The death of the middle class, The New Media Expo and Bob Heil: THIS IS NOT A TEST #17 (transcript)

Published April 18, 2015

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There’s no place like home…there’s no place like home…there’s no place like home… Ah yes, back in the saddle. Home again home again, jiggety jig, yo. I’ve been on the road and it’s good to be home. And it’s good to be here in the kitchen with you, for our weekly prayer services.

Okay, so I know I said I’d come back here and talk about the podcast awards, but the thing was so underwhelming that I’m actually not sure what to say. I mean I want to say good things, but I’m finding it difficult to think of anything good to say. I really thought I was in for a treat, you know, I thought, “well, this will be cool, something I’ve never seen before.” They’ve had these awards every year at NMX and I’ve always stayed away. I thought, who cares about that? Who cares about podcasts? Well now that I care about podcasts I was kind of excited to see some great podcasts get awarded, with, you know, statues and everything. Turns out I was right to skip them every other year. What I expected was an intimate boozy little thing with a bunch of people in the same business having a good time – kind of like the Oscars used to be before they were televised.

But the presentation, the show itself, was kind of embarrassing. It was set up and presented like a big award show, you know like the Oscars or the Grammys or something, with huge screens and lights and music and an announcer, but the hosts were not good hosts and it was just jabber jabber jabber, talk talk talk, awful joke after awful joke. They talked over each other constantly. It was a tsunami of words, but nothing was being said. The hosts were a couple of famous podcasters with huge audiences. One was an ex wrestling guy – like the cartoon WW-whatever wrestling. The other one was a woman who did a sex-talk podcast.

There were 22 categories with ten nominees in each one. I hadn’t heard of most of them, but there they were, so they must have had audiences that were big enough to get them nominated. There was an LGBT category, and when they were introducing it, the wrestling guy host actually made a joke about flower arrangements. You know, because the gays love to arrange flowers. I thought I had been transported back to 1950 somehow. But really that was only the tip of the horrible iceberg. Every other thing the hosts said made half the people in the room cringe or groan. Then the other half groaned at the next thing they said. They covered all the bases.

And the awards – one guy won four different awards, because apparently he has a podcast about every different subject you could imagine. And a couple other guys won more than one award…it was kind of astounding, really, and it proved one thing pretty clearly – and that is, this is not a crowded field. There are not a million great podcasters. If the Podcast Awards are any indication, there aren’t even a hundred great podcasters. What the hell, man? The show wasn’t funny, it wasn’t insightful, it was ridiculously overblown and poorly executed, and most of the people who won weren’t even there. But after sitting through that hour and twenty minutes – which, honestly, seemed more like 8 hours – I can’t blame them for staying home.

Sadly I kind of feel that way about the New Media Expo as a whole these days. It used to be a great place to learn a lot of arcane, insidery shit about Google and Twitter and human behavior, but no one talked about Google or Google plus at all this year – not one session – and the whole vibe is becoming entrepreneurial – or at least that’s what everyone says. But the guy who gave the opening keynote speech, who is apparently very famous and everyone loves him – well, his big thing, or what he’s known for – is something called THE SMART PASSIVE INCOME BLOG and THE SMART PASSIVE INCOME PODCAST. He seems like a nice enough guy, but you know – that’s not what I go to that conference – or ANY conference – for. Passive incomes and mountains of psuedo-entrepreneurial bullshit. Maybe those kinds of sessions were always there and I just never went to them because there were other interesting, real topics being discussed. But it looks like those days are long gone.

