Sunday, July 31, 2005

Edwards to Davlin: Why can't you be more like that nice Boss Tweed?

In criticizing Mayor Davlin's communication skills and rapport with his aldermen, Frank Edwards suggested in today's SJ-R that Davlin be more like Chicago's Mayor Daley:

When he (Daley) makes an announcement, he's surrounded by aldermen. He's reaching his hand out.

What Edwards fails to mention is that such occasions are the only time Daley lets his aldermen out of his hip pocket. It's his way of giving them their props for their reflexive "yeas" to everything that he proposes. And his outreached hand is usually making its way into somebody's pocket.

Daley probably isn't the best guy to hold up as a paragon of governing since his administration is burning, a fire the likes of which Chicago hasn't seen since Mrs. O'Leary's cow toppled a lantern. I won't get into the litany of charges, accusations, and insinuations surrounding Daley's administration except to refer those not up to date on the story to the work of the Tribune's John Kass and the Sun Time's Mark Brown. Both columnists have been doing a great job in providing a rundown of all the rip-roaring action.

Edwards is not alone in admiring the Daley machine without looking to see how the cogs are being manipulated. Earlier this year, Time magazine named him one of the top big city mayors in the country. This honor was bestowed before the charges started flying out of the federal prosecutor's office, but well after the writing appeared on the wall, in big bold letters, that all was not kosher in the hot dog capital of the world.

I'm not suggesting that there aren't aspects of Daley's regime that are worth emulating. But I would suggest, given the tempest that threatens the Windy City, that Davlin look elsewhere for inspiration. Tammany Hall would be a good place not to start.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

We've got Kevin Trudeau on the line.*

Bob Garfield, writing for Advertising Age, recently laid out a possible doomsday scenario for the media world as advertisers increasingly awaken to the fact that traditional commercial spots are not generating enough audience to justify the cost. Advancements in technology increase the audiences ability to bypass commercial breaks. As a result, Garfield warns, advertisers will begin pulling their dollars from traditional media outlets, leaving them with a greatly diminished flow of revenue to produce the content that consumers have become accustomed to receiving for free (broadcast media) or for a relatively nominal cost (cable.)

Garfield predicts that a period of chaos will exist between the time advertisers begin to pull back on spending and until which time alternative forms of sponsorship can be fully developed and proven effective. Chief among these new forms is product placement.

Most are familiar with product placement, although they may not be fully cognizant of it, through television and movies. That generic can of beer that Archie Bunker used to stew in has been replaced by a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on Friends, a rare display of good taste on an otherwise banal TV show (sorry Michelle.) Violet Beauregarde and her mother reportedly sport identical Nike’s in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Product placement has been around for awhile and viewers can expect to see more brand names as companies pay to have the camera linger on their logos for longer and longer periods of time. This is all well and good for visual media, but how will radio be able to join in on these stealth advertising attacks?

Locally, we can hear sponsorship messages creeping into the programming. On WMAY, Culver’s on Wabash has purchased the rights to all mentions of time. Molson and Lee regular incorporate endorsements for Head West sub shop into their on-air banter. But AM Springfield on WFMB seems to be taking the biggest strides towards blurring the lines between programming and sponsorship.

Walt Skube, car salesman extraordinaire, has been a staple on Sam Madonia’s show for some time now. A personable sort, he chats a bit with Madonia, makes a quick sales pitch, and then gets back to the lot. His appearance provides only a brief interruption, but his time must be well spent. Skube regularly relates how many cars he sold the previous day, and often to whom, and the listener is left to wonder just how much in commission he pulls down each day.

Lately, it appears that other local businesses are adopting Skube’s winning formula. Madonia now takes regularly scheduled calls from a florist, a commercial real estate agent, and some fellow named Warren the Painter. Unlike Skube, they haven’t learned the effectiveness of a concise plug and a hasty adieu. The back and forth between sponsor and host seems to drag on, taking the show down with it. The whole thing is threatening to devolve into an infomercial.

And that would be a shame. I know that many find AM Springfield insular, catering to the Griffin mafia and an auxiliary of extras. Their tag line "8 loyal listeners" is both self deprecating and a testament to the insider appeal it has to those who know the secret handshake. But the show can be interesting and insightful to a broad audience, especially when the discussion involves local politics.

Madonia is at his best when he is interviewing the likes of Bernie Schoenberg, Jerry Owens, Gene Callahan, or anyone else wired-in to local or state political issues. Based on his own access to the grapevine, Madonia knows just the right questions to ask and has a genuine interest in his guests responses.

But I'm aware that thoughtful discussions won't pay the bills. Perhaps we're on the verge of an era when talk radio hosts pepper their comments with offhand references to products. Frequent callers may be asked to recite a line of promotional copy before going off with their gripe. And jingles will play consistently in the background, subliminally filling every split second of dead air with revenue generating sonance.

*A line you could expect to hear if WFMB signs into a sponsorship agreement with infamous infomercial marketer and author of Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About, Kevin Trudeau.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Am I just supposed to turn it on and wander aimlessly around the dial?*

If you thought Frank Costanza was on the verge of full-blown conniption when Elaine returned his cucumber sauce smudged TV Guide, just imagine how he’d react to the upcoming changes the weekly publication recently announced. Their plans to forego the digest format for a traditional magazine layout is utterly incompatible with Frank’s carefully catalogued collection of past issues. There was no word whether the beloved fall preview issue will continue to be published.

Frank, however, is in a distinct minority in finding TV Guide an indispensable viewing companion. Media experts throughout the country are commenting that the vast number of cable channels, programming on demand, and digital recorders have all contributed over time to making a printed listing of television programs an impractical and unprofitable venture. Preview channels and programming menus are a much more efficient manner to disseminate that type of information.

TV Guide is cutting program listings down to about 25 percent of its content and filling the rest with television-related articles. Their plan is to find a niche among entertainment magazines such as People and Entertainment Weekly. Experts expect that they’ll discontinue the listings altogether once they wean off loyal subscribers like Frank.

