New news

I spent half a day hanging out at Howard 100 News recently. Why? A few reasons: First, I’m fascinated by efforts to both mock and reinvent the stilted voice of news. Second, I’ve been arguing and PowerPointing that we need to broaden the definition of news — and Howard 100 certainly does that: It doesn’t get much broader. Third, I wanted to include H100 in today’s Guardian column, which is up here (also here). Fourth, I’m a Stern fan, whether you like it or not. Fifth, I had nothing better to do. Sixth, they’re nice people. Seventh, I gotta like any news organization that has the balls to have the mission every other news organization should have: “No more bullshit.” Did I make up enough reasons? I’ll get to all those haughty, high-minded points in a minute. But first, the Howard 100 News….

: Just the elevator rides in the combined headquarters of Sirius and McGraw-Hill are a cross-cultural hoot: Business Week executives and rap stars and wack-packers, movin’ on up. I sit in the Sirius lobby and there goes Henry Hill, Goodfellas mobster, looking like a two-legged lizard. There goes the newest member of the Wack Pack with his handler.

Liz Aiello, the news director of H100 and a veteran of local TV news in New York, invites me to sit in on their morning news meeting. Only there is no room for it. Sirius wasn’t built with Howard in mind and their two floors are jammed already; every conference room is taken. So we sit in the lobby with a guy who seems to be there for a job interview as the staff streams in. They are a collection of journalists, comedians, and journalists who want to be comedians. In a now-famous moment, when Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes toured H100, he ran into one of the anchors, Ralph Howard, shocked to see a distinguished veteran of CBS News there. Ralph said he’s having fun. So is fellow anchor George Flowers, who told me he used to be a comedian and so this gig is kismet for him. Steve Langford is a sincere reporter’s reporter who relishes this job. Shuli is the comedian, who’s learning how to report and doing a good job of it. Some on the staff use a nom de satellite; they tell me that this is what freelancing radio people with many gigs do (though I, too, wonder whether it has something to do with being on H100). Penny Crone, a veteran of more TV stations over more years than I’d bet she’d be willing to admit — best known for having a voice like a quarry on a busy day — is using her own well-known name and is clearly having a ball. Except for Liz, the rest of them all work together in a tiny room about the size of my bathroom producing two hour-long newscasts a day. Yet they all seem to get along. Most newsrooms should be this much fun.

The news meeting begins and Liz tells the staff that they have to do a better job tightening up the timing of their shows, getting rid of dead air between segments and speeding up the pace. They want to sound realer than real news. They talk about their radio models: CKLW in its heyday, the RKO stations, 1010 WINS. They want to pepper us with the news. They talk with the technical directors about problems firing segments from their new digital system and they talk about moving monitors so they can be sure to see cues. They take this seriously. Stern’s program director, Tim Sabian — the boss — joins the meeting to emphasize the importance of getting the pace right. But then his cell phone rings and he has to run off for a crisis in the studio.

They talk about stories. Crone’s reacting to Howard’s promise to fire anybody who messes up his studio; she plans to interview the cleaning crew. Michele Gerson is talking to doctors about Howard’s girlfriend’s infrequent bathroom visits. Langford has a secret Project X they don’t talk about until they get the facts confirmed.

Sabian returns. His crisis has something to do with Henry Hill and finding a place for him to say that night. Crone says she likes Henry. Sabian says he wouldn’t do that to her. He shakes his head and mutters with a smile, “Show business.”

I hang out in the studio during the noon news, down the hall from the Martha channel and the gay and lesbian channel and the hiphop channels. Flowers and noon coanchor Erica Phillips rehearse their pieces to get the tone just right. They interview DJs from Shade 45, Eminem’s channel, who supposedly were having a feud with Howard (but in the presence of Stern, they turned into puddytats). And then comes breaking news: Henry Hill’s handlers let him loose for a few minutes on the street, when he said he wanted to get something to eat, and the supposedly on-the-wagon Hill came back in no time drunk as hell and throwing up on himself as he was held by Rockefeller Center guards. The Howard 100 News team was there and they come for a live report. Liz Aeillo comes by at the end asking whether the reporter, Lisa G, had tape of the amazed ritzy lunch patrons when they found out that this pathetic lump used to be a murdering mobster. That is a lesson in news gathering.

Later, Lisa G appears on Stern’s show to talk about this incident and she says, with much hesitation and embarrassment — being a journalist, after all — that Hill had told her in a drunken fit of lust that, “I want to ____ on your face.” And the first time, through Hill’s gross drunken slur, it did sound like that. But Stern producer Gary Dell’Abate went to get the tape of Hill and they played it a few times. Turns out Hill was really slurring, “I want a Caramel Macchiato.” Like I said, accuracy matters. And at Howard, so does a good laugh.

