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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Tabloid Psychics Fail Again!

Every year, Gene Emery (a reporter for the Providence Journal and columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer) collects the predictions made by psychics in the tabloids and holds onto them. At the end of the following year, he comes on my show to report on their accuracy and do something the publishers never do -- hold them accountable. Today was the day I talked to Gene about which predictions were made for 2005, which ones came anywhere near being correct, and which predictions were so wild they qualify as the funniest fiction of the year.

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Still Ready For Some Football

It occurred to me last night while watching ABC's goodbye to "Monday Night Football" that the generation that grew up in the 36 years the show has been on the air probably didn't understand all the hoopla.

After all, the only thing that's changing is the channel. Football will still be played on Monday nights next season, and it will still be televised, only now it will be on ESPN instead of ABC, with Joe Theisman sitting next to Al Michaels. Don't expect Hank Williams Jr. to ask next season, "Are you cable-ready for some football?"

All the reports mourned "the last over-the-air broadcast" of MNF, as if that matters anymore. Most of the nation's TV viewers have either cable or satellite and couldn't care less whether the content passes through a broadcast transmitter before getting to their house. For them, ABC and ESPN are merely channels in a multi-network universe, and the change won't keep football fans from watching the game (it may affect the casual fan, but that's not because of the hardware -- it's because of meaningless matchups like the Patriots and Jets last night, or ESPN's final Sunday night game this weekend between the Rams and Cowboys).

If it were all about technology, few people in St. Louis would have even seen "Monday Night Football" in the last decade, because the ABC affiliate here is a UHF station. A generation ago, that mattered, because UHF stations were hard to tune in -- you needed the skills of a safe-cracker to get the signal just right. But Americans under the age of 35 have no idea what VHF and UHF are, and have no memory of that weird loop antenna or the fine-tuning UHF knob on old TVs.

Yet, it's not really a generational matter. My mother is 81 years old, but she's had cable TV for three decades. Whether a show is on her local CBS affiliate or HBO or TCM is immaterial to her ability to watch it. Neither is the time it's on -- with her DVR, she watches what she wants, when she wants.

Having a TV show move from one channel to another isn't a big deal, either. "Law and Order" fans watch the show on both NBC and TNT without pausing for a moment to wonder about subscriber fees, distribution rates, etc. Tennis and golf fans understand that big tournaments air on USA during the week and CBS or NBC on the weekend.

And don't forget the millions of people who have bought DVDs of their favorite TV shows to enjoy again and again, or downloaded episodes of "Lost" and "Commander in Chief" from iTunes. They are loyal to the show, not the network.

Sure, ABC/NBC/CBS/FOX remain the most popular networks, because they've been around the longest and having the highest brand recognition. But just wait until "The Sopranos" returns to HBO in March. Wanna bet what will be the number one show that night?

Americans make viewing and listening choices based on content, not on some old-fashioned notion about who is delivering that content to them. Give'em the goods they want and they'll take'em, regardless of the route.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Dave Mungenast, Hollywood Stuntman

Dave Mungenast is known to St. Louisans as a longtime auto dealer, but for 7 years, he also was a Hollywood stuntman. Today on my show, he told stories about some of the movies he worked on, including three with Burt Reynolds ("Hooper," "The End," and "Cannonball Run") and one with Paul Newman ("Harry and Son").

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Dr. Marc Siegel on the Epidemic Of Fear

Here's my conversation with Dr. Marc Siegel about his book, "False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear."

He explained that our leaders and media manipulate our emotions so much that we've become far too afraid of things that aren't nearly as big a risk as we're told they are. For example, he cites the anthrax scare, bird flu, Sars, West Nile Virus, mad cow disease, etc. We also discussed Big Pharma's role in exploiting the situation, whether this problem is unique to America, and whether being afraid actually weakens us physically. Siegel is a voice of reason in a nation with too much anxiety and too many pills to cure that anxiety.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Friday, December 16, 2005

Laurie David, Stop Global Warming

Here's my conversation with global warming activist Laurie David about the event she's doing at the Rams-Eagles game this Sunday at the dome and the virtual online march she's organized. Since her husband is Larry David, I also asked her whether "Curb Your Enthusiasm" would be back for another season, and about his recent comment that he wishes he were more like his TV character in real life.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Roger McGuinn, The Folk Den Project

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Roger McGuinn was back on my show this afternoon to talk about his newest release, "The Folk Den Project."

