Archive for September, 2010

The Towers of Microville

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Living in New York City for over a dozen years, it's been easy to forget just how much mass media has changed in that short time. In New York, newsstands are still stuffed with all sorts of fat newspapers and magazines. And there's still plenty of locally originating programming on our radio and TV stations. I suppose these are all benefits of living right in the hub of the the biggest media market in America. Even during these tough times advertisers still invest in our millions of eyes and ears. While it's true there's been some scaling down over the last few years, for now much of the twentieth century media landscape remains intacf. And we still have a lot of pay phones around here too, although not always in good repair,

But when I get out of town I'm quickly reminded that the world outside of my bubble is in an advanced stage of media transformation. Many city newspapers I come across are about the thickness I would associate with a college paper.I don't really see much local TV here or anywhere, but quick scans of the radio dial are dull forays though assorted syndicated content and prepackaged music introduced by voice tracking strangers from afar. And plenty of the public radio stations i  come across are just relay transmitters connected to one studio that provides content for a dozen or more stations at once.

Despite my city slicker ways, I have a love for visiting small towns. I always like the line in that Kid Creole song, "Going Places"– "Believe me, when you leave New York you go… nowhere." Which is a little snarky, but there's some truth there. And for me, it really is where I like to go from time to time. Nowhere. If just for a while. Some quiet. Some nature. Perhaps a dirt road. Dark skies filled with wondrous celestial objects by night. Stuff I can't find at home.

And as I’ve mentioned so many times here, I do love the RF quiet of the countryside– being a world away from all the human infrastructure and gadgetry, and an often ideal environment for DXing shortwave and AM radio by night. And perhaps surprisingly, daylight listening out in the boondocks can be rather interesting as well. In many isolated corners of this country, there's some unique local radio to be found on the AM dial, if you take the time to scan around. And I always hope to come across some of those stations that still make a point of serving their community somehow. (In a more profound way than relaying Limbaugh or the "Music of Your Life.")

A long long time ago, television and radio stations were required by smartly constructed regulations to be directly responsible to their local community– to provide credible news and information (and music and entertainment) in the interest of the area’s population. Broadcasting was supposed to be a call to service for those how transmitted on the public airwaves. And the “news” wasn’t expected to be profitable either. And there was something called the fairness doctrine…

By the late eighties stations were no longer expected to be responsible or fair, and the rise of right-wing radio began when the syndicators of the Rush Limbaugh Program began giving the show away to small stations across the country. And more and more of the music stations that clung to the AM dial were automated, many by satellite services.

And it’s been a long steep decline from there, and over the last couple decades deep deregulation and the evolution of media in general have all but stripped away most of the local talent and local concern from small town radio. Radio stations originally licensed to serve small regions and communities are often programmed from afar now. And one big corporation may own half the stations in one town. If you’ve ever sampled AM radio while driving across the country, I don’t have to tell you that the majority of these once strategic local media outlets have been reduced to relay transmitters for syndicated rightist talk, sports jabber, or just prepackaged music.

However, that’s not completely true. At least not yet. Contemporary hit radio formats moved the FM band decades ago, but there are still a few stations on the AM dial who program their own brew of oldies and/or nostalgia, or perhaps traditional music, and are able to commands enough of a local listenership and ad revenue to keep the bills paid, and keep a few people employed. I’ve written about some of these stations over the years, like WHVW in the Hudson Valley of New York, and WCXI outside Flint, Michigan. While both of these stations are locally programmed, neither comes close to staffing air talent around the clock. WHVW relies heavily on homemade music automation, and WCXI is strictly a daytime operation. And in the summer they sign off at six p.m., hours before sunset.   

In a more common scenario, small town radio stations will feature talk or music programming from afar for most of the day, but will showcase a local program or two during more popular listening hours (usually the drive-time hours, or late mornings).

Whenever I’ve gotten a chance to travel, I like to get some essence or flavor of the regions I’m traveling through. Which isn’t always easy in these over homogenized and globalized times, especially when you’re moving at interstate speed. But listening to regional AM radio, when I can find it, gives me some small sense of where I am. Like in western Pennsylvania for example.

I-80 in Pennsylvania is an unusual piece of highway. Unlike any other interstate I can think of, it cuts through a large American state (the long way!) and never approaches one major city. It serves a more national function– linking the east coast megalopolis with the great lakes region. That’s what I was doing, zooming from New York to see the folks in Michigan.

If you wanna go to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or even Allentown, there are I-80 exits all the way offering highways that will eventually get you there. But this hilly and green interstate highway is graced with only a handful of exits where you’ll find an actual city waiting at the end of the ramp. I found one of ‘em about two-thirds of the way across the state– DuBois, Pennsylvania, where I recorded this.

