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Friday, April 25, 2003

Carl Reiner, "Ocean's Eleven"

In a wide-ranging interview, comedy legend Carl Reiner returned to my show to talk about "Ocean's Eleven" and other movies he's made, his relationship with Johnny Carson, and much more. He also told the classic "cream cheese cookies emcee" story.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2003

How To Suck In Business

St. Louis University announced today that they have un-invited the businessman who was supposed to speak at commencement next month. His name is Donald Carty -- but in St. Louis these days, his name is really mud.

Donald Carty is the CEO of American Airlines, which employs thousands of people here at their hub at Lambert Airport. Or at least he is CEO for another day or two, before they fire him. That request will come from the board of directors, following a disastrous series of events over the last week, culminating with American Airlines' latest earnings announcement.

Under Donald Carty, American Airlines lost one billion dollars.

A billion dollars. That's a one with three commas and nine zeroes after it. Not in a decade, not in a year, but in a quarter, three months.

A billion dollars in three months.

If the company had been run by someone else, anyone else, could they possibly have done worse? You could have pulled a random person out of the line waiting to board an American flight, told them, "You now run this airline!" -- and they would have stood a good chance of doing better than Donald Carty. Hey, if they only lost nine hundred million, they'd win that bet.

On our plus/minus list of things accomplished during Carty's reign, here's how we stand. The plus side has exactly one good entry: they added more leg room between the rows on the planes. I'm a tall guy, so I like that one. Over on the negative side, well, let's start with that missing billion dollars.

A billion dollars is more than Delta and Northwest lost, combined. In business terms, that's the definition of running a company into the ground, which is not a phrase you want associated with big metal things that defy gravity all day everyday.

The scale seems to be tipping a bit, and we've only just begun (to quote a Carpenters song that's no doubt playing on one of those audio channels no one listens to on an airplane -- they could've saved some money just by eliminating that unnecessary entertainment expense!).

Not only did Carty's Cartel sit in the saddle and hold the reins while this stagecoach went out of control, they also lied to their employees. They told them that, unless they made sacrifices, the company would have to declare bankruptcy. So they got their unions to give up hundreds of millions of dollars in concessions, laid off thousands of people, told the rest they'd have to take pay cuts of up to 23% and have their benefits reduced. Now it looks like they'll have to declare bankruptcy anyway.

Among the hardest hit are the former TWA workers who were swallowed up when American bought that airline. These folks survived Carl Icahn, but they should have seen real trouble ahead when Carty And Friends told them whoppers about how they were essential to the operation, how everyone would thrive as a bigger team, and how happy American was to welcome them to the family. Some family. Yeah, we're happy to have you stay over, but you're eating at the kids table and sleeping in the doghouse.

What did Donald Carty and his executive pals at American get while the rank-and-file saw their careers upended? They gave themselves extra pension benefits and a raise -- a 100% salary bonus. They called it a "retention bonus," because they said the airline had to pay them a lot or some other company might steal them away. Because there are lots of other corporations that are frothing at the mouth to hire the kind of economic geniuses who can lose a billion dollars in three months.

When the news of this deception came out, Carty started his mea culpa act. He actually told the employees that his first priority had always been to be honest with them, and he never intended to mislead anybody. Right. Translation: I didn't think anyone would see that small print about the bonuses and benefits we gave ourselves, and I'm sorry -- sorry that I got caught.

He apologized for the "mistake in judgement" and hoped the unions would forgive him. Don't count on it, Don. If the unions had their way, you'd be sitting in the middle seat in coach between a crying baby on the aisle and a smelly fat guy with a weak bladder in the window seat on a trans-Pacific route, held up on the tarmac by bad weather for two or three hours with no air conditioning and a malfunctioning vent blower above your seat.

This is the man who was to give the commencement address. That would have made all the economics majors and MBA candidates proud to be entering the business world. They haven't even started their careers, and they're already a billion dollars ahead of some hotshot CEO!

Now, the only question is, who can SLU get to fill Carty's slot as commencement speaker? Anyone know what Ken Lay is doing on May 17th?

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

My First Radio Job

Twenty-five years ago today, I did my first show on a commercial radio station. To mark the occasion, here are my memories of the day I met the man who would give me my very first paying job in the business.

My interview at WRCN, on the east end of Long Island, is on Monday, April 3rd, 1978. I pull into the driveway off Flanders Road into the abandoned Riverhead Drive-In. A hundred yards up on the right there's a one-story cinder block building, which I've been told houses the studios of WRCN (the offices were a few blocks away in “downtown” Riverhead).

