David Simon’s Some People are More Equal than Others at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2013

If you didn’t have to purchase elections and elections were based on a marketplace of ideas… we’d have a shot. – David Simon


The KunstlerCast: How One Podcast Becomes Two

Podcasting relationships are like any other: they fade in time. For four years, James Howard Kunstler and Duncan Crary co-hosted the KunstlerCast: A Tragic Comedy of Suburban Sprawl. Each episode functioned as a mile marker in an extended interview between the sixty-something Kunstler, best known as the author of The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere and the thirty-something Crary, a former newspaper reporter.

Duncan Crary (Right) and James Howard Kunstler (Left)

Duncan Crary (Left) and James Howard Kunstler (Right)  Photo by Cal Crary

This May-December marriage of sorts is forged necessity and mutual belief structures and affinity and proximity to Upstate New York, and the greater rustbelt region. Crary handled the production and served as play-by-play man to Kunstler’s color commentary. The KunstlerCast was part travelogue of an ironic globetrotter in Kunstler, and part episodic update on how the world conforms to Kunstler’s polemic.

Week by week the duo weaved the tale of a wary world on the brink of tragedy. The given that drives every episode is that fossil fuel is a finite resource that has peaked. Kunstler believes this peak, commonly known as Peak Oil marks the end of suburban sprawl and life as we know it. On the horizon they described, a troubled more malleable world scaled to the size of small American cities within America’s existing crumbling infrastructure. In anticipation, Kunstler and Crary advocated for filling in the missing teeth of these cities in terms of community and architecture. This description only touches the surface of Kunstler and Crary’s simultaneously cynical and cheerful narrative.

In the summer of 2012, 214 meticulously crafted episodes later, the duo ceased production with the promise of more content to come. Much like the famed defunct hip-hop duo Outkast, Kunstler and Crary’s contrasting styles merged into a unique concoction of dramedy, only to peel apart into two dueling complimentary parts.

Crary’s spinoff of sorts A Small American City podcast emerged in late December 2012. Free from direct analysis of Kunstler’s polemic, Crary has managed to narrow his scope and broaden its focus. The KunstlerCast hinged on its titular character’s point of view and many details of his story.

A Small American City exists in the vein of This American Life, an anthology of stories of resurgence in Crary’s corner of the rustbelt. City’s stories are centered on his beloved adopted hometown of Troy, New York. Troy is nestled in the shadow of Albany, New York. A favorite among these episodes is The Night Jack Quit Drinking. In Drinking, bohemian novelist Jack Casey describes how battle with booze, led him to go to law school and eventually become a New York State Parliamentarian. A Small American City episodes are sporadic, only 8 have been released since its premiere.

Within a month of Crary’s launch the KunstlerCast reemerged as an interview driven show. It’s a rarely seen side of Jim Kunstler. The pundit has gone from color commentator on the collapse of modern civilization to Keith Olbermann/Bill O’Reilly style partisan anchor on the same. Kunstler’s version of the partisan anchor removes the veneer of news style and favors a personal tone. Kunstler skews more liberal in broader cultural issues and traditionally conservative on local views including strict regulations on building codes.

In presentation the new format is one-dimensional but unlike the original, Jim is in the driver’s seat. Every guest reinforces Kunstler’s narrative whether it’s online Peak Oil darlings Nicole Foss of The Automatic Earth and Five Stages of Collapse author Dmitry Orlov with Northeastern hyper-local efforts like the Vermont Sail Freight project which is designed to transporting Vermont’s crops across the Northeast by sailboat sprinkled in between. Kunstler is preaching to the choir and knows it. The KunstlerCast is released each Thursday.

Unlike Crary’s City, Kunstler’s choice is light on production. Kunstler’s learning curve in the area is steep. Poor audio distracts from the interviews. This hindrance has hampered the once ambitious KunstlerCast. Kunstler has acknowledged these issues on several episodes and admits it’s a work in progress.

