Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Pleasant Courthouse Experience???

I know that the few people who visit this site every week are here to see me get riled up about people and incidents that quite often aren’t really that important. There’s a reason this site is called Rant-a-Bit, and that’s why I’m paid the big bucks…okay, no bucks.
This week, though, cranky Scott is gone and replaced by somebody who is for once filled with happy thoughts. No, I didn’t get some action this week. (I wish.)
Looking at how I was going to spend the holiday weekend, it would have been easy to predict that I’d be even more angry and sarcastic than usual. I spent one full day cleaning my house; a chore that anybody who has visited will quickly realize that it’s not a favorite activity. Not only did I do the usual scrubbing and vacuuming, but I even found homes for a couple of hundred CD’s and DVD’s.
The reason for this sudden burst of energy? My son’s graduation ceremonies on Sunday, which also included an open house earlier that afternoon. Sure, I was a proud father, but it also meant that I had to spend an extended period with not only my extended family, but my ex-wife, her husband and son, and their extended families. Plus a variety of other people whom I had little in common with.
Somewhat surprisingly, everything went fine. We all got along great, and we were all proud of my goofball kid when he strolled across the Arena stage to grab his diploma. Afterwards, I stopped at the Top Hat and was informed by a handful of local punk rock veterans that Alec’s silly little performance art band was considered a “breath of fresh air”. Nice job, son.
Yet that all went down almost 72 hours ago; certainly that left plenty of time for my mood to go back to normal. But I’ve come across a variety of humorous items that has kept me at the very least chuckling to myself.
One item was in yesterday’s paper. Argus Leader editor Voices Editor Patrick Lalley, a good friend of mine, spent close to 1000 words informing us that it’s our duty to tattle on neighbors who water their lawns on the wrong days. C’mon, Pat. Certainly there are more important issues in the city you like to call “The Best Little City in America”. (Sorry, Pat, but I also cringe with this inevitable Terry Woster-ish description in almost every column you write.)
Then there’s also the case of the Ronald McDonald “guerilla artist”. A few buildings around town have been struck by a graffiti artist who has drawn political cartoons featuring either Bart Simpson or the McDonald’s mascot. Every media outlet is now attempting to play detective, and they all have one suspect – my friend Scott Ehrisman. C’mon, Ehrisman is as big of an attention whore as I am, and us attention whores do what we do for attention and notoriety. Plus, as he told the daily paper, if he did it, “it would be original”. I’m just shocked that the city hasn’t concluded that it’s a sign that gangs are in town, and started a task force to study what can be done to stop these “obscene” cartoons.
As enjoyable as those stories (and a handful of other “news” items that have made me chuckle in recent days) are, I’m here today to actually give some people a bit of credit. Longtime readers may recall my battles with the County Courthouse. Two years ago, I wasted a good part of my day in line for license plates. Last year, it was a four-visit, two-day marathon plagued by overloaded computers and understaffed (and rude) bureaucracy.
This year, I planned on being a bit smarter. All along, I had planned on mailing in my renewals so I could stay as far away from the Courthouse as possible. Of course, that never happened, so I was (almost) mentally ready for another lengthy ordeal.
I showed up at the Courthouse around 9:00 a.m., and despite parking maneuvers that make the Best Buy parking lot look like a model in safety, I was able to find a spot rather quickly. Inside was a huge surprise – the line was close to nonexistent. I had five people in front of me, and 10 of the 12 windows actually were staffed by an employee. I was in and out of the building in less than ten minutes, and it would have been even quicker if there had not been a clem arguing that the poor clerk should ignore the law and not make him return with the needed paperwork that he had neglected to bring with him.
So I’m here today to actually give kudos to not only a governmental agency but the employees of said organization. Despite the lame excuses we’ve heard for years and years (most of them laughable, by the way), it appears that the county has finally taken it upon themselves to clean up their act and actually become consumer-friendly. Yes, it should have always been this way, but I’ll still say “thank you” to whomever it was that transformed what was a nightmarish marathon into a visit less time-consuming than a beer run.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Save Internet Radio!!!

