Monday, July 28, 2008


Oliver has a baby doll. For the longest time, she was just an occasional toy. He played with her sometimes, but mostly he ignored her. She sat unused for months, collecting dust, just another stuffed thing in the bin of stuffed things. Suddenly, he has fallen madly in love with this doll. He carries her everywhere. He went to bed with her clutched in his arms the last three nights. It's his baby.

Her name is Bea. His name was going to be Beatrice if he was a girl, so Mrs. B took the liberty of naming his baby doll for him. There's something strange about him carrying around something with his alternate-universe female name. It's as if he's holding his other half.

He tells us that she's his baby. That's exactly how he says it - "she's my ba-by," he says somberly. "I wuv her."

I must get this on video, because when he says "she's my baby,"
his voice croaks with emotion. He says it with a combination of unconditional love and existential dread, like he knows that the love he has for Bea is ultimately going to break his heart and destroy him. (I don't really believe that myself, about Bea or about him, but when he says it, you just hear the heartache in his voice.)

She went to the beach with us last week. She went shopping on Sunday and patiently sat in a chair while he tried on shoes. He eats with her. He asks us to get her sippy cups full of milk and water. When we read stories, he insists that we read to both of them. Sometimes, he comes looking for food in the kitchen and he says "we're hungry."

But mostly, it's the endless clutching and looking at her. And he really doesn't look joyfully at her, like he's thrilled to have a baby. He looks honest-to-God mournful. Haunted. Or maybe that's just his way of looking protective and watchful. But he just looks so burdened. It's hard work being a parent, but he's only three yet - he shouldn't know this.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Elegy for the Bryant Park Project

It's over. It's really over.

Tomorrow - Friday, June 25th - is the last broadcast of the Bryant Park Project.

My friends at Radio Sweethearts decided to put together a mixtape for the BPP crew. It was such a good idea that I stole borrowed it.

So here's my own BPP playlist. It covers all the emotional bases - sadness, anger, depression, shock, and plain' old anger. I tried to post songs or mp3s where I could, videos where I had to. Enjoy.

"The Long Road" - Pearl Jam
And the wind keeps rollin'
And the sky keeps turning grey
And the sun is set
The sun will rise another day
"Song for the Dumped" - Ben Folds Five

Yeah, this is just a FU song. Some bad words in here, but the anger is right on target.

"Top of the World" - Patty Griffin
There's a whole lotta singing that's never gonna be heard...
"My City of Ruins" - Bruce Springsteen

(It's a video link, but it's really worth watching the performance from the Tribute to Heroes.)

"Last Goodbye" - Jeff Buckley

"If Not Now" - Tracy Chapman

This is my first slap-in-the-head song for NPR. Their wooden-headed CEO has said they want radio for the next generation. They had a radio program for the next generation, and they say it wasn't good enough for them. If not now, then when?

"I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself" - Dusty Springfield

"You Were Meant for Me" - Jewel

"Love is Stronger than Death" - the The

"Lifeline" - Harry Nilsson

"Nothing Compares 2 U" - Sinead O'Connor

"You Oughta Know" - Alanis Morrissette

Another slap in the head for NPR, because you know those boneheads are going to try and cook up another morning-show-for-hipsters that completely misses the point of why the BPP was so great. They're going to have their rebound relationship with another show, and it's gonna suck, and they're going to be left sitting on the curb, head in hands, wondering what went wrong.

"Since U Been Gone" - Kelly Clarkson

"You had your chance, you blew it!"

I believe the end of the BPP is going to be the launch of a few brilliant careers. There were remarkably talented people associated with this show who did some unforgettable work. Matt Martinez, Dan Pashman, Tricia McKinney, Laura Conaway, Ian Chillag, Win Rosenfeld, Caitlin Kenney, and the unstoppable Alison Stewart (not to mention everyone that I'm forgetting) - geniuses. We have not heard the last from this talented crew.

So this last song is a triumphant kiss-off. NPR didn't know what they had, and they have no idea what they're losing. The BPP crew is going to bounce back stronger and better. They're all going to make it. We're all going to make it.