For the last ten years, Roger has been recording folk songs and posting them on his website, along with the lyrics and chords, in an attempt to preserve the music he loves. Now he's compiled 100 of these recordings in a CD boxed set that you can order here.

Today, he explained some of the history of folk music and played some of those songs, including a couple of classics you'll recognize, and the first one he felt was appropriate after the 9/11 attacks. He also explained how and why he helped invent the 7-string guitar he plays.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Phil Keoghan, The Amazing Race

With the season finale of "The Amazing Race: Family Edition" airing tomorrow night, host Phil Keoghan returned to my show this afternoon to talk about the families, the adventures, and what's coming up next.

We discussed the challenge of doing the show in North America and keeping the secrets of location, contestants, etc. I also asked him about the impact of having young children along and what it was like to look them in the eye on the elimination mat. Phil also explained the deal with the Weavers (who think all the other teams hate them), and previewed the 9th season, which he's just finished taping and we'll see in March.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

His Widow Remembers Belushi

Here's my conversation with Judy Belushi Pisano, the widow of John Belushi, who has a new book about his life, career, and death. She told stories about "Animal House," "Saturday Night Live," the Blues Brothers, and less successful projects, like "1941" and "Continental Divide." We also discussed his drug abuse, the speedballs that killed him, and the impact his death had on his friends.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

John Lennon's ER Doctor

Dr. Stephan Lynn was in charge of the emergency room at Roosevelt Hospital in New York on the night of December 8, 1980. He had just arrived home after a 15-hour shift when he received a call from the hospital about a man coming in with gunshot wounds. He returned to the ER in time to work on the victim, who turned out to be John Lennon. At one point, he cracked Lennon's chest and literally held his heart in his hands in an unsuccessful attempt to revive him.

Dr. Lynn told this story on my show to mark the 25th anniversary of that night. I also asked him why no gruesome memorabilia from that night has ever shown up on eBay or at Beatles shows, and about his personal connection to Lennon before that horrible event.

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Larry Kane, John Lennon Revealed

Larry Kane was the only American radio reporter to travel with The Beatles on their 1964 and 1965 US tours, which he detailed in his book, "Ticket To Ride." His new book, "Lennon Revealed," includes more stories about his friendship with Lennon, right up to the month before he died.

Larry returned to my show to mark the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's murder and tell some of those stories. The most remarkable involves a weekend in 1975 when he convinced Lennon to take the train from New York to Philadelphia to help out with a charity radiothon on WFIL. While there, Lennon (who hadn't made public appearances in years) spent hours on the air, answered phones, signed autographs, and personally met nearly 2,000 fans who flocked to see him. Kane, who was then the top TV anchorman in town, also convinced Lennon to join him on his newscast that night to do the weather. There's video of that odd few minutes included on the DVD in Kane's book.

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Al Wiman with The Beatles

Al Wiman is best known to St. Louisans for his years as a TV reporter at channels 4 and 5. But in 1964, Al was a radio reporter for KFWB/Los Angeles.

When The Beatles came to town to play the Hollywood Bowl, Al was not only at the press conference, he also managed to work his way to the side of the stage just as the Beatles began their show. With tape recorder rolling, he did play-by-play of those exciting first minutes -- quite a feat, considering the concert was promoted by Bob Eubanks, who was then a DJ at KRLA, the competing radio station. A few days later, Al and a couple of cohorts went into a studio and recorded an audio documentary, "The Beatles Story," which Capitol records rush-released as a double album to cash in on Beatlemania.

On the 25 anniversary of John Lennon's death, Al joined me to reminisce about those days, and to play the audio of that historic night in LA. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Exploiting A Child's 911 Call

There were debates in Florida TV newsrooms earlier this week about whether to broadcast the 911 call of a 7-year-old girl who had seen her mother shot dead by her half-brother. Two TV stations decided against airing the audio, but three stations put it on the air.

Those three were wrong.

There's no news value in that tape, just exploitation. You can tell the story well enough without exposing the horrible moment in this child's life to the viewing public.

I have some experience with this. In 1987, I was doing the morning show at WCXR in Washington, DC. About halfway through the show one day, I was talking on the phone with a listener about something silly when she suddenly stopped in the middle of a sentence. Half a second passed before I heard something that sounded like a thud. I said, "Hello?" a couple of times before hearing a little girl's voice in the background saying "Mommy??"

It was obvious something was wrong. I immediately took the call off the air and went to a commercial break. Then I picked up the phone and tried to talk loudly enough to get the girl to pick up the receiver, which she did. She sounded like she was about five or six as she told me that her mommy was lying on the floor and wasn't moving. I asked if there was anyone else in the house. She said no.

