North Carolina

You are currently browsing the archive for the North Carolina category.

It seems fitting that among old medical records I found this portrait of Doctor Dave, my comic persona on radio and in print back in North Carolina, forty-five years ago. The artist is Alex Funk, whose nickname at the time was Czuko (pronounced “Chuck-o”). Alex is an artist, techie and (now literally) old friend of high excellence on all counts.

And, even though I no longer have much hair on my head, and appear to be in my second trimester, my wife and son just said “Oh yeah, that’s you” when I showed this to them. “Totally in character,” said my wife.

I guess so. As Dave says (and does!), I’m still diggin’.

In the spirit of that, I thought this would be worth sharing with the rest of ya’ll.

 

docdaveMy given name is David. Family members still call me that. Everybody else calls me Doc. Since people often ask me where that nickname came from, and since apparently I haven’t answered it anywhere I can now find online, here’s the story.

Thousands of years ago, in the mid-1970s, I worked at a little radio station owned by Duke University called WDBS. (A nice history of the station survives, in instant-loading 1st generation html, here. I also give big hat tip to Bob Chapman for talking Duke into buying the station in 1971, when he was still a student there.)

As signals went, WDBS was a shrub in grove of redwoods: strong in Duke’s corner of Durham, a bit weak in Chapel Hill, and barely audible in Raleigh—the three corners of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. (One of those redwoods, WRAL, was audible, their slogan bragged, “from Hatteras to Hickory,” which is about 320 miles as the crow flies.)

As a commercial station, WDBS had to sell advertising. This proved so difficult that we made up ads for stuff that didn’t exist. That, in addition to selling ads, was my job. The announcer’s name I used for many of the ads, plus other humorous features, was Doctor Dave. It wasn’t a name I chose. Bob Conroy did that. I also had a humorous column under the same name for the station’s monthly arts guide, with the image above at the top of the page. That one was created by Ray Simone.

Ray and David Hodskins, another WDBS listener, later approached me with the idea of starting an ad agency, which we did: Hodskins Simone & Searls. Since we already had a David, everybody at the agency called me Doctor Dave, which quickly abbreviated to Doc. Since my social network in business far exceeded all my other ones, the name stuck. And there you have it.

We all know what this symbol means:

usedhead

Two people are not allowed to share an iPad.

Just kidding. It means the lavatory in the airplane is occupied. Also that it can be used by persons of either gender.

Which gender you are is of no concern to the airline. Or to the lavatory. Because it doesn’t matter.

The fact that lavatories outside airplanes generally sort visitors by gender is also not a big deal. They’ve done that for a long time. To my knowledge this is a matter of custom more than of law.

But for some damn fool reason, “conservative” legislators (you know, the kind that supposedly don’t like new laws and bigger government) in North Carolina, which was my home state for two decades, decided to pass the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, which was meant to overturn a piece of local legislation in Charlotte prohibiting operators of public facilities from discriminating on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Much freaking out has ensued since then. All of it could have been avoided if conservative sympathies actually applied. Meaning, leave well enough alone.

Or just don’t be stupid and pigheaded, which North Carolina’s legislature and governor are clearly being right now.

 

 

4-1-06 detroit & ccs 005 web

Once, in the early ’80s, on a trip from Durham to some beach in North Carolina, we stopped to use the toilets at a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. In the stall where I sat was a long conversation, in writing, between two squatters debating some major issue of the time. Think of the best back-and-forth you’ve ever read in a comment thread and you’ll get a rough picture of what this was like.

So I sat there, becoming engrossed and amazed at the high quality of the dialog — and the unlikelihood of it happening where it was.

Until I got to the bottom. There, ending the conversation, were the penultimate and ultimate summaries, posed as a question and answer:

Q: Why do people feel compelled to settle their differences on bathroom walls?

A. Because you suck my dick.

That story became legendary in our family and social network, to such a degree that my then-teenage daughter and her girlfriends developed a convention of saying “Because you suck my dick” whenever an argument went on too long and wasn’t going anywhere. This was roughly the same as dropping a cow: a way to end a conversation with an absurdity.

The whole thing came back to me when I read Pro-Trump Chalk Messages Cause Conflicts on College Campuses in the NYTimes today. The story it suggests is that this kind of thing regresses toward a mean that is simply mean. Or stupid. For example,

Wesleyan University issued a moratorium in 2003, after members of the faculty complained that they were being written about in sexually explicit chalk messages.

