Sunday, March 12, 2017

Media: Thank You Imagination Theatre

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This is the one thousandth post to this blog.  The looming significance of such a milestone was a significant factor in the decrease in entries to this space--I wanted to find something significant to mark the event.  In the end, it was obvious--something else that had reached and surpassed a much more significant one thousand milestone--Jim French's "Imagination Theatre."

Way back in 1990, as the CBS Radio Network once more cancelled the distribution of its "Radio Mystery Theater" series (which had stopped recording new episodes in 1982), KIRO radio in Seattle wanted something to replace the series, which remained very popular in the Pacific Northwest.  Management didn't need to look very far.  They had on staff as their late morning "Midday" host someone who had been doing radio dramas since 1965, Jim French.

Before long, the "KIRO Mystery Playhouse" was born, producing both new radio dramas and re-playing classic episodes from French's earlier work on KIRO and KVI, including series like "Crisis" and "Dameron."  Even early in his career, French had the foresight to retain the rights to these works, so rather than being lost in station archives, he could bring them back for further broadcast at his discretion.  As time went on and the radio landscape changed, the show would shift to sister station KNWX in 1999 and away from the then-Entercom cluster to KIXI in 2003.  Most importantly, though, it had been picked up in syndication in 1996 by Transmedia as "Imagination Theatre."  French felt this was a much more descriptive name, as what the shows were doing was engaging the listener's imaginations, not necessarily solving a mystery.  Transmedia and Jim French Productions amicably parted ways in 2006, and Jim French Productions would handle syndication for the remainder of the show's run.

Syndication brought "Imagination Theatre" not only to hundreds of stations and satellite radio across the United States over the years, but to other English-speaking nations, foremost Australia and Canada.  Internet distribution would bring it to the entire world.  What had once been a Seattle phenomenon perhaps also experienced in places like Alaska where KIRO could be heard at night grew to attract attention from radio enthusiasts all over the planet.  French secured the rights to record classic and original "Sherlock Holmes" dramas, and this brought attention from British writers who would contribute to other series airing on "Imagination Theatre."  Live tapings, which initially occurred at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle, Washington, moved to the Kirkland Performance Center in Kirkland, Washington in 1999 and continued on an approximately monthly basis.

These radio dramas were one of the reasons I became interested in radio.  In my teenage years, I would go out of my way to be at a radio that could receive KIRO 710 AM at 9 pm on weekend evenings.  I was able to catch a live taping of the "KIRO Mystery Playhouse" at MOHAI in 1992, and would enjoy an "Imagination Theatre" taping in Kirkland in 2006.  The familiar voices from Seattle radio that acted in various dramas created a link to my childhood, never mind the setting of many of the Harry Nile detective stories in a post-World War II Seattle.

While series as diverse as "Kerides, the Thinker" set in ancient Egypt, "Raffles, the Gentlemen Thief" set in Victorian England, and "Kincaid, the Strange Seeker" set in contemporary America appeared regularly on "Imagination Theatre," arguably the most iconic series was "The Adventures of Harry Nile."  Regular listeners know the entire history of the character, from his time in Chicago as a policeman and his interracial marriage, to his time in Los Angeles where he would meet his partner Murphy and have many adventures during World War II, to his time in Seattle.  Originally started as a KVI series in 1976 with haunting theme music by David Shire, "The Adventures of Harry Nile" featured Phil Harper as Harry Nile and Pat French, Jim's wife, as his partner Murphy.  (Murphy's first name, mentioned in only one episode in the entire series, would become a marker of devoted fans--if you knew Murphy's first name, you were in the club.)  After Harper's death in 2004, Jim French's right-hand man, Larry Albert, would take over.  Mary Anne Dorward would start voicing Murphy in 2011, leading to one of many inside jokes on the show as her first appearance was marked by Harry saying "You sound different."  "The Adventures of Harry Nile" was so preeminent in the "Imagination Theatre" world that its web site was promoted as "harrynile.com" rather than "jimfrenchproductions.com".

Pat French's retirement was a warning that all good things do not last forever.  Jim French's health began to decline, and it was announced that the January 30th, 2017 taping at the Kirkland Performance Center would be the last live taping.  At the taping, it was announced that the last new broadcast would air at the end of February, and Jim French Productions would close for good at the end of March.

The final episode could be nothing other than a final episode of "The Adventures of Harry Nile" and the ending could only be the outcome that some fans had been waiting forty-one years to hear--even longer than the fictional Murphy had been waiting.

So, in this one-thousandth blog entry, I thank Jim French and his many associates for 1,093 official weeks of "Imagination Theatre," and in reality many more hours of quality broadcasting over the years.  As E.G. Marshall would say at the end of each "Mystery Theater," may you have "pleasant dreams" forever.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Culture: New Haven is Most Typical? Yikes

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The number geniuses on Nate Silver's staff at FiveThirtyEight.com have come to the conclusion that New Haven, Connecticut has demographics most like the United States as a whole. While this may come as a relief to those who disagreed with the long-standing contention that "real America" was a rural town with no racial (or any other, save maybe age) diversity, it may be a bit scary for other reasons.

