School’s in … if you believe in it

There’s an old running debate among journalists: Are we a profession or a craft? Generations of journalists before us either did not have a college degree or if they did, it was not from a J-school. That’s because colleges and universities didn’t start journalism programs until the 20th Century.

Some of the most gifted and hard-working journalists I have known do not have a degree. Yet, they are brilliant photographers and strong writers–curious, ethical practitioners of what they and I believe is still a valuable element of democracy.

Interestingly, it is not the non-degree holders who often stir up the debate about the value of a degree in journalism. Some who have that sheepskin exhibit a curmudgeonly, contrarian view about the value of a journalism education. That’s fine. I have reviewed my share of job applications from people with even name brand degrees and not a great deal of acumen in journalism.

I appreciate contrarians. But if you hold that view, then please don’t ask me about how to get into teaching. If you don’t believe in it–journalism and the teaching of it–you shouldn’t waste your time and the students’ time in a classroom. That’s the essence of this piece I wrote for the RTDNA Communicator.


Now, that’s a career

We journalists are competitive by nature. We compete against other news organizations. We even compete against each other in the same newsroom–for a scoop, for the lead story, for the most air time or digital space.
Yet, every once in a while, we pause to note the accomplishments of a worthy competitor, one who is truly a colleague in the community of disparate personalities that is journalism.
Such is the case with this piece I wrote for the RTDNA Communicator. Think about what 45 years looks like in the same business–almost all of it in the same city and same TV station. Now, you’re ready for David Louie’s story.

Avoiding ballot shock

In guiding political coverage in a few newsrooms, I always encouraged the production of a news story about what’s on the ballot each primary and general election.
People usually go into the voting booth knowing for whom they’ll vote at the top of the ticket–president this year, senator in non-presidential cycles. But the further they scan down the ballot, the less they know about the offices and the people who want to occupy them.
This story concerns one of those down ballot races: U.S. Representative. Every two years, all 435 members of the U.S. House are up for re-election.
They have more power than you may realize, as you’ll see in my story published in RTDNA’s Communicator online.



Losing more than a voice

I had already heard the news, first from friends via text messages, then on social media. So by the time I heard a radio story about the sudden death of columnist/talk show host/researcher Amos Brown at age 64, I was no longer in shock.

But I got a second jolt when the news anchor announced that A-Mose (rhymes with dose) Brown had died. There’s an irony Amos himself would have appreciated.

Yes, Amos was an advocate for minority representation in every power base in Indianapolis–government, business, news media, sports and so on. But he also believed in and preached to fellow journalists about knowing your community. Obviously, the radio anchor hadn’t gotten to know Indianapolis very well yet or he would have heard of Amos Brown and would have known how to pronounce his name.

Amos was a transplant, not a native Hoosier. He died last weekend where he was born–in the Chicago area. He was an alumnus of Northwestern University, too.

But he made his career in Indianapolis and earned his place in the Indiana Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame. He did it by immersing himself in his adopted city, getting to know the powerful and powerless. The former were often guests on his radio show and the latter called into that program to ask tough questions of those who were his guests.

Many of his loyal listeners or readers of his column in the Indianapolis Recorder may not have known that Amos was also a researcher, a man who could crunch census data and commercial research for his employer, Radio One. He knew the breakdown of different ethnic and socio-economic groups not only by county but down to the ZIP code. He used that research to help his stations’ sales staff but it also informed his journalism.

Intellectually, the man was a sponge. He soaked up more than numbers and names in a Rolodex. He savored old stories about the city and its characters. And he told good stories, too.

Amos also lived in his community. He didn’t just hang back, he put himself forward for the prostate walk and other events. You knew the holidays weren’t far behind when you got an invitation from Amos to attend the Mozel Sanders Thanksgiving Dinner fundraiser at the Outback Steakhouse at 86th and Michigan Rd. That’s the one where members of the media were encouraged to be donors, not just journalists covering the event. Amos was there, doing a live broadcast and meeting folks in between live updates. He was everywhere.

Amos also consumed journalism constantly. He monitored The Star, IBJ and other publications, as well as local TV and radio. He critiqued us in his column–our election coverage, our big investigative reports, our hiring decisions, all of it. If you came away from his column un-singed, you breathed a sigh of relief. If he re-tweeted something you wrote, it was a good day.

This is not a good day. It’s a bad day for Indianapolis and for me. Amos won’t re-tweet this. And we’re all the poorer for it.