So I’m thinking we need a name for this, or at least an initialism. So I suggest BYSMD.

You’re welcome.

 

 

 

nc_cash_banner2015_740bI’d like to find a way to say “You may be owed money!” that doesn’t sound like spam. But I that’s the message, and it’s true, so here you go.

A few days ago a cousin-in-law told the extended family’s mail list about the North Carolina State Treasurer’s Claim Your Cash! program for recovering unclaimed property people don’t know about. That’s its graphic, above.

Since I lived for two decades in North Carolina, I filled out the very simple form on the site and found that I wasn’t owed any money, but that other relatives with the same surname were.

So then my wife found California’s Unclaimed Property Search page, run by the state Controller’s office:

banner

Since I’ve been a California citizen since 1985, she thought we might strike some gold by filling out the form there. And we did: six unclaimed property results. Four of them were easily handled by filling out online forms. After a few minutes of that, checks from the state totaling about $840 were on their way to my mailbox. Of the remaining two, one was for $0, and the other (for about $50) required the added labor of printing out and mailing in a form.

Since I also grew up in New Jersey and lived there for awhile after graduating from college, I checked with that state’s treasurer’s office as well. They sent me to MissingMoney.com, which covers all states. It found nothing in New Jersey and “less than $100” in Massachusetts, where I also lived for a few years. That one has a smaller form. Like all the others it warns you to be absolutely sure about how you filled it out, because you can’t go back. In my case it told me my social security number was wrong, and then jumped me to a page that said “Your information has been sent to the state” before I could go back and re-try. (It either wants or doesn’t want dashes in the social security number. Dunno which.) So I don’t know what will happen there.

Still, if you’ve been an adult long enough to pay a lot of bills (especially to doctors and hospitals), or to hold an insurance policy, you may be owed money that has come into the possession of a state.

So check it out and see how you do.

Tags: ,

Check this out:

oakleaf

I took that screen shot at the excellent Oakleaf restaurant in Pittsboro, NC a few days ago. Note the zero bars (or dots) of telephone service, and the very respectable (tested!) data service. To confirm what the hollow dots said, I tried to make a call. Didn’t work.

This seems to be a new thing for T-Mobile in North Carolina, where I spent much of this summer — or at least in the parts of it where I visited.

The company’s mobile phone coverage is pretty lousy to begin with, on the whole: great on highways and in the larger towns; but spotty when you head into the suburbs and countryside. What changed is the sudden near-disappearance of voice phone coverage in some places where it had worked before, and the improvement at the same time of data coverage.

At my sister’s house, near a major interstate highway, I could use my phone on the porch or in the yard, but not indoors, where I’d see the most dreaded two words in mobile telephony: “no service.” Or at least that was the case in July and early August.

Then something strange happened. I started getting data service indoors at her house, and in other places where before there was nothing. But all I got was data, identified by that little “LTE.” Telephony was five empty dots. At my sister’s place I also couldn’t make or get a call out in the yard, on the street, or anywhere in the neighborhood. But the data service was now terrific.

So I’m wondering if this is just me, or if T-Mobile is lately favoring data over telephony in some places. Anybody know? (I note that T-Mobile’s coverage maps only seem to deal with data, not telephony. But maybe I’m missing something.)

By the way, I should add that I wouldn’t trade T-Mobile for any other carrier right now, because I travel a lot outside the country. In addition to fine coverage in New York, Boston, and all the places I tend to go in California, T-Mobile gives me free data roaming and texting everywhere I go, and 20¢/minute on the phone. Yes, the data rates tend to be 2G rather than 3G or 4G/LTE. But it tends to be good enough most of the time. It also makes me tolerant of a less-than-ideal coverage footprint here in the U.S.

Tags:

Right now every FM and TV station in Santa Barbara and San Diego can be heard in both places. Between them lays more than 200 miles of ocean across a curved earth. I’m not there right now, but I see what’s happening remotely over my TV set top box. (Thank you, SlingBox.) But, more importantly, John Harder‘s tropo map tells me so:

sb-sd-tropo

Tropo is tropospheric refraction of radio waves across a distance. Atmosphere has refractive properties that don’t matter most of the time. But we can see changes, for example, with mirages ahead of us above a hot road, which causes the air above to refract light at a low angle, essentially reflecting the sky, other cars and landscapes on the horizon. Something like this also happens over land and water for FM and many TV signals.

