Friday, October 07, 2005

Initial Thoughts on ConvergeSouth

Rather than spend my fifth consecutive shift with the American Idol gang, I took a rare day off to attend ConvergeSouth. How could I not? After all, it's a two-day summit of journalists, bloggers, nerds and eccentrics, all gathering in my adopted hometown to discuss the new media rennaisance that's reshaping the very landscape of communication. As Winston Churchill said as he cast his stern but loving gaze over the British citizenry, "THESE ARE MY PEEPS!"

Okay, so Churchill never said that, but had he ben immersed in the world of hip-hop, I'm sure he would have uttered those very words. But I digress; back to Converge South. Oh yeah - many of my broadcast buddies have chided me for attending (and even leading a session of) this 'geek-fest', but what they don't yet understand is that the many topics we laptop-junkies are exploring will directly affect their industry as well. As for myself, I'm, keen to learn about new technologies, but I get most excited when the conversation turns to the power of the written word, something I have a great love for. I'll hold more thoughts on this momentous event later, but for now check out some of my friends...

C'mon, who wouldn't wanna party with these cats - they're madmen...

Here, Billy the Blogging Poet helps a lady establish her own blog. At least that's what I hope he's doing...

Out in the lobby, John Lowder, Roch Smith, Jr. and a tiny sliver of Ben Hwang's head get their geek on.

My name is Ruby and I am an internet addict...

Not Brian Clarey. He's Old School. Here, the Yes!Weekly editor checks out the competition. I also saw him stuff a few coupons in his pocket, but that's not important right now...

More pictures, opinions and links to follow. For now, I got some bar-b-cue to eat.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Last Day at the Cheese Factory

While a hundred giddy hopefuls squirmed in their seats next door, the American Idol judges held one of the more vapid press conferences I've ever attended. Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson had barely been in the Piedmont twelve hours before they took a break from passing out tickets to Hollywood long enough to address the local press. The wacky morning guys from 98.7 Simon set the tone for this important news summit by warbling an off-key rendition of 'Happy Birthday' to their supposed namesake. "Thanks, fellows" said Cowell, who turns 46 on Friday, "but your voices are dreadful." Simon's quip sparked a few giggles amid the press pack, but after they died down, an uncomfortable silence fell over the overlit room.

Pulling back from the viewfinder, I looked around at the familiar faces gathered around my tripod. Hardened news faces from local print and broadcast outlets stared back at the celebrities, momentarily stunned that this triple-headed monster was indeed in the Gate City. Cowell, Abdul and Jackson stared back, uncertain what was about to follow. Mercifully, my colleague Shannon Smith broke the impasse with a harmless salvo. " So, what are you guys looking for in Greensboro?" Her question got the ball rolling nicely. The trio, who have a habit of speaking at the same time, told the scribes and lensmen how delighted they were to be holding auditions away froma major metro area, how they'd already seen more fresh faces and excited attitudes than the last big city they visited.

True or not, the journalists nodded and scribbled, as if these three showbiz oracles were revealing great truths nstead of pimping the upcoming season of a banal talent contest. About that time, Ryan Seachrest popped in and joined the panel, dashing all hopes of serious exchange against the shores of winking grab-ass. 'Hey, where's some of that good bar-b-cue?" asked Randy. "Lexington, Stamey's, Smokey Joe's," came the responses. I don't want to reveal my own culianry inclinations, but let's just say if an out-of-town limo pulls up outside Prissy Polly's in Kernersville tonight, someone owes me a check.

A few more questions and snarky answers followed, most centering on Simon's age, Paula's lovelife and Randy's vocabulary. I'd like to share the details with you, but between juggling lenses and fending off exhaustion, I soon lost interst in this most meaningless of media encampments. Truth is, I was just happy to be at the end of a very long week, ready to flush my mind of all this thwarted vocal ambition and focus on something I found infinitely more interesting: ConvergeSouth. See ya there...

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Caged Birds, Singing

What could make sharing the sidewalk with a hundred hopped-up troubadours even more enjoyable? Rain, of course! A drowsy curtain of tiny water droplets billowed in the pre-dawn light, slowly drenching the surface of every plugged-in gizmo I dragged out of the live truck. Usually I grumble like a belligerent wino when facing such an occupational hazard, but today I was far too busy checking out the crowd. You would too, if dozens of divas-in-waiting sashayed through your street-level studio and flashed the lens a come-hither stare. But it wasn't just the la-dees. Persons of every inclination, equipment-list and towing-capacity strolled by, all clutching their American Idol round 2 audition sheets like the tickets to paradise they assumed them to be. As they shuffled forward on their slow road to stardom, I wiped raindrops off my viewfinder and once again considered this clamor for renown. Not that I'm immune to it, what with my dreams of bookclub eminence and all. But my own ill-founded literary aspirations pale in comparison to the maniacal zeal displayed by these above-average karoake champs. Quite simply, I ain't got the pipes (or the grapes) to stand in front of a bunch of out-of-towners and belt out a showtune or two. While I most certainly question their forethought, fashion sense and frame of mind, I give them full props for pursuing their dreams. Besides, they make for the best low-brow television this side of professional wrestling.

