Like all of us who are old enough, I have vivid memories of Sept. 11, 2001, just as our older brothers and sisters do about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and as our parents and grandparents did about the attack on Pearl Harbor. As others have said over and over again, it was a cool, clear morning, a preview of fall. I was working at The Boston Phoenix, where I covered media and politics. I stepped outside to get coffee and ran into an old acquaintance.
“Isn’t it terrible what happened at the World Trade Center?” she asked.
In the spring of 1998, civil-liberties lawyer and First Amendment advocate Harvey Silverglate had an idea: Why not single out enemies of free speech in the pages of The Boston Phoenix? Harvey was a Phoenix contributor; I was the media columnist. We refined Harvey’s idea and, at his suggestion, named them the Muzzle Awards — borrowing the name from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression (now defunct) and restricting them to the Boston, Worcester, Portland and Providence areas, where we had papers.
We decided on the Fourth of July for two reasons — first, to emphasize that the Muzzles were an expression of patriotism; second, so that the rest of the news staff could pretty much take the week off. The first annual Muzzle Awards were published on July 3, 1998. Among other winners, we singled out of the FCC for shutting down Radio Free Allston, a pirate station that served the community at a time when it was even harder to get a license for a low-power FM operation than it is today; the town of Plymouth, where police roughed up Native American protesters; and Walmart, for refusing to sell CDs that carried a parental warning label.
The Muzzles turned out to be a hit. David Brudnoy and, later, Dan Rea would have me on to talk about them on WBZ Radio (AM 1030) and — I’d like to think — we helped educate our readers about the importance of free expression.
I continued writing the Muzzles after leaving the Phoenix for Northeastern in 2005. At that point, I stopped singling out colleges and universities because I thought it would be a conflict of interest. Harvey began writing the Campus Muzzle Awards as a sidebar.
Then, in the spring of 2013, The Boston Phoenix closed abruptly, and we needed a new home for the Muzzles. Fortunately my friends at GBH News stepped up and have been hosting them ever since. Although The Worcester Phoenix was long gone at that point, the Muzzles continued to appear in the Providence and Portland papers until they, too, shut down. (The Portland Phoenix was revived a couple of years ago under new ownership and appears to be doing well.) And here’s a pretty astonishing fact: Peter Kadzis has been editing the Muzzles from the beginning, first at the Phoenix, now at GBH.
This year’s New England Muzzle Awards, published on July 1, are, like their predecessors, a reflection of the era. The Black Lives Matter protest movement that was revived after the police killings of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor figure in several of the awards — from Boston and Worcester police officers who brutalized peaceful demonstrators, to racial justice protesters in Burlington, Vermont, who stole and destroyed copies of a newspaper whose coverage they were unhappy with, to Sheriff Scott Kane of Hancock County, Maine, who banned a desperately needed drug-counseling service from his jail after the nonprofit posted a statement on its website in support of Black Lives Matter.
We have some well-known winners, too, including Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, Fox News talk-show host Tucker Carlson and former President Donald Trump. The town of Plymouth is back as well — this time for threatening punitive fines against a Trump supporter who’d put a sign critical of President Joe Biden on his lawn.
This is the 24th year of Muzzle Awards, so next year will be a landmark. Will they continue after their 25th anniversary? Right now I couldn’t tell you. I have put together an index of all 24 years in case you’re interested in what previous editions looked like. Link rot had claimed some of them, but I was able to overcome that thanks to the Internet Archive.
The animating spirit of the Muzzles was best expressed by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1929: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
It’s been a long ride — and I’ve already got a candidate for the 2022 edition.
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Tom Farragher’s column in today’s Boston Globe is a two-fer for me. Farragher writes about a recent effort to save the archives of The Item, formerly The Daily Item of Clinton. It turns out that one of those involved was Sean Kerrigan, a former Item reporter who’s now chair of the town’s select board. I worked with Sean at The Boston Phoenix, so it was nice to run across his name.
