Saturday, January 17, 2009

Yearning to Burn

LP OrgyI’m not saying there’s a pyrophile in your station house, but some of the firefighters I know pack matches in their turn-out gear. I’m not saying there’s any sickos in the mix; no rain-coated strangers out by the woodpile, clutching their jollies while the abandoned orphanage they’d just poured gasoline on starts to crackle and pop. No Sir, I’m not saying that at all! So get your twisted nose out of my imagination and know that of the first responders I come into contact with, ALL are heroes in waiting. Hell, even the women got bigger grapes than me! I’m just saying there’s an unspoken affinity for incineration among Your City’s Bravest. Why else would they constantly think up news ways to burn old shit down? Yeah, yeah - I know: TRAINING. Whether they’re sticking firecrackers in a mannequin’s mouth, lighting hay bales inside some old barn or weirding out high schoolers with their DUI theater, you’ll not find a gang of grown-ups more apt to torch a crackhouse than those cats with nicknames for their favorite axes.

Thus, it was only by employer mandate that I attended Friday’s Fire Expo at the Lawrence Joel Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, a trade show of sorts for folks with red lights permanently mounted on their dash. I counted a couple dozen showroom-ready fire engines when I arrived - which incidentally was just after 5 AM! Hey, how did I know I’d end up outside during the coldest dawn in four years when I agreed to work an upcoming morning shift? I didn’t, but as (my lack of) luck would have it, I ended the work-week all a shiver, cursing the distant rising sun as guys with last names stenciled on their helmets threw the switch on an LP tank and created a roiling tower of fire and smoke just so they could have fun putting it out. Did I mention it was less than 11 degrees?

Video HenchmenThat’s what the thermometer read, though I’m assured by the meteorologists sipping coffee back on the set that it felt much colder. Thanks, fellas! If I could feel my fingers, I’d use one of them to express my appreciation. Instead, I’ll just huddle here in the sub-zero freeze and try to remember just how much I hate the heat. Luckily, I’m not the only camera-schlub out here fighting frostbite. Two of the other stations sent crews too and together we’ve all rued the day we didn’t pursue fields like library science, golf course management or video game design. That way we wouldn’t be out here in the elements, extremities tingling and twenty something show stackers counting backward in our red, raw ears. For God’s sake, just look at me and George Harrison here… If Batman had a cold, camera-handling nemesis named, I dunno, Lenslinger, we’d be his bumbling and clumsy video henchmen. This has been fun and all, Chief, but the next time you want to scare the homeless with your little LP gas-blaster, can we do it a little later in the day?

Like June?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Understanding Idol

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The American Idol auditions are back and for once, I'm not obligated to watch 'em. Sure, El Ocho still proudly airs this broadcast juggernaut - but unless local boy Chris Daughtry has a cousin who sings love songs in a lilting Irish brogue, I don't forsee any more free plane rides to Hollywood for me or Mrs. Smith. Still, the Idol shadow looms long; as soon as some caterwauling waitress takes center stage, friends and acquaintances hit me with the same old questions...'Do those people really think they can sing? Do they line up to be humiliated? Is Simon Cowell really that big a dillweed?' which I can offer an unequivocal "YES". But I find short answers don't suffice, so here's a few obligatory thoughts from inside the World's Cheesiest Sing-Off - in hopes that nice neighbor lady will stop asking...

American Idol LineSure, a few of the folks who assemble outside the auditions only want their fifteen seconds of shame, but the vast majority are quite convinced they're on the precipice of global stardom. This belief has little to do with vocal ability, and more to do with unwise parental encouragement and in-car acoustics. Hey, YOU sing along to the radio while driving, right?

American Idol Greensboro AuditionsWhatever doubts a contestant may have about their singing talent quickly dissolves when herded together with thousands of other delusional crooners. With worldwide adoration seemingly minutes away, gangbanger bonds with sorority chick, metrosexual high-fives redneck. I've often thought if we could only capture the harmony of an America Idol audition crowd, we could bring peace to the Gaza Strip.

american idol day 2 035Show producers do NOT spike the crowd with weirdos, actors or ringers. Those folk show up on their own with costumes and imaginary friends in tow. Producers DO scan the assembled masses for the freakiest, the geekiest and the super-hot. What they have no use for those singers who are 'pretty good'. Pleasant, sane, adequate? NEXT!!!!

