Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why Did You Lose the Olympics?

Olympic Flames

Moments before 10 p.m. Tuesday night, February 23, 2010, I reached for the remote to turn on another TV to catch the news. South Korean Ice Dancing favorite Kim Yu-Ni was about to perform. So, I left KXAN TV (NBC) on. Literally, the moment that I pressed the “On” button for the other TV, KXAN went blank, followed by the hated and feared message, “No Signal”.

The other TV didn’t come on either. So, my first thought was that I had fried my TVs. The other channels were there. The next thought was that it had to do with either Time Warner Cable (TWC) or KXAN or both. I tried a TV not connected to the cable hooked to a DTV conversion box. “No Signal” from KXAN. There was also “No Signal” from KXAN’s sister station KNVA TV. Hmmmm.

I went to Facebook, and it was like a collective “YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!!!” was being screamed across the community. My “friends” were not happy. I went to the KXAN fan page. Wow. You talk about unhappy and pointedly vocal.

Meantime, there was no immediate explanation on either the site or the fan Facebook site. I posted what had happened to me on my site, and soon got new information. Viewers using Grande and AT&T U-Verse were still watching without interruption. Then, there were Facebook messages from friends inside of KXAN saying that there had been a fire at the transmitter in West Lake Hills. No injuries. I posted that information to Facebook too.

There was more to the story. If U-Verse and Grande were still getting the feed from KXAN, part of the problem must reside with Time Warner. Years ago during the retransmission dispute between TWC and LIN TV, KXAN TV’s owner, Time Warner used to take KXAN’s programming off of the air (OTA), making the resulting product on cable inferior to the other channels. That contractual issue was resolved about a decade ago, and TWC began taking the transmission via fiber.

So, unless TWC’s fiber was burned in the electrical fire, TWC was again taking KXAN’s signal off the air.

In the meantime, KXAN plugged in Olympic programming to its third station KBVO-TV, Channel 14, if you can see it all of the way from the Hill Country. Most in the metro area cannot see KBVO with a DTV conversion box. You must have Time Warner Cable or some other service. KXAN notified viewers using its emergency email system. By the time I got the email from KXAN regarding the switch to KBVO, the Olympics coverage was long over at 10:44 p.m. soon had a message regarding what was going on. Nothing was posted to the KXAN Facebook fan page. So, I copied and pasted the message there:

“KXAN lost its signal shortly after 10 p.m. due to a fire at our transmitter site. KXAN and KNVA are both affected. We are working hard to restore the signal and in the meantime KXAN Olympic coverage and news will be broadcast on KBVO. KBVO is on the following channels SD Digital Over the Air N/A 14,51 Time Warner N/A 1525 Grande 18 318 AT&T 7 1007 Suddenlink 15 725 DirecTV 51 N/A Dish Network N/A”

I was promptly chewed out by a viewer on the fan page who said she wished that I’d posted the information sooner, and I had ruined her night. She apparently thought that I worked for KXAN. (Just like old times.)

Today, Wednesday, February 24, 2010, Eric Lassberg, KXAN TV’s president and general manager confirmed my suspicions of why the Olympic coverage didn’t continue in Time Warner Cable.

“Yes, they were taking our signal OTA (Over the Air). We were unaware of this until the incident,” Lassberg says. “After we made them aware of KXAN’s loss on their system they quickly re-established a signal connection via the provided fiber by approximately 12 a.m.” How could this happen? “I believe they had past equipment/system issues that made them take our signal OTA and not via fiber.”

A TWC engineer says it is a million to one coincidence that they would have issues at the same time KXAN would have a fire at its transmitter, but that’s what happened, according to TWC spokesperson Angela Williams. Williams says KXAN’s signal is now coming to TWC via fiber.

So, why did you lose the Olympics coverage? Time Warner was taking the transmission over the air instead of fiber. Who may be more angry that you, the viewers? KXAN TV. Why? They are nearing the end of the important February sweeps.

© Jim McNabb, 2010

Monday, February 22, 2010

Telling Thursday's Story

Pro Photographers Needed

Images of the horrifying and disturbing scene of last Thursday’s apparent suicide by airplane into a building in North Austin reaffirms why we need a full staff of professionals and especially professional photographers in newsrooms. For hours on end, television news photographers documented the scene. The pictures were page one above the fold in the Austin American-Statesman three days in a row.

Yes, reporters could have shot some pictures. They probably did, but reporters have another job. Yes, the first pictures on television or the Internet may have been from folks with flip-cameras or cell phones—passersby. Those pictures are of marginal quality, but for first pictures, they’re OK. After a while, they began to all look the same, however.

One local TV station tried to show what was happening using broadband early on, but about all you could see was the dashboard of the news unit. Another local TV station stayed on sorry-looking broadband images far too long late Thursday morning. Perhaps they were just showing off. Perhaps they didn’t have a live shot set up. Whatever. Broadband live shots are great if they are the first live images from a scene before the professional photographers and live truck operators show up, but they cheat the audience after the fact.

