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Daze of Future Past –

On a Tuesday evening in 1977, the entertainment industry changed forever…. for the better.

American consumers had few entertainment options during the Cold War. Since there was just three TV networks, and a spattering of local stations, viewers were captive. We watched what was available because we had so few options. We sat through commercials because we had to.

Then the American Broadcasting Company broke what –before that moment– could not be broken. A man named Fred Fox Jr. unwittingly began an evolutionary process by which Americans would no longer allow themselves to taken for granted by entertainment media. The most popular icon in America –Fonzie– was scripted by Mr. Fox to water-ski-jump over a caged shark. It was so spectacularly awful that the moment was henceforth and irrevocably associated with contrived, hackneyed entertainment failure.

Indeed, it was a breaking point. Americans were mad as hell, and we weren’t going to take it anymore. And TV and radio companies have been punished by their audiences for “jumping the shark” ever since.

Now almost forty years later, technology has given viewers and listeners more options than ever. Between the Federal Communications Commission, self-censorship, political correctness and the archaic mindset that accompanies traditional TV and radio, there has been a significant demand created for entertainment that is neither “Disney-fied”, nor permeated with obtuse banalities. The truth is, as the nation’s topography changes, both mediums in their current state are unsustainable.

Network television and over-the-air radio still reside over the shark.

On the TV side, cable networks have made ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX increasingly obsolete. Although status-quo apologists might claim that the success of pay channels like HBO and Showtime are due to their commercial-free business model and lack of FCC interference, the facts bear out differently. Commercialized pay channels like FX and AMC have garnered the same success as their “premium channel” rivals. Shows like “Louie” and “Breaking Bad” –although less encumbered by censorship– have no antenna friendly competition where it concerns platitude-free dialogue, honest characters or situational plausibility. In fact, cable channels that rely on advertisers manage to produce cutting edge, neoteric programming without nudity, or profanity.

The main difference between ABC, and AMC, is that the former is mired in psychological antiquity, while the latter employs creative courage. Which is a polite way to say that network TV and over the air radio have yet to find a way to enter the twenty-first century. Whenever network TV or over the air radio tries to compete with their cable or podcast counterparts by producing “edgy” content, they fail miserably. Consumers whose sensibilities allow for them to watch “Louie” in favor of “the Big Bang Theory” are able to spot contrived attempts to placate them a mile away. If anything offends this significant audience, it’s being condescended to.

Yet in the second decade of the twenty-first century, technology takes this dynamic a step further. Among other entrepreneurial and creative business models , Youtube, Netflix and Hulu have also entered the marketplace for original programming that is oversight-free of easily offended curmudgeons. Proving, if nothing else, that there has been, and remains to be a want for TV that doesn’t suck.

Radio however, is undergoing an entirely different metamorphosis.

While there was a time when satellite radio was believed to be the best alternative to what had become an over-censored and litigiously run medium, it seems now that “pay-radio” has succumb to the same pitfalls as its predecessor. The main difference between pay TV and radio, is that the little competition that existed in the satellite radio marketplace was erased by the merging/takeover of the only two entities in the corporate rialto. Indeed, if any advice can be offered to the radio industry by those who’ve achieved success in internet and cable TV, it’s that treating your paying customers like rubes is not an effective design of operation. Complacency is bad for any form of entertainment, and although it might be counter-intuitive to one with a twentieth century thought process, competition is good… for everyone.

If stock prices are any indication, it’s safe to say that the Sirius/XM “merger” turned out to be bad for both companies. However much like the television industry, consumers will pay for the radio they want. But it seems that requiring customers to pay for their product was never really satellite radio’s problem. Content was, and still is. Whether those in charge at Sirius radio want to admit it or not, they are struggling with a similar lack of programming imagination and smugness that made FM radio the vapid medium that prompted a radio alternative in the first place.

Certainly there is reason to speculate that Sirius’ hiring of executives (from the industry they were hoping to supplant) was a recipe for inevitable failure. Huge contracts, short song playlists, and gag orders on people whom they’ve hired to talk for the purposes of entertainment is proving to be a failing business model. Moreover, without the luxury of a customer regulated environment, Sirius radio has found themselves alone, adrift, and without a competitive entity to provide perspective. Showtime and HBO have one another to keep one another’s programming honest.

However a boardroom full of retrospective enablers is not conducive to the kind of forward thinking that the contemporary entertainment industry requires for success. Worse still is that Sirius’ litigious, FM radio-style corporate culture has led to (among other things) self-censorship via political correctness. That is the very dynamic that forced listeners to seek them out as an alternative in the first place.

