A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City, Part One

[EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 2, 2013, I set out on a twenty-three mile “trial walk” from Brooklyn, New York to Garden City, New York, to serve as a preview for what I plan to generate on a regular basis with Ed Walks, a 3,000 mile cross-country journey from Brooklyn to San Francisco scheduled to start on May 15, 2013. This is the second of three trial walks and I have been forced to split it into two parts because so much happened. (You can also read about the first trial walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow.) The project will involve an elaborate oral history and real-time reporting carried out across twelve states over six months. But the Ed Walks project requires financial resources. And it won’t happen if we can’t raise all the funds. But we now have an Indiegogo campaign in place to make this happen. If you would like to see more adventures in states beyond New York, please donate to the project. And if you can’t donate, please spread the word to others who can. Thank you! (I’ll be doing another walk on Friday, April 5, 2013 from Staten Island to West Orange, New Jersey and will also be live-tweeting the walk at my Twitter account.)]

Other Trial Walks:
1. A Walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow (Full Report)
2. A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City (Part Two)
3. A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park (Part One and Part Two)

When you walk east in the early morn, there is no greater beauty than the sun slicing the last signs of night with the leisurely pace of a slow executioner. Dazzling white-orange light laps at the mandible of toothy square buildings. There are long stretches where you saunter ahead as blind as a blues virtuouso, with the sun swallowing the dark sky and spitting out a light blue. The white moon coughs out its last gasps as good tired souls who work graveyard shuffle homeward, swinging brown bags of breakfast. Onyx sidewalks brighten into drab square slabs and the ruddy beauty of Brooklyn brick shimmers out of the dark, beckoning humanity to bolt from bed and join the party.

I heard the jerky squeaks of rolling steel doors popped upward by small businessmen who had carefully tucked in their establishments the night before. There were twisted folding chairs and near dead portable alarms spewing feeble beeps in the street next to dead mattresses, all awaiting the pickup game of Tuesday morning’s trash collectors. There were people waiting at bus stops and dark trees pining for the fresh buds of spring. There was a man sitting on the sidewalk, his back angled against the building, his cane flat on the cement, and his right knee raised, as he smoked a thin cigarette and awaited a day of hustling that most heading to nine-to-five lives could not know. Just outside a Bed-Stuy deli, two older gents discussed how the neighborhood was changing. “More kids come from the Junction than they come from downtown,” said one. The hell of it was that the Junction was where I was heading.

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“I don’t know how many people have ever seen or passed through Broadway Junction. It seems to me one of the world’s true wonders: nine crisscrossing, overlapping elevated tracks, high in the air, with subway cars screeching, despite uncanny slowness, over thick rusted girders, to distant, sordid places. It might have been created by an architect with an Erector Set and recurrent amnesia, and city ordinances and graft, this senseless ruined monster of all subways, in the air.” — Renata Adler, Speedboat

Adler also wrote about Brownsville’s “crushed, hollowed houses” and the “deserted strangeness” of a community cemented by tenants and funeral homes, although much of this has improved in recent years. Many young people who have no knowledge or interest in the city’s history before Bloomberg have taken to Adler’s 1976 novel — recently reissued by New York Review Books — as a handbook for life, much as Jonathan Franzen talked up Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters in a 1999 introduction (“I hoped that the book, on a second reading, might actually tell me how to live”). These are not the people who marvel at Broadway Junction, but you will find them hiding behind the latest issue of The Paris Review.

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“I can’t really let you up.”

“Here,” said the woman from the executive office who had curled around the aperture leading into the security cage, “you cannot just go upstairs to the fourth floor…”

“That’s what I told him.”

“…and interview people.”

“As much as I would like to do that,” said Gary, the good-humored man keeping watch at Surface Transit Headquarters.

The woman from the fourth floor had come down because some recent packages had disappeared. There were people coming in for interviews. I certainly didn’t want to get Gary in trouble. But Broadway Junction’s twisted wonders had rekindled my desire to know more about transit. But I had been spoiled by the hospitality I received at Yonkers City Hall.

