Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas – Most Christian faiths annually acknowledge the birth of Christ on December 25th despite scholarly disputes over the accuracy of the date. Though a religious observance, it is also considered a federal holiday thereby impacting people of all beliefs in the United States. For some, it is merely a secular yuletide celebration and this is evidenced in several holiday songs that refer to cold weather and snow without any references to Christ whatsoever. The secularization of the holiday is ironically also the result of depicting a saint—Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus)—as supernatural being capable of bringing toys to children across the world singlehandedly. Imagery of Santa Claus has eclipsed that of Christ and his nativity story in pop-culture, in part due to an increasing sense of public political correctness.

The first three Decembers that Newsradio was on the air featured Christmas-themed episodes.

  • In “Xmas Story”, the news crew receives lackluster gifts from their multi-millionaire station owner, Jimmy James. When James learns that no one like their baseball caps with iron-on patches, he replaces all but one them with Mazda Miata convertibles. Matthew Brock receives a box of old time radio tapes instead. Meanwhile Bill McNeill is being threatened with violence by a man in a Santa Claus outfit collecting charity money in the lobby of the Criterion building.
  • In “Christmas”, the crew looks to finish their work early to get home for the holidays, but wind up just pushing their tasks on their boss, the easily manipulated Dave Nelson.
  • The last Christmas-themed episode, “Stupid Holiday Charity Talent Show” has the least references to the holiday. Matthew Brock, now fired from the station, calls up the office to sing “Silent Night” to his former co-workers (and is promptly beaten up by someone waiting to use a payphone). The rest of the episode entails the crew trying to win Matthew’s job back by winning a holiday talent show.

["Christmas", "Led Zeppelin Boxed Set", "Stupid Holiday Talent Show", "Xmas Story"]

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Citizen Kane (1941) – This portrait of a media mogul driven to success by his own megalomania and greed is hailed by many critics as one of the first great artistic achievements in American cinema. The director and star, Orson Welles, claimed that the fictional Charles Foster Kane was partly based on his own life, but audiences were quick to see that Kane most closely resembled the media entrepreneur William Randolph Hearst. The film is famous for creating immediate intrigue when an elderly Kane whispers the word “Rosebud” on his deathbed and none of the witnesses knows the word’s significance. The story then gives highlights from Kane's career from his days as a journalist to his days as a notorious magnate willing to do anything to grab readers.

Though Jimmy James once claimed that Citizen Kane was his favorite movie (Episode 25, “Led Zeppelin”), he mistakenly buys a counterfeit prop from the film in a later episode: a sled with the phrase “Rose Bowl” painted on it as opposed to the famously uttered “Rosebud” that Kane longs for on his deathbed (Episode 43, "Rose Bowl"). (The real sled used as “Rosebud” is presently owned by film director Steven Spielberg.)

It is fitting that James calls Citizen Kane his favorite film since he shares a few qualities with the man on which it is based. Both James and Hearst are tycoons who own media outlets; both have made stabs at running for executive office; and both have advocated “yellow journalism” (attempts to increase audience by sensationalizing stories or even by faking interviews), though, it should be noted, James has resorted to tabloid tactics sparingly.

(SUPPLEMENT: In "The Secret of Management" (Episode 62), James makes an indirect reference to his favorite film when he talks about how he modeled his palatial home after Kane's fictional estate, Xanadu. He tells Lisa that "I wanted a place just like Xanadu but without such a dorky name." James then reveals that he calls his residence "Fort Awesome."

["Led Zeppelin", "Rose Bowl" "The Secret of Management"]

Monday, December 22, 2008

Star Wars (original trilogy) – The 1977 release of Star Wars set the standard for all space-based science fiction movies to come. Borrowing from the space operas that creator George Lucas enjoyed as a child, the original trilogy of Star Wars films told a simple morality tale with complicated special effects. Part of its charm was its clear-cut delineations of good and evil: light versus dark. In essence, the story recounts a young man’s quest to avenge his father’s death only to find that the evil man he is hunting down is the father himself. With the aid of a mystical power known as “The Force,” the young hero and his friends try to unseat the tyrant and the armies that mercilessly control the galaxy.