Peace and love to the entire BPP posse. And if you're mourning the loss, too, go to the BPP Diner. You never know who you'll find there.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Killing the BPP

So the interim CEO of NPR (they fired the last one) has a blog. And on that blog today, he decided to share his thoughts on the Bryant Park Project. The BPP - who have done everything they can to maintain pressure on NPR to keep them alive - linked to his blog on theirs.

Here's the gist of what he said. A staffer apparently contacted him with the idea of keeping it alive as a web-only project. The short answer is "sorry, no". The long answer is some of the most bewildering business-speak I've had the misfortune to read. It's an infuriating read. Go see for yourself.

We've/I've learned -- or relearned -- a lot in the process. Sustaining a new program of this financial magnitude requires attracting users from each of the platforms we can access. In this case, radio carriage was inadequate and web/podcasting usage was hampered -- here's the relearning part -- by having an appointment program in a medium that doesn't excel in that kind of usage. Web radio is growing very rapidly (much faster than FM did, for example), but it's almost all to music and, increasingly, to attention-tracking music.

Perhaps the future of news on the web is in the same user-programmed direction. I'd like to see good minds like those of the BPP staff think about how we can do good journalism delivered via the web using techniques beyond just throwing up another portal-type web site and expecting people to come to it. Our new open API release is a great tool for that. The realities of how people use the web, how web audiences grow through search, and technologies for tracking attention and tailoring content delivery to match how people spend their attention all need to be considered. Portals still have a place, just as their close cousins radio transmitters do, but we can no longer put all our eggs in that basket.

NPR will, I hope, be a leader in a new generation of news delivery over multiple platforms, including ones we've never conceived. But we can't make those 2nd generation investments if we continue 1st generation efforts that aren't consistent with what we know about how media usage is maturing.

All I learned from his comments were that NPR has no idea what they're doing. They wanted to launch some sort of web/radio hybrid, something for the 21st century radio listener, but they didn't seem to know what they really wanted to do. They want to succeed in the new media age, but didn't realize that the BPP was actually succeeding. They can't identify it as success because they don't know what they're hoping to achieve. Anyway, after his post appeared on the BPP blog, I responded with a fairly long comment. Here's what I wrote:

You can't make those second-generation efforts succeed if you kill off the attempts to create "new media" before giving them a chance to succeed. I can't believe that you would cancel the BPP - a slap in the face to all associated with the project - and then ask its braintrust to come up with ideas on creating online content. They had a brilliant idea, and you've euthanized it.

You suggest that the BPP was an example of "putting all your eggs in one basket". But later in your piece, you demonstrate that you haven't put all of your eggs in one basket: you're podcasting, you've got the new NPR Music website, you've got the API, and you've got the BPP. It seemed to me that the BPP was part of a strategy - not the be-all/end-all of your new media strategy. There must be a way to keep the BPP going in some lower-cost format, since is it your most adventurous and most successful venture in 21st generation media to date.

The comparison to Morning Edition and ATC's audience - even in terms of podcasts - is unfair. Those programs have a thirty-year record, and they are essentially "destination programs." When people are trying to find NPR programs, they look for Morning Edition and All Things Considered. They don't look for News and Notes. They don't look for Tell Me More. They don't look for the BPP. This is a problem of branding and marketing, not of the BPP's quality or content. This is an external problem, not an internal one.

Despite that, the BPP built a passionate audience of a million people - on air, online, on Twitter, on Facebook, on the blog - in less than ten months. Morning Edition has an audience of thirteen million, after thirty years.

BPP is part of the long list of programs on the NPR website, but without some strategic cross-marketing, of course it's not going to succeed. Morning Edition and All Things Considered should be promoting the BPP regularly, in the way that they regularly use stories from programs like Youth Radio and other outside projects. (I can't find a single instance of a BPP story appearing on ATC. Not one.) There needs to be a strategic effort to build cross-brand interest. You don't just send a new project out there to sink or swim - it has to be nurtured and supported, or else it will inevitably fail.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hem - Things Are Not Perfect in Our Yard

A simply beautiful song, unreleased, only available on their website. (Graphic by Dan Messé, one of the geniuses behind Hem.)

Things Are Not Perfect in Our Yard

Note: the link will download a .zip file that contains the song in mp3 form. If you want the other three new songs from their website, go here.

With any luck, and if their pattern holds, these songs will eventually find a proper home on a future Hem album.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Shara Worden Hits the Big Time (?)