Gary had an intimate knowledge of the city. He has contributed several invaluable articles to Forgotten New York. We talked of Chase’s troubling tendency to gobble up old bank buildings and sully them with their dreaded branding. I mentioned Pat Robertson’s religious awakening on the edge of Clinton Hill and Gary corrected my pronunciation of Classon (the correct “KLAW-sun” has been uprooted by “CLAH-sun” — it’s a hard habit to break).

That morning, Gary was working as an “extra” for the MTA, which he’s been doing for eight years. Before that, he was a bus operator for twenty years until he was reclassified into security because of health issues. He works five days a week, has no complaints about the job, and sees about 50 to 100 people a day — nearly all of them transit workers. I asked about the craziest thing he’s seen on the job.

“A dead body floating in the Hudson River at the end of the line.”

But Gary’s great passion is keeping local history alive — especially the areas that few others appreciate. He suggested that I walk the southern end of Staten Island and I thanked him for his time.

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Gary’s talk of dead bodies led me quite naturally to Cypress Hills Cemetery. I learned a very hard lesson about visiting hours at Sleepy Hollow and figured that my interest in cenotaphs and tombstones should probably be tapped early for this walk. The veterans wing contained a notice banning firearms and weapons on the property under 18 U.S.C. § 930 — largely because the cemetery was considered a federal facility. No impromptu 21-gun salutes here.

Cypress Hills Cemetery is divided by the Jackie Robinson Parkway, which has faced a problematic history of poor planning and ancillary inadequacies. These design defects were very much in place as I made my way to the cemetery’s north end, where there was a paucity of passages across the parkway. I had hoped to see Mae West’s grave, which I knew was in the abbey. I had hoped that Ms. West would speak from the tomb. “Is that a joss stick in your pocket or are you happy to see me?” I had prepared a witticism for such an unlikely eventuality.

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I found the abbey. The doors were locked. There were a few vans and some red machinery. Then I discovered a pair of knockers, which were round and delectable. Since I am somewhat perverse, I knocked. I halloed on hallowed ground. I shouted “You bad girl!” and cupped my ear to the door for a reply.

A car rolled up. A man rolled down his window. He worked for the cemetery.

I asked if it was possible to see inside the abbey for a few minutes. I was told that the workers were “on a break.” How long was the break? Of indeterminate length, but possibly fifteen minutes. And even then, I’d have to persuade them to jangle the keys. The unions must be pretty good at Cypress Hills Cemetery. I thanked the man and wended my way back to Jamaica Avenue.

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I had lost time hoping to commune with Mae West. And because I still had a good fifteen miles to walk, I was forced to jet through Woodhaven. But I did make a southward drift to check out Neir’s Tavern, immortalized in Goodfellas. But I was more impressed with the breed-specific, machine-printed nature of many of Woodhaven’s residential signs. In the above case, I didn’t see any Rottweiler. I was somewhat disappointed that there wasn’t a dog who desired to tear me to shreds.

These morbid thoughts were percolating because I had eaten a light breakfast at a very early hour, which is not a strategy I would recommend for a 23 mile walk. I walked past costume shops with plus-size Supergirl costumes, a magnificent mural of a young woman in a yellow cardigan looking into a laptop, a lonely Donald Duck ride outside a supermarket, and an ancient post office. I walked past a bookstore that had been run by the late Bernard Titowsky. I walked…I walked…energy waning….I…

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…emboldened by an early lunch, I walked through the long and dark tunnel beneath endless rail just west of Jamaica Station, past JFK and the AirTrain terminal, and into the brick sidewalks with young men shivering in hoodies before storefronts.

“We got top dollar shoes. Come inside and check it out! Come inside and check it out! All sizes available! Come inside and check it out! We got…”

But the wind chill was nippy enough to stanch the barkers. Although some men stood before shops, these hopeful words of commerce flowed into the street from speakers. The incantation “Come inside and check it out!” suggested something prerecorded, and I peered inside windows hoping to find majestical figures perched inside with microphones.

* * *

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I arrived at Bellitte Bicycles at the beginning of peak bike season, which typically runs from March into October. This Jamaica shop has been owned by the same family since 1918 and it may be the oldest continuously operated bicycle shop in the United States. (The only authority for this claim is The New York Daily News.)

Every family member ends up going into the business and it’s been this way for several generations. I asked if there were any recalcitrant family members — perhaps a few stray Bellittes who shirked family destiny to become cutthroat corporate attorneys or HBO showrunners. But nobody resists. Bicycles are in the Bellitte blood. And if you don’t understand that, then you’re simply not a Bellitte.