The alternative that music and talk radio lovers have sought seems to have arrived via the internet. So much so that auto manufacturers are now moving away from offering Satellite radios in their package upgrades, and towards an internet alternative whereby one can pre-set their favorite online radio sites, and podcasts. Certainly, if the original reasons people sought satellite radio were short playlists and censored talk, then the internet is the entertainment medium they’ve been looking for.

Still in its adolescence as a commercial endeavor, podcasting is already proving to be a viable entertainment medium for those unable, unwilling, or unwanting to abide a corporate overseer. Comedian Mark Maron has done extraordinarily well with his podcast “WTF”, which has blown up to the point of it being (at least) as much of a source for his celebrity as his stand-up work. While conducting interviews and on-air pontificating is a significantly different skill set than standing on stage and telling jokes, Maron does both extremely well. By an industry standard, WTF is a highly successful show in any medium.

Unlike Maron, Glenn Beck was already a huge name in conservative talk when he made his talk entertainment home on the internet. Surely Beck had alternatives after he and FOX News parted ways, however he wisely chose to (at the time) think out of the box, and build a brand around an internet show he could perform from his home studio. Although Beck might have been able to earn more had he sought employment back on TV (probably not, but that’s not reflective of GB’s earning power as much as it is the viability of the internet as a revenue source), he certainly would not have been able to do the show he wants. And you can’t beat his commute.

Speaking of home studios, the most recent example of podcast entrepreneurship that might potentially take a significant portion of the radio market share is Anthony Cumia’s “Live from the Compound”. Late of Sirius Radio’s “Opie and Anthony show”, Cumia’s recent dismissal from the failing satellite radio company (after an off-air, politically incorrect twitter rant) prompted his venturing into podcasting. It’s a natural fit for a singular talent whose at his best when spontaneously unrestrained, and who exemplifies the irreconcilability of funny and political correctness. Like Glenn Beck, the natural appeal of working from home makes podcasting worth the risk, and like Glenn Beck, the thought of Anthony Cumia having to “watch what he says” is abhorrent to his fan base.

The Podcast success list doesn’t end with Maron, Beck or Cumia. Kevin Smith’s Smodcast, Mohr stories with Jay Mohr, the Joe Rogan Experience, and a myriad of other podcast venues have lasted the test of time. Podcasts have already proved that –like any other business– people will gravitate towards a good product, and they will stay away from ones that do not satisfy their needs.

Which is why at this juncture I would be irresponsible to not mention UnLearn TV. A podcast/ internet TV show which I co-host with a vice imbued genius who goes by the name Cigars & Scotch. It too, has managed to amass a significant following. Certainly more than many shows on other mediums. If nothing else, UnLearn TV proves that prior celebrity is not required to have a successful podcast, and it should serve as an example to those confined to radio and TV obscurity.

But here’s the thing… there are only twenty four hours in a day for entertainers across all mediums to divvy up. And while corporate entertainment is often guilty of taking their audiences for granted, entertainment consumers can be fickle, and petty. If podcasters don’t charge a fee to join their site, they will require sponsorships to stay afloat. Circumventing internet revenues has crippled the porn business, and it will likewise kill the podcasting business.

Cigars & Scotch and I have been slowly building a viewership and monetizing our product. Entertainers who move to podcasting still have to eat and pay bills. Granted, the internet provides more creative, less annoying ways for businesses to partner with podcasts (banners, links, etc)… but consumers must make it worth an advertiser’s while. Because no one works for free.

Nor should they.

North Side Blues

I was born on the right side of the tracks. In fact, where I grew up, the other side of the tracks wasn’t exactly poor either. Despite what part of town one lived in, it was a nice place to raise a family. The socio/economic dynamics in Flushing Queens during the 70’s & 80’s was an “aspired to” representation of pre-deregulation, middle class America. And whether our Dads wore blue or white collars, they were –for the most part– able to provide their children with the tools they needed.

While my family wasn’t wealthy, neither were we deprived. Indeed, as a child I had nice, store bought clothes to wear. I always had food on my plate, and snacks in our cupboard. The detached center hall colonial that I called home was accoutered with nice furniture, and expensive carpeting. We were cool in the summer, and warm in the winter. I even got the bike I wanted for Christmas.

However, my brother and I did have to share a bedroom. Oh, the horror!

But not a day goes by where I am not aware of the advantages I had. Certainly my parents did not spoil their children, nor did they indulge us like sickening new millennium parents, but they gave us all of what we needed, some of what we wanted, and north star to guide our way. Sure, my family underwent the usual dysfunction that most suburbanites experience growing up –my big sister and I once got into a brawl over a banana (we sure as hell weren’t the Cleavers)– but the travails of North Flushing accorded no real hardships.

