Thursday, June 30, 2011

Responding to Change -
Non-Profit Nastiness

As most of us realize at some point in our lives, change is the only thing that remains constant. As old and overused as that may sound, it is no less true.

People, and the groups and organizations that they affiliate with, respond to change in many different ways. I've been reading and collecting information about changes that are upon the Pittsburgh region, and how they've been responded to (or not) by those who stand to be impacted.

There's plenty of voices providing coverage out there, so I'll just limit myself to observations that (hopefully) haven't already been made elsewhere:


As I write this, I'm listening to legendary WDUQ Jazz DJ and Pittsburgh Jazz Society founder Tony Mowod doing his last show before the format changes at about 11:00 PM.

There's been plenty of pleading, complaining, and yawning on the part of different Pittsburgh pundits and community leaders about the change. Links to it all are on the Save our WDUQ Facebook page.

There's also been talk about getting a new jazz radio station off the ground. As Tony said on his show tonight, "one door closes, another opens". I hope they can make it happen, and make it a sustainable venture. LPFM, anyone? Let's hope someone donates tower space on a nice, high hill somewhere.

Not much else to add that hasn't been said already. I'll miss you, Tony.

Highmark / WPAHS / UPMC

One thing I've learned from working in government, health care, and with volunteer non-profits is that "behaving like a business", which local health care giants Highmark and UPMC have recently been accused of, is kind of like accusing a person of eating when they're hungry.

My first wife Jan and I both worked for a hospital in the old Allegheny Health, Education and Research Foundation (AHERF) before it imploded under a mountain of debt in 1998 and was acquired by West Penn Hospital, becoming the West Penn Allegheny Health System (WPAHS).

25 years ago, Jan's father retired from West Penn Hospital as its Chief Financial Officer. He died in 1995, 3 months after I moved to Colorado. I would have loved to have asked him what he thought about AHERF's collapse and absorption by West Penn. Wayne was a very steady, intelligent person, and his insights would likely have been most valuable.

One thing that has been nearly palpable over those years has been the quiet acrimony between what is now UPMC, Highmark, and WPAHS. UPMC has helped to leverage its position in the market by offering its own insurance plan; now Highmark has seized an opportunity to help support an ailing but vital health care system, and perhaps optimize the efficiency and "surplus-ability" of both.

Many of the analysts and pundits that have commented on this have praised the opportunity for more competition in the health care marketplace, in an effort to keep costs and prices down. Still others have chided officials of both organizations for basically behaving like petulant schoolboys on the junior high school playground. For me, this is conduct unbecoming organizations that citizens depend upon to provide quality health services.

This is the way it's been in the Pittsburgh region for a long time, and it doesn't sound like there's a lot of room for improvement in this area. From what I've seen and heard, there may not be much chance of that unless people share their disdain with those who provide services, and insist upon displaying the same commitment to service first, and "surpluses" second.

Highmark/WPAHS and UPMC need to focus on not making things any harder for Pittsburgh area health care consumers than it already is.

Enjoy your Independence Day holiday.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rediscovering Jazz

The summer solstice is upon us. The longest day of the year will see me mowing the lawn and doing other things around the house amidst some typically warm and humid temperatures, while back in the high desert of Colorado they've set a record for rainfall, and there is snow forecast for above 10,000 feet. So it goes.

As the days wind down before the availability of jazz on Pittsburgh FM radio is slated to be drastically reduced, I've been thinking about jazz music in general. I really don't have a lot of favorite artists or instruments - I just know what I like. Jazz is an excellent background beat for the music of life, and that's the way I've enjoyed it most.

There are a couple of artists whose work is influenced by or considered part of the jazz repertoire that I've enjoyed over the years. This past weekend brought them back to mind.


Leslie and I had been looking forward to this concert for quite a while, and the show did not disappoint.

John Legend opened things up. He's an excellent performer. His outstanding singing voice, piano playing, and songwriting skills were very evident, but perhaps drowned out a little too much by the band and backing vocalists.