“It’s sad it takes something like this for people to understand how important a paper can be to a town,’’ Kerrigan told Farragher. “I’m a little biased obviously, but I can’t imagine a Clinton without the Item.”
Farragher also mentions the day in 1977 when the then-new president, Jimmy Carter, came to town for one of his first public forums. I wasn’t there. But I was a Northeastern co-op student down the road at The Woonsocket Call, and I remember that we were all buzzing about it in the newsroom.
The Item has been a weekly since 1996, and is now part of the Gannett chain, covering Clinton and six surrounding towns.
In late 2015 I traveled to Burlington and Montpelier, Vermont, to report on a heartening development: though Gannett had hollowed out the state’s major daily, the Burlington Free Press, several other news organizations had arisen to fill the gap.
VT Digger, a nonprofit website, and Vermont Public Radio were expanding. And towering above all was Seven Days, a thick alt-weekly with a vibrant website. As someone who had worked for many years at The Boston Phoenix, which closed in 2013, I was agog at the size of the staff and the number of ads. Somehow, Seven Days had become the largest news organization in the Burlington area. And it was turning a profit. As Paula Routly, the publisher, co-editor and co-owner told me in an interview for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” the paper had never lost money since its founding in 1995. She explained:
When the recession hit, we invested. That’s when we ramped up in news. And that is when the Free Press visibly diminished. They just made different business decisions. “Let’s make it smaller, let’s lay people off.” That’s where I think they made their mistake.
So it was great to see Seven Days get prominent mention by The Daily Beast in a round-up of alt-weeklies that are somehow surviving despite the pandemic and the recession. Sophia June reports in The Daily Beast on four — Seven Days, the Cleveland Scene, The Stranger of Seattle and The Austin Chronicle. According to June, Seven Days was able to reverse the cuts that it had made within six weeks, suggesting that the newspaper apocalypse that seemed to be upon us in the early days of the shutdown didn’t quite come to pass. Here’s a key excerpt:
The paper had to stop hosting events and printing several of their guides, but they reached out to businesses like the Department of Health, a local hospital, and banks to find new advertisers. They pitched new guides, including a travel guide for the Vermont Department of Tourism, encouraging safe travel in the state. They were also able to keep revenue-generators like monthly parenting and real-estate inserts.
Also getting a mention is DigBoston, which has kept the alt-weekly scene alive here in the post-Phoenix era. The Dig stopped publishing its print edition last March but then started up again in June, as Poynter’s Kristen Hare reported at the time. It’s notable that all of the papers I’ve mentioned are for-profit entities, although the Dig shares content with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, a sister organization.
Does this mean that happy days are here again? Of course not. But these stories are yet another sign that independent newspapers unburdened by corporate and hedge-fund ownership can find a way to survive. Once the pandemic is behind us, maybe they’ll even thrive.
A number of people have contacted me to make sure I knew that John Burgess had died at the age of 74. Unfortunately, I didn’t know him. He left The Boston Phoenix, where he was managing editor, in 1989, and I started there in 1991. John spent the rest of his career as a copy editor at The Boston Globe where he was, by all accounts, one of the most liked and respected people in the newsroom.
According to his obituary, “Described by friends and family as brilliant, funny, kind and gentle — a literal ‘gentleman’ — John made all our lives, and our writing, better.” May all of us live our lives in such a way that we earn such a warm remembrance.
We lost a great American on Saturday. Sen. John McCain was a complicated man, but his integrity, courage, and fundamental decency were beyond reproach. In February 2000, I covered the South Carolina showdown between McCain and George W. Bush for The Boston Phoenix. Bush had just lost the New Hampshire primary to McCain and was hanging on for dear life. Bush defeated McCain in South Carolina and went on to win the presidency. I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. Today, courtesy of the Northeastern University Archives, WGBH News republishes my story in full.
