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Cue Sheet – June 2006

RETURN OF THE SUCCUBI

    The latest steaming pile of manure from the public radio system’s Radio Research Consortium is a series of cowpie reports collectively called Audience 2010, masterminded by audience researchers George Bailey (of Walrus Research) and David Giovannoni. The first thing you have to remember is that these guys and their employees are consultants, not radio practitioners, and consultants are usually people who have failed to succeed in a particular field (or have no experience in it), and now teach the techniques of failure to gullible, insecure professionals.
    Giovannoni, you may recall, is the man who has dedicated his life to making public radio sound more like commercial radio, shifting its mission away from serving unserved audiences toward padding the ratings books with listeners, simply to build the potential base of donors. Problem is, listeners don’t become donors unless they believe in what they’re listening to, and the techniques advocated by Giovannoni and company don’t create an audience of true believers. Despite his protests to the contrary, Giovannoni has spent the last several years belittling music programming and advocating the establishment of all-news/talk formats in public radio, which means that instead of doing something different, stations that follow his advice are now merely adding to the talk radio babble. Not much is setting these public radio stations apart from their commercial competitors now, except that unlike rabid right-wing talk radio hosts, NPR reporters drone, and have no audible commitment to what they’re doing.
    So now Bailey and Giovannoni announce that, after many, many hours of “research” and focus groups, they have discovered that public radio’s audience is declining because stations are “losing loyalty.” Well, surprise, surprise, surprise, as Gomer Pyle used to say before he became Giovannoni’s intellectual model. When public radio stations start doing essentially the same thing commercial stations do, why should listeners remain loyal?
    In an interview in Current, Bailey and Giovannoni talk all around the issues, but explain absolutely nothing. The first sign that these are the wrong men for the job—as if Giovannoni’s inadequacy and hidden agendas weren’t evident as long ago as the late 1980s—is Giovannoni’s answer to the question, “How big a deal is this decline?”
    Says Giovannoni, “Each public broadcaster has to answer that question for him or her self. How much money do you need to run your station next year? That’s how big a deal it is. How long can you afford to subsidize your new national program? That’s how big a deal it is. How long can you stand to become increasingly less important to the American public? That’s how big a deal it is.”
    Then there’s this remark from Bailey: “In all my time working with public radio, I’ve always found people start to pay attention when there are financial consequences. And we set that up in the very first report—there’s going to be a gap between the station’s potential revenue from listeners and increasing expenses.”
    Their first priority: raising money. For Giovannoni and his acolytes, that’s the foundation of everything. Stations need lots and lots of listeners, so there will be a bigger pool of contributors to support programming that will lure lots and lots of listeners. If you don’t attract a substantial audience, you are “increasingly less important to the American public.” Just look at the numbers—they tell the whole story.
    Well, maybe that kind of thinking will get you through Statistics 101, but it can’t help you conceptualize and operate a vital resource like a public radio station. Using paint-by-numbers kits won’t make you a Rembrandt.
    When the interviewer for Current tries to ask if there might ever be important programming that needs to be aired even though it could lose the mass audience, the smug consultants merely laugh at him. In their simplistic formula, programming proves its quality by attracting a large audience. These guys simply cannot comprehend arguments to the contrary, because all they understand is statistics, not content, not mission, not interests that do not conform to what the masses will settle for.
    These men selectively use statistics to make assertions that conform to their mass-market perspective, and dismiss objections to their shoddy thinking because the objections aren’t supported by their interpretation of the numbers. Giovannoni is proud of his research methodology, but his thinking methodology has always been inadequate and circular. It’s appalling that station managers have ever taken him seriously.
    Go read the article for yourself, but don’t expect to glean any facts from it. The article is accompanied by unlabeled, meaningless graphs and much bluster from the consultants, but not a shred of real analysis—mainly because the consultants admit they couldn’t detect any clear patterns in their research. “You’re in trouble, and it’s up to each station manager to figure out why,” they tell us. What the hell are these guys getting paid for? They must be driven out before they complete the destruction of public radio that Giovannoni and Tom Church began 20 years ago. It’s too bad Giovannoni doesn’t have a heart we could drive a stake through.

