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Reason to Root

I’ve been a bad Yankee fan this year.

This season I’ve watched, maybe, 2 innings a week. I have two young kids, and of all the things I could (should) spend my time doing, watching a baseball game for 3+ hours is pretty low on the list.

When I have watched, the game is increasingly unrecognizable from the one I grew up with. (Get off my lawn alert!) The game’s “three true outcomes,” walks, strikeouts, and home runs, aren’t all that interesting to me.

All season long, I’ve kept an eye on the box scores, hoping I’d start to feel something for a team that was once the center of my 16-year-old universe.

And then, on Saturday afternoon, it happened.

Over the last three years I’ve casually introduced baseball and the Yankees to my son. On Saturday, a meaningful 4 pm game against the Red Sox, we planned to wear our Yankee shirts and watch the game together (with my wife and infant daughter) after naptime.

The game was mostly ho-hum, and we skipped a few innings to eat dinner outside, before coming back inside to watch the last few innings before bedtime.

My son is obsessed with The Green Monster, the massive green-painted wall in left field of Fenway Park. So when Giancarlo Stanton crushed a 452-foot grand slam to give the Yankees the lead – a home run he literally hit out of the stadium – my son and I went nuts, high-fiving each other and my wife as we watched replay after replay.

Now I have my reason to root for the Yankees to make and go deep into the playoffs, maybe even win the World Series: to recreate that moment of excitement and connecting I shared with my family. What better reason could there be?

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn; but since I haven’t published anything on 250SFV in over a year, I’d figured I’d put it here, too–just in case anyone was wondering if I’m alive. (I am.) If the article sounds sales-y, you can literally blame it on my day job (I’m in sales).

Shortly after I turned 18, I received a package in the mail from Gillette.

Inside was a Mach 3 razor, Gillette’s newest model, equipped with a three-blade technology I’d heard about in their commercials.

I tossed aside the electric razor I’d been borrowing from my stepdad and, with my new state-of-the-art Mach 3 in hand, I began a regular shaving routine. And even as I experimented with a 5 o’clock shadow, unnecessarily long (and bushy) sideburns, and, in college, some awkward growth on my chin that led my family to start calling me Shaggy (from Scooby-Doo), I continued to re-up on Gillette replacement blades.

Over and over again. And I still use Gillette razors today.

By sending me one free razor when I turned 18, Gillette acquired me as a customer and established a pattern of behavior—regularly shaving, and rebuying their blades—that has lasted through my 36th birthday (earlier this year). I’ve been a Gillette customer for half my life.

If you’re tasked with customer acquisition for a company like Harry’s, a men’s shaving and grooming brand that launched in 2013 to challenge Big Razor, your job is to convince me to break an 18-year relationship with Gillette in favor of your brand, with which I’m barely familiar.

That’s not impossible, but it’s certainly not easy. And whether you’re Panera trying to lure casual diners away from McDonald’s, Under Armour trying to make a dent in Nike’s sales, or Lyft trying to keep pace with Uber, the earlier you can establish a relationship between your brand and a potential consumer, the easier it’ll be to acquire them as a customer.

As a sales guy for Ypulse, a youth research company that focuses on Generation Z (born 2001-2018) and Millennials (born 1982-2000), I’ve thought a lot about what made Gillette’s strategy to target me at age 18 so effective. They didn’t invent free trials or product samples. But what they figured out was just the right time to send me that razor: when I was young.

Presumably Gillette bought a database that included my name, address, and birthday, and waited until I entered the “Adults 18+” demographic to put their product into my hand (and on my face). Moreover, Gillette effectively cued me to start shaving more regularly because, after all, I now owned the best new razor on the market, with not one, not two, but three blades!

As a teenager I was open to messaging from razor brands because I hadn’t yet established a purchase pattern for that particular product category. (I was, ostensibly, just as open to messaging from shaving cream and aftershave brands.) I imagine the average 16- to 18-year-old in 2018 has not yet written his favorite razor brand in stone—but he’s probably seeing lots of targeted ads from Gillette, Harry’s, Dollar Shave Club, and any number of other brands. Whichever of those brands wins his business today will have a tremendous advantage—if they continue to provide a quality product at a competitive cost—leaving the others to play catch-up, like Harry’s is doing now with me.

In January 2018, Ypulse launched Ybrands, a brand tracker that surveys 6,000 young people (ages 13-36) a month, collecting data about their relationships with, and perceptions of, 150 brands across multiple product categories. In other words, Ybrands was built to tell our brand clients what young people think about them when it comes to their brands’ Personality, Relevance, Influence, and Momentum.

Ybrands is in-field continuously—conducting 200 interviews every single day—so yes, if a certain social media company or retailer or quick service restaurant catches hell in the press for a customer-facing miscue, our data will reflect the before-and-after of it. But more importantly, we can tell our clients where their brands stand with young people at this very moment, and which levers they need to move up or down to appeal to Generation Z and Millennials moving forward.

At 36 I’m not “old,” per say—Ypulse keeps me around as their resident O.A.M., old-ass Millennial—but I’m far less receptive to marketing messages than I used to be. While now might be the right time to tell me about your financial brand that will help me save for retirement, or your auto brand that will keep my child safe, it’ll be really tough to change my mind about which brands of running shoes (Saucony) or face wash (Kiehl’s) or jeans (Levi’s) I buy from now until I’m 100. Again: not impossible, but not easy, either.

What is your brand doing to establish a relationship with young consumers? Are young people familiar with your brand, and if so, do they think it’s true to itself, or that helps them express who they are? Ybrands can help you start to address these questions today, so you’re not playing catch-up tomorrow.