Those who visited this site in recent weeks may have noticed one major change in the layout. Instead of the embedded song that was set to automatically play whenever you hit this page, I subscribed to an internet radio service called Last-FM.
Last-FM allows one to choose a favored artist, and besides a plethora of songs by that act the playlist consists of songs that Last-FM’s research indicates are generally enjoyed by fans of that featured act. Listeners can then fine-tune the choices by clicking on buttons that will either indicate you love that tune or never want to hear it again. One can also just click to go to the next song if you’re just not in the mood for the selection. Most importantly, if you love what you hear one quick click sends you to a page where you can purchase a download of the track or the entire album it came from. Please keep that in mind as you read below.
Obviously, my band of choice is the Replacements. As I sit here writing this piece, I’ve also been hearing cuts by the Meat Puppets, Wilco, Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, Wire, Jesus and Mary Chain, The Stooges, and (obviously) solo material by ‘mats leader Paul Westerberg. I like to call it Scott music for Scott people.
Is this service too good to be true? Possibly; in fact it was almost shut down last week. Earlier this year, the Copyright Royalty Board issued new royalty rates that were supposed to go into effect May 15 that would increase by ten-fold the copyright fees that all internet radio stations pay.
Before this ruling, webcasters paid SoundExchange – the RIAA-associated organization that pushed for these new rules – between 6% to 12% of their revenue, depending on the size of their audience. Under the new system, internet companies would pay a flat fee per listener (retroactive to 2006), and industry analysts immediately calculated that all but a handful of webcasters would owe significantly more in fees than they take in total revenue.
It makes absolutely no sense for the record industry to take such an aggressive stance against people who use the internet to promote music. Nobody is making any real money; the majority of people who program or utilize these services are fanatics like myself who just want people to hear the tunes that get us through our day. The Timberlakes and Beyonces of the world are not generally found on these sites; it’s the relatively unknown cult artists that we’re trying to push to a higher profile. It’s this sort of devotion that helped lead acts like Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes, and the Shins to the top of the charts earlier this year.
This is why the sales link I mentioned earlier is so important. Internet radio providers not only want to spread the word about bands; they want people to purchase the music they discover on these services. In this era of reduced opportunities for artists to be heard or seen by the masses, it’s only through a presence online that the field can be made slightly more level.
Luckily, there’s still some hope. On April 26 a bill was introduced in Congress that would overturn this royalty system. This compromise proposal would set the rate at either 7.5% of the webcaster’s revenue, or 33 cents per hour per listener, and this rate would also apply to satellite and cable radio operators. As this bill makes its way through Congress, SoundExchange has agreed to delay until July 15 to implement the new rates.
Yet it’s still an uphill battle for internet radio. The RIAA is an extremely powerful lobby that never believes in compromise. Remember, they firmly believe that every single download is a lost sale, and think nothing of losing customers in exchange for a few thousand dollars of blood money in the name of “stopping piracy”.
In fact, there’s an even scarier bill that Alberto Gonzalez (or his successor if the rumors of his resignation are true) is about to introduce to Congress. The Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2007 could actually bring 10 years of jail time for people who simply “intend” to copy a CD or movie. If you follow through with that intent, forfeiture laws similar to those used in the War on Drugs could lead to the government owning all of your property. They even want to hand down life sentences to those who use software they didn’t pay for, and under this bill Homeland Security will now be checking your bags at airports checking for CD’s and DVD’s that you bought in other countries. Yes, Big Brother is really out to get you, and if you don’t believe me I encourage everybody to check out www.eff.com. I’d really hate to see anybody go to jail for borrowing that awful new Linkin Park album.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

O&A Fired???