The bicycle business is recession-proof. With rising gas prices and escalating MetroCard fares, people in the outer parts of the New York metropolitan area have sought affordable alternatives. And Bellitte Bicycles has been there to pick up the slack for some time. The shop has not seen a dip in sales throughout its history.

Nobody quite knows why Salvatore “Sam” Bellitte — the original owner of the shop — got into the bike business or why he was an early adopter. In the 1910s, Sam worked as a motorcycle and bicycle mechanic for another guy named Sam Hurvin, but there’s no trace of the mysterious Mr. Hurvin on Google. (However, I did find Hurvin in the 1920 U.S. Census.)

But the Bellittes have a very helpful book of photographs that you can look through if you’re interested in this history. They were exceedingly kind, run a very clean and well-organized shop, and are flexible enough with their stock to appeal to everyone from regular Joes to triathletes.

* * *

I was just outside Jamaica when the news jackals came at me. The crosswalk light was red. And I was confused when a CNN cameraman and some guy with wet cropped hair, sunglasses, and the sleaziest of smiles approached me with a mike. “Hey,” said the jackal with the sleazy smile, “do you know about Malcolm Smith?”

Yes. The white guy with glasses. Get him! He’s safe for our audience.

The jackal then offered a very condescending overview about Smith’s recent bribery scandal. I was bewildered, largely because the idea of asking random people in the street about their opinions on a major news story that only confirmed preexisting biases was not only lazy, but a missed opportunity. The ways that people live lives are far more meaningful and intriguing.

It was also comically unfathomable that I would be singled out as a local in a territory that was not mine.

“Actually,” I said to the jackals, “I may have a story for you.”

I told them about my walk, informing them that I was in the middle of a 21 mile* journey to meet an astronaut at the Cradle of Aviation Museum and that I had been walking there from Brooklyn all day.

“Oh,” said the jackal, “you’re not from the neighborhood.”

Then the jackals walked away.

I didn’t know if I could persuade a man who had nine spacewalks under his belt to give me a few minutes of his time. But I was too far into my walk to quit.

* * *

Part Two: Floral Park, keeping a racing pastime alive in Franklin Square, and meeting an astronaut in Garden City.

* — I did not know at the time that I would miscalculate the distance and that it would end up being 23 miles.

The Covenant

Some years ago, not long after Herb Caen’s death, I decided to make a series of pilgrimages to the San Francisco Public Library to dust my hands and wrangle microfilm. I had known Caen’s three dot columns for some time. Or, at least, I thought I had known. When Caen passed away, as others dwelt on his coinage of “beatnik” and “Baghdad by the bay,” I felt that it was my civic duty as a San Franciscan to begin at the beginning, which very few at the time had thought to do.

As it turned out, in the late 1930s, Caen had started off as a nightlife columnist, attending swank parties and banging out his observations. What’s rather amazing about this old school epoch is that the newspapers once hired about five or six guys to go around town like this. They’d drink a good deal at upscale hot spots and write columns about their social engagements late into the night as their heads crashed with the competing crassitude of too much gin. When scanning through the microfilm rolls for Caen’s words, I was stunned to see photographs of other dapper gentlemen next to other columns. And I suspect that, beyond the prohibitive cost of scanning and providing all this online, the newspapers may not want you to know that they once actually paid whole armies of columnists of this ilk. This was, in short, a newspaper in which plentiful voices were represented, even on a seemingly pedantic subject. Here was a cadre of niche-specific columnists gathered together under one umbrella. And with multiple newspapers in town, there was a healthy competitive spirit that encouraged the columnists to do better.

