The Media Eye

It never blinks -- even when we wish it would.

Although I am a professional consumer of media (meaning that I get paid to monitor the press in all of its many facets), I am not all that different from the amateur kind -- particularly at times when a single story dominates the national consciousness. As such, I imagine that my experiences on September 11 weren't far removed from those of untold millions of Americans who witnessed the apparent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., from a distance -- the distance between them and a television, radio or computer monitor.

The morning kicked off like many others. My wife, Deb, left for work at 6:45 a.m. as I was serving breakfast to my son, Nick, twelve, and eight-year-old twin daughters, Lora and Ellie. But then, shortly after Nick finished eating and headed to the basement to play Nintendo, Channel 9 morning anchor Gary Shapiro announced that the station was breaking into programming to broadcast coverage of an explosion at the World Trade Center in New York.

At which point my day, and that of countless others, changed dramatically.

That wasn't clear initially, of course. The Today show was running live rather than on a two-hour tape-delay basis, but neither Matt Lauer nor Katie Couric could say if the plane that smashed into the first tower of the World Trade Center had done so as the result of a terrible accident or a deliberate act. Things grew clearer within minutes, though, as Lora, Ellie and I watched a second aircraft explode against tower number two as it happened, in living color. Within seconds, I found myself fighting through the shock of what I'd just witnessed to explain, as best I could, the concept of international terrorism to a pair of third-graders without panicking or upsetting them -- a task that couldn't help but recall a similar conversation we'd had following the assault on Columbine High School two years earlier.

After ten minutes, they appeared to understand what they'd witnessed to some degree and were curious but calm -- so I decided to try and go on with the morning, taking Lora upstairs to go over her spelling words for the week. I told Ellie, who'd forgotten to bring home her spelling list the day before, to watch kids' programming until we were finished, and saw her switch to Cartoon Network. But by the time Lora and I came downstairs ten minutes later, Ellie was back on Channel 9, watching the blaze again -- and when I sent her and her siblings to brush their teeth shortly thereafter (by which time the Pentagon was burning, too), Ellie quickly found an excuse to get into a fight with her brother. Obviously, she was having a little difficulty processing information.

Once peace was restored, I dropped my spawn at their respective schools and headed to work, listening slack-jawed to updates on KHOW, KTLK and KOA, which wisely relied on a national feed, only occasionally breaking in with reports on local angles. But I soon discovered this hadn't been the case from the beginning. Upon arriving at work, I had a message from Deb, who told me that for long minutes after other stations had thrown themselves into crisis mode, KOA was still talking about Bronco receiver Ed McCaffrey's broken leg. According to her, she got more information about the strikes from Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce on Alice than she did from Denver's reputed radio news leader. As for KHOW, she said the station took quite a while to drop its commercials; at one point, Peter Boyles apologized to his audience before reading a spot for a teeth-whitening service. Deb could feel his pain.

Meanwhile, at Westword, the office cable was out, leaving employees to watch a TV that received just one station (Channel 9) via a completely inadequate antenna. Plus, news Web sites all over the country were so overwhelmed that they couldn't be accessed. So I e-mailed my three closest friends in New York to make sure they were okay, almost instantly receiving reassurances from the first, and then headed back home, listening to the radio during the drive. The Fan, I discovered, had temporarily set sports aside in favor of syndicated news -- a good move. But KTLK was broadcasting some moronic talk-show host from Los Angeles; his vaguely irresponsible blathering about terrorism and Lord knows what else was no doubt a harbinger of bad things to come. Back at KHOW, Boyles was taking calls and serving as a sympathetic ear, while KOA's Mike Rosen was interspersing talk about all the potentially luscious terrorist targets in Colorado with phrases like, "I'm not trying to be an alarmist, but..." Thank goodness.

For the next two hours, I scanned from one news channel to the next, trying to form impressions about what I was seeing, and I wound up with a few. For instance, the most extensive local coverage during the early hours was offered by Channel 2, with Channel 9 sticking most devotedly to national material; the latter was the only area outlet that didn't broadcast Mayor Wellington Webb's remarks live.