Something was amiss during today’s episode of XM’s Ron and Fez show. Host Ron Bennington seemed to be a bit distracted, and a short break turned into a half hour without any programming other than a series of old promo songs. During the last hour of the show, Bennington excused himself a number of times.
Towards the end of the show, he announced the shocking news – XM had suspended star personalities Opie and Anthony for thirty days. The Paltalk room that R&F fans gather to listen to the show sat in shock. When the show ended, few people grabbed the mic to offer their opinion.
This silence didn’t last very long. Within a few minutes, the Opie and Anthony fan room had ballooned to over 500 people. Most were simultaneously on the phone with XM cancelling their subscriptions, while others were plotting other ways to protest this move that is more than likely a precursor to the service eliminating its most popular channel. (In fact, as of this writing the rumor is circulating that the axe has indeed already fallen.)
For those who aren’t aware of the circumstances surrounding this situation, last Wednesday the hosts encountered a homeless man named Charlie on their walkover from the FM studios to XM. He was invited into the studio, where he babbled his insane views on politics and politicians. When asked about Condeleeza Rice, he blurted out that he’d like to have sex with her (I was wrong in an earlier post where I said he fantasized about raping her). Less than a minute of this dialogue then appeared on a formerly obscure website (breitbart.tv), that is operated by Andrew Breitbart, who is described by wcbstv.com as a “longtime associate of Matt Drudge…and former entertainment writer who co-authored the book ‘Hollywood, Interrupted’”.
Once Drudge linked Breitbart’s post, all hell broke loose…for a couple of days. After a number of high-profile talk show hosts such as Sean Hannity and Shepard Smith defended O&A, the story seemed to lose its steam.
This is why XM’s move seems so shocking. The story was already falling off the radar. Why would XM knowingly bring it back to the front page of every major newspaper in the country?
According to many analysts, upcoming Congressional hearings on the proposed XM/Sirius merger are the answer. The combination of the subject of Charlie’s rant coupled with the skepticism of many in Congress about this merger possibly caused XM to make a bold move to look like one of the “good guys”.
Yet it’s the dumbest thing the company could have possibly done. Millions of American citizens subscribe to the service for the particular purpose of listening to this adult channel that provides blocks and warning to ensure that people whom are easily offended will not be subjected to their non-PC chatter. The statements were not made by neither the hosts nor an employee of the show, yet Opie and Anthony apologized last Friday. Both shows this week were free of controversy, despite XM’s statement that comments made by the pair Monday “put into question whether they appreciate the seriousness of the matter”. Trust me, I heard the show in question and they couldn’t have played it any safer.
What worries me the most is the precedent this firing sets. For the first time ever, special interest groups have succeeded in taking a program off a pay service. You can bet that some time soon you’ll see “offended” people go after not only other programming on both satellite services but cable television. If you think the aftermath of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident was horrifying, this situation has the makings of a bloodbath going against anybody who creates anything even marginally edge-y.
As I said when I commented on earlier incidents involving other broadcasters such as Don Imus, it doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the talent stuck in the crosshairs of the Al Sharptons of the world. I encourage anybody who is even mildly outraged to sign up to http://www.peopleagainstcensorship.com to help battle against those who want to dictate what we watch or listen.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Save Opie and Anthony!

“You have the right to free
Speech as long as you're not
Dumb enough to actually try it!
Ha!”
-The Clash, “Know Your Rights”

I suppose it was just a matter of time before the self-appointed watch dogs came after them, but Free FM/XM Radio hosts Opie and Anthony are the latest radio personalities to be embroiled in controversy. Their entrance into the censorship fight comes because of an incident that occurred earlier this week.
To fully understand the context of what happened, one must understand the duo’s broadcasting format. The first half of the Opie and Anthony show is simulcast on both XM and fifteen or so terrestrial radio stations. This is a cleaned-up version of the show, and is broadcast from the Free FM studios in New York City.
Once that portion is completed, they then walk to the nearby XM Radio headquarters for the non-censored portion of their marathon broadcast. When weather permits, the “walkover” is broadcast on XM, and the pair is joined not only by comedian Jim Norton but fans, friends, and the occasional celebrity or two.
They also obviously encounter New York City residents that are on the streets at that time of the day. Some of these folks are people on their way to work, but a number of them are also homeless people who are regularly found at the exact same spot everyday. A handful of these people have become semi-regular contributors to the show, and a number of them were bused to an affluent shopping mall last December for a “Homeless Shopping Spree” broadcast.
The walkover was not broadcast this past Wednesday, but the pair came across an interesting homeless guy named Charlie. He was invited up to the studio, where he provided no-holds barred opinions on Al Sharpton, whites, Jews, Queen Elizabeth, and many others.
When asked about Condeleeza Rice, Charlie went off on a fantasy about raping the Secretary of State. After a couple of other comments, Charlie moved on to other topics. The entire exchange lasted less than 45 seconds.
The next day, a previously unknown website forwarded an out of context audio clip to Matt Drudge, and now Opie and Anthony find themselves in the same position as Don Imus, JV & Elvis, and an ever-growing number of other radio personalities. Most damaging is the errors included in most of these presentations. For example, more than one commentator has claimed that Charlie was actually a paid comedian portraying a homeless man in a scripted bit. Others have attributed Charlie's quotes to either Opie or Anthony.
Even if that was the case, the Charlie incident is much different than the situations involving Imus and JV & Elvis. While those incidents were also overblown, they did occur on commercial, advertiser-driven, traditional radio. XM Radio is subscriber-based, is labeled as raunchy, and XM provides channel-blocking software to “protect” children and the easily-offended.
One can certainly be offended by Charlie’s comments, but that is not reason enough to force XM to fire the duo. To do so would be a horrible precedent that could really alter the landscape of satellite radio, as the PC police would inevitably move on to provocative material aired on not only the other comedy channels but also the rap, metal, and punk channels. It could conceivably provoke these people to move on to cable television programming. Goodbye, Sopranos (oh wait, they’re done in a month anyway). Goodbye, Cathouse. Goodbye, Taxicab Confessions.
Broadcasters today have almost no chance to survive if they want to attract the young adult audience that traditionally craves “edgey” material. This audience demands raunchy non-PC entertainment, yet management has put such a tight noose around these entertainers that even the most popular personalities can be fired if the wrong person hears a line or two that they don’t like. Earlier in the week, Opie and Anthony railed against a Free FM handbook they were given entitled “Words Hurt”. How can a duo notorious for their non-PC look at the world survive with these restraints?
The good news is that there are signs that the broadcast community is beginning to realize that this is a witch hunt. Fox’s Sean Hannity and Shepard Smith are just a couple of the unlikely people who commented negatively on the calls for the pair’s firing.
Also assisting in the fight is a new organization, People Against Censorship, which was formed a few weeks ago to keep people informed of these witch hunts. Tomorrow afternoon, a few hundred of these brave folks will gather in New York City’s Union Square to demonstrate “against censorship, against special interest groups who attempt to censor, and to support free speech on commercial radio”. For more information, please check out http://www.peopleagainstcensorship.com.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Liquor Vs. Beer - Why Is One License More Valuable Than the Other?

