Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Terror From the Skies! Conglomerate Radio Airwaves on the Attack! (Part Two)

WSYR's (Syracuse) talk show host Jim Reith doesn't care what listeners think of him, as long as they keep listening. Those are his words, not mine. It's all entertainment, newsy tidbits and discussion -- playtime with additives, in essence. But WSYR and Clear Channel Communications need that precious audience to stay tuned in, to be mesmerized by the cavalcade of profitable commercials creeping in often enough to fracture and fragment whatever few minutes of interesting content may turn up on the JR show. Guests and callers can't be rushed off fast enough so those valuable breaks can be inserted into the show.

(My most hated favorites, incidentally, are commercials utilizing ringing phones or screams in the background -- brainless, effortless advertising ploys which obviously serve to keep one's attention and annoyance level high. Nothing reveals lazy marketing or a sponsor who disrespects its audience more than commercials infested with ringing phones or other sound pollution. Products able to stand on their own merits require minimal sound-effect enhancement. As I write this paragraph prior to Valentine's Day, I'm witness to a simple, non-offensive Clear Channel network commercial selling "the one product guaranteed to get women to take their clothes off," and I'm pondering, well, it must be itching powder, but I am wrong. It's mail-order pajamas. At least they weren't selling their product with phony phone rings.)

Reith himself, in all fairness, is exceptional in many ways. He's a good interviewer, politically and historically astute, and his technical Navy background easily portrays high intelligence. He generally treats his guests pleasantly, and good-naturedly takes to task people and issues raising his interest, and is firm both when necessary and unnecessary. He loves his family, works his back off for the community and provides so much assistance to local charities that one truly wonders how they would survive without his involvement. He enjoys a loyal following.

Unfortunately, there's still that smarmy debunking thing. A golden rule of debunking dictates that if one can't confront or argue away the evidence, the next step is to attack the messenger. Therefore, when Jim Reith responds by childishly calling me names instead of confronting UFO evidence, he fits nicely into tried-and-true expectations. Why else would he take off on me, a total stranger whose only wish was to inform him?

Additionally, I suspect that Reith's profound religious views prohibit him from wandering too far outside the box of religious doctrine, so I may have been the subject of his venom based primarily upon faith. He regularly professes his Catholic lifestyle, so it's not as if I'm unfairly dragging something out here that doesn't apply. Listeners are often fed a diet of guests motivated by religion-based activities, so I presume the faithful are a predominantly sought-out audience. Nevertheless, the fact that the Vatican's own chief astronomer recently opened the door a bit further by stating that extraterrestrial life -- aliens -- may actually exist throughout the universe should cause him to question his views. Then, of course, there are Church officials such as Monsignor C. Balducci, with close Vatican ties, who has expressed some very intriguing views about the UFO issue.

Also, when Reith proudly invokes the name of an infamous "skeptic," such as The Amazing Randi on his program, I raise an eyebrow because his familiarity with "Amazing's" uncomplimentary comments about organized religion is obviously lacking. I know it's Reith's program, but if one's religious doctrine prevents a panoramic view of the issues, then a real disservice is done to inquiring commercial radio listeners, should information be excluded based solely upon a radio host's intellectual or dogmatic hissy-fit. Or maybe in being so critical I'm just losing my Reith-ligion.

One might also find Reith's profound dislike of psychics interesting, if not almost slapstick in its effects. He routinely condemns psychics (again, his religious values probably enter into this -- though, I must say, if one believes that Jesus rose from the dead, then it appears almost anything goes!) and many of them certainly deserve his brickbats. You must understand, he absolutely refuses to invite these despised psychics on his show, though his colleagues did so in the past and, for better or worse, achieved phenomenal listener interest (Note: Curiously, there may have been a furor caused by local religious leaders, sponsors and/or management hoping to avoid The Pit, because WSYR-AM hasn't featured a psychic in recent times, and keep in mind that religious beliefs routinely control a lot of hearts, minds, decisions and spending in Central NY).

Imagine the comedy induced, then, from a situation that occurred when Reith went on vacation some time back, and one of his guest hosts that week was local WSTM-TV (not owned by Clear Channel) news anchor Kevin Schenk. Schenk temporarily took the reins and invited a popular psychic on the show to take calls and tell listeners their futures. As expected, the radio audience went wild, and I suspect the phone lines to Reith's studio were jammed to the hilt. After all, say what you will, but a lot of folks love their psychics.

When Reith returned from vacation, he sounded calm, yet incredulous, about the psychic affair tainting his show. It was as if he wanted to soak the entire studio phone system in bleach or something caustic to obliterate the stench of psychic advice. How dare anybody invite psychic filth into his time slot?

