Archive for April, 2010

Letter From New York April 23, 2010

April 24, 2010

Or, as it seems to me…

My life has been full the last week; the mobile channel demands, a website needs to be re-launched, I’ve had dinner with friends and feted a colleague who is departing for Portland, Oregon… But nothing has driven me to comment.

Though of all the things in the news my mind has been on the chaos that has been inflicted upon international air travel due to the eruption of a volcano in Iceland named Eyjafjallajokull. I will make no effort to pronounce it. Eyjafjallajokull blew its top just as the annual MIP conference and market was coming to its end. [MIP is a television conference held in Cannes in April at which ten to fifteen thousand television executives flock to buy and sell programs to one another.] Many of those television executives were left stranded by the eruption and the subsequent shut down of European Air Space. And a number of them are people that I know.

Well, life could be worse. You might be stranded but you were in the south of France and certainly that’s not bad, especially if you’re working for a large company that is picking up the tab. But many of the stranded, some of them my friends, are small independents for whom the extended stay in the south of France is a financial burden. As I write this many are still attempting to get back to the states. One poor man was offered a flight on the first of August…

It wasn’t just international flights that were shut down. So, too, were intra-European flights. Lots of the English rented cars and drove across France to wait their turn to get on overcrowded ferries. John Cleese, the British comedian, took a $5000.00 taxi ride back home. A few lucky ones booked trains before they became impossible to get. Others, perhaps wisely, surrendered and decided an extended time in the south of France was not so bad. Plus they were surrounded by other television executives and there was always the chance a deal might be made. This extended stay was dubbed “MIPcano” by the wags, the aftermarket, sponsored by Iceland.

One executive I know was last seen headed in a mad dash for Madrid in search of a flight while another friend headed to Rome where, before she could board her Alitalia flight, her purse was stolen with credit cards, cash and passport, adding to the misery and the chaos. A few folks headed to Lisbon looking for flights, anywhere south of the no fly zone.

It will be weeks before the air system catches up with the backlog.

Transatlantic sailings didn’t sound so bad. The scheduled crossing of the Queen Mary II had a waiting list. Five days at sea beat five days waiting to find out when you might get a seat. The stories will resound through the television business for the next twenty years. It will be legend – as such things are. And the efforts to get home will overshadow any of the business that was done there.

So, as I type this and as you read this, god’s speed to those still trying to get home. Some may not make it for another week or two.

I also heard this morning that this will change the way airlines and control agencies respond. They will figure out how better to manage something like this, the worst disruption in airline history since 9/11 and probably worst overall. Just the thing a battered airline industry needed.

Yet as I was sipping wine at the farewell party for the colleague moving to Portland, Oregon another colleague and I spoke about the mess in airline travel in Europe and compared it with other things going on in the world. There was an earthquake in China and hundreds of thousands were suffering from snow that fell today and they had no homes to shelter them. Haiti has receded from the news but Port Au Prince is still in ruins. Bombs still go off in the streets of Iraq’s cities. War is happening in Afghanistan.

Being stranded in the south of France is not the worst thing…

Letter From New York April 14, 2010

April 14, 2010

Or, as it seems to me…

In the belly…

Odyssey Networks, my base client, is a multi-faith, not for profit organization, the largest coalition of faith groups and faith organizations using media to “build bridges of understanding.” So it made every good sense that they would be attending the Religious Communicators Congress, an every ten-year event that gathered together those involved with religious communications – from denominations to religious organizations. The theme this decade was: Embrace Change.

And religious organizations, as well as anyone else in the communications biz, needs to embrace change because change is breathing down the neck of anyone who is connecting with anyone else using some form of media. It is a time when older generations don’t want to yield to digital delivery and young generations are wedded to social networking communications. Conversation is down; texting is up. Facebook and Twitter are the rage – but will they be in twelve months or is there some hot new technology about to break through? Change is everywhere. Internet viewing of video is up by 12% year to year; mobile video viewing is up 57% and with the advent of the iPad and the plethora of pretenders racing up behind it researchers are beginning to believe that in less than five years more people will be accessing ye old internet via a mobile device than they will from a land based PC. Ah, the technical times, they are a-changin’. Again. Yet. Still.

