Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Everything I Needed to Know About Working in Radio I Learned From Nick.....

Today's lesson: Everything I Needed to Know About Working in Radio I Learned From Nick

My first job in radio was at WSLR-AM/WKDD-FM in Akron, OH. I was a cocky college sophomore, 19, and ready to set the world on fire with my deep understanding of Kajagoogoo and Thomas Dolby's artistic sensibilities.

I worked for a guy named Nick Anthony. He was the PD/OD at the combo, and in the four years I worked there while finishing up college (I was on the 5.5 year plan), Nick taught me a lot. Not that he sat me down and lectured me, but I was watching him all the time. Here's what I learned from working for Nick, all lessons I try to share with my students every day.

1. Be Persistent.
One of my college buddies, Doug, was working at WSLR and told me they needed another part-timer. He gave me Nick's name and told me to call him. Well, Nick was just about impossible to get a hold of...he was working, running 2 stations. In order to get the job I finally had to march my resume down there and put it in his hands. You children of today, sending your emails. I had to DRIVE there. With a resume that I had to PAY someone to print. Bah....

2. Ratings Down? Tighten the Playlist.
First, I should say that the mid-80s WKDD rarely had low ratings. But I remember sitting in the studio one day and in comes Nick, pulling carts off the wall. "What's going on?" I asked. "Ratings went down," Nick answered. He was pulling out anything that was slow, or old. It seemed to me, a music geek, like the response of a crazy man. The guy had clearly lost his mind. Next book? Ratings back up. That taught me that though it might seem counter-intuitive for me, a guy who wanted a huge play list, the audience for WKDD didn't care that much about depth. Play the hits and shut up!

3. You Want to Threaten to Leave? Have Your Bags Packed!
So, I'm on overnights. There's this guy working 6-midnight. He's 16. I want to get off overnights. One morning, I'm complaining to the morning drive guy about how I'm gonna go into Nick's office and tell him he better move me to 6-midnight. Or else. The morning drive guy says "Or else what?" I said "I'll quit!" "Better have your bags packed kid. If you threaten something like that, you're gonna be outta here."

I was shocked. You mean, I can just go in and tell my boss how to run the station? What??!!

I never went in to Nick's office and threatened him. And I never forgot that if you're gonna threaten to quit over something, skip the threats. Just go find another job.

Leaving WKDD
Eventually I got canned from WKDD/WSLR after three dismal months on the sales team. I was a very poor salesman. I deserved to get canned. But I learned a lot while working there. And I learned that sales just wasn't the place for me.

And to this day, I still think Nick is great at his job. Akron-owned Rubber City Radio group (WQMX/WONE/WAKR) is one of the few remaining local groups that's still alive and innovating.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

To Teach or Not to Teach?

Todays Lesson: Henry Ford and Buggy Makers

I cannot get a recent response from a reader of the always excellent Ohio Media Watch blog out of my mind. I have tried, trust me. But this comment simply will not leave me alone.

Responding to a recent post on OMW about declining jobs in broadcasting, an OMW reader named Ann posted this:

"Are there still people rushing to broadcasts (SIC) schools hoping for a career on-air? Is that like studying to become a buggy-maker in the 1920s?"

Ouch. I am one of the nameless horde that has left broadcasting (on a full time basis, at least) for the hallowed halls of academe. I admit this is a question I have struggled with since starting at U.A. in July of 2000, long before the current downtrend began.

Why teach students to go into a field that I left willingly? Why encourage them even though it wasn't until after I was out of broadcasting that I was able to discover the joys of being home on Christmas morning, or of relatively steady cost-of-living pay raises?

Given the recent steady stream of downbeat news about jobs in broadcasting, one might well argue that Ann is only too right. It may be that iPods and cell phones and Twitter posts are the popular entertainments of tomorrow. You may even hear folks arguing that TV will be relegated to a minimized status like the telegraph....it's still out there, but who really uses it anymore?

And if that is the case, of what value is anyone trained to be a broadcaster? Someone who can write, edit, shoot and produce? If anyone can pick up a camcorder and post video to their blog...then why even bother with paying someone to do that work? If major market news product will pop You Tube videos into their mix, why do they need any employees other than engineers and sales folks?

Oh Ann...you're breaking my heart. Am I guilty as charged? Am I training buggy makers while demand for that skill is about to be crushed by Henry Ford's Tin Lizzie?

I recently read a post from Dr. A. Gordon Ray about this very issue: the failure of companies to innovate and thus risk becoming a relic of the past. Dr. Ray suggests that organizations use the "Three R's" to help avoid becoming obsolete: Review, Request, Restructure. (It should be noted that Dr. Ray is a motivational speaker, so of course there may a be a bit of self-interest in his web posts...but I would argue that his basic premise is sound.)

His basic idea is that your organization should review your mission, request info from your customer base about their needs, and then restructure based on this information. Seems simple.

In our case, the review part is under way. We are already working through a thorough evaluation of what we're teaching based on what the industry tells us they want. We are also conducting other evaluations to meet state mandates for solid data about our program. We have had many lengthy conversations about this very topic. We are reviewing our tails off, and I think our faculty is quite sincere about asking ourselves hard questions about what we're doing and what we ought to be doing.

Ah, but Ann....what am I to do when we have more students than ever coming to us telling us they want to work in broadcasting? Our enrollment growth at U.A. has been astonishing...particularly in our media program. We keep adding sections of required course to "eliminate the backlog" of students who need those classes, and then the need never goes away. Our "customers" want our product.