… At least not the kinds of hardships that those in poverty stricken, inner city communities endured.

I never had to go to school without having eaten the night before, and try to concentrate during a test while dizzy from hunger. When I was told that I could not have something, it was because my parents had their reasons, not because they couldn’t afford it. I was disciplined, but I was never beaten. I was never abused. I was never thrown against the wall and frisked by the police while walking home. I was never treated badly because of the color of my skin.

I cannot pretend to comprehend the lives of those whose daily existence is so foreign to me. Even as I write this, I understand that I do not understand what it was like to grow up so much differently than I did. I dare not presume to.

My white, middle-class status at birth accorded education and opportunities which translated into a comfortable lifestyle in my adulthood. There are a lot of social dynamics that work in one’s favor that are all-too easily taken for granted by many middle-class white folks. It’s certainly easier to pull one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps when there is a significant support system helping you.

So I guess the point I’m trying to make is, that there are a lot of middle class people who take their background for granted. Not all, but some. I know that a lot of us like to think that we’re so damn terrific that our singular work ethic and acumen have enabled us to avoid the fate of those who have economically fallen. But the point from where we begin life’s journey usually means an awful lot.

In my early adulthood I had the luxury of having my father to indulge me. When I struggled –be it financially or emotionally– he was there, in whatever capacity I needed him. The man I eventually grew into and the man I aspire to be is because of the strength and stability of the man I was lucky enough to call “Dad”. Many who are reading this share the same fortunate experience. Many others wish they had.

I shudder to think who I would be today without him.

This piece in neither about “white guilt”, or institutional racism. It is about being able to practice honest introspection. A little humility about ourselves, and empathy for those less fortunate is something lacking in our discourse. Social media, and the accompanying lack of personal interaction, has translated into a severe lack of compassion for others. We too easily dismiss those in poverty as not having our own intrepid spirit, when in fact our own spirits would have been also broken had we been born into their circumstance.

If not for a couple of decent breaks, the poor which so many cavalierly dismiss, are all of us.

Duck Call

The A&E Channel has a variety of programming that caters to a diverse viewership. The network is dependent upon ratings driven revenue. When an employee of a company makes statements that might dissuade customers from offering patronage, then *any* company –no matter how they generate earnings– is compelled to do what’s in the best interests of the stock holders. Certainly a significant portion of the A&E customer base/viewership who are of African origin, and/or homosexual.

I would venture to say that there is a probability that there are executives in the company that Mr. Robertson (“Duck Dynasty”) works for who are also either gay, or African Americans (who lived through the civil rights movement), and who were insulted by his remarks. If any employee, anywhere purposefully insults their employers, the repercussion is usually a suspension, or dismissal. I don’t imagine that anyone reading this who is under the employ of another has the ability to publicly denounce the source of their income. 

There is also a distinct probability that Robertson violated the terms and conditions of his contract. When one has a high profile, public job, they are contractually bound to not embarrass the company they work for. As such, contracted media personalities are “employees at will”, and are subject to a professional code of conduct.

Moreover, if a cashier at a supermarket  purposefully insulted a group of customers, for whatever reason, there would be a reasonable expectation for said cashier to be let go. If a corporate executive violated company policy by making disparaging remarks about class, race or gender, they would at the very least be subjected to a human resources review.  Why should this be any different?

To another point, Mr. Robertson’s was not hired by A&E to offer sociological perspectives. Nor do his bigoted statements about gays and blacks constitute a “differing opinion”.  There is certainly a difference between saying that “homosexuality is against my religion”, and offering an unwarranted, ignorant commentary.

Also, while first amendment activists are concerned about protecting uncomfortable free speech, Phil Robertson’s remarks are not likened to Don Imus, who was hired for off-color humor and to give his opinion. One could make the argument –and I certainly did– that Imus’ firing was purely born of politically correctness, and propagated by a special interest/ third party. Robertson’s suspension is much more likely to be in the best interests of his employer.  Indeed, Phil Robertson’s social commentary were purposefully made uninformed statements, and intended to solicit negative attention.

However many who are defending Mr. Robertson’s purposefully bigoted, overtly ignorant assertions as “free speech” are cowardly doing so under that guise so as to propagate their like-minded hatred of gays and minorities. It is merely a way to publicly support right wing, homophobic, racist predispositions and pretend that it’s Robertson who is being victimized, rather than the groups he is  disparaging. Thankfully, most Americans know better.

 For if one finds themselves earning a significant income in a high profile position, they can no longer hide behind religion, colloquial provincialism, being a “child of the sixties” or a bastardization of the first amendment and hope to escape societal constructs.