The local angle here of course is how much longer will the SJ-R continue to publish its TV Week supplement. As the most casual of TV watchers, I’m probably not in the best position to assess its usefulness to the average taker of the SJ-R, but as a paid-in-full subscriber I would like to see them devote that valuable news print to something with more substance. Maybe it could be used as a weekly wrap-up of Milford Frank’s letters-to-the-editor, printed in their full, unabridged version with the corresponding rebuttals from Marshall Selkirk.

I rarely give the supplement a second look anymore and haven’t since Wayne Allen graced those pages with his reporting from the entertainment world. For nostalgia sake, I would like to think that Allen’s Alley was much more hard-hitting and insightful than that publicist-driven drivel that Walter Scott dutifully passes along in Parade each week, but the truth is I was probably just more susceptible to fawning reports over celebrities’ personal lives as a lad.

I’m not much for prognosticating, but I give the SJ-R’s TV Week another 15 months before those pages are either taken in another editorial direction or returned to the forest.

As for TV Guide, I predict that in a year’s time they’ll be completely out of the publishing game. Magazines are having a rough go of it right now and despite TV Guide's strong brand name, I think that they will have a tough time competing with more established titles.

If there is a potential upside to all of this, it’s that the larger format will allow lovers of the Guide to make more bountiful origami bouquets to give to women they meet on the subway.

*Frank Costanza from episode 74 of Seinfeld, "The Cigar Store Indian."

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A Penny for Your Thoughts; Five Grand for Your Suggestions

Had Larry Bomke really wanted to do something nice for state workers, he would have seen that word of the checks that were divvied out by the State Employees Suggestion Award Board be kept under wraps. As it stands after today’s front page article in the SJ-R, the general public has brand new material to work with in their continuous effort to decry, belie, and satirize our loyal state servants.

The story focused on a Berwyn resident who was surprised with checks of $2,000 and $5,000 for two money-raising ideas she floated several years back but had since forgotten about. Although I don’t begrudge her her good fortune, it appears she made a good faith effort to eliminate some inefficiencies, there are couple of things about her suggestions that probably aren’t sitting too well with others both in and out of state government.

First of all, her ideas remain just that, ideas. They haven’t been implemented and it appears that they have failed to receive the legislative approval that they require. So while theoretically the state may realize some extra cash from them someday, right now they’re in the hole for seven grand.

The second problem is that she suggested something that the state has already shown a strong proclivity to pursue without any prompting from frontline employees – extracting dollars from the citizenry. This is like an assistant on the Oprah show getting a raise for suggesting that her boss do a show on the triumph of the human spirit over personal adversity that tests the bounds of sentimentality. In both cases, it’s their raison d'etre.

Similarly, the guy who received 500 bones for his idea to make a day care report available online isn’t exactly breaking new ground. The state has thousands of forms and reports and someday they will all be available online. It won’t require that thousands of employees, at $500 a pop, individually suggest that each one get the Java treatment. Technology is leading the charge here and the mass migration to electronic documents is already well under way.

I’m not opposed in principle to a little financial incentive to stir the pot a bit. The problem here is that I know that there have been other state employees who have thought up and implemented real cost saving or revenue enhancing ideas in the course of doing their jobs, but didn’t get a visit from the bright-idea fairy.

And some in the general public, already inclined to think the worse about those in the state’s employ, will now labor under the assumption that state workers can only be induced to jump through the hoop of initiative by rewarding them with some kibble should they make it to the other side.

I don't happen to share the belief that state workers are a lazy and unproductive lot. Most that I worked with were the very opposite. But they do have a perception problem and today's news isn't going to help. I could be wrong, but I suspect that it will create a good deal of jealousy within state ranks and contribute to the resentment from without.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Ballad of the Beer Bandits

I recently entered a convenience store behind a man who was discretely carrying a plastic bag. As I headed to the Gatorade section of the cooler, this person diverted towards the libations. It was mid-afternoon on a Friday, a bit early by my standards but certainly not an unseemly time of day for a gentleman to seek a beverage of this sort.

He removed a 16oz. can of beer from the cooler, and as he attempted to transfer it into the bag, it slid off the side and hit the floor. The thud drew the attention of the attendant and the impact rendered his booty potentially explosive. Without missing a beat, he picked up the can, cradled it between his arm and torso, and confidently exited the store to his awaiting bicycle that he had positioned for a quick escape. The attendant made no attempt to intervene.

I was taken aback and somewhat amazed by his brazen disregard for the rules of commerce and his single-minded quest for a ration of grog.

Then in today's SJ-R, a Police Beat item appeared that showed that my guy was a mere amateur.

Another beer bandit struck in Springfield over the weekend, one so skilled in the labors of his craft that he made off with an entire case of beer, 24 cans stuffed artfully down his pants. His crime was only discovered when two empty 12-pack containers were found in the restroom and a review of the surveillance tape revealed what the human eye had missed.

I'm not one to idolize criminal behavior, but do I admit to being entertained by tales of reckless and pathetic acts of thievery that are sometimes reported in Police Beat. And it would be amusing to hear these Proud Pilferers of Pilsners being immortalized in Bud Light’s Real American Heroes series of radio ads. But I don't suspect that will happen anytime soon.

There's really no reason for anyone to steal beer in Springfield when they can just find Dave from the Eleventh Hour and hit him up for a fiver. He's forever subsidizing purchases of Old Milwaukee for those down on their luck.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Experts: City Ain't Got No Legal Basis. Dang Fools!*

There are certain words or phrases that I don't give a second thought to when overheard in casual conversation, but that stand out as glaringly inappropriate when spoken in a formal context. Case in point, the quote in today's SJ-R story on a defamation suit filed by the city:

Unless (Gripper's lawyer) is retarded, this case ain't going to last more than a few minutes.

Although the hillbillyesque "ain't" is significant in coloring the reader's perception of the speaker of the quote, the word that really stuck out for me was "retarded."