GREENVILLE, S.C. — The Straight Talk Express — a bus that’s expanded into a three-vehicle caravan since John McCain’s unexpectedly large victory in New Hampshire — has just pulled up in front of City Hall. A crowd of people has gathered, waiting expectantly for the candidate. Among them is Geno Church, a city employee who’s holding his 5-year-old daughter, MacKenzie, so she can get a closer look. She points to a huge sign on one of the buses that says “McCain” and asks, “Daddy, why does that sign say ‘Media’?”
Out of the mouths of babes and all that.
The McCain campaign is many things. An insurgent effort by an underfunded challenger against an establishment candidate — George W. Bush — who’s been anointed with more than $65 million in contributions. A crusade to clean up a hopelessly corrupt political system. A book tour to promote “Faith of My Fathers,” which, McCain jokingly but carefully notes at every stop, was published by Random House and is available from Amazon.com for $24.95. (It’s working: “Faith of My Fathers” was Amazon’s 36th hottest-selling book as of Tuesday.)
Above all else, though, the McCain campaign is a media moment. The press has fallen hard for McCain, harder than it fell for Bill Clinton in 1992, harder than it fell for Gary Hart in 1984 or George McGovern in 1972. Aboard the Straight Talk Express, it’s clear that the reporters believe they’re in the midst of something historic — something akin, perhaps, to the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy, the last time a war hero with a sense of humor and a proclivity for mixing it up with the press ran for president.
“It’s kind of a running dialogue that goes on on the McCain bus. The extraordinary thing about the McCain campaign is that everything is on the record. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says veteran Boston Globe reporter Curtis Wilkie. Wilkie — one of the characters who pops up in Timothy Crouse’s classic on the 1972 campaign, “The Boys on the Bus” — calls McCain’s dealings with the media something of a “throwback” to the days when “you didn’t have nearly as many press people running around, and in general the candidates were more accessible.” And for the press, there is no higher value than accessibility.
It’s not that the press is consciously in the tank for McCain, or that he escapes all critical scrutiny. The beat reporters say they’re careful not to let their easy access to the candidate twist their coverage. But the cumulative effect of McCain’s blunt candor, his nonstop, on-the-record chatter, his sense of brio and his insouciance, has been to create an aura of goodwill in which the candidate — unlike perhaps any other national politician — automatically receives the benefit of the doubt.
Collectively — with, of course, certain exceptions (Time magazine broke from the pack last week with excellent pieces on McCain’s ultraconservative ideology and lack of a substantive agenda beyond campaign-finance reform) — the media have concluded that McCain is capable of transcending his unremarkable career in the Senate, his run-of-the-mill influence-peddling, and his doctrinaire conservatism to reform a political system that has grown hopelessly corrupt and out of touch with average Americans. Are they right? Continue reading “Remembering John McCain: Barreling through S.C. on the Straight Talk Express”→
With the bankrupt corporate chain iHeartMedia now in the process of dismantling WBZ Radio (AM 1030), the city’s only commercial news station, I thought I would repost a story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in 1997 — a look at the state of radio in Boston one year after passage of the disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1997.
Sound and Fury
Corporate consolidation has destroyed commercial radio. Here’s how it happened — and how to make it better.
The Boston Phoenix
November 13, 1997
It’s cold in Rick Anderson’s office, on the third floor of a red-brick building just outside Roxbury’s Dudley Square. Not see-your-breath, rub-your-hands cold, but cold enough for Anderson to have topped off his casual attire with a heavy flannel shirt. Cold enough for a visitor to keep his sports coat on.
Anderson, 41, is the program director of WILD Radio (AM 1090), where he has worked off and on since 1984. A trim man of medium height, with a shaved head, close-cropped mustache, and goatee, Anderson speaks in the smooth, confident tones of an experienced radio announcer. In fact, in addition to his management duties, Anderson works the afternoon drive time shift, playing new hits by black artists such as SFTP (“My Love Is the Shhh”) and Bobby Brown (“Feelin Inside”).