I hang out a little while longer in the newsroom. Erica gets a soundbite from me, the media critic who happened by, about the Oprah/Frey mess (I say that I wish the next Oprah creation to fall would be Dr. Phil). I talk with George Langford — who’d just returned from Washington covering the Senate “decency” hearings — about story angles. I watch a newsroom hum. And there was my day at Howard 100.

: So now back to the high-fallutin’ points I raised earlier and made in the Guardian column (which I’ll repeat in different form here).

Is this news? Sure, it is. This is stuff that matters to Stern fans — and much of it would matter to any number of gossip pages run by outfits you’d easily call news organizations. If somebody wants to know what’s happening and somebody tells them, reliably, then that’s news. The H100 News team has to get their stories right or else they will lose credibility.

Want a safer example? When we started community sites at Advance Internet, one of the first was made by a local ballet school. Under the “news” tab, they reported that “the leotards are in.” That’s news. It’s not news because a journalist says it is. A journalist may not think that it matters, but if it matters in the life of a budding ballerina or Howard Stern fan, it is news. The same goes for news about the latest products from Apple, or a kerfuffle about blog comments at the Washington Post, or the top headlines at Digg, or the price my neighbor’s house sells for. News.

Is it journalism? Well, I’m not sure exactly what the definition of journalism should be today; I’ll punt that to another day. I just know it’s news. And I know that broadening the definition of news is a good and inevitable result of the internet shifting control of media to the edges: The people — even Howard Stern fans and ballerinas and Mac addicts — get to define what news is now.

: What fascinates me even more about Howard 100 is that — like Jon Stewart, Ricky Gervais’ Monkey News, and The Onion — they lampoon the voice of news. Note how hard the Howard 100 News team works to sound authentic: fast-paced, stentorian, sincere. They deliver the perfect deadpan sendup. They end up mocking the old voice of news and that mockery, from all these sources, eventually invalidates the old voice by turning it into a laughingstock.

The news needs to find a new voice. Even Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News, knows that. He said at a Museum of Television & Radio Media Center event and repeated on Pressthink:

We have to abandon any claim to omniscience…. We have to break down the tired formulas of television news and find a more authentic way of writing, speaking and interacting with the people and subjects we report on.

To old news folks, this is counterintuitive, but I believe that the voice of news must become more human to be credibible. We don’t believe that voice now because it is so separate, so staged and packaged. But when we get to know the person, we can decide whether to trust him or her. That, I argue, is why I trust the guys on Diggnation. It’s not slick, it’s scruffy and casual and that is its charm and its authority; we know these guys. The news makes plenty of artificial attempts to inject humanity. That’s why newspapers hire columnists: we token humans with opinions. That’s why TV news is overrun with happy talk. But we see through that.

Now, thanks to control shifting to the edge, thanks to the citizens taking charge, we can hear the true voice of people. In the future, news will no longer have one voice. News will be carried by the voices of the public.
Even Penny Crone’s voice.

  • Ravo

    The Motley Fool has a piece on Howard:

    not pleased with the
    24/7 newsy dissections

    but thinks
    Stern and Sirius will ultimately get it right.

  • God bless you for continuing to give a real media icon his due.

  • dude i cant believe you were there the day that henry allegedly said what he said!

    and yes when Lisa G came into the studio and played the tape it did sound like that, but then when babaflohi set everyone straight it was even funnier.

    transparency can be hilarious.

    what you didnt mention in this post (which might be in the “real” article) was what i love the best about the relationship about Howard and Howard 100 News – it’s that Howard set up this news team to dig through all-things-howard even the things that howard might feel uncomfortable about.

    howard gets transparency. so if his parents say on Meet the Sterns that Roosevelt wasnt bad, and Howard says it was a nightmare, its up to Howard 100 News to dig deeper, interview everyone and report back.

    dont hold your breath for Oprah to do the same on XM.

  • schmitty

    Only problem I have with the news is that they replay it 200 times a day! But it’s still great stuff.

  • Great post, Jeff! Thanks for the insight.

  • Schizo Bill

    Has H100 investigated why Sirius STILL does not have a portable device that can receive a live signal on the go without being docked? XM’s portables that can do this function have been on the market for over a year and the smaller second generation models that also store and play MP3’s will be out in a matter of weeks.