What’s lost in both incarnations is what made the original recipe great: the endless chemistry between Kunstler and Crary. Whether either can reach that plateau alone is unknowable. The strength of both spinoffs is their mutual acknowledgement that what was has run its course and shouldn’t be replaced with a pale imitation like a post Adam Carolla Loveline. Instead, Crary and Kunstler took the tact of great spinoffs like Frasier or Mork and MindyEach show mined successful underdeveloped elements of the original concept and filled in the missing teeth. Perhaps our cities will do the same.

Keith Olbermann Marches On

Cropped headshot of Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keith Olbermann, the wildly talented television anchor returned to ESPN2 Monday night with a new program simply called Olbermann. This was a strange homecoming for Olbermann whose roots with ESPN go back to the early 90s. Olbermann’s partnership with Dan Patrick is widely considered the gold standard of one of ESPN’s crown jewels SportsCenter. Olbermann literally uttered the first words ever heard on ESPN2 20 years ago: “Welcome to the end of our careers!” Olbermann left the network in late 90s. It was the first of his many acrimonious departures from TV networks.

In the years since, Olbermann called ESPN hell, a place that gave him “dry heaves” and would “make [him] ashamed, make [him] depressed, make [him] cry.” He was banned from ESPN’s Bristol campus. His only affiliation with ESPN was during a short stint on Patrick’s radio show prior to Patrick’s departure from ESPN.

The last decade of Olbermann’s career consisted of his role as part liberal advocacy journalist/part Peter Finch in Network on his MSNBC/CurrentTV show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Countdown is clearly the inspiration for this new program. Olbermann brought his signatures segments, Oddball now Time Marches On and The Worst Person in the World now The Worst Person in the Sports World. Add a cup of nostalgia (a segment called This Day in Keith History which celebrates funny moments from Olbermann’s past with the World Wide Leader in sports) and a few topical live interviews per night and you have Olbermann. Olbermann’s cocktail of velocity, high production values, satire, and lengthy brainy essays separated him in the world of cable news, providing the template for MSNBC to lean forward. In the world of ESPN, the Olbermann feels both unique and oddly out-of-place.

As always, Olbermann shines in his interviews. As with Countdown, he’s subverts the cable news/sports trope: the predetermined sparring match. In most of cable news an anchor sets the table with their point of view and brings on someone to shout with or the anchor takes no stance and brings on two people with competing points of view and plays referee as they shout at each other.  Instead Olbermann embraces the slant instead of engaging in a false debate. Olbermann takes a stand than uses his guest to reinforce his stance and furthers the conversation on the topic. These tactics are refreshing to see on what Olbermann’s first guest called the Skip Bayless network. Bayless’ show ESPN First Take’s motto is Embrace Debate. On First Take Bayless and fellow debater Stephen A. Smith embrace that false debate for two hours straight followed by a repeat. Other ESPN commentators like Pardon the Interruption’s Mike Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, Bomani Jones, and the screeching heads on ESPN’s Around the Horn make their living doing just that with varying degrees of entertainment value.

What ails the infant incarnation of Olbermann failed to apply to its storytelling is one crucial element: context. On Monday night’s episode, Olbermann’s attempted to attack the sports world with the voracity that he attacked politics and the news of the day felt ill-conceived. Olbermann’s Bush era Special Comment sized attack on Manish Mehta’s contradictory reporting on the New York Jets’ QB situation. His special comments tackled issues of massive importance like gun control in the wake of the Gabby Giffords shooting, or the War in Iraq. Here was Olbermann placing the same scrutiny on who will be the New York Jets starting QB.

Olbermann will hopefully scale back this level of aggression on topics that aren’t earth shattering. This overdramatic approach is one-way Olbermann fits with the modern ESPN a network whose identity is tied with its sheer volume of coverage of a topic. Whether this will remain his approach is questionable. No show structure is built in any singular episode or week of shows. Live daily shows evolve through trial and error. Olbermann will be no different.

