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.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Culture: Song of 2011?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Will this stand as the symbolic song of 2011 when we look back upon it? (Yes, we will look back upon it...)

Rooster Teeth's Doomsday

...and if you don't get the joke, refer to:

Rebecca Black's Friday


Brent Walters' interview of Harold Camping on KGO's God Talk

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dining: Began's Classic Italian Pizza

Began's Classic Italian Pizza is hidden away in a strip mall in Tempe, Arizona, as observed on 15-January-2011

TEMPE, ARIZONA - While I can get excited about world-renowned pizza restaurants like New Haven, Connecticut's Pepe's and Sally's, I really appreciate trying out lesser-known establishments and finding surprisingly good pizza. When I received a tip that such a pizzeria might exist in suburban Phoenix, Arizona--which some classify as better than Pizzeria Bianco reviewed last year--it made my agenda for my next visit to the Copper State.

Began's Classic Italian Pizza is well-hidden in Tempe, Arizona. If my "brother" cousin had not known where it was, I might have had trouble finding it--while it has a Baseline Road address, it is not visible from that street, nor it is readily seen from the other streets surrounding the strip mall east of Rural Road where it is located. It seems symbolic--you're not going to find out about this place from world pizza guides; knowledge has to come by word-of-mouth.

Unlike Bianco or the New Haven establishments, there is often not much of a wait for tables at Classic Italian Pizza. While we had reservations, we didn't observe people waiting very long for a table, especially if they were willing to sit outside, which even in January is a comfortable prospect in this part of Arizona. That doesn't mean that one doesn't wait, however. After placing our order, it was over ninety minutes before the pizza was served. That might be acceptable for a special social event, but with young children, it was almost intolerable. Frankly, waiting outside where the youngsters could run around was actually a better experience.

Plain cheese, Diavola, and Cappricciosa pizza slices from Began's Classic Italian Pizza were observed on 15-January-2011

Our order included a plain cheese pizza (er, Margherita holding the basil), the classic Diavola with sausage, pepperoni, red peppers, and jalapenos, and a Cappricciosa with ham, salami, mushrooms, tomatoes, black olives, and artichokes amongst other vegetables. The ingredient quality on the toppings was second-to-none, and I was especially impressed with the sauce, which might be the best tomato pizza sauce I've ever experienced in the world. However, the crust, while clearly baked in the wood-fired oven and of far above average quality, did not stack up to the best of the New Haven restaurants, not being remarkable in taste or texture, and soggier than it needed to be at the very center of the pizza.

Still, Began's Classic Italian Pizza is a gem of a restaurant. If you don't mind waiting for a quality pizza, it's a better experience than its more famous downtown Phoenix competitor, and even if it isn't the best pizza in the world, it is clearly top-echelon and the best pizza in Tempe.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Culture: Good Times at the Farm

Students played Ultimate Frisbee at Roble Field on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California on 9-January-2011

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA - It's not immediately obvious walking around campus on a Sunday afternoon, as I did last weekend, but it's a good time to be on the Stanford University campus, colloquially known as "The Farm." A smaller number of students than I typically remember was playing Ultimate Frisbee on Roble Field, and the path around the former Lake Lagunita was nearly empty, but there was a certain vibe on campus that was undeniable.

The reason was obvious only when heading to the upstairs area in the Stanford Bookstore where athletic gear was sold. The mood had started to become super-enthusiastic when the Stanford women's basketball team defeated the University of Connecticut on 30-December-2010, ending the Huskies' record-setting 90-game winning streak. While the victory was at Maples Pavilion walking distance from here, it wasn't particularly close--71-59, and by all accounts, it felt better than that for the Cardinal. Interestingly, the last UConn loss had been to Stanford as well. Within days, the bookstore here had been stocked with t-shirts proclaiming "All Good Things Must Come to an End."

The biggest reason for the good mood, though, comes from the performance of football team. The Stanford team may have a long history, with its first Rose Bowl appearance in 1902, but for most of my life, it's been at best a mediocre team, overshadowed in the strong Pac-10 conference by contenders for the National Championship like the University of Southern California, the University of Washington, or this year, the University of Oregon. Their last Rose Bowl appearance was under coach Tyrone Willingham in 2000 (a loss); their last season ranked in the top 10 was 1992 under coach Bill Walsh.

This year, under coach Jim Harbaugh, the Cardinal (remember, that's the color) had its best season in terms of win-loss record since 1940, losing only to Oregon. I was amazed to see the team creeping up in the rankings, and ultimately qualifying for a Bowl Championship Series bowl, the Orange Bowl. On my second night back in the Bay Area, the game was played, and after listening on commercial radio for a time, I realized that I really should have been listening on Stanford's own radio station, KZSU at 90.1 FM. By that time, the outcome of the game was not in doubt, and the announcers had become somewhat casual. Stanford would win the Orange Bowl 40-12 over Virginia Tech, its first bowl victory since the 1996 Sun Bowl.