Sade's show was elegant, long, exquisitely crafted, and nearly flawless in its execution. Along with the lead singer of the same name, parts of the band have been together since the early 80's. The cohesion, the musicianship, and the feeling behind each of the songs they performed turned an otherwise ordinary concert venue into an intimate setting.

The production was something else - intricate lighting, a full video wall behind the stage, at times merged with video projected on a see-through fabric scrim that was lowered around the entire stage. The production represented what the music represents to me - a level of unexpected sophistication, and a meaning much deeper than just the soulful music and lyric.

Sade performed over 20 songs, including most if not all of their hits from the 80's and 90's. Sade herself is a performer whose talents lay somewhere beyond the striking beauty and unmistakable voice. You feel like she and her band have laid their souls out there in the music, much like many of the greatest jazz musicians. It's a rare thing for someone who has enjoyed such popular appeal.

Pittsburgh was one of the tour's first North American stops, having started earlier this year in Europe. There are plenty of clips from this show posted on YouTube, and the tour will have stops in Cleveland and Columbus in July. I will be keeping my eye out for a DVD of this concert down the road. It was that good.

Michael Franks

After the concert, Leslie and I walked back to the car and drove for a while with late night jazz on 90.5 helping to set the mood. We wound up at Ritter's for a late night bite, and talked about the show and the artists from that era. We came back to a familiar jazz artist that we discovered in different ways, but whose music we both appreciated a lot.

I was introduced to the music of Michael Franks via the radio, but not WDUQ. It was by none other than Jack Bogut, back in the 70's on KDKA. Jack was apparently fond of Mr. Franks' second album, The Art of Tea, and played several tracks from it on his show. Over 35 years later, I'm kind of amazed that he was able to play "Popsicle Toes" in the morning without getting a slew of raised eyebrows. Well, maybe he did..

You must have been Miss Pennsylvania
With all this pulchritude.
How come you always load your Pentax
When I'm in the nude?
We oughta have a birthday party,
And you can wear you birthday clothes
We can hit the floor
And go explore those
Popsicle toes.

There are many other Franks songs that I enjoy, but as with many other favorite artists, including Sade, other noise has gotten in the way of the music. Leslie sees this, and lets me know about it. That's one reason why I'm down to one post a week.

Too many other more important things to do, not just percolate in my head and not move on. There are lots of nice things to remember, including the 40th anniversary of the Pirates' 1971 World Series victory over the Orioles (who are in town this week). Enjoy the memory, and keep moving.

Anyway. it seems that Michael Franks has just released a new CD, with a track nicely suited for today. So enjoy your first day of summer, stay safe, and take time to listen to the music.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tone Deaf Public Radio

I grew up in the Pittsburgh area, and had a radio on a lot of the time. From early childhood through adolescence and into young adulthood (when the police scanner got a hold of me), my memories seem filled with what was on the radio. This included a LOT of time spent listening to the public and community radio stations at the lower end of the FM dial.

When I wrote in February about the impending merger of WDUQ with the parent of WYEP, I expressed relief that the license and ownership of the station would remain in the hands a community non-profit, already well-established and conducting themselves in a very competent manner. I also said at the time, "WDUQ's popular jazz music programming will likely remain one of the benchmarks of the station's presence in the area".

Essential Public Media, the folks behind the operation of the "new" WDUQ, would probably say that this promise has been fulfilled. Unfortunately, following what appears to be the trend elsewhere, a lot of the programming that made WDUQ and other stations a special place is being relegated to HD radio and Internet streaming. The prime spectrum - the analog FM signal on 90.5 - is being turned into essentially a full-time network affiliate of National Public Radio, save for Saturday nights.

The management of WYEP made a very comprehensive and eloquent case for the transition, going so far as to have a PR firm write the announcement to make sure their message was articulated properly. How corporate of them.

