Wednesday, April 29, 2009
God, but there's a lot going on right now.
Today, it's starting to feel like "Would the last member of the media out of Wisconsin please hit the lights?" would be more appropriate.
My dislike of Clearchannel is well-documented, but until today, it wasn't personal. It may have been moral, political and professional, but they had never before done something directly to me or a friend of mine. Of course, in the current news climate, I guess it was only a matter of time.
Jason Fischer is a younger guy like me, and worked for the company for several years, first at their Milwaukee affiliate and then here in Madison at WIBA. He primarily covered their nightsides, meaning we saw each other at a lot of city council meetings, county functions, school board hee-haws and the other miscellaneous news nuggets that happen in the hours after normal people get to have their dinner and call it a day.
As the reporter for WIBA, Jason was my primary competition, but that didn't stop us from hitting it off right away. Perhaps it's a self-defense mechanism in a hostile environment, but cracking wise becomes a way of life in the back row during five-hour city council meetings, and Jason I have been jokingly reprimanded by the Mayor himself for "appearing to have way too much fun" during serious budget sessions.
He's sharp, brutally competent, positive in a pinch, well-read and now... unemployed, thanks to the Clearchannel corporate masters in San Antonio.
He's not the only one. As I understand it, Clearchannel gutted the WIBA news room this morning, leaving only a couple members of the morning team. I don't know who all went, but there were a lot of veterans in that news room. You don't need a lot of veterans, though, when your plan is to have Madison act as a "spoke" for a larger regional "news hub" that pipes the news of the day out to cities hundreds of miles away.
Call me naive, but I can't to this day believe that Clearchannel's business model is still legal.
So to take a quick tally, this reduces the City Hall Press Corps to two and a half people, tops. Kristin Czubkowski from the Capital Times can be found reliably in the back row at all hours of a city council meeting and at most important committee meetings as well. I seldom miss a city council meeting, save when I have to fill in on the early morning shift (the one that starts at three AM).
And of course, there's Nick Heynen, the nightside reporter from the State Journal, who shows up at meetings when there's not something else more pressing happening on the scanner. Somewhere out there, Dean Mosiman is floating in the aether gathering his information in mystical ways only a city hall vet can, but we don't see him at council meetings.
If there's blood, guts or tears, the TV stations might stop out, and they will now outnumber the regulars. If there's a campus-related issue, the student papers will send a reporter and a shooter each, and THEY will now outnumber the regulars.
I texted Kristin about Jason being let go, and she echoed my own sentiments: "Clearchannel has no idea what it's given up. Idiots."
And she was more right than she knew, because to the people thousands of miles away who made the decision to let Jason and his co-workers go, the newsies they fired today were nothing more than names on a spreadsheet. That's another danger of massive media ownership in America, and as more names fall off the front of media row, I get more concerned about the future of our country.
In 2003, the American people were unwittingly lead into a war in part because the national press corps didn't ask the right questions of our elected officials, and an angry punk rock band called Anti-Flag wrote a song about it called the "Press Corpse" that, in part, inspired me to become a reporter.
In 2003, ad revenues were fat and juicy compared to today, and the press's ranks were likely once-and-a-half to twice what they are right now. I feel safe in saying Anti-Flag hadn't seen anything yet.
Monday, April 27, 2009
It's not that I object to their minor manipulation of the English language. Stephen Colbert tweaks words all the time, and I admire the hell out of him for it.
Foremost, I'm cheesed off that they co-opted a term that was already sort of part of the vernacular and turned it into a trademark. I'm even more cheesed off that they think they can claim a monopoly on being drinkable when their product makes me gag like gasoline mixed with ipecac. You know what it takes to be drinkable? Two atoms of hydrogen, one atom of oxygen and a steady temperature between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius.
So I've been bound and determined for some time to re-claim the term from Budweiser's corporate sluts, and it just struck me the other week how to do it.