The greater question about Keith Olbermann’s return to ESPN is whether is a harbinger of things to come. Many have speculated that ESPN’s recent high-profile moves may be an attempt get “smarter.” ESPN President John Skipper denies this assertion but one thing is clear the network is on the offensive. The birth of competitors like NBC Sports Network and Fox Sports 1 and the success of Bill Simmons’ ESPN owned Grantland have shifted the landscape of ESPN. Despite the network’s beliefs detailed in James Andrew Miller’s seminal ESPN book Those Guys Have All The Fun, ESPN is clearly no longer a singular entity. No network is an island; Olbermann is a sign of this. ESPN is methodically diversifying its portfolio if not pivoting the axis of ESPN’s content. This isn’t the first time ESPN has diversified its content. The network has experimented talk shows, game shows, and an ill-fated original series. These developments did not hold. ESPN retreated back to its mean, an unending wave of analysis and analysis of analysis with islands of sports in between. Only time will tell where this wave crashes.

Miley Cyrus: Modern Day Al Jolson?

The New Yorker‘s Jody Rosen bluntly opined on the Miley Cyrus “outrage” on her MTV Video Music Awards performance.  Rosen’s conclusion: it’s about race stupid.

Cyrus has spent a lot of time recently toying with racial imagery. We’ve seen Cyrus twerking her way through the video for her big hit “We Can’t Stop,” professing her love for “hood music,” and claiming spiritual affinity with Lil’ Kim. Last night, as Cyrus stalked the stage, mugging and twerking, and paused to spank and simulate analingus upon the ass of a thickly set African-American backup dancer, her act tipped over into what we may as well just call racism: a minstrel show routine whose ghoulishness was heightened by Cyrus’s madcap charisma, and by the dark beauty of “We Can’t Stop” — by a good distance, the most powerful pop hit of 2013.

A doctoral dissertation could (and will) be written on the racial, class, and gender dynamics of Cyrus’s shtick. I’ll make just one historical note. For white performers, minstrelsy has always been a means to an end: a shortcut to self-actualization. The archetypal example is in The Jazz Singer (1927), in which Al Jolson’s immigrant striver puts on the blackface mask to cast off his immigrant Jewish patrimony and remake himself as an all-American pop star.

Cyrus’s twerk act gives minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin. Cyrus is annexing working-class black “ratchet” culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention: her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur. (Want to wipe away the sickly-sweet scent of the Magic Kingdom? Go slumming in a black strip club.) Cyrus may indeed feel a cosmic connection to Lil’ Kim and the music of “the hood.” But the reason that these affinities are coming out now, at the VMAs and elsewhere, is because it’s good for business.

Being a Cable News Channel Means Never Saying You’re Sorry

MSNBC’s non mea culpa mea culpa that its prime time experiment is in trouble is fascinating the most fascinating part of the network’s decision to move Ed Shultz back to weeknights.  The problem with the move was less with promoting Chris Hayes to the 8 p.m. slot and more with the rationale for demoting Shultz. Moving Shultz to start a weekend afternoon block with MSNBC talking head Karen Finney was an interesting yet unwarranted demotion. The move was driven by the Internet culture critic’s love affair with Shultz’s replacement Chris Hayes. Worst of all, it was a wrong turn.

Chris Hayes

Removing a successful primetime host like Shultz and his rabid blue-collar Democrat audience and replacing him with a relative neophyte i.e. Hayes with a contrasting style, smaller audience who’s learning on the fly; it rarely works. In this case, that rabid audience fled the time slot. It’s a cocky maneuver that only Fox could get away with in this era. The risk is high. Audiences are hard to gain and easy to lose.  This does not prevent that Hayes will never find his footing. Perhaps in time he’ll find his prime time voice. His weekend show which still airs 8AM on Saturdays and Sundays with its new host Steve Kornacki allows breathing room to wade into grad school political fistfights with intellectuals over two hours with little competition from his competitors on the other networks. Beyond that Hayes a faced the deflating political news marketplace and breaking news does not drive viewers to MSNBC.

MSNBC once christened itself “The Place for Politics.” It and most of cable news is just that. Its ratings fortunes rise and fall with the political season. When politicians share the stage with the rest of the news world firebrands harping on principle isn’t as appealing to audiences. MSNBC felt that it was finally more than this. This is a falsehood.