I see by the map above that tropo is happening in other parts of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. I also see that it’s starting to happen here in north central North Carolina, where I can already pick up stations in South Carolina:

nc-sc-tropo

On 88.1fm, for example, I’m getting WRJA from Sumter, South Carolina, atop WKNC in Raleigh. WRJA is about 160 miles away while WKNC is only 40 miles away. But WRJA is 100,000 watts atop a thousand-foot tower, while WKNC is 25,000 watts on a 260 foot tower. (It’s actually as little as 35% of full power in most directions from the transmitter at NC State. They have a construction permit to change that a bit.) So they’re making a hash of each other here.

Back when I lived in the woods north of Chapel Hill, long before the Internet showed up and made all of this stuff irrelevant for listeners (who can get the same stations on the Net, anywhere), I had a directional Finco FM-5 antenna and a Channel Master Crossfire 3610 antenna (both salvaged from abandoned structures) on a pole next to my 1-story house. I rotated them by hand. If I had the same rig here I could point at either WRJA or WKNC and “null out” the other. I did this on hot summer mornings for fun back then, and eventually logged nearly every FM station from Pennsylvania to Georgia. (It’s a summer thing, and coincidental with heat waves over large areas.)

Here is a whole-country map that shows tropo happening pretty much everywhere:

wholecountry-tropo

I would love to have had this kind of resource back in those days. Now that I do, it’s hardly worth the trouble, since nearly all my radio listening is over the Net.

Anyway, if you’re wondering why your local station is being obliterated by a signal coming from a state or two away, or why you’re suddenly getting far-away stations where none were before, tropo is the most likely reason.

The second most likely one is Sporadic E skip, which brings in stations from distances of 800-1200 miles or so away. In that case the E layer of the ionosphere turns into something like a hot road surface, reflecting distant signals, but only at a certain angle. I’ll cover those in a later post when the phenomenon is actually happening. It’s not right now.

Meanwhile, if any of this intrigues you at all, check out William Hepburn’s amazing Worldwide Tropo Forecast Maps. Great eye and brain candy, because it exposes a real-world view of the world that isn’t what you see with your eyes.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Yesterday was my Uncle Chris’s 100th birthday. When he passed fifteen years ago, I wrote the following, which I just unearthed from the Old Web. Now seems like a good time to expose it to the world. He was the embodiment of a Good Man, I still miss him, and I’d like his many great-grandkids to know more about the kind and strong root stock of their amazing family.


The Good Doctor

chris1

December 17, 1999

My Uncle Chris died yesterday morning, just before dawn, surrounded by his wife and five sons, at his home in Graham, North Carolina. In addition to his immediate family, he is survived by thirteen grandchildren, dozens of nieces and nephews, thousands of former patients, the church and town he helped build, and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, all of which will be diminished by his passing.

Uncle Chris and his mom, Granny Crissman

Uncle Chris with his mother, “Granny” Crissman

He was eighty-five years old. For forty-five of those years, he was Graham’s family doctor. If Andy Griffith had played a doctor instead of a sheriff, his model would have been Clinton S. Crissman, MD. Uncle Chris and Andy both grew up around Mt. Airy, North Carolina, and Graham was a real-life Mayberry: one of those little Southern county seats with the courthouse in the square and the Confederate soldier statue facing north up Main Street.

Although Graham was no less segregated than most southern towns in the Forties and Fifties, Uncle Chris was always everybody’s doctor. Over the course of his career he delivered more than three thousand babies, including at least one Miss North Carolina. I doubt that any other human being has ever done more good, personally, for the people of Alamance County than Doctor Crissman.

Uncle Chris was a Good Man in the purest meaning of that expression. He was more than a doctor. He was a healer. When he put his arm around you, looked you square in the eye and said “I believe you’re gonna be all right,” you were on the best drug the good Lord ever made.

csc_grandsons

Doctor Crissman with grandsons Steven and Andrew

Case in point. Back around the turn of the Eighties, when I was still a young man, I was seized by chest pains at work. I went to my local doctor, who didn’t like my EKG and promptly put me under Intensive Care at Durham County General Hospital. A week later we found that it was only pleurisy, but for a while there it was scary.