In a strange quirk of assignment, I was assigned a customer just outside of New Haven, Connecticut from mid-2011 to mid-2013, and traveled there quite frequently.  While my work trips there have become infrequent, because of friends in the region and the world-renowned restaurants on Wooster Street, I have actually been passing through New Haven fairly regularly for this entire century, through to present day.  While I do not have the familiarity of a local resident, I feel like I have a decent sense of the city.

New Haven certainly punches above its weight in education (Yale University being most prominent), in art and museums (the Peabody Museum of Natural History besides Yale-related museums), in Italian food (not just on the aforementioned Wooster Street), and even in soft drinks (Foxon Park beverages is located in nearby North Haven).  What it has come to be most known for, however, is its crime rate.  Take your pick of surveys, New Haven shows up with a violent crime rate in the highest 5-10% of the country (a fast web search showed this one with a highest 6% ranking).

As a visitor, this was not immediately obvious besides the presence of the large police station between the main train station and downtown, but the reality hit home once when I was trying to get to New Haven on a service call in September 2012.  My flight to New Haven's diminutive Tweed Airport had been canceled, and the only way I was going to get there was to take a flight to Hartford, Connecticut and drive.  (Canceled flights at Tweed are a common occurrence, to the point that I would eventually take to flying or taking a bus to New York City and taking the train or driving from there.)

On the replacement flight to Hartford, I happened to be seated next to a law student from Yale University.  A physically small woman of Latina descent from the central valley of California, she was even more upset with the situation than I was and we had a running conversation that ventured into living in New Haven.  She made it very clear that as a short, minority female, she did not feel safe walking around downtown New Haven after dark--and this is someone who described confidently walking around parts of Fresno and Los Angeles that would give me pause.  She was strongly looking forward to graduation and vowed that she was unlikely to ever to return to New Haven afterward because of the safety factor.

Considering that one of the purposes of looking at the demographics was to discredit the conservative rhetoric about "real America," holding up New Haven as the actual standard seems to play right into other aspects of their argument.  One can just imagine the current Republican presidential nominee go off about "if the country is turning in to New Haven, just think of how unsafe it is going to be."   Never mind that it would be a specious correlation--this whole conversation started because of an investigation into a statistically-invalid contention about what constituted "average" or "real" America.

Of course, my mind also went somewhere else in contemplating New Haven as "real America."  Does this mean the rest of the nation is going to get better pizza?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Culture: Shirley Temple Black and a Life Lesson

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The death of Shirley Temple Black yesterday at the age of 85 reminded me that she played a role in teaching me a life lesson that not everyone has the opportunity to learn, but that everyone should.

As an undergraduate, I was assigned to a dormitory focused on International Relations for my senior year.  This assignment meant that I had the opportunity to attend various diplomatic events that occurred on campus if I managed to win a draw amongst my dormmates.  In the fall of 1996, I found out that I had been invited to a dinner on campus at which a variety of political dignitaries from around the world would be appearing.  I would be seated at a table with German politician Helmut Schmidt.

I knew a lot less about Germany then than I do today--at the time, I had never been to Europe--and while I knew a lot about Helmut Kohl, then the Chancellor, I had only a vague awareness of Schmidt's career and how he left parliament.  Being an active and friendly dorm, the group of us that would be dining with Schmidt, mostly actual International Relations (IR) majors, met and discussed what we might talk about.  While I figured the IR folks would drive the conversation, after that meeting I at least felt like I wouldn't interject anything embarrassing.

Sometime between that meeting and the day of the event, I had a conversation with a friend who lived elsewhere on campus.  She seemed rather amused by the care being taken to debrief people attending the dinner and my trepidations about the event.  "All these people are just human beings, you know," she said to me, "They really are no different than you or me.  You don't need to be in awe of them."

On the day of the event, we found out that Helmut Schmidt had changed his schedule and would no longer be attending the dinner.  Instead, we would be seated with retired diplomat Shirley Temple Black.  I knew even less about the one-time child star than I had known about Schmidt, and about all anyone knew was that she had been ambassador to Czechoslovakia as that nation had been breaking up earlier in the decade, leaving that post in 1992.  With a packed class schedule that day, I wasn't going to find out much more.  I figured I'd just keep quiet at the table and let others that knew more about central Europe talk.

The atmosphere itself in the dining hall lent itself to be intimidating.  When the dignitaries entered the room, it just happened that Indiana senator Richard Lugar, then about two decades in to what would prove to be thirty-six years in the Senate, was seated directly in my field of view at an adjacent table.  He definitely had a classic politician's larger-than-life presence, and it was a distraction to have this charismatic man I had previously only seen on television never far from my sight.

