Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Radio Killed the Radio Star/Blackouts/7 Billion Served

RADIO KILLED THE RADIO STAR: A few years ago on this blog, in a two-parter, I wrote about Jim Reith, whom for years had his own show on WSYR Radio (Syracuse, NY), a member of the Clear Channel Communications network. I won't belabor the details, which you may look up on the search engine above, but based upon correspondence I sent him regarding UFO documentation, he took multiple opportunities during one three-hour afternoon program (also available widely via the Internet) to snipe at me by name. I was not present. Skepticism would have been fine, but he went one step further and kept referring to me using obvious derogatory terms depicting me as crazy or deluded. Remember, all of this was based only upon correspondence I sent to him, respectful and informative. He never apologized, because he wasn't sorry.

Even prior to that day, in my opinion, his was among the worst radio talks show ever in Central NY. Yes, he leaned heavily upon guests affiliated with local public service agencies, religious institutions and educational, political, public safety and business entities. But he also excluded and dismissed chances to interview guests "on the fringe," and in so doing deprived listeners of the opportunity to learn about things they might otherwise not know about. Reith is very religious, by his own admission, and it was apparent that he refused to explore subjects and guests that might conflict with some religious teachings (however, I chuckled when he recently played an artist's music on his show and the selection, to his surprise, had the "F" word in it which clearly made it out over the air because he didn't reach the "kill" button in time).

Despite Reith's dedicated community good-deed efforts, he also built and put the shingles on one of the most boring, lackluster radio programs I've ever heard. Others will obviously disagree. Yet, of course, it was his show, and he could feature whatever guests he wished, or not. More's the pity, for the WSYR broadcast pie sacrificed a lot of informative and entertaining slices, sometimes suggesting an obvious courtesy to the faithful (say what you want about "psychics," but that subject ultimately became taboo locally, even though listeners swarmed the telephone lines -- if WSYR was lacking for sponsors in any way, excluding hot fringe topics certainly wouldn't attract more advertisers).

As time went on, callers became the same old familiar voices -- his political friends, his golfing friends, this friend, that friend, etc. -- and when even a particular sponsor calls in frequently, enough to make listeners roll their eyes and think of the words, bought and paid for, well, what do you have? The show, long ago expanded to four hours, was important for dragging in listeners during "drive time" from work, and what typically could be one subject for the entire four hours would be explored over and over again until inflicting near-brain death upon listeners. If Reith, dependent upon news sources outside of Clear Channel for much of his subject matter, did not like opinions posted by others who didn't leave names with their comments, they were "anonymous Internet morons." There was little room for anybody but Jim Reith and his narrow scope -- and now, evidently, there's no room for Reith, either.

Nobody worthy should lose their job, but darned if the Clear Channel politburo didn't dispense with Reith and three other Syracuse employees (including Reith's former producer) a few days ago. There was apparently no warning -- the Reith show was gone by October 26, having been aired routinely the day before, and since then I have not heard one current on-air employee dare mention the mass-terminations. Clear Channel nationally, like many broadcast entities, has financial problems, and I'm sure every employee is in fear for his or her job, as layoffs and firings continue to occur across the nation.

Years ago, Clear Channel had purchased five or six Syracuse radio stations, and a TV station for a while after that, and CCC is known for buying up poorly performing or inexpensive broadcast property all over the country. Trouble is, the economy went south and all of that extravagant spending came home to roost. In the meantime, Clear Channel went for talk shows like ducks take to water, and on local levels nationally it appeared that everybody and his brother or sister associated with broadcasting thought they could host a show -- or at least station managers, program directors or advertising heads thought that would be the case. And it was, until now. And in both the good times and as the economy kept tanking, stations clung to the familiar and eschewed the uncertainty of true innovation -- pretty much reflecting the way Washington currently functions.

A major reason for the Reith show's very existence was obviously to praise and talk up Central New York on behalf of the business community, a blatant chamber of commerce of the airwaves, far more infomercial than talk show. Frankly, the program could have been so much more, but it wished to appeal to a certain local segment and that's exactly what WSYR got, leaving so many potential listeners who craved a real talk show out in the cold. This was the fatal flaw, and they can point to their declining ratings until the cash cows come home, but with the show gone the words, that-show-really-sucked should be engraved above the station's offices.