I’ve never understood our city and state laws regarding liquor licenses. For a beer license, all you have to do is fill out some paperwork and pay a small fee. Theses licenses are unlimited (at least they are in Sioux Falls), with the only hurdle to jump is the planning commission. All you generally have to do is show that you have some sort of reasonable business plan that’s not in areas where such facilities are prohibited and you’re good to go.
Liquor licenses, however, are another matter altogether. Thanks to a law that was put on the books 70 years ago, these permits are not only tied to the community’s population but cost a buck per resident. In other words, a license that goes for a couple of grand in a town like Redfield costs around $150,000 here.
But that extravagant figure is not the figure that these permits generally cost. Thanks to the scarcity of these licenses, there has always been a secondary market that has always guaranteed a profitable return on this investment. From what I’ve been told, new bars that come into this town routines pay over two hundred grand for the right to serve me a whiskey-coke instead of a stupid Miller Lite…despite the fact that one can get just as drunk off beer as whiskey.
And people wonder why this city has become a wasteland of mediocre chain restaurants. Who else can afford such a fee other than the likes of Applebees or Ruby Tuesday? Even the locally owned businesses that serve booze are generally either longtime owners (the good guys) or video lottery suppliers whose seemingly dozens of clubs all look exactly alike in design, layout, and format (the bad guys).
Why do we continue such a policy? I thought this city and state was all about providing an environment for individuals to open businesses with little governmental interference. I firmly believe that one of the major reasons that our city has struggled to create a viable music scene in recent years is this very policy. A band doesn’t immediately have the clout and popularity to play the few mass-market clubs in town. They need smaller clubs to hone their skills, just as every great Minneapolis act had to do before they were ready for First Avenue.
The only reason I’ve heard in favor of continuing this method of licensing bars is to protect those who have already paid the big bucks to procure their permit. C’mon, that’s ridiculous. You have to look at the overall good of the community instead of protecting a few property owners. If you’re really serious about this drawback, though, all you’d have to do is either refund a portion of their original fee (prorated by the number of years they’ve been in business) or allowing a credit against their sales taxes. Those who own unused licenses should also be forced to turn them in. (I don’t know if this is still an issue, but I do know it has been a huge problem in the past.)
Why do I bring this topic up now? Well, with the knowledge that our city will probably gain a handful of new licenses later this year, the city commission recently changed the law regarding the process for applying for liquor licenses. A lottery was held a few days ago for those who filled out applications, and the results created a 23-place waiting list that will just become longer as the years go by.
The winner? Tim Kant, the man who believes that the sidewalk is private property. The man who doesn’t believe in any kind of competition, even if it could potentially boost his own business. The man whom is known to verbally antagonize fellow downtown business owners who isn’t in lock step with his viewpoints.
Nobody knows if he even plans to open another bar. That’s one of the flaws of this situation. Applicants had to submit a proposed location for their new license, but there’s no obligation for said license to ultimately be used there. This means that the Kant-owned Biggie’s Subs will technically have a liquor license by the end of the summer, while the much-heralded new retail development near the spot where Interstates 29 and 90 will ultimately be forced to pay top dollar for the two establishments planned for that area. Really makes sense, doesn’t it?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

