Friday, April 27, 2007

The FCC and Violence on TV

Today I talked with Reason magazine's Nick Gillespie, who brilliantly deconstructed the FCC's new congressionally-mandated report about violence on TV and its effects on children. It's part of the ever-growing movement to have our Nanny Government regulate content because you can't control what your kids watch. And you know it's all about the kids. God forbid that adults be allowed to choose their own entertainment without government intererence.

Funny, my daughter's almost 13 years old and lives in a house with three televisions and two parents who watch hours of TV every week -- yet she's well-adjusted, smart, funny, and non-violent. How did that happen? Oh yeah, responsible parenting. That's something you can't legislate. In fact, you can't even bring it up. I would love to hear the FCC commissioners ask anyone who complains about the TV programs their kids watch, "why don't you accept responsibility for what you allow your own children to be exposed to?"

This is not what the vast majority of Americans want. This is political pandering to a small special-interest group that believes the First Amendment is optional. And they don't just want the FCC to crack down on the broadcasters, but also on the cable and satellite channels that are now available in 88% of American homes.

However, I'll try to be open-minded about this for a moment. If you support more regulation of television, tell me two things -- what current broadcast-TV show would you consider so violent that the government should censor it, and how do you define "too violent"?

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

Crowing About Crow

One side of the face: "Who cares what Sheryl Crow says? She's just a singer going around expressing her opinions in public, and nothing she says matters."

The other side of the face: "Hey, did you hear what Sheryl Crow said? We have to pay attention to it, make a big deal out of it, and punish her for saying it!"

One other quick story about this.

I was talking to a friend about the Burke-Crow-Costas controversy, and how the Archibishop didn't specifically tell Catholics they shouldn't go to the Gala on Saturday night. Instead, he said he would leave it to "their conscience" to make that decision.

My friend (who is Catholic) said that's the old Catholic guilt thing, essentially a message of "let it be on your head." I told her that guilt is a little different in my upbringing. Being the son of a Jewish mother, I was more likely to hear, "Oh, you're going to see Sheryl Crow, but you won't come see me? Did Sheryl Crow carry you for nine months? Did Sheryl Crow ever cook you a nice dinner?"

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Regis & Dave

Regis is back on his show this morning, six weeks after his heart surgery, and looking good. David Letterman is his guest, and had the Line Of The Day -- when Regis asked him about the quintuple bypass surgery he'd had a few years ago, Dave answered, "Well, my first bypass was The Tonight Show."

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bob Costas, Sheryl Crow, and the Archbishop

I've said many times that anyone who does something to help sick children is doing something noble. For 19 years, Bob Costas has been raising money for Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center here in St. Louis, with an annual fundraising concert at the Fox Theater. He calls upon his showbiz friends to line up major comedians and musical acts (e.g. Ray Romano, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, John Mellencamp, Tony Bennett, Hootie & The Blowfish) and thousands of people show up each year.

This Saturday, the headliners are Billy Crystal and Sheryl Crow.

Today, Archbishop Raymond Burke condemned Sheryl Crow's participation, calling it a "scandal" that a Catholic hospital would be involved with someone who has publicly expressed her pro-choice position and appeared in ads last year supporting Amendment 2 in Missouri (the stem-cell referendum). Burke is the same religious leader who told Catholics that they shouldn't vote for John Kerry or any other pro-choice politician.

My producer Fred Bodimer got the first word on this story and an interview with the Archbishop, in which he made his case (remember, this is four days before the event!).

Immediately afterwards, I had Bob Costas on the phone with his reaction. Listen to what a classy guy Bob is and how diplomatically he handles this. My favorite part is where he explains that he'll understand if some who have bought tickets decide not to go, as long as the money from their tickets still goes to the hospital.

What if this situation was reversed? Just imagine the reaction if Sheryl Crow announced "I'm not going to do a benefit for a children's hospital if it's associated with the Catholic church, because I don't agree with them on abortion and stem cell research." She'd be crushed by all the negative publicity, with people asking how she can turn her back on the sick kids and let her political agenda get in the way of helping them. It would make her "one sheet of toilet paper" gaffe seem even less insignificant than it actually was. Is it fair to treat Crow that way for her views, but not Burke?

