Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Freedom vs. freedom

Here's a story I spotted on line with all sort of implications:

It seems that the cheerleaders at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School, of all people, have opened up a fascinating Constitutional situation. For the past six years, they have been preparing the paper banners that the football teams runs through, just like practically every other high school team does before a game. In fact, they seem to spend part of their summers getting them ready.

Here's the catch: The banners contain Bible quotations.

The Chattanooga paper has this story on the controversy.

Be sure to read some of the comments at the bottom of the story. It's caused quite a debate in the community. I particularly liked the line of thought that went something like, "If you don't like it, stay home."

The legal analysts in the audience can bring up all sorts of discussion points here. But two came to mind for me immediately, one of which was also raised by Sports by Brooks, without taking sides here:

1. What if the cheerleaders put up Muslim quotations?

2. What would happen if a football player went out of his way to avoid running through the banner?

Ah, freedom of speech. Full of trapdoors.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Unbiased viewpoints

It's fun to troll around the Yahoo! Answers section of the Internet. Readers post questions, hoping for answers from, well, somewhere. As you'd expect, there are a lot of kids who are hoping someone else will write their term papers for them.

The sports section is pretty boring as these things go; the questions rarely get deeper than "Is Alex Rodriguez the best player in baseball right now?" or "Will the Red Sox defeat the evil Yankees tonight?" (The answer to that last question, of course, is "I hope so.") More interesting, though, are the sections devoted to News and Events, which includes journalism, and Politics and Government. It's a way to find out what the latest oddest theory is -- that's where I first heard about the theory that somehow Barack Obama was born in Kenya.

While some people like to merely rant on Yahoo! Answers, and others are busy campaigning to get Glenn Beck a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the subject of media bias comes up a lot. A lot of questions along the lines of "Where can I get an unbiased source of news?" pop up. Speaking as someone who has been in the business for 30-plus years, I can at least have opinions on the subject of bias in the news media. Here are a few of them:

There is far less room for bias in the news that people think.

Look at the newspaper on a typical day, and a vast majority of the stories are pretty straight-forward. Legislature passes bill. Robbery takes place on south side of town. Traffic patterns changed by construction. Whatever. Not much room to slant stuff there, as it's just a matter of reporting the facts. Every reporter brings a personal set of biases into his or her writing, but they rarely apply.

A majority of reporters tilt slightly to the liberal side of the political fence.

I think there's two reasons for this. The journalism business seems to attract people who have a "I want to change the world" philosophy, and they lean left. Plus, the news business likes to see things happen -- there's a bias toward events taking place -- and liberals take a more pro-active approach on matters than conservatives. Therefore, liberal approaches are better for business in that sense.

Those are moderated a bit by a couple of other factors. Ownership of media outlets usually is pretty conservative, as it can't afford to offend potential advertisers. The lower you go on the chain, the more likely that such interference can be a problem.

And anyone who thinks reporters sit around in large groups waiting for the next call for the Kremlin hasn't been in a newsroom. There are plenty of Republicans in the media. In fact, they are sometimes the loudest people in the room because they think they are greatly outnumbered and believe they have to shout at times.

Readers and viewers sometimes can't be bothered to tell the difference between viewers and commentators.

Some people probably lump the major network news broadcasts in with the cable news shows at night. There's a world of difference between them. Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity show up with a definite viewpoint when they do an evening show. While ABC, CBS and NBC aren't perfectly unbiased at the dinner hour, because that's impossible, they come much, much closer to that goal. Heck, Charles Gibson isn't even registered to vote, because he says he doesn't want to think about such decisions while he's in his current job.

Meanwhile, the audience shouldn't prejudge an entire news-gathering operation on one part of it. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page may not be particularly readable most of the time, and the only columnist who is even usually interesting is Peggy Noonan, but the rest of the paper is filled with good reporters who write interesting and important stories.

Along those lines ...

Don't trust commentators who think they are always correct.