Another scary detail reported in a newspaper story regarding the use of so-called social media in news quoted a KTBC-TV (Fox) assignment editor saying that he heard emergency radio scanner traffic regarding the incident and passed it along on Twitter. That is doubly dangerous. Emergency communications picked on a scanner are nothing more that the first indication, not verification, that something happened. Scanner traffic should never be reported as fact, even on Twitter. It’s totally unprofessional.

During a fluid “spot news” story, there is no substitute for a professional.

At the scene, there is no substitute for pro photogs. Ralph Barrera, Jay Janner, Rodolfo Gonzalez, and colleagues at the Austin American-Statesman shot hundreds of frames. They are in a “slide show” on the American-Statesman’s web site, Their wide angle photos of the scene were on the front page day after day.

Thursday was Thomas Costley’s birthday. Costley is a photographer and live truck/satellite truck operator for KXAN-TV (NBC). Costley was on the job, working his tail off all day. I’m betting that Thomas would have been fishing otherwise. Costley, however, is a pro.

Another multifaceted pro, mentioned here before, is KEYE-TV’s (CBS) chief photographer John Salazar. Once again, Salazar, gathering in all of the information and images in his mind, several times delivered the most complete, concise, and cogent descriptions of the events ON CAMERA. No telling what he was doing with his camera when he wasn’t live. Salazar’s live reports were better than any reporter. Once, the station pitched to him just as a news conference was beginning. KEYE did not have a live camera at that location, but, Salazar pushed his cell phone into the news conference as the TV station used other images. His day was long as well.

Sometimes, you are in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, you are not. KXAN was out of position for at least two news conferences. Probably, it was through no fault of their own. TV stations set up their live shots where they can get the best shot, but the news conferences may not be happening there.

All broadcast stations and News 8 did fairly well covering the story. KVUE and KEYE had something of an advantage because of their locations in north Austin, but it’s all about execution.

My philosophy was to be the first on the scene and the last to leave the scene. All stations resumed programming shortly after the noon hour, no one really wanting to be last.

The bottom line in TV spot news is pictures. It’s not reporters. It’s not anchors (There was entirely too much speculation from the anchor desks.) It’s not graphics. The bottom line is video—pictures. The best pictures come from professional news photographers.

When and if Austin has chiefly reporters shooting pictures and video—one-man-bands—we will have taken a giant step backwards.

© Jim McNabb, 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010

KVUE-TV and Dell

Mobile Television Tested in Austin

KVUE-TV (ABC and Belo) and Dell are now testing mobile television in the Austin area. Dell and several other manufacturers including Samsung are developing diminutive digital televisions that can get TV reception almost wherever you wish, and local televisions are installing the technology to transmit programming to them.

KVUE-TV president and general manager Patti Smith says tests are going on right now in Austin. “We are currently transmitting mobile TV in a test with Dell,” Smith confirmed. “Through its membership in the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) and working with other likeminded broadcasters, our parent company BELO is invested in making mobile television a reality in all 15 markets in which it operates. In Austin, we are testing equipment with Dell so that we will be better prepared once we are ready to launch nationwide.”

If you set up your DTV converter with “rabbit ears” before the DTV conversion last June, you know that the signal can be iffy. A picture can freeze in pixels and go to black if the signal strength is too weak, or you don’t have your antenna pointed properly. So, how can a mobile TV capture such a signal?

It takes new, recently approved technology for both the transmitter and the receiver. TV stations in major markets are spending $75,000-$150,000 for new equipment for their towers that will transmit the digital signal within their assigned bandwidth.

On the other end Dell and other manufacturers will be offering new receivers. The new Dell Inspiron Mini 10 Netbook, Samsung Moment Mobile Phone from Sprint, LG Mobile Digital Television, and Tivit for Current Wi-Fi Phones are among current consumer devices. Manufacturers are promising high quality video from the tiny screens. Most agree a lap top computer will be the optimal portable TV device.

Research indicates, however, that younger viewers may prefer the smaller screens on their cellular phones. Further, they may be inclined to watch news and weather from that kind of receiver, rather than the same thing on a big screen in the den or living room. An Open Mobile Video Coalition survey in December, 2009 indicated that 65-percent of potential users are in the 18-29 years age group. They are “early adopters” and smart phone owners.

To be clear, this is not subscription or pay TV. This is live, free, over-the-air local television programming.

"The Dell Inspiron Mini 10 with built in Mobile DTV technology will be the perfect solution for watching local TV broadcasts on the go, like catching the morning news and weather while riding a commuter train," said John Thode, vice president, small screen devices, Dell. "Devices like the Inspiron Mini 10 are the multi-tool of personal technology for digital nomads who want to be connected and productive, but also want instant access to a great entertainment experience." (From Business Wire)

The first mobile television devices are expected to be on the market in April, 2010.