I said we'd try to get her help and asked if she knew her address. She did, and with an eerily calm voice told me where she lived. I handed the info to my producer, who called 911 and told them to get police and an ambulance out to that house.

The commercial break was ending, and I knew my listeners were wondering what was going on. I had no intention of putting the girl on the air. I explained to the audience that we were dealing with a situation involving the woman who'd called and asked for their patience while we played a song. The other members of my morning team scrambled to help in any way they could while I continued to talk with the girl off the air.

When I could hear sirens approaching the house, I asked the girl if she could see police officers outside. She said yes and I told her to let them in, which she did. Soon, a police officer picked up the phone and explained that they were dealing with an unconscious woman and the EMTs were working on her. Not wanting to be in the way, I got off the line and let them do their job.

We found out later from a family member (who was nice enough to keep me informed on the aftermath of the incident) that the woman had died instantly of a brain aneurysm. No particular health problem, nothing genetic, just one of those awful flukes of nature. When the police contacted her husband at work, he rushed home to take care of their daughter who was, as you'd expect, having a hard time dealing with what had happened to mommy.

Obviously the tone of my show that morning was drastically changed, as we were no longer in the mood to be funny. None of us had kids at the time, but we all hoped that, if it ever came down to it, our child would be as helpful as this little girl. At some point, my producer reminded me that we had the whole thing on tape -- we recorded every call on 10" reels in a rack right next to me. No one on the show objected when I took that tape and locked it in the desk in my office.

When we got off the air, all of the other local media wanted to talk to me and it became a big story -- they wanted to play me up as a hero. I deflected that angle and told them the truth, that it was the little girl who had acted heroically, not me.

They all wanted copies of that tape. They were furious that I refused to give it to any of them, from the TV stations to the Washington Post to a couple of news radio networks. Dave Marash, who was the anchor at the local NBC affiliate, seemed to be one of the few who understood when I explained my reasons to him during a live shot.

I also never played it on the air myself. To this day, no one has ever heard the tape of that little girl -- which I still have in my basement -- and no one ever will.

Why? Because to put it on the air would be to exploit the tragedy for shock value. Listeners (and viewers) didn't have to hear it to understand the drama of what happened that morning, or to realize the real horror of a woman dying in front of her little daughter. Releasing that tape would do nothing to further the story -- and there was the family to think of, too. You'll notice I haven't mentioned the name of the mother or the daughter here, even though they are burned into my memory. You don't have to know them to get the story.

This was a no-brainer decision for me. Shame on those Orlando news directors whose standards and desire for ratings made them stoop so low that they made the wrong decision and aired that 911 tape.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Robert Klein returns

Robert Klein was back on my show this afternoon, one day ahead of the debut of his new HBO special, "The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue" (which is also the name of his book, which came out this summer).

This is the 8th time he's done a standup special for HBO -- in 1975, Klein did the very first one the network ever showed, at a time when HBO wasn't even available nationally yet. We talked about that and his other TV appearances, including with Carson and Cavett, and doing the first "Chee-burger, chee-burger" sketch with Belushi and Aykroyd on "Saturday Night Live."

Klein is currently working on "Ira and Abby," a new movie written by and starring Jessica Westfeldt (from "Kissing Jessica Stein"). One of the co-stars is Fred Willard, who Klein worked with in Second City forty years ago. Once we got into that, we branched off into "Hooper," the 1978 Burt Reynolds movie in which Klein played a megalomaniacal director -- and he revealed who that character was based on.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Previously on Harris Online...

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Should Cable TV Be A La Carte?

There's a push on in Congress and by the chairman of the FCC to force cable companies to sell their programming on an a la carte basis, instead of as packages of fifty or a hundred channels at a time. Steve Effros, former president of the cable industry's lobbying association, explained on my show why this is a bad idea that would end up costing you and me more money in the long run. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Before talking to Steve, I went through the list of channels I get in the Dish Network package we subscribe to. Sure, there are many of them that I never watch, but there were also several that I'd never heard of, including the Good Samaritan Network. I have no idea what that is, but I imagine it shows things like a car crash followed by 11 people coming out of a building to help the victims. Or a woman with a flat tire getting help from a kindly passerby. Or the CEO of a huge corporation protecting the jobs and retirement plans of his employees, even if it means he and the board of directors don't personally gain from it.