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Spoiler Alert: Lots and lots of spoilers! If you haven’t listened to the S-Town podcast, and don’t want major details of the story ruined for you, please avoid reading this post. You’ve been warned. Seriously though this will totally ruin it for you so don’t read it.

Over the weekend my wife and I devoured all seven simultaneously-released episodes of S-Town, the new podcast from Serial and This American Life which launched on March 28.

The following hastily-written-and-probably-too-long blog post encapsulates my initial reaction after listening to all seven episodes straight through over three days. It’s not an episode recap; I haven’t spoken to anyone else about S-Town except for my wife; and I haven’t looked up anything about what critics or fans have said about it so far. As a result, I may get some of the details wrong, but these are some of the questions I thought about over and over again after finishing S-Town.

Why did Serial and This American Life launch the series the way they did?
I had no idea S-Town was even coming out. I may have read some rumblings about a season 3 of Serial at some point, but when my wife told me she just found out the third season had just been released, I didn’t believe her. It turns out she was right–sort of.

S-Town was apparently produced by Serial and This American Life, but was not being billed as Serial s3. Instead, S-Town is its own free-standing, seven-episode podcast. Here’s the description of S-Town from its official website:

John despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.

I subscribe to about 20 podcasts, many of them produced by NPR, so it was hard to believe a new podcast like S-Town, with public radio pedigree, would have flown under my radar.

Was this intentional?
Part of what made Serial’s first season so successful–besides that awesome Mail Chimp sponsorship–was that it came out of nowhere. Most listeners didn’t know anything about the story of Adnan Syed, they likely hadn’t heard of Sarah Koenig, and some probably hadn’t ever listened to a podcast before. Then Serial punched us in the face with some of the best storytelling you’ll find in any medium, and we were blown away.

On the heels of a great season 1, season 2 had high expectations. Some fans, including myself, even donated money to NPR/Serial to help Koenig make season 2. Without getting into detail about why season 2 was disappointing, suffice it to say it was a letdown for most fans expecting as compelling and labyrinthine a story as we got in season 1.

For those reasons, perhaps, Serial and TAL decided to keep a low profile, and release S-Town as own entity, with little fanfare and only a loose connection to Serial–allowing fans like me to go in with tempered expectations. To borrow a five-dollar word from S-Town’s subject, John Brooks McLemore, I’m guessing producers saw what happened with s2 and took a proleptic* approach to S-Town’s release to guard against such high expectations and let S-Town be judged on its own merit.

*Prolepsis: a rhetorical tool in which one anticipates possible objections in order to answer them in advance. John B uses this word in the first episode; Brian admits he had to look it up.

And why all seven episodes at once?
I go back to the failure of s2 of Serial again on this one. The reporting of the story as they learned it was what made Serial s1 so great, but s2 felt like it was poorly planned, with the cadence of new episodes changing from one week to two, as they were simultaneously updating us (and then not updating us) on the story from s1. I believe they released all seven episodes of S-Town to “prove” that the story had been fully reported on and was now a completed season we could consume all at once or spaced out however we want. This isn’t a new tactic; Netflix does this all the time with its original content. I wouldn’t be surprised if they realized Serial s3 the same way.

What was the actual timeline for the events that take place in S-Town?
From what I recall, John B first contacted Brian in 2014, they had a phone call a few months later, and eventually Brian went to visit John B in Alabama. I believe the first visit was at some point in 2015.

S1 of Serial ran from October to December 2014. Did John B contact NPR, or Serial, during that season or after? Did the reporters and/or producers involved think they might use John B’s alleged claim about an unreported murder as a season of Serial? If not, it seems strange that Brian would even bother to investigate John B’s story–though when I heard John B and Brian’s first phone call, I assumed he was providing accurate information.

And how deep into the story did Brian decide that John B’s story was podcast-worthy? And how did he decide to continue reporting after John B’s claims had been proven false? Why did he decide to continue reporting after John B died? Did he wait until he had everything he needed before deciding how to organize the information and tell the story across seven “chapters”?

I guess the question I’m really asking is…

Did Brian just get really lucky that John B–in life and in death–was as interesting as he was? Or does Brian–and the people who sign his checks–deserve credit for sticking with the story?
Like any other successful endeavor in life, it seems like this was a combination of luck and skill. Brian’s reporting of this story is tremendous, but the story of John B. McLemore was delivered on a silver platter. But give him credit for seeing that silver platter under a ratty Benjamin Moore t-shirt.

Did John B really call Faye as he was committing suicide? 
Maybe Serial s1 trained me to question everything, but without a call log or audio of John B calling Faye, I’m not 100% convinced he did. Faye doesn’t really give us a reason to doubt her, except that she didn’t get in touch with the first seven people on John B’s contact list–which he hand-delivered to her for this very reason–to let them know John B had died. Was this forgetfulness or laziness on her part? Was John’s lawyer, Boozer Downs, involved somehow in some sort of cover-up?

Or is the more logical explanation simply that Faye unintentionally let the task of calling John B’s contacts fall through the cracks? Given how much John B entrusted Faye to carry out his posthumous requests, I just can’t get past this error, but the idea that it was part of a greater conspiracy to steal from him seems far-fetched.

Did Tyler steal the gold? Was there any gold? What did he tell Brian off the record in the final episode?
I kept going back and forth about whether there was any buried treasure, but if anyone knew about it besides Faye (who said it John B had gold bars wrapped in a towel in the freezer) I figured it would be Tyler. Did he take it when he went to the house to gather John B’s valuables so the Florida cousins couldn’t get to them?