WCED-AM DuBois, PA – Gary Stormer 06-28-10
(Download)

“One more time I wanted to mention, we’re looking for a LARGE dog…”

It’s hard for me to think of one line that epitomizes small town radio more eloquently than a plea to help locate an escaped house pet.  And apparently this missing mastiff is one of the bigger news stories of the day in Du Bois, Pennsylvania. And it’s Gary Stormer on News Talk Radio WCED. And it seems like likely that Stormer is, in a sense, the voice of DuBois.

Sounding younger than his years, Stormer has been at WCED for a long time. When he was hired back in 1973, WCED was still a full service AM radio station in the mid-20th century tradition, with an array of local hosts offering news, information and comfort (and probably safe MOR music) for folks in Western Pennsylvania. That was a number of formats ago, and the only one left is Stormer– the lone local guy in the morning on a station that carries an all too typical roster of national right-wing propagandists like Limbaugh, Hannity and Mike Gallagher.

And while I don’t know Stormer’s politics, he sure sounds a lot nicer than Limbaugh and his ilk. And it seems like almost every advertiser is also friend of his. And if you have a local event or political campaign you're looking to promote in the DuBois area, you probably probably wanna find yourself sitting in the studio with Gary Stormer some morning.

I don’t know much about DuBois, other than reading online about its history as a lumber and coal town. And the yearly “Soap Box Derby” is kind of a big deal there. And the winning teenager usually lands a guest spot with Gary on the WCED Morning Show.

While data from this year’s census isn’t available yet, ten years ago the population DuBois was found to be 98.18% “white.” And I doubt that’s changed much. In that vein, I found the ad for “Bamboo Garden” in this clip in this clip kinda funny.

I love small town radio commercials in general. I don’t mean the Geico ads and all the usual national ad campaigns, but the spots produced in-house– where and the stations production team get to show off their talents, anybody who works at the station could become an actor in a short drama or comedy. Or both at once. Like this couple who personify some of the biggest fears white Americans may have when it comes to dining at an Asian restaurant.

Him: "It’s CHICKEN…aaaah, I think?”
Her: "HOT SPICESoh joy.

Followed by the soothing announcer:

“Never settle for what you don’t want to eat again…”

You see, at Bamboo Garden you can create your own custom stir fry. No surprises. No strange Asian ingredients sneaking into your digestive system. Kind of reminds of me of those pain-free dentistry commercials. And it seems somehow appropriate that this fear-free stir fry democracy would occur out at the Main Street Mall.

One other note. Gary plays “Fact or Crap,” a simple game where listeners are prompted to call in and guess if some historical factoid he offers up is a fact or just… crap. Yet, the whole concept seems so 1973, when a quick Google search will answer questions like this in a second or two. And the woman who calls in kinda sounds like she might have done just that.

Just seven years ago the Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget made the role towns like DuBois play in their region official. Just as major cities are and their region of influence are known as “Metropolitan Statistical Areas,” expanses of America dominated by smaller cities are now classified as “Micropolitian Statistical Areas.”

The “micropolitan" designation comes from having a core city with less than 50,000 residents. Folks who live hours away from large cities still need the same services, supplies and media as people in major population areas, and the dominant town in the region often provides those people well beyond the city limits. Which near DuBois means radio stations like WCED and places like the Main Street Mall. And I’m sure there’s a Wal-Mart too. (I just looked it up, there’s TWO of those discount monstrosities there.)

Like the industrial Midwest, which really begins at the edge of Pennsylvania and works around the Great Lakes basin, DuBois has seen better days, losing about a third of its population since World War 2. Which is still much better than the devastation that’s occurred to cities like Flint and Detroit in Michigan, and nearby Youngstown, Ohio. But a week or so later I found myself on the fringes of another “Micropolitan” area. This time in northern Michigan, which hasn’t been so savaged by the decades of declining industry.

According to the 2000 Census, the Northern Michigan tourist haven Traverse City, Michigan had a population of 14,532, just a little bigger than DuBois in its heyday. And unlike the old coal mining town and the big cities in Southern Michigan, the population of Traverse City is on the increase. 

For people who visit Traverse City in the summer, the city can seem a lot bigger than fourteen thousand or so. Which is probably because there’s so many people flock there in the summertime. Located on beautiful Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan, Traverse City is the largest city in the northern upper peninsula of Michigan. And because of that, it’s influence really extends far beyond the micropolitan statistical area that surrounds it. At least in the summer. And fittingly, the glories of the tourism season is the topic at hand in this next clip.

WTCM-AM Traverse City, MI – Joel Franck 07-06-10
(Download)
 
Like WCED, WTCM also broadcasts Limbaugh and Hannity (and the vile Mark Levin) and an assortment of rightist monkeys through the day. However, they hold onto the last five hours of the morning with two local hosts– Ron Jolly and Norm Jones. But here you get neither. Instead you’ll hear Joel Franck, the station's News Director, sitting in for Jones. His producer Michelle is playing sidekick.