While WYEP's management is correct in their claim that Pittsburgh is one of the last major media markets without a full-time NPR news and information outlet, how they're going about accomplishing the feat of putting one in place feels awkward. It's almost as if they are Clarice Starling and their audience is Hannibal Lecter; the 'ham-handed segue' won't do.

As was expected, those who love jazz on the radio are not pleased, and I don't blame them. For me, the best place to listen to jazz is in the car on a late night drive from one place or another, holding the hand of your loved one as you cruise down the road. Unless you want to retrofit your vehicle with an HD set or stream it through your smartphone, that quiet joy is lost, especially when the music is part of a local music scene that you can plug yourself into as well.

HD Radio and Internet streaming does not equate to universal access. Until it does, jazz in Pittsburgh should remain free and widely accessible over the analog public airwaves.

If the online outcry is any indication, there will be a lengthy period of discord over the manner in which the removal of jazz from these free public airwaves is being accomplished. Those who have been most vocal have said that a healthy compromise somewhere between the 100 hours of jazz being aired on 90.5 now, and the 6 that is currently planned for, would be fine with them. Their plea does not appear to be intractable, even in spite of an effort to boycott membership in both stations. Why does WYEP's silence in response seem that way?

I haven't been living here full-time for that long, but in WYEP's actions I see similarities in how public and community radio has evolved in Colorado, where I came from. Colorado Public Radio maintains a statewide network, broadcasting two stations across most of the state; one with classical music, the other with NPR news and information, much like WDUQ is slated to become. This constitutes a sort of "top layer" of public radio coverage. The secondary layer is made up of smaller, community-based stations with a lot of volunteers helping to run things. Stations such as KAFM and KVNF keep the "Community" in Community Radio.

That was the idea behind WYEP back in the early 70's. The spartan confines of 4 Cable Place in Oakland were alive with off-the-wall music and ideas. I also spent some time as a volunteer at WDUQ in my late teens. I remember the sense of professionalism and pride, especially on the part of other volunteers.

Nearly 40 years after its inception, the evolved form of those early years in Oakland is now poised to assume control of the region's pioneer in public radio. Many critics have pointed out WYEP's tagline, "Where the Music Matters", and have tried to level accusations that the station is behaving to the contrary in its dealings with WDUQ.

From the sound of the rhetoric, the management of WYEP has made up its mind, and is not inclined to listen to the pleas of jazz fans around the area to keep more of this music on analog FM. The deaf ear they appear to have turned to the complaints is not in keeping with a community media resource, and has fueled too much speculation along with the bad feelings.

Perhaps they just think that the spectrum is too valuable to continue to commit so much airtime to what they may perceive as a "niche" audience. If that's the case, their approach is antithetical to their origins. Perhaps they have truly forgotten from whence they came. Too bad.

In an attempt to gain additional perspective on this, I tried to contact Larry Berger of the Saturday Light Brigade, which began on WYEP in 1978 and left the station in 2003. The program is now broadcast on a network of college radio stations anchored by Carnegie-Mellon's WRCT, as well as online. Larry did not reply to my request for comment about his program's departure from WYEP, and I don't blame him. He and his staff are moving forward very well.

Aside from the loss of jazz programming on WDUQ, it's also unclear whether the new ownership will continue to operate the Radio Information Service for the visually impaired, which transmits on the subcarrier of 90.5. Those answering the phone at both WDUQ and WYEP today seemed unable to commit to the future of this service, which for those using it is much more essential than other forms of public media. Let's hope for a smooth transition and seamless continuation of this vital resource.

My experience in Colorado showed me that the business model for non-profit media is changing. Survival in this climate of economic and technological change has required some fundamental altering of the way these organizations think and operate, and that did not sit well with some that had been involved at KAFM for many years.