When Brian asks Tyler if he ever found the buried treasure, and Tyler asks him to turn off the recorder before answering, it’s implied that he found something. I’d almost rather not know this conversation took place if I can’t know what was said!

Was Tyler a con-man? Was he feigning affection for John B, knowing he could take advantage of the situation? Did Tyler egg John B on to kill himself while he was drunk, as Rita (the Florida cousin) suggested?
I don’t think Tyler was there when John B killed himself, and I think he may even be telling the truth when he said he refused to go over to John B’s the night he killed himself, even after John B told Tyler he was going to commit suicide.

I do wonder if Tyler was fed up with John B after we learned about John B’s “church” ritual of asking Tyler to mutilate his body with tattoos, piercings, and later whippings. If I’m Tyler, I might have taken a little something for my trouble after John B had passed away, knowing I’d more than enough to earn it.

So are we just assuming John B’s depression was brought on by mercury poisoning from his unsafe practice of fire-gilding over 30+ years?
It certainly seems that way, but I can’t help but wonder if Brian asked five other doctors, he might find a few who would say John B was just depressed, and they couldn’t conclude with certainty that it was related to the mercury. Of course it doesn’t really matter except to add yet another layer of complexity to an already complex character.

How should we take the information delivered in Brian’s coda?
After we hear an excerpt from John B’s suicide note, we assume the series is over. But then Brian layers one remaining piece of information that may or may not color our view of John B, Shit Town, and really the whole story we just heard.

When Brian tells us that John B’s great-grandfather built his fortune on the backs of the neighbors he stole from, he’s implying, in my view, that John B’s expansive patch of land, his home, his garden maze, and every material possession he has–including, perhaps, some hidden gold–was ill-gotten.

Does Brian want us to think John B is a hypocrite, that for all his rants about his town’s state of dysfunction, it was people like his own great-grandfather that made it this way? Or does this answer the question of why John B, for as much as he hates Shit Town, has never left? Or why he’s driven to right all the perceived wrongs of his fellow man, including those in his town, as a way of canceling out the evil deeds of his family?

I agree with the decision to save this information for later in the story, so that it doesn’t bias us against John B and we’re free to form our own opinion of him regardless of what his family did three generations before. But I might have liked some more detail around his family history. I wonder if Brian found this information too late to add it somewhere else in the story, so he stuck it at the end.

What was S-Town? And was it good
Genres are tricky sometimes. People starting calling Serial a “true crime” podcast, and it was, but the real-time nature of it, the way the story evolve as Sarah Koenig told it, made it something special.

Was S-Town simply a biography of an unusual man started when he was alive and finished after he died? Was it an obituary? Or was it simply an experiment in storytelling, in audio journalism?

I kind of don’t care what it was. And I don’t care that we don’t really have a resolution about John’s hidden treasure, or Tyler, or Faye, or the cousins, or even John’s mother, Mary Grace, who was supposedly flourishing once she was out of John B’s care.

Having been trained by Serial to follow a story so closely for months, only to be deprived of the closure I knew all along I wouldn’t get, I didn’t expect closure with S-Town, either. But I went along for the ride anyway, and I was glad I did.

What did you think?

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Remember Jeremy Lin?

In April 2012 I wrote a blog post about the excitement surrounding the emergence of Lin, the Asian-American Harvard graduate turned starting point guard for the New York Knicks.

By then the “Linsanity” that had overtaken New York City and the basketball world for a few months over the winter had all but died down. Lin would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury and later eventually sign with another team, where he performed well below Linsanity levels.

I got to thinking about Jeremy Lin as I was thinking about the upcoming final episode of Serial, the country’s most popular podcast about a 1999 murder. Serial’s final episode will be available for download on Thursday morning.

The series has elevated the audio format, and has generated interest of all kinds. Besides the Reddit community and others like it, who have no shortage of theories, we have others debating whether Serial is ethical. Whether it’s technically journalism. Whether it should exist at all. (Also, whether it’s okay for a brand to joke about it on Twitter.)

From what I’ve been reading online, most listeners believe there will be no real closure to the story. Serial’s host Sarah Koenig will likely end the show’s first season having accomplished nothing—i.e., nothing but entertain her audience for the last three months.

(Speaking of the end of Serial, here’s my own crackpot theory: Jay had a far bigger role in the murder than he admitted to police, and quite possibly framed Adnan knowing Adnan was an easy target. I say easy target because Adnan was Muslim in a mostly non-Muslim Maryland area—which was clearly a factor for some of the jurorsand Adnan was the victim’s ex-boyfriend. Also, Jay could count on the state’s star witness—himself—to push the investigation away from himself and towards Adnan, meanwhile getting himself a plea deal (and free lawyer) for cooperating with the state. Not crackpot-y enough for ya? I also feel like the popularity of the Scream movies back in the late 1990s somehow played into the idea of this real life 1999 high school murder where someone else may have been framed for the crime.)

Like Jeremy Lin, Serial will go on to play another season. (Thanks to listener donations the show can fund another Serial story—that is, if Sarah Koenig can ever recover from the first one.)

Jeremy Lin hasn’t come close to approximating the excitement he created in New York in 2012; he’s been extremely average as a basketball player. For Serial’s part, I think a second season with an equally specious story—maybe another intriguing cold case, maybe something else entirely—could be great. Will it be great as the first season? Maybe—but probably not.