As I was wrapping up a particularly enjoyable phone interview at work the other week, I nodded to myself and chuckled, "Man, I wouldn't mind sitting down for a beer with that guy." This got me to thinking about the number of elected, state or municipal officials who, while they may be very competent and even good at their jobs, are not particularly engaging, at least at first blush.
But there are a select few who leave me in a better mood after speaking with them. For whatever reason, they're just all-around, fascinating and seemingly good folks, and I really would like to sit down and have a beer with them.
To reclaim the word from the corporate sluts, they have good drinkability.
Now, I know it's an unfortunate and somewhat established fact that when Americans were polled in the months leading up to the 2004 election, they overwhelmingly said they would be more interested in sitting down to have a beer with George W. Bush than John Kerry. We all know how that turned out, and I'm not saying drinkability in an official is the end-all be-all as a measuring stick for the kind of public steward a person is.
But the notion did get me thinking, and I've decided to start a list of public officials I'd really like to sit down for a brew with. I'll add to it from time to time, and hopefully I'll get to cross a few off as well. But without more ado, here are the first five.
1. State Representative Jeff Smith. I'll admit, I'm starting the beer list with a partial. While I haven't sat down specifically to have a beer with this Eau Claire Democrat, I did bump into him at my Wednesday night hangout on the outer capitol loop a couple months ago, and we had a brief discussion at the bar.
Smith, a handful of other legislators and it seemed their entire office staffs must have spent the evening working late on a big project, because they were out en masse that night. My buddies and I watched, bemused, for a while, then I went up to the bar to introduce myself to Smith and a certain young-legislator-with-a-lot-of-power-who-shall-go-unnamed.
When I identified myself as a reporter, Smith's colleague suddenly became much less interested in our end of the bar and, engrossed in his Blackberry, wandered into a solitary corner to bask in its cold glow. I watched him go, then turned back to Smith and grinned.
"He doesn't care much for the press, does he? Was it something I said?"
Smith looked at his beer and smirked. "He's kind of the jumpy type."
"Me? I'm just a guy from Eau Claire who works well with other people and enjoys a cold beer," he said. I told him I respect the hell out of that. We chatted for a while about his work on the state's new Committee on Elections and Campaign Reform before I closed my tab and took off. I'd still jump at the chance to finish my conversation with this laid back legislator who clearly understands that reporters are people too.
2. State Treasurer Dawn Marie Sass. Yeah, I know, the freakin' state treasurer. Sounds boring, right? What the hell does she even do?
Well, for starters, she tells a helluva story. I've never met her in person, but there have been times when she's had me nearly in tears of laughter while on the phone. Being able to tell a good old-fashioned ripping yarn is rapidly dwindling as a skillset in today's society, but Sass was either schooled in the trade, or else she was born a prodigy.
And I'm talking about on-topic stories she was telling me, nothing off the record or meant simply to entertain. I am absolutely convinced this woman is just a font of entertainment in a social situation. She's gregarious, engaging and impeccable in her timing. A dirty joke from Dawn Marie Sass could probably reduce a barfight to a fit of jocularity in mere seconds.
3. UW-Madison School of Journalism Director Jim Baughman. And it's basically my fault that I haven't been able to sit down with this icon yet, because I was too dumb when I was a student in one of his lectures to go up and introduce myself. Unfortunately, I took "A History of Mass Communication" before I had fully grasped the concept that professors can be fascinating human beings and can even be approached outside of class.
Instead, I satisfied myself by faithfully attending his lectures, which I once described to a friend as the most enlightening standup routines I'd ever sat through. His impression of George W. Bush never failed to bring down the house, and stories about his grandmother became the stuff of legends. Looking back at my notes, unfortunately, it seems I was too busy trying to take down the sheer volume of knowledge he was imparting to scribble many of his quotations in the margins, other than a now-inexplicable, "Our journalism commandos will burst into History and say, 'Major in Journalism or DIE!' -JB-"
It's rumored that Baughman is a regular at a select number of local watering holes. Try as I might, I'm fighting fate, and I've never seen him at a brewpub.