Meanwhile, what happened at my own table was completely different than I could have ever predicted.  Early in the dinner, someone else asked Temple Black what media she consumed.  One of the first things she mentioned was listening to talk radio on local station KGO, and she actually asked if anyone else listened to that station.  I was the only one at the table that did, and Temple Black and I soon entered into a discussion of our favorite talk show hosts and the validity of some of the political opinions expressed by then-overnight weekend host Bill Wattenburg, including such topics such as the methyl tert-butyl ether additive in gasoline.  With my chemistry background, I had more to say about that than any else at the table.  I forget which of us turned the conversation back to media in an attempt to draw more people back in to the conversation (likely Temple Black), but then it proved that I was the only regular reader of the Christian Science Monitor at the table and once more it was a one-on-one conversation.  I could see the IR majors just watching in wonder at how this guy they rarely talked to was connecting better with a real diplomat than they were managing to do.  The whole episode was surreal, and really only ended with the beginning of the keynote speech for the evening.

Normally, when telling this story, I emphasize that according to just about any Myers-Briggs personality source out there, Shirley Temple Black was classified as an "INFJ" personality--the same as me.  Since "INFJ"'s are supposedly rare, these sources pretty much always list the same celebrities, so Temple Black is invariably there.  This incident could be a classic example of "INFJ"'s bonding, which does seem to happen in life.  Undoubtedly, common personality traits did lead to common interests and lifestyle choices that created my near-personal conversation with Temple Black.

Yet, that's not really the life lesson that I took away from the dinner.  Instead, it was that my friend was right--famous and public figures are human beings, no less likely to be someone that one can have a meaningful conversation with than a random person on the street.  Since meeting Temple Black,  I have met all kinds of potentially-intimidating figures from world-renowned scientists to a key figure in the steam railroad preservation movement to a 21-year old CEO.  I was able to have a conversation with each of them.

Not everyone is so privileged in life as to have met Shirley Temple Black.  Everyone, however, should understand that even famous people are fundamentally human beings.  Thanks to my friend and Shirley Temple Black, I learned that lesson.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Radio Pick: Brian Copeland On Race

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict in Florida, KGO-San Francisco's Brian Copeland produced a compelling hour of radio telling personal stories about being a black man in California:

Listen to mp3 of KGO - Brian Copeland on Race

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Media: Facts Declared Dead

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke has been receiving a lot of publicity from a recent column in the form of an obituary for the concept of facts. Sadly, Huppke has a point.

Once upon a time, the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's quote about facts was the last word on the subject. "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Huppke implicitly points out that this is no longer regarded as true; paradoxically, the existence of facts is no longer regarded as a fact, or an empirically-derivable reality. Now, reality is based on beliefs or ideology, and demonstrable truths take a back seat. NPR's piece on the Huppke editorial cites Stephen Colbert's concept of "truthiness" as a replacement for facts, but whatever we call it, it's not the same bedrock for life of my youth.

The truly amazing part of this transition is that, while people all over the political spectrum in the United States are to blame for advancing the deprecation of facts, most of the big blows have come from political conservatives. Once upon a time, I seem to recall conservatives accusing liberals of having a relative world view in which there was no absolute truth. They thought their world view was based on immutable things, while the liberal had no grounding because their beliefs shifted based on circumstances. Granted, it wasn't "facts" but "truths" usually cited by conservatives, implying belief over provability, but in abandoning the concept of demonstrable facts, the conservatives that have made up facts have shown that they are just as relative in their reality as they had accused liberals of being. In fact, they have rather proven the liberals' point that one's perspective on the world is relative--if we can't agree on demonstrable facts, then clearly one's perspective and life experience does matter, which is what the liberals have been saying all along.

Leave it to me to put a personality spin on the whole situation--one of the reasons that facts can be declared dead in the United States is that it's a fundamentally emotional-world society. (I've argued that people in the United States don't care about the truth before.) In a balanced society, the logic of the spiritual world would fight back with a defense of facts. But, the spiritual world is so irrelevant in most contexts in the United States that it has no ability to fight back.

Ironically, the only thing that will bring facts back to their former status in the United States is for a campaign on their behalf to arise. Stephen Colbert has done his part, but until there are a critical mass of people who can sell the concept of facts, Rex Huppke's editorial may continue to ring true, and that's sad.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Media: Goodbye, KGO Newstalk 810

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There have been a lot of events in the past year or so since I ceased blogging regularly that should have brought me back to the keyboard for the hour that it normally takes to write a standard entry. Considering that this blog started with the 2008 Federal Election in Canada, it was especially hard to sit out the 2011 election, but my present employment had me in California for virtually the entire campaign, and besides time pressure, I did not wish to be commenting from a distance. There have been plenty of special events that I have attended, not just in my beloved Toronto but around the North American continent that warranted coverage, from a Maritime Festival in Seattle to scientific symposia in Montreal. There have been plenty of developments in United States politics on which I could offer a personality perspective that might be of value. There have been deaths, from Roger Abbott to Steve Jobs to Osama Bin Laden to Andy Rooney that I could have commented on. Yet, in the end, what has driven me back is the end of radio station KGO as we knew it.