So now with WYEP, WDUQ, and WQED forming the 'top layer' of public radio in the Pittsburgh region, one wonders where the smaller innovators in public radio are, to continue to make radio accessible to the varied communities and neighborhoods that make this area what it is. The presence of robust college stations such as WRCT and WPTS will certainly help, as may the recent enactment of the Local Community Radio Act and the potential for Low Power FM station development in places like the Pittsburgh radio market.

Let's hope for more understanding and compromise as the transition approaches, and for new opportunities to innovate and serve to become available.

Have a good rest of the week.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Character(s) of Camp Horne Road

For a week last month when Leslie and I were sharing one car, it became necessary for me to occasionally take the bus to work, or at least as close to work as it would take me. This required walking Camp Horne Road from the intersection with Route 65 to the intersection with Ben Avon Heights Road, a distance of about 2 1/4 miles. The walk was fine - I'm quite comfortable with the distance - and I observed some interesting things that made me think about the nature of our roadways and transportation systems.

Name Game

This photo always made me chuckle while driving past it, but I really didn't get a second thought from me until I stood in front of it. Why would the road be named one thing by local jurisdictions, and another by the County?

Fortunately, Allegheny County's Public Works Department appears to be an accessible and professionally operated agency. One call there got me my answer. Deputy Director Bernie Rossman told me that when roads are initially given an official name or designation, the county courts get involved, and once the court assigns a name, it's largely cut in stone. He mentioned at least one other road in the South Hills where the local and county names differ substantially.

Apparently, Horne Camp Road is the name the court approved as the official road name many moons ago. Despite the change by local jurisdictions, the county designation remains, perhaps as nothing more than an anachronistic reminder of the nature of government's many layers here.

Pedestrian Friendly...Well, not really.

My walks were conducted at two very disparate times in terms of the traffic flow the road experiences; early Sunday afternoon and late Friday afternoon, during the evening rush. The differences in traffic were obvious, as was the demeanor of the drivers. The berm of the road also fluctuates in width, narrowing almost down to nothing as the westbound lane curves around a hillside just before reaching the Willow restaurant, which sits on the former site of a little neighborhood bar called the Bantam.

I also found two full, unopened sports drink bottles, quart size, at different places along the roadway. I wondered why someone would toss these out of their cars, unless they were tossing them at somebody.

Seeking Shelter If Needed

Camp Horne still has a tenuously rural feel to it, even if it has become increasingly impacted by the development surrounding it. Should one get caught in the rain while walking (which I was concerned about on at least one occasion), there are ample places to stay dry along the route, along with some businesses and other locations that have been there quite a while.

Sunny Jim's, Custard's First Stand, and Mark's Tavern are all located in the small commercial area on the Emsworth side, all in proximity to the Carmel Office Suites, which occupies what was once the main building of the Otto Suburban Dairy.

Avonworth Community Park is centrally located on the route, and is very pretty with Lowries Run running right through it. If I had the time or need to stop and enjoy some scenery and quiet, this would have surely been the place.

Commercial Center

As I approached the commercial development near the I-279 interchange, I passed Animal Friends, and noted with more detail the nature of what had to be done to build that impressive facility, including the nicely designed bridge over Lowries Run. Other impressive buildings in the area is the complex that includes the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center.

As I started up Ben Avon Heights Road, I noted that the roadway into the Home Depot / Giant Eagle complex (built on the site of the former Camp Horne Drive-In) had little or no room for pedestrian access - curbing, about one foot of grass, and the large retaining wall on both sides. Fortunately, another direct route existed up a small ridge that led to the northeast corner of Home Depot's parking lot.

Walking this route was pleasant and uplifting, even if a little danger creeped in from the spectre of line-crossers in areas where there is little margin for error, or someone ready to chuck a full bottle of Gatorade at an unsuspecting suburban hiker. The most revelatory thoughts that came to mind occurred during my rush hour trek, and had little to do with the sights around me.

Where Have You Gone, Port Authority?