Ironically, Billy Joel is performing in St. Louis tonight, thirty years after his hit "Only The Good Die Young" was banned by Archbishop John Joseph Carberry. I wonder how many Catholics were inside the Scottrade Center singing that song with Billy tonight?

Jeff Bell's OCD

Here's my conversation with Jeff Bell, who suffers from an extreme form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which he writes about in his book, "Rewind, Replay, Repeat."

Jeff is the afternoon anchor on all-news KCBS/San Francisco, but his bosses and co-workers had no idea he suffered from OCD -- despite the fact that he had to take cabs to cover stories because if he drove himself, he'd end up going around in circles to make sure he hadn't run someone over. We discussed that, the impact this has had on his personal life, and how he's been able to get it under control.

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

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

War Lies

Today on my show, I played the VERY disturbing testimony on Capitol Hill by Kevin Tillman about how the Pentagon lied and manufactured stories about the death of his brother, Pat, in Afghanistan several years ago. The fact that the family was misled purposely, so that the government could create a tale of heroism, indicates not just a lack of trust in the American people, but also a disrespect for every member of our military.

Kevin Tillman is no anti-war nut. He volunteered along with Pat, and was serving with him in Afghanistan at the time of the friendly fire incident that took his brother's life. Listen to his testimony.

Jessica Lynch also testified, telling how her story of becoming a POW was perverted by the Pentagon to make her into "the girl Rambo from West Virginia." That story was perpetuated by The Washington Post, which trumpeted the phony story of Lynch's heroism. The irony is that Lynch still talks about her real heroes that day, including her roommate, Lori Piestawa (the first Native American to die in the war), and Sgt. Donald Walters (whose acts that day were of true bravery and selflessness). Had the military allowed Lynch to come home, heal, and tell the truth about what happened, perhaps they would have gotten their due.

Listen to Lynch's testimony.

Stephen Colbert vs. Sean Penn

Stephen Colbert takes on Sean Penn in a Metaphor-Off from Thursday's "Colbert Report" (listen for "No Whammies!")...

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Radio Delay

My friend Mark Evanier in Los Angeles asked on his blog today why Dodgers games on the radio are now out of sync with the live event:

Is it being done intentionally to discourage people from listening to Vin Scully on the radio while they watch the game at the stadium or on TV? I can't imagine why Vin Scully would need to be broadcast on a delay, nor can I fathom why anyone would care if you listened to him this way. Can anyone clear this up for me?
A reader named Dave Sikula wrote to Mark and explained that the game (and all other live programming) is on delay because radio owners are afraid a prohibited word will be accidentally aired and they'll be fined by the FCC.

That's true, but it's not the complete answer. There's also the technical matter of broadcasting in HD.

Although the technology hasn't really caught on with consumers, most AM and FM stations in the major markets now have an HD signal, and the digital processing inherent in transmitting that signal creates an extra delay of just over 8 seconds. So, even if there were no content-control delay, you still wouldn't be hearing Vin Scully's call of the Dodgers game in real time. And when you hear the top of the hour tone on my show just before the hourly newscast, the combination of the two delays puts that tone some 14 seconds after the true top of the hour.

However, there's one positive side effect of the HD signal for those of us doing the shows with airborne traffic reports. Before, when we were only using the content-control delay (the one with the "dump" button that we very rarely had to use), we couldn't go to the guys who do our traffic reports from a helicopter and a plane without coming out of delay. They were monitoring the over-the-air signal, and if we kept them in delay, they'd hear their own voices coming back at them several seconds later and likely spiral out of the sky and into the Earth. To avoid that nasty scenario, I had to pause each time while we dumped out of delay, then introduced them, had them do the reports, and then we'd start building up the delay again during a commercial break so it was there when I went back to taking phone calls or whatever.