Communication 1, Business Model 0

Michael Wolff has brought up an unfashionable topic–the side of the digital revolution its proponents don’t discuss. This is about digital journalism and attempts to support it with advertising.

It hasn’t worked. Wolff, a columnist for USA Today and other organizations and the founder of his own digital start-up, says the business model is broken. News sites attract more and more readers/viewers/users. But advertising isn’t underwriting the costs of those sites.

So-called “old media” are.

Wolff released a book this summer called Television is the New Television. Here’s a link to my piece on the book and an opposing perspective from the Online News Association.

The simple reason the Comcast-Time Warner merger failed

Many articles recently have deconstructed the destruction of the Comcast-Time Warner mega-merger. I read a good one recently that said it’s about the Internet, stupid. It’s not about cable TV and whether the two companies’ coverage regions competed.

That’s good big picture analysis. Time Magazine reports this week that high speed Internet accounts for more revenue at Comcast than cable TV. I get it.

But in a town where politics trumps all and almost nothing gets bipartisan support anymore, Comcast gave Democrats and Republicans something on which they could agree. Comcast service is terrible.

Sure, this was a regulatory issue first. It had to clear the Justice Department and other federal agencies. But those agencies still get funding through Congress. And senators and representatives have constituents who can share horror stories of poor big cable company service–whether in a red state or blue state.

Take mine, which happened a few minutes ago.

I called three times to finally reach a human being who could explain to me why my bill went up earlier this year. I tried to call right when I got the new bill but couldn’t get through. I knew I would have to set aside business hours to make the call and block out a chunk of time to cut through the voice mail system to get a person to finally tell me that my modem fee, broadcasting fee and another fee all went up by varying amounts.

Utility mindset

All that points to the fact that Comcast has a utility mindset in a competitive era. I can order satellite TV from one competitor and high-speed Internet from another or skip the “TV” service altogether and just order individual programs through the online program cafeteria. It’s not like a power company or other true utility.

I have options now. But Comcast, in passing along an arbitrary rate hike, hasn’t figured that out yet.

My phone adventure

So back to my phone call(s) today: They each begin the same, welcoming me, offering the Spanish language option and then asking for the last four digits of my phone number. That sends me to a series of prompts. I pick the one about questions on my bill. At this point on the first call, a new, upbeat female recorded voice jumps in to joyfully inform me that Comcast has a new easy to remember customer service number. She reads it and boom. I’m cut off.

Dial a second time. Same prompts and again, I get past the verification stage. This time, when I punch “questions about my bill,” I am invited to find a link on a website that will play a video that promises to answer my questions. Really? How can it be a mind reader and know my questions enough in advance to record a video to answer them? Amazing. Oh, and when I don’t choose that option, I’m cut off again.

The third time, I actually made it to a human being. I felt like the ninth caller in a radio station contest. “What have I won?”

The woman at the other end was a good listener, let me warm up on the issues, answered the billing questions, at least as far as she knew them and even asked me about different numbers I tried. If only the rest of the system worked as well.

Forbes published a piece last winter on the customer service rankings of a couple hundred large companies. A company surveyed 10,000 consumers and the company they ranked as dead last was … Comcast. Just a few positions north was Time-Warner Cable.

You can bet every regulator considering the merger read that survey, too. Eventually, Comcast and Time-Warner decided to yank the deal off the table before Washington pulled the plug. The arguments will continue: cable competition vs. the prominence of high-speed Internet, too much lobbying, too much pressure from Congress. But when Harvard and Wharton schools of business study this, the lesson is bad customer service is bad for big business.

Deflategate scoop and new gigs for scribes

One of the strengths of any good reporter is his or her sources. Reporters who cultivate those plugged-in, behind-the-scenes folks can reap rewards for years.

Bob Kravitz of WTHR proved that when he broke one of the biggest sports stories of the young year: Deflategate. It’s also significant that Kravitz is one of several ex-newspaper reporters who have migrated to TV news websites, as I describe in this piece for the RTDNA Communicator.

Another Dictator, Another Film, Another Era

Were we a more principled people in 1940? Or were we braver back then?

I’m trying to figure out why it’s so hard to release a film (The Interview) lampooning a dictator today compared to almost 75 years ago. That’s when the great Charlie Chaplin directed and starred in The Great Dictator.

This was no subtle send-up. Chaplin named his foil Adenoid Hynkel but everyone knew it was Adolph Hitler. Including Hitler, who, according to Internet Movie Database, banned the 1940 film in Germany and all of the countries it occupied at that time.