While we were all wondering what this was about, nobody did more to calm me down than Uncle Chris. He drove down from his office, forty miles away, put his strong hands on my legs, looked me in the face and said, with grave authority, “Now David, your job is to hold down the bed. You just do what these nurses tell you to do and you’ll be all right.” His accent, by the way, was exactly Andy Griffith’s.

In those days I knew lots of doctors, including several who worked in the local health care system, and I talked Science with every one of them. But none did more to heal me than Uncle Chris, with his strong hands and plain words. If I tried to talk Science with him, he’d just smile and joke back. saying, “Well, David, I think you know more about that than I do.”

Of course, I didn’t know squat. And most of my doctor friends didn’t know a zillionth of what Uncle Chris knew in his bones about what makes people sick and well.

My cousin Mark, who took over his father’s practice a few years ago, marvels at how much medicine his old man practiced without the aid of modern technology — and how successful he was at it. I believe that was because Uncle Chris was a natural. Love is always the best medicine; and God never made a doctor who was better at delivering that medicine. Especially to kids.

Whether he was giving us polio shots, carving up a watermelon or hauling us around to church, school or countless athletic events, he was always warm, funny, generous and kind.

csc_2girls

Uncle Chris with granddaughters Laura and Julie

When I look at these pictures of Uncle Chris, which I harvested from old family photo albums, the hands strike me again as perfect instruments of love and care. It’s easy to see their effect on his grandchildren — the same effect their parents, aunts and uncles experienced a generation earlier.affectionate. But those are all just adjectives: brochure words. Where they all came together was with those big hands of his. “Hands are the heart’s landscape,” says Pope John Paul II. They are also the best metaphor or for care (from the Allstate slogan to Christ’s last words on the cross). For countless children, patients and friends, those hands were the places to be.

Even as an adult, I loved the way Uncle Chris would hold people while he talked with them — or even while he was talking with someone else. I think I’ll miss that even more than talking with him about basketball, especially his beloved Deacons. If I didn’t bring them up right away, he’d say, “David, you haven’t asked me about my Deacons yet.”

Uncle Chris went to college at Wake Forest University, as did sons Paul and Charles. He was a loyal member of the Deacon’s Club, and often traveled with the team. Once in a shopping center I ran into Rod Griffin, one of Wake Forest’s basketball greats. I asked him if he knew Doctor Crissman and he said “of course,” making it clear that the good doctor was among the team’s favorite Deacon Club members.

Uncle Chris’ affections and appreciations were not limited to the Deacons alone, however. Next to the Deacons he loved to follow all of ACC basketball, and beyond that the rest of the college game. I remember how he was moved to tears when David Thompson, the N.C. State star, was injured in an especially brutal accident under the basket. “I love that boy,” he said to me. “I just hate to see that happen.” But the truth was that Uncle Chris loved just about everybody, as far as I could tell.

Even though our family lived 500 miles away, in New Jersey, we were always in the Crissman orbit. At least once a year — usually on Easter, at the height of North Carolina’s dogwood season — we would drive down to visit with the Crissmans on their farm-size property (bought in the early Fifties from next-door neighbor Tom Zachary, the great baseball player best known for pitching Babe Ruth’s 60th home run). Uncle Chris and Aunt Doris (my mother’s sister) had five boys. The first two, Paul and Eric, were the same ages as me and my sister Janet. The other three, Charles, Mark and Kelly, were no less fun.

csc_grandkids

Uncle Chris (in the blue shirt and glasses) surrounded by sons Eric, Kelly, and Charles; granddaughters Karen, Emily, Julie, Melanie and Kate; daughters-in-law Linda and Patt; and grandson Steven

In my mind I can still see the original property — twenty-six acres of rolling pasture, populated by a single tree. Near that tree Uncle Chris built a large ranch house that was ideal for a family with four (soon five) active boys. The pool came soon after the house, then the barn, the gardens, the greenhouse, the bamboo grove and then the hundreds of new trees. Today those trees, mostly hardwoods, are huge. They also comprise some of the prettiest woods in the whole state: silent testimony to the nurture in their author’s nature.The Crissmans had ponies, dogs, cats, and other animals that roamed the acres of grass and trees. With a spread that big, everybody worked like farmhands when they weren’t having fun. For kids it was paradise. And there was never any doubt about who made it that way.

wheelhouse

The Wheel House in 1974, 1980 (after Hurricanes David and Frederic) and 1999 (after Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd). Note how the lower floor was washed away, twice. It’s still gone.