Although I don't consider myself oversensitive to such things, the connotation of that word in the context in which it was used strikes me as somewhat offensive. I'm not sure that it personally demeans those that are afflicted with mental disorders. And it isn't a direct insult to the lawyer, Courtney Cox, unless of course he manages to botch the case. But it just seems juvenile and unnecessary.

What's more befuddling is that the person who spoke the quote is a lawyer and a professor of journalism. You would think that a person in that capacity would know to measure their responses when talking to a reporter and realize that certain words are potentially damaging to the credibility of their statement.

To some, his statement might make him seem a colorful character unconcerned with social convention. To me, absent any further insight into his personality, he comes across as a buffoon.

I'm sure that in the past I've used the word "retarded" to good naturedly rib a friend, so I don't want to stand in judgment too harshly. I do know, however, that I wouldn't use that word when talking with someone I was less familiar with for fear that they may have a loved one that has a mental disorder, and might then be offended by its casual use.

"Ain't", on the other hand, is a word that only seeps into my conversations when attempting to assimilate with a drunken transgressor with whom I hope to liberate myself from a potentially ugly confrontation.

*Today's front page headline in the SJ-R if written by Tim Smith, lawyer and professor of journalism at Kent State University.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Klose Calls Out the Conservatives

The Illinois Times kicked off their annual Best of Springfield survey this week, an annual feature that will culminate in what I believe is traditionally the biggest issue of the year for the left-wing weekly.

Oops. Not supposed to call them left-wing.

In this week's editorial, Roland Klose, the IT's editor, takes the Weekly Standard to task for calling his paper "reliably left-wing." He's right, I mean correct, when he points out that it is biased of the Standard to label the IT in that way when they didn't ascribe a political bent to the Chicago Tribune or the SJ-R. Although Klose is not afraid to stick the conservative label on the Trib while insisting that the IT's journalistic ideals trump the personal politics of its staff.

In his book Bias, Bernard Goldberg points out the many occasions when CBS would refer to Rush and his ilk as conservatives when introducing them into a story, but Bill Moyers would always be just plain old Bill Moyers. I'm sure Klose is aware that this type of negative branding happens on both sides of the aisle and he might have mentioned it if his true intention was to promote fairness in reporting.

Klose also refers to name-calling as an occupational hazard before sticking his tongue out at the SJ-R and calling them "reliably dull."

In the end, he just plays the same game that the Weekly Standard plays.

As for the Best of Springfield, it's always an interesting exercise and a cheap way to fill up editorial space.

I've noticed that they haven't added a Best Blog category yet. I have a feeling that Jim Leach would bring home that trophy, based both on the merits of Abelog and the fact that he can plug his blog on his morning drive time radio program, spots that advertisers have to spend top dollar to obtain.

I don't have strong opinions about most of the categories which isn't an indication of my indifference as much as my inability to live outside of the work/family paradigm what with having four kids all under the age of six.

I am compelled to give my picks on a few of the categories only because I think my choices deserve recognition but probably won't get it.

For Best Radio Station for Music, the award goes to WQNA. ABE-FM likes to spout off about their unlimited play list but for true musical multifariousness, the volunteer jocks at QNA deliver the goods. Acrylic Afternoons made the Friday commute home a trip down Indie Rock lane. Unfortunately, I think the show's host has moved on.

Best Radio DJ: Dave Hustava, host of the Fear and Loathing show on WQNA. The Clash, the Pixies, and Jason and Scorchers are among his favorites. His voice portrays a true enthusiasm for the music he plays.

If you enjoy a nice beer, not that watered-down swill that Anheuser-Busch pushes, but real beer, then check out the Shop 'n' Save on Chatham Road. They get my vote for Best Liquor Store. A surprisingly good selection of stouts and ales at discount grocery store prices.

And finally, to atone for the criticism that started out this post, the Best Reason to Pick Up the Illinois Time: their coverage of the local music scene. Giving Tom Irwin a column was a smart move and it's great that those who are strapping on guitars every weekend get some print time. Although the paper does seem to give short shrift to bands who advocate for the flat tax in their lyrics.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

No Scrutinizing the Scaloppini in Springfield

“So come to the ________ if you want to get sick and die and leave a big garlicky corpse. P.S. Parking was amble.”

What Springfield publication would print such a scathing and vitriolic review?

And what restaurant was made to publicly suffer the indignity of having their cuisine butchered so mercilessly?

The answers: The Springfield Shopper and the Legless Frog.

Of course, we’re talking about the fictional Springfield here and a particular pointed review by one Homer J. Simpson.

Ruth Reichl, who served as the New York Times restaurant critic during the 90s, defended her harsh criticism of some of that city’s toniest joints by declaring that her responsibility was to the common man, not the haughty restauranteers. I suppose if the fois gras with cape gooseberries at Lespinasse was not up to snuff, then Bennie the dockworker deserved to hear it straight.

A quite different approach to restaurant reviews is taken in our Springfield. Jimmy and Johnny of AM Springfield never fail in their quest to be treated to a wonderful meal. The Illinois Times’ Penny Zimmerman-Wills and her dining companion are always magnanimous in their praise, no matter where they visit. And then there is the Springfield Business Journal.

A good example of the Pollyannaism that pervades food criticism here is the rating scale for restaurant reviews used by the SBJ. The scale tops out at Exceptional, but dips no lower than Average. The problem with this is that most people have taste buds that register sensations that fall well below what could be considered ordinary. What’s more, it is difficult to believe that their reviewer, at some point, hasn’t ingested things that have activated her gag reflex, making for a decidedly below average dining experience.

There are many reasons I can think of why publications would want to put a positive spin on reviews.

For one, restaurants can be counted on to fill-up advertising space, but not if their signature dish had previously been disparaged as unfit for human consumption on those same pages.

I wrote about a few restaurants while working for Springfield Magazine and understand how this bottom line position can temper a writer’s instincts. At one establishment, I was greeted by the manager through a veil of smog that cast her as an apparition. As my lungs filled with secondhand smoke, I knew that I hadn’t found my lede. Nor would this distasteful scene find itself anywhere else in my draft, not if I wanted to continue writing for the magazine.