As students were just gathering on the Farm to start winter quarter, this was quite a way to begin a term. I can only imagine the celebrations in the main quad. Of course, it didn't take long for the Stanford bookstore to come up with Orange Bowl champion t-shirts--but by the time I was on campus about a week later, that would be the only tangible evidence of the accomplishment.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Culture: Gatherings at the Cathedral

The Trinity Cathedral in San Jose, California was observed prior to the Gathering at the Cathedral on 9-January-2011

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA - One of the real gems of commercial talk radio in the United States is God Talk, a Sunday morning show on KGO Newstalk 810 in San Francisco, California. Hosted by San Jose State professor Brent Walters, what has been for the past few months a one-hour show at 5 am (after decades of being a three-hour show) presents religious topics in their proper historical context, leading to the kind of insight that one usually only receives in a college lecture.

As a long-time listener to the program through KGO's Internet archive, I have been following the fate of this show as it was almost canceled in the past few months, as reported on this blog. When Walters announced that he would be holding an in-person "Gathering at the Cathedral" while I was planning to be in the Bay Area, I decided to make sure that I could attend.

Somewhere around fifty people gathered at Trinity Cathedral in downtown San Jose last Sunday at 5 pm. The somewhat diminutive 1861 building is simply gorgeous from an architectural perspective, and I probably could have spent time just taking in the stained glass and displays inside.

Brent Walters spoke to the audience at the Gathering at the Cathedral in San Jose's Trinity Cathedral on 9-January-2011

However, we were there for a lecture, and after a brief introduction from the Cathedral's Dean, the Very Reverend David Bird, Brent Walters went right to the topic of the day, the historical context of the Gospel of James. The lecture format worked much better than the radio show for getting complicated material across, as the questions remained relevant, there were no commercial breaks, and the visual slides helped keep focus on the matter at hand.

Furthermore, in a one-hour lecture context, Walters was able to get across material in a way that was much more effective to me. I had no idea of the symbolism of many Biblical names--that the same word was used for both Jacob and James, or for Joshua and Jesus, connecting them. Walters made a compelling case for the Book of James being the oldest Christian document that exists, being written by a brother of Jesus who would lead what was then a Jewish movement when he became an elder at age 40. The context of James considering himself a "slave," meaning that he was repaying the debt of the people, was clearly presented and served as a great case study to the kind of historical analysis that is Walters' bread and butter.

While the content of the evening was why we were there, the real treat for me was getting to see Brent Walters in person and meeting some of the rest of the God Talk audience, most of whom were locals but some of whom were from even farther away in England. Walters was clearly an experienced college lecturer, notable as he walked back and forth in front of the audience, and it was amusing to see his Dr. Pepper bottle next to his Apple computer during the talk. His analogy of Wisdom Literature to using Twitter, while possible to take too far, was something I found quite insightful.

Regardless of the fate of the radio show, the Gatherings at the Cathedral will continue monthly, on the first Sunday of each month. For more information, watch Brent Walters' God Talk web site or contact him directly at the e-mail addresses listed on that page.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Margin Notes: Rainbow Transport Egret

A PCC streetcar pulled onto Market Street near the Ferry Building in San Francisco, California on 3-January-2011

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA - It was like being in transportation mecca when minutes after I arrived in the state of California last week, I stepped off a BART rapid transit train and surfaced at the Embarcadero Station to find myself just steps from a cable car line, the Market Street streetcar line (pictured above), trolley and diesel buses, and the ferries to the north and east bay--and I wasn't far away from the Caltrain commuter rail station (which could have been reached via MUNI light rail). So what did I do? I hopped a bus across the bay to catch an Amtrak train, of course.

* * * * * *

The other thing that was rather mind-boggling to hear as I surfaced was the news that Jerry Brown was just being sworn in as the 39th governor of the Golden State (he had also been the 34th, from 1975 to 1983. It seems like yesterday (well, 1999-2007) that he was the mayor of Oakland, seemingly at first with no higher aspirations. Then, he was suddenly attorney general, and now a hopefully very mature governor--I agree with Mark Shields that his inaugural speech set a very realistic and constructive tone. The question is whether legislators in Sacramento from both parties will be equally sober in facing the state's incredible problems.

* * * * * *

Construction on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge was progressing along as viewed from the old bridge on 3-January-2011

Coverage of the Brown inaugural was playing on the radio as the bus crossed the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. The new cable-stay eastern span is coming along as seen above--the portions of the bridge that are complete appear to have signs posted and lighting fully completed just a few feet from the current end of the structure, which is a bit different to see.

* * * * * *

A Great White Egret was found in the drainage area outside the W Hotel in Newark, California on 4-January-2011

I had decided to take an Amtrak ride after landing for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that I was not expecting another chance this week. I chose to go as far as Modesto and then return, creating about a 200-mile round trip including scenery through the Delta to Stockton that I had not seen in more than twelve years. The wildlife in that portion was disappointing, but a Great White Egret was noted along San Pablo Bay. I thought that was pretty neat--until I noted a Great White Egret just outside my hotel's parking lot the next morning.