The older I get, the more I realize that the world gets less black and white than I realized the day before. You'd never know it by watching some shows. Hannity, Olbermann, Beck, Rachel Maddow, Bill O'Reilly ... all sometimes wrong but never in doubt. Depending on your political persuasion, you no doubt find some of them smug and others brilliant. But there's always another side to any discussion.

Just saying you are fair and balanced doesn't mean you act like it.

I think the first time media bias came up as an issue was when Spiro Agnew spoke out about it 40 years or so ago. (Now there's a guy I want to identify with.) Since then, conservatives have been pounding that issue like a drum, and the idea has taken hold with some of the faithful.

The brilliance of the concept of Fox News, economically speaking, was to change the model of the newscast to cater to that audience. Fox has grabbed a good-sized share of the relatively small cable news market that way, making lots of money in the process. Fox even draws some liberals on to appear on its shows at night, as the audience is large enough to be an attraction even if the reception is liable to be on the rude side. MSNBC at night has trouble finding someone to the right of John Dean.

It is funny, though, to hear reactions to Fox's approach. I've had conservatives say that they watch Fox because it's the only news source they trust. The liberal viewpoint was well summarized by Glenn Locke, who said that if Fox can claim to be fair and balanced, he can claim to be tall and thin.

Which shows, I guess, that one man's bias is another man's truth.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Happy birthday

What sort of fan would I be if I didn't include this 60th birthday tribute to the Boss?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Wicked Radio in Clarence

Did you know there was once a radio station in Clarence, New York?

Actually, you had to live on Wenner Road in the early 1970's to know about it. Let's go back 38 years or so ...

I moved to Clarence in 1970, and soon became friends with Jeff Hodge from down the street. Jeff was involved in amateur radio as a hobby and got me involved in listening to distant radio stations, which I've written about here in the past.

At some point, Jeff was showing me around his basement and he showed me the remains of a wood board about the size of a piece of looseleaf paper. It had some sort of transistor board on it, with a couple of input jacks. (Somewhere, Jeff is saying, "No, no, no, it wasn't like that at all.)

Jeff told me that the unit actually could be used for broadcasts on the FM band -- legally. The light bulb went on, and we decided to make it a joint project one summer.

This was a fine example of division of labor. Jeff was the chief engineer, so he put the transmitter together at his house. My bedroom was the broadcast studio, with the antenna wire coming in from my roof into a window. Since my house was had more records than his did, I won that argument and became programming director.

Jeff did his magic -- no wonder he went into engineering at Syracuse -- and got the transmitter working. I believe we exceeded the legal antenna length by a few dozen feet. Then again, it's not like we were in any danger of competing with anyone else's signal. We had a golf course to the north and an open field to the south, so reception was limited to a few houses to the east and west.

After considerable thought by 16-year-old's standards, we came up with WYQD. If you use your imagination, you can turn the call letters into Wicked, as in Wicked Radio. We even checked to make sure that no other station in the United States had used those call letters, as if that was necessary. Our frequency started at 92.1 or so, but -- since the frequency could be altered by a mere bump to a screw on the transmitter -- it changed relatively frequently.

I believe Jeff came up with the trademark of the station. We signed off each time with the song, "The Little Old Lady (from Pasadena)" by Jan and Dean. That sort of set a tone for the station. I can't say the music selection was exactly diverse.

Once we actually proved we could get on the air and clown around on the air a bit, the summer project ran out of steam. Its greatest use came when I'd plug in a record to the transmitter, put on a radio with headphones and mow the lawn with my favorite tunes playing in the background. Think of it as a much more complicated iPod, with far worse fidelity. And then supposedly (I have no memory of this, but someone else did), someone on the air said a nasty word, and the local version of the FCC (Jeff's father) came down and closed down the operation. One of our guest DJ's, no doubt.

