Saturday, November 26, 2011

Charlie and Nance

I still have a soggy spot in my mundane gratitudes for the U.S. snail mail. I know it's calcified from indifference to credit card offers and the bottomless feeding pile of bulk needfulness. But I also know that we have ourselves to blame for contaminating our timelessness pleasures with our get-it-done-yesterdays. Postcards and letters are not unforgiving of the dues payments and receipts that inspire their send off. What could be more lame than a belated e-card? Starting blocks everybody. The fact that the most important American holiday carries no commercial implication makes us more fidgety than thankful. This vacuum-sucking feast of black Friday holes does not whet my hankering for competitive binges -- on display or piled high on inventories of an internal nature.

It's with that seasonal blessing of my holiday card list that I now pay some overdues to Charles and Nancy Nieland of City Island of the Bronx of New York. They have dwelled there for nearly a quarter century and have their creations and enduring wedlock nestled in their musical sanctuary -- all unraveled cords, milk crate bookcases, and pillars of incense. Charlie and Nance live in the lingering vibrations of smoky club PA systems as well as in heartstrings. I saw them last week in Chicago and here's how it plays out: All the tribulations, street protests, and unresolvable differences in a marriage finding their way to the merciful, symphonic resolution of serenades, bridges, and refrains.

I've moved addresses about 14 times since Charlie and Nance signed their last lease. Since then, jobs, friends, even spouses, have wandered in and out of the place I hang my hat. But Charlie and Nance endure -- not because they chose the predictable path or even the surest footing but because their communication is no more one-sided than a duet.

They don't just play to each other. They adore each other on stage and all the healing that entails within the inarticulate, rule-bound, and unclenched heart of any marriage.  I still remember the first time they played together. Her Vanished Grace debuted in 1988 at the inaugural home of the Knitting Factory on Houston Street -- just the two of them and a drum machine. I still remember Nance having the trembles but her velvety timberance embracing Charlie and his reassurances. They still bask in those same embraces whether it's trading off the arc of their spiraling pulses or just vamping it up in campy swaggers with band-mates Maria Theodosiadou and Billy Loose.

School of marriage rock. That is my tribute to Nance and Charlie. There have been lineup changes. There have been side projects. There have been performance pieces and soundtracks. There have been legal disputes. There have even been collaborations on the pet projects of legacy stardom dwellers that never quite transformed HVG into the top-billing of the chart-bounders. There is no more pretense in covering someone else's tunes than the idea that fame and fortune are on the guest list. They are not only doing what they love. They are expressing their enduring love together while practicing their craft. If there is a higher calling, it exceeds the sonic range of my mixing board.

Oh, and before I stick another stamp on the next return to ancient parcel sender ... treat yourself (my ossified friends) to the newest HVG vintage entitled See the Moon. It puts the Nance-Charlie chemistry within admiration's reach. It may even align you more closely to your own starlit trajectories -- even on journeys plotted so many moves ago.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy Paterno

I've been thinking about the Occupy zones that contain the placeholders of our attentions.  There's no point in these containers if they don't tell a narrative or register an opinion or at least elicit a "See? Made you look" moment from billboards of competing story lines.

One point of reference on last week's Penn State head-linings played to the taking of umbrage: institution swallows its own common decency while its own misplaced pride plays on to restive gallery. I fancied some further riffing before the story crashed (until next indicting-worthy revelations) of an Occupy Paterno movement.

Non Amateur Status

It would free academics from the hypocrisy of pretending to educate entertainment prodigies in the athletic achievement sciences. We send kids in to play kid games and then skim off the extra revenue normally targeted for agents and athletes: amateur status? Not for the for profit side of American Universities. Not even for the private side of Friar Joseph's diploma mill.

If we deign the 21st century the place to be for Gens Z1, Z2, Z3... then why not relegate King Football and his gridiron fortress to the car repair and radiology certification track? That way our generations W, X, and Y can continue to engorge our sports bureaucracies of higher earning. We can reserve a sliver of the largesse for these crash-tested NFL rejects when they need to get a life and the ROTC is broke -- which it will be with or without on-campus occupy movements.