But there's more. Reith, who tries diligently to line up a succession of -- suitable -- guest hosts when he goes away, experienced yet another embarrassment while he and the family slipped away for a few days of relaxation. One of his guest hosts was Stephanie Miner, a member of Syracuse city government, accompanied by a colleague. This time, however, Reith might have been better off with a psychic on the show, for Ms. Miner took the opportunity over several hours to make numerous unkind and humorously dismissive comments about Reith himself, effectively enraging him upon his return. Reith must have been furious. You could tell, not only because he harped upon the incident for days of broadcasts thereafter, but also because -- even to this day -- he frequently throws out little barbs and digs about her. Whether his on-air criticisms seem on the mark or not, you just know that he harbors a grudge because she brilliantly skewered him on his own show while he was absent from his post. Hmm. . .maybe now he knows what it feels like, though she didn't resort or lower herself to the juvenile name-calling behavior that Reith prefers in my case.

But now, like something from a TV sitcom script, there are further developments. It seems that Ms. Miner intends to run for mayor of Syracuse. This not entirely unexpected event causes Reith to remind his listeners he has submitted over 50 requests for Ms. Miner to guest on his show, and this would be since the infamous hosting gig which he no longer (wisely) references whatsoever, yet she refuses. My question would be, why in the world would she make herself available to JR? Why would she have a need to experience his barbs in person, having effectively dealt with him previously while dominating his own microphone? If elected mayor, perhaps she will present Reith with the key -- not to, but out of the city, though he, somewhat with tongue in cheek, suggests he'll move away anyway if she is elected.

Although the Schenk and Miner-hosted shows are arguably the most memorable of the Reith series to date, to be fair I should mention that the program's occasional encounters with celebrity can provide a rare moment of interest. Last year, singer Robert Goulet visited Syracuse to perform at a benefit, and he stopped by the studio. Goulet, blessed with the best first name in the world and famous both for his performance in Broadway's Camelot with Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, and for his rendition of the song, Old Cape Cod, performed a great service for radio disc jockeys across the nation in 1965 when his booming hit single, Summer Sounds, saw release. No longer did AM radio need to rely upon such seasonal favorites as the Jamies' fifties hit, Summertime, Summertime, or Connie Francis' Vacation to kick off the summer season every year. Goulet, gracious and bright, a shining star and icon for a fading golden musical era, shared a few valuable minutes with Reith and his listeners but, tragically, became gravely ill a few days after departing Syracuse and died.

Now and then, Jim Reith reminds his audience that the program is called "The Jim Reith Show," and, as he recently pointed out, his is a talk show and not a call-in show. I presume that answering phone calls is rather a favor to the caller, not an obligation, so I really don't know why callers even bother, particularly knowing that they have to go through his producer to be screened before having their say (I'll say one thing for Art Bell, he didn't rely on call screeners). And make no mistake, JR always has the last word, whether the caller is allowed five seconds or two minutes on the air, and whether the caller is as dumb as a box of woofers and tweeters, or smarter than the host (people wishing to argue a point often find themselves quickly abolished from the phone connection). After all, whose show is it?

Everything I remember about ingredients that made talk radio fun in Central New York once upon a time has been surgically extracted for the Reith show. Frankly, newer listeners of local talk radio don't know what they're missing. The only person who might find the show thoroughly enjoyable might be President Obama because, if little else, this program is certainly "shovel-ready." Why do I continue to listen in when I can? Because I have faith -- faith in the teeny-tiny possibility that one day, indeed, I'll turn the radio on and find the Reith show gone, a victim of audience ratings, replaced by the melodious sounds of cows belching, cats meowing or dogs barking (my personal preference would be ducks quacking). And many amongst the contemporary, though hardly discriminating, audience will continue listening and loving every moment, blissfully unaware of the program changes.

My most recent non-phone call encounter with Reith's show occurred last May. While he pursued a rant about how people should discuss issues and not resort to name-calling, I e-mailed him, reminding him that name-calling was exactly the approach he took with me in 2006. Predictably, he took off on me over the airwaves with his ridiculing stance and referenced the parts of my e-mail that suited him. He has a talent, you see. You may ask, by calling Reith a debunker am I not name-calling? Yes I am, because he is a debunker, and an obvious one at that, at least when it comes down to the UFO issue. To debunk something generally means to expose a sham or falsehood, but as a succession of people who "explain away" various things based solely upon their lack of knowledge surface more and more, the word "debunker" carries an alternate definition of its own. During that particular show, incidentally, he blurted over the airwaves, as if in a snit, that if I didn't like him mentioning me on the radio, he would nevermore, and this declaration was followed by the sounds of, presumably, my e-mail printout being crumpled up and thrown away. So, the barn door was thus locked -- but I, the obedient horse, the designated consummate whack job with an ethical stance, remained outside of the barn, freezing in the cold chill of icy broadcast airwaves.