The movie went after Der Fuehrer and his henchmen, his Axis buddy, Mussolini, and even took on Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. Most of the world did not yet know how horrible that treatment was but it was already bad enough for Chaplin back in 1937, when he started production.

Adam Taylor in the Washington Post rejects the parallel. He says that Chaplin had to fight to get his satire made and financed it himself. But says he got a boost from the top: President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent his emissary, Harry Hopkins, to encourage Chaplin to make the movie.

And, as for self-financing, the line is a little blurry. The Great Dictator was bankrolled by Chaplin, sure. But it was distributed by United Artists, which was created by Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. So he was not without support.

For whatever risk may have been involved—offending a country we were not yet fighting, for instance—it ended up a success. It was critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated and was Chaplin’s biggest box-office hit.

In that sense, I’ll agree with Taylor. Even before this blew up, no one was claiming The Interview would be a modern day Dictator. No Oscar buzz this time around.

But the idea of any foreign entity dictating to us what we can see, even if it is low brow, dumb humor, should be abhorrent to everyone. Let’s consider The Great Dictator as an example of doing the right thing, a moment of integrity in the face of pressure to back down.

There are plenty of historical examples of shrinking in the face of offending an aggressive country. The Great Dictator ran up against a threatened banning in Britain, which not yet gone to war against Germany. But by the time the film was released the blitz was on and Chaplin’s movie was welcomed as helpful propaganda.

In a previous post I suggested that Sony Pictures skip the usual distribution approach and release the movie directly to video. It would get around concerns about terror in movie theaters and still show North Korea and the world we really believe in those words enshrined in the First Amendment.

There’s still time, Sony.

Come on, Sony Pictures, Show North Korea What Free Speech Means

I have a suggestion for Sony Pictures, distributors of the new film comedy, “The Interview,” a satire about a couple of goofy journalists cajoled into assassinating the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un.

Release the film to video now.

Now, while the topic is hot. Make a statement. Support the filmmakers and their right to express themselves and make a buck at the same time.

Skip over the usual process—theatrical release only, then, pay-per-view, etc. And just put it out there so people everywhere can watch the movie and decide for themselves if it is funny.

The threat is out there, supposedly delivered by the same folks who hacked into Sony Pictures’ computer system. They warn us not to go near movie theaters showing the movie and then refer to 9/11.

North Korea does not exactly take direct credit for the hack job but equated the movie to terrorism and described it as an “act of war.”

A Reuters story quotes an official with Homeland Security and a second government security official as saying there is “no credible intelligence” of a plot to blow up movie theaters in America.

Still, theater chain owners are skittish. CNN reported at least one chain has announced it won’t show the film. Another chain canceled the movie’s New York premiere.

But if it takes a creative release schedule to thwart the fear tactics, then do it. Let’s give the hackers and the North Koreans (one and the same?) a civics lesson on freedom of speech.

Let’s all make it a runaway video hit—all over premium cable channels, pay-per-view, DVD sales and other means. Buy the movie because you like Seth Rogen and James Franco and the other films and TV shows they’ve been in (all the way back to Freaks and Geeks). Or buy it and don’t watch it because that style of comedy is not your thing. But buy it.

Come on, Sony. Strike a blow for free speech and capitalism. After all, the lobby poster introduces the film by saying it is from “the western capitalist pigs who brought you Neighbors and This is the End.”

So Sony, put the thing out on video and let everyone watch in the safety of their own homes. Don’t let the world’s least free and most reclusive dictatorship dictate what cannot be shown to American audiences.

My summer with Howard Cosell: a legend through an intern’s eyes

We were the Izod Squad.

I hated the sobriquet but I couldn’t escape it. After all, I arrived for work at the ABC corporate headquarters building in Midtown Manhattan on the same June day as Marte Megargle. And we were both International Radio & Television Society interns.

Marte was a workplace model of preppy: She wore plaid dresses with short, puffy sleeves. She also had plenty of khaki slacks, polo shirts and penny loafers. She was the whole package.

But she was also a smart, driven career woman, who happened to come in the guise of a sweet, red-haired Irish girl with a perfect complexion. On the other hand, I had a wardrobe maybe a quarter the size of hers—none of it preppy—and the remnants of a 70s look. But assistant operations manager Steve Goldstein dubbed us the Izod Squad and that was it. I was marked for the whole summer of 1981.

ABC, the newest of the now old Big 3 networks, was spread out all over Midtown Manhattan. That was an inconvenience for Howard Cosell, who occupied an office a few floors above ours. He didn’t like going across the street from ABC’s headquarters at 1330 Avenue of the Americas to 1345, home of ABC’s network radio division. Howard wanted a more convenient place to record his famous radio program, Speaking of Sports.