One memory seemed to stick with people, though. At some point in the summer, I took over the role as marketing director of the station. That consisted of seeing an ad in some magazine that said, "Put your own message on a sweatshirt for only $7," or something like that. Opportunity clearly was knocking, even if I was the only one that thought sweatshirts were a great idea in July. I canvassed our audience, the other kids on the street, and took orders for sweatshirts and t-shirts. They all read "I listen to WYQD, Wicked Radio in Clarence, 92 on the dial."

No, I don't have the shirt. I would guess that at that price it became unraveled in about an hour and a half. But the memory remains. When I got back in touch with a couple of members of the neighborhood gang through Facebook over the last few months, they both mentioned the station and the shirt right off.

WYQD lives!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Day in the life of a Bills' fan

I know how you feel, buddy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Indiana University has started a new site called the National Sports Journalism Center. You can read it by clicking here.

Anything that has a Dave Kindred column involved is off to a good start, and it's interesting that blogs are included. This may be worth a regular look in the near future to see its direction.

Two Guys

There was a reference on Mary Kunz Goldman's Facebook page the other day to the Two Guys store on Sheridan and Niagara Falls Blvd. in Amherst. I sprung to attention. That store was part of my youth ... twice. And it also connected to one of my favorite broadcasting stories. But we'll get to that in a moment.

Two Guys was one of the original discount stores. It was originally called Two Guys from Harrison (as in Harrison, New Jersey); you can read the whole story, which is sort of charming, by clicking here. When we lived in New Jersey when I was 5 to 10 years old, Two Guys was a regular stop on our shopping hit list.

In hindsight, it was a great store for an 8-year-old. It had all sorts of stuff, it was a little messy, and most of it was pretty cheap. Kind of looked like my room, with fewer baseball cards. I bought my first music 45 there, which was "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" by the Beatles. You'd think there would be a plaque on the site, at the intersection of Routes 46 and 23 in Northern New Jersey, marking the historical location. On the other hand, I think Interstate 80 was built right through the electronics section of the site of the store, so perhaps it's good no one bothered.

We moved to Elmira, where there was no Two Guys but an Elmira Discount -- complete with ads featuring a voiceover by "Danny Discount," the store's owner. My sister went to high school with his daughter; she was called, sure enough, "Holly Discount." But when we moved to Buffalo in 1970, there was Two Guys. It was still gloriously cluttered, and still the place to buy cheap record albums.

Two Guys had expanded to several states, but I would guess that the march of national stores such as Kmart and eventually Walmart doomed it. By 1981 or so, stores were closing ... including the one in Amherst. Which brings me to a story told to me by the late Bob Koop of Channel 4, which dates to that time.

Koop was doing a news broadcast one night, and the end of one segment featured a story on the death of actress Natalie Wood, I believe it was. There was a somber shot at the report's conclusion of flowers thrown on top of the ocean. When the story ended, Koop said nothing as the picture faded to black with the required amount of solemnity. The first commercial in the break was a loud one: "TWO GUYS SAYS GOODBYE FOREVER!!" Once Koop stopped laughing, he said to those on the set, "Doesn't anyone check the commercial log?"

Jacquie Walker of Ch. 4 says that story is still told around the newsroom with great relish.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

To a new season...

It's not well known that Marv Levy loves fight songs. One time, when the Bills faced a big game, he promised that he'd write one for the team if they won. Marv kept his part of the bargain. He then sang it on his show on the Empire Sports Network.

Here's an eight-second clip; there must be a longer one somewhere:

I went out to Colorado right after this and visited Glenn Locke. When the full clip was teased, I told him he had to watch ... but he showed limited interest. Then it came on.

Once Glenn stopped laughing, he said, "You didn't tell me this was the funniest moment in television history." We just have to find the long version for YouTube.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Another sellout crowd

The post from Heather on her blog, Top Shelf, jumped out at me. I tend to pay attention when someone talks about The Buffalo News sports department, and this phrase caught my eye: "I want Sully and Bucky [Jerry Sullivan and Bucky Gleason] to write whatever they want about the Sabres but I want them to stop dragging fans into it."