I also got a chance to see the special editions raced onto the streets by the Rocky Mountain News, which squeezed just one local story into its pages, and the Denver Post, which got an impressive amount of original material into print on awfully short notice. Granted, the columns by Chuck Green and Woody Paige didn't contain any fresh insights -- but how fresh can anyone's insights be hours after something like this happens?

There were ironies aplenty in the media's coverage -- like the juxtaposition on Channel 4 of horrific images from the streets of Manhattan with a crawl at the bottom of the screen letting Denverites know that the evening's Tony Bennett concert had been canceled. But I wasn't sure what they meant until I received a call from one of the New Yorkers I'd e-mailed earlier. My friend told me that he and his brother, the other person I'd been trying to reach, were shaken but otherwise fine, then added that he almost certainly wouldn't be working for the rest of the week. Why not? He's employed by The Daily Show, a hilarious news-parody show on Comedy Central that stars comic Jon Stewart, and the folks behind the program realized that no one would be in a laughing mood for quite a while.

I certainly wasn't. I had already written a column for the paper, the contents of which follow this item. But all I could think about were the events I'd witnessed from afar, and how they would continue to bombard all of us -- victims' families, loved ones' families, your family, my family -- for weeks, months and years to come.

There's no 'off' button for something like that.

Peak speak: During the life of the Peak, at 96.5 FM, there have been more downs than ups.

The station, which debuted in June 1994 with an adult-rock format not far removed from that of KBCO, got out of the blocks quickly, becoming the most successful new station of that period. But a year or so later, the outlet's ratings began a slow drift downward, eventually precipitating a shift to hard-alternative music and the leering shenanigans of Howard Stern. In the end, this combination didn't work, either, and following Stern's disappearance (Columbine and dirty tricks by rivals did him in) and not one but two sales (the first, to Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, was rejected by the FCC; the second, to Emmis Communications, was approved), the Peak announced it was returning to its original style.

This wasn't actually the case: The new Peak's sound, dubbed "The '80s and Beyond," was actually a throwback to the early days of MTV, complete with the participation of ex-MTV video-jock Nina Blackwood. But a playlist heavy with songs by the Police and Depeche Mode has thus far failed to attract a large audience, and so has Blackwood. (Hell, her appearance at MTV's recent twentieth-anniversary celebration, which found her looking like a cross between Stevie Nicks and Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, may have scared some fans off.) So the station is fiddling with its formula again by dosing its mix with ditties already getting plenty of airtime elsewhere and by experimenting with a morning show that uses listeners as air talent.

The Peak's musical tinkering could have been a good thing -- but in execution, it's only increased the homogenization of the area airwaves. Specifically, the station has added a heaping helping of mainstream rock represented by acts such as John Mellencamp, Tom Petty, Van Halen and Aerosmith, all of whom remain staples on popular rock-oriented signals like the Fox, the Hawk, KBCO and KBPI. In other words, the Peak is giving people more of what they've got way too much of already.

Why, why, a thousand times, why? For one thing, the straightforward '80s tack, which Peak program director Mike Stern says "was really hot for about ten minutes," hasn't taken off; there are approximately a dozen stations across the U.S. trying it right now, and none are drawing big numbers. Stern (no relation to Howard) thinks Denver's a better place for the approach than most others, because KBCO, KTCL, Alice and the original Peak have cultivated a market for it -- "but we're still really learning what a listener likes in an '80s-based format, still writing the playbook on this kind of thing. And when we looked at our research, we felt like we could broaden the sound out a little. Because you always want to be as mass appeal as you can afford to be."

And as predictable, apparently.

In contrast, the Peak's a.m. drive program, My Peak in the Morning, is unique; Stern says he's not aware of any other commercial station doing something like it (although VH1 has used similar branding of late). The concept calls for listeners to introduce the songs that they've requested by calling or faxing the station, or by visiting its Web site, thepeak.com. And Peak fans may be asked to do more down the line. "Over time, we're going to try to expand this," Stern pledges, "so that we can have the audience reading the weather and promoting other features."