    What about the rumored rate hikes or the fact that Howard didn’t mention the fact that he will have Fridays off during his press blitz? I wonder if they are transparent enough to run stories that challenge the short-sighted management of Sirius or Howard’s ego.

  • Jeff, did I just hear your voice in the bottom of the hour tease in the middle of the six o’clock news just now?

  • Hey, I guess it was!
    Just as long as you’re not appearing on “Meet The Shrink”! ;)

  • schmitty, i totally agree

  • JD

    “credibible” — very old testamenty. :~) Good report, Jeff.

    I like their attitude and deconstructionist approach to the news, even if it’s a little ironic that this group wouldn’t exist were it not for Stern, who is very much a creature of old media.

  • To Schizo Bill:

    Sirius DOES have a portable device that can receive a live signal on the go. It’s the S-50 model but they are hard to find in some stores right now. I’m being told it’ll be March before supply meets up with demand.

  • I have been fascinated by this topic for a long time now and am really excited you have lent your considerable expertise to discussing it professionally. There are many people I know who get their insights on the ‘real news’ from John Stewart – and while I listen to a lot of different sources, I must admit that I am one of them.

    As the old saying goes, ‘it’s funny because it’s true’

    Comedy/humor can be a disarming way to expose deep truths to many who would probably argue the opposite point with someone for hours if it were in the context of a normal discussion. Biting insights and criticisms seem a little easier to take. Most importantly is the inherent transparency that can be provided with comedy in terms of news events and deep social issues.

    I only wish more people could learn to be coMEDIAns…

  • Bill Burr

    To Frank:

    Sirius does NOT have a portable device that can receive a live signal on the go.

    The S-50 only receives live radio in the dock – home/office/car.

  • Frank, you are wrong sir. Maybe one day, but not yet. And it only records in blocks of 2 hours. So if you were to try and tape Howards show you have to fix it every 2 hours. Sirius has said they are trying to change that though.

    You lose, You get nothing, Good day sir.

  • Great piece, Jeff. I’m loving Howard 100 News – the music, the newsmen’s stentorian tones, the fake WINS-like teletype sounds, the macho taglines (“Howard 100 News. Award-winning. Headline making. Over-produced.”) As you point out, their programming is furthering the blurring of that line between news and satire – a line The Daily Show straddles so well – which is an important, if confusing, change in the way news is being presented and understood in the current landscape.

    I do have some misgivings about the way they present the news, though. Right next to a genuine “Howard news” story will be a piece that’s little more than pure PR fluff – for instance, the reportage on the continuing saga of how difficult it was to sign “Ned” to the Bubba the Love Sponge show, or the lengthy Danny Bonaduce profiles that hit the Friday before Danny’s experimental afternoon show debuted on a Monday.

    I know that Howard has given the channel free reign on what to cover, which is quite cool (and smart) of him, and I know the reporters certainly have done stories that might make the boss wince – for instance, revealing that one of Howard’s favorite nutritional gurus is pretty much a quack. Nevertheless, I wonder if the newsguys would be able to do stories that would really piss Howard off – like, say, an in-depth story on the show’s biggest competitor, Opie and Anthony, two guys with plenty of negative yet intriguing things to say about Howard. (Although I’d be surprised not to hear an Opie and Anthony story if their show, or XM in general, took a nosedive of some sort.)

    Howard 100 News is there primarily to (a) fill up lotsa still-empty Sirius airtime in an entertaining, innovative, even post-modern way, and (b) to promote Howard Stern. That’s fine. But the PR pieces, mixed so seamlessly amidst the “real Howard news”, takes away from any potential positive headway the newspeople can make in this changing media landscape.

  • Scott from Modesto

    What’s with all the homoerotic content on Stern’s show? Did anyone hear the tranny on the Sybian? OMFG that stuff makes me sick. I made the right choice when I bought a MyFi . Opie & Anthony, & Ron & Fez put on much better shows. Howard has that idiot Sponge guy…. what a LOSER.

  • Schizo Bill

    Frank, I think if you look at Sirius’s own website you will find you are mistaken about the S50’s ability to receive live satellite radio on the go:

    “When placed in a powered dock with an antenna, the Sirius S50 recieves live broadcasts from Sirius Radio and records content for playback in the home, car or when portable.”

    I’ll bet there are going to be lots of disappointed people when they discover this after spending $300 plus another $99 if they want to buy the home dock.

    I got my XM 2Go Pioneer Airware before Xmas for less than $150 – it receives the live feed anywhere I go without a docking station, has a built in FM transmitter, and the car and home adaptors were included.