There are dozens of Star Wars references throughout Newsradio, some of them overt, some of them subtle. For example, when Joe Gorelli places a small camera in a Boba Fett action figure to help Lisa cheat at poker, she recognizes the character and correctly labels him an "intergalactic bounty hunter featured in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi." When Joe actually uses the “Boba-Cam” to hone in on an opponent’s hand, he says, “I have you now”—subtly quoting what Darth Vader says about Luke Skywalker’s spaceship in the final battle in the first film. (Episode 26, "Presence"). Being that Star Wars scripts are among the most memorized in history, such jokes were not lost on serious fans of the sci-fi series. ["Jack Ass Junior High", "Kids", "Led Zeppelin", "Presence", "Sleeping", "The Song Remains the Same", "Space", "Stocks"]

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Soylent Green – This 1973 dystopian science-fiction film shows a bleak future where overpopulation and climate change cause society for look to alternative food sources. When police detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) investigates the murder of a man with close ties to company that makes Soylent Green (a plankton based wafer), he makes the grim discovery that the product is made from human remains, and this revelation remains on the most memorable conclusions in all of filmdom. Unfortunately, since many people know the film’s conclusion without the benefit of watching it, the story’s other merits are often overlooked.

The ending of the Soylent Green has been parodied and mimicked so many times that the movie’s plot-twist may be the most spoiled one in film history. Phil Hartman, who often impersonated Heston on Saturday Night Live, helped to make the film’s last line “Soylent Green is people” a familiar phrase to those who have never seen the original film.

Phil Hartman’s character, Bill McNeill makes two references to Soylent Green on Newsradio, but without assuming Heston’s voice. ["Look Who’s Talking", "Space"]

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Logan’s Run (1976 film version) Logan’s Run is a science-fiction film depicting a dystopian society where people cannot lawfully advance past the age of thirty. As one approaches his thirtieth year, he prepares to be reborn through a mysterious process called “Carousel.” The protagonist, Logan, discovers that this renewal process is really a farce to keep citizens complacent. When it is his time for “renewal” (indicated by a red blinking light in his left palm), he escapes into the wilderness where he finds an elderly man—the proof he needs to expose the lie that has allowed thousands to unwittingly line-up for their own deaths.

The film and the source novel are quite different, though both address the similar themes of youth culture, hedonism, and society’s attitude toward the elderly.

Several member of the WNYX personnel are hovering around the thirty-mark, and as with most people, this age signifies a period of self-evaluation and a full commitment to adulthood. Dave Nelson, who begins his tenure as new director at 29, calls Logan's Run his favorite movie (Episode 22, "Zoso"). Strangely enough, the young-looking Nelson does not experience any hang-ups about his advancing age, while both Lisa Miller and Matthew Brock go through moments of crisis regarding their thirtieth year. ["Look Who's Talking", "Zoso"]

Friday, December 19, 2008

D.B. Cooper - D.B. Cooper is the mistaken alias of a man who boarded a Boeing 727 in 1971 under the name “Dan Cooper” before hijacking the aircraft for a ransom of $200,000. He claimed to have a bomb in a briefcase which he showed to a stewardess and demanded that the plane land so he can be given the ransom and several parachutes. After landing in Seattle, the money and parachutes were handed over and all non-essential personnel and passengers were released. Cooper then asked the pilots to fly toward Mexico at a low altitude and speed so he can jump at the time of his own choosing. He did not wait long to make his bold move and jumped somewhere over southwestern Washington. He was never heard from again and his identity still remains a mystery. Most experts speculate that he did not survive the speedy and dangerous jump.

The writers of Newsradio seemed fascinated with mysterious, unidentified figures from modern history: Deep Throat, the Unabomber, and the man known as D.B. Cooper. While the first two men were merely referenced in episodes, Cooper’s mention becomes a major plot point as station owner Jimmy James is accused of being the hijacker and sent to federal prison. In a three-episode arc, James finds that his this stint in prison leaves his company holdings vulnerable to his rival, Johnny Johnson. He is exonerated when the real D.B. Cooper, Adam West of Batman fame, reveals himself as the notorious hijacker. The original FBI sketches of Cooper resemble West’s sharper facial features more than they do Mr. James’ considerably rounder visage.