Stern concedes that this dramatic move was spurred largely by the lackluster performance of the Peak's previous morning show, starring Howie Greene and Lisa Axe, who'd been imported from that cultural garden spot, San Bernadino, California. (The Greene-Axe pairing, which the Peak began airing last November, wasn't offensive, just tepid.) But he insists that eliminating the salaries of these radio pros didn't motivate the decision. "I'm not going to deny that there's cost savings there, but it's also fairly work intensive on our end. We have to have people to call listeners and tape intros and put them together, so there's not as big a savings as people think. If we thought it would be better to find a new morning show, we'd do it, but we really think there's merit to this idea."

Yet, while Stern portrays My Peak in the Morning as wonderfully egalitarian, it's not the free-for-all it might seem. In particular, station personnel are likely to spin only those requested songs they're already playing anyway. "We have a pretty good database, and we do a lot of music research," Stern says. "So we've got a good feel for those songs that aren't incredibly familiar but fans feel passionately about, because we've researched them with people in the demo -- so we'll definitely play those. But we try not to go with the not-well-known and not-well-loved." In other words, anything obscure or unexpected gets chucked out the window. Guess I won't phone in that request for "Jackie Onassis" by Human Sexual Response after all.

Worse, the recorded snippets from listeners don't stand out in the same way live commentary from an actual human does, at least as presently programmed. They sound recorded (which they are) and canned (which they are, too), causing the atmosphere created by My Peak in the Morning to seem automated, pre-programmed -- the very opposite of spontaneous. Odds are good that many of the satellite radio stations presently gearing up to take advantage of new car-stereo technology will use the same approach, and be forgotten for the same reasons.

Of course, it's too early to know if My Peak in the Morning will thrive -- but even Stern admits the program's a gamble. "We're really turning this show over to the listeners," he says. "Let's hope they give themselves good ratings." The benefits of age: Ex-reporter Dave Minshall's age-discrimination lawsuit against his former employer, Channel 7 ("Old News," May 3), ended last week with a jury calling for him to be awarded $562,000 in back wages and penalties, not to mention over a hundred grand in lawyer fees and trial costs. Along the way , it offered a week-and-a-half-long peek at the inner workings of TV news, with the material on view in the U.S. District courtroom overseen by Judge Clarence Brimmer emerging as ugly or hilarious, depending upon your point of view.

Consider the comments of Channel 7 reporter Bill Clarke, a onetime pal of Minshall's, who revealed that he nicknamed his ol' buddy "Deadline Dave" for his tendency to get stories in at the last minute, or sometimes even later. These remarks spurred Rocky Mountain Newscolumnist Gene Amoleto vilify Clarke in print for a past offense ("I was outraged at his blatant disregard for basic journalistic ethics," wrote Amole). According to Amole, Clarke had asked him to comment about the now-defunct Denver Symphony Orchestra -- and when Amole declined, Clarke ran file footage of the columnist without identifying it as old news.

Also part of the evidence presented in court was videotape taken at an awards ceremony where, Channel 7's attorneys contended, Minshall had been intoxicated (Minshall acknowledges that he was "tipsy in the first shot, a little more tipsy in the second"). Had I been invited to take the stand, I would have noted that, given the amount of alcohol consumed by the majority of reporters at such functions, Minshall would have stood out more had he not been sozzled.

In the end, most of the claims Channel 7 made about Minshall -- he was supposedly sloppy, occasionally unreliable, and a poor speller and grammarian -- seemed minor when compared with incidents like the physical attack Channel 9's Mark Koebrich allegedly made on a technical engineer at his station late last month, for which he was cited by police. As an indication of how seriously Koebrich takes the matter, he was quoted by gossip columnist Penny Parker in the September 7 News joking about it, using lines like, "Look out, I'm pretty volatile."