Not that everyone gathered outside the Greensboro Marriott this morning didn't belong there. Among the clusters of gigilos and dreamers, powerful voices lay cloaked in silence. You see, once contestants make it past Round One, producers insist they not sing publicly, except in the presence of Idol cameras. That vocal embargo trickles down to the local level, preventing me and my affiliate buddies from recording anything above their speaking voice. As a result, I'm never sure who's the future singing sensation and who's the potential late-night punchline. Sure, back on Monday most of them screeched and brayed in the tally light, but after surfing a crowd of eighty-five hundred crooners, I've long lost track of who soared and who sucked. I use to think I could tell, until I tuned in to last year's D.C. Audition show to see a skinny white dude I'd watched sleep in a park all week blow his long-awaited chance in front of the celebrity judges by forgetting the words to a Whitney Houston classic and storming out in a flurry of F-bombs. Since then, I've decided to keep my foregone conclusions to myself. Take Fireboy, for instance. Back on Monday he stood out from the start, dressed as he was in full turn-out gear and flip-flops. No one was too surprised when producers pushed him through to Round Two, with strict orders to keep wearing the heavy coat and helmet. For all I know, this Duplin County teenager could possess a voice for the ages, along with a simple penchant for first-responder wear. But as I watched him pace and fret this soggy morning, I had my suspicions.

But what do I know? I'm no record producer or voice coach, just a curious lenslinger with a backstage pass and prediliction for hyperbole. When the army of Idol handlers let the collective warblers inside, I squeezed in with them. As they filed into a large conference room for a crash course in Irene Cara, I weasled my way into the show's camera cluster and acted like I belonged there. Hey, I didn't just fall off the test-pattern truck; fifteen years of electronic interloping have taught me a thing or twelve about implied consent. Of course it didn't hurt that my weapon of choice is a Sony XDCam, a rare-enough axe that still gets the average cameraman foaming at the lens. With my trusty tool and a friendly Idol publicity lady, I scored yet another front row seat. But this time, I wasn't hovering on the edge of calamity. I was riding point on a safari into the overgrown jungle of ambition and ability. While I stared through the tube at a closed door, a tender soul on the other side scanned the row of unknown faces for someone notable before launching into song. For a select few, it was a bold step toward world domination. For most, it would be the defining moment of a thwarted career. Whatever the case, they'd have to take the sudden judgement for law and leave the roo, but not before passing by me and a guantlet of wide-angle lenses and prodding questions.I didn't say I was proud of my involvement in this talent show phenomenon - just strangely fascinated by it all. Besides, it ain't the income that keeps bringing me back (though it certainly helps), it's the access, baby. Always has been, always will.

The rest of the day was a slow-motion trainwreck of heightened emotions. For every aspirant that came bounding out of the room like a newly-discovered lottery winner, ten more left slump-shouldered and dejected. Clutching their tickets to Round Three, the winners, bear-hugged family members, high-fived strangers, dropped to their knees in divine gratitude before hopping up and launching into an endless stream of hysterical shout-outs. Though they merely earned permission to be judged by itinerant celebrities, the good folks dancing with incoherent joy acted as if they just discovered the very keys to immortality - which if you think about it, is just what they're after. I'm happy to say Fireboy was among the victors, though he was NOT one of the three seperate men who pulled off impressive backflips in front of my lens. As for those entertainers invited to promptly get lost, reaction was noticeably more subdued. Tears rolled down glittery cheeks, eye contacted averted and lauded voices cracked with tragedy, all while cameras leaned in and rolled.