In the Seventies, when Uncle Chris and his generation were starting to retire, his wife Doris’s two sisters, Eleanor (my mom) and Margaret both moved to Graham (Mom with my father from New Jersey and Aunt Maggie from California). So did I, with my wife and two kids. The gravitational pull was that strong. Like those trees, all of Uncle Chris’s sons, nieces and nephews are in now their forties and fifties (his first son Paul and I are the oldest, at 52). When my wife Joyce first met the whole family, she said “those are all such good men.” It’s easy to see why.

March, 1974 was a rough month for my own little family. Colette was three and Allen had just turned one. My radio career in New Jersey had fizzled, my car barely ran and everything was looking bleak. We needed a place to stay and Uncle Chris provided one. It was a giant old house on Main Street in Graham that had gone unoccupied for so long that the mailman refused to come to the door because the place was clearly “hainted” (because, legend had it, the original owner, a judge, had died there in the very long tub in the bathroom upstairs). Uncle Chris let the four of us live there free of charge until I could get a steady job and we moved to Chapel Hill. He never asked for, or expected, a dime.

He was also generous with another amazing piece of real estate: The Wheel House — the Crissman’s family retreat in Oak Island, North Carolina. This simple box has always been closer to the water than anything else around, always expected to be trashed by a hurricane, and always survived after hurricanes passed through. I’m not sure if it signifies anything, but it seems worth noting anyway.

There are so many other things I could say about Uncle Chris. How he was the best man at my second wedding. How he survived the tragic premature death of his beloved Doris and later married a dear friend, Bernice, who in the difficult final months of his life returned the good care he had given so many others over the years. How much Mom, who now calls herself “the last twig on the tree” of her generation, will miss his visits to her house. How he gave so much to the Methodist Church he helped build, to the schools, to the community. How hard it is to imagine a world without him.

Of course he’s still here. The love he gave so abundantly continues to grow and spread;’ because that’s what love does. And that’s what he knew perhaps better than anybody else around.

Doc Searls
Emerald Hills, California

Here is my short list:

  1. Larry Josephson
  2. Howard Stern
  3. Bob Grant
  4. Bob & Ray
  5. Barry Gray
  6. Bob Fass
  7. Steve Post
  8. Rush Limbaugh
  9. Alex Bennett
  10. Allan Handelman

And here are my qualifications: a) the performer has to do (or have done) a show that runs daily (or close),  b) the listener has to sense that they are missing something if they’re not listening, and c) I need to have been a listener.

I bring this up because in January I heard Howard Stern speak regretfully — and movingly — about how Bob Grant was something like “the greatest broadcaster who ever lived,” and how he (Howard) blew the chance to say that to Bob directly while the old guy was still alive. Bob died on New Years Eve at age 84. (Later Howard was not only reminded that he did say kind things to Bob, but somebody produced recorded evidence. Apparently Howard is correct that his memory sucks.)

I first heard Bob in the early ’70s, when he came to WMCA in New York from KLAC in Los Angeles. (Staying at the same spot on the dial, since both were on 570am.) WMCA had dropped its Top 40 format (conceding that ground to WABC and the FM band) and became the first full-time talk station in New York. I agreed with very little that Bob espoused, but found the show highly entertaining, especially when some dumb caller made no sense and Bob yelled “Get off the phone!”

But Howard is by far the best radio performer, ever. There’s nobody close. He’s funny as hell and his celebrity interviews are masterful to an extreme nobody will ever exceed. All his shows are longer than Gone With The Wind, filled with original comedy bits and supported by a veteran and gifted staff of interesting characters who are themselves sources of entertaining studio encounters. On days Howard’s not on, the re-runs — both from the past few days and from archives that stretch back a quarter century — are also brilliant. The show is blue, but I enjoy that. Life fucks itself all the time, or none of us would be here.

I put Larry Josephson ahead of Howard because I’ve never loved a morning host more than I loved Larry. Back when he was on WBAI in the ’60s and early ’70s, my daily life was anchored in Larry’s show. Larry spoke frankly about his personal life, and flouted just about every morning-host formalism you can list. (As Howard still does. But Larry was first.) He’d show up late, eat on the air, and take calls during which you heard nothing of the person at the other end. He was funny (among other things, like me, he was a sucker for puns), wickedly smart, hugely informed, and deeply interested in big issues of many kinds. Years later he leveraged all that into the public radio shows Modern Times and Bridges. I still have many recordings of both on cassettes in my garage. After leaving the air Larry made a living selling recordings of Bob & Ray (next on my list), who were two of the funniest guys in radio, from the fifties into the seventies. Find those and other goodies (including What is Judaism and Only In Amercia) from Larry at RadioArt.org. Meanwhile, also dig what Larry is doing today at An Inconvenient Jew: My Life in Radio. A better biography than this one or Wikipedia’s is here.