But although Minshall won, he remains unmistakably bitter over the way Channel 7 chose to defend itself. "I expected that they'd be mean," he says, "but that didn't make it any easier knowing my wife and four kids and my friends were hearing me described as an incompetent lout." Even a compliment he gives to Channel 7 anchor Bertha Lynn, who testified on his behalf, winds up with a slam at the station: "When you're ten feet away from your boss and you say, 'I was discriminated against when I got demoted, and Dave Minshall was discriminated against when he was fired,' that takes real guts, real class. Frankly, Channel 7 doesn't deserve her." And Minshall also tees off on Cindy Velasquez, Channel 7's vice president and general manager, despite the fact that she didn't start working at the station until late 1997, nearly nine months after he was sacked, and she eventually got rid of the news director, Melissa Klinzing, responsible for getting rid of him.

Velasquez, who says she doesn't remember meeting Minshall until the trial, isn't surprised that some of his ire is splashing onto her: "He's obviously angry, and angry people need to have a target." But she doesn't shrink from defending the station. "We will appeal the decision, most definitely. We believe, especially after listening to trial testimony, that our decision not to renew Mr. Minshall's contract was correct. We did nothing wrong. He had performance problems, so we had reason to question his professional behavior, and after his managers brought these problems to his attention and gave him six months to address the issues, he did not correct them. Thus the decision not to renew his contract."

On the surface, Channel 7's insistence upon appealing seems like a one-way ticket to more bad press, which the station received plenty of during the trial. Both the News and the Denver Post covered the proceedings on practically a daily basis, and gave big play to the verdict, as did rival TV stations and both KOA and KHOW, each of which presented live interviews with Minshall. Indeed, pretty much the only major Denver news outlet that didn't offer coverage was Channel 7. Velasquez grants that this choice "has raised some questions" among viewers and Minshall supporters, but says there was nothing nefarious about it. She insists that neither she nor representatives of McGraw-Hill, Channel 7's owner, applied pressure on the news department to impose a Minshall blackout, adding, "There was a lot of discussion prior to the start of the trial among the news managers as to how they should handle this, a lot of back and forth. And as I understand it, they decided that this was a civil matter, not criminal, and involved personnel issues. So they decided not to cover any part of the trial, and after the verdict came out, they felt that because they hadn't covered the trial, they should stick with their original decision and not cover the verdict."

Since other media outlets will have more to cover if the case is appealed, Channel 7 would seem to have an incentive to settle the dispute prior to another trial -- a possibility Minshall says the station's attorneys floated to his lawyer, David Lane, just before the scheduled court date. "They told David, 'Name a number that would make you happy,' and he did -- and we never heard back from them," Minshall says. But Velasquez won't discuss the possibility of a settlement, perhaps because of Channel 7's experiences with a different age-discrimination lawsuit, involving Art Manning, a former account executive. In May 1997, four years after Manning's firing, and less than two months after Minshall's, a federal jury said Manning, who was also represented by Lane, deserved approximately $689,000 in back pay and damages. However, Channel 7 won on appeal, and did so again in U.S. Circuit Court.

The Manning results shouldn't be interpreted to imply that Minshall is doomed; not only are the circumstances of the two cases different, but Manning's case got very little press attention because he wasn't well known, whereas the local celebrity status of Minshall and witnesses such as Clarke, Lynn and Ernie Bjorkman, now an anchor with Channel 2, guarantees ink and airtime down the line.

That line probably won't be a short one. Minshall suspects that the appeals process could take another year or two at minimum, contributing to the financial strain under which he's struggling at present. (He's doing public-relations work these days, and isn't getting rich from it.) But Minshall has more than enough pent-up resentment to keep him going for the long haul. "Here's what Channel 7 faces," he says. "If they settle with me, I'll shut up. And if they don't settle with me, I'm going to spend the rest of my life badmouthing Channel 7. I'll do everything I can to remind people that Channel 7 fired me because of my age, and a jury found they broke the law."

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