I was flipping around the Rolling Stone website today, when suddenly I saw a familiar face.

My Brightest Diamond.

They appear to have a web-only feature on up-and-coming artists, and this time around they featured the lovely and talented Shara Worden. There's a couple of interesting tidbits there (she worked with the guy who also produced Tom Waits' Alice and Blood Money). And it's Rolling Stone, so they've got to try and put a label on this indefinable artist. Here's what they came up with.
Sounds Like: Bjork gone minimalist, with a bit of American chamber pop sheen thrown in for good measure.
Uhhh ... sure.

The highlight for me was the video. She does an version of "Inside a Boy", accompanied only by her own acoustic guitar and occasional sounds of barking dogs. (She's performing at a public park in New York which apparently is an off-leash park for dogs.)

It's amazing to hear this powerful song stripped down to its core. It works, even with this simplest of arrangements. And her voice is, as always, glorious. (She always seems to grin when she sings. I guess I'd grin, too, if I had pipes like that.)

Check it out.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Save the Bryant Park Project

NPR has cancelled the Bryant Park Project.

I fell in love with this show from the first time I heard it. It was brash, loud, taunting, occasionally obnoxious. The hosts were not afraid to be wrong. They talked about trivial subjects and made them seem enormous in their significance. They talked about obscure subjects - public art! astrophysics! Sigur Ros! - and made them accessible. Except, um, Sigur Ros. (If you haven't seen "the worst interview in the history of electronic media," you must see it now.)

It was everything that NPR was not. It was sharp, witty, engaging radio. The hosts loved their audience and spoke to them, not at them. They cared about the people on the other end of the speaker. I have never felt like I was part of Morning Edition's audience. On the other hand, I always felt like was part of the BPP's audience, and I always felt like I could make a suggestion and they would actually listen. And probably, they'd write back. This was a radio show made of people just like me.

This is a great show. It is great on a level with This American Life. Imagine if NPR had snuffed out that show in its first year. "Oh, gosh, it's not getting the audience we wanted." No, they allowed it to grow and to find its audience, and in the process, Ira Glass' little show changed the face of public radio.

The BPP was changing radio. It was exploding radio into the 21st century, blending a traditional radio format with a live website, an active blog, videos from the studio, a Facebook following, and tweets from Twitter. It was a 360º radio program. After Radiolab, it was the second great radio show of the new century. Not good - great.

Don't let NPR kill this show. If you ever listened to this show, let NPR know they're making a mistake. The good people at Radio Sweethearts have the details on how to get in touch with NPR:

If you, too, dislike their cancellation, please call the people at these phone numbers, and let them know (politely) how you feel.

  • NPR media relations: 202-513-2300
  • NPR listener service: 202-513-3232

Laura Conaway, the BPP online editor, posted the following on the BPP blog:

A lot of you have asked where you can write to register your unhappiness with NPR’s decision. Here’s the answer: Go to Click on the “I want to contact a program” option and pick Bryant Park in the drop-down menu. I’ve been assured that NPR has set up a special folder for these so they’ll be separated quickly from the rest of the audience e-mail and directed to the right person. Don’t send it to “contact an NPR office/management,” since it will go into the general pool of incoming mail and will take longer to be forwarded.

You can also write to our Ombudsman, Alicia Shepard. She can be reached here.

There is now also a “Save BPP” Facebook Group.

Do it. Get up out of your easy chair and do it now. If you haven't heard this brilliant show yet, go to the website and check out a few stories. You don't know what you're missing. Check it out now before it's too late.

More Thoughts About ACORN

Peter Dreier and John Atlas have an excellent article on HuffPo this morning that covers all of ACORN's good work over the last thirty-eight years. They also have a nice shout-out to yours truly in the article (I'll forgive them for not citing my blog):

One former organizer wrote on his blog, "conservatives and others are going to use this as an opportunity to bash ACORN -- and by extension, every social justice-minded nonprofit in the country." He correctly observed that, "the conservatives are going after [ACORN] for the wrong reasons. Working for social justice for low-income families is a noble pursuit and should be celebrated. Fraud has nothing to do with ACORN's mission. This didn't happen because of ACORN's mission -- it happened because of the greed of Dale Rathke and the unconscionable acts of a few organization insiders. This is a people problem, not a mission problem. Do not be confused."
Dreier and Atlas are exactly right that ACORN is now being attacked by groups who have wanted them dead for a long time. The people who are attacking ACORN now are its targets - the politicians who refuse to sign living wage laws, the business interests who don't want to treat their workers like human beings, crooked lenders who make money off the misery of low-income people.

