Saturday, January 31, 2009

When Pizza Isn't Good Enough

My eye was caught recently by an article in the campus newspaper about Pizza with the Provost being cancelled indefinitely. 

Reason: "Waning interest".

Initially I didn't pay this little tidbit much mind...until I got an email from a chum at Public Radio International, which is based in my adopted hometown of Minneapolis. If you hear the BBC on an American radio station, it's thanks to PRI. 


She is trying to figure out how to get the young folks interested in international news, which is why she turned to me (I guess 30 still counts as young.) She unfortunately does not have pizza at her disposal to lure the youth audience to compelling public broadcasting produced international news. Isn't that an oxymoron anyway? 


I will confess: I've given up on the Lehrer News Hour (sorry, Jim!) But I make sure to check the BBC's website and watch the latest Bill Moyers program (online of course - why should I have to sit on my couch at 9pm on a Friday night? I have a social life!) And occasionally I even do this with a few slices of pizza - I got my junk food, and feeding my mind with the vegetables. Too bad reading and watching quality news doesn't trim down your waistline. What a great invention that would be. Note to self: must develop device that connects consumption of quality news and relevant information to weight loss. 


Free food is a great incentive to get people out with the hopes of catching some interest. But ultimately, content (to use the old cliche) is king. And as much as the university here in Athens has talented administrators like the Provost - we don't really care. Well, some of us do, but the flyer beckoning the majority to "eat free pizza with the provost" lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. And let's face it: she's not Barack Obama. This was one of the issues for waning interest: no issues! What point was there in going to hear the provost when there wasn't anything pressing to talk to about? Also, look at the picture in the article in the Post - there is the provost standing at the head of the room, looking to poised to deliver a lecture. Thank you, I'd rather spend the money on an extra large and hang out with my buddies playing Beer Pong and Wii. 

I'm not advocating Student Senate start "Beer Pong with the Provost" (though that would be funny if illegal), but why can't we expect our university elders to be, well, human? I've heard plenty of students voice concerns about various issues at coffee shops and parties - those ideas are out there. 


So here we are back at square one: how do you (or the royal we) get young people interested in the boring tedium that is civic engagement? To that I say to the older generation, don't give up! Email links to articles or videos to your students or young people in your life that you think they might be interested in. Don't use easier words because you think young people won't know what it means. Make references to people or places to expand their knowledge base ( I did this recently referring to a recent film I'd seen as akin to a torture session with Torquemada - hyperlinked here for your convenience or if you know someone from Spain, ask them. He's world famous in Spain.) 


The greatest connections we have are personal - not pizza. Our information is as good as our social network - so take your role in your social network seriously! I go in twice a week to do a radio shift on campus. I'm a lot older than the students, and my attempts to integrate via joking are often met with confused stares - but occasionally, grins and "wow, you're weird". Sometimes I'll throw out a bone - like when I teased one of the TV news anchors about stumbling over the word testes - we had a nice communal giggle. But just by being there, coming from a different lifestyle, a different background, a different perspective, I believe I am contributing to the Great Conversation. 

And I do it without any pizza.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Before There Was Obama...

I was looking through my notes after meeting with senior executives last month in public broadcasting in Washington D.C. What struck me was how almost every single person we met with talked about how public broadcasting could appropiate the Obama campaign's fundraising strategies. 


Lest we forget, and I mentioned this with the good folks at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS, Howard Dean did in fact revolutionize campaign fundraising through the Internet during his nomination bid in 2004. Before there was Obama, there was Dean. 

But even before that, lest we forget, there was Richard Viguerie. He didn't run for office, but he is the granddaddy of the conservative fundraising arm, pioneering direct mail to solicit donations for the conservative cause, and ultimately getting Ronald Reagan elected. 

My point is this: we get easily swept away with the new technology and how it transforms, for example, elections. But we forget while the technology has changed, the ideas are the same. Whether you use the Internet, or direct mail, you are manipulating the technology to serve a communication end. 

It reminds me of an intern who wrote in her script for a radio story "because of globalization" and then led into the story. I asked her what she meant by globalization. How was what she describing in her story different from the global economy forged by the British Navy and the Dutch East India Trading Company? She didn't have an answer, but the lesson for me, at least as a journalist, is to think historically. Journalists can get very caught up in the moment of a story, and forget why it's relevant in the long term. 

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Twilight Zoning

On a mission of self-improvement, I decided I need to break up my steady diet of non-fiction (Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, Lukas' recount of forced bussing in Boston, Samantha Powers' biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello) with a novel. 

But who needs a novel when you've got the marathon broadcasts of the Twilight Zone on the SciFi Channel? 

I haven't seen these since I was a kid, and terrified by most of them, like the grotesque "The Masks" where a dying patriarch twists his greedy family members' faces to suit their disgusting personalities. 

Some of the episodes have lost their impact - their whole force was the twist that came at the end, and I remember almost all of them (like when the nurse takes the bandages off in episode "The Eye of the Beholder".) 

But some are timeless gems of imagination that rival any great piece of literature. 

The one I'm watching now is "Two". No dialogue, a couple speeches by Charles Bronson, and the silent Elizabeth Montgomery, who are the two remaining survivors of a human-made post-war apocalypse from opposing armies ( you can see this by their different uniforms.) 

The irony of the situation is not lost on Bronson's character, who is trying to persuade Montgomery's character he won't hurt her: "But I can see the only way of showing you my honorable intentions is by force." He pauses. "And I'm so terribly, terribly sick of fighting." 

It reminded me of the news media today, desperately trying to convince people that they need news, that it's relevant, and they keep cramming the same content with the same pundits talking the same lines over and over again. The newspapers, with their honorable intentions, are publishing with their last show of force. And they do seem terribly, terribly sick of fighting. 

The news media is going through a form of purgatory, and the phoenix will emerge from the ash. Because we need the media. To create wealth, to further industry and innovation - but we also need it because we're social and we seek out channels to establish new relationships, build on existing ones, and terminate others. We're curious about each other and what's going on in the world and in our own backyards. 

I suppose the news industry has entered its form of the Twilight Zone. 

This has been a love story about two lonely people.