Many thanks to Jon Keller for having me on “Keller at Large” this past Sunday (WBZ-TV, Channel 4) to talk about “The Wired City.” You can watch our two-part conversation by clicking here or on the image above.
I’ll be talking about “The Wired City” this Sunday, July 7, at 8:30 a.m. with old friend Jon Keller on “Keller at Large,” on WBZ-TV (Channel 4) in Boston. I’ll also be popping up in his WBZ radio commentaries (AM 1030) throughout the weekend.
I was sad to learn over the weekend that radio talk-show host Gene Burns had died at the age of 72 (via Universal Hub). Burns, who brought intelligence and grace to the airwaves, held down the midday slot at WRKO (AM 680) from 1985 to 1993. Lesley University professor and radio consultant Donna Halper writes:
I will miss him because of what he represented — a more courteous style of conversation. Today’s talk hosts (on BOTH sides) often shout and name-call and insult the other side. Gene Burns was all about exchanging IDEAS; he was a libertarian, but he always respected callers who had other ideologies. In today’s polarized culture, it would be nice if more of us could get beyond the rhetoric and get to know each other better. Talk shows like his used to provide a forum for that to occur. I wish they still did.
The talk-radio world of the 1980s was radically different from today’s. There was a time on WRKO when, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., you could listen to Ted O’Brien and Janet Jeghelian, then Burns and finally the legendary Jerry Williams during afternoon drive. Then you could switch over to WBZ (AM 1030) and hear another legend, David Brudnoy, from 7 p.m. to midnight — 17 hours of intelligent, (mostly) civil talk.
These days Dan Rea, Brudnoy’s successor at WBZ once removed, is the only host on the commercial dial following that tradition. If you want a smart discussion of news and public affairs, public radio is pretty much the only choice.
I’ll be talking about the late, great Boston Phoenix tonight from 9 to 10 p.m. on “NightSide with Dan Rea,” on WBZ Radio (AM 1030). Also in studio will be longtime Phoenix contributor Harvey Silverglate, and perhaps former editor Peter Kadzis by phone. I hope you can join us.
Yes, as a matter of fact, I am old enough to remember Glenn Ordway as the color man back when the legendary Johnny Most was doing Celtics play-by-play.
I have nothing especially profound to say about Ordway’s departure from WEEI Radio (AM 850), a station he helped build into a sports powerhouse and that is now lagging in the ratings behind relative newcomer WBZ-FM (98.5 FM), better known as the Sports Hub. I’m only pointing out the obvious by observing that if this was all about the ratings, then no one is safe, starting with John Dennis and Gerry Callahan.
The one thing I’d keep an eye on is whether the move to dump Ordway was about money as much as it was about ratings. Marc Ganis, a sports business consultant based in Chicago, tells Matt Stout of the Boston Herald that Ordway’s salary — $500,000, down from $1 million a couple of years ago — was seriously out of whack with what local stations pay these days. Chad Finn of The Boston Globe reports that Ordway’s replacement, Mike Salk, is expected to make about $100,000.
We’ve already seen the dismantling of political talk radio in Boston. WTKK (96.9 FM) recently switched to music. WRKO (AM 680), which, like WEEI, is owned by Entercom, has cut way back over the years, to the point at which afternoon host Howie Carr is the station’s only highly paid star. The one exception to the downsizing trend on the commercial dial is Dan Rea’s evening show on WBZ (AM 1030).
Sports talk starts from a much higher ratings base than political talk, so perhaps Entercom is willing to spend some money to get WEEI back in the game. But it’s not only about ratings these days. It used to be that if you put up the numbers, the advertising would come rolling in. The ad business has changed considerably in recent years, and it’s not that simple anymore. There are plenty of non-radio options for people to listen to in their cars these days.
Ordway is talking about pursuing Internet options, and I wish him well. The challenge is that Internet radio doesn’t make money, and is generally used to promote something else. Consider the city’s two online alternative-music outlets. WFNX.com and RadioBDC exist to extend the brands of The Phoenix and the Globe’s Boston.com site, respectively. I don’t think anyone expects them to become profit-generating monsters.
As for the battle between WEEI and the Sports Hub, it could be that the most interesting sports talk you’ll hear over the next few weeks and months will be about the stations, not what’s on them.