Perhaps Serial’s legacy, more than its Linsanity-like excitement in the fall of 2014, will be that it opens the door for other would-be podcasters to create long-form, high quality, episodic, intellectual content that people will actual listen to, without producers having to worry about trying to sell audiences on a new (if not recycled) concept. “It’s gonna be the next Serial,” would be their oft-repeated—if slightly exaggerated—mantra.

As for the last episode of Serial’s first season, I haven’t been as pumped for a finale since Breaking Bad’s last episode in 2013. Serial won’t be wrapped up as neatly as I’d like it to be, i.e. Adnan is clearly guilty or clearly innocent based on new evidence Koenig has been holding back from us.

But that’s not really the point anymore.

Got a Serial theory? Let’s hear it.

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If you’re a frequent visitor to this blog you may start to notice a couple of changes to the site, which I’d like to quickly address.

I recently purchased the URL 250squarefeet.com. I know bobbycalise.wordpress.com has such a nice ring to it, but I figured I’d mix it up a bit. As I mention in the About This Blog section, this is a reference to the size of my first apartment in Manhattan.

I’m experimenting with some advertising on the site. I don’t expect it to be too intrusive or take away from the reading experience overall.

While I still plan to publish personal essays like “The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Tradition” and “I Will Never Run the New York City Marathon,” I am shifting my focus a bit to concentrate more on small business. I will profile small businesses, and write about experiences I have had with small businesses from the customer POV. Additionally, I will be doing more TV episode recaps of shows like Shark Tank and The Profit. I realize these sorts of posts may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s where I’m headed.

If I haven’t done so already by the time you read this, I am planning to change the look of the blog just to freshen things up.

For everyone who’s been following my blog up to this point, I thank you tremendously. It’s hardly a get-rich-quick scheme, but I love doing it when I have time and something to say. As always, you’re welcome to respond in the comments section.

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A few weeks back I blogged about my latest audio obsession, the new Taylor Swift album the Serial podcast.

At that time I made a couple of predictions about the podcast, which have since come true.

My first prediction was “plot” driven—with plot in quotes because this is actually a real-life murder, not a prime time procedural. (It’s also WAY more provocative than the average prime time procedural.) I said that the story Serial’s Sarah Koenig is telling would evolve as people familiar with and/or involved in the case hear the podcast and reach out to her with their input. Sure enough, in episode #9, this happened.

A former classmate of the then-teenagers involved in the case contacted Koenig to refute, with confidence, the prosecutor’s timeline for the murder. This “witness” coming forward was a direct result of her hearing the podcast and wanted to contribute some information she believed Koenig (and the police) didn’t already have.

For the man who sits in jail convicted of murder, Adnan Sayed, it’s not clear whether these out of court testimonies 15 years later will ultimately help or hurt his case, but I suppose they can’t make things much worse for him.

(I also recently came across an article about the complicated ethics of Serial that’s definitely worth a read for fans–even if, like me, you disagree with it.)

The second prediction I made was about the business side of Serial. Serial is a free podcast whose first season has been funded by This American Life, a syndicated public radio show that relies on donations and scant advertising partners (Mail Kimp, anyone?) to keep itself on the air. (Serial is a spin-off of This American Life and debuted its pilot episode on TAL.)

I predicted/suggested that Serial would/should charge something—anything!—for downloads of its episodes. What better time to do it than now, when Serial is the #1 podcast on iTunes? People are clearly into the show, and the mainstream media (plus my blog!) is taking notice.

But rather than charging for episode downloads–now that they have us completely at the mercy of Sarah Koenig’s storytelling (including those bits and pieces she undoubtedly knows but has yet to share)–Serial is doing what public radio usually does: they have asked, rather than required, listeners to contribute money to fund a second season of the show. The suggested donation is $10, which can be done by simply texting SERIAL to 25383.

With the constant debates about how much is too much to pay for content—the cable bundle debate in particular—I think $10 to help fund a show of Serial’s quality is a steal. So far I’ve listened to about five hours of Serial content (all nine episodes of the show) and Koenig has yet to set a final end date or number of episodes for season 1.

Last year I opted not to give money to Zach Braff’s Kickstarter campaign to fund his movie I Wish I Was Here, which was eventually funded without me and made into a pretty good movie. The basis for my decision was that it isn’t my job as the potential consumer to fund the making of creative endeavor such as a film; instead it’s my job to decide, based on trailers, reviews, as well as the creator’s previous body of work (in this case one of my favorite films, Garden State, whether to pay to see the film once it’s made. And that’s what I did.

Serial has given us nine free episodes. Fans have heard enough to know just how good it is. Now it’s on us, by donating a few bucks, to see how good it can be in season two.

Are you a fan of the show? Do you plan to help fund a second season of Serial? Why or why not?

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Of all the entertainment media competing for my attention–hundreds of cable channels, Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter–its a modest little public radio podcast that’s got me completely consumed.

You may have heard of Serial (more likely you haven’t), a  podcast off-shoot of the more well known National Public Radio (a.k.a. NPR) show and podcast, This American Life (TAL), hosted by Ira Glass.

I’m a regular TAL listener, so when I downloaded episode #537, “The Alibi,” I was expecting the usual radio magazine-style fare TAL produces each week–that is, four or five stories tied to that episode’s theme. But this time TAL was trying something a little different.

The episode was actually Serial‘s first episode. Rather than producing a new episode around a new theme each week, reporter and Serial host Sarah Koenig tells a new chapter of the same story, one about a high school kid named Adnan Syed who in 1999 was convicted of strangling his classmate and ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

Koenig was made aware of Adnan’s story by a friend of Adnan’s family last year. Once she started digging, she couldn’t stop. So as Adnan Sayed sits in jail for a crime he (maybe) didn’t commit, Koenig has been working to uncover any fishy details about the case that might prove his innocence–or guilt.