Anderson boasts that these are good times for WILD. Since adopting a format of what he calls “straight urban music” last year, the station’s ratings have ticked up. And though the station is hardly a threat to ratings monster WJMN (94.5 FM), a/k/a JAM’N, whose music formula occupies the same niche, Anderson insists that WILD has more credibility in the black community.
“It’s all good music,” he says. “It’s just that at one end it’s done by black people, at the other end it’s done by white people. We really know the music. They do a lot of — research.” Obviously pleased with the comparison, he leans back in his chair and smiles.
But there’s another, even more crucial difference between WILD and WJMN. At a time when radio has come to be dominated by megacorporations that gobble up multiple stations in a given market, WILD is one of the last of the independents.
On February 8, 1996, a furious, multimillion-dollar lobbying effort by corporate interests paid off big time, when Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law. Though most of the focus was on the deregulation of the telephone, cable, and television industries, the law also contained a sweet plum for the radio industry — or, rather, for the industry’s wealthiest players. Ownership restrictions in a given market were loosened from four stations to as many as eight. National restrictions, formerly set at 40 stations, were eliminated altogether.
Not surprisingly, this green light set off a feeding frenzy. More than 4000 of the nation’s 10,000 or so commercial radio stations have changed hands since the bill’s passage. The combined price tag: a whopping $25 billion, or slightly more than this year’s federal budget deficit.
The consolidation of Boston’s stations came mainly in two big gulps. The first took place in June 1996, when Westinghouse Electric Company, owner of CBS Radio, purchased Infinity Broadcasting for $3.9 billion, creating a nationwide chain of 82 stations. The second came this past September, when Westinghouse bought out American Radio Systems for $2.6 billion. After the merger is complete, Westinghouse will be the nation’s radio powerhouse. Chancellor Media will have more stations, but Westinghouse/CBS will have more listeners at any given moment. (See “Monopoly Pieces” for an explanation of how listenership is measured.)
As a result, Westinghouse/Infinity and ARS control 10 Boston stations, accounting for some 70 percent of the radio advertising market. Under US Department of Justice antitrust guidelines, Westinghouse will have to sell or trade stations to get that figure down to 40 percent before the sale wins final approval, probably in early 1998. That will still make Westinghouse the big bully on the block. And that bully has the potential to flex its muscle more in the years to come because once it scales back to 40 percent, there is no cap on future ad-sales growth. Continue reading “How we got here: A look back at how commercial radio in Boston was destroyed”→
On Thursday came the sad news that the comedian and writer Barry Crimmins, who virtually invented Boston’s comedy scene, had died at the age of 64. Barry was a man of several careers. Among other things, he was an activist against child sexual abuse and a towering figure at The Boston Phoenix, which is how I got to know him.
Barry was one of the most thoroughly decent human beings I have ever met. We were all hoping that Bobcat Goldthwait’s 2015 documentary “Call Me Lucky” would relaunch his career. Unfortunately, it never really happened. Barry announced in January that he had terminal cancer. His wife, Helen Crimmins, is also ill.
Jim Sullivan writes about Barry’s legacy for The Artery at WBUR.org. At the time of its release I wrote about “Call Me Lucky” for WGBH News. Barry will be hugely missed. Wherever he is today, I hope he is given what he publicly asked for so many times: excommunication from the Catholic Church, whose leadership he detested for its role in covering up the crimes of pedophile priests.
Hey, hey whaddya say, excommunicate me today! @Pontifex
My friend Donna Halper has a great suggestion for how Boston can help bridge the racial divide that continues to define our city and region: bring back local radio that serves the African-American community. The Boston Globe today follows up its recent Spotlight Team series on race, “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.,” with some ideas from its readers. (And kudos to the Globe for dropping the paywall.) Here is what Halper, a Lesley University professor and longtime radio consultant, has to say:
A professor said that Boston’s media landscape may suffer from the lack of a prominent local radio station that’s black-owned. Boston used to have a station owned by black community members, WILD, but under new corporate ownership it stopped focusing on African-American issues a number of years ago.