- Glenn Ordway opens up about departure from WEEI (Chad Finn, Boston.com)
- WEEI replaces Glenn Ordway with Mike Salk (Chad Finn, Boston.com)
- Glenn Ordway gets ax in sports talk battle (Matt Stout, Boston Herald)
- Ordway will be missed, but game goes on (Steve Buckley, Boston Herald)
- Looking to future for next big thing (Gayle Fee, Boston Herald)
- WEEI fires Kevin Winter from morning show (Chad Finn, Boston Globe)
- WEEI convenes focus group of Sports Talk listeners (Chad Finn, Boston Globe)
- WEEI statement on Glenn Ordway (Bruce Allen, Boston Sports Media Watch)
- Ordway confirms exit on the air today (Bruce Allen, Boston Sports Media Watch)
Photo (cc) by uzi978 and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
Update: I’ll be on New England Cable News on Friday at 7:15 a.m. to talk about WTKK and the future of radio.
At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan signed off for the last time from the morning talk show they had hosted on Boston’s WTKK Radio (96.9 FM). A few minutes later, the station reemerged as Power 96.9, a faceless entity blasting out robo-music of some sort. And Boston found itself with just one full-time talk radio station. (The station was quickly redubbed Nova 96.9, apparently because of this.)
The demise of WTKK has been portrayed as another nail in the coffin of right-wing talk radio. The estimable D.R. Tucker calls it part of “a downward spiral for a key element of the conservative entertainment complex.” And, yes, that’s surely part of it.
But what we are really seeing is the demise of commercial radio in general, as corporate owners (Greater Media in WTKK’s case) attempt to squeeze the last few nickels of profit out of a medium that may be in its final stage of collapse.
By the end, WTKK wasn’t even a right-wing talk station. Braude, a liberal, and Eagan, a moderate, hosted a civil show that was more about entertainment than politics. Moderate politics and humor were the rule during midday. The only right-winger was afternoon host Michael Graham, whose idea of a good time was to make fun of people with dwarfism.
It was a far cry from the days when WTKK’s signature host, Jay Severin, would call Al Gore “Al Whore” and refer to Hillary Clinton as “a socialist” and “a pig.” Then again, Severin himself was long gone, having made the mistake of joking about sex with interns at a moment when his ratings were falling.
During the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Boston was a terrific town for talk radio, the home of pioneers such as David Brudnoy, Jerry Williams and Gene Burns, among others. Yes, they leaned right, but their approach was intelligent and respectful (OK, Williams often wasn’t respectful), and they were immersed in the local scene in a way that few talk-show hosts are these days.
So now we are left with one full-time talk station, WRKO (AM 680), home to right-wingers Rush Limbaugh and Howie Carr, a local legend whose shtick descended into bitter self-parody years ago. (Limbaugh’s syndicated show recently moved back to WRKO from a weak AM station owned by Clear Channel.) It certainly hasn’t helped either WTKK or WRKO that their ratings pale in comparison to two full-time sports stations — a phenomenon that didn’t exist during the heyday of local talk.
The only bright light is Dan Rea, who helms a very conservative evening program on all-news station WBZ (AM 1030). Rea, a former television reporter, eschews the shouting and demeaning putdowns in favor of smart conversation.
What happened to talk radio in Boston? I would point to three factors. And I would suggest that none of these are unique to our part of the country. Boston may be on the leading edge, but these same trends could sweep away talk elsewhere, too.
• Corporate consolidation. Since the passage of the lamentable Telecommunications Act of 1996, corporations have been buying up radio stations in market after market, transforming what was once a strictly local affair into a bottom-line-obsessed business.
As far back as 1997 I wrote in the Boston Phoenix that the rise of chain ownership would eventually kill local talk. We are now seeing that come to fruition. The automated music stations that are on the rise may not garner many listeners. But they are cheap, which means that their owners can bleed some profits out of them regardless.
“In our current media environment, corporate owners seem to have less tolerance for the station that is unusual, the station with the niche audience,” media scholar and radio consultant Donna Halper wrote for Media Nation earlier this year. “Part of what makes radio unique as a mass medium is its ability to befriend the listener. So losing a favorite station is much like losing a friend.”
• The rise of public radio. Boston is home to an exceptionally vibrant public radio scene. Two stations with strong signals — WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) — broadcast news, public-affairs programming and (yes) talk all day and night, and enjoy some of the largest audiences in the Boston area. (Disclosure #1: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH’s television station, Channel 2.) Other, smaller public stations broadcast far more eclectic musical offerings than anything on commercial radio.