You might say that these columnists were the bloggers of their time. And Caen, with his little snippets, certainly reflected the compact summation that Izzy Stone would later offer by mail and bloggers would later present through the roundup format (which has subsequently gravitated to Twitter, where the act of reader engagement becomes more explicit). But these columnists were different because there was an odd journalistic quality attached to these activities. You’d think that columns about running into dilettantes and drinking martinis would be somewhat superficial. But despite this emphasis on swank social tableaux, Caen always had a good eye for observation. He noted odd conversations and paid attention to the details around him. And he did this without belittling what could easily be belittled. (To compare this with the present epoch, we’re now expected to see a report of a party or an event from some snarky Gawker type. Easy targets are eyed and assessed. But what do we really learn about how this world works? Does Gawker really have the longer view in mind? Would it not be better if it dared to detail or if it dared to establish an off-the-record trust with which to convey the scene?) Because Caen was able to establish a trust with the social scene he was documenting, he was able to acquire details and, decades later, his columns remain immensely helpful. For instance, I learned from these old columns that there had been a chain of stores called the Martha Washington Candy Shop. (This was essentially the See’s Candies of its day.) The chain had inexplicably folded and there simply wasn’t any information about it on the Internet. So I began jotting down all of these details, compressing them into months and putting them all into a short-lived blog that I called Raising Caen.

Herb Caen, as we all know, became indelibly associated with the San Francisco Chronicle. He was a revered figure (and many attempted to cajole or influence him) because of his details, and because of his voice. There hasn’t really been a Chronicle columnist on that level since. Unless you count Mark Morford (Steve Outing draws the line), who provides an often frenetic metrosexual voice to the Chron. Hiring Violet Blue was a step in the right direction. The vanilla newspaper simply had to come to terms with the fact that they were circulating in a sex-friendly metropolis. But here’s the thing about Morford and Blue. Neither of them are particularly good at using their voices to get at those important details about a location or an event. Blue does interview people from time to time, but opts for a predictable Q&A format. What if her editors pushed her to give us multiple sources or a description of a scene? What if an editor demanded that Blue provided those vital details that made Caen a draw? As for Morford, his problem is that he is so caught up with wild conceptual approaches and stunts that we often don’t get a sense of Morford either (a) in the thick of things or (b) engaging directly with the community. (The alternatives to this, of course, are the dutiful Matier and Ross, the bland and voiceless Debra J. Saunders, and dependable cultural columnists like Tim Goodman. But what has caused this schism between voice and journalist? Why must it be an either-or proposition?) The newspaper columnist, who once served as a vital chronicler and detailer, is now viewed as an apparent draw only in so much as she can present a perspective. The columnist, in turn, deals with the public through letters and emails.

But perspective, as important as it is, simply isn’t enough. What made Caen such a local household name was his ability to include his readership within his columns. If he found a particular morsel, he would always attribute the reader who included it. His readers therefore felt a level of engagement.

One must therefore ask why Roger Ebert, aside from his television work and his Pulitzer Prize, remains such a household name with the Chicago Sun-Times. It is because he also engages directly with his readers. Consider his blog. Read through the comments and you will find Ebert personally responding to comments in bold. Ebert, like Caen, knows that a columnist’s responsibility involves engaging with his readers. What has changed, however, is the manner in which that engagement is presented to the public. What was once a series of private exchanges now becomes open to public scrutiny and dissection. But by including the readers in the manner that he does, Ebert offers his readership a place for their own ideas. His site remains a draw. Trolls are discouraged and a spirit of civil disagreement is maintained because the readers know that Ebert may respond to their comments.

In the past several days, many have fawned over Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” as if Shirky’s obvious and belabored points about newspapers failing to seize the possibilities of the Internet were new. What Shirky fails to observe in his section on micropayments is that Paul Krugman was, in fact, a big draw for the New York Times. When Krugman was behind a paywall, there were ways of obtaining his column. An informed perspective seemed to matter. And this wasn’t all that dissimilar to the rampant Dave Barry piracy with which Shirky initiates his essay. For that matter, we must ask whether those who clipped out columns (and there were many who did this in the pre-Internet days) were any less piratical than those who pass along a link to an article by email or Twitter. The information, I suspect, has always wanted to be free, even before this notion became a hip catchphrase. It’s wanted to be free whether a second-hand newspaper swiped from a cafe or a printout of a microfilm decades later. The real question is whether the columnist is fulfilling a public need. And by “public need,” I am not necessarily referring to a mass market. (A recent Minnesota Post article pointed to small local papers still doing well. The number of adults reading small community newspapers actually increased from 81% in 2005 to 86% in 2008.) The real question is why newspapers have failed to provide an atmosphere in which tomorrow’s Dave Barry or Herb Caen might be allowed a voice.

