January 17, 2008
KCRW gives us ‘The Business’
In an underground office on the campus of Santa Monica College, Claude Brodesser-Akner is working with his producer, Matt Holzman, and associate producer, Darby Maloney, to describe the current status of the Oscar broadcast -- and work in a pun. |
Finally, Brodesser-Akner says, with some satisfaction, "The Oscars are mired."
Welcome to the world of "The Business," a half-hour syndicated radio program devoted to the nuts and bolts of the entertainment industry (pun intended), hosted by Brodesser-Akner each week since June 2004. Produced by KCRW-FM 89.9 in Santa Monica, the show is distributed nationally to public radio stations.
On the show, Brodesser-Akner explores, surveys and comments on all facets of the entertainment business, reaching out to executives, producers and artists, as well as other journalists, that he might not otherwise know, deepening his -- and in the process, our -- understanding of what is occurring in Hollywood on a weekly basis.
Between drafts of the script for this week's broadcast, which involves a lot of cutting and arguments among Brodesser-Akner and his producers about meaning, nuance, as well as the insertion and deletion of more puns, Brodesser-Akner and I repair to a side office to hear his story.
Long before his 2006 marriage to Taffy Akner, the former West Coast director of education for mediabistro.com, and taking on a hyphenated last name, Brodesser, 35, grew up in Centerport, Long Island, a good Catholic boy. The son of German immigrants, he attended parochial school at St. Phillip Neri in Northport and St. Anthony's High School in Huntington.
At the liberal-arts-oriented Skidmore College, he led a peer-to-peer writing program that taught expository writing, and after graduation, took on a gig teaching English in China as part of a sister school program founded by a former Shakespeare professor.
Returning to New York -- by his own account, he "washed ashore, indigent," Brodesser launched into a series of internships that, in hindsight, each "presaged the imminent demise of editors." Kurt Andersen departed New York Magazine shortly after Brodesser arrived; arts editor Karen Dubin exited The Village Voice the week he started; and at the Charlie Rose public television program, the woman he was supposed to report to never appeared, even on his first day.
Nonetheless, in 1996, Brodesser landed his first paying job at Mediaweek magazine, covering TV broadcast stations at what turned out to be an interesting time.
"It was just after the telecom bill was passed," a period that saw a great agglomeration of local stations and outlets.
Brodesser's next stop was at Variety's New York edition, where in keeping with his internship experience, the Broadway editor left shortly after his arrival. Brodesser was given the beat, which he took on, not as a fan of Broadway musicals, but as a reporter -- "Just a guy with a pad asking questions." Broadway was a small community, and he sought out The New York Times' Frank Rich, who became a mentor and advised him to be fearless.
Variety got aggressive, breaking daily stories.
"It was great fun," Brodesser recalled.
In 1998, as the call of the Internet made a thousand ventures bloom, including sites that hoped to transform entertainment industry reporting (and make its reporters a fortune), such as inside.com and creativeplanet.com, Variety lost most of the members of its film department.
Brodesser moved to Los Angeles to cover film and found it different than New York, where, as he recalled, he could attend a party at Tavern on the Green and walk up to the dean of theater agents, George Lane, and then wander over to playwright Edward Albee -- with the understanding that with a drink in one's hand, all comments were off the record.
At Brodesser's first Hollywood premiere in 1999 for the Martin Lawrence-Luke Wilson action-comedy, "Blue Streak," he approached Drew Barrymore, introduced himself, explained his "drink-in-hand" rule; and they started to chat. He asked her about rumors he had heard concerning the production of "Charlie's Angels." She answered and then wished him well. Brodesser was delighted to have had a Hollywood moment.
Within minutes, several beefy bodyguards surrounded him.
"Your night is over," they said. "You threatened Miss Barrymore." Despite protestations that he was a member of the press, they picked him up and tossed him out -- literally.
Gossip columnist Mitchell Fink wrote about it, and the incident got some play. The next day, Peter Bart, editor of Variety, called Brodesser into his office.
Brodesser feared that Bart was going to fire him. Instead, Bart was tickled pink (and here Brodesser slipped in a British/patrician accent): "That's how you do it," Brodesser recalled Bart telling him, referring to the ruckus he caused. "....That's the way we should do it."