There’s also an accountability factor. Nick Rogers can trash Herbie: Fully Loaded with little fear that Lindsay Lohan will call him on the carpet and question his credentials. But take a stand against some gastronomical affronts being dished out at a local eatery and the critic and his editor may face the wrath of a chef scorned. Not to mention his legion of regulars who may take up arms in the letters-to-the-editor section.

But perhaps the main reason that restaurants receive at least a passing grade from local critics is the same one that prompted a school district in Virginia to discourage their teachers from handing out zeroes for missing assignments. There’s a feeling that by doing so you are jeopardizing someone’s livelihood. That’s not an enviable assignment.

So while it’s understandable that local publications steer clear of bare knuckles restaurant criticism, do the articles serve any purpose if the reader knows going into the review that the reviewer came out of the restaurant with only good things to say?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Still Crazy Bob After All These Years

My daily local talk radio listening originates almost exclusively from the 970 and 1450 points on the AM dial. Leach and Madonia in the morning, Molson and Lee during lunchbreak, and Wilson and the Pressbox* on the drive home. Absent from this slate is any programming by 1240, WTAX**. Today, it occurred to me why this is.

Everyone at that station seems to have affected that exaggerated, "golly-gee it's great talking to you" radio voice that drives me mad. They accent every third or fourth word by raising their voice a couple of octaves and sort of hiccuping the first syllabel out.

Bob Murray is definitely the worst offender. Listen closely to his delivery; there's more than a little Harry Caray in him. Sometimes it even sounds as if there is little of what Harry had in him (lots of Budweiser) in Bob as well.

I know he's this town's elder statesman in broadcast radio and I ought not disparage his good works, but he doesn't seem able to shake his Crazy Bob personae despite the change in format. His voice is much better suited for spinning records in the 50s than it does conducting interviews today. It's like listening to another Murray, Bill, do his Jerry Aldini character while interviewing the head of the local dog shelter. To be fair to Bob, however, Colin Cowherd of ESPN radio is much more annoying.

There was an interesting article on a while back that discussed how advertisers are getting away from using traditional, "voice of god" baritones for voice-over work and are turning to celebrities instead. They aren't trying to capitalize on voice recognition, they are doing it because actors are professionals who know how to affect a relaxed, real person delivery and they've found that listeners respond to it better.

I think they are on to something. Bigger-than-life voices can play well in parody or satire, but on talk radio, I believe that it's better to tone it down a bit.

*Don Trello and Larry Tate who host the Pressbox on Mondays and Tuesdays are beginning to gain cult status with me. When I am to able to figure out the essence of why they are so damn entertaining, despite the fact that I'm not a big baseball fan, I'll blog about it so you too might know. Seriously, they are funny.

**Thanks for the correction Russ.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Hurricane Emily Wuthering* to New Heights

A quick Google news search reveals that I am the first to reference Emily Bronte’s classic novel or the Kate Bush song that it inspired in a headline referring to Hurricane Emily. Perhaps gothic romance isn't easily connected in the mind to extreme weather events, although I do think it would be fair to categorize Catherine and Heathcliff's relationship as stormy.

I predicted here that the nation's headline writers would have a harder time finding a hook for Emily after being handed Hurricane Dennis the Menace. Most of the headlines I've seen so far have played it straight, with no attempts at cleverness. Maybe that's for the best.

One comment to my last post on this subject took the media to task for trivializing the death and destruction that is associated with hurricanes by making the light-hearted Dennis the Menace reference. It’s a point that I hadn't considered.

It seems that clever headlines are most commonly used in human interest type stories, and if the stories in question were focused on people preparing for the storm then they might fall into this category. But in a straight news report that ledes with a death count or other references to human suffering, then a cute headline does seem disrespectful. I don’t recall serial killer Dennis Rader being playfully referred to as a menace.

A headline is meant to encapsulate the article and to entice people to read on. In the case of front page, above-the-fold headlines, they’re also used to lure customers at the newsstand. But a headline should also set the tone for an article. So a pun or a whimsical reference over an article dealing with death and destruction is about as appropriate as a funeral director decked out in a clown costume.

The SJ-R article that carried the Dennis the Menace headline focused on reports of evacuations and power outages, not really the stuff of human suffering. I didn’t feel that the headline distracted from the tone of the article because it wasn’t a report of calamity. But then again, people have different sensibilities and perhaps many more people throughout the country were put off by it (along with many newspapers, Newsweek also evoked television's favorite towheaded scamp in its Hurricane Dennis coverage.)

I’m not opposed to a little wordplay in headlines, although David St. Hubbins’ dictum that there is a fine line between clever and stupid definitely applies. I’ve toed that line myself, falling towards stupid on more than one occasion. Perhaps even on this post.

*def. A local term describing the fierce and wild winds that blow during storms on the moors.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Remembrance of Birds Past*

I posted my first piece on Look Back Springfield, a blog for those who want "to relive or learn about how Springfield once was –ten years ago or 200 years ago." It's a good blog and you should visit from time to time.

I wrote a lament for a bygone fast-food restaurant. I'll admit that I did go on a bit, and those that don't share my point of view might find it sad and pathetic, but I stand by what I wrote.

Here's a hint to the subject of my ode.
chick fil a

*Thanks to Marcel Proust for the use of the title

Thursday, July 14, 2005

I say, Doctor, ain't there nothin' I can take?

Both McDonald’s and Hardee’s are marketing their breakfast fare at a segment of the population that had previously received scant attention from anyone outside of the aspirin and antacid industry. In their wisdom, they recognize that the chronically hung-over are a potentially lucrative market waiting to be tapped.

McDonald’s print ad is running in national magazines and shows a man with a freshly-shaved reverse Mohawk, the result, we suspect, of a particularly raucous evening. Hardee’s (whose Toronto Road location recently closed) is airing a TV ad features a man who is so debilitated by the effects of alcohol withdrawal that he is unable to undo a twist-tie on a loaf of bread. Both ads offer a greasy breakfast sandwich as a panacea for their predicament.