This trend is related to corporate consolidation, as it was the slide in quality on the for-profit side that sent many listeners fleeing to nonprofit radio. If anything, that trend will accelerate.
• Technological change. Earlier this year The Phoenix sold the FM signal for its independent rock station, WFNX, to Clear Channel — but kept streaming online. The Boston Globe, meanwhile, hired a few of the people who were laid off when WFNX left the air and now streams its own indie rock station, RadioBDC. All of a sudden, we’ve got a war between two local music stations, neither one of which can be heard over the air. (Disclosure #2: I’m an occasional contributor to The Phoenix.)
These days it’s not difficult to stream Internet radio in your car, which is where most radio listening takes place. Pandora, Spotify and out-of-town music stations (WWOZ of New Orleans is a favorite of mine) are powerful draws, which gives the local flavor of online stations like RadioBDC and WFNX a considerable edge over computer-programmed corporate radio — or, for that matter, subscription-based satellite radio.
It is this last development that gives me reason for optimism. Radio has always been held back by the physical limits of the broadcast spectrum. In a world in which those limits don’t exist, “radio” stations must compete on the strength of their programming rather than their stranglehold on the AM and FM dials.
Seen in that light, the end of WTKK is just another step on the road toward what may be a brighter, more diverse radio future.
Michael Graham has left WTKK Radio (96.9 FM), according to AllAccess.com. I certainly won’t miss him, but his departure, unfortunately, would appear to presage Greater Media’s rumored decision to relaunch WTKK as an automated music station. Here’s more from Radio Insight.
Talk radio, as we all know, is not what it used to be. But if WTKK is taken out of play, I wonder if Entercom might decide to reinvigorate WRKO (AM 680), which has all but disappeared except for Howie Carr’s afternoon-drive show. If Jim Braude and Margery Eagan are out at ‘TKK, then they deserve a slot somewhere.
Meanwhile, Dan Rea continues to do well evenings at WBZ (AM 1030) with a talk show that is as conservative as any on the air — but that is also intelligent and respectful of its listeners. Is there a lesson in that?
Coming out of Thursday night’s WBZ-TV (Channel 4) debate between Republican senator Scott Brown and his Democratic rival, Elizabeth Warren, I thought the issue that could have the most resonance was Brown’s accusation that Warren profited from a legal case that harmed victims of asbestos exposure. Warren didn’t handle the question well, and the matter was left hanging.
Boston Globe reporter Noah Bierman wrote about the case in May. It is convoluted, to say the least. In essence, though, Warren was paid $212,000 by Travelers Insurance to argue that the insurer should be immune from future asbestos lawsuits in return for setting up a $500 million trust fund to compensate victims. The liability belonged to Travelers because Johns-Manville, the company that actually manufactured the asbestos, had gone bankrupt.
Later, after Warren no longer had anything to do with the case, another court ruled that Travelers did not have to pay out the $500 million. So the victims got nothing. Warren told the Globe:
My heart goes out to the victims of this terrible, terrible disaster. It’s heart-wrenching that there are new victims every year…. I think they should be compensated. That’s it for me. That’s what this is all about.
She added that the principle she was fighting for — a provision in bankruptcy law that would allow the establishment of trust funds for victims in return for no further legal liability — was “a critical tool for making sure that people who’ve been hurt have a fair shot at compensation.”
Brown is scheduled to discuss the asbestos case with reporters later this morning. Warren needs a better answer.
Overall, I thought Warren came across well — focused, substantive and calm, if a bit repetitive. Brown was snide and personal. Moderator Jon Keller began by inviting Brown to comment on Warren’s character, and Brown chose to go all-in on Warren’s claim that she’s part Native American. Senator, there are people who will do that for you — and have been doing that for you.
Here is my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, writing for the Huffington Post:
The opening debate between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown … at times felt like the classroom dynamic between an earnest, soft-spoken high school English teacher and the defiant jock who plants himself in the back row and makes sour faces until the bell rings. Although the teacher never quite subdued her student, neither did he manage to get the better of her.
And how good a moderator is my friend Keller? Other than keeping the conversation moving, you barely knew he was there. In other words, a first-rate job.