(It is interesting to note that a copycat hijacker tried a similar attempt in 1972 calling himself “James Johnson”, a name that contains the surnames of both rivals in the D.B. Cooper story-arc of Newsradio.) [Clash of the Titans, Jail, The Lam]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

4-H Club - Since 1902, the 4-H (short for “Head, Heart, Hands, and Health”) has provided youth the chance to develop practical skills in the realms of science and agriculture. With its early emphasis on farming and husbandry, the club sometimes has the reputation of being a somewhat bucolic organization. In truth, when the 4-H was founded, it looked to prepare upcoming generations of agriculturists to embrace scientific approaches and technologies that established farmers were either hesitant or unwilling to employ on their own farms. The goals and responsibilities of the 4-H continued to evolve throughout the 20th century, teaching young people the leadership skills, research practices, and cultural values that would be useful in most vocations.

As soon as Dave Nelson transplanted himself from Wisconsin to New York, his rural background was a constant source for ridicule. Nelson rues that he was once proud of winning “the gold medal three years running for best preserves at the 4-H club,” but now is now made to feel ashamed of the accomplishment (Epidsode 61, “Stupid Holiday Talent Show”). Regardless of this shame, Nelson later embraces his 4-H upbringing when he attempts to teach Mr. James various cow calls (Episode 96, “Retirement”). Clearly, the 4-H’s goal of teaching young men and women leadership skills worked in the case of Mr. Nelson who helmed the news director chair at WNYX for several successful years. ["Plan Bee", "Retirement", "Stupid Holiday Charity Talent Show"]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Deep Throat - In the years following the break-in at the Watergate Office Complex in 1972, it was clear that people in President Richard Nixon’s administration authorized the heist to steal secrets from the Democratic National Committee. It was not clear, however, just who authorized it and whether or not the President himself gave the go-ahead. For the next two years, the two young newspaper reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, founded their reputation in journalism by conducting their own investigation of the case, and if not for an anonymous tipper dubbed “Deep Throat”, they may have never exposed Nixon’s involvement in the crime. Deep Throat would meet Woodward in shadowy places like parking garages to give the reporter leads in the investigation. The code name alluded to the infamous pornographic film of the same name because like the movie, the informant’s true identity was something to be kept hidden and taboo.

In 2005, Deep Throat was revealed as former FBI agent, W. Mark Felt, and Woodward and Bernstein quickly confirmed the verity of the claim. Even after the revelation of his identity, however, some still believe Deep Throat to be a composite character—a plot device to create intrigue and curiosity in various book and film adaptations of the reporters’ story.

Jimmy James first posits himself as Deep Throat when he ran for President (Episode 29, “President”). Mr. James clearly had ties the Nixon Whitehouse in the 1970s, but the nature of his relationship with the former President is never fully established. Since no one can refute his claims as Deep Throat, he repeats it when WNYX news director, Dave Nelson, tries to unveil a current Washington scandal (Episode 47, “Office Feud”).

Jimmy: This country doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about corrupt politicians. It’s like, y’know, it’s like what I told Woodword and Bernstein in the parking garage.

Dave: Uh-huh, when was this?

Jimmy: Oh, y’know, back during Watergate when I was Deep Throat.

[President, Negotiation, Office Feud]

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Unabomber (Theodore Kaczynski) – Though active since the late 1970s, the anonymous terrorist dubbed by “Unabomber” garnered the most media attention in the 90s when his mail bomb attacks become more frequent, sophisticated, and deadly. He received the name from the FBI file that labeled his cased UNABOM (short for “University and Airline Bomber”). In 1995, after the Unabomber mailed in several letters to newspapers in the hopes that his manifesto would be known and read, The New York Times and The Washington Post agreed to publish some of them. Part of their motivation was in the interest of public safety and the possibility that a reader might recognize the style of writing and finger the culprit. It worked as only weeks later David Kaczynski felt compelled to alert the FBI to his reclusive brother Ted as a possible suspect. Theodore Kaczynski was arrested on April 3rd, 1996.