Kellie PicklerBackstory trumps all. Above all else, Idol is a TV show - not a talent search. A person with a tragic background, inspiring history or cute accent will advance faster than the generic choralist. Example: Long before Kellie Pickler uttered a word, I - and every other heterosexual male - was clocking her every move. When she opened her mouth and delivered a serviceable vocal and sad biography all wrapped in a ditzy Southern drawl, the television Gods took notice too.

american idol day 2 039By the time, contestants make it to the celebrity judges, they've sung several times for producers, waited d-a-y-s in line, made new best friends, hyperventilated a time or two and ogled Seacrest up close and personal. That any of them maintain a modicum of sanity (let alone talent) when shoved into a room full of lights, lenses, Randy, Paula, Simon and crew is a true testament to the human condition.

American Idol ContestantMost of course fail miserably. Camera crews from Idol and the occasional FOX affiliate hover around Ryan (a really nice, Southern boy at heart) and family members as they make their egress. Seachrest is the only one (on camera) who knows if said singer triumphed or choked and conceals his hidden knowledge well. Most singers slink out, heart in hand and walk away mumbling. Some emerge apolectic over their dismissal and curse a blue streak - which of course attracts even more cameras - at which point we chase them to their car, their bedroll or their parole officer.

American Idol WristbandSo there you have it, a glimpse into the circus that is early-season Idol. Though it's certainly lost soem of it intial oomph, critics pronounce this phenomenon dead at their own peril. While I would never encourage my own kids to try out for the show, it has proven a successful career path for a scant few and dashed the dreams of thousands more. Love it or loathe it, it is still brilliant television.

Then again, so was Hee-Haw.

A Year of Fear

Press SpaghettiEver get the feeling you’ve been cheated? It’s more than the coda of an endlessly overrated punk rock band; it’s the mind frame of many a broadcaster these days. Those of you in the business know what I mean. Those of you who aren’t can still play along at home. Mind you, I’m not asking for pity. ’The Media’ - that faceless entity blamed for everything from global warming to Sarah Palin’s shortcomings is not the kind of thing people easily feel sorry for. I get that. But, then again, I’m not talking about the pompous cable news screeching heads with the chauffer and sense of entitlement. No, I’m speaking of the hard-working men and women whose skills and nature make up the very underbelly of the nightly news-beast. Photographers, editors, associate producers; the folks who bust their collective humps not for treasure or glory, but for a humble stipend and a chance at an interesting career. For years on end, it was possible to pay (most of) the bills by mastering a single craft and learning to live without the credit you so richly deserved. Even that now, seems to be coming to an end.

Lay-offs, buyouts, unpaid furloughs. 2009 is barely two weeks old and already the business of TV news feels like it’s in freefall. Pundits far more prescient than I have predicted this for years, mostly due to the extrapolation of a dozen newfangled gadgets. Magic laptops and diminutive lenses were the opening salvo, but the keelhauling economy is what’s about to sink this ship. Sure, there will always be television and newscasts aren’t soon to shake their mortal coil. But the methodology behind them is already splintering, because the technology makes it possible, because the lack of money makes it a must. Still, knowing this seismic shift was coming makes it no simpler to stay on your feet. Neither does it make it any easier to watch good people hurt. I have many blogger friends who rue the day ’corporate media’ gained power. They’re often the same ones who hang on their local newscasts’ every breathless syllable - if only to gleefully disparage the messengers. Hope those folk get as much pleasure from watching old Mork and Mindy re-runs…

When I first began slinging lenses in the fall of ’89, I knew I would witness breathtaking upheavals. I had no idea they’d take place within the hallowed halls of broadcasting. No, this ain’t the process. In fact, a job at a TV station ranks somewhere between computer repair and a really good milk route. Unless it’s your face on the billboard, it’s pretty damn thankless. Now however, the crazy pace, oddball hours and total lack of gratitude looks downright fetching. People who have made bellyachin’ about their jobs into performance art are simply grateful for the latest paycheck. Oh, how the surly have fallen. That includes me, of course; I can bitch with the best of them. But what used to set me off now just fills me with dread, for all bets are officially off. Luckily, I’m pretty versatile. If logic should prevail, I’ll be fine. That’s what worries me the most - especially when I see people more talented than I accepting less between gritted teeth. Simply put, dark clouds on every outlet's horizon. Those dire conditions may not last forever, but I'm beginning to wonder who’ll still be standing when - and if - this perfect storm passes.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a shelter to erect.