Now here's the benefit of the HD signal -- even on AM, it comes with a sideband signal that we use to send them a pre-delay audio feed directly from the studio, which we couldn't do before, and which they hear through an HD receiver. That way, we never have to dump out of delay and they still get to hear everything we're doing in the studio as it happens. Considering we do "traffic and weather together every ten minutes" in the last two hours of my show, that's a dozen times a day we no longer have to worry about going in and out of delay. On the other hand, it means that when they describe an accident they've just spotted on Highway 40, you won't know about it until 14 seconds later.

Note that there is an even longer delay when you listen to my show live online because that digital processing of the streaming audio takes even more time.

Interestingly, many people with Dish Network or Direct TV were already out of the loop when it came to watching games on TV with the sound down so they could hear their favorite radio play-by-play guy describe the action. There's a delay inherent in the signals bouncing to and from the TV satellites that would add a couple of seconds, too. Radio broadcasts are almost all done via ISDN phone lines, which move the audio much more quickly. So, for instance, during a Rams game, you could hear Steven Jackson go off-tackle and gain four yards, and just as the whistle blew at the end of the play, you'd see the play start on TV.

One other quick story. When I did mornings at WYNY/New York in the mid-80s with Rick Harris (no relation), NBC had never had a morning show that took listener calls on the FM station, and they were scared to death someone would say something wrong. Thus, we were prohibited from taking those calls live until they installed a delay unit. Rather than ordering a new stereo unit from Eventide, their engineers borrowed two mono units from our AM sister station WNBC, wired them in (one for the left channel, one for the right), and told us to go ahead and try it.

The next morning, when we began the show at 5:30am, we punched in the delay system and went about our normal morning silliness. In less than a minute, every hotline number on the phone bank was ringing like crazy. We were still talking on the air, listening to ourselves in pre-delay and thus didn't know what was wrong, but it had to be something major, so we went to a commercial break quickly.

Off the air, Rick answered one hotline and I answered another, to find the chief engineer and the program director both yelling at us to dump out of delay immediately. It turned out that the two mono units weren't slaved together, and their delay wasn't in sync. None of the engineers had considered this possibility, and they hadn't tested it on the air until that moment.

The effect was to create an echo from the left channel to the right channel that was unlistenable. We turned the units off completely and had to do yet another show with no live phone calls. Two days later, a stereo unit arrived, the engineers put it in, and everything worked just fine -- except we had an airborne reporter then, too, which meant going in and out of delay all morning for his reports.

I was not all that surprised when NBC got out of the local radio business less than two years later.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Joel Makower on Earth Day

With Earth Day this Sunday -- I know, you hadn't heard about it -- I had Joel Makower back on my show this afternoon for some perspective on where we are on environmental issues.

We talked about large corporations like Wal-Mart waving the green flag, what it means to be carbon neutral and buy carbon offsets, why we don't see a lot of green marketing claims anymore, and whether the private sector should lead the way or government has to play a role. Joel also explained how your own bottom line still comes down to the three R's (reduce, reuse, recycle).

Listen, then read Joel's blog, and his site, too.

This Close To Dead

For anyone who still has the temerity to ask why the victims in those Virginia Tech classrooms didn't rush Cho to stop him from killing, read this account of what it was like for Colin Goddard, a student who was inches away from the shooter.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Beast Chow

Some of the callers to my show have taken some of the families of the Virginia Tech victims to task for so willingly speaking into any camera or microphone that's shoved in their face. They wonder if doing so makes it hypocritical for them to then criticize the news media for its coverage of the story and airing of the Cho videos and photos.

I don't like the notion of attacking the victims of any tragedy, or their families -- but I see the point. I can assure you that when and if a tragedy befalls my family, you will not see me discussing it on "The Today Show" or any other media outlet, including my own radio show. I'll be too busy mourning and dealing with how to piece my life back together, a process of healing that will last long past the point at which any journalist would still be interested. I'm not saying that others are wrong to handle this differently, because it's an ultra-personal decision, but for me it's not an option.

My colleagues in both the radio and TV newsrooms will hate me for saying this, but I wish more people who find themselves at the center of a tragic news story would tell reporters to go away, that they have no comment to make, that they don't want to share this horrible moment with the world.