The outrage from the cover-up played to the same script departures we've seen in other bastions of orthodoxy that prefers eating one's own to turning the insiders out. Something about the value of the tribe over the letter of the law: "The news is a shocking surprise to us this week, but it was not news to Penn State," wrote Canuck, my friend and umbrage-carrier.

I know nothing of Penn (either as State, Zoil, or 'n Teller). But I do know that our cultural breadth of awareness is spilling out into the streets of our own Occupy Zones. Just as surely as ADD is the cost of business as usual it is equally true that all those zigzag attention bursts create a much wider awareness circle than existed in the linear world of who-knew-what-and-when insinuations. In fact our very expectations around what passive heresay and active engagement means is rife for a recall election.

Am I saying that I, cyber-citizen, am paralyzed at the neck up by too many calls to action? Maybe. But what I'm trying to hear from this argument is how to teach sound judgement in an age biased towards...

  1. passivity masquerading as open-mindedness

  2. piety passing for an accurate moral compass reading

No Country for Sanctimonious Saps

Curiously a competing narrative broke in our own email thread from the notion that there was a narrative here in the first place. It was the notion that our cultural media diets could no sooner fast for one news cycle than an army of anchor people would teleprompt us around a random sequence of disconnected events. The upshot? Feel the communion of the traveling news-givers. My pal Pondish is a former reporter and feels only alienation:

"Perhaps this will fade, but I suddenly seem all but incapable of summoning outrage about, well, nearly everything.  More to the point I find it enervating the degree amount of outrage around me.  I joked last week that I was relieved it was election day, and that I was glad we would be choosing a president and put this nasty, divisive campaign behind us.  Likewise, I've been unable to summon much visceral enthusiasm for Occupy Wall Street and have alienated more than a handful of people, having missed that the officially sanctioned response is, "Occupy Wall Street! Fuck Yeah!"  And honestly, the whole Penn State miasma seems to have gone over my head.  I simply don't buy the idea that an entire university needs redemption and soul-searching (although as of today, Obama says it's the entire nation that needs to take a deep look inside) because of someone witness a perverted act in a shower years ago." 

The bromide continues:

"Well, sorry, but no.  The state of my soul is pretty good.  I am not culpable or complicit. And neither are you. What happened at Penn State doesn't seem to have deeper meaning or to serve as an indictment of the broader anything."

"We seem to have entered an age where we can no longer separate ourselves from events in the world.  What happens to one of us happens to all of us.  We leave flowers in front of the Apple store (seriously?) because Steve Jobs is dead.  We must instantly contextualize everything, find the storyline, understand What It Means."

Dead Sea Narratives

It's ironic that these forced narratives are happening over social networks and not broadcast networks. Everyone's taking their media cues in the age of long tails wagging old dogs, dead tree industries, and the onset of wholesale media climate change. Are we those splintering factions or the collective beehive? A community unified if only by its disconnected nature.

No matter whose side of which story we're inclined to believe, there's an angle to play, a bone to pick, and an argument to be made about who wins and loses. It's just as interesting that whether the parables address...

(1) child molestation,

(2) codes of silence,

(3) the corruptible role of money in collegiate sports, or

(4) the senility status of its many figureheads

... these models were sculpted from journalism clay. These are the tenets of universal media from biblical tabloid times. Facebook has 800 million unpaid contractors on its payrolls. That's one script few are departing from.

As for my cronies let's just say that a contrarian is someone who'd rather be wrong than be misled: "Don't blame me. I voted for Nader." I can get over the fact that Pondish won't be bringing me flowers. It's too late for Andy Rooney and I'm reasonably certain he laid the same argument to rest at the foot of the JFK Jr. floral parade. My soul is shifting on stable ground whether I donate a new helping of platelets to the Red Cross before Thanksgiving or after.

I'm also all but certain to resist his hair-thinning threshold of the dispassion he speaks. Still, a daily scrub of ego removal and a few trace scatterings of nihilism could keep my accounts more honest. The stories I could tell might not succumb to my own spoiler alerts or the plays I send in.