Now, if a couple of years ago someone had told me that I would be finding myself at the Religious Communicators Congress, I would have looked slightly askance though would not have ruled it out – I long ago surrendered saying I would never do something as it seemed that once I did the “never” thing became reality. But it would have surprised me so, to be truthful, it was with some bemusement I found myself at the RCC [Religious Communicators Congress] in Chicago this past week. On some level, it felt like a bit of a time warp and that I had found myself amongst many of the people with whom I had taught at a Catholic High School, back in the day. One of my colleagues, himself an ordained minister, fondly called the constituents “church people.” And they were that, good, kind, deep believing people who had dedicated much of their lives to their work which was an extension of their beliefs. They are much to be admired, as a group.
And as a group they are struggling with the rapidity of technological change that is sweeping across the communications landscape everywhere. And doing it with fewer resources – the attendance at this Congress was down 50% from the last. Many denominations are being forced into severe cut backs in staffing to deal with falling financial contributions. More and more Americans are declaring themselves spiritual but not religious and certainly not denomination focused.

Core congregations are aging and dwindling while young members seem harder to reach and the technology through which those younger members communicate can seem bedeviling. In other words, religious communicators are sharing the same problems of most of media professionals. Change is sweeping through the land and to fight it is impossible, equivalent of telling the tide not to rise. It can’t be done.

And change is affecting the way mainstream media covers religion – more and more media outlets are finding covering religion an expense they must live without. The number of reporters covering the religious waterfront is falling dramatically and those that are left behind face prodigious workloads. Say, before you leave the office could you just look over that 10,000 pages of transcript about the pedophile priest accusation and get off a story about it?

So the theme of the week: Embrace Change! was appropriate for the time. Change will come, wanted or not and there is no way to fight it so best to turn to it and embrace change as the lover you always wanted but hadn’t had until now.

Letter From New York April 6, 2010

April 6, 2010

Or, as it seems to me…

In praise of community…

The weather over the Easter weekend in New York was storybook perfect, the kind of days that look and feel like they only happen in movies and while I moved through the splendor of them, I found myself ruminating a great deal about Thursday evening, the kick off to the long Easter weekend.

My train community chose that evening, which was also April Fool’s Day, to celebrate, to throw a party to provide a send off for one of our members, Ty West, who will, for a time, not be traveling the train as often and will be depriving his friends and fans of his constant contact. Ty is a producer and has been working on NOW on PBS since I have known him. NOW is no longer going to be in production. Ty is one of those folks who you think of when you hear the phrase, “salt of the earth.” He is a good friend, witty, clever and can be a little salty at times. He is what is known as a “stand up sort of guy.”

Ty appreciates my martinis so when the call came to declare what we were going to do for Ty’s send off party, I declared I’d make a martini. I do ones for all the train events – my personal favorites were the “babytinis” I did for Kelly’s baby shower, small blue and red drinks in honor of the fact they had opted not to know the sex of their child until that child was in their arms. But instead of doing anything fancy, I opted for a traditional martini – Ty likes the traditional martini.

It was quite a gathering of folks. Even the General came down from Albany for it. The General was a General in the Army who, when he retired from the service and went to work for the V.A., opted to remain living in Albany when his job was in New York, so that his wife didn’t have to move away from her grandchildren. So he rode the train from Albany to New York City every day, year in, year out. Another stand up guy who was once on the front page of one of New York’s daily papers as the man they found with the longest commute. When I started riding the train back in 2005 as a real regular, I discovered the community on the train but you didn’t get allowed into that community unless the General accepted you. I rode the train for weeks, an observer of this close knit world of regular Amtrak riders, riding the long rails into the city day in and day out, coming from the far reaches of the Hudson Valley into the city. I began to think of Hudson as the last suburb of New York.

I didn’t get a toe hold into that world until one day the General, struggling with the Crossword from the New York Times asked the café car in general if anyone knew the answer and it so happened I did… That was my entry point into the community. I had something to offer. Not long after came one of the famous Christmas parties on the train and one day the General marched up to me and wanted to know what I was going to contribute. I said I’d make martinis. And in the midst of shaking up a batch at that Christmas party, the General called me by my name and I was, officially, a member of the train community.