Marketers are finally awakening to the fact that, in addition to pounding heads and sour stomachs, the hung-over exhibit other needs and are prone to other feelings that make them particularly susceptible to certain sales pitches. Local businesses and organizations should take note.


Hunger, or at least the need to eat something, is a common morning-after effect and the fast food industry is wise to jump in and fill this void with their promise of greasy food. Local cafes can also cater to this crowd by offering free refills on coffee and keeping the shades drawn.

A really bad hangover is often accompanied by feelings of heavy remorse causing the afflicted to feel that they are a bad person. This is the perfect time for charitable organizations to play upon these insecurities by passing them the hat with the promise that a sizable donation will set them back down the path of righteousness. A person faced with the fact that their life is so pathetic that they would down an entire bottle of Cuervo probably couldn’t bear, psychologically speaking, the thought of being pathetic AND indifferent to the fate of the spotted owl.

A particularly brutal hangover will often lead to bartering with a higher power in exchange for relief. Peddlers of that old time religion might do well then to stake out parking lots of apartment complexes, waiting for potential converts to return with their mega breakfast sandwich, then offering sweet salvation from the hell fires of the delirium tremens.

Hangovers are often times of great reflection. Vows to clean-up and adopt a healthier and more vigorous lifestyle are often declared, but usually forgotten once the fog begins to lift. This means that Sunday mornings provide the perfect window of opportunity for health clubs to pitch memberships through sales calls. Just be sure to get a credit card number before the blue law expires at noon, or the eye of the tiger might become blurred by the hair of the dog.

In coastal towns, clinics offering tattoo removal might do well with an advertising campaign targeting those who were inked while inebriated. But Springfield lacks a boardwalk where tattoo parlors beckon the soused as they exit the saloons in a state of wild inhibition, so the need is probably not as prevalent.

But payday loans, legal services, marriage counseling – all of these take on a more urgent need when a person is attempting to pick-up the pieces of the previous night out while nursing a head that is as susceptible to suggestion as it is impervious to reason.

In short, the savvy advertiser will hit them when they're hurting and pitch them when they're puking. Each evening a band of revelers takes to the taverns, each morning a new target market is created.

You know? Drinking Buddies is starting to look like a pretty shrewd way to peddle newspaper subscriptions after all.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Hospitals Hack Off Some Employees*

A gaggle of black robed judges, gathered together on the sidewalk outside the courthouse, each swigging from a bottle of hooch conspicuously concealed inside a brown paper bag. It’s an image that wouldn’t inspire much confidence in the proceedings that are carried out inside. The legal profession recognizes that the sight of rum-tickled barristers wouldn’t play well in the public eye. Concern with that perception probably played a role in the recent decision to suspend the license of a former judge for failing to abide by conditions placed upon his practice based on alcohol-related issues.

Now imagine a group of healthcare workers, plainly identified by their uniform of scrubs and comfortable shoes, puffing away on cigarettes outside of a hospital. Unlike the flask tipping judges, who were conjured up merely to illustrate a point, the discouraging and almost paradoxical image of healthcare professionals engaging in a highly health damaging activity is all too real. But it will soon be a thing of the past, at least in Springfield.

The SJ-R reported today on a joint decision made between St. John’s and Memorial hospitals to ban smoking anywhere on their property.

The article included several quotes from employees who will be affected by the decision. Most were none too happy. Some commented on the inevitable change in mood that will be brought about. I can only assume this means a decline in decorum and comportment by those in the throes of nicotine withdrawal. It’s baffling then that they recognize the effects of their pastime but not the dire nature of their addiction. How will the hospitals deal with those employees who can no longer muster up the tender, loving aspects of caregiving because they can no longer light-up at work?

It was surprising to see that an estimated 25 percent of the employees at the two hospitals are smokers. This figure is higher than the national average for adults, that stands at around 21 percent according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It would seem that firsthand exposure to smoking-induced ailments would have a scared straight effect and lead to a lower rate. And the very calling of their profession that requires they constantly advise against activities detrimental to health, of which smoking is near the top, has to create a level of cognitive dissonance that is just begging for resolution.

Granted, not everyone who works at the hospital is a healthcare professional. There are custodial and food service staff, among others. This was pointed out to me by a former PR flack at one of the hospitals when I mentioned, several years ago, that bands of smoke bellowing employees hovering around the premises were clouding their message of health and well-being. My response was that it can be difficult to tell a doctor from a nurse from a housekeeper when they’re all dressed in scrubs and away from their vehicles, so the perception still exists.

The flack, by the way, would be pleased by the ban.

When sounding off in response to proposed laws that would ban smoking in privately-owned locales, smoking advocates try to come across as fair and discerning by stating that such decisions are best left to the individual proprietors. Now that such a decision has been made by two of the city’s larger employers, it will be interesting to see if it is championed by those smokers as a victory for the libertarian values of self-government, or if they borrow a phrase from Charlton Heston and decree that they’ll give up their cigarettes when they are pried from their cold, dead hands.

*Get it, hack? Because they're smokers.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Inflicting Pane

Tomorrow morning on AM Springfield, some lucky caller will win a free replacement window for their home. I've always thought this was an odd prize for a radio giveaway. It's like raffling off a left breast augmentation, unless the winner decides to go all in and purchase the rest of the package, the prize is of dubious value.

Maybe that's not the best analogy, but it is apt. One free window kind of puts the winner on the hook for purchasing replacements for the rest of the house, plus the labor cost to boot, for it to have any value. Unless you're planning on replacing your windows anyway, I'm not sure that this is the kind of prize that unexpectedly makes your day.

Not that it isn't a generous offer from the sponsor, replacement windows usually start out at about $150. And it's certainly a more upright way to drum up business than tossing rocks through people's windows at night and making fortuitous sales calls in the morning. Still, I wonder how many winners actually claim their prize, or if they do, have it leaning against a wall in their garage.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Your are like a hurricane*

The National Weather Service threw the nation's headline writers a bone when they named the latest hurricane to ravage our coasts. A Google news search reveals that the SJ-R was far from alone in evoking the name of Hank Ketcham's incorrigible Dennis the Menace to describe conditions being left in the wake of Hurricane Dennis.