Do we simply deny them entry? Can we be sure that they will never succeed? Do we know for certain that the industry won't grow again when the economy recovers? The state may see these programs as redundant, serving to train students for jobs that may not exist in ten years, but the students don't see it that way. Who's right?

It seems that the restructuring will come...either intitated by us as innovation, or initiated by the economic woes that will push state funding to U.A. to the point where hard decisions have to be made about programs.

But still....what about what the students want? Lost in all this discussion about what the right thing to do is the simple fact that lots of students still want to work in radio, tv, and film. I dunno Ann...I just dunno. People may see it as building more buggies when the automobile is about to take over...but that's hindsight. We don't know that these buggies are useless just yet. There may still be some life left in them.

Dr. Phil Hoffman is General Manager of The University of Akron’s Z-TV. He is really trying to review, request and restructure.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Going Tapeless? Prepare to be Drawn & Quartered!

Today's lesson:  We Got Trouble in Tech-City.

First:  fair warning...today's post is quite techn-o-geek-o.  In fact, I am wearing my favorite "I Void Warranties" t-shirt to write this, because I am tapping into my inner geek.  

After more than two years of tentative forays into converting to a tapeless acquisition format here, I am still sitting on my hands, shooting miles of tape.  This despite the fact that new tapeless cameras come out each day and the cost keeps coming down.

But when you have the kind of networked infrastructure we do, pulling the proverbial trigger ain't so easy.  Let's review:

We have about 30 Avid clients, running on a pair of Avid Media Net servers.  All clients are distributed throughout all three floors of the building with a good 3 miles of blue Cat-6 spaghetti in the walls (I know, we pulled it ourselves.)

Those clients are running Media Composer 3.1.  

We are currently using a blend of JVC 500 & 5000 cameras for classes, and a bevy of DVX-100A's for the TV side of things.  So in other words, we're all 25Mbps all day. 

Recently, we were able to get our hands on two new Panasonic tapeless cams that fall right within our price range:  the new 150 & 170 cameras.  Like their predecessors, the DVX 100 and the HVX 200, both cams have fixed lenses.  It's a limitation, but hey, we're talking education budgets here.  We're lucky to be looking at these cams at all.  But still, I have my checklist of what we wanted, even though we have very little money to spend.

So the first thing I noticed that I loved?  Panasonic has put a switch on the side of the camera that allows me to choose whether I want the outer ring on the lens to control focus or iris.  Score!  This marks a major leap forward over the previous system on the DVX cam where the iris control was relegated to a dinky wheel/button combo on the side of the camera.  Love it.

Both cams have XLR audio input.  Check!  Both cams use similar 3-ccd imagers.  Check!  Both cams are tapeless.  Check!  Both cams can change frame rates and codecs.  Check!

Ah, but now we get down to the real nitty gritty:  The 150 shoots AVCHD to a high capacity SD card.  The 170 shoots only to P2 cards, but uses a variety of compressions including the P2 HD codec. 

And so my dilemma begins....Avid does not support AVCHD directly imported into the system.  So the 150 is out.  Unless, of course,we want to have all students re-wrap the file as a P2 file.

Which I don't.  Let's face it, all the advantages of tapeless transfer are lost if there's a necessary intermediate step of transcoding the file first.  And although the 170 with P2 cards is a great solution, it's a bit pricey for us.  Not only because the camera costs more, but because the cost of P2 cards is still too high.  I am working with students, and lost cards are pretty likely.  And at $800 per card, I can't afford that loss.

Avid says AVCHD support is low priority because it's a consumer format.  Maybe it'll come, maybe not. 

And so, on to Apple!

The folks in Cupertino are wisely format neutral.  Final Cut brought the files right in off the SD card and I was editing almost immediately.

But of course, we have a large investment in a PC-based Avid infrastructure, complete with Media Net servers.  Going to FCP as a solution not only means re-training all of our students, it means all new clients and a new server system.  So going to HD 16x9 acquisition just meant all new hardware in the post side too.

But am I looking into it?  You betcha.  In my opinion, FCP already does a monstrously better job moving media in and out than does Avid.  And while I still love the fluidity of editing using Avid during the middle phase of the process, I have just about had it with Tewksbury's attitude about formats.  And their seeming inability to make a simple DVD from a finished project.  (One-step has never worked right for us.)

So here we are...trapped.  Anchored in place by our past alliances, and being pulled  forward by the ever chugging train o' progress.  If I can't figure out a way to either a) unhook safely from the Avid anchor or b) pull the anchor into the boxcar with us, then it looks like those opposing forces are going make a real mess of me. 

Just like being drawn & quartered.

And in the end, none of it really matters.  My students need to learn how to tell compelling stories, which they could just as readily do using VHS camcorders and linear editing.  But if we don't start teaching them HD methods, they will be starting out at a disadvantage. 

Let's all sing it together, like Kip in Napoleon Dynamite:  "Yes, I love technology...not as much as you you see, but still, I love technology.  Always and forever.  Always and forever."

Dr. Phil Hoffman is General Manager of The University of  Akron’s Z-TV.  He also uses the same keybaord to edit in FCP and Avid MCP.  This means he can often be found hitting a button, shouting an expletvie because it was from the wrong software, and then hitting another  button.  No one should have to live like this.