radio-life,

THE BUZZ AT GASLIGHT

    Gaslight Theatre has revived one of its better, funnier, more coherent shows, and it makes for a fun night out:

    Holy leotard, Batman! Those evil geniuses at the Gaslight Theatre have taken your life's work and turned it into a musical parody called Gnatman! But even though the faithful Gaslight audience is cheering gnats instead of bats, the guano is still hitting the fan.
    I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course. Gaslight Theatre makes a point of never, ever aspiring to high art, and if you enter the house expecting to be enveloped by the sophisticated wit of G.B. Shaw, you will surely leave feeling that you need to scrape something off your shoe. But it's funny when somebody—somebody other than you—steps in something icky. So if Gnatman! is just a bit of a mess, it's a rollicking mess, one of Gaslight's most enjoyable shows in a long time.
    You can read the rest of my Tucson Weekly review here.

tucson-arts,

CULTURE ON PHOENIX RADIO

    Here's a news item of interest to folks in Phoenix, rather than Tucson, but what I find unusual is that the program in question airs on the city's liberal talk-radio station rather than its classical-music outlet:

NEW WEEKLY RADIO SHOW ABOUT PHOENIX ARTS ON 1480AM
Ken LaFave, Cathy Droz to co-host on AirAmerica
June 29, 2006
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

    “Two on the Aisle,” a weekly, one-hour radio show about the arts in Phoenix, will debut Sunday, Aug. 6, 2006, on AirAmerica Phoenix, 1480AM. The show, co-hosted by Ken LaFave and Cathy Droz, will air each Sunday at 7 p.m.

   LaFave and Droz will discuss music, theater, dance (and sometimes visual arts) events in the greater Phoenix area. LaFave, longtime former music and dance critic for
The Arizona Republic, and currently a columnist for The Desert Advocate, will interview the actors, musicians, dancers, directors and  philanthropists who make the arts a thrilling component of life in Phoenix.

   “Two on the Aisle” is supported in part by Arizona State University Public Events.

radio-life,

SEARCH, FIND, SORT

    While checking out an Internet rumor at the invaluable and entertaining snopes.com, I thought I’d search the site for debunkings of urban legends and phony photos involving my instrument, the cello. But the word “cello” apparently appears nowhere on the snopes site, meaning perhaps that the instrument is too far off the cultural radar to be involved in wild tales (Giant alligator swallows cello whole!) or conspiracy theories (Chinese cello factories make endpins from metal illegally salvaged from World Trade Center debris!). Even though the search engine couldn’t find references to “cello,” it did return items involving words it determined to be somehow similar. The list of cello-related words, carefully sorted, tells a story I hesitate to explicate:
    soul
    sly
    slay
    cell
    sold