It's not like those in the industry, or even observers like me, didn't see this coming. I've written about changes at this iconic radio station multiple times as the handwriting on the wall became more and more indelible, perhaps most strongly back in 2010 when Mickey Luckoff resigned. Yet, just because it isn't a surprise--the recent change in ownership to Cumulus meant it was only a matter of time--doesn't make it any less remarkable. As of Thursday, KGO ceased to be "Newstalk 810". It fired the majority of its talk show hosts (leaving only Ronn Owens on weekdays) and is now heading toward a news-based format with the new slogan, "The Bay Area's News and Information Station."

While it may not have technically been the first all-talk radio station, when KGO adopted a talk format in 1962--yes, that's right, almost 60 years ago--it was a pioneer that would change the industry. It came to not only dominate ratings in its home market of the San Francisco Bay Area, but to be a model for stations across the country, and it had remained a leader, really right up until now. While I had been introduced to the talk format on local stations in Seattle as a youth, it was tuning in KGO at night that caused me to really appreciate the potential of the format to inform and entertain concurrently and really justify radio listening as a background activity while doing other things.

In fact, it's not saying too much to say that KGO, along with other quality stations in the market such as KCBS and KQED, was a big factor in convincing me that I should go to college in the Bay Area, setting me on the life course that I am on now. Any area that could support such a good radio station and have such good callers to talk shows must have a population that was worth living amongst (a logic that I would later apply to Boston and the whole nation of Canada as part of my calculus in later moves as well, something that will never be repeated now).

While since leaving the Bay Area, my KGO listening over the Internet has been reduced to God Talk with Brent Walters and Brian Copeland on Sundays (which, ironically, continue onward--but nobody assumes they will survive the changes for long), there is no question that KGO has been part of my life since I was a youth. The end of KGO as a talk station means the end of what will stand as a significant era in my life, no matter how much longer I live.

Over on my web page about what makes a good radio station, after the 2010 update, KGO was the only talk radio station I felt was worth mentioning anymore. Now, there are none. There is no commercial talk radio station I find generally worth listening to anymore, anywhere in the world. Sure, there are individual programs out there, mostly on public radio, but no station cultivating quality talk programming as part of its identity. The genre of radio that once dominated my listening habits is gone, completely gone.

I will not argue that KGO had not become somewhat stale. It was easy to parody many of the hosts on their schedule (especially John Rothmann's penchant for political connections, Ray Taliaferro's mannerisms, and Dr. Bill Wattenburg's technological fixations). Their ratings had been falling for reasons besides new ratings technology. But, I would contend that the formula for making a great radio station has not changed. I happened to write my essay on the topic in 1998, but it could have been written in 1958, 1978, or now.

Instead, KGO's new owners want to take on market leader KCBS in news. It's folly. As much as I admire the San Francisco market, there's no way any new contender is going to beat out not just KCBS (which is on AM and FM these days) but also KQED, KALW, and KPFA on the public radio spectrum, where more and more people are tuning for news. In particular, they're not going to accomplish it on the limited budget that Cumulus will devote to the process. Making good radio costs money, partially for talent but also for operations, and owners don't want to hear that anymore. Instead, it's a race to reduce costs, leaving no product of any value. Some believe that KGO may fail so badly with an all-news format that its 50,000 watt signal may end up doing brokered foreign-language programming before long.

The argument has been made that what I would consider good radio isn't supported by markets. It is difficult to explain the health of public radio in light of that argument--more and more public radio stations are garnering ratings that would make commercial stations drool, and they find ways to raise money to pay for the programming that is accomplishing that. No, instead what we have is an oddly distorted market in which demand is very elastic and the suppliers can't seem to understand how the quality of their product impacts the demand curve--made all the more complicated by the fact that the customers are advertisers, not the audience immediately served by the product.

The commercial radio industry is broken, like many things in the United States. The end of KGO as a newstalk station demonstrates just how far it has fallen. I believe it is an unnecessary shame, and I will miss Newstalk 810.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Language: End of Day

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Once upon a time, I was one of the plethora of readers of William Safire's "On Language" column in the New York Times. Since the end of that column, its place in my ongoing language education has been taken by the Verbal Energy column from Ruth Walker in the Christian Science Monitor, a column cited in this blog before.

Walker has now delved into one of my other favorite things, radio, to create what may be
my favorite Verbal Energy column of all time. I'll sign off now.