College Kids Need Homes, Too!

For anybody wise enough to not get married right out of high school (and please, people, don’t get married unless you absolutely have to), it’s sort of a rite of passage to spend part of your early adult years living with a couple of your best friends.
Generally, everybody chips in and rents an ageing house in an area full of like-minded people. Okay, maybe a token senior citizen or two will live in the neighborhood, but for the most part everybody in the general area is living on their own for the first time.
What generally happens is that for a couple of years you live a sort-of rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle – late nights, even later mornings, fast food, loud music, beer, and (hopefully) no-strings relationships. After a couple of years of fun, the real world creeps into your life, and the fun is tempered a little bit by silly necessities such as the desire for privacy, careers, and (again, hopefully not) serious relationships.
That’s exactly what occurs to countless young adults in the area around and between Augustana and the University of Sioux Falls. Desiring more freedom and wanting to rid oneself of unwanted roommates in the college’s dorms, students of both colleges (along with a few non-collegiate pals) can be found in many of the homes of that area. Granted, some can be classified as party houses, but for the most part few of them are any louder than a typical two-income family with 2.3 kids and 1.8 vehicles.
I lived that life for a couple of years in my mid-20’s, and it was the time of my life. A buddy of mine and I shared a two bedroom home whose couches always seemed to attract an extra friend or two…along with some temporary companions (including one who was unfortunately arrested a few days ago).
We had our moments when we weren’t the most popular residents of the neighborhood, but for the most part we got along with all of our neighbors. For every summer blowout party, we had to endure 6 a.m. mowings and screaming little bastards.
Many of these memories came to mind this past weekend as I read the daily paper. I thought about old friends I hadn’t been in contact with in years, such as the bar owner who regularly showed up after closing with a box of beer and whiskey. Or the cokewhore who walked 10 blocks through the slushy streets without shoes on New Years Eve to hang out with me. Oh yeah, and the so-called friend who lived on a couch for months and months without contributing one cent towards our rent or utilities.
The reason these memories came to light? The front page of the paper had a story on four college students who had received a notice from the city that at least one of them needed to move out of the four-bedroom home they shared in the area I described earlier. It seems that the city has an ordinance the precluded more than three non-related people sharing a home in an area zoned for single-family housing.
Let me get this straight. A family who has not discovered the joys of contraception can fill a small home or apartment with as many relatives as they can squeeze into a residence, but only three people can share a relatively large home that has plenty of room? My god, people wonder why I say this town is screwed up.
Even worse, the only reason the city even knows about this situation is because of an anonymous tip. Yes, we now have housing narcs. Talk about a bogus situation. Could this informant be a jilted lover, or an angry co-worker? Or even somebody who desires the same person as a resident? Unlikely, I know, and it probably comes down to nothing more than a busy-body neighbor who didn’t think they shoveled the snow quick enough for their liking.
One thing is sure, though, is that these are not problem tenants. If they were, their landlord would certainly not be going to bat for them as he indicated in the initial story. “They’ve been awesome tenants,” landlord Rob Deelstra told the paper.
At least there’s some good news in this case. Or at least temporarily there is. The City Council actually did the right thing for a change, and agreed that they will look into revising this silly law. While the ordinance is under review, City Attorney Gary Colwill told the Argus that he will not pursue action against these renters.
But there are no assurances that any changes in the ordinance will occur. The city councilors interviewed in the story were pretty non-committal, and there are already letter writers and blog contributors making a giant leap in bringing up instances where dozens of illegal immigrants jammed into small apartments died in house fires. Leave it to the wingnuts to link a simple story of young adults being wronged into one of their pet platforms.