    Stern really screwed his fans by going to the company with the worse technology.

  • LanceThruster

    I’m not always interested in the content of H100 News but one thing I will give them is that I feel they have credibility when they report something. There’s some content right there that other outlets would do well to adopt.

  • ChucK From Terre Haute

    HOWARD Stern AND BUBBA the love sponge KICK ASS! I am so glad I have sirius for that very reason… Now if they can sign a Deal with Bob & Tom…. Sirius is far better than XM! Opie & Anthony suck monkey balls!

  • Matt

    It doesn’t get more boring than the stale stuff Stern is doing then the wrapup show to talk about the boring show and the news to talk about the wrapup and the boring show. Fat, rich Howard just has no motivation to do anything new. Where is the “Revolution” he promised? He’s doing the same show he did 15 years ago.

  • Anyone who wants to learn more about the inspiration for the Howard 100 style should get a copy of “Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big 8” – the inside look at the story of CKLW – the Motor City Powerhouse radio station that pioneered the 20/20 News format that was more dynamic and exciting than some of the top 40 Rock it interupted. The film includes a fantastic entire chapter on this news style that had Edward R. Murrow spinning in his grave, including the famous Louisville Slugger Grant Hudson Newscast.

  • Denver, CO (Press Release) April 7, 2006 — Former mafia Goodfella Henry Hill announced today that Daryl Orr of Denver, Colorado will be his new Publicity Manager.Some upcomming projects involved are a second Goodfellas movie and a Jimi Hendrix movie. Daryl is originally from a suburban town outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was the co-host on a Morning Talk Show with host Raunch Foxxx on Renegade Talk Radio, titled, “The Morning Cyber Sickness.” Daryl was known as co-host, “The Mile High Guy.” The show ran within the studios of Surfnet Media. Daryl also has a diverse background extending from law enforcement to the airlines and voice over talent. Daryl has also worked closely with Wayne Newton, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Tony Orlando while in Branson, Missouri.

    Henry Hill and long time friend Marie Jones of Nebraska are working on the recreation of an Italian cuisine restaurant in the Denver Metro area inspired by the movie Goodfellas. Marie has stated the name of the restaurant is to be “Henry Hill’s Goodfellas” restaurant, which at press time is to be located along the I-25 corridor near down town Denver. “We expect the restaurant to be open sometime in late May or early June of 2006 and will release exact dates closer to the opening day,” says Marie Jones. “I am excited and can’t wait for the grand opening,” said Henry Hill. Marie and Henry are looking for a singer and a piano player to add to the atmosphere inside the restaurant, we would like to start conducting interviews as soon as we can for a part time, weekend job with us. Applicants interested may contact Daryl for more information.

    All questions or comments, interviews, filming and bookings will to be directed to Daryl Orr by calling 303-284-9509.

  • Dugan

    To be frank, Stern’s act is now tiresome. He was interesting to listen too in the late eighties and early nineties because he was the cutting edge. He defied the FCC and put on a show that was risqué and entertained us with his freak show that consisted of lesbians, dwarves, retards and just plain idiots. To say he walked a tightrope during his days on public radio was an understatement. I relate the experience of listening to Stern’s broadcast to having sex before you got married. You KNEW you were doing something that was morally wrong but that’s what made the whole thing exciting. When you finally got married and sex was no longer naughty, the excitement started to wane (Admit it, you KNOW I’m right).

    This is pretty much what happened when Stern moved to Sirius and didn’t have to look over his shoulder to see the FCC Gestapo behind him. Now he could legally use any four letter word he likes and get as raunchy as he wants but now you just don’t care anymore. He didn’t realize that WAS the appeal when he played the renegade. Now he’s just an everyday shock jock and besides, everyone else is doing the same thing (Opie& Andy on the other satellite radio). Really, hasn’t he gone far enough on the fart jokes, and ridiculing retards, lesbians, and dwarfs? 80% of his show now seems to be taken up on ranting about some political issue (earth warming, Bush, you name it). He’s become the know-it-all Hollywood celebrity who thinks everyone should listen to HIS views because he knows more than you do. He’s become the same celebrity that used to repulsive him. The Stern of the eighties would be ashamed of what he transformed too on Sirius. He’d call himself a sell out.

    I think the other issue to Stern losing his 12 million audience has to do with his age. The baby boomers are growing up and losing interest to potty humor. Generation X look at him as some old guy and their “thing” is South Park. Without question, if the South Park crew would ever decide to have to have their own radio broadcast, they would blow Stern right out of the water. CARTMAN RULES!