As I write this in February of 2009, Reith has begun lecturing his audience about the rarity of civility, particularly bemoaning an incident in which his producer just took a call from a woman who referred to JR twice as an "MF." (ask any military drill instructor what that means, if you don't know). Shocking! Maybe he would have felt infinitely more civil about things, had she called him a WJ, an NB or a WN.

Every few days, Jim Reith still manages to throw in a comment about "aliens," and equates the subject with ghosts, Bigfoot and -- psychics. Just last July, WSYR was running commercials for "California Psychics," even as Reith periodically condemned psychics on his show. Then, one afternoon, when I almost fell out of my chair in astonishment, a paid-for "California Psychics" commercial landed squarely, point-blank, center stage upon a local -- not network-fed -- advertising minute of "The Jim Reith Show" itself, barely two days after his last psychic-driven negative comment. Priceless!

And then I understood everything, as clear as a bell chiming spine-chillingly in the midnight hour, and I could almost see a copy of the book, Animal Farm, held high by the non-existent ghost of George Orwell, not standing in the afternoon mist, unable to mouth the words because appearing before me as a ghost would have been impossible, so I was forced to read the ghostly lips invisible before me: "All psychics are created equal, except some psychics -- the ones who pay the bills on the Reith show and go without criticism by name -- are created more equal than others." And then I wondered how many of his listeners who could least afford it had rushed off to dial up those affable West Coast psychics right there and then, maybe sacrificing milk for a baby -- or, worse, forgetting to take a baby out of the car on a hot July day, or absent-mindedly leaving an infant alone in the yard, certain to be devoured by hungry coyotes -- in order to purchase and relish a few minutes of psychic California consultation, audio-intravenously pushed on the Reith show.

The only occasions when Reith elicits anything resembling an audible chuckle from me occur when he vows a willingness to spend a night in an alleged haunted house -- if he can bring a shotgun along to obliterate anything making strange noises in the darkness. That's funny stuff! But, my advice? Leave the shotgun behind. Next time psychics advertise on the show --"and, after all, why wouldn't they?" to quote a favorite question posed by Reith in a variety of circumstances -- Reith should just invite one to the haunted house, and let that psychic sleuth locate and make friends with the ghost(s) on his behalf. Depending upon whom becomes the next mayor of Syracuse, Reith might just find relocation to a haunted house outside of the city limits preferable. Yes, he may have to put up with a little ectoplasm and incoherent moaning in the night, but so what? Worse things have been known to materialize from the ethers. I should know, I've heard them on the radio.
November 5, 2009 Update: The elections are over and Stephanie Miner has indeed been elected the mayor of Syracuse, NY. Jim Reith and Ms. Miner do speak on the radio at times, and he continues to throw little barbs out about her, indicative that Ms. Miner's sharp-witted harpoon from show-hosting frivolities past remains buried somewhere in his psyche. Despite obvious attempts to remain civil with one another, listeners in the know surely sense an icy chill amongst conversations between the two, rather something like an old horror movie where the Wolfman and Frankenstein's monster thaw and attempt mutually pressured communication after being frozen within blocks of ice in a subterranean cave for decades. All of this started when Reith once interviewed Ms. Miner, who was a member of Syracuse city government, and in response to something she said he retorted with, "THAT'S A LIE!" When he eventually allowed her to host his show while he vacationed, I suspect he did so as something of an apology, though he did stand by information he considered untruthful from her. Nevertheless, the two shall now be thrown together like a squabbling married couple as she runs Syracuse government and he attempts to stay on top of her methods -- whether each likes it or not. Adding to this drama, Reith took a phone call this week from a listener in another state who found his show streaming on the Web, and the caller complimented Reith for being unlike other talk show hosts who call their listeners idiots and the like (Psst -- hey, buddy, would you feel the same if he called you a nutbird or whack job? You listened to the wrong shows, dude, because by the day after your call he again used the term, idiot, regarding a caller). Anyway, may Ms. Miner and Mr. Reith enjoy the upcoming years of wedded broadcast bliss as much as I will, on those rare occasions when I must listen and, particularly, may she remain true to her emotions regarding a talk show so frequently bland and narcolepsy-inducing that not even a caveman could long endure its babble.