Cable News is about trust, dedication, and clarity.  MSNBC has none. When you have no trust, dedication, or clarity viewers only flock to you when it is your season. For CNN its breaking news, for HLN its sensationalistic trials and investigations and for MSNBC and Fox News its elections. Fox News’ ratings returned to mean, as have MSNBCs. MSNBC’s mean is lower than Fox News’ because Fox News viewers know what its, MSNBC’s viewers do not.

MSNBC’s liberal, politics fueled, mosh pit of pundits rode the momentum of the 2012 election year into a firm second place footing the cable news rankings. In 2012, MSNBC’s ratings jumped by double digits. Led by Rachel Maddow, the network reached the highs not seen since Countdown with Keith Olbermann’s height in the midst of yet another election year 2008. Olbermann left the left the network in early 2011.

Ed Schultz

Shultz, a rare successful liberal talk radio host, was a bit player on the network. The abrupt departure of Olbermann Shultz into the forefront, first as Maddow’s lead out and most successfully as Maddow’s lead in. The ill-fitting Ed Schultz and his blue-collar mad dog shout fest approach to political TV was  the contrast to Maddow’s erudite style. Hayes, like Maddow and fellow prime time host Lawrence O’Donnell’s show share Countdown’s DNA.  They’re brainy, wordy, and nerdy intellectualists.  This clear contrast, the Chris Hayes Internet press love fest, and the network’s ratings led to this change. These are severe misreading of reality. Election year ratings are clearly steroidal and should not be a part of any scheduling and contract decision-making. The love internet television community is not representative of the love of cable news audiences. Cable news audiences are among the oldest on television and glacial in their tastes. Hayes is clearly a dreamboat for the political conversation many young liberal bloggers hope will appear.  Worst of all,  the network believed it became the political home for the left, instead of becoming the political home for the left and counterweight to Fox News.

Fox News gradually built its foundation and the trust of its audience over half a decade becoming both the political and cultural home for the right. Every nook, cranny and everything in between is a shaped from a right slanted prospective. Fox News can afford to make dramatic shifts to its schedule (i.e. adding Glenn Beck riding him to massive success and dumping him less than two years later) because its audience trusts them. MSNBC’s morning co-host Joe Scarborough is a conservative. The bulk of MSNBC’s programming takes no obvious slant. A cultural home is not established with one good year or two or a prime time lineup. MSNBC’s slant is a blip in its history. Fox News’ slant is its history. MSNBC is not a true counterweight for Fox News. MSNBC is news organization with a success cranky liberal editorial page that’s quickly slanting the trajectory of the network. MSNBC must decide what it is or it will continue to fall victim to the ebbs and flows of the news cycle or embrace its slant. Once it chooses it trajectory it will gain its footing and audience over a period of years. Only then will the blows of the news cycle soften.

The Sound of One Man Clapping

Clapping for the Wrong Reasons is Donald Glover‘s paranoid pot tinged, self-reverential short film.  Reasons was released on his website without any known ambition. This is likely one of the initial salvos in Glover’s attempt to broaden his pop cultural office from supporting actor and comic, to multi-hyphenate rapper and now filmmaker. Glover chose to cut short the comforts of his role as Troy on NBC’s Community to chase and create pursuits like these.

Reasons is a beautifully bizarre spectacle frosted by utterly pointless exercises. Glover plays a darkest timeline version of himself caught on infinite loop of random hard bodied young women; directionless conversations, and hyper ironic Gen-Y pop culture allusions (Danielle Fishel anybody). All this is couched within a series of beautifully shot, barely cobbled together scenes. In the most curious scene in the piece, Glover inexplicably pulls a gold tooth on a string out of his nose. Clapping for all the wrong reasons is mirror image of another rapper’s inflated vanity project Kanye West’s Runaway.   West’s Runaway is larger than life ,including literal angels, opulent dinners and golden chalices. Glover’s Reasons is deflated. Despite its monied settings, Reasons shows a man rudderless, detached from his given fame laced reality and perhaps reality itself.  If this description seems tortured its because Reasons begs for one.

Glover reigns as one of modern pop culture’s most interesting characters. How long his moment is anyone’s guess. Work like Reasons will carve his mark no matter where his career shifts to next.