4. Dane County Supervisor Eileen Bruskewitz. I'm fond of saying there's no disagreement that can't settled over a beer or two. Eileen Bruskewitz and I would need a keg to get through the list of points we would likely spar over.
Waunakee's representative on the County Board was a relentless promoter of Nancy Mistele's sometimes tasteless election bid for the county executive's seat. She fights many moves by the board to preserve and conserve Dane County's natural areas, arguing it's not the government's place to act as a landowner, but also saying some flagrantly dismissive things about environmental concerns that really get my green hackles up.
Bruskewitz is even a staunch opponent of creating a Regional Transit Authority to fund and build a commuter rail line across the county. On election night at Nancy Mistele's campaign headquarters, our friendly conversation turned to this topic, and we did have a bit of a verbal tussle on the subject.
I heartily enjoyed it. There's something to be said for a good argument against a well-researched opponent. Bruskewitz may be alarmingly right-wing compared to the crowd I normally move with, but she's incisive, quick-witted and doesn't take the disagreement personally.
We agreed on election night that a more proper venue and a little more time to kill would be appropriate for a "final showdown" over the train issue, and I do hope we get a chance to get the drinks we sort of promised each other.
5. Dodge County Sheriff Todd Nehls. And to be fair, there are a number of law enforcement officials I wouldn't mind having a beer with -- Sheriff Dennis Richards and Chief Deputy Mike Babcock in Columbia County, Sheriff Randy Roderick in Green County, Sheriff Dave Mahoney in Dane County, Madison Police Chief Noble Wray and spokesman Joel Despain, just to name a few.
But I gained a lot of respect for Sheriff Nehls during a phone interview recently. We were discussing the alarming number of car crash fatalities involving young people in the Beaver Dam area, and instead of the formal, rehearsed "this is a tragic day for (blank)" speech I've come to expect from many officials, he spoke to me from the heart.
Nehls lamented the lack of activities for young people in the small community to keep them from drinking in the country, a popular past time in Smalltown Wisconsin. Nehls and I compared notes about our individual small towns, and the perception that one must drive everywhere.
Throughout the conversation, his emotions ranged from deep regret through frustration and even borderline anger when he told me one story. As they were taking the body of one young person from the car she was killed in, Nehls told me they found the obituary of one of her classmates, killed several weeks before, in the glove box.
It was one of the most real conversations I've ever had with an official, but Nehls can always be counted on to bypass the bullshit. I'm always willing to buy for anyone who's that sincere.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
I feel like my audition for the afternoon hosts's job went pretty damn well. Special thanks to Kristin Czubkowski from the Capital Times and Jesse Russell from Dane101 for coming up, sharing their stories and easing the burden on a freshman afternoon show host.
And now we play the waiting game. It's out of my hands, and it's in the management's.
I hate the waiting game.
If you're morbidly curious, here, finally are a few clips from the experience.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Yet here I am three years later, and I've got an outside shot at crossing that big end goal off my list. It's a little overwhelming...
...No, I didn't mean the "lose the rest of my hair" goal, though I suppose I'm within striking distance if this week doesn't go well. What I mean is I'm getting
The two previous afternoon hosts, Prebil and Murph, departed WTDY for a pretty sweet gig in Minneapolis a couple weeks ago, and since then, listeners have heard a parade of varying drive-time personalities while the management has worked behind the scenes to fill the spot permanently. I consider myself a betting man, but I would just as soon keep my money to myself as far as who they will settle on to fill the slots.
Yet somehow, I like to think through cunning and conniving, I'm in the running. Now it's just a matter of not blowing it.