What I don’t get is — is that what an entrepreneur is now? Someone who finds a PATH TO RICHES and PASSIVE INCOME? What happened to making something people wanted to buy? What ever happened to making something, period. When did everyone become god damned Amway salesmen. Everyone at NMX seems obsessed with monetizing and increasing their income stream. What the hell is an income stream? That should have been in last week’s show about the stupid names we give things. I guess it’s an income stream because of those shysters and con men who talk about cash flow. And streams flow, right? Sure. So do sewers. Listen, we all need money, that’s the way shit is set up. That isn’t going to change. But I think what stinks about all of this, about all of these people trying to become Internet millionaires is there’s absolutely nothing underneath any of it. It’s a big empty, shitty echo chamber. It’s a thousand people running around networking but none of them actually does anything. They’re all learning how to build audiences and build networks and build and build and build and they’re building a god damn beanstalk to nowhere. There’s nothing at the end of it.

I was laying in the bed in my hotel room one night wondering why it all annoys me so much. These kinds of people have always been out there – you used to see their infomercials on late night TV. All the get rich quick shit, where the only person getting rich is the one selling you the foolproof plan. I felt sorry for people who bought in to that shit, and I feel sorry for the people who saved their pennies to come to Las Vegas to the New Media Expo and are just being sold a bill of goods. So many of these speakers are just people selling courses to people that teach them how to sell courses to other people. It’s like a snake eating its own tail. YOU CAN DO ANYTHING YOU WANT TO DO! No you can’t. THE ONLY THING STANDING BETWEEN YOU AND SUCCESS IS YOURSELF! No, there’s an entire fucking world standing between most of us and success. Anyway, I was asking myself why it all seemed so tawdry and horrible and I think it has to do with everything in the economy now and the way the world is going. Or at least the way this country is going.

There aren’t any middle class jobs left, which is why there’s no more middle class. We’re becoming a country where you’ve either got it pretty good, or you’ve got nothing, there’s hardly anyone in between anymore. But the thing is, most of us live in between – most of us are not exceptional, and we’re not really dumb, we’re just in between. It used to be that there was a huge economy there. Millions of jobs you could do and make enough money to buy a house and start a family, make some kids to send off to war. But that’s all disappearing and it’s disappearing really quickly. What replaced the high paying auto worker jobs? What replaced the machinists and the railroad workers or the postal workers or the factory jobs where you could waste your life but still have kind of a semi-decent life after they’d used up all of your good years? What happened to those things? They’re all gone.

My father wasn’t educated, he grew up on a chicken farm, for Christ’s sake. But, you know, legend has it that the Phillips chickens were prized in the city. People would wait for my dad and his brothers to get into St. Paul every week with their chickens and they would line up to buy the freshly murdered birds. Yeah, the Phillips chickens. Must have been quite a thing to see. Anyway, after he left the farm – as all 12 of the kids did – he worked as a mechanic and took on second jobs when he could. He owned a gas station with his brother, he owned a bar. He was ambitious and he could do things with his hands and he was able to make a good living doing those kinds of things. He’s old now, he doesn’t work anymore – not for a paycheck anyway – but he’s got a house, cars, trucks, boats, motorcycles…but he’s always had those things, and I don’t think he even has a high school diploma. Someone like my dad now, these days – what do they have to look forward to? Someone now…I mean, to get the money to start up a gas station or a bar, that kind of money just isn’t within the reach of someone like my dad. Or someone like me, for that matter.

So we’re left with this big void, where the half of the country that used to be in the middle is just lost with nowhere to go but a job at Walmart. So everybody is looking around saying, “What the hell?” and trying to find another way to make some dough. And then along comes this magic cash machine called the Internet. I get why today’s ambitious person is looking to the Internet as a possible way to do something, but the problem is…there are no chickens. There are no delicious chickens, there’s no gas or an oil change for the car, there’s no beer and a shot. The things my father did provided actual goods and services. These people looking for Internet money don’t have anything to offer. There’s nothing there. What do they create? Content? I hate that word, content. You have to create content. People have such a boner for content that there are companies who do nothing but churn out articles. Just pure, awful shit articles, three paragraphs about nothing, but it’s content, man, and we need more content!