As one who works inside the mass media beast, I can tell you that it lives to chew up everyone and everything in its path for as long as there's meat on the bone. Once that's gone, and maybe some of the marrow with it, the beast moves to its next story and devours it in the same way -- and on and on. But there's no law that says you have to be fodder for the beast. At a time when your life has been turned upside down and you don't know which way to turn, resist the urge to turn towards the spotlight.

You'll feel better afterwards.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

E-Mail Of The Day

As a followup to my earlier columns on the banning of tag and dodgeball, and Paula Spencer's piece on protecting kids from everything but fear, Kelly Hyde e-mails:

I work downtown and the other day I was taking a walk at the Arch on my lunch break. It was a nice day so it was very busy and I could tell there were several field trips there as well. I happened to notice that a group of kids were playing a game in the grass. When I got closer I could hear them yelling, "Red Rover, Red Rover!" I couldn't believe it. These kids were on a school field trip and their teachers were letting them play RedRover. I thought it was great. I had heard that Red Rover was outlawed almost everywhere because kids can break their arms when other kids try to break through to the other side. It was refreshing to see that.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Very Bad Day

It was interesting both watching and doing the coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre today. As the afternoon progressed, it occurred to me that this story, while horrific and sad, was getting a huge boost from the technological know-how of the residents of that campus in Blacksburg.

This is Virginia Tech, after all -- but even more than that, it's the first big story to take place on a campus where everyone is connected, not only to everyone else, but to the world outside. Within minutes of the tragedy, cell phone video emerged, complete with the disturbing soundtrack of gunfire recorded by student Jamal Albarghouti. When the cell phone circuits became too busy to accomodate outgoing calls, students used MySpace and Facebook pages to reassure parents and friends that they were okay. They used instant messaging and e-mail to discuss with each other what had happened.

We were able to connect with Eric Frey, a former radio producer who left us to go to Virginia Tech to get his Masters. Unable to connect with his landline phone, my board op sent Eric a text message on his cell phone, and within minutes we had him on my show for a first-person account of what had transpired this morning. While we were doing that, a student journalist was appearing on a TV newscast via webcam from his room during the lockdown. The university itself kept posting updates on its homepage, and the Roanoke Times provided continuous coverage via a blog on its website.

Tonight, students are using Facebook and MySpace to leave condolences on the pages of those who died, forming an impromptu online memorial. For those who have said that spending time online is creating a world of lonely, singular people, here's proof that there is a real community there, sharing experiences of one very bad day.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Lisa Tucker of "American Idol"

Today I talked with Lisa Tucker, the teenager with the big voice who came in 10th on "American Idol" last year. We talked about what life is like as a contestant, where she and the others lived, and how she continued to go to high school while doing the show. I also asked her about Sanjaya, Melinda, Blake and the remaining contestants this season, and those she competed against (e.g. Taylor Hicks, Katherine McPhee, and Chris Daughtry).

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

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Jeremy Scahill on Blackwater

This afternoon on my show, Jeremy Scahill discussed his book, "Blackwater," about the powerful private army that our government has hired to fight alongside our military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even domestically.

There are so many disturbing angles to this story. We're losing career military men who leave because they can earn much more in Blackwater's army of private contractors. There's no oversight of Blackwater or its employees by Congress or the Pentagon. They recruit mercenaries from other countries, so we're not just outsourcing our customer service operators, but now we're outsourcing our soldiers. Blackwater provides security for our diplomats, ambassadors, and even Nancy Pelosi's recent trip to Syria -- that's a job that used to fall to the US Marines. And there's lots more.

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

Katie's Copy

One of Katie Couric's producers got caught plagiarizing a Wall St. Journal piece for Katie's blog on, and was fired for it. But here's the bigger question -- why isn't Katie writing her own blog? They pay her $15,000,000 a year and she can't even come up with something of her own to say each day? I guess that's why they call the news that she's reading copy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Uchenna and Joyce, The Amazing Race

Uchenna and Joyce, the latest team eliminated from "The Amazing Race All-Stars Edition" were on my show today with stories about their adventure, their relationship with Mirna and Charla and Rob and Amber, and how -- as they traveled the world -- they were recognized from their previous season on the show, in which they won the million. Of all the teams in the show's history, this was one of the best, made up of two people who competed well and acted like real human beings towards each other and everyone they met.