I knew from reading in numerous media outlets and blog posts that the Port Authority was going to be cutting services in the wake of a loss of state funding. In returning to the area, and having experienced numerous public transit systems in other cities, after my most recent experience I have to wonder out loud what is wrong with this organization.

If you're not a regular rider with a weekly or monthly pass, it's $3.25 each way across two zones between Emsworth and Leetsdale. My round trip commute is just under 20 miles, or about one gallon of gas. That makes driving my own car to work less expensive, since I don't have to pay for parking on either end.

I noticed Bus Stop signs in the area of Avonworth Park that indicated that at one point at least one bus route traversed Camp Horne to go somewhere. I did see at least 6 Port Authority buses traveling eastbound along my walking route - all with ROSS GARAGE as their destination. These were buses going out of service after the evening rush.

I wondered out loud why a loop-type route couldn't be established that would take passengers between Route 65 and the Camp Horne Interchange area. This could connect with the existing Park-N-Ride at the Perrysville interchange and serve as an express into town, and would perhaps generate some revenue while all those buses are using Camp Horne to get back to the Ross Garage.

I tried asking the Port Authority about this, through their Public Information department, which apparently didn't have the time to return my calls.

I did dig a little deeper on the Port Authority's somewhat informative website, and found that the routes that previously served this area, the 17B and 18B, weren't utilized enough (in a consultant's opinion) along the Camp Horne corridor to justify their continued existence in this area. Both routes seemed to anchor themselves in a routing pattern that included the North Boroughs, which led me to thinking along the lines of other routing options that would traverse major traffic corridors laterally, instead of always using Downtown as a focal point.

As was expected, I'm not alone in thinking about these things. In the Sunday Post-Gazette two weeks ago, long-time transit critic Bob Firth presented another in a series of annual articles detailing his take on the issues that make the Port Authority seemingly unable to provide the level of service required of a technology-savvy, growth-hungry urban center like Pittsburgh.

Seems that Mr. Firth hates what he calls "squiggly-line transit", and has presented several excellent examples of more efficient transit systems that use circulator routes in population centers to feed faster express routes on the major traffic arteries. His arguments are persuasive - hopefully they'll find a friendly ear amongst those that care about the viability of this region for all of its citizens.

In the meantime, as the summer continues to come in I might find it interesting to take some other walks in familiar places, if only to see what I've been missing. I know it will be worth the effort.

Have a great week ahead.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

'Uncle Ed', 1940 - 2011

When Ed Monahan married my cousin Sandee Rubino, I was just 8 years old.

Leslie and I were present with Sandee and the remainder of his family when 'Uncle Ed' departed this earth last Sunday after a sudden and unexpected illness. He was laid to rest yesterday.

There are no real bundles of words to put together to describe Ed Monahan. He himself was a man who used words in an economical fashion. When he needed to say something, those words were used in a manner that would stick with you.

Ed's reticence in many circumstances did not reflect the nature of his passions, especially for his wife and children, and even more in recent years for his grandson. Ed and Sandee lived in Center Township for many years, and had recently moved to Wexford to live with their daughter Carleen and her family.

Some of Ed's passions remained in Beaver County, where he grew up, made his living as a steelworker at the Aliquippa Works of J&L Steel until the day it closed for good, and where he connected with many friends as a long-time member of the Elks Lodge and the Aliquippa Bucktails.

Ed was also a passionate outdoorsman. Some of the more memorable conversations we had were talking about Nebraska, where he went hunting and where I would talk about what it was like to drive across (a fair spell better then either Kansas or South Dakota). Ed was also pleased when I would send him invitations to the Friends and Family weekend when I worked at Cabela's - it gave him a reason to head down to Wheeling and look for some bargains.

Through quiet strength and perseverance, Ed Monahan provided for his family through prosperity and adversity, and served them well. In trying to assess the worth of a man after he is gone, is there really any more that needs to be said?

I can only hope that just a little of Ed Monahan rubbed off on me.

Enjoy the weekend.