So I'm going to try to approach the audition the same way I approach the blog -- with a grain of salt, but also with a healthy curiosity and holding nothing so sacred it can't be laughed at. It's been almost two years since I hosted the last edition of "Slightly Off Kilter," my contribution to the world of college radio. College Broadcasting Incorporated sat up and took notice when they named our show 2007's best regularly scheduled program in the nation.
For the most part, I'll keep the topics lighthearted, but nothing's off limits. And it's a call-in show, so I look forward to being told how wrong I am by everyone that can operate a touch-tone.
Tune in. It'll be something, anyway!
***Monday morning edit -- Change in plans, and I'm only hosting for sure on Monday now. Thursday could still be in the mix, but things are very fluid***
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Friday, April 10, 2009
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Thankfully, my pals at Dane101 have offered me a chance to associate with something so vile and repugnant (I hope), my name will be free from those kinds of connotations for months to come.
Justice Potter Stewart once wrote in a Supreme Court opinion about obscenity, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it." This has always just struck me as a really long-winded spiel to go off on, when all he needed to say was, "the Aristocrats."
If you're unfamiliar with the Aristocrats joke, it's basically carte blanche to say the most outrageous things imaginable under the guise of telling a joke. Put less succinctly at Dane101, "The concept and set up of the joke is fairly simple as it typically starts with a man or a family walking into a talent agent's office and pitching an act. The next part is the difficult part as the comedian launches into a lengthy description of the most offensive act the dark recesses of his or her mind can dream up. The act typically includes quite a bit of cursing and a whole lot of sexual deviance. The goal is to make it to the punchline which is always the same. The agent asks "What the heck do you call an act like that?" and the comedian says with much flourish "I call it 'The Aristocrats'."
Like Stewart, I know it when I see it too, and I even have a respectably unhealthy appreciation for the obscene, which is why I'm thrilled that Jesse Russell at Dane101 asked me to be part of a local spin on the old topic. I'll be part of a panel of judges with Scott Gordon from The Onion's Decider and Katjusa Cisar from 77Square, and up to a dozen local comedians will take a stab at making us wince.
Bring it on.
And if you think listening to a dozen different versions of the Aristocrats joke would wear thin after a while, you've obviously never seen the documentary bearing the same name. I think this is going to be an absolute scream, and I hope to see a good turn out.
Just make sure you don't plan on eating shortly before or after the performance.
And in all seriousness, Tim, thanks for the kind words.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
My personal attention has been wrenched elsewhere. There have been a lot of work and life things popping up -- things that are afoot and could eventually mean exciting things for me and the blog alike.
But I also got so caught up in reading other media's coverage of the Rumble in the Deuce, I forgot to do some of my own. Hands down, this race caught the most attention out of any of the city council races, as you can tell not only by picking up a local paper, but by perusing Konkel and Maniaci's donor lists as well.
There have been big name endorsements. Konkel comes in packing the Progressive Dane Mod Squad, plus a big nod from Wisconsin Assemblyman Mark Pocan, while Maniaci has amassed a trifecta of mayoral magnificence with endorsements from Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and former mayors Paul Soglin and Joe Sensenbrenner. The Cieslewicz endorsement was predictable and could have even been damaging to Maniaci's campaign, had it not been for the nod from Soglin, which surprised a lot of people and leant her campaign the scrapper image Konkel had previously had a monopoly on.
There has been a glut of newspaper coverage, complete with an even split in endorsements as the Capital Times pushed Konkel and the Wisconsin State Journal backed Maniaci. The student papers both swung for Maniaci, which was not terribly surprising.
There has certainly been an explosion of yard signs, popping up like teal and purple springtime flowers as the snow disappeared. More unexpected were the pair of billboards, commissioned by the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, urging residents of the Deuce to vote for Maniaci.
For her part, Maniaci says she was just as surprised as everyone else about the billboards. When the MPPOA endorsed her, she says it involved a lengthy phone call during which the question was posed, "How do you feel about billboards?"