So he hopped the elevator down to where Marte and I worked—the only broadcast studios at 1330—WABC-AM and WPLJ-FM. The latter was the corporate version of an album oriented rock (AOR) station and 77 WABC was still spinning the hits that summer.

There he was, without an introduction and without an entourage. Howard Cosell, one of the most famous people in America, was standing a few feet from me. If I hadn’t recognized his face, I still would have known the voice. Even in casual conversation, he “announced.”

First impression: He was much taller than I had thought. A relatively tall man with big features. I guess it was all of those years standing next to huge athletes that had made his own physical stature a surprise to me.

Here was a man who just months before, had announced to most of the world that John Lennon had died. The story broke in the middle of Monday Night Football and Howard Cosell was the bearer of the horrible news.

He was the sports correspondent whose career grew alongside that of Mohammed Ali. But Cosell’s fame skyrocketed when he became part of Monday Night Football’s most popular team, with Frank Gifford and Dandy Don Meredith.

Meeting Howard Cosell

For all of his fame and power at ABC, Howard waited patiently for studio time and would sit in a row of often empty desks where we interns were assigned some minor listener contest and research work. No smoking in the workplace was years away. Howard fired up a long cigar as he propped his feet up on an unoccupied desk.

Then, gulp, he struck up a conversation with us. First, the pretty girl.

“So, young lady, where did you go to school?”

“St. Mary’s, in Indiana,” she announced, probably knowing she was feeding him a conversation-starter.

“Ah, Note-truh-Dame,” Howard enunciated. And sure enough, it was a launching pad for a quick commentary about the rich history and successful athletic traditions at St. Mary’s sister institution in South Bend.

I think he wanted to keep talking to Marte but out of politeness, he turned to me and asked where I had gone to college.

“Murray State in Kentucky,” I said. “Uh-huh,” he grunted. And in record time, he was talking to Marte again. Within a couple of years, he hired her as a producer.

I would bump into Howard off and on during the hot and dry summer of 1981, when New Yorkers were deprived of water fountains during the drought and baseball during the protracted strike.

Maybe that was why I saw Howard so much. No games to broadcast. In fact, WABC, the Yankees’ official radio station, found itself airing games of the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate, Columbus Clippers, as well as re-broadcasts of classic World Series games that summer.

I learned two things about Howard that Al Michaels does not mention in his November 3 Sports Illustrated article, which is an excerpt from his new book, You Can’t Make This Up: Miracles, Memories and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television.

Two things about Howard you probably didn’t know

First, Howard sang.

When he settled into one of the WABC radio studios to record “Speaking of Sports” or his broader commentaries, “Speaking of Everything,” he sang.

A crafty old audio engineer would quietly roll a reel-to-reel or slide a cart into a machine to record Howard as he prepared to present his radio program. Old-timey songs, maybe obscure college fight songs. Now, there was a side of Howard Cosell I had not expected. I don’t think Howard knew the guys recorded his tuneful warm-up before his show.

ABC moved its corporate headquarters farther north in Manhattan later in the 80s. I wonder if the old Howard Cosell musical library survived the move.

Second, Howard’s mind was even more impressive than I knew.

On one occasion when Howard had wrapped up recording “Speaking of Sports,” I noticed some paper left near the microphone. I thought it would be good to impress Tara, Howard’s radio producer at that time.

I grabbed the paper without looking at it and ran to catch up with Tara, who was trailing her boss. I half shouted her name and she stopped. I handed her the paper and told her proudly that Howard had left it next to the mic.

She glanced quickly at the paper and shook her head. “No,” she said. “That’s not Howard’s. He doesn’t use a script.”

She trotted off and left me dumbfounded. Howard Cosell would record episode after episode of his radio commentaries and did so without a script. Names, dates, moments in history, statistics, quotations. All from memory.

Al Michaels’ excellent piece in SI framed the contradiction that was Howard Cosell: charming but off-putting, brilliant but hardly omniscient, famous but maybe a little lonely. I met many famous folk that summer, including Dionne Warwick, Morey Amsterdam (of the Dick Van Dyke Show), Ted Koppel, Dan Rather, and, well, I sort of met Stevie Nicks. She came to the station and I stood in front of her. I just couldn’t think of anything clever to say. But Howard Cosell was probably the most famous and unique personality of the whole group. As the SI piece says, “the one and only.” Indeed.