So yeah, NMX. The New Media Expo. It’s morphed into something that I can’t justify making my company pay to send me to anymore. But I will say that most of what it has morphed in to – aside from an Amway convention – is more of a podcasting expo, which, ironically, is what it started as about a decade ago. It’s the circle of life, man! So if you want to learn about podcasting and get some relevant tips and information, by all means, go to NMX. I did learn some valuable things about podcasting. Mostly about technical stuff that I’m doing all wrong. Not technical in the talking into the microphone department, but in the rest of the underlying thing or things that support the actual podcast. This all sounds very simple: talking into a microphone, uploading a file somewhere and then people listening to it. And essentially that’s what’s happening here, but there are a hundred other moving parts that go into it all, and a hundred ways to screw things up and shoot yourself in the foot. So if anyone listening to this is thinking about starting a podcast, I can help you. Just buy my podcasting course for $499! No, I’ll help you for nothing. If I know you. You can have all my hard won knowledge for free. because to me, that’s what the Internet has always been about, making information available to everyone. That was the underlying concept when I crawled onto the web, and even though hardly anyone looks at it that way anymore, I still do.

I did get to do something very cool at NMX though, and that is I got to meet Bob Heil. Bob designed this microphone that I’m talking into – and that thousands of other podcasters talk into – which I suppose is why he gave a talk at NMX. But the other thing that Bob did, the really incredible thing, is he pretty much single-handedly created the live concert sound as we know it. There’s this old piece of gear called a Shure Vocalmaster. The Vocalmaster was a PA system. It was a little hundred watt six channel “mixer” – though calling it a mixer is generous, since there’s more technology in the little mixer sitting here on my kitchen table than there was in the Vocalmaster mixer – but it was a hundred watt amp with a built-in mixer and two speaker columns. The speaker columns were about five feet tall and they had two 10 inch speakers and four 8 inch speakers on each side. An 8 inch speaker is like what’s in the door of your car. The Shure company made these things in the late 60’s and early 70s, and they were pretty much all that was available for portable vocal amplification.

Imagine that – a 100 watt vocal system and a few 50 or 100 watt guitar amps – that was the state of that art in the late 60’s and early 70s. In fact, when the Beatles played at Shea stadium they used a couple of Shure Vocalmasters. I shit you not. I don’t know the technical details, but I imagine that they miked one of those speakers and ran it through the stadium public address system. Can you imagine how awesome that must have sounded? The echo-y, garbled voices and the guitars and drums faintly in the distance? I suppose it didn’t matter if they had a PA at all, since the minute they showed their faces the girls started screaming and they didn’t stop screaming until the Beatles were back at their hotel after the gig. Remember the band The Who? Ask your dad about them. Well when they came to America in 1971 to tour behind the Who’s Next album, you know what they brought with them as a PA system? Two Shure Vocalmasters. Again, I shit you not. Well they got here and the reviews for their first couple of shows were pretty bad, because, you know…Pete Townsend and Keith Moon vs. two Shure Vocalmasters. The Vocalmasters didn’t stand a chance. So someone told them about this mad scientist that lived in Illinois and ran a place called YE OLDE MUSIC SHOP – Bob Heil.

Okay, let me back up even further. Early in 1970 the Grateful Dead were touring and their PA system was confiscated by the police when they arrested the Dead’s sound man, Owsley. Yeah, they guy who created all of the acid that the hippies dropped in the 60s. That Owsley. So the dead pull into St. Louis with no PA and someone tells them, you should talk to Bob Heil over at YE OLDE MUSIC SHOP. He’s built a giant PA system out of old theater speakers and giant horns that he makes himself. He’s got 50,000 watts of sound! He’s crazy! So the grateful dead say, “Well, now, that sounds intriguing,” so they call Bob and he says, “sure, I can do the gig.” So he hauls his giant PA over to the gig and the Dead about shit their pants when they hear it, and they say, “Dear friend Bob, you are a madman and a genius, please come with us on the rest of our tour and bring your wonderful sound system with you.” And he did. Then he went on to work with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, etc. etc., and that’s how The Who heard about him. When The Who called he dropped what he was doing, put his PA system into a plane and went and did the Who’s Next tour. After that, no rock band went out on tour without a huge PA system, usually one built by Bob Heil.