Outside in the small gravel parking lot, I see two guys throwing a softball back and forth. I learn later that one of them is Charlie, the chief engineer, and the other is Jeff Fisher, the Music Director and midday jock who happens to be on the air at the time. They greet me and tell me that Don Brink, the Program Director with whom I had made this appointment, is in his office, just inside the door and to the left. As I park and walk towards the door, Jeff runs back in to segue into the next record on the air. Then he's back out to the parking lot to resume that game of catch.

I had gotten Don's attention in the first place thanks to Kirk Ward, who worked with me at WUSB, the radio station of SUNY/Stony Brook, the university I had been attending for the last three years. "Captain" Kirk was working towards his Masters degree, had a traveling DJ business that provided music for parties and events, and also did the Saturday overnight shift at WRCN. He had helped me put together my audition tape, giving me hints about how the station worked formatically and other insight that I couldn't glean just from listening.

At the age of 19, I was completely enamored of the medium of radio, and had been for many years. Here was a chance to try to get paid for doing it after all these years of sitting behind microphones, turntables, and tape machines in college and high school.

Don, who is the morning man as well as the PD, sits me down in his small office and begins to talk to me about radio in general, and the Superstars album rock format in particular. Superstars had been invented just a couple of years before by Lee Abrams, whose firm Burkhart/Abrams & Associates consults this station and many others of every size across the country. It's a tightly formatted approach to Album Oriented Rock, designed to fill the void between the Top 40 stations and the Progressive Rock stations. WRCN calls itself The Album Station.

Don explains the basics and hands me a looseleaf notebook which goes into further detail. It still hasn't sunk into my head that he's offering me a job, as I sit there and glance through the notebook. All of a sudden he says, "I can't get you on by this weekend, so how about if your first night is Saturday the 15th?" I stammer out something like, "Sure, that sounds good. Whatever you say, Mr. Brink!" He smiles and tells me to follow him while he shows me around and introduces me to the rest of the crew.

As the view from the exterior suggested, this is a very small building. Opposite Don's office is the furnace room, also home of the UPI newswire that's constantly spitting out rolls of yellow paper with the latest news, sports, and weather stories.

Next he takes me into the hall, where the transmitter equipment is. Because most cars still do not have FM radios as standard equipment -- I had bought an FM converter which dangled out of the ashtray for years -- WRCN broadcasts its signal on both 1570 AM & 103.9 FM. The FM antenna and transmitter were several miles away on top of some hill. Its signal got there from here by phone lines, so all that was needed at this end was one rack of remote controls. However, the antenna for the AM station was right behind this building, and the transmitter itself was right in this hallway. It was a huge piece of equipment that gave off a massive amount of heat. Later I heard stories about the DJs using the warmth from its tubes to keep things like hamburgers warm, and it wasn't uncommon to see staff members stand around it on cold winter days.

Opposite the equipment is the window to the on-air studio. The door, just to the right of the window, also leads to the bathroom. Don sends me into the studio alone -- the room isn't big enough for the three of us to fit in -- and asks Jeff to show me what I need to know. I'm surprised to see that the control board is much smaller and older than the one we use at the college station.

On each side are turntables with 16" platters and two-speed gears for both 33 & 45rpm. Above the board is an ITC triple-spot cart machine, and a microphone which moves forward and back very easily to wherever the DJ is most comfortable. One wall behind the DJ's chair is filled with albums, which are filed in alphabetical order. I learn that the most recent albums, which are played most frequently in this format, are kept together on the bottom shelf within easy reach. Another wall contains a rack full of tape cartridges, on which are recorded the various commercials and promotional announcements. There's also a reel-to-reel machine, which can be used to record such things as incoming phone calls or to play previously recorded shows such as the music specials which air on Sunday nights.

I watch Jeff do a couple of segues and then do a break on the air. He's smooth and easygoing as he talks about the music, reads a liner card with information about an upcoming station event, and starts a commercial on cart. Although I've been on the air and behind microphones for several years already, I'm nervous being in there. I swallow hard realizing that I'll be sitting in that seat in less than two weeks.

Don returns and pulls me out of the air studio. Next door, he shows me the production studio. Again, I'm shocked. I guess I've been spoiled working at the two college stations, WCWP and WUSB, where the equipment is fairly up-to-date and plentiful. WRCN's production studio is a mess. The board only has four channels, as opposed to the ten or twelve I'm used to. The reel-to-reel machine only works in mono. There's only one cart machine in the room, and it's the only one in the building that records. And there's paper and dust everywhere.

But what's shocking is not the condition of the room, it's what I hear coming out of the speakers. It's a commercial for a local nightclub, The Boardy Barn. The copy is fairly standard and the music is rocking, but the voice on the spot is a booming bass that just plain rattles the bones and sells this sucker like it's really the big time. When it's over, Don turns to the guy sitting in the chair and says, "Nice job, Tim. Hey, meet our newest part-timer, Paul Harris. Paul, this is Tim Tango."