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

Maxed Out On Credit

This afternoon on my show, I talked with James Scurlock about his documentary "Maxed Out" (and the accompanying book), which details how more Americans are finding themselves in credit hell thanks to what he calls predatory lending policies. I asked him what role personal responsibility plays in our financial decisions, and what he means when he says that bank executives are sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

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


Stop e-mailing and asking for my comments on the Imus non-story. I honestly couldn't care less. He'd be getting no attention if this happened anywhere besides New York, where the news media is headquartered and believes Imus is somehow important. He's not. If you want the best perspective on this distraction, read what my friend Perry Simon says.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Debbie Deals

You may have seen a St. Louisan named Debbie Montgomery in the last 20 minutes of tonight's "Deal Or No Deal," where she's rolling along, has turned down three offers from the banker, and will be back next week. She was on my show this afternoon to talk about it.

Because her episode hadn't aired when we spoke, and she had signed a confidentiality agreement with NBC promising not to divulge how much money she won, I didn't press her on that question (if she revealed the amount, she'd not only lose the check, but hear from the show's lawyers). But that didn't stop Debbie from talking about the experience of being on the show, explaining how she got through to one of the producers and convinced him to let her be a contestant, and what happened when she spit on Howie Mandel.

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

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Movies & Missouri Values

Last year, I wrote about spending time with Aaron Eckhart and others while they were making the movie "Bill" here in St. Louis, and how the producers told me that Missouri has been used so seldom as a movie location that it leaves open myriad possibilities for future projects.

It would be nice to lure more movie productions here, but the economics of the business means they won't come unless they're given tax credits. Those are currently limited by law to $1.5 million a year, an amount so small that it gets used up very quickly, thus limiting the number of film projects that come to the state (last year, some $50 million in movie money didn't come here because the tax credits had been exhausted already).

Rep. Ed Robb agreed, and in January introduced House Bill 360, which would raise that tax credit to $10 million. Unfortunately, another legislator named Trent Skaggs threw a wrench in the whole works by offering an amendment that would limit movies eligible for those credits to those that reflect "Missouri values."

Values. The word makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It's another of those vague terms that politicians like to throw around to pander to their supporters, but which would be impossible to enforce. Who decides what "Missouri values" are? Are they the values of people in the Ozarks or in the Central West End, inner-city St. Louis or upper-class West County, multi-cultural University City or highly conservative Cape Girardeau?

Filmmaker Brent Jaimes, who has worked on many movies and videos shot in St. Louis and throughout Missouri, was on my show to explain the impact of such a "values" restriction. As he wrote to Rep. Skaggs:

Your amendment to award the tax credits only to film projects that espouse "Missouri values," that recognize the sanctity of life, that do not portray violence or sex, would essentially make the bill worthless and impossible to administer. I have no idea who would make these determinations and I don't believe your amendment offers any guidance on this issue. Any determination of what these Missouri values are or what these other terms mean would be vague, arbitrary and capricious. It would be impossible to enforce or administer and would certainly be struck down by any court. Surely you know how your amendment would effect this bill and how vague these ideas are.

It appears that your proffered amendment is only an attempt to make the General Assembly and Missouri filmmakers look like laughingstocks to the rest of the industry and the nation. At the same time, it offers you the chance to point out how those who might vote against your amendment are clearly against "Missouri values" and supporters of some unsavory life style as portrayed in current films.

His last point resonates. I can already hear the negative campaign commercials claiming that "John Jenkins voted against Missouri values; John Jenkins is bad for Missouri" -- when John Jenkins was truly voting for freedom, for the Bill of Rights, for keeping political posturing out of free speech decisions, for telling lawmakers that censorship is bad.

Politicians like Skaggs don't give Missourians enough credit to make their own entertainment choices. I'd bet you that Skaggs doesn't even go to the movies -- he's like those people who don't have a television but want to tell you what you should be allowed to watch.

I have asked Brent to keep me posted on any progress the bill makes, and whether other Missouri legislators will stand against Skaggs. I'll post any future updates here.