“In most cities with a sizable black population, there have been local radio stations around which the community could rally,” wrote Donna L. Halper, an associate professor at Lesley University. “These stations were not just about playing the hits; they were a focus of information and news that the so-called ‘mainstream’ stations didn’t usually address.”
Black-owned media, such as the Bay State Banner newspaper, have had trouble generating significant advertising support, she said, and “a thriving black media would go a long way towards making the black community feel as if its story is being told.
“Relying on the ‘mainstream’ media often means the only time stories of your neighborhood get told is when crimes are committed,” Halper said. “White Bostonians have long held inaccurate ideas about black Bostonians because more often than not, the only stories widely reported depicted danger and criminality.”
(Note: In 1997, during my Boston Phoenix days, I wrote about WILD’s struggle to survive as an independent radio station in the face of corporate consolidation unleashed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.)
Now, if I were reading Halper’s comments and wanted to follow up, the first person I’d talk with is Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news operation that is still thriving after 12 years. When I was writing about the Independent for my book “The Wired City,” the Independent had a mostly white reporting staff to cover a city with a large African-American community. They did a good job, but it wasn’t ideal.
The Independent’s staff is more diverse today. Even more important, though, is that in 2015 Bass launched a nonprofit low-power FM radio station, WNHH, which also broadcasts online. Rather than writing stories for New Haven’s communities of color, members of those communities have come inside to host programs and tell their own stories. It has proved to be a real boon to New Haven. And though it would be hard to replicate something like that in a city as large as Boston, there surely must be ways to adapt what Bass is doing.
More: Of course Touch 106.1 FM is already providing a valuable service in Boston — but without an FCC license. The city needs a community radio station that can operate legally and can thus enjoy a higher profile and more influence. Also popping up in the Facebook comments: Zumix, a youth-oriented bilingual LPFM and online station in East Boston.
If I had a nickel for every time someone predicted the death of the Boston Herald over the past 25 years, I would have — well, many nickels. So I see last week’s announcement by Herald owner Pat Purcell that he plans to sell his paper to GateHouse Media as just one more bump in what has been an exceedingly bumpy road.
GateHouse, a national chain that owns more than 100 community weeklies and dailies in Eastern Massachusetts and environs, has given little indication of what it intends to do with the city’s number two paper. First the Herald has to go through bankruptcy, and though it’s likely GateHouse will end up with the tabloid, there is no guarantee.
What we do know is that a GateHouse-owned Herald will be smaller. Preliminary reports suggest that the staff will be cut from 240 to 175 across all departments. That is going to have a huge impact on the Herald’s newsgathering capacity, as the newsroom accounts for about half of that 240. On the other hand, a daily newspaper with 175 employees should still be able to do good work and provide at least some competition to The Boston Globe.
Twelve years ago, as The Boston Phoenix’s media columnist, I offered five suggestions for how the Herald could improve and build a more sustainable business. With the Herald changing ownership for the first time since 1994, when Purcell bought it from his mentor Rupert Murdoch, I thought I’d take a look at what I had to say in 2005 and see whether any of it is relevant today.
1. Get smart. This is probably the single most important step that GateHouse could take in trying to appeal to new readers. More than 20 years ago, a journalist who had left the paper told me something he’d once said to Purcell. It went approximately like this: You’ve already got all the stupid readers, Pat. You need to find a few smart ones as well.
Unfortunately, Purcell never really took that advice. From the mid-1990s until the early 2000s, the Herald thrived on the strength of strong local news coverage, an aggressive business section, an excellent sports section, and good photography. But as the economics of newspapering began to crater, the Herald embraced a flash-and-trash approach while continuing to get smaller.
In recent years, under editor Joe Sciacca, the sensationalism has been toned down considerably, and the daily report is solid if shrunken. But the goal seemed to be to hang onto the paper’s shrinking pool of existing readers rather than try to cultivate, say, the young workers in Boston’s growing innovation economy — many of whom may not be as liberal on economic issues as the Globe thinks they are and who would thus be open to an alternative.