I shake his hand and smile to myself thinking, yeah, I'm sure Tim Tango is his real name. I compliment him on the commercial and say he must have worked on it for hours. He and Don both laugh as Tim tells me no, he just walked in about five minutes ago. Now I'm truly amazed. Later, I'll learn not only how to do it myself, but also that Tim Tango IS his real name!

We leave Tim to quickly finish the tour, which includes Jeff's office -- complete with a desk cluttered with records and posters and other music promotional material -- and Charlie's engineering area, which is really just a workbench and storage closet. At the moment, it's also serving as Charlie's lunch table.

That's it. Don walks me back to the front door, all of twenty feet, and out to my car. He tells me to come in about an hour early on the 15th to watch Tim do the last hour of his show -- all the fulltime DJs work six-day weeks -- and then I'll be on from 7pm to Midnight. I agree (“Whatever you say, Mr. Brink!”) and thank him for the opportunity.

All the way back to Stony Brook, about a 45-minute ride, and for the next week and a half, I spend every spare moment listening closely to WRCN. I'm trying to pick out the different elements of the format. At the same time, I can hardly contain my excitement. In just 12 days, on April 15, 1978, I'll make my debut on commercial radio!!

Twenty five years later, I’m still getting paid to talk on the radio.

I blame a quarter-century of wearing cranked-up headphones for the lack of hair on my head and the diminished hearing in one ear. I’ve worked with people with names even more colorful than Tim Tango. I’ve changed cities, call letters, and formats. I’ve seen the equipment around me change until there are no more turntables and tape machines, because everything’s digital. But I’m still here.

Thank you, Don Brink, for giving me that first chance. And thanks to everyone since who heard my voice on the radio and didn’t change the station.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Surrender, But Don't Give Up

The story of PFC Jessica Lynch's rescue made us all feel good last week, but it also exposed one of the ironies of war.

According to the story, when Lynch and her squad were ambushed, she kept firing her gun until she had used up every last bullet, taking out as many enemy soldiers as she could before she became a POW. The Pentagon hasn't confirmed those details yet, mostly because of the lack of witnesses (after all, everyone else died), but if they're true, then good for her. After all, that's what you're supposed to do if you're an American in battle.

The irony is what Lynch allegedly did is exactly what the US has been telling every Iraqi soldier not to do. Our psychological operations teams, from the top of command to the bottom, has been urging the enemy to give up. Their cause is hopeless, they have no chance, the regime will be toppled, they're going to lose, and if they fight, they'll probably die.

Of course, that's what you always want your battlefield opponent to think, and in this war, it is obviously true. However, that's exactly the opposite of what we, as Americans, expect our warriors to do.

Can you imagine a Marine lieutenant telling his squad, "Well, it looks like there's more of them than there are of us, so we might as well put our guns down and our hands up." The other Marines would shoot him, and then go right back to fighting the enemy.

Just look at our movie icons. In "Die Hard," did Bruce Willis give up when he was trapped inside the Nakatomi Building, outnumbered by desperate and well-armed thugs? No, he kept fighting to take them out and save the hostages. In "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," did Newman and Redford surrender when cornered and out-gunned? No, they chose to go out in a hail of bullets.

Sally Field's "Norma Rae" didn't stop fighting for a union in her textile mill, no matter the personal consequences. Gary Cooper didn't give his town up in "High Noon." In "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," Jimmy Stewart refused to give in to a corrupt political machine determined to run him out of the Senate. Instead, he filibustered and proclaimed that "sometimes, lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for."

In real life, did Lance Armstrong hang up his bicycle when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer? No, he kept working hard and became the only American to win the Tour de France four times. Did Erin Brockovich back down against a huge team of corporate lawyers determined to crush her clients' legal hopes? The answer, again and again, is no.

I'm not saying that the Iraqi army and Republican Guard should put up more resistance. The difference here is that most of them don't believe in the cause they are fighting for, because it's not their cause, it's Saddam's. When the cause actually is lost, the Iraqi people may have a better chance of winning in the long run. For the ones who have surrendered, perhaps giving up is a way of fighting for independence.
Speaking of independence, how about that little band of rebels who fought for American independence? The British had more of everything, from men and ships to guns and ammunition. Yet, here we are. Thank goodness our colonial forefathers -- with more than a little help from the French, by the way -- didn't listen to King George's 18th-century psychological operations, whatever they were.

Of course, they had one great thing going for them. They didn't have Geraldo around to tell the Redcoats exactly which way we were going.