* * * * * *

That hotel that my new company's travel agent had booked me into was a W Hotel in Newark, California. I don't care what owner Starwood thinks; this new chain is nearly as weird as Virgin America airlines. Techno music plays in the common areas, the lighting is all muted and colored, and the rooms clearly favor form over function. It was rather a relief to move to a Quality Inn.

* * * * * *

A circular rainbow was noted outside a plane to San Francisco, California on 3-January-2011

I suppose I should have been in a psychedelic mood after seeing a circular rainbow during my flight westward. The above photo shows the double rainbow around what was apparently the shadow of the plane at the center of the rainbow, a rather fun phenomena to observe in the air.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Photos: Holidays in the Pacific Northwest, 2010

One of the many scenes at the Garden d'Lights in Bellevue, Washington was observed on 22-December-2010

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA - This week's update to my photo site features holiday displays from the Pacific Northwest. The Garden d'Lights in Bellevue, Washington was observed on 22-December-2010, and Winterfest at the Center House in Seattle, Washington was visited on 27-December-2010.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Culture: The New Year's Run

The two miniature trains operated by the Toronto Railway Historical Association on New Year's Day were side-by-side near Don Station in Toronto, Ontario on 1-January-2011

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The first real run of the miniature railway in Toronto, Ontario's Roundhouse Park took place on 1-January-2010. With a tradition thus established, the Toronto Railway Historical Association that runs the miniature railway decided to run again on New Year's Day this year.

The "Romulus" miniature steam locomotive pulled some of the passengers from the public past the turntable with full-size equipment at the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre on 1-January-2011

The weather was not so cooperative for the second annual event. It rained most of the day, rather steadily during the entire time the miniature railway was operating from about noon to 3 PM. Still, there were people wandering through the park even on a rainy day, and they were treated, if desired, to a free ride on the half-kilometer loop.

Arno Martens had just thrown the switch in the rain to permit Michael Guy running the "Romulus" steam locomotive to take the appropriate track into Don Station in Toronto, Ontario on 1-January-2011

One of the purposes of the event was to test recent changes to the "Romulus" miniature steam locomotive. The locomotive was found to be in good running order, and carried a number of passengers until a new coal supply was tested and was found to be inadequate for steam locomotive boilers, ending that testing for the day.

It might seem silly in the rain, but steam locomotives need water in their tenders to operate, and Arno Martens handled the topping up of the "Romulus" on 1-January-2011

This was also the first run day for the new trackage at the junction between the wye to the maintenance depot and the station sidings. The new configuration felt much better to me as a rider, and the new flexibility proved itself when the decision was made to back the steam train from the inside station track to the depot, which would not have been possible under the old layout.

Most of the group from the Toronto Railway Historical Association that operated the miniature railway was captured on 1-January-2011

With the successful testing completed, the Toronto Railway Historical Association will return to its restoration work for the balance of the winter; the miniature railway is not expected to operate again until the spring.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Radio Pick: Capitol Steps

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from the Capitol Steps. While it gets off to a rather slow start, the quarterly satire show from the Capitol Steps this New Year's is worth sticking out, with a George W. Bush parody of "Feelings," the "Queen Berets," a speech from Joe Biden, a dating service for Al Gore, and of course some new amazing phrases in the Lirty Dies segment leading to a very entertaining 58-minute show.

Listen to MP3 of the Capitol Steps "Politics Takes a Holiday"

Transport: New Year's On a Train

Wilson Lau, Dan Garcia, Michael Guy, and Arno Martens of the Toronto Railway Historical Association posed in front of the GO Transit locomotive that carried them to Oshawa, Ontario on 31-December-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Yesterday, GO Transit offered free service on its commuter trains after 19:00 to discourage drunk driving on New Year's Eve. A group from the Toronto Railway Historical Association decided to take advantage of the policy to mark the turn of the year on-board a Lakeshore East GO Train.

This wasn't the first time I had celebrated the New Year aboard a train. As 2006 turned to 2007, I was aboard VIA Rail Canada's "Canadian" eastbound across northern Ontario. As the "Canadian" is a first-class train (at least in the sleeper section), that was a real celebration, with champagne served as the train rolled through the darkness of the Canadian Shield.

Last night, our group of five people from the TRHA had to develop our own celebration. A vice president brought spanakopita and various other finger foods, another brought homemade cookies, and there was plenty of chocolate to go around. We caught train #934, departing Union Station at 22:13 for Oshawa, Ontario.

Wilson Lau, Dan Garcia and Michael Guy enjoyed a New Year's Eve aboard a GO Transit train to Oshawa, Ontario on 31-December-2010

On the return trip on board train #939, between Pickering and Rouge Hill, Service Manager Louise gave a countdown to the New Year over the Public Address system (which was accurate according to my GPS receiver). Some fireworks were noted in the distance a few minutes later. It may not have been champagne on the "Canadian," but it was a different way to bring in the New Year.