"I kind of stopped and said, 'Okay I guess,'" Maniaci told me. "I just didn't want my picture on it. But that was all I heard about it for a while."
Lo and behold, within a few weeks time the pictureless billboards sprouted up without another mention from the police union, a situation Maniaci says hasn't yet ceased to strike her as "surreal."
There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to analyzing support and predicting who will come out on top. It's easy to just go ahead and use yard signs as an indicator of expected vote totals, so I will.
After all, I think the yard sign count runs pretty parallel to the race as I've observed it. In the weeks just before and after the primary election, Konkel's purple yard signs were by far the most prevalent, particularly in the more eastern portion of the deuce -- likely leftovers from one of her previous runs at the seat.
But as the Maniaci campaign has picked up steam, her aqua plaquards have exploded across the deuce. Just last week, a Maniaci sign has appeared in front of every property along the left side of Gorham Street between Brearly and Paterson Streets. All the buildings are larger apartment complexes, and I'm willing to stake money on my hypothesis that Maniaci has picked up the support of an enthusiastic landlord and not staged a coup in the 900 block of Gorham, but anything's possible.
Most streets, however, are much more evenly divided. A walk down Sherman Avenue or Blair Street will demonstrate how this race has pitted neighbor against neighbor, with clusters and rows of purple pitted against the encroaching aquamarine, or whatever that damn color is.
It is aquamarine, right? I was one of those kids with the 12-crayon box.
If I had to call the race based solely on yard sign support, I'd say it's a dead heat right now, which does not bode well for the incumbent. After the primary, a lot was riding on which way Adam Walsh and Sherman Hackbarth's supporters broke, and it seems like they've scattered willy-nilly.
Both campaigns have fielded massive teams of volunteers. Both have flooded front porches and mailboxes with literature, to the point where I'm seriously questioning the environmental cred of each.
Konkel has stood her ground and defined herself, wisely, as a fighter and city hall troublemaker. Maniaci has rooted herself strongly in the discontent of a few, then used that to expand into what's become a solid base of support.
It's going to be a fight to the finish -- as a wise albeit dead man once said, "That's a good place to end." Now I just need to figure out who the heck to vote for.
Friday, April 3, 2009
And here's where obligatory remembrances serve their purpose. I have typed or spoken some version of that phrase, "UW-student Brittany Zimmermann, murdered in her Doty Street apartment," literally hundreds of times in the past year -- maybe more. As a news reporter and anchor, I've made mention of the event so many times that... well, I don't want to say it lost its meaning to me, but over time, the bitter anger I felt over her death had begun to abate.
But the first anniversary of this tragedy gave me all new sources of that stinging clean, white-hot rage that first welled up inside me and inspired me to start blogging.
I didn't know Brittany personally, but I felt her loss as a Badger alum, a member of the community and a guy with a little sister Brittany's age living within blocks of the murder scene. The outrage I felt stemmed from a combination of shock, alarm that the system could fail this woman so completely and disappointment in our local officials for their lies, half-truths and complete unwillingness to disclose answers about the debacle.
These are all distressing, ugly feelings to have, and with time, it becomes easier and healthier to let them fade away. It's more comfortable to remember "Brittany Zimmermann, who was murdered in her Doty Street apartment," than it is to fathom the full human scale of the tragedy.
So it was with considerable chagrin that I approached my first assignment of the day -- covering the Brittany Zimmermann remembrance under the bell tower atop Bascom Hill. I certainly recognize the news value in the event and the interest we as members of the public have in peering into it, but nothing will ever stop me from feeling like a voyeur when I'm literally going out of my way to watch other people suffer.
But I have a job to do as a journalist, and self-hating reporter or not, I'm comfortable with myself if I cover these sorts of events in as sensitive a manner as possible, clutching my humanity and decency close. Reporter or not, I'm a human being first, and while it may cost me some so-called "competitive edge," as a matter of principle I won't ever do anything I wouldn't want done to my family if I was the one in the ground.