The headlines are rich in imagery. One can see an impish Jay North, puffing up his cheeks before exhaling a mighty gust that leaves Mr. Wilson's garage a pile of splintered timbers. Golly gee!

Actually, the Weather Service doesn't select names for their thematic value. It works from a set lists of names that alternate every six years. Names are only retired if they are associated with an unusually violent or deadly hurricane.

Headline writers will have their collective creativity tested with the next name on the list, the ubiquitous Emily. Coincidently, noted poet Emily Dickinson does have a poem in which she regales:

"The wind begun to rock the grass
With threatening tunes and low, -
He flung a menace at the earth,
A menace at the sky"

But good luck making that connection in a short, catchy headline.

The practice of naming storms began centuries ago, with the tempests being christened with the names of saints. In the 1950s, an alphabetical system was put into place using only female names based on some kind of misguided notion prevalent at the time that women are somehow volatile and unpredictable (and this was before Courtney Love). Today, a more enlightened approach has led to both male and female names being used.

The names are said to reflect the ethnic origins of the people who live in the areas that are often besieged by hurricanes. This wasn't good enough for U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee who several years ago railed against the injustice of having no names unique to African Americans. Apparently, a generation of black youth is becoming disillusioned by watching news footage of wide swathes of hurricane-produced destruction that doesn't speak to their experience. I don't recall the righting of this particular inequity being part of Dr. King's dream, but I have no qualms with naming a hurricane in honor of Tupac.

I think that it's good to name hurricanes. This way, they can be spoken of as raucous party crashers who tear up the joint and then split town, leaving the hosts to clean up the mess. Their names can be cursed for the destruction that they cause, and mocked for their ultimate inability to drive hearty souls away from their coastal abodes.

Of all the media coverage of Hurricane Dennis, the item I found most interesting was a TV newsmagazine story on Wal-Mart's state-of-the-art supply and distribution system. The retail behemoth is able to look at past sales records from stores along hurricane paths in the days leading up to storms to see what items are most sought. In addition to the obvious provisions such as batteries, bottled water, and duck tape, Wal-Mart discovered that those bracing for an atmospheric onslaught commonly stock-up on a particular staple – good old American Pop-Tarts. But not just any Pop-Tarts. They've found that people have a particular fondness for strawberry breakfast pastries while the roof is being blown off over their heads.

It's safe to say that this is a pretty amazing use of technology. Of course, it isn't safe to say anything complimentary of Wal-Mart without risking being labeled a traitor to the working man.

A letter-to-the-editor in the Sunday SJ-R compared Wal-Mart's treatment of employees favorably to slavery. I admit I have limited knowledge of the institute of slavery in this country and throughout history, but it seems obvious that the shackles of bondage involved conditions more oppressive than non-union wages. In fact, slavery involved no wages and actual, not metaphorical, shackles.

If Wal-Mart is breaking laws with their treatment of employees then they should be brought to justice. There's no excuse for forcing people to work overtime for no pay, or discriminating against women.

But a less compelling case against the retailer is the effect they have had on the competitive marketplace. Small general stores and five-and-dimes have had to shut their doors when Wal-Mart came to town. They weren't, however, driven out by mob tactics that had Molotov cocktails pitched through their display windows until they shut their doors in fear. They were outperformed in the business of supplying consumers with a wide variety of goods at a low price.

This happens all the time in our free market economy. When VCR's became the rage in the mid-to-late 1980s, Springfield was home to several locally owned video rental outlets (the last vestige of these businesses disappeared today as the sign for Lakeshore Video, which has been closed for several years, was taken down from its former location on Toronto Road). After several years, however, the Blockbusters of the world drove them out of business by offering more titles at a lower price. And now Blockbuster's market share is being threatened by digital video on demand and online services such as NetFlix.

The Wal-Mart organization isn't immune from competition anymore than its big box stores are immune from the devastating force of a hurricane. In the end, it's survival of the fittest.

*Thanks go to Neil Young for the title of today's post

Friday, July 08, 2005

Annie Get Your Scalp Treated

The increased prevalence of digital television recorders is giving more and more people the ability to skip commercials and get right to the next riveting segment of the Hilton’s. Traditionally, product placement has involved consumer products. But other advertisers are getting into the act as well. An article in Advertising Age’s publication Madison + Vine announced that the American Heart Association has negotiated a deal to get heart disease a leading role on an episode of a medical drama that airs on Lifetime Television. Presumably, the association will have some control over the content of the episode in exchange for their dollars.

This could work locally as well. SIU Physicians and Surgeons are underwriting the Muni Opera’s upcoming production of Annie Get Your Gun. They are also seeking patients to participate in a national study for the treatment of atopic dermatitis. Why not use the popular musical as a vehicle to recruit volunteers for the study?

Granted this would require a little tweaking of the script. A subplot would have to be developed and written into the script. It could go something like this.

Whenever Annie Oakley takes off her hat, the flakes of dry infected skin that fall like snow upon her elaborately embroidered vest leave her hurt and embarrassed. She becomes withdrawn and loses her confidence, no longer believing that she can shoot a partridge with a single cartridge.

But then Frank Butler recognizes the source of her anguish. In an act of love and devotion, he reveals that he too suffers from an inflammatory scalp disease that he has learned to control. What’s more, others have overcome the condition and later became noted for their marksmanship. He breaks into song*:

Just like Aaron Burr, William Tell, Robin Hood
Just like all those dudes
I have eczema too.

During the third chorus, Chief Sitting Bull enters stage right wearing a sandwich board displaying the phone number that the audience can call to participate in the SIU study.

After the song is through, Annie, comforted in the thought that she is not alone, gets the help that she needs. The show then continues on just as Irving Berlin intended.

It’s a great idea and I’ll be really surprised if SIU doesn’t run with it.