Although Traverse City isn’t quite in the U.P. (or The Upper Peninsula), Joel’s articulation bears a lot of the cadence and emphasis of the “Yooper” accent of that region. If's a little North Dakota, a little Ontario, with some Ohio in there. A little flat. A long "A" quite often. And some funny words and phrases.

As I tune into this program, the overwhelming sense is that Franck must be treading water between guests or something– prodding listeners to call in and share what they think summer means. He’s obviously fishing for feel-good responses, as festival season is underway and all the downstate money is pumping into the economy, but I do hope that the host who usually holds down this time slot is a little better at coming up with show filler on the fly. Franck may be a fine news guy, but as a talk host he doesn’t seem to bring much sizzle to the table.

And maybe I’d be gettin’ all chapter and verse as I preach to the choir on this one, but isn't it heavenly how Joel's patter is blessed with such a swell congregation of church metaphors.

“This is God’s country, there’s no doubt about that. And things like the lilac festival make that happen… spreading the gospel of summer here on News Talk 580.”

Of course, he wasn’t proselytizing or anything. But you can tell a lot about somebody by the well of metaphors they dip into. Like the way Rush Limbaugh is always using lingo from TV football. When you hear somebody keep going back to the same conceptual broom closet for language and comparisons, you can be sure that it’s the place where his brain likes to wallow, where his soul is most active. For Rush it’s ESPN. For Joel Franck, it’s church. Or something like that.

And then there’s an ad for Howard Walker, who since this time has become the Republican candidate for a state senate seat in Michigan. Sadly but not unexpectedly, he's pushing the simpleton "tea party" agenda– lower taxes, less government as “keys to turning this state around.” As if the ongoing tragedy that is the Michigan economy would get better if rich people could continue to pay even lower taxes. While that might seem a little misguided, I’m sure it would make the Koch brothers happy.

The next commercial took me by surprise. It’s promoting the “Epsilon Jass Band” and the dixieland service and concert they put on at a local church through the summer. While I don’t know anything about the provenance of these events, it is kind of interesting how for almost fifty years some southern Louisiana roots culture was successfully grafted onto the top of Michigan’s lower peninsula. I find it heartening to know that there’s actually a contingent of white folks doing the second line in Petoskey, Michigan every summer– sporting masks and umbrellas “made by the official umbrella lady of New Orleans.” Who knew?

Like I said, you can learn some interesting stuff by turning on your AM radio when you travel around the U.S. It ain’t like hobnobbing at the beer garden at some summer festival, but sometimes AM broadcasting can really bring you to the street level of a local community. The FM band and local television is often all about making money and national trends, but AM radio isn’t so profitable, or slick. As I’ve said before, amplitude modulated broadcasting doesn’t rake in the cash it once did, but it remains a good medium for transmissions of power and identity. And it's a way that broadcasting can enrich and strengthen a community.

Three years ago the FCC finally realized how so much deregulation has destroyed what was once and proposed new regulations to force stations to once again provide content in the interest of their community of license. The way it used to be. , when the radio spectrum was originally considered to be a "limited resource belonging to the public. But the mega-corporations are fighting the FCC' to stop ANY new regulations on the industry. They no longer consider themselves "trustees" of the public airwaves. Too often radio station is merely a money machine these days. And the few corporations that own most of them are not interested in localism or diversity or serving anyone or anything– other than their own profit margin.

In closing, I'd like to encourage you to check out your local AM dial some time, and see what's left. Sometimes I forget that here in New York City there’s some fascinating local programming on the AM band as well. You just need to know when to listen. We have some quirky homespun radio here too. If you take the time to sort through the schedules of the brokered stations. While this is a big big city, much of New York is a compression of small towns (we call them neighborhoods) with lots of individuality and personality, and characters.

Of course, this kind of AM radio is rarely as professional and polished as you might hear at higher profile stations. And I won't deny that part of the charm is getting a chuckle or two from the rough edges and amateur announcing you occasionally hear. But more often I listen for the passion and individuality of the presenters on these show. And you can feel the connection between the folks on the air and their listeners. And the sponsors. They know each other personally. Or they could. Or they will. Or they just feel like they know each other, because they having something important in common. They really live together.

Yes MP3 players are fun, and podcasting and streaming radio continue to pull people away from traditional radio all the time. And people carry around little pocket phones that do all that and SO much more. It's not hard to see why there's a prevailing school of thought that old-fashioned radio, especially AM (and shortwave), is becoming irrelevant. But I'm not so sure. At least in the long run. I do wonder if someday radio will rediscover the importance of  truly serving their community of listeners, and not just airing cheap canned content between commercials.

And some lost dogs might have a better chance of getting home.