Now I'm not here to defend Jerry and Bucky, as they can do it themselves, but I am here to point out something that happening in Buffalo sports that is pretty close to unprecedented and has received little attention -- and it connects to what Heather is saying.

The relationship between Buffalo's teams and their fans have changed. It's now a case of "root, root, root for the home team; if they don't win it's the same." I'd argue that's a huge alteration in the dynamic.

Let's take a little history lesson here. For years and years, most of the other NFL teams sold their building out before the players reported to training camp. In a strictly economic sense, they had little incentive to win games. Any extra income from championships was offset by increased expenses in payroll.

One of the exceptions was right here, as the Bills played in a relatively small market in a huge stadium. When the Bills were awful, as they were in the late 1970's and mid-1980's, the fans disappeared by midseason. So there was a strong incentive to put together a good enough team that would generate enthusiasm and fill the empty seats. The team did that in the Super Bowl run.

The Sabres rode the initial enthusiasm of their entry in the NHL for about 12 years, when the sellouts came to an end. After that, the crowds were usually good, and a hint of success was enough to sell the building out regularly.

In both cases, you probably could split the crowds into two parts. The first was the base, composed of season-ticket holders and rabid fans (sometimes the same people). These are the people that show up week in and week out, buy the uniforms, put the flags on their cars, etc. No matter how the score comes out, these people find pro sports entertaining, and they aren't going to deny themselves the pleasure of going if on-field activities aren't particularly good. (These are the people who wouldn't let a strike/lockout interfere with the love of the game, for example.) You need that sort of support just to prevent the peaks and valleys that come with a team's ups and downs over the years.

Then there are the "bandwagon fans," who are much more likely to buy tickets when the team is doing well. In other words, they "vote with their wallets."

If I'm reading Heather correctly, she's saying that sometimes the columnists wonder why those on the bandwagon are still going for the ride, still supporting the teams despite a run of mediocrity in the last few years -- and she doesn't want to be lumped in with those fans. Can't blame her for that.

But here's the change -- the base for Sabres and Bills game is now practically a sellout. Buffalo sells out most football games -- the cold weather contests at the end of the season usually have empty seats if the games mean little -- and most hockey games -- a Tuesday night against the Islanders might have a few fewer fans, for example. In other words, winning is less important to many in the fanbase than the entertainment value they get from games.

I think there are two big reasons for that -- marketing and fear of departure.

The Bills and Sabres were a bit late in coming to the marketing party, but they have learned that opening the doors just isn't enough any more. The Bills have tried to sell tickets more regionally, and they have reduced their season-ticket price by pushing games to Toronto. The team also has learned to work with the corporate community in a variety of ways. The Sabres have done things like variable pricing and a variety of community projects to reach out to the fans.

The fear of departure is the more interesting situation, though. Bills' fans know the team's lease is coming due in a few years, and that a team owner could earn at least a potential $250 million by moving the franchise to Los Angeles. And that doesn't include the current dance with Toronto interests. The NFL certainly is the biggest sports spectacle in the country, and Western New Yorkers want to do their part that it stays here. Sabres' fans were reminded just how fragile the team-fan relationship is when the team drew fewer than 10,000 per game at times during the whole Rigas bankruptcy scare of some years back. As the good folks in Phoenix will tell you, a team can try to depart for other pastures without a great deal of notice.

I'm not saying that there aren't limits to a fan's patience when it comes to winning, because there are. Put a team like the Detroit Lions of 2008 (0-16) in The Ralph, and you'd have empty seats bloom like flowers in the spring. But pretty clearly, the fan base has grown, and that has to be recognized.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Note from the front

So you want to be a sports columnist? Go to all the games for free? Sit back and make keen observations that make thousands nod their heads in agreement?

Fine. But remember the downside. Ask Mark Whicker about that.