With what I’ve told you so far, the show admittedly sounds like something from a network TV legal drama. But if you listen to the show–and I’m urging everyone who reads this to listen to the show–Koenig’s tireless investigation and simple-yet-compelling storytelling style will hook you in, and you’ll be like me–waiting around for Thursday mornings, when the latest episodes of Serial are available for download.

As we listen to Koenig’s investigation unfold each week, we’re still not quite sure what to think about Adnan. Koenig is going about her reporting professionally and impartially as far as we can tell, but I would guess she wants Adnan to be innocent of Hae’s murder. (I would guess a lot of Serial listeners feel the same way.) And some–but not all–the evidence she gathers suggests that maybe, just maybe, the police and the court system got it wrong and Koenig is a few weeks of research (and podcasts) away from cracking the case wide open and springing Adnan from his prison cell, where he’s been for 15 years.

I’ve spoken to a handful of people about the show–I’ve also avoided most of the media around it, for fear of spoilers–and the sense I’m getting is that Sarah must know more than she’s letting on. She must have everything neatly laid out on a storyboard and is rolling information out in bits and pieces to keep us tuning in each week. And why wouldn’t she? How could she go into this thing telling this true story of a (possibly) wrongly convicted man without knowing what the ending is?

Well perhaps this is the biggest twist in the series so far: she doesn’t know what the ending is.

In an interview with Vulture published on Thursday, the same day Serial‘s sixth episode became available, Sarah admitted that she doesn’t know where the story is going. Here’s what she said in the Vulture interview:

I am not playing all of you. If you guys only knew how this is put together. I’m not far ahead of you. Episode Five just aired, and I just did a first draft of Episode Six this afternoon, so I am pretty much creating this thing in real time now. Yes, I could say, there was a point where I thought I knew the truth. And then I found out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and I did more reporting, and now I don’t know what I don’t know again! Are you mad at me? Don’t be mad at me!

That’s nuts! It also might be genius.

I’ve railed on many a fictional TV show for not knowing where the story ends and making dozens more episodes than the story actually needs simply because it’s profitable. But in the case of Serial, a non-fiction series, not having an ending (yet) might be the smartest thing they could do. For one, they’ve eliminated the chance of spoilers online because A) Koenig likely knows more about this case than anyone in the world and even she doesn’t know everything; and B) it brings tremendous credibility to the series in that Koenig is reporting a lot of these as she learns them herself rather than having a chance to over-produce and edit the crap out of it, like you see on so many “reality” TV shows these days.

What’s also fascinating about the show is what it’s doing for the medium of radio–or more generally any audio platform. Serial storytelling is a throwback to the olden days before TV. I find myself amazed at how engaged I am while listening to Serial, which is nothing but talking and some sparse background music. I’m not quite ready to cancel my cable, but it’s nice to be reminded that if the story itself is good enough, it doesn’t really matter what the medium is. (By the way, Serial is the #1 podcast on iTunes in the U.S. right now.)

(I shouldn’t be giving the Serial people any ideas, but they probably should be thinking about monetizing right now, if not for this season/story than the next. TAL relies heavily on donations, along with a handful of advertisers. If ever there was a time to start charging per episode, or per series, it’s now. Hell, I’d pay it.)

Of course Serial‘s uncertain status (re: its ending) is a tremendous risk. If Koenig makes 12, 15, or even 30 episodes of the series as the story continues to become more and more complex–I can also easily see more potential witnesses coming out of the woodwork when they hear the show–and at the end of it all there’s nothing but speculation about Adnan’s guilt, what was the point?

In my estimation there are going to be two schools of thought if the Adnan Syed story ends without a resolution:

  • The people who will have enjoyed the ride so much that the unlearned truth won’t matter as much as the journey to get there.
  • The people who will be furious because they “wasted” so many hours waiting for some absolute closure that never comes.

Like many listeners out there, I want to see Koenig’s indefatigable efforts lead to Adnan’s conviction being overturned–while also finding Hae’s true killer. (Or, if Sarah finds enough evidence against Adnan that it’s impossible not to believe he did it, I’d be okay with that, too.)

But I don’t know if we’ll get that. And I don’t know what a lack of an irrefutable ending will mean for the next season of Serial. Will we demand that Sarah gets all the way to the finish line before we start listening to how she got there? Or will we double-down on Serial, knowing that Koenig is as much along for the ride as we are?

I highly recommend you check out Serial at http://serialpodcast.org/ (Don’t know how to listen to podcasts? Watch this video in which Ira Glass teaches his elderly friend how to do it: http://serialpodcast.org/how-to-listen)

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From the time I moved to the post-college paradise that is Hoboken, New Jersey, in 2006, until the day I moved out of the oft-flooded mile-square city in 2008, I’d never heard of Buddy Valastro.

I also didn’t know much about his bakery, Carlo’s Bake Shop, though I’d walked past it hundreds of times on Hoboken’s main drag, Washington Street. With its picturesque storefront window and classic gold on maroon signage, Carlo’s always felt very upscale from the outside; it was the kind of place that someone like me, who routinely ate mac and cheese with cut-up hot dogs for dinner, should walk right past without a second glance.

But what I also didn’t know was this: that behind that fancy storefront window I’d been so intimated by, Buddy Valastro was busy building an empire.