Small wonder then that readers have turned to blogs as a substitute for this. Indeed, since expanding the word count of these posts, I have seen readers refer to my posts as “columns,” as if I am fulfilling some journalistic duty that I did not anticipate. I leave the comments open to everyone and permit anyone to take me to task, if they must. But some of the more heavily trafficked blogs have not, contrary to Caen or Ebert, respected the readership like this. Love or hate Boing Boing, one of its key appeals involves massive strings of comments attached to each post. But Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s egregious disemvoweling strikes me as anti-communal and disrespectful of the readership. This autocratic arrogance is not advancing the case for trust between columnist and reader. And it’s just as bad on other sites. There was a time when, if you want to leave a comment at one of the Gawker sites, you were expected to “audition” for it. (Thankfully, this control has been relaxed.) There is, in these sites, a fundamentally antidemocratic act of disengagement. The commenter must humble herself to the blogger, and not vice versa. All of this fails to acknowledge the fundamental democratic ripple floating from from the undulations spawned by any newspaper columnist.

Shirky is right to point out how the exclusive informational terrain of newspapers has transformed. A specific journalistic item can be disseminated in a 140 character tweet, and it’s no longer new news. CNN’s scrolling news ticker has likewise suggested that audiences want their news in capsule form. But the successful journalism at Talking Points Memo works because the investigative process is now a part of the relationship between journalist and reader. This approach now permits a journalist to carry out his work and to obtain helpful tips with which to pursue a story. The reader, again, is engaged with the process. And instead of print people and bloggers seeing this dramatic shift in the presentation of information as an opportunity to do better and to attract a greater readership, they have instead declared war on each other. The Washington Post‘s Kathleen Parker writes a vitriolic column bemoaning the “drive-by pundits” who are pointing to the deficiencies of present journalism. A South by Southwest panel labeled “New Think for Old Publishers” sees publishers who aren’t providing new information to a paying crowd, but demanding this information from the audience. Instead of the print people listening to the criticisms and learning from these developments, they ignore them and refuse to listen. And the bloggers, in turn, don’t always consider that there are virtues in long-form journalism. In many cases, they wish to tap-dance on the hospital bed of the dead tree patient succumbing to a terminal cancer. (Jeff Jarvis is by far the worst offender in this regard.)

And when Shirky declares

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

the idea-slinging optimist in me wants to muzzle the man. Nothing will work? Really? Is it possible that the medium itself doesn’t matter? Will the Seattle Post-Intelligencer‘s investigative work be any lesser because the newspaper is now only available online? (Indeed, the big question is whether or not the Post-Intelligencer becomes self-sustaining if the costs of print production are reduced. As Nicholas Carlson recently suggested, it would cost the New York Times twice as much to print and deliver the newspaper in one year than it would to send every subscriber a Kindle.) If the local papers in Minnesota are attracting more readers, might it not have something to do with this broken covenant between the reader and the journalist? Might it not have to do with the information itself? Have newspapers seen their subscription base dropped because they have failed to respect the readers? And have bloggers been hindered from teaming up along the lines of the 1930s nightlife columnists because this has become a zero sum game predicated on one’s authority and rank on Technorati? Are bloggers and newspapers guilty in not respecting the old covenant?

The New York Times‘s dreadful practice of referring to a “well-known consumerist blog” without citing the URL that first established the connection runs counter to this spirit of connectivity, and the demands of the covenant. Technology chipped away at the verdigrised armor that we all begrudgingly accepted before the Internet spawned what Parker refers to as “drive-by pundits.” And I suppose this is the fruit of Shirky’s “unthinkable” proposition: the idea that print and online journalists might join forces and a more effective economic model will emerge. Because a fusion of voice, the journalist-reader covenant, and investigative journalism will become a must-read central point for all concerned parties.

When Maureen Dowd fixates on Michelle Obama’s biceps, she is breaking the covenant. When Lee Siegel impersonates a reader and leaves a comment in a desperate effort to feed his own hubris, he is breaking the covenant (indeed, so much so that he should not be invited to be part of the process). When Jeff Jarvis or a clueless publisher lets ego get in the way of listening to what somebody else has to say, they are breaking the covenant. The readers are intelligent and they want to be engaged. They want others to synthesize the information so that they, in turn, can synthesize it. They look to any columnist or journalist or blogger and they want to be engaged and challenged. They want voice and they want to be a part of the process.