*This is actually funny if you know the melody to the song, "I'm an Indian Too", from the musical Annie Get Your Gun, words and music by Irving Berlin. Otherwise, probably not.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Pandering for fun and profit

The Sun-Times' Neil Steinberg forms two political action committees and deftly skewers both sides of the partisan divide in an attempt to profit from the hysteria that will undoubtedly engulf the selection of a new Supreme Court justice.

(scroll down to "Act now to save our country!)

An Irish Doppelganger?

When the Dublin Pub opened in the old D’Arcy’s Pint location, I’d heard that the new establishment wouldn’t be straying too far from the winning formula of the previous tenant. Irish theme, horseshoes, fast and affordable fare. After reading Penny Zimmerman-Wills' review in the Illinois Times last week, it’s apparent that not only are they not distancing themselves from D’Arcy’s, they may even be attempting to pass as the original to those unwitting diners who wander in by habit.

It’s understandable if the owner’s of D’Arcy’s are a wee bit miffed, believing that an imposter has invaded their midst and is attempting to profit from their legacy. But their isn’t really anything patent-worthy about opening an Irish-themed pub (there may be more in America then there are in Grand Ol’ Eire) and serving horseshoes (in Springfield, as much a staple as salt shakers).

The question is, from a public relations standpoint, is it a good move for the Dublin Pub. Wills mentions in her review that it may soon become a favorite neighborhood watering whole, but their best chance for success may come from picking up D’Arcy’s overflow crowd. Jimmy and Johnny, AM Springfield’s resident restaurant reviewers and all-around madcaps, noted on Madonia’s broadcast this morning that D’Arcy’s is generating so much traffic that a stop sign should be placed in front of their location on Wabash.

While the Dublin Pub may have taken careful note of D’Arcy’s recipe for success, where they may have miscalculated is in underestimating the power of customer loyalty.

How many concessionaires that sell corn dogs at the fair sit idle while the line backs up in front of Bob Vose’s stand? Vose may or may not actually have the best tasting corn dog, but certainly the perception is that he does, a perception that is strong enough to keep many people waiting in line rather than trying out a competitor.

The same will likely hold true for those local sons and daughters of Erin who like to eat horseshoes and drink Bud Light at a place that offers shepherd’s pie and Guinness. For them, D’Arcy’s will always have the authentic air of a real fake Irish pub while the Dublin Pub will just be a pretender.

Several years back, a different restaurateur engaged in a little identity theft of a well-known name on the local restaurant scene. While the owners of the original Black Angus put their operation on hold while looking for a new location, another restaurant swooped in and starting serving under their banner. I mention this only because in the dispute that followed, reported to the masses on the pages of the SJ-R, the swindling proprietors of the new Black Angus committed one of the more obvious PR blunders I have witnessed locally.

Public opinion, as I recall, clearly came down on the side of the old Black Angus, much as it does on an established soap opera character when faced with the wreckage bestowed upon her by an evil twin. But unlike the evil twin who is damned to eternal scorn, the new Black Angus was given a golden opportunity to commit a good deed and put themselves in the favorable graces of the steer consuming population.

The unexpected closure of the old Black Angus left many of their customers holding unredeemed gift certificates. When operators of the new Angus were asked by reporters if they would honor said certificates, they were all too quick to disavow responsibility. Fools! Not only could they have won over those who were holding the meal tickets, most likely regulars of the original Angus, but they also could have played their selfless act of largess in the media to great effect and generated loads of positive publicity. All for the price of a few choice cuts of beef.

Back to the Dublin Pub, if they succeed it will be because they serve good food at a reasonable price. I doubt, as Zimmerman-Wills suggests, that they will experience D'Arcy-like crowds on a regular basis for the simple fact that D'Arcy's is still packing them in at their larger location and their are a finite number of diners in this town. If they had chosen a different way to define themselves, however, they may have avoided forever playing second fiddle to a Springfield favorite.

No more White Shadows

In the SJ-R's sports section today, an article quotes a local high school coach who is quite candid in his comments concerning his reason for resigning. A frenzied band of overinvolved parents had zapped the joy out of his job to the point that he no longer desired to lead their young charges. The public airing of his grievances, along with making the job of finding his replacement more difficult, gives one to wonder if the proliferation of resignations in the high school coaching ranks isn't also tied, at least in part, to the behavior of parents.

It was always my understanding that those who pursued coaching careers did so because they possessed a passion for their particular sport and wanted to stay involved after their own playing days had ended. That's why it is curious that in another article in the sports page today, it mentions that two other local basketball coaches have left to pursue careers as pharmeuctical reps. Granted, pharmaceutical rep is probably a better paying gig, but I doubt that they were driven into that career by the same type of passion that found them pacing courtside in a high school gym. People who are passionate about pharmaceuticals don't become sales reps, they become junkies.

It's common for coaches, when stepping down from their position, to cite the desire to spend more time with their family as the reason. But if the real desire is to spend less time with the families of their players, it would serve their former profession much better if they would admit as much.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

I want my 6 cents back

The Sun Times ran a story today on the state's arcane sales tax system. Reporters from the paper went to stores in Chicago and Springfield to determine if the rights sales tax was being applied to their purchases. The results were mixed, but it's hard to blame the merchants for mislevying taxes.
Plain bottled water is taxed at the low 1 percent "food" rate, but if you add carbonation, the water becomes a "soft drink," taxed at the higher rate. (A can of Sprite also is a soft drink -- but a bottle of Snapple iced tea is a "food.") As for the bottle of Starbucks Frappucino coffee drink we bought -- it took an inquiry to the Department of Revenue to figure out that it was a coffee, not a soft drink, and thus was eligible for the lower food rate.
It's an interesting article although there's a comment from Revenue's spokesperson that left me somewhat baffled and the reporters didn't follow-up on it. She mentions that merchants are audited to ensure accurate compliance with the tax laws, and that they are liable for taxes that they under- or over-collected. I understand that they have to make up the difference if they under-collect, but what actions are taken if they over-collect? For some reason I don't think it finds its way back to the consumer.