And perhaps I was a bit harsh in my last post, because I was falling into the same trap of condeming the whole organization for the errors of a few people. ACORN doesn't deserve to die for this (and the country will be worse off if they do collapse because of this). However, they're going to have a very tough road ahead of them. It will take them years to shake the spectre of this moment, and it's possible it will never go away completely. They'll need to make sure it never happens. If they haven't done so already, they'll need to clamp down on their accounting. They'll have to be very public and very direct about exactly what money they have and exactly what they plan to do with it. Any secrecy at this point will be seen - rightly or wrongly - as hiding something.

I have to mention that the ACORN situation is not just being discussed by ACORN's opponents. Many of us in the social justice world are going to keep our concerns quiet, just as we've kept quiet before when other national organizations have folded due to financial mismanagement and ill-advised partnerships. It's not nice to wash your dirty laundry in public.

But I can guarantee you that we're talking about it today. There are whispered conversations happening all across the non-profit world about ACORN. Organizers are talking about it in their break rooms. Canvassers are discussing it on street corners before they begin their shift. Executive directors are discussing it with their boards. This is one of those moments where thousands of organizations are taking stock, making sure they don't have any skeletons in the closet like this.

Every organization I've worked for has done a stellar job of making their funding and their internal workings transparent. As I've said again and again, nonprofits have an obligation to the public and that obligation includes transparency. We make our 990s public. We post our annual reports on the website. When a problem arises, the best organizations talk about it with their board and their funders - they don't sweep it under the rug.

Our collective mission, expressed a thousand different ways, is to fight for the public good. We have an obligation to keep ourselves running in order to fight for the betterment of our country and our community. We have an obligation to keep our collective noses clean, so scandals like this don't bring our work to a grinding halt. It's not just a good idea - it is our duty and part of our bond with the people for whom we fight.

We owe it to the public not to fail - particularly not to fail because of our own stupidity. It's bad enough when an nonprofit fails because their funding dries up. It is absolutely shameful when an NPO fails because they weren't minding the books, or minding their own staff.

All across America, organizations are asking themselves, "could we be the next ACORN?" Nonprofits live with small budgets and a whisper-thin margin of error. And unlike most businesses, we make our living by fighting against very powerful interests. It only takes one mistake - large or small - to drown an organization. It only takes one slip to negate years of good, honorable work. So ACORN's current scandal is not something we celebrate. It's a vivid reminder of how vulnerable we all are.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Fall of ACORN

I don't even know what to say.

I've criticized ACORN in the past. Lord knows I don't think much of ACORN. They're a decent organization with some significant flaws.

But I never thought they would be capable of criminal behavior. The New York Times today ran a story that suggests otherwise.

Acorn chose to treat the embezzlement of nearly $1 million eight years ago as an internal matter and did not even notify its board. [...]

A whistle-blower forced Acorn to disclose the embezzlement, which involved the brother of the organization’s founder, Wade Rathke.

The brother, Dale Rathke, embezzled nearly $1 million from Acorn and affiliated charitable organizations in 1999 and 2000, Acorn officials said, but a small group of executives decided to keep the information from almost all of the group’s board members and not to alert law enforcement.

(Emphasis mine.)

"Embezzle" is a nice word that means "steal." They covered up a theft of a million dollars for nearly a decade. That's criminal behavior, folks. That's fraud. Every time they requested a grant, they were lying about their finances. Every time they knocked on someone's door and asked for money, they were lying about where the money was actually going. It was going into the pocket of the founder's brother.

“It was a judgment call at the time, and looking back, people can agree or disagree with it, but we did what we thought was right.”

With all due respect to Maude Herd, ACORN's president - this was not a judgment call. This is not money that belongs to ACORN. They're a non-profit - they are accountable to their members and to the public. They had no right to conceal this. They have a public trust that they violated, and that they have been violating on an ongoing basis for nearly a decade.