So the Reith show held on for some 11 years, odorless, yet stinking up the town via powerful radio signals, its content akin to old fish wrapped in unyielding commercial breaks, intended, near as I can figure, to keep listeners hooked more for the advertising than for the knowledge imparted. He had his fans and he had his detractors, plenty of both. If certain callers or e-mails cast doubt upon local plans for mega-developments, he blamed established residents for their lack of insight about the future. They were idiots. They were morons. In more recent times, he might instead use the term, "geniuses." Though he claimed he didn't hang up on callers, he surely tended to cut them off if they wished to argue a point much of the time. In fact, he once remarked that he did not intend to argue with callers, and on one occasion I heard him remind one and all as he experienced a snit that the program was called "The Jim Reith Show" and if he did not want to accept phone calls, that was his decision. So, the scenario would generally be a caller making a point, Reith thanking them, gently ending the call and then establishing his opinion as the last word. With the caller gone, what more could be said? Yet, the sponsors flowed in, supporting the show, probably not because of content, but because WSYR-AM provided awesome broadcast tower power, featuring the strongest and most easily accessed AM radio station in town. In fact, WSYR even went to the FM band simultaneously and listeners consequently received double the Reith show and several times the sound quality during Yankee games, when players on the field presumably could spit out their chewing tobacco in living stereo if offered microphone coverage. I continue to contend that WSYR Radio could simply play the sounds of dog farts all day long and ratings would soar because the station signal is strong and easy to tune in -- and sponsors would support the effort tremendously because of the widespread airplay reach available.

Yet -- the Reith show has disappeared, and one might only conclude that the advertising revenue and/or significant audience had absconded, no longer able to act as a crutch to prop up a pathetic program which would have been canceled years ago if not for the fact that WSYR wielded the most powerful and far-reaching transmitter in town -- and obviously Reith had his connections as a local news reporter, whatever or whomever they were, to give him a several-hour format in the first place. Maybe it just seemed a good idea at the time. One can grow a "Chia Pet" anywhere.

I once wrote in this blog that I hoped one day to see the Reith show disappear, replaced perhaps by the sound of frogs croaking or chirping. Unfortunately, frog time was instantly usurped by more national radio talk. In the meantime, Those Layoffs or Firings Or Whatever They Were are not mentioned, not a word, by on-air personnel, as if they never happened -- as if neither Reith nor his show ever existed. The Clear Channel Communications central politburo and its useful local reps in upper management have seemingly erased his name from existence. Too bad, since Reith accumulated almost 30 respectable years in local broadcasting, much of it as a newscaster, winning an award or two. But life goes on and a pungent scent of fear must permeate over the Syracuse Clear Channel Communications staff, as well it should. In Russia, don't they use polonium to obliterate memory lane?

Shed no tears for Reith, he'll do just fine. Over the years he obviously established numerous contacts and probably had job offers before or soon after the door slammed. In this area, I wouldn't be surprised to see his show return to WSYR if the winds of change alter direction, as local broadcast management continues to perform the same actions over and over. Still, it is tragic that CCC rids itself of long-time employees barely without warning -- maybe Clear Channel's highest echelon frets over the potential sound of frogs croaking near every transmitter in the country.

The best role CCC could assume is to help its national audience and Congress understand that FCC powers should be curbed dramatically so we can send these word/morals police back to their original intended job -- to regulate airwave assignments. Maybe then radio can blossom into an entity that need not fear "naughty" words and pictures, thus leaving the audience to make a personal decision to stay tuned or not. "Politically correct" has turned us timid, voiceless and fearful of new thoughts.

I hope Central NY radio develops other local talk shows, with the right hosts. But the way this town works, a town whose broadcast community is like family, to the exclusion of innovation, as aging broadcast industry members hang on almost until becoming petrified or mummy-like and dripping dust, Reith may just pop up hosting something else, and whatever local broadcast mummified entity introduces him will tell listeners how great it will be to have this "new" show in town. And no, UFOs and Fortean subjects will not be welcome for sober discussion.

My advice, wherever you reside in the country, whatever radio station you access:: Tune in -- and tune out if necessary. If (when) the Internet kills off radio, that will only happen because the lords of radio allowed and blindly encouraged the action.

AND SPEAKING OF CONTROLLING THE AIRWAVES . . . We are told that at 2:00 p.m. EST on Wednesday, November 9th, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission intend to conduct for the first time ever a national test of the Emergency Alert System, and all radio and televised broadcasts across the USA will be disrupted for about 3 1/2 minutes. While all manner of commentary can be whipped up about this maneuver, I only wish to thank FEMA and the FCC for scheduling this event on November 9, to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the great Northeastern U.S. power blackout. Well, okay, maybe it wasn't intentional -- but it sure is funny that a broadcast blackout would be arranged on the same day of the year as a major power blackout in which UFOs were observed by many witnesses of credible caliber -- a situation so mysterious that even the late Dr. James McDonald testified before Congress about the widespread power failure's UFO aspect.

SEVEN BILLION SERVED. . .Estimates of world human population reaching seven billion this week are not comforting, particularly when another billion will appear in just another 10-13 years. National news sources seem to enjoy pointing out that all of those people would easily fit inside Texas -- ignoring that each person will require considerable acreage just to sustain them during their lifetime. Once the government, religious, technological, medical and pharmaceutical establishments figure out how to encourage even more human birth, save every hapless womb occupant and force adults to live to 125, even as nature's resources dwindle and become fouled by all the extra consumers, and even as we systematically destroy a wealth of other species on a planet supposedly shared roughly in some balance, life will really be great, huh? I know what we are, and maybe you know what we are. Be very, very frightened of the future, or laugh if it up if it will make you feel better. I just love the smell of alleged paranoia in the morning. Et vous?