seven-oclock-cellist,

THE SHREW UNTAMED

    On Friday night, I plopped myself down on the Reid Park grass (allergies be damned), and much to my surprise thoroughly enjoyed the Parks & Rec community theater production of The Taming of the Shrew. This was the first time in its 19 years I had attended one of these “Shakespeare Under the Stars” productions; I’d always figured that, as so often happens in community theater, a lot of enthusiastic but stilted amateurs would plant themselves on stage for some stiff declaiming. I whole-heartedly support amateur theatricals, but it’s not something I care to attend unless I know somebody in the cast, and neither is it something that should be subjected to critical scrutiny. Well, now I wish I’d had space in the Tucson Weekly to review this show; much of the acting, mainly in the (many) principal roles, was as good as you’d find in any of Tucson’s non-Equity theaters, and director David Felix kept the action lively and fluid, the expression clear and meaningful.
    The one element that dissatisfied me was the delivery of Kate’s final speech. The actress had done a splendid job all evening, but at this critical moment she grew affected, and it was difficult to tell exactly what tone she and director Felix had in mind. This is the scene that invariably draws criticism today; the “shrewish” Kate—that is, she is lively, aggressive, outspoken, suffers no fools—has turned submissive, surrendering to husband Petrucchio’s intense psychological warfare, and declares that now that she has changed her ways other women should follow her example.
    I can imagine two ways to play this scene that would be true to Shakespeare while also satisfying our anachronistic objections to a play written 500 years ago for an utterly different society.
    First, there’s the feminist approach. Kate has been made subserviant, but only because she realizes the futility of her struggle. So she delivers that speech with sarcasm and bitterness. I think that might be what the Parks & Rec performance was hinting at, but not very strongly; the actress spoke with more detachment and faint mockery than anything else.
    There’s a second way to do it that pulls the entire play together. The evening begins with what seems to be a totally irrelevant episode, in which a drunkard named Christopher Sly is taken up, unconscious, by a nobleman who devises an elaborate practical joke. Sly is to be persuaded that he himself is actually a nobleman who has just awoken from a 15-year derangement or coma, whereupon, before he can make jolly with the person presented as his wife, he is asked to watch a play, which turns out to be The Taming of the Shrew. Thus, our “main” story is a play within a play, full of dissembling and disguise, presented to a man who is not the person he has come to think he is.
    Given this atmosphere of duplicity and false identity, and considering that Kate and Petrucchio obviously enjoy sparring with each other from their first meeting, wouldn’t it make sense for the “taming of the shrew” to be a huge practical joke that Kate and Petrucchio are playing on the people around them? Kate and Petrucchio are in on the joke together, and after all it’s the servants who suffer Petrucchio’s direct abuse as he attempts to bring Kate into line. What if Kate and Petrucchio are pulling a fast one, in effect pretending to be people they are not, in order to mock the expectations of their little society? All this reading would require are some conspiratorial glances, and somebody onstage during Petrucchio’s soliloquy when he lays out his plan to tame Kate—instead of confiding to us, he’s duping one or more of his servants or neighbors.
    In the end, Kate and Petrucchio would be thumbing their noses at the people around them, while embarking on a well-matched companionate marriage, which was a hot new topic in Shakespeare’s England.
    But then, I’m not the director. I’m just a guy sneezing in the grass, being entertained by a secure, unpretentious production of Shakespeare in the park.

tucson-arts,

LAUGH, LAUGH, LAUGH

    Three surprisingly good comedy productions opened in Tucson last week. Oddly, each one gets laughs from potential violence: Neil Simon in boot camp, old ladies poisoning old men, Israelis and Palestinians doing what comes naturally:

Neil Simon is prolific and popular, but he's written only three first-rate plays, together forming a semi-autobiographical trilogy in which young Eugene Jerome comes of age and becomes a writer in the 1930s and '40s. The UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre is presenting each of them, one per year; the company has now put up the middle panel in this triptych, Biloxi Blues, the most loosely structured but most emotionally and intellectually complex work in the series.
    You can read the rest here, and yes, for people like Russell Stagg who need to be poked in the eye with a big upturned thumb, I liked it. Meanwhile, across town …
    Now, here's a two-course theatrical meal that could keep you up all night: a nicely roasted old chestnut, followed by a highly spiced piece of gristle that rewards a thorough chewing-over.
    Live Theatre Workshop opened two absolutely unrelated comedies last weekend. The mainstage presentation is Joseph Kesselring's classic, Arsenic and Old Lace, wherein two charming, gently murderous old ladies find their hobby endangered by one nephew who's basically good, and another who is very, very bad. The late show is John Patrick Shanley's extended political metaphor Dirty Story, wherein two not-so-charming, not-so-gently murderous characters--call them Israel and Palestine--undertake a sadomasochistic apartment-sharing scheme.
    You'd think one play or the other would be unendurable, Arsenic and Old Lace old-fashioned and stale, Dirty Story annoyingly self-righteous. Not so. Each is quite fulfilling in its own distinct way, and Live Theatre Workshop trots them both out with hardly a misstep.
    The full review lurks here.

tucson-arts,

About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.