Embezzlement is one thing. It's impossible to stop someone who has access to funds and misuses them. It's possible to limit the possibility of fraud with careful supervision and rigorous checks and balances. (This clearly didn't happen in this case.)

But once a crime happens, they had an obligation to report it to the authorities. And I believe they had an obligation to report it to their funders, including their members. This would have been the most transparent, responsible response to the crime. They didn't do that. They did exactly the opposite. Like they say, it ain't about the crime, it's about the cover-up. The cover-up is what's going to kill ACORN.

There are millions of nonprofits in the world and many of them are doing heroic work with little to no money. ACORN has brought shame upon them all with their selfish, cowardly behavior. If they don't survive this scandal, I won't shed any tears at their funeral.

One more thing that must be said: conservatives and others are going to use this as an opportunity to bash ACORN - and by extension, every social justice-minded nonprofit in the country. This was exactly the reason that Rathke (Wade - the one who didn't directly embezzle $1 million) cited in concealing the theft. (So Mr. Chief Organizer - now that it's become public, and now that it's also come to light that ACORN concealed it for eight years, you think this makes you look better?)

ACORN has opened itself up to massive criticism, but the conservatives are going after it for the wrong reasons. Working for social justice for low-income families is a noble pursuit and should be celebrated. Fraud has nothing to do with ACORN's mission. This didn't happen because of ACORN's mission - it happened because of the greed of Dale Rathke and the unconscionable acts of a few organization insiders. This is a people problem, not a mission problem. Do not be confused.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

An Eight-year-old Reviews Cloud Cult

The guy who runs the Sneeze asked his "almost eight year old" to review an album. His thoughts:
This album is the best one I've ever heard in my life. It makes my insides stand up and salute the appreciation of rock music made by you.
Also, for good measure:

If you're in a Radio Shack and you see guys dressed up for a tea party with clouds, buy that one. Because that one's "Feel Good Ghosts." It's the best. It makes me want to get up out of my seat and start par-taying. That means partying.
Come on now. You'd buy any album in the world if someone described it like that. In this case, he was describing Cloud Cult's new album, Feel Good Ghosts. I haven't heard it yet - I'm sampling a few songs from their MySpace page right now and I'll probably own it before the day is out.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Songs for Independence Day

It's hard for me to find songs about this country that a) aren't angry and bitter, or b) aren't too overused and cliched and, y'know, kinda sappy. But here's a good collection of songs that conjure the right images for me.

Several of the songs called out the uniquely American image of going somewhere and starting your life over again. The concept if reinvention is embedded in the history of this country, and at its best, America is the place where it's never too late to become who you might have been.

Several other songs focused on the immigrant experience. My paternal grandparents came to this country from Mexico and found schools, housing, and opportunity for themselves and their family. My father, a first-generation American, is one of the most patriotic people I know - both in terms of love of country, and in terms of being angry with America for not living up to the ideals that it embodies. Nobody gets this country metaphorically better than the most recent immigrants.

I pulled out the angrier songs into a second playlist instead of omitting them completely. I think it's important and honorable to love your country even as you hate its actions. I hate the war that we started for no good reason in Iraq. I hate that nearly 50 million people in this country have no heatlth care. I hate that so many people are being laid off or have no hope for finding work or opportunities for themselves or their families. But I love this country - for what it is and for what it could be.

"Chicago" - Sufjan Stevens
"Different Trains: America - Before the War" - Steve Reich
"Fourth of July" - Charles Ives (because any holiday needs a little chaos)
"America" - Simon & Garfunkel
"This Land is Your Land" - Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger
"I Am a Patriot" - Little Steven
"America the Beautiful" - Ray Charles
"America" - Soundtrack, West Side Story
"American Land" - Bruce Springsteen
"Ashes of American Flags" - Wilco
"City of Immigrants" - Steve Earle
"The Hands That Built America" - U2
"A Change is Gonna Come" - Sam Cooke (but performed here by the amazing Ryan Shaw)

Angry Patriot Songs:

"Bullet the Blue Sky" - U2
"The Star Spangled Banner" - Jimi Hendrix
"(Who Discovered) America?" - Ozomatli
"Christmas in Washington" - Steve Earle (this is the live version - it's nine minutes long but worth it)

Happy Independence Day, folks.