fact, Janet Goodman-Clarke, another marketing and photography professional in NY also posted a photo of the president hugging a soldier with prosthetic legs.  Who knows how many more photos invalidating the poster’s assertion are in that response thread.

Obama YesObama Yes2

An easy comeback might be, “Well, President Bush was sincerely hugging the troops while President Obama was doing it for the camera.”  And that is why easy responses are easy – because they don’t require much due diligence, which is why many such uninformed opinions flow so freely on social media.

It is the job of the Commander-in-Chief to command.  I cannot think of a president who has not cried for wounded or fallen troops.  It is a luxury for such posters to editorialize what is going on in the pictures.  The truth is the emotions exchanged between the leader and those they are leading are deep and personal and beyond shallow, petty and self interested interpretation.

But another true fact about such strong feelings by the people who have them is that the inaccuracy isn’t so much about the truth, but about how the people making the accusations don’t feel heard.  Much more must be done to try to find a way to heal what seems to be a genuine rift amongst our countrymen and women.  Feeling separated from the discussion can make people angry.  And when people are angry, they can see things that aren’t there and not see things that are there.

Which is exactly why the witness is so important.

Written by Interviewer

February 3, 2016 at 10:01