It is a community which has meant much to me over the last five years – we are continuous if not constant presences in each other’s lives, held together by long rides on the rails, a Google Groups list and intermittent events like the one for Ty West – affectionately known as the “Tie one on for Ty” party. As we lumbered north, the General stood in the café car and made a small speech. I heard bits and pieces of it. I was at my post, making another batch of martinis but this is what I gleaned from his words:

We’re a bunch of strangers that have been put together by the need to get from one place to another. Because of the length of our commute we have gotten to know each other well. Sometimes we spend more time with each other than we do with our families in a given day. And so, in a way, we have become family.

So, in a way, these people have become family to each other – and to me. Through the email list we learn of triumphs and tragedies and organize reactions to each. Collection was made for a conductor whose daughter had died in Iraq. Organization has been done for birthday parties and seasonal celebrations and events like “Tie one on for Ty.” We follow the travails of Amtrak, much of our lives depend upon what happens with that organization. We, occasionally, will gather off the rails just to enjoy each other – a large extended “family,” a community born on the rails and held together by the common bonds of our human experience.

Letter From New York April1, 2010

April 1, 2010

Or, as it seems to me

Last week was spent in Las Vegas, attending the CTIA Wireless show – all things mobile. I saw every conceivable phone cover, saw a large number of apps aimed at men 18 – 34, mostly sports oriented, and anything and everything else that had to do with the mobile phone industry. The phone manufacturers touted all their phones though it was interesting that anything that wasn’t a smart phone seemed almost quaint no matter the pizzazz put into the design. For whatever reason, the Pill Phone stuck with me. It would tell you what pills you were taking, what they did, and remind you when you should take them.

It was an amazing time. I came away with the certainty that mobile would rule the world – that we are transitioning away from the place based computer to one that you can hold in your hand, take anywhere with you and soon will be able to do everything that your desktop can do. James Cameron, he of TITANIC and AVATAR fame, was on a panel saying that 3D would be coming to your mobile device. It is all going to be there, in the palm of your hand.

One of the most charming characters present was Biz Stone, co-founder of TWITTER, which has been thinking of mobile since the service was first a gleam in the eye of Mr. Stone. TWITTER has become a force in all kinds of places and a catalyst for social unrest. Witness Iran. What do you think, Mr. Stone, about the events in name the place? How do you feel about the revolution? This was not exactly, I suspect, what Biz Stone was thinking when he conceived TWITTER but it is the way TWITTER is being used – as a catalyst for social movements. He told the amazing story of a young American student journalist arrested in Egypt who twittered from his mobile: arrested. It pulled together his friends, his teachers, a whole movement which had him out of prison almost as fast as he had found himself there. The Egyptians hardly knew what had hit them. Appropriately enough, on his release he twittered: free.

Besides being deluged with mobile technology advances, I had the chance to stop for a moment and have dinner with old friends, Chuck and Lois Bachrach, which served to remind me that as giddy as we get with the devices we hold in our hands, the main purpose of those devices is to hold us together with the people who matter.

And while I was being dazzled by the technology, by the Pill Phone, by the thought of 3D on my small screen, Congress went and passed Health Care Reform, which I learned from a CNN alert sent to, of course, my iPhone. I’ve stayed fairly clear of Health Care – I don’t pretend to understand the nuances of the legislation though I know I found it particularly disturbing that the U.S. ranked 37th in the world for health care. That seemed pretty poor to me. But it was all a debate that went beyond me. I wanted better but wasn’t sure if what was being proposed would lead to better. All the noise…

But, at the end of the day, Health Care Reform was passed and it was, “a big [bleeping] deal,” thank you Mr. Biden. You have provided the perfect comment to landmark legislation, bringing it to the patois of the proletariat, the language of us all – whatever this piece of legislation is, it is a big bleeping deal as health care reform has eluded passage by Congress for over a century. It’s hard to believe but all of this started back with Teddy Roosevelt.

The dark side of it, unfortunately, is that passage has resulted in protests that go beyond the pale of what should be happening in America. Do we really need death threats to accompany passage of a piece of legislation? Does vandalism need to be the coda? I wish I remembered my Civics lessons better – has this much anger been evidenced in the past or is this a new phenomenon in the life of the Republic? Certainly it seems deeper than any divides that I recall even as technology builds bridges across the divides.