Kaczynski’s attacks were motivated by his belief that society was becoming too reliant on emerging technologies and that people’s behavior and desires were based on artificial social-constructs. He felt that the humanity would eventually evolve into a race without any sense of personal freedom. While Kaczynski’s practices are while untenable, some have regarded his thesis as well-reasoned and formulated, a clear sign of his Harvard background and early years as a respected academic.

When all of the Unabomber references were made on Newsradio, the terrorist’s true identity was unknown. Therefore, several of Joe Gorelli’s colleagues playfully accuse him of being the Unabomber from time to time. For example, when preparing for an electrician’s test, Joe says that “Mindless drones don’t deserve to be using technology” which prompts Lisa’s to ask “You are the Unabomber, aren’t you?” It is somewhat ironic that Joe would be called the Unabomber since he makes his living through his technological savvy, but Joe often resorts to more unconventional, sometimes primitive means of solving problems. Dave even calls him a “Neo-Luddite” because Joe refuses to buy mass-produced parts from a hardware store (Episode 19,“Bitch Sesson”). The combination of his paranoia and distrust of standard technology made Joe a reasonable suspect in the Unabomber case. ["Bitch Session", "Coda", "Led Zeppelin II", "Negotiation", "Physical Graffiti"]

Monday, December 15, 2008

Edward R. Murrow (1908 - 1965) - Edward R. Murrow was one of the first broadcast journalists to become a household name and is therefore considered the archetypal news anchor. His effectiveness as a newsman came to light during the late 1930s when his overseas broadcasts brought attention to the dangers of Fascism and Hitler’s Third Reich. Murrow’s prescience in the matter of impending war gave him an air of authority that he would never relinquish. When Murrow made his transition to the new medium of television in 1951, his demeanor and delivery left an indelible stamp on what it means to anchor a news program. For decades to come, most national news figures seemed to share some aspect of Murrow’s style. His dramatic pauses, inflection, and even his catchphrase “Good night and good luck” have all been subject to imitation by younger journalists.

For better or for worse, Murrow’s influence in the news industry extended beyond his delivery. Sometimes, rather than merely covering a story, he would become part of it. Most famously, he was instrumental in discrediting Senator Joseph McCarthy after the congressman seemed to let his investigations into “un-American” activities go too far. By becoming news as well as reporting it, Murrow can be called one of the first activist journalists.

Bill McNeill of WNYX has sited Murrow several times as the standard of good, hard-hitting journalism. Beyond the occasional outbursts of media activism (i.e. The Real Deal with Bill McNeill) and his precise manner of speech, McNeill shares very little in common with Murrow in regard to formulating and swaying public opinion. Perhaps what they have most in common is their love for smoking, even while on the air. Murrow’s publicity shots rarely show him without a cigarette faithfully in hand, and he even said once that, "I doubt I could spend a half hour without a cigarette with any comfort or ease." Likewise, Bill has been known to puff during broadcasts despite increasingly stricter laws prohibiting indoor smoking. [Houses of the Holy, The Real Deal, The Song Remains the Same]

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Jumpin’ Joe Dugan (1897 – 1982) – In his 14 year baseball career as a third baseman in the Major Leagues, Joe Dugan spent his longest tenure with the New York Yankees during their first dynastic championship run in the 1920s. Being on a team with very recognizable names like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzeri, Dugan’s talent was somewhat overshadowed. Despite his relative obscurity, Dugan had a very respectable career, having an accumulative .280 lifetime batting average.

Some fans assumed that his nickname, “Jumpin’ Joe”, came from his ability to get quick jumps on groundballs. According to Dugan himself, the sobriquet had more to do with his habit of taking unannounced leaves from his team, especially in his early years with the Philadelphia Athletics. (It is perhaps this characteristic that links Jimmy James with his all-time favorite Yankee. Mr. James’ entrances and exits in the WNYX offices are often quick, random, and unannounced.) [Xmas Story]