Having his cake…
It was my fiancée who introduced me to Valastro’s cable reality show, Cake Boss, in 2009. The show is about a family-owned bakery in Hoboken starring the son of the bakery’s late owner, Bartolo “Buddy” Valastro Sr.

Buddy Jr.’s supporting cast is made up of the other people who work in the bakery, many of them related to him by blood or marriage. They play innocuous pranks on each other, bicker like family often does, and produce elaborate works of edible art in each episode.

Even since the TLC show debuted, I would guess the bakery still sells more pastries like cannoli, cupcakes, and lobster tails than it does its $25,000 masterpieces. Yet it’s the higher profile clients and cakes that the show centers around; they represent a new challenge to Buddy and his bakers in each episode.


Always bet on red…velvet! Am I right??? (Photo credit: http://www.mediaglare.wordpress.com)

Cake Boss, which begun its sixth season this past Memorial Day, is a lot like the storefront window at Carlo’s in that it’s been a showcase for the talents of Buddy and his staff. They’ve made everything from a wedding cake that was fitted to house two live doves, to a roulette table and wheel cake for a local men’s social club. (For Cake Boss‘s “Top 5 Most Impressive Cakes,” click here.)

Upon each cake’s delivery on the show, often by Buddy himself, the client thanks the Cake Boss effusively for using his artistic medium, cake, to transform their vision into a gorgeous and delicious homage to the person, place or thing they’re celebrating. And Buddy, always modest and deferential, seems to understand that the client isn’t really a customer, but a patron of the arts who allows him to make a lucrative living doing what he loves to do.

…and Eating It, Too
For many of us, it would have been enough to propel our family’s mom-and-pop bake shop into a multi-million dollar business with its own accompanying reality show. But Buddy, so it appears, is far more ambitious than his goofy, avuncular, PG-rated disposition might suggest.

The Next Great Baker, his competition reality show, just wrapped up its third season in February 2013. From 2011 to 2012 he hosted two seasons of yet another TLC show called Kitchen Boss, a cooking show where Buddy traded in eggs, sugar and flower for tomato sauce, pasta and meatballs, and shared his family’s Italian food recipes.

Meanwhile, after opening up another facility at the Lackawanna Center in Jersey City to keep up with the high volume of national orders–more voluminous thanks to Cake Boss‘s popularity–he has since expanded, opening a second Carlo’s Bake Shop in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He’s also got a small shop in Times Square. I get the sense he won’t stop there.

Sure, A&E’s Duck Dynasty may have stolen some of the cable reality headlines recently. The hit show has emerged as a ratings machine, beating everything in the Wednesday 10 pm time slot including broadcast network programming.

Like Willie Robertson, the CEO of Duck Commander born into a family whose patriarch started a modest duck call business, Valastro has benefited by being at the right place–and in the right family–at the right time, as the oldest son of a baker with his own bake shop. And yes, if you asked Valastro he might tell you how blessed he feels to be where he is today. But it hasn’t been all roses for Valastro, who lost his father in 1994 and whose mother, as documented on Cake Boss, was recently diagnosed with ALS.

Yet the Cake Boss machine rolls on, all Buddy’s hard work seemingly less about avarice than about honoring the family tradition he was destined to carry on.

Taking His Talents to Upstate New York
Despite everything on his cake plate, Buddy is apparently still up for a new challenge.

Joining Restaurant Impossible‘s Robert Irvine and Hotel Impossibles Anthony Melchiorri, Buddy Valastro is looking to become the next star in reality TV’s small business renovation sub-genre. After all, if you needed advice on running your family-owned bakery, wouldn’t Valastro be the first guy you’d want to talk to?

In the premiere episode of his latest TLC show, Bakery Boss, last Monday night, Valastro visited Friendly Bake Shop upstate in Frankfort, New York. (About 200 miles away from Carlo’s, Friendly is safely outside Valastro’s customer base. For now.)

Friendly Bake Shop after the Buddy treatment.

Friendly Bake Shop after the Buddy treatment. (Photo credit: herkimertelegram.com)

With three old, tired men at the helm of Friendly and their three grown children working devotedly (but fecklessly) for them, it seemed that the former were lacking energy to keep the bakery going, while the latter were lacking the know-how. Buddy’s visit was their last chance to turn things around.

As you might expect with any episode in this genre–as we’ve seen so many made-for-reality-TV miracles performed by Irvine and Melchiorri before–Buddy shapes up Friendly Bake Shop in just a few days. He demands a full cleaning of the shop and its equipment, revises the menu with some of his own best-sellers and shows the staff how to make them, and renovates the storefront to look more like Carlo’s than a crappy dive bar in the middle of nowhere.

Early reports say the shop is now flourishing since the episode aired, though Yelp has just one review from someone in California.

Success Story or Sell-Out?
Former New York Yankee great Yogi Berra once reportedly said about a popular restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Many of us can relate to the idea of liking things before it was cool. Our favorite indie band gets mainstream radio airplay, and suddenly we can’t get tickets to their concerts. Our favorite TV show, which so aptly captured the zeitgeist of people our age, suddenly got popular among the masses and became prosaic beyond recognition.

So should we stop rooting for guys like Buddy, who was once a great upstart story but has since saturated the market with pre-made cakes sold in grocery stores, a line of baking equipment, and enough TV shows to start his own cable network? There’s no right answer to that, of course, but for me it’s always felt strange rooting for the underdog only until they’re not the underdog anymore.

En route to our Memorial Day weekend away at the beach, my fiancée and I stopped off at Carlo’s to get some treats before getting onto the New Jersey Turnpike.