Apparently, though, two people left their humanity and their decency at home in recognition of Brittany's death.
A Madison Police press release in the week leading up to the anniversary made it clear that Brittany's family did not want to deal with the media, and those members of the media with a soul respected that. My assignment at the remembrance today was to roll some nat sound and then talk to a few students and get their take on the atmosphere around campus.
When I arrived, the family was gathered around the base of the bell tower. Nearby, posses from the university and police administration hovered respectfully. Keeping a 20-yard perimeter around them was a small ensemble of media, mostly newspaper photographers and television crews, all respectfully silent.
The ceremony began as a color guard approached the tower, and the bell began to sound, once for each of the years in Zimmermann's short life. All in all, it was very nice, until the tool bag with a camera and a long lens moved in for the kill.
While I can find a lot of stones to throw at our Modern American Mediascape, I'm often the first to take offense when someone accuses the media of being too pushy. I maintain that, like with any line of work, 99 percent of reporters are decent people doing their job the best they can that know where the line is and will go to extremes to avoid crossing it.
But there's one in every crowd, and as a former newspaper photographer, I can tell you exactly what tool bag was trying to do with his long lens. Faced with a row of sobbing family members, he had to move to within five feet to get a sharp picture of his subject, framed from the eyebrows to the chin, of tears running down the subject's cheek. The depth of field in a shot like that is so shallow, the other family members are reduced to fuzzy cardboard cutouts, but the tears pop off the paper like gems.
It's a layout editor's wet dream.
And he didn't just shoot a few photos. That bell tolled 21 times, and from clangs two through fifteen, he was crouched up and down that row of mourning family members, shutter clicking like a machine gun until police spokesman Joel Despain tapped him on the shoulder and gave him a look that said the only thing that needed shooting was tool bag with the long lens.
I didn't recognize tool bag with the long lens, so I can't call him or the publication he represents out yet. But while the rest of the media kept a respectful distance, he was in there milking that family's grief for all it was worth, and it cast all of us as a whole in a poor light.
But as inappropriate as his behavior was, there was someone else at that remembrance even more hollow as a human being.
In hindsight, I should not have been surprised to see county executive candidate Nancy Mistele there. She's staked her entire campaign on faulting incumbent Kathleen Falk for the tragedy, sometimes fairly, but usually in ways that make me nauseous. Without the murder on Doty Street, Mistele's campaign platform would be bereft of all but one knotty plank -- some rural residents' regressive, irrational fear of bringing commuter rail to Dane County, but that's another issue entirely and couldn't win her 30 percent of the vote.
No one has managed to wring more personal benefit from this innocent young girl's death than Mistele. If there weren't laws against such a thing, she would probably try to dig up Brittany Zimmermann's body and ride it straight into the county executive's office like a sled.
Yet there she was atop Bascom Hill, surrounded by her posse of county officials which included, I was sad to note, Supervisor Ronn Ferrell, who's always struck me as a decent guy otherwise.
I bit my tongue until it went numb and walked the other way when the bell stopped tolling. Had I been a little more in control, I'd have stuck a live mic in her face and asked, "Seriously? What the hell? Have you just foresworn decency in your pursuit of this office or what?" I really wish I had now.
I heard later from another reporter that he did meander over to her and, without rolling tape, asked what brought her out. My source tells me she gave him a calculated lip quiver and sniffled, "I'm just out here for Brittany."
Every decent person on top of that hill today spent half an hour in the place they least wanted to be at that particular moment. Brittany's family was suffering the most visibly, but rest assured Lori Berquam and her crew had nice warm offices within a hundred paces, the police officials present would have traded their badges to have a killer off the streets, and most of the media were so busy hating themselves they'd just as soon have been working for the Rocky Mountain News.
But it was a red-letter day for Nancy Mistele, for whom the afternoon's biggest tragedy was that none of Brittany's family wanted to have their picture taken with her for campaign literature.