And that pep talk informed his next seven years at Variety.
Still nothing could have prepared Brodesser for the call he received in 2003 from Akner, who was then director of education programs for journalism site, mediabistro.com. She called to ask him to teach a workshop. Little did either of them know this call would lead to love, marriage and the baby carriage -- not to mention circumcision, conversion, separate dishes for meat and dairy and a hyphenated last name.
As he recounted to me recently, Brodesser was someone who thought he might never get married or have children, but, as he put it, "I met my wife and it was kapow!"
And so, as reported in a New York Times article about their wedding, former Catholic school boy Brodesser, the son of a "father conscripted at age 14 into the German army near the end of World War II," and former yeshiva student Akner, the granddaughter of "a survivor of the concentration camp at Dachau" and whose concerned mother, Daniela Shimona, prayed for her daughter at the grave of the late Lubbavitcher Rebbe Schneerson, only to have a change of heart when she saw a video about conversions at the nearby Lubbavitch center, were married in 2006.
Brodesser-Akner told me that the thought of raising a child with Akner inspired him to convert. He studied first at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), which he felt did a great job of organizing 5,000 years of history and learning into a syllabus. But, he says, "I wanted more." He wanted a conversion that would be accepted by the Orthodox, and his journey led him to Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B'nai David-Judea, who became his sponsoring rabbi, performed the marriage and to whose Modern Orthodox congregation the family now belongs.
He says his wife jokes that "her punishment for dating a Catholic boy is living an Orthodox life." They are Sabbath observant, keep kosher and Brodesser-Akner now sports a multicolored kippah.
He says that although being observant is not always easy, "it is worth it." As someone who used to work all the time, Brodesser-Akner is grateful for the respite of Sabbath. But it is the feeling of community -- of belonging and caring -- that he has experienced as part of B'nai David-Judea that seems to have most deeply impressed him.
Brodesser-Akner explained that although he has lived in a great variety of neighborhoods in Los Angeles and was a very social person, it was only as part of his temple that he experienced a deeper level of community, where each member is cared for. Brodesser-Akner spoke movingly about the visitation schedule organized for a sick elderly congregant and about the attention and care he and his wife received recently in the weeks after their first child was born.
In this last year, Brodesser-Akner also joined Advertising Age as Los Angeles bureau chief, reporting on the entertainment industry (he left Variety in 2005 and worked for FishbowLA, a mediabistro blog, and wrote for Los Angeles magazine, before being poached for the launch of TMZ.com in 2006, where he lasted a year).
He finds himself at Ad Age at a moment when the industry is in turmoil and the worlds of advertising and entertainment are increasingly converging. To what end, it is hard to say -- but that gives him plenty to report and comment upon.
For example, Brodesser-Akner views the Writers Guild strike as "disastrous," not because the writers' cause is without merit, but rather because they are so overmatched by the conglomerates that own the studios and networks that he "doesn't see this ending well." He notes the folly of an industry that claims it can't afford to pay writers, while remaining hostage to star salaries and profit participations.
As for the Oscars, Brodesser-Akner reminded me that last year, fewer than 11 percent of the audience had seen the nominated films. Evidence, he feels, of the disconnect between mega-audience movies and films winning honors.
On the taping of "The Business" that I watched being produced, which aired Jan. 14, the discussion focused on a growing trend to loosen copyright protection on music, as well as an acknowledgement that independent films, such as "The Kite Runner," might suffer at the box office without award shows, such as "The Golden Globes," for promotion and publicity.
At the start of our conversation, Brodesser-Akner joked that he had converted to Judaism for the heavy food and self-deprecating humor. But let me take a more Jesuitical -- I mean talmudic -- approach: Perhaps he did it for the questions. Because, the only thing we know for sure about the entertainment business, based on the past, is that whatever occurs, there will be plenty of questions.
So, beyond the strike and the Oscars remain the questions: Where is the culture going? What will we watch, listen to or play? And on what will we see and hear it? How will it be financed? What will pay for it: hedge funds, product placement, advertising sponsors or Internet ads?
If these questions intrigue you, then the answer is simple. Tune in to Brodesser-Akner for "The Business."
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.