Arriving on Friday morning, we hoped they would still have plenty of their signature coffee cake–my fiancee’s mom’s favorite–with the crumbs the size of small boulders. Our only concern, with a tight schedule and a long drive ahead, was the length of the line.

As it turns out we were right to be concerned. We had apparently showed up just a few minutes behind a bus full of tourists who had made a special trip to wait on line at the famous bakery from TV. They were queued up along the sidewalk, blocking the path of Hoboken residents whose formerly cute little local Italian bakery was now a nuisance to walk past.

We chose not to wait. In that moment we would have loved to have pulled up and seen no line so we could get in and out. I’m sure Buddy would disagree.

I’ll still be rooting from Buddy from afar, like a high school friend I don’t speak to but keep up with all the goings on in their life via Facebook. In the meantime there’s no shortage of up-and-coming reality stars to latch onto, perhaps even the next Buddy Valastro.

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Zach Braff has been in the news a lot over the last month.

Braff, the main character on NBC comedy Scrubs and of the surprise 2004 hit film Garden State which he wrote, directed and starred in (and of which I have a poster in my apartment), wanted to make another film as a long-awaited follow-up to Garden State. But to do that he needed money, apparently, and so he took to Kickstarter.


It’s been mentioned in nearly every article about Zach Braff’s Kickstarter project that the would-be makers of a Veronica Mars film tried this first, and were wildly successful. Kickstarter, which allows people to go online and ask for help funding their business projects, got the Veronica Mars people to their goal of $2 million…plus another $3.7 million on top of that.

Using a similar formula, Zach Braff took to Kickstarter to appeal to his fan base–myself included–to help finance his next project, a film called Wish I Was Here. Braff explained  on the site that he needed $2 million from fans to get the movie made in the way he wanted to make it, rather than going through the traditional channels, i.e. financiers, who would then dictate the way he made the film, i.e. final cut.

I was a little skeptical that a TV and movie star didn’t have enough cash of his own or enough juice in Hollywood (or enough rich friends he could trust) to get a movie made without appealing to fans to pay for it ahead of time. Still, as long-time fan of Braff’s, I seriously considered donating $10, 20, or even $50 to the campaign to see the thing get made. After all, it was likely that the movie he ended up making would be the kind I would want to see. More than that, Braff was giving away a variety of items, from Braff-autographed merch to advanced online screenings of Wish I Was Here to tickets for the movie’s premieres in major cities.

But in the end, I decided not to contribute because of the following three tenets which I believe to be true:

  • It is not the responsibility of the audience–whether that audience is made up of loyal fans or someone who’s never seen an artist’s work–to fund an artist’s creative projects before those projects have been completed.
  • Once the project is completed it is then the audience’s choice, not their responsibility, to support the project (i.e. purchase a movie ticket) once they know enough about the finished product to make an educated decision (e.g. viewing the trailer or reading reviews).
  • Should an artist ask someone–either the average person or a wealthy financier–to invest in their work in progress before it is created, that investor should have the opportunity to make a profit from their investment.

On that last point, Braff addresses it in his Kickstarter in the FAQs:

Current SEC laws prevent Kickstarter from offering equity or financial returns. As Kickstarter explains in Kickstarter Basics: “Project creators keep 100% ownership of their work.  Kickstarter cannot be used to offer financial returns or equity, or solicit loans.  Some projects that are funded on Kickstarter may go on to make money, but backers are supporting projects to help them come to life, not financially profit.”

Fine, I guess. Though I didn’t contribute to the campaign, I was glad it got its $2 million, and vowed–pending the reviews, which I expect to be largely positive–to see the film when it is completed. (I also look forward to some day when I can invest in a film like I would a stock, and potentially see a financial return on my investment.)

But then this past week a story came out about the project: Zach Braff is getting money from financiers after all.

Was Zach Braff misleading his backers? Did he not really need that $2 million at all, and was just trying to keep from having to pull it from his own pockets? Is Zach Braff a dick?

Well, not really. In his original Kickstarter he noted that “With a combination of my own personal funds, backing from my fans and the sale of some of the film’s foreign rights, I will be able to make the film I intended to make which I am hoping is a film you want to see.”

This is classic fine print and was readily available to any would-be Kickstarter backer who cared to read it. From what I gather on the internet, the world’s most reliable source of information, everything here is above board. Braff later “hit back,” as the tabloids say, at the negative story with his own response on Kickstarter. It essentially said that this was the plan all along, that nothing has changed from the original Kickstarter campaign, and that haters gon’ hate no matter what and not to get caught up in the negativity.

The sketchy dealings of the movie business aside–of which I know about solely from watching HBO’s Entourage–Braff’s trying something different in virtually uncharted waters. He’s doing what he believes he needs to do to make the best film possible, and we can hardly fault him for that.

But if we (myself included) decide that we don’t like what Braff is trying to do with his film, there’s no shortage of movie sequels and prequels and threequels and remakes and reboots of films that Hollywood wants you to see instead. Speaking of which, Fast & Furious 7 starts filming this summer.

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The movies is a term that’s generally associated with long lines on Friday and Saturday nights at multiplexes and megaplexes, big-budget summer blockbusters, and giant tubs of butter-doused popcorn. But for the subculture of so-called “art house” moviegoers, which eschews nearly all of those things (save for, perhaps, the popcorn) the movies means something entirely different. This other type of moviegoer isn’t there for big explosions or surround sound; no, they just want to be told a compelling story and will often go to great lengths to find one.