Despite the rejections, very few cast-offs resorted to profanity. Most just acquiesced to the producer's decision, thanked The Man Upstairs and skulked off with a shred or two of dignity intact. This overall aversion to provocation didn't please the Idol crew too much, for they were in search of salacious programming. But I smiled inside with every show of restraint, chalking much of it up to repressed Southern graces. By the end of the day, I was drenched in residual joy and full-splatter sorrow. When it finally came time to break down my gear and leave, I did so slowly, knowing that as surrreal as much of today was, ther reasl action starts tomorrow, when Paula, Simon, Randy and Seachrest blow into town, ratcheting the madness to almost unbearable levels. As soon as my ears stop ringing, I'll file a full report.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Supplicants to Fame

If you saw the line of brightly-attired strangers loitering along Greene Street this morning and wondered when the Marriott booked the Body Glitter Convention, relax - it’s just day two of the American Idol auditions. The hopefuls arrived early. Before the sun even rose above the Gate City, they emerged from the mist - lacquered, coiffed, and more than a little starry-eyed. Who can really blame them? Just yesterday, they joined the Great Unwashed outside the Greensboro Coliseum, a giddy, warbling crowd of 85 hundred strong, yearning for a shot at fleeting fame. Today, they are part of the select few - one of only a couple hundred superstar-wannabes asked to return for a second crack at the same old song.

Those who made it to round two were strikingly diverse. Grown men in two shades of liner gabbed happily with street-tough ladies in tats and gold teeth. A tall lanky fellow in denim and a cowboy hat swapped tips and e-mail addresses with a squat fellow straight out of a video from The Cure. Shapely young women sporting cleavage, midriff and blonde ambitions batted their eyes at two young men who could double as Greek statues. Amid it all, I cruised the scene with my own average looks - pausing occasionally to let the seven hundredth consecutive person tell my camera “I AM the next American Idol!” Rather than argue with them, I merely nodded and smiled behind the viewfinder while I scanned the crowd for the forlorn and the photogenic.

Needless to say, it was a target rich environment. Just a few divas down, a young Air Force Sergeant fidgeted and squirmed, turning on his heels to pace back and forth until he wore a shoe-shined groove in the sidewalk. I tracked him with my lens and picked up on his misery. Honing my focus, I followed him on the tiny screen at the end of the eyecup, not sure whether he was about to burst into song, drop and pop off fifty push-ups or commandeer my new cell phone and call in an air strike. I’m happy to report that later in the afternoon, the good Sergeant made the cut, passing on to round three and keeping the Republic safe for at least another fortnight. Let’s just hope Paula, Simon and randy dig his stripes come Thursday. Otherwise, I’m digging that bomb shelter I’ve put off for so long.

A few feet away from Sergeant Hard-Rock, a smiley young lady from Saginaw Michigan bounced what may be the world’s cutest baby. With an accent straight out of the movie ‘Fargo’, she explained how her young daughter really didn’t mind spending the day in line. From the look on the baby’s face, Mom was right. Had I tried the same thing with my own daughters when they were that age, they would have surely spewed, levitated and scored their own reality show. Luckily for the child, Mom’s pipes eventually came up short and she was banished form the land of All things Idol. The last I saw of her, she was tearfully hugging a fellow contestant she’d bonded with in line, the adorable child sleeping mercifully under the crush of heaving bosoms.

Of course, those who expected a private audience with the celebrity judges got a surprise once they entered the Marriott. Thrust a copy of the lyrics from the song ‘Fame’, twenty-somethings in Idol Crew shirts encouraged all who would listen to learn the song. To help drive home that point, someone cranked up the Irene Cara hit to somewhere past eleven. By the fifteenth time it played over the loudspeaker, everyone within earshot was singing along - including a certain news shooter with literary aspirations. About that time, I lost full control of my senses, seeing only what passed through my viewfinder and hearing none of it. Before I knew it, fifteen hours had passed and I slouched back to the live truck for the last time, knowing I’d have plenty of time to tell you all about what happened inside the auditions when I returned on Wednesday to do the whole bloody thing over again. Don’t touch that dial...

Awash in American Idol

I had hoped to bring you details of American Idol's visit to Greensboro, but spending sixteen l-o-n-g hours with 8.500 rabid warblers has pretty much zapped my creative juices for the moment. But fear not dear reader (hello...anyone?), for I am redoubling my efforts to cover this momentous, if insipid event. Monday, the singing masses swarmed the Greensboro Coliseum, all clamoring for a shot at stardom and lots of humiliation along the way. Rockers, rappers and the occasional headcase all showed up before dawn, many belting out off-kilter showtunes while camera crews tracked their every delusional move. Of course, by the end of the day producers had dashed the dreams of most with a dismissive 'You're just not what we're looking for'. OUCH! But for every couple of hundred bummed-out wannabes who emerged dejected, an estatic songbird burst from the coliseum doors screaming ' I AM the next American Idol!'

Hoo-Boy. Tuesday the greatly reduced Idol ranks gather again for further reduction, with a certai namount of flailing about and gnashing of teeth. I of course will be there, turning it all into suitable television and looking for things to blog about. Here's promising a fuller report in the very near future. Seachrest...OUT!