The nice thing about the covenant is that it doesn’t necessarily mean that the journalist has to capitulate to the readership. The journalist can be as subjective or as wild as she needs to be. The only part of the deal is this: The journalist must listen. Particularly to the points of view that seem unseemly.

The Bat Segundo Show: Alec Foege

Alec Foege appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #246. Foege is most recently the author of Right of the Dial.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Defying the maker of rules and dealing with fools.

Author: Alec Foege

Subjects Discussed: WINZ switching to Air America because of Fahrenheit 9/11‘s success, Jesse Jackson and Keep Hope Alive, profitability vs. integrity, Clear Channel’s Republican viewpoint, conservative talk radio and profitability, Rush Limbaugh, Clear Channel executives as better money managers, the Mays family approaching radio from a profit standpoint, the apolitical realities of financial mismanagement, voice tracking as a cost-cutting measure, the public radio bailout, pre-scripted radio conversation and the lack of spontaneity, Clear Channel’s Walmart approach to radio, the decline in radio advertising courtesy of the economic downturn, Clear Channel selling off stations in 2008 to survive, the self-correcting market impulse, how radio caused a San Francisco Franz Ferdinand concert with only a few hundred people showed up, Girl Talk and the Internet as an alternative marketing device, the few slots on radio playlists, Gnarls Barkley and Internet-based rock stars, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and the “pay what you what” mentality, satellite radio, the online advantages of local radio, payola, record labels paying radio stations, free market opportunities opened up by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Howard Stern on David Letterman, Clear Channel buying Inside Radio and thus buying criticism, the FCC, and the future of radio.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the subject of payola, which comes up multiple times in this book. Eliot Spitzer is, of course, unfortunately now out of the game. But he did do some good things, such as investigating the relationship between the promoters and the radio conglomerates. One of the most condemning documents revealing Clear Channel’s “pay for play” policy was when an email from Sony’s Epic label basically asked, “What do I have to do to get Audioslave on WKSS this week? Whatever you can dream up, I can make it happen.” Now there was extraordinary payola in all these instances. Sometimes as much as $400,000. But if you are a promoter, you are always going to have to deal with payola on some level. Whether it’s a fruit basket. Whether it’s a free CD. I mean, what is the maximum level of what we might call payola? Inarguably, I bought you this coffee that you’re enjoying right now. So are you perhaps — is this payola? I don’t know.

Foege: Well, it’s good that you just disclosed it.

Correspondent: Yes!

Foege: That’s a step in the right direction. And I guess I didn’t explicitly state that I wouldn’t talk with you if you didn’t buy me a cup of coffee. And I did offer to pay for the cup of coffee as well. You know, the funny thing about payola is that it’s existed since the beginning of radio. I mean, radio has traditionally been a pretty dirty business. It was before Clear Channel existed. It continues to be. A lot of people in the business that I spoke to said payola always exists in some form. Every once in a while, it emerges into the public sphere. And somebody like Eliot Spitzer comes along and tries to have some effect on it. But for whatever reason, people trend back to their bad habits again. And the corruption begins again. The interesting thing about payola is that I think, particularly in the modern era, it’s had a very insidious effect on radio. Because one could argue that it’s not good for radio stations and radio companies. Sure, there are payments involved. But as Clear Channel was wont to argue, when it was sort of caught up in all this, even with the large sums that you mentioned, if you look at the total revenue that Clear Channel now brings in, those are hardly numbers that would matter to them overall.

But the insidiousness comes in the fact that, first of all, ostensibly radio stations are attracting listeners with songs and music that they want to hear. Of course, payola tips that scale and simply has people at record labels paying to get particular artists and songs on the air, whether people want to hear them or not. Or whether there’s any criteria other than the payment to get them on. So arguably, you could say that radio stations can lose listeners if they’re embroiled in payola. And it’s just crappy music that nobody likes. Which certainly has come up in the past.

The other thing is, obviously, payola hurts artists. And in combination with all the other tactics that Clear Channel employed, as it got larger, to cut costs and to streamline their overall operation, payola was yet another part of the equation that essentially cut out most emerging artists. Because how could they compete against songs that were simply on the air because people were getting paid off.