Whicher is a columnist for the Orange County Register. He recently had the odd idea to try to write about what Jaycee Dugard had missed in her 18 years of confinement.

That's right. It was a fun, upbeat column pegged to a woman who had been held against her will for 18 years, and raped by her captor.

Here's the column, complete with links to apologies:

A baseball blog has some interesting comments after reviewing the story; it includes some attempts at defenses from Whicker. Scroll down to find them.

All right, Whicker goofed. And the editors did too. Someone should have raised a few thousand white flags and said, do we really want to print this column?

I think there's a larger point at work here, though. As the newspaper business moves into the on-line world, the pressure to produce material quickly grows and grows. There's less time for reflection as we try to emphasize speed. So columns like this will sneak through.

And here's the bad news: There will be more of them, and not less, in the future.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Positive I'm negative

I think I'm the guy that once said that preseason games are forgotten within five minutes of the start of the National Football League season.

OK, I'll stick to that.

I'll also say that there hasn't been this much pessimism about the start of a Buffalo Bills' season since, oh, 1971.

You might recall that season as the one where John Rauch was fired just before the start of the games that counted for criticizing some of his ex-players in a television interview. He was replaced by Harvey Johnson, who was involved in one terrible season as an interim coach in 1968 (going 1-10-1 after replacing Joel Collier). Those bad feelings were justified; Johnson actually lowered his career coaching percentage with the Bills with a 1-13 season.

Why the long faces, Bills fans? Let's count the ways.

The Bills haven't made the playoffs in almost a decade. Dick Jauron has coached the team for three years, and gone 7-9 each time. Last season the Bills collapsed after a good start, as young quarterback Trent Edwards took a step sideways at best.

In the preseason, the Bills' starting offense scored exactly zero touchdowns in five games. Then on the eve of the season, Jauron fired offensive coordinator Turk Schonert. Schonert went out the door saying that Jauron wanted to install a more simple, Pop Warner-like offense. Ouch.

Two days after cutdown day, the Bills released starting left tackle Langston Walker. That means Demetrius Bell, who has as many pro starts in the regular season as I do, will take over on the most important spot on the line. Oh, and if he's nervous, he can at least talk about it with a pair of rookie guards. That's four new faces on the line from last season. What's the over/under for the number of games Edwards stays healthy?

Oh, and today Terrell Owens, when asked by the New England media, said he didn't really like the Bills' no-huddle offense. Bills' fans have been watching Owens like a volcano, waiting for a sign that he's ready to explode. The joys of having a combustible wide receiver are many.

Need some good news? It looks like a great year to be looking for a coach in December. The list of available candidates, at least potentially, include Bill Cowher, Brian Billick, Tony Dungy, Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren -- Super Bowl winners all. And it might be a great year to get a quarterback out of college, what with such players as Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and the intriguing Tim Tebow joining the rest of the Class of 2010.

On the other hand, Bills' owner Ralph Wilson has never been one to go out and sign a big name for big dollars as a coach, at least since Chuck Knox came aboard about 30 years ago. And yesterday's college quarterbacking standout always has the chance to turn into the next Rick Mirer or, heaven forbid, Ryan Leaf.

And who wants to write off an entire season before it starts? I'll bet the people who have bought season tickets don't.

You know how you feel like averting your eyes when you see an accident coming? I wonder how the ratings will be for opening night against the New England Patriots.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

What to do?

It's not easy writing a blog these days.

We recently took a trip to Fallingwater, the famous house in Southwest Pennsylvania. Trip is the operative word, since it's about 90 minutes away from Pittsburgh. If you are going, get off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, keep going south through Normalville -- the town where everyone in school has a temperature of 98.6 and a C average -- and you'll hit it.

Fallingwater is quite a place. You should go. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann (I love to use the word magnate). At first Wright thought about building a house right next to the waterfalls formed by the creek, but then he opted to have the water go through the house in a sense. The house has plenty of patios to take advantage of the scenery.