The main thing I guess is to expect nothing from our world and try to give something back in return. It's not out of altruism or naiveté but the transcendent conceit that our lives do make a difference. What's the catch? Our lot is to figure out what tiny speck of the world that will benefit from our most abundant virtues.

If we greet each morning with that determination can we sideline the demons in us? Or is that the cost for righting the injustices that flourish when the culture anchors our news?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

WFCR Responds to Vocal Valley

Since online discussion threads appeared like those from the offline wakeup call there are signs of a signal shift -- both in terms of local station policies and their infrastructures. While I don't believe in once-in-a-hundred-years prophesies or the "perfection" of storms, I do believe a change is in the air and may well land "on" the air before the next perfect storm appears.  Here's a response from Helen Barrington of local NPR affiliate WFCR that Marcia Yudkin shared through the list:


We, at New England Public Radio, sadly, have learned much from this storm and are actively updating and revising our approach to be ready for the next event. This was the "perfect storm," and has challenged every service from the media to utility companies.

Sunday, we lost power at the studios on the UMass campus. WFCR's transmitter is on Mt. Lincoln in Pelham. When the power fails (which it did), it's often because Route 202 is impassable (with trees down), as is the road to the transmitter site itself. We have not been able to purchase a generator due to concerns about fuel storage at the site and access to that remote area where the transmitter is, in bad weather. But, we're working on those problems...quickly and actively.

Now that we own WNNZ, we hope to purchase a generator for it (which is also thousands of dollars, a major capital expense), to become our primary broadcast source when WFCR is off. It, too, was the victim until this Wednesday afternoon, of a commercial power failure in Westfield. We're again trying to see if we can get some grants or do some quick fundraising to get generators for both stations (though, once obtained, the weather may impede installing them until spring, but we'll see).

And on top of that, due to the constraints of our budget, we have a small staff trying to cover this immense region. If we could have gone live all day Sunday, we would have, and we will find a way to do this in the future. We will be prepared to go live locally for as long as is necessary, to get critical information out. We will provide better service in the next storm(s), as we know there will be one or many this fall/winter.

We were trying to reach everyone we could with the web and phone info, realizing that some people may not have been able to access either (I live in Belchertown and only had cell service restored Tuesday night, as well as no landline; I still have no power). The size of the region makes this piece very complex, figuring out the best way to get info to people. But we now know - more than ever before - that the radio is the thing just about everyone can access in such situations.

All of the above led to a great many frustrations and impeded our ability to adequately serve the public. We are working on solutions.

Thanks so much for your comment and for listening.

Helen Barrington
Executive Director for Programming and Content
New England Public Radio/
Phone: 413-577-0541
Please note my new email address:

Friday, November 4, 2011

Offline Wakeup Call

Usually when we're caught off guard it's because we've underestimated an irresistible force or resist the inevitable damages of an overdue payment. Gotta say, leaves on matchstick splits of front yard lumber debris might be the new normal or a black swan event. Either way extended power outages are no more exclusive engagements than they are failed lab experiments.

We can point our fickle time cards at the utilities. But the average flip-switcher is in the dark as much as a an irate news consumer than as an impotent ratepayer.

Goshen-based Marcia Yudkin weighed in today on the list with her assessment of the utilities as news producers. None of us were clear on how up-to-date mobile friendly our power utilities were before climate change. But most of us gave the benefit of the rounding error doubt that they would maintain the most up-to-date alerts, estimates, and outage mappings of an unfolding dilemma. Said Marcia: "Nope, not National Grid.  I used part of my precious battery time during the outage to check their website, and it was completely unhelpful." She goes onto say that you literally need to be an obstacle to merit any direct attention by people in the know:

"The power companies were updating the local fire and police companies regularly, but the only way I found that out was to get in my car (once it was dug out) and go there and ask."

So if your car is not disabled, your trees aren't draped over a drooping power line, and you're not suicidal, what's the fastest way to get our critical fix of preventative pills for blackouts? It's as if there were no meds for blackouts, if you ask Marcia.