Bob & Ray are next on my list because they were the funniest radio comics of their time. Both had warm baritone voices, which hardly changed whether they were playing characters young or old, male or female. Their humor was droll and dry and played for irony at many levels. Buy some samples from Larry.

I’ve got Barry Gray next because he was — at least for me — the father of all the radio talk shows that followed. His slot from 11pm to 1am on WMCA seemed highly anomalous, given WMCA’s role as one of New York’s Top 40 music landmarks. But for me as a kid growing up in the 50s and early 60s, it was a window on the intellectual and cultural world, giving me lots of stuff to talk and think about the next day. I liked Barry Farber too (they were both pioneers, and Farber is still at it today) but to me, growing up, the better Barry was Gray.

I put Bob Fass and Steve Post next because they were Larry Josephson’s teammates on WBAI during the station’s heyday, and I loved all three of them (and some others I hate not mentioning, but I’m trying to keep this from getting too long). Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable was required late night radio listening in The Sixties, and had enormous influence on the spirit of that time, including too many events and personalities to mention. I recall Steve as WBAI’s smart and witty utility infielder and team captain. He was more than that, both for WBAI and later for WNYC, where he was active while I was elsewhere. Mostly I enjoyed listening to him whenever he was on.

I put Rush Limbaugh next because he is just so damn good at what he does. For many years I enjoyed listening to him, even though I mostly disagreed with his politics. He was tuned in to a sensibility that I knew well, and in many ways he understood the political left better than it understood itself. Maybe he still does. I’m just so tired of right wing talkers at this point that I don’t listen to any of them. But I want to give credit where due, and Rush deserves plenty.

I first heard Alex Bennett on WMCA in the late ’60s, and followed him to WPLJ while I was still living in New Jersey. Later I picked him up again in the Bay Area when he was on a variety of stations there. Alex was at his best (for me at least), when he brought comedians into the studio to hang out. I’m sure Alex played a key role in the surge in comedy clubs that happened in the 1980s. (Wow, I just learned that Ronni Bennett is Alex’s ex. Guess I missed that.)

Allan Handelman is the only guy on this list (and I regret that they are all guys) who has had me as a guest on the air. It was in the early ’80s on WPTF in Raleigh, to talk about radio, like I am now. I first heard Allan when he was on a little FM station in Farmville, North Carolina. I was 100+ miles away, in Chapel Hill, but had a big antenna on my roof that I would aim east to get Allan’s signal, amazed at the guests he would get to come on. Most notable among those was Frank Zappa. Allan’s discussions with Frank are among my treasured radio memories.

So that’s it for now. I started to write this in January and decided to finally throw a few more sentences in, and liberate it from the Drafts folder. If you care, tweet or comment on your own faves. One I would volunteer for a slightly different category (such as “uncategorizable”): Phil Hendrie.

Now that Al Jazeera English‘s stream has been killed in the U.S., the only two streaming global news organizations available on computers and mobile devices are France24 and RT. They look like this:

In other words, like TV. Talking heads and reports from the field.

Also like PR.

I certainly get that from RT, the initials of Russia Today. Sez Wikipedia,

RT, previously known as Russia Today, is an international multilingual Russian-based television network. It is registered as an autonomous non-profit organization[2][3] funded by the federal budget of Russia through the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation.[4][5]

France24, sez Wikipedia,

… is an international newsand current affairs television channel based in Paris. Its stated mission is to “cover international current events from a French perspective and to convey French values throughout the world.”[1] It started broadcasting on 6 December 2006 under the presidency of Jacques Chirac and prime ministerial term of Dominique de Villepin.

Neither are as interesting to watch as Al Jazeera English was when we could still see it here in the U.S. Nor are they as large and substantive as Al Jazeera.