Yes, it's a spectacular location. The house has been left more or less alone in terms of furnishings since the Kaufmanns left the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963. So there are plenty of books from the 1950's around, for example. Most of the furniture was designed specifically for this house, which has the effect of making the place more like a museum than a home. In other words, Fallingwater might be a great place to host a dinner party, or to visit as a tourist, but you might not feel comfortable pulling up a chair to watch a big game.

The Conservancy does have a few quirks about how it runs the place. It sends tours of 12 or so through the area every few minutes or so. The tour we took felt rather rushed, as if the guide was ordered to maximize traffic and by extension revenue. The place is very costly to maintain because of all the moisture in the area, but that attitude didn't exactly enhance the visiting experience. At the end of the tour, guests are placed in a converted carport and shown a DVD about the value of contributing to the Conservancy. This makes the tour's conclusion feel like a sales pitch for a timeshare in Florida, a unique feeling when visiting such a unique facility.

Photography isn't allowed in many portions of the house, which is understandable. You can take pictures on the paths around the house and on a couple of the patios at the end of the tour. Fine. But placed on the literature for the facility is a warning that photographs are not allowed on Web sites without permission.

That raised the question, can I place a photo on my silly travel blog, Road Trips!? Being the responsible guy that I am, I wrote the Conservancy and asked for permission. The reply came right back: "Our photography policy does not allow any commercial uses of Fallingwater images. Hope that helps."

Well, no, not really. So what's a blogger to do?

I wouldn't call this a commercial site, so I posted a picture of the place that came out relatively well (it's a tough spot for photos because of the differences in light caused by the forest). But, if you see this blog entry yanked off line sometime in the near future, you'll be able to guess why.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Demo Derby

The smoke?

The crushed metal?

The big crowds?

It must be another Demolition Derby.

Is there a better way to mark the end of a vacation that this?

Well, maybe. But the demo derbies are traditionally the highlight for the Clarence Center Labor Day fair. They are held Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and feature entries from local volunteer fire departments.

Seeing the demo derby makes me realize how much time I watched such programs as ABC's Wide World of Sports while growing up. Because I still remember a great deal about the "techniques" of the sport.

Wide World showed some important events, of course, mostly in the form of auto racing and track. But for diversity's sake, ABC threw in some other events. I would guess that barrel-jumping and the demolition derby were two of the most famous events that popped up once a year or so.

The derby was usually held in Islip, New York. Sometimes Islip hosted figure-8 races, in which the "highlight" came at the intersection of the double loop. Inevitably a few drivers would try to sneak through the crossing ... and get pounded by another driver coming the other way.

But while that was a race of sorts, the demo derby was sheer mayhem. A field of cars would crash into each other, with the last car running declared the winner. When you are 8 to 10, what's better entertainment than that?

I saw two demo derbies this weekend, and the difference was like the gap between Triple-A and major-league baseball. On Saturday, the drivers came out cautiously, cruising around the perimeter in many cases to avoid collisions. On Sunday, every driver came out ready for contact. In the first five minutes, there were several bumps that had the audience moaning, "Ohhhhhhh...." At one point, one car knocked another one clear out of the "field of play" and into the bushes and trees on the far side of the picture.

It's probably a sad commentary that I still remember the key strategic point of the demo derby for drivers. You want to throw your car into reverse and back into the engine of another car. If you go front-first, you end up damaging your own engine too much. Kids, remember that in your first derby.

After about 20 minutes of slam-bam action, the Rapids VFC outlasted Clarence Center to take home the trophy. I've seen Super Bowl winners who were less thrilled about a championship than the Rapids driver after his win. It looked like he would have done a Carl Edwards backflip if he knew how. And the fans filed out happy, starting the countdown to the next derby.

(For a better-written account of the Derby, check out the column by Rick Reilly from an old Sports Illustrated by clicking here.)