2. Upgrade the look. Twelve years ago I wrote: “Newcomers to Boston no doubt are perplexed when they hear old-timers refer to the Herald as ‘the Record.’ That’s a reference to the Record American, a Hearst-owned tabloid from a bygone era that, along with several other papers, eventually morphed into the modern Herald. Trouble is, the Herald really does look like the Record, if the Record could be exhumed, updated a bit, and printed in color.”
Unfortunately, nothing has changed. Today, as I did then, I would recommend a makeover along the lines of (for instance) the Boston Business Journal, an attractive tabloid that takes a more restrained approach. The old urban tab look is perfect if you’re looking for something to fold up and take with you to Suffolk Downs — provided you’re going to the horse races. Now the city hopes the Suffolk Downs property will become Amazon’s second headquarters. GateHouse ought to be thinking about how to design a Herald that will appeal to the sort of young, highly educated folks who would work there — a sizable group even if Amazon ultimately picks another city.
3. Turn right. Despite the Herald’s reputation as a bastion of right-wing Trumpery, the paper’s editorial pages have long been rather staid and moderate. The right-wing reputation comes from a few of its news columnists, especially Howie Carr, who’s long since slid into self-parody; Joe Fitzgerald, a former sportswriter who traffics in snoozy social conservatism; and Adriana Cohen, who recycles seemingly every talking point from Fox News, including the network’s outrageous attacks on the FBI.
The opinion pages, on the other hand, carry respectable syndicated conservatives like Jonah Goldberg, George Will, and Michael Gerson, as well as local voices like freelancer Jim Sullivan, who rarely writes about politics. What would help is if editorial-page editor Shelly Cohen recruited some young, smart, conservative local columnists. Surely there’s some recent college graduate out there who wants to be the next Ben Shapiro or Tomi Lahren who’d be willing to work for a low salary and a shot at Twitter immortality. Unfortunately for the Herald, now as then, the best conservative columnist in Boston is Jeff Jacoby — a Herald alumnus who left the paper for the Globe many years ago.
4. Dump the website. I first made this recommendation on the grounds that the Herald simply didn’t translate well online — it was a quick read that people flip through on the subway or at Dunkin’ Donuts just before they go to work. Today’s smaller Herald is an even quicker read. Besides, the Herald’s website is not exactly a joy to navigate, though its mobile app is decent.
What I hadn’t anticipated 12 years ago was that the Herald would launch an internet radio station that has become an integral part of the paper’s identity. The problem is that it is essentially an old-fashioned conservative talk station, and people listen to talk radio in their cars, most of which are not especially well suited to streaming audio. But it has been a worthwhile experiment, and GateHouse should continue with it.
5. Live free or die? Purcell never wanted to take this step, though there was some buzz that he might when the free commuter tab Metro first came to Boston. I thought a free Herald could make sense; certainly it’s a better read than the Metro. Moreover, the Herald relies on point-of-purchase sales, and there are simply fewer places to buy newspapers than there used to be.
The trend in newspapers these days is to charge as much as the market will bear, either in print or online. Persuading readers to pay for journalism is essential given the collapse of digital advertising (for anyone other than Facebook and Google) and the ongoing decline of print advertising. But what little advertising value remains in newspapers is all on the print side. And if GateHouse can cut expenses enough (probably the one thing the compay is really, really good at), it might be able to turn a profit with a free Herald.
Last week’s announcement that the Herald would be sold was good news in the sense that Boston will continue to have two daily papers. But it’s sad, too, because a lot of people will be losing their jobs, and the likelihood is that the Herald is going to offer less. “More newspapers mean more coverage,” wrote Herald sports columnist Steve Buckley over the weekend. “More newspapers mean more opinions. And listen up, Globe: More newspapers mean more hustle. If we lose the Herald, the Globe will lose something as well.”