Yet @AlJazeera‘s apparent disinterest in talking about anything that might not promote its new Al Jazeera America (@AJAM) cable channel suggests the same kind of PR-based DNA. Far as I know (and feel free to correct me), @AlJazeera remains unwilling to talk out loud about why it chose to kill its live @AJEnglish stream in the U.S. — or to cover that move as the real news it was, and still is.

Whatever else it may be (and it’s a lot), Al Jazeera is also vanity project by the monarchy of Qatar. Ideally that would make it an example of what James Fallows calls a way for “this Gilded Age’s major beneficiaries (to) re-invest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence.”

Jim is talking there about Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post. In that same piece, he says, “Foreign reportage, serious investigative or government-accountability coverage — functions like these have always been, in economic terms, parasites that need to ride along on some profitable host body.” In the U.S. the profitable host body in cable news has been its presentation as entertainment, political axe-grinding, or both. One would hope Al Jazeera America takes the high road here, but the fact remains that going cable-only was a low-road move. Especially since the Al Jazeera abandoned the high road it was on — live presentation on computers and mobile devices — along with the infrastructure of public intelligence the company was helping to build there.

On Saturday’s Gillmor Gang, Robert Scoble said he thought Al Jazeera was playing a “long ball” game here. They certainly have the money. But they’re starting way behind. First, they fired — and pissed off — the loyal audience of early adopters they had on the Net. Second, they made the mistake of giving the Al Jazeera name to a wholly new operation in the U.S., where (sad to say) “Al (anything-Arabic)” is certain to be associated by many cable viewers with Al Qaeda, the only outright enemy of the U.S. with a name everybody knows. If they had called it “AJ” (in the manner of Russia Today’s RT) it might have had a better chance. Third, they either got dropped or not picked up by the largest cable companies, while those that do carry it (e.g. DirectTV and Dish Network) have exiled it to more expensive tiers than those CNN and Fox News enjoy. Those operators also run Al Jazeera America’s video in low-def SD instead of hi-def HD. So the new network could hardly be starting farther behind, or in a business with less chance of long-term success.

On that last topic, I have to wonder what the calculus of the “deal” to kill the live AJE stream was. That was not only an awful lot to pay for very little in return; but it isn’t even clear who it was paid to. Time Warner? AT&T? Neither carries @AJAM at all. And the others hardly seem to give a damn about the channel anyway. [Later: see my comment here.] I can imagine this dialog between Al Jazeera and the U.S. cable companies:

AJ: We killed our firstborn so it would not offend you. Will you carry our channel now?

SOME CABLE COMPANIES: No.

OTHER CABLE COMPANIES: Um, okay, maybe on one of our high-priced tiers, in lo-def.

AJ: Okay.

On top of all that, @AJAM and @AJEnglish are apparently different services, serving different audiences: cable viewers and computer/mobile device viewers. I suppose @AlJazeera thought its streaming audience would jump at the opportunity to go retro and watch something else from the company on cable. @AlJazeera might be right about that, but that looks to me like something between wishful thinking and outright delusion.

The cable industry’s disdain for Al Jazeera is one more example of why cable is a dead medium walking. As a big coercive silo that many viewers barely tolerate or actively hate — and stick with only because the shows they want to see are trapped inside the thing — its worst enemy is itself. Consistent with that, cable features some of the world’s worst exemplars of bad customer service.

Meanwhile other traditional sources of high-quality TV news have so adapted to life inside cable’s silo that their live streams are almost impossible to get. Dig this, for example:

What you see there is the futility of trying to watch ABC’s live stream online. Talk about a f’d “experience.” Either the app says it can’t determine one’s location (my experience in New York, the Bay Area and Southern California — wish I got a screen shot), or that it’s only available in those areas and three others where the viewer happens not to be. Then, for  those who want the Compleat Futility Experience, there’s that third page there, a non-responsive Web page squeezed to un-readability on a mobile screen.

Here’s the thing: TV hates the Net. Simple as that. It has hated the Net for as long as it’s known that the Net was a threat to its coercive system. That’s why the MSOs (a trade term for cable+satelite) call video distribution on the Net “over the top” or OTT. And also why it’s no surprise to find only one cable program source (Viacom) among Comscore’s top ten online video companies. The rest are Net-native, starting with Google. (See Tristan Louis Is Google Killing Cable? for more on where this goes.)

Most of what people watch on the Net isn’t news. Or, if it is news, it doesn’t look like what we see in those top images above. Nor should it — any more than cars in 1900 should have looked like railroad coaches.