The only interesting thing about this is that payola is a very difficult crime to explain to the average person. Because, of course, some variations on what payola is exist in different kinds of venues. A classic example is when you walk into a supermarket, and you see a big pile of Rice Krispies up at the front of the row.

Correspondent: Yeah. Co-op.

Foege: Few people realize that Kellogg’s paid to have that stack put there. And that also happens to not be illegal. The reason that it’s illegal when it comes to radio is because radio, through the FCC, has a federal mandate. The airwaves are owned by the public. So this is a corruption of the public’s airwaves when these payments are made. And so that’s where the crime is involved. Because there’s an acknowledgment there that mass media, because of its power and influence, is different from boxes of Rice Krispies at the supermarket.

BSS #246: Alec Foege (Download MP3)

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The Early Films of Jim Henson

Before the days of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Jim Henson was an independent filmmaker in New York, making experimental films between commercial gigs. It was the mid-sixties. According to John Bell’s Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History, Henson was sharing a workshop space for a few months in the basement of a New York City library with a German sculptor and choreographer named Peter Schumann. Schumann specialized in avant-garde performances, entertaining crowds with masks, puppets, and postmodern dance, often employing these for political demonstrations.

In watching 1965’s “Time Piece,” seen above and recently unearthed by Metafilter, it’s difficult to consider it without Schumann in mind. The film played in New York theaters on a double bill with Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman and concerns itself with a man (played by Henson) being examined in a hospital. As the clock ticks away, a grand surrealistic array of experiential memories overtakes his existence. Gorillas bounce on pogo sticks. There is the quiet Kermit-like plea of “Help!” Chickens emerge in strip clubs. And all this is intercut with optically printed pixellated squares.

The film is set to a intermittent drum rhythm that echoes the heartbeat of time. What’s particularly intriguing is that, according to David P. Campbell’s The Complete Inklings, “Time Piece” so captured Campbell’s imagination that the film was shown at an a seminar at the Minnesota Statewide Testing Program annual conference, with Henson’s film projected on one screen and the test results of a random individual projected on another. The idea was to show Henson’s film, with Campbell announcing to the students, “We should always remember that there is a person behind each of these test scores; to make that point dramatically, here is one person’s test scores and here is a product of his considerable imagination.”This permissive cultural climate permitted Henson to make “The Cube” in 1969, a teleplay that independent filmmaker Vincenzo Natali appears to have handily pilfered from.

A protagonist, known only as “The Man in the Cube,” is trapped inside a cube of white rectangular panels, with strange individuals who enter and exit through other doors. This premise gave Henson the opportunity to explore a wide variety of topics: racism, sexism, the realm between reality and fantasy. There is even reference to the fourth wall. At one point, a professor addresses the man, pointing out that he is in a television play.

Believe it or not, “The Cube” was commissioned for a television series called Experiment in Television, a now forgotten program that aired on NBC between 1968 and 1971. This series came about because NBC needed filler material to provide late Sunday afternoon programming when the football season had ended. And they decided, quite amazingly, to provide a venue without commercials for documentaries and experimental films.

In the end, it was public television that secured Henson’s rise to fame. But today, unless you’re as squeaky-clean as Ken Burns, your prospects for national exposure are slim. Now that the first season of Sesame Street has been issued on DVD, it’s been issued with a parental advisory reading, “These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” The idea of children running around an inner city, looking to learning as a way out, is apparently too threatening a concept.

Given this drastic shift in priorities — the unusual idea of commissioning an experimental film for a testing conference, the now antediluvian notion of creating a space on national television where filmmakers can pursue alternative ideas, and the censure on anything slightly offensive to “suit the needs” of children — one is forced to contemplate the current media atmosphere. Certainly, there is YouTube and the Internet. But this online landscape increasingly values views — and thereby advertising revenue — over notions that are not popular or lucrative, and one wonders just how tomorrow’s Hensons will thrive. Of course, any artist who feels compelled to create will not let any obstacle stop him. But by hindering the spectrum of expression with our priorities (what sells, what’s safe, et al.), I’m wondering if we’re closing the floodgates to those who might have new and innovative ways to get a mass audience excited about the world around us.