Her storm intel trick or treat bag includes the following news goodies:

  1. Town-by-town information

  2. Risks and hazards, i.e. live wires, carbon monoxide poisoning

  3. Lists of stores or gas stations

  4. Bonus points: any reportings of price gouging, impassable roads, shelters, donation centers, etc.

Grid and Bear It

It wasn't just the sketchiness of the details that carried the post storm risks well into the following week. Current state weather forecasting in the post digital age is often pre-recorded and not locally based. Forget access to cable or rabbit ears. According to Hidden-Techie Tom Kopec, off-the-air TV is literally off-the-air. Kaput. Even from the blare of my transistor most radio jocks would rattle off two or three school closings and then advise listeners to check the complete web listings of websites they had no means to access. Does that mean they read the complete lists and kill the infomercials about soiled gutters?

Darn straight it does.

This is not about the clock radio blinking 12:00, 12:00, 12:00 before fumbling for the snooze button. This is about hitting radio reset. You don't need to be a ham hobbyist to have a personal stake in cutting through the static. This is not a business model. It's a survival tactic. The urgency reflects what the times demand -- not what the market supplies.

One feint glimmer according to Tom Kopec was FM 94.7: "It used to be WMAS. I don't know if it still is." Tom says they did finally go live and intermittently poured some meaningful factoids into a darkened and media-starved community.

From Charlemont Cheryl Handsaker related the bucket brigade messenging relay that was invoked by Hurricane Irene's arrival in late August:
"... Local emergency officials (and eventually the rest of us) [were] driving the roads and passing along information 'the old-fashioned way' by flagging down neighbors and asking them what they knew. Combined with town emergency robo-call updates when our phone line was intermittently up was an information life-line for us. We don't have cell service at my house so we don't have access to the 'smart-phone' route."

Tricks of Future Trades

Tonight I'll be returning to Amherst with the fervent hope that I can catch up on several missed wash cycles. I expect the house plants will be quivering and my freezer-bound ice cream, a temperate puddle of cone chunks drowning in preservatives. With any luck all those unturned yard leaves will have unclung to the arthritic branches of brittle trunks: forced to choose between foliage and mister frostee.

They say that Peru, Mass was able to endure 32 inches of snow and continuous power -- precisely because their trees were past peak. Maybe we'll need our leaf blowers to scale our unshedded deciduous before the next climactic spasm. Maybe next year we'll just have to rake trees the way we shovel the snow off our sagging, 19th century New England roofs. Those clinging leaves are almost as stubborn as us adopted and genuine New Englanders.

It's easy to compare Western Mass to a backwater: (1) because commerce is rarely the reason for settling here; (2) many privileged Valley folks express our activism through supporting global causes in the developing world; and (3) because there's an obliviousness to the outside world that includes the business of being outside. That doesn't mean a disregard for nature. It means a lack of preparedness for dealing with it.

The regional truism: "if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes" would likely include a drumbeat of acuweather updates in Boston. Here, you might have to wade five hours into the work day just to find out that you left home without the right attire.

It's time to put our fingers to the wind and get with the probable directions and velocities. Or maybe it's past time after a calendar of unscheduled events that include earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and a week-long blackout from a white Halloween. Those costumes we sketched into the charcoal-like clouds of October would scare the daylight savings out of the solstices to come.
Bookmark and Share

About attentionSpin

My photo
attentionSpin is a consulting practice formed in 1990 to create, automate and apply a universal scoring system (“The Biggest Picture”) to brands, celebrities, events and policy issues in the public eye. In the Biggest Picture, attentionSpin applies the principles of market research to the process of media analytics to score the volume and nature of media coverage. The explanatory power of this research model: 1. Allows practitioners to understand the requirements for managing the quality of attention they receive 2. Shows influencers the level of authority they hold in forums where companies, office-seekers, celebrities and experts sell their visions, opinions and skills 3. Creates meaningful standards for measuring the success and failure of campaigns and their connection to marketable assets.