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The first debate is often the most important in terms of drawing the biggest audience and establishing a story line. So I’m glad that this one will be moderated by political analyst Jon Keller of WBZ-TV (Channel 4). Keller, a fair-minded centrist who doesn’t mind delivering an occasional zing, is good at keeping things moving while not cutting people off. Among the things I won’t miss: a panel of journalists and a timer.
Recent polls have been all over the place, showing Warren unexpectedly taking the lead or Brown maintaining his months-long advantage. All are within the margin for error, so the race is essentially tied. That could change starting tonight.
If you’re live-tweeting (as I’ll be) or just following along on Twitter, search for #wbzdebate. The action begins at 7 p.m.
Photo (cc) by John Atherton via Wikimedia Commons and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
What we were talking about, in case U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s diversionary tactics led you astray, was a televised debate, held before a neutral audience, to be moderated by Tom Brokaw. Everything else is baloney.
As you no doubt already know, Brown made two demands that had to be met before he would agree to a debate with his Democratic rival, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren.
The second was that the debate be carried only by local media outlets and not by “out-of-state cable networks with a reputation for political advocacy” — clear reference to the liberal outlet MSNBC, which had been mentioned as a possibility.
Both demands were ridiculous because they were irrelevant. But when Vicki Kennedy rejected the first of those demands, that was enough for Brown to say no.
(At this point I suppose I should include a non-disclosure: I’m not related to those Kennedys.)
Brown might have been able to make a reasonable case for asking Vicki Kennedy not to endorse until after the debate. But demanding that she refrain for “the duration” was just silly. If the media consortium that includes the Boston Globe schedules a debate, will Brown insist that the Globe not endorse? And what will Brown say if the Boston Herald, as is its wont, puts together its own debate? Surely he won’t ask the paper to withhold its all-but-certain Brown endorsement.
As for MSNBC, the debate organizers could prevent the channel from carrying it live. Afterwards, though, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and company would be free to show clips and comment on them whether they had carried the full debate or not. The fair-use provision of the copyright law guarantees that — not to mention the First Amendment.
And why did I say the debate would be held before a neutral audience? Because you can be sure the Brown and Warren campaigns would insist on equal numbers of partisans in the audience. So the Kennedy Institute’s sponsorship isn’t an issue, either.
I know some observers have questioned Brokaw’s alleged liberal bias. But since that hasn’t been raised by the Brown campaign, we have to assume he had no problem with Brokaw as moderator. When Brokaw moderated a debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, he seemed mainly interested in making sure neither candidate exceeded his allotted time. Liberal or not, Brokaw has earned his status as a fair-minded journalist who can be trusted not to throw the debate to either candidate.
It’s also hard to figure why Brown suddenly has a problem with Vicki Kennedy or the Kennedy Institute, given that he took part in a debate with Martha Coakley two years ago that was co-sponsored by the institute without setting any preconditions. As Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis points out, it was only a year ago that Brown couldn’t say enough good things about the late Ted Kennedy’s widow.
Globe columnist Scot Lehigh thinks Brown’s demands were “reasonable,” and he gives the senator credit for sticking to them. Yet Lehigh doesn’t tell us what Brown could possibly gain by failing to take part.
As my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, an expert on political debates, puts it, “They’re making such an effort to portray Brown as someone with bipartisan credentials who can work with Democrats, and yet here’s this relatively mild example of cooperating with a Democrat, and they’re balking at it.”
Boston Phoenix political columnist David Bernstein wonders if Brown is trying to curry favor with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which has had its own issues with Vicki Kennedy.
Who knows what Brown and his advisers are thinking? Their political astuteness is generally beyond question. Maybe this will prove to be a smart move. Right now, though, it looks like a rare misstep, especially curious given that Brown initially made the Warren campaign look flat-footed with his rapid acceptance of several debate invitations.
My own bias is in favor of as many debates as possible, regardless of the venue. For instance, I don’t understand why Warren won’t say yes to WBZ Radio (AM 1030) talk-show host Dan Rea, who is conservative but is as fair as they come.
The candidates really don’t have anything better to do. How would we prefer they spend their time? Making television ads? Attending fundraisers? Of course not. They should spend as much time as possible side by side, talking about the issues. It’s not always the most edifying experience, but it’s better than any conceivable alternatives.
Photo (cc) by Michael Kwan and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.