Austin is among only a handful of TV markets participating at this point, and only KVUE-TV is the only known station here. As of last month only 30 stations nationwide were on the air with mobile TV technology. Other Austin stations contacted by email did not respond immediately.

© Jim McNabb, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Staff Changes at Austin TV Stations

Goodbye and Hello

Austin television reporters will be getting younger again. Two experienced and knowledgeable broadcast journalists will be leaving their respective stations in the coming days. Clara Tuma and Jenny Hoff are leaving Austin’s airways. That means new, probably younger replacements.

Friday, February 12, 2010 will be the last day at KVUE-TV (ABC) for award-winning reporter and fill-in anchor Clara Tuma. After eight and a half years at Austin’s #1 station, Tuma is leaving broadcasting to work for the Lower Colorado River Authority as a senior communications specialist handling media inquiries among other things, meaning that she may end up on the air, but not holding the microphone.

Tuma’s reporting will be missed and hard to replace. Before coming to KVUE, she worked for what was cable channel “Court TV”. She also worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas Lawyer and Court TV before moving to KVUE. Tuma used those legal experiences to great advantage in finding and covering legal stories at the local level. Landing in Austin was easy since she is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, and she also has family members here.

Leaving day-to-day journalism won’t be as easy. “I think I'll have constant news withdrawal for a while! The only job I've ever had is being a journalist, and I'm sad to be leaving it,” Tuma says. “At the same time, I'm tremendously excited about trying something new and entering the next phase of my life. Imagine a job where your next deadline isn't rightthisveryminute!

That longing for reporting will be easily assuaged. “In all these years, I've never had a job where I had nights, weekends and holidays off. I've never had Thanksgiving AND the day after Thanksgiving off (they're holidays, but I've always ended up working one of them), Tuma says. “I don't know what I'll do election night, but I'm really looking forward to the summer and not being out in this heat all the time.”

Hmmm. Did the LCRA tell Tuma about responding to the media during floods?

Jenny Hoff won’t be leaving KXAN-TV (NBC) until the end of April. Hoff learned recently that she has been awarded a Robert Bosch Fellowship landing her in Germany. Hoff has been KXAN’s political reporter and weekend anchor over the past five years.

“The Robert Bosch Fellowship aims to foster stronger transatlantic relationships between emerging American and German leaders in various fields. They selected 20 professionals from across the country who work in the areas of journalism, business, policy, and law to spend one year in Germany,” Hoff says.

The fellowship is a step toward a longtime goal. “Recently, I went home for my 10 year high school reunion and saw a poster on the wall that we had all written on while we were seniors,” Hoff says. “The question was, ‘What do you want to be doing in ten years?’ Well, I found my name and saw what I had written – ‘be an international correspondent for CNN.’ Ok, so it isn’t CNN, but it’s certainly a step closer to international reporting!”

“In addition to studying the language, I will work with a ministry in the German government to observe policy making as it relates to the rest of Europe and the United States,” Hoff says. “For the second phase I will work with Deutsche Welle Television which reports on European news in English. I might also get a chance to work with CNN Berlin. The fellowship will also bring us to various seminars in other countries to learn about the issues facing European businesses and governments.”

Leaving Austin is bitter sweet. “I have a great life here with a job I love as well as fantastic friends. Needless to say, I will miss the city the minute I leave it. However, it is because I started getting so comfortable that I decided it was time to try something new and I plan to come back often!!”

Hoff’s job is not yet posted on the KXAN web site.

KVUE-TV, a Belo-owned station, has been under a hiring freeze. Frank Volpicella, news director, says that he will be able to hire a replacement for Tuma. Further, another new reporter will be arriving next month. “I did hire a reporter from Waco, Jade Mingus, to fill an open position I had for about a year,” Volpicella says. Jade begins next month. She works at KCEN-TV (NBC) right now.

Prior to moving to Waco, Mingus was a reporter and anchor at KOMU-TV, the NBC affiliate in Columbia, MO. “There I covered everything from statewide political issues to the rebuilding of New Orleans,” she says on the KCEN web site. In Missouri she also worked in radio for KMOX in St. Louis and KBIA, the NPR affiliate in Columbia.
She is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with a degree in broadcast journalism and a minor in political science.

One other post script: Former KXAN sports director Michael Coleman is now in New York. Earlier this month he was honored as a “Black Media Legend” sponsored by McDonald's, along with James Brown of CBS sports. Congratulations to Coleman who to New Yorkers is known as “Mike”.

© Jim McNabb, 2010

Monday, February 8, 2010

Does KGSR-FM Still Sound Like Austin?