Oh, and you know that annoying squawk box that Joe Walsh uses on Rocky Mountain Way? Bob Heil built that. Then much to the eternal dismay of mankind, he gave one to Peter Frampton. But as far as microphones are concerned, it was Joe Walsh who started using a microphone that Bob had built for ham radio operators. Joe was a ham radio guy. So Joe called Bob and said, “Bob, this ham radio mike you’ve built sounds better than my Shure SM58.” and Bob said, “No…what?” So he went to see Joe and Joe showed him how he was using the mike and so Bob went back to his shop and built Joe a proper stage mike. And that’s how he got in to that. And now he makes the greatest dynamic microphones in the world. You’ve seen them everywhere, though you probably don’t realize it, and of course the big PR-40 – the microphone I’m using here to talk into your ears so wonderfully.

Bob’s NMX session was crazy. He played a video that talked about a lot of the stuff I just told you, then he just went on for half an hour about sound and microphones and he did demonstrations with different microphones – Heil microphones of course – and spoke passionately about sound. Bob cares about sound, and that’s why I think he’s an exceptional human being, and it was an honor to listen to him and shake his hand afterward. See, Bob makes something. He makes something that’s great, and he makes it here in America, and he sells it at a reasonable price. Bob is a god damned entrepreneur. His chickens are delicious. But I’m afraid we are rapidly running out of people like Bob.

Oh, here’s a funny story – before he started his talk, Bob was dicking around with the sound board, you know, running back and forth between the board and the microphones he had on the podium, tweaking everything to his liking, as any good sound man will do. Well I was watching him do that – because I made sure to get to his session early – and while he was standing there twisting knobs a woman from the conference came up to him – I guess she was concerned that some old man was fucking around with the equipment – and she said, “Do you need help with that? I can go get our sound guy…” I LOLed at that, I have to tell you, and a young woman who knew Bob and was helping get his presentation set up said, “Oh…no, we’re good. Really.”

Another funny thing is that hundreds of the podcasters at that conference use Bob’s microphone, but there were only about 25 people in his session. And half of them were older than me. I tweeted, Five minutes to Bob Heil #NMX session. All of the old gray haired rockers in attendance. Myself included. No one was there and it was the best session of the whole week. But that’s the way it goes. Bob will die one of these days and everyone will be sad and five hundred people will say they were at that session.

Okay. Well, one last thing about NMX – this year NMX was kind of sort of part of the big NAB show. That’s the National Association of Broadcasters show. NAB is a big trade show. I mean…I’ve been to a few of these rodeos, but they’ve been things for my industry…hosting stuff, “new media” stuff. But when I walked across the street to the NAB exhibition hall…I was going to take a picture but I didn’t even bother, because there’s no way a picture could have really shown the enormity of this thing. Hundreds – maybe thousands? – of technology vendors, companies selling video, audio and production and post-production equipment to the TV and radio industry. Just football field after football field of gadgets and technology. I walked around in there for hours in a gadget daze, and I didn’t even understand what 90% of the shit was for.

Anyway, the thing exhausted me, and as I was heading out I was walking behind two guys and one of them said, “What do you think, should we go over to the other side?” The other side?! I looked to where the guy was pointing and it was a wall of doors that lead to another few football fields of stuff. I hadn’t even noticed the doors in that wall. It was unbelievable to me that there could be twice as much as I’d already seen. I didn’t follow them to “the other side,” I went back across the street, up to my room and ate a $40 room service hamburger.

All right, short and sweet this week. I’ve been busy, you know. Wait, was it short? I’ll come back next time and tell you some bedtime stories, or talk about my mailman or the squeaky door hinge here between the kitchen and the music room…until then, via con dios, babies.



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