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

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

High-Speed Trains

In May, 1986, my wife and I were in Vancouver for the World's Fair. One of the top attractions was a Japanese mag-lev train, which uses electro-magnets to hover over the rails.

The line to get on for a demonstration ride was too long, so we did some other things for a couple of hours and then stopped for lunch. We sat at a table next to a chain link fence without looking to see what was on the other side. A few minutes later, I heard a "whoosh" behind me. When I turned to see what it was, I saw one of the mag-lev trains racing past. There were none of the normal train-on-track sounds, just the soft whoosh of air displacement as the train passed. I thought, "that's a technology that has a great future, and I can't wait until it comes to the United States."

Here we are more than two decades later, and that technology hasn't taken hold here, but in Japan, the bullet train moves people quietly, at high speeds, throughout the country. Meanwhile, in France, their version of the bullet train -- which does ride on rails, rather than above them -- just broke a speed record by going 357mph. And China is investing heavily in high-speed rail, with thousands of miles of tracks under construction.

So, why hasn't the US jumped onboard? It would take a massive investment in infrastructure, of course, and would have to overcome tremendous pressure and opposition from the airline industry and others. But I'd like to see us undertake a national commitment to high-speed rail, similar to the interstate highway system a half-century ago.

With customer complaints about airline travel rising every week, and concerns about gas prices and fuel consumption making headlines every day and changing America's travel habits, now might be the time. Other reasons:

  • Less vulnerable to terrorism. It's awfully hard to take down a skyscraper with a train. True, they're vulnerable to the kind of attack we saw in Madrid a couple of years ago, but so are Amtrak trains currently, and we haven't had to ramp up security to ridiculous airport-like levels for that. Imagine being able to travel quickly between US cities without having to remove your shoes for a TSA screener.
  • Train travel is more comfortable, with more leg room, and more room to get up and walk around. Listeners who have been on the Japanese bullet train tell me that you don't even feel any vibration or tilting during the trip -- one guy said he didn't even notice a ripple in the glass of wine he had with lunch. Others who have traveled on the French TGV report a much more comfortable ride than on any commercial flight.
  • With average speeds of 180mph on long hauls -- trips of over an hour -- you could travel from St. Louis to Chicago or Kansas City in about 90 minutes. Take an Amtrak train today and the ride takes 5-6 hours, no better than you'd do in your own car. That's why so few people ride the rails now, because it doesn't save time.
  • Unlike air travel, the train can go from downtown to downtown, a big plus for business travelers who have to waste time getting to and from the airport at each end.
  • Eminent domain would have to be used to create the right-of-way for the new track that would have to be laid. But better to use it for this than for the $1.1 billion boondoggle that kicked families out of their homes in Bridgeton (MO) to make way for a new Lambert Airport runway that no flights land on! Why do we need new track? Because the current rail system is set up to facilitate freight transport, making passenger travel a secondary priority. We'd have to eliminate those waits on side tracks while a freight train rolls through. We'd also have to eliminate all those grade-level crossings, to make the ride as secure and simple as possible.
For political support, we'll appeal to Democrats' environmental sensibilities. For Republicans, we'll appeal to their patriotism, telling them there's no reason to be behind the dreaded French in anything (we could even call our high-speed rail The Freedom Train!). For both of them, we'll talk about creating jobs and new technologies, rather than relying on decades-old methods of getting from place to place.

In the 21st century, Americans want everything to be quicker -- here's one more way to make that happen.


Monday, April 02, 2007

McCain's Iraq Disconnect, cont'd

Last week, John McCain said that things were going so well in Iraq that there were neighborhoods in Baghdad were anyone could walk safely, contrary to media reports. This weekend, he proved it, by going to a market three minutes across the Tigris River from the Green Zone. Of course, to remain safe, McCain wore a bulletproof vest and was guarded by over "100 US soldiers, with three Blackhawk helicopters, and two Apache gunships overhead," according to NBC's Tom Aspell.

Can McCain seriously believe what he's saying, or is he so caught up in the political pandering process that he's abandoned the Straight Talk Express entirely?