Durbin stages a media coup

Senator Dick Durbin has been taking to the local airwaves recently in his bid to become Ombudsman of All Media. Sam Madonia announced that Durbin would be on his show this morning (I arrived at work before the interview) to provide editorial direction on which news stories are fit to air. He made a similar plea on the Jim Leach Show last week. In particular, Durbin doesn’t want the media to pay attention to people who are mean to him. Especially those lying liars over at Move America Forward.

I’ve heard the ad that Move America Forward put together taking the Minority Whip to task for his use of the H word in describing alleged torture by U.S. service people. It is a twisted piece of propaganda that in its overly dramatic indignation almost crosses over into satire, only I'm not sure these people have a sense of humor.

Durbin never called our ruddy cheeked soldiers budding Khmer Rouge as the ad suggests, his insinuations were meant for those higher up the command. But it is just a tad bit disingenuous of him to cry foul when it was his over-the-top grab for media attention that started this debacle in the first place. The words he used to describe events at Guantanamo Bay were chosen more for the rhetorical sting they would deliver than to provide an accurate portrayal of the situation. I won’t get into the morality of what went on there except to say that if Hitler had limited his diabolical impulses towards Jews to turning down the thermostat and blasting bad dance pop then the word Auschwitz wouldn’t conjure up such horrific images. There are no corpse-filled pits at Gitmo.

It discredits dirty politics when its purveyors can dish it out, but can’t take it. Had Durbin stood by his Hitler/Gulag/Pol Pot analogy people could have decided for themselves if he is a traitor to his land or a defender of the rights of humanity, and then been done with the whole affair. Personally, I think he is neither. I think he is a politician who is much too sensitive to be rolling in the dirt with the Roves and Deans of the world.

Instead of cowing to the demands that he apologize and imploring the media to ignore the muckrakers on the other side, Durbin should exercise restraint when formulating his defamatory comments and not attempt to link the current administration to anything more brutally tyrannical than say a "Baby Doc" Duvalier or an Idi Amin regime. That way he could appease his base who desperately desire to think the very worse of Bush without sending the hypocrites on the other side into such a full-fledged tizzy.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Garrison Keillor? D'oh!!!!!!!!!!!!

Accompanying Garrison Keillor's inaugural column in the SJ-R this morning was an interview with the public broadcasting legend in which he explains his intent to stay away from political issues that are already over punditcized. Instead, he wants to lighten up the editorial page with some of his prairie home humor. After reading his column, I immediately harkened back to a Simpson's episode in which a distraught Homer, whose channel surfing stranded him on a PBS member station that was showing a Keillor program, began violently pounding the side of the television set while desperately exhorting it to "BE FUNNIER!!!!"


I realize that humor is subjective and that many find Keillor's warmly intoned musings, well, humorous. I used to catch his program on WUIS from time to time and I'll admit that he can spin an amusing yarn. Whether his shtick can translate to print is another story.

Keillor plays the "kindly old gentleman" act to the hilt, dispensing his Wobegone-concocted wisdom in dollops that drip slow like molasses. But recently I've heard him say some pretty nasty, almost hateful things about people who reside on the other side of the ideological lake. Of course he made these comments while preaching to the progressives over the public broadcasting airwaves. It will be interesting to see if he measures his comments more carefully now that he is reaching a broader audience.

He chose, in his first column, to take a curious position on gay marriage. Curious in the respect that I can't figure out exactly what he is saying, but he clearly isn't coming out strongly in support of it. It's a surprising admission from a lefty, although the late Paul Wellstone, who was on the furthest reaches of the political left and of whom Keillor is an acolyte, also surprised his liberal base by voting in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act.

It's likely that Keillor will end up carrying the torch for the Air America crowd more often than not. And that's fine. He is on the OP-ED page and he can't wax nostalgic about fresh strawberries every week. I hope.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Delusions of the Damned

Reading about the chilling testimony of psychopath and sexual deviant Dennis Rader (he seems to enjoy being referred to by his self-dubbed, acronymic nickname so I won’t do him that honor) this week as he matter-of-factly boasted about the details of his heinous crimes inevitably causes people to wonder how such individuals can live with themselves after committing such acts. I couldn’t begin to understand what is going on inside his twisted mess of a mind, but a very good story in the SJ-R today by Sarah Antonacci reveals how other less deranged but still despicable individuals cope when faced with the consequences of their actions.

The appropriately named Doris Lush came before the judge to accept sentencing for killing a woman in a traffic accident in which a soused Lush (tautology acknowledged) ran a red light. She didn’t come to court to accept blame.

In a letter to the judge she portrays herself as a heroic figure who overcame substance abuse and now stands martyred before the court. She is a victim, in her mind, of incompetent traffic engineers, unreliable eye-witnesses, false lab reports, the health industry’s failure to define moderate when advocating the health benefits of red wine, and the victim’s disregard for vehicle safety apparatuses. This tangle of seemingly random events have conspired to take away her freedom.

I have little doubt that Lush feels that she has been wronged, with the trauma of the case contributing heavily to her warped view of reality. The trauma to her, however, wasn’t that she caused the death of another person, but that she is facing extended prison time. To some, compassion is wasted on others.

To take another, more famous case: How does O.J. manage to swing a golf club with such ease when the weight of two murders are bearing down on him? The weight isn’t there. I honestly believe that he honestly believes that he didn’t do it. The mind is a very strong thing but can be a deceptive arbitrator of truth when the facts threaten to overwhelm the individual to whom it owes allegiance. Contributing to the cause in O.J.’s case was the situation in which several very intelligent people, his attorneys, fought long and hard to convince a jury of his innocence, repeating over and over that Mr. Simpson isn’t responsible (the glove don’t fit). At some point, he believed them.

I would say that a convicted person’s denial of responsibility is inconsequential as long as justice is served. But such denials cast indignity upon the victim’s family and are seen as treasonous to the bonds of humanity by most everyone. Antonacci did a good job of demonstrating that point in her reporting and I’m sure that it stirred a lot of emotion within readers today.