Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fish out of water

I'm not much of a listener to any radio program where people are talking. (I have enough voices in my head, thank you very much.) It's not that some of these programs aren't worthwhile, though I consider sports talk radio to be an abomination; I listen once or twice a year, content myself that it hasn't changed, and turn it off ["Long-time listener, first-time caller, hey, here's what the Cubs need to do, they should trade some of their minor-leaguers for Manny Ramirez, Johan Santana, Pete Rose in his prime, and the ghost of Ty Cobb"].

However, for many people talk radio hosts become something of a lifeline during the lonely hours, whether they come sitting in rush hour traffic or lying in bed trying to sleep. There's an intimacy to communing to the spoken voice that doesn't come across on TV. I don't know if that's because there's too much sensory input with a television talking head, but the folks I know who listen to radio programs regularly claim a connection with the hosts.

For many people, their overnight hours were spent with Chicago Eddie Schwartz. As I said, I didn't hear him much, but he seemed to speak the language of the average person. He was the antithesis of the well-coiffed, above-it-all TV anchor. Schwartz passed away last night at 62 after long-time health problems. (For more about Chicago Eddie, see Phil Rosenthal and Eric Zorn.)

As you will see in Zorn's item, Schwartz's career ended far too soon when, after a contract dispute (and other reasons that are speculated upon in comments) he left WGN-AM. After three years at a wholly unsuitable station, he was done with radio at 49. His remaining years were spent scrabbling after work and trying to deal with those health difficulties.

And we come to my point for today: some people are suited only to a fairly narrow range of situations, can achieve excellence in those areas, but will struggle if forced somewhere else. Schwartz was perfect for overnight radio on a station where the culture fit him. Once he left, he couldn't find a place.

As we embrace, even worship, change, the "creative destruction" that theoretically allows American business to thrive, we shouldn't forget those who will be permanently displaced and weakened. Rather than valuing those who "re-invent" themselves, much of which is cosmetic and shallow, we should remember that there are people who have optimized themselves for a world that no longer exists.

I don't know what we might so about this, but it's hard for me to believe that there was no place in the media world for Chicago Eddie Schwartz. But we're going even further down the road to a place where specific expertise is worth little, where theoretic adaptability becomes the desired quality. We see this at WMAQ-TV, Chicago's NBC affiliate, where news producers, editors, and writers are being told that they need to reapply for their jobs:

News producers, writers and editors at NBC-owned WMAQ-Ch. 5 were told Wednesday they must reapply for new multi-faceted positions, the demands of which reflect the station’s efforts to provide content not just for TV but the Internet, mobile devices and other emerging platforms.

The new jobs – with titles such as platform manager and content producer – are to be posted beginning Thursday, not just for internal candidates but outsiders as well.

Essentially, the idea is that any employee will be able to do any of the jobs, that video will come in and one person will shepherd it through all the processes necessary to make it ready for broadcast or Web delivery.

Leaving aside the obvious implication, that this is yet another attempt to weaken unions and, therefore, cut pay and throw out work rules ("Although writers and editors are currently covered by a
National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians contract
with the station, the new positions would be exempt"),
this kind of directive can only come when management feels that the skills necessary are so basic that any employee can master them all.

I don't know enough about the news business to understand this kind of change specifically; perhaps technology has made editing, for example, simple enough that even a writer can do it. Or, maybe, quality is such a low priority (as you might think if you spend much time following the poor writing of your average local newscast) that anyone can do these jobs.

But there is a hidden danger in this change, and it's one that is potentially harmful to these people's careers (those who survive the change, that is). They're going to have these new titles, like platform manager, and that may actually hurt them if they have to look for another position. They'll be seen as jacks-of-all-trades, masters of none, and, in an environment that hasn't yet been "repurposed," they'll be at a disadvantage when going up for a job against someone whose experience is actually called, "Writer."

More to my point, there will be people who won't be able to make this change. They've been writers for 20 or 30 years, never had reason to wander into the editing bay, and now, all of a sudden, they'll need to familiarize themselves with new technology. Some won't, and you can see why: they've been told all career long that writing is what they're supposed to do, what they've been rewarded for doing, and now that just isn't good enough.

And what will they do, where will they go?

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