If you weren’t looking for the Cinema Arts Centre, you might never notice it. Tucked away on the suburban side streets of Huntington, Long Island, the single-level building looks like it might be a library or a community center or maybe a day care facility–anything but a movie theater.

In 1973 two film-loving ex-Manhattanites, Vic Skolnick and Charlotte Sky, started their New Community Cinema–which later became the Cinema Arts Centre–with little more than a projector borrowed from the public library and a bed sheet hung on the wall of a friend’s dance studio.

“It’s hard to picture how little was going on in the suburbs,” says Dylan Skolnick, CAC co-director and son of Vic and Charlotte, about Long Island in the 1970s. “Here was chain theaters with new movies, that was it. No cable, no DVDs, no VHS. Just The Late Show on TV. Instead of grumbling and being miserable, they started showing movies.”

The Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, Long Island. (Photo courtesy of petrocelliinc.com).

Ginger Polisner and her husband Stuart, who sponsor two annual events at the theater, have been CAC members for over 30 years. “We had seen a small ad somewhere and we were looking for something different to do,” says Mrs. Polisner, recounting the first time they attended one of Vic and Charlotte’s film nights. “We watched a film about freedom fighters. The film kept breaking, so everyone would huddle over a fire escape, smoke cigarettes, and wait for them to fix the film. The bed sheet would move, the subtitles weren’t legible. [Afterwards] we looked at one another and said, ‘I don’t know what they put in the water, but we gotta go back to that place.’”

Today, with 8,000 members, the CAC is a long way from bed sheets and borrowed equipment. Originally “membership” entailed a suggested donation of $1 to help rent the following week’s film reel; a CAC membership now costs $55 annually and includes discounted tickets ($6 versus the non-member price of $11). For their part, the CAC–a nonprofit organization–gets cash up front to pour back into the theater.

“When you come to see Moonrise Kingdom, 50% of every dollar goes to Focus Features–we  only get to keep half,” says Skolnick. “When you buy a membership, it’s all ours to use on the many, many bills and expenses we have.” But membership fees are not just about paying the bills, says Skolnick. “We want people to feel that when they become a member, that they’re a part of our cinema family and they have involvement and feel like it’s their place.”

Though movie theaters large and small must give a large chunk of their ticket sales back to the studios, they get to keep their earnings from concessions sales. This is why moviegoers see such huge markups on items like soda, candy and popcorn at most chain movie theaters. But the CAC even does its food a little differently. Sure, they sell popcorn–organic popcorn–but their menu also includes soups, salads, wraps, and even quiche. By way of movie “candy,” they offer a variety of gourmet-style pastries and snacks. The CAC also has an intriguing weekday special: for $28, filmgoers get lunch, a movie, and a post-screening discussion with Charlotte and Dylan.

As you might guess, an art house theater like the CAC tends to skew older in terms of demographics. “The older audience is undervalued,” says Skolnick. “The younger audience might have a lot of other things they might be doing. They’re fickle.”

One attempt to expand its audience base is the CAC’s Youth Advisory Board, a project designed to engage a young film fans in the community thorough a special film series. Board members will help program the films, promote events, and fundraise.  The CAC also participates in the Summer Camp Cinema Series, which features cult classic double features during summer Friday nights such as The Matrix and Inception, to draw a younger crowd to the theater.

Jacob Stebel, 30, has been a large part of the CAC’s youth movement. Stebel has worked full-time for the CAC since he was 23, and had been a patron before that since age 15. An amateur filmmaker himself, Stebel even premiered his own film, Freaks Nerds and Romantics, at the CAC in 2010. “Vic Skolnick … gave us advice all the way through,” says Stebel about the late CAC co-founder, who passed away in June 2010. “The cinema is a fantastic resource for filmmakers. Our [theater] directors have seen more films than anyone you’ve ever met. Who better to critique your film?”

The CAC has seen many talented and notable filmmakers and actors pass through its doors over the years, from Ang Lee to Spike Lee, Carol Burnett, Steve Buscemi and Tony Shalhoub. “That’s the ace up our sleeve,” says Stebel, who believes events like these, for which someone associated with the film is invited to speak, can draw a broader audience to the theater and add value beyond just the film itself.

“I always say [the CAC] is the place my parents thought they sent me to get a college degree,” says Mrs. Polisner about the education she’s received from the theater over the years. “[College] didn’t prepare me for life the way the Cinema has. Every side of political issues, economic, environmental. Speakers from all over the world, all walks of life, actors, filmmakers, musicians, anthropologists, scientists, the Tuskegee airmen before anyone knew about them.”

Despite a loyal following and a slew of famous friends, running this or any independent theater in 2012 is not without its challenges. As movie studios are on the brink of moving exclusively to digital prints–meaning no more physical film reels–smaller theaters without the resources to upgrade to digital projectors may start to disappear.

Digital projectors, according to Skolnick, run about $70,000 apiece–meaning it would cost about $200,000 in total to upgrade his three auditoriums. “It’s unfortunate. Technology changes, the world changes. You have to move forward,” says Skolnick. On its website, the CAC has launched the Digital Cinema Campaign in an effort to raise money for its new projectors with donations from the community. (At this writing, the CAC has collected about $60,000 in donations.)

That fundraising campaign may be bittersweet for some of the long-time members like the Polisners when it comes to exposing the hidden gem they’ve enjoyed for so many years. “The Cinema is still a secret that we both want to share and guard jealously,” says Mrs. Polisner.

Still, Skolnick seems confident that the CAC is staying put, no matter what challenges it may face. “I think we’re gonna be alright.”

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