Video on the Net is wild, crazy and exploding out of anybody’s control, including Google’s. Mostly it is coming from everybody. Not just from the usual suspects.

And it isn’t TV.

Let’s face it: TV is channels. (Never mind that what are now called “channels” and “networks” are neither, in the original senses of those words.) In the U.S. those channels are nothing more than a collection of branded program sources delivered by some of the least caring companies on Earth to an audience forced to watch through crappy gear with a horrible user interface. In the growing ocean of video from everywhere on the Net, TV has the buoyancy of a bowling ball.

It’s just a matter of time before it sinks.

It’s also a matter of cost. Cable is expensive, and not getting cheaper.

The biggest thing keeping it afloat is live sports. In the U.S., that’s ESPN. They’re the life jacket on cable’s bowling ball.

At some point ESPN goes direct OTT and the rest of TV will either die along with cable or moult out of cable’s dead husk. If Al Jazeera America is one of the casualties, we’ll be prepared, because we’re already getting practice at living without it. And it won’t be news at all.

[Later (29 August)…]

In response to a corrective comment by Fritz Mills below I’ve done a bit of research to see how cable and satellite companies are carrying Al Jazeera America. Finding out isn’t too easy, because most of these companies (at least on the cable side) only tell you what’s available at a given address. So I just checked with as many companies as I had the patience and time to visit, and got this:

  • AT&T U-Verse: Dropped, and sued by Al Jazeera for breach of contract
  • Cablevision: Dropped when Al Jazeera bought Current TV
  • Charter: Not there
  • Comcast: 254, in the top tier “Digital Preferred 160+” package, in low-def, and moved there (thanks, Dennis McDonald for that link) from the basic tier that @AJEnglish had been on
  • DirectTV: 215, in low-def, as part of  a higher tier
  • Dish Network: 358, in low-def, as part of the “America’s Top 200” tier
  • Cox: Not there
  • RCN: 326. on its “signature” (second highest) tier, in low-def
  • Time Warner Cable: Dropped back in January, when Al Jazeera bought Current TV
  • Verizon FiOS: On PrimeHD, Extreme HD and Ultmiate HD — a total of six different channels, two apiece on each tier (one SD, one HD)

Meaning you can get it in HD on basic cable only on Verizon FiOS.

There are two fiber-based companies on the list: RCN and Verizon. Fiber is interesting because there is virtually unlimited bandwidth. Bandwidth is more scarce with cable and satellite, which is one reason they carry some channels only in higher tiers (to reduce demand) and in low-def SD instead of HD. They also compress the HD far more than fiber carriers need to, which is why HD channels on fiber tend to look better (provided they aren’t too compressed back upstream).

That’s why Verizon FiOS wins on that list above. RCN could also make AJAM HD, because they have the bandwidth. But instead they make it SD, and put a green $ in lieu of a √ in the checkbox, to make clear that it’s “available at a premium“. Which means it might as well not be there.

On the matter of Al Jazeera coming clean about the deal to kill the @AJEnglish stream in order to be carried by MSOs in the U.S., the closest thing I’ve found to an inside detail is an Email from Marwan Bishara to AJ executives, dated 10 July 2015, posted by Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, and featured in his 14 July story, Inside look at the internal strife over Al Jazeera America, subtitled “As the new US network is finally set to launch, serious concerns arise about its brand and intent: especially from within the organization.” One excerpt from the email:

Have we signed a deal where AJAM program/content must be substantially different from AJE? Really!!!! What does substantially mean? Who have we made the agreement with and why? I asked several executives and not a single person can give me a categorical answer about the issue, which by itself is mind-boggling!!! (I have issues with AJE’s formats, and at times perspectives, but we have so much to hold onto).

Does the fear of contractual obligations with carriers etc. mean it’s necessary for some to do whatever they want with Aljazeera, including banning AJE altogether from America and web livestream, just when they themselves try to make the case for a 21st century type television news!!!! . . . .

We still don’t know exactly what the deal was, even the effects are obvious.

I still haven’t seen @AJAM. And, like so many other dismissed viewers in the U.S., I miss @AJEnglish. So, a suggestion to @AlJazeera: make one or both available on a subscription basis. A lot of us might pay for that. Per-stream subscriptions where TV is going anyway, once cable falls apart. Get ahead of that curve.

« Older entries