It's Changed

KGSR-FM (93.3) sounds different. Can they still say it “Sounds Like Austin” “Where the Music Comes First?” Some 765 longtime listeners have formed a Facebook page entitled “I love KGSR, but Please Bring Back the Old Format”. It wasn’t that long ago that Rolling Stone Magazine proclaimed KGSR as one of the ten radio stations in American that don’t suck.

Now, these listeners beg to differ, saying things like:

“First KGSR and now the Cactus? We're Austinites - we can change this! Don't mess with our music!”

“I thought it was just me. I noticed lots of older music that KGSR never played. Sounds more like a frustrated college radio programmer got control of the station and is now running wild. IT SUCKS!!!”

“I don't think the old format is going to return. They are saying they couldn't keep the doors open playing the music we love. I wish they had made a plea to loyal fans before changing things. I surely would have gone out of my way to support their sponsors if it meant saving a unique station.”

Chris Edge, KGSR program director is open about the changes. After looking at slipping ratings, changes to the format were initiated last fall. Then, folks slowly started coming to the realization that the KGSR-FM that used to play everything was shifting its playlist. Edge argues, however, that KGSR still sounds like Austin, although “Sounds like Austin” is not a phrase they are currently using on the air.

“We are the most Austin Centric station there is,” Edge says. “Nobody else plays the music that we do.” Edge challenges listeners to name another station that plays the following artist in regular rotation: Spoon, Lyle Lovett, Iron + Wine, Willie Nelson, Ryan Bingham, and Bob Schneider to name a few. [We are] continuing to play the best Adult Alternative records available to us. We also continue to play the music that made 107.1 what it was (just in smaller doses) It’s all still there.” Edge says KGSR is still playing around 1,000 songs.

“I would add what makes us Austin is not just our music it’s what we do. We raised close to 150k for HAAM this year through our Broadcast CD. We are one of the most community focused radio stations in Austin.” Edge says.

There are still many familiar voices on KGSR, even though the man who started it all, Jody Denberg, is gone along with Susan Castle, former music director, and some others. DJs are talking less and playing more music, Edge says. “It’s the number 1 reason why people listen and we are trying to deliver on that.”

Here’s the problem: For several years even loyal listeners have referred to KGSR as K-Geezer. The demographics were aging. Well, that would be OK if they were still listening in droves, but it’s not OK when you’re operating a local radio station and not attracting new listeners. “We are trying to perform in the 25-54 demo [demographic category], we have performed poorly here for many years and we finally had to make a change,” Edge says. Bottom line: It’s a business.

The shift from 107.1 megahertz from a transmitter located in Bastrop to 93.3 from a tower in Cedar Park was to increase audience with a bigger footprint. Edge says they are hearing from new listeners as well as the old.

The original local radio station of which it could be said that it sounds like Austin took the air in early 1970s. Billboard Magazine reported that KRMH-FM (Known to fans as Karma) was going on the air with a footprint that covered Austin and San Marcos with studios located in Austin. It broke the mold.

According to the program director Richard Gembler, KRMH-FM would feature better rock music. The traditional “easy-listening” and country music selections from the Billboard “Hot 100” would be thrown out. “The playlist will consist of 250 records, 150 of which are albums. An average of four cuts per album will be cleared for play,” Gembler told the magazine. With great specificity in the November 1, 1971 issue, Gembler broke down how many “oldies”, how many “Hot 100” singles, how much blues, folk, and jazz would be included. “Progressive” was the term used to describe the sound. At least two KRMH-FM veterans are still here, including recording guru Joel Block whose father was called the first DJ in the 1930s, but that’s another story.

Would that I could hear a station like that again. They were pioneers.

The other pioneer radio station that would sound like Austin was KOKE-FM, where they coined the phrase “Progressive Country”. In 1974 KOKE-FM received the "Trendsetter of the Year" award from Billboard Magazine for its Progressive Country format. Joe Gracey is said to have first approached the country station with a Willie Nelson :45 rpm record. It was redneck and hippie “Outlaw Country” music all at the same time with a little bit of rock, and it sounded like Austin at least until 1977.

Both of these radio stations and their formats went away. KGSR’s original mix outlived both KRMH and KOKE, but tweaks were made along the way. “When we first started, we were WAY OUT THERE, and we didn’t succeed enough in revenue and ratings to make our station profitable,” Denberg told The Austin Daze magazine in 2005. “It’s a commercial radio station, so it’s a balancing act, and it’s a tightrope act.”

It was a different age when KRMH and KOKE went away. It was a time before the Internet. The Internet lends a different meaning to local when one is talking about local radio. Since 1989, KGSR has become a part of the fabric of Austin—an ethos that extends beyond the city limits through Internet radio. It is a new “local”. Unfortunately for listeners, they do not figure in the cold, hard, empirical facts—the Arbitron ratings. At least they aren’t counted yet.

© Jim McNabb, 2010