I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill

I spent time this week listening to Eva Cassidy, whose music was unknown to me until long after her death in 1996. [h/t to music critic Ted Gioia, whose thoughtful homage got that ball rolling.]

It left me thinking of other artists and creators whose work goes largely unnoticed while they’re alive, and sometimes — sometimes — finds its way into the common culture long after they’re gone. Van Gogh’s wife became his persistent champion after he died in obscurity. Emily Dickenson had a sister who brough her poems to posthumous light.

Noticed or not by our contemporaries, the work we create is the verse we contribute to what Whitman called “the powerful play.” Most of it will go unheralded. So it goes. Our work is not (only) for us. It’s (also) for those who come after. Sometimes long after. We all plant trees under whose shade we will never sit.

It works the other way, too, where certain work — activist work in particular, creative and disruptive to business-as-usual — disappears down the cultural memory hole to become yet another subject about which we do not speak. History is littered with those as well.

Workers are in the news a lot these days. As are unions. With all the pushback one might expect.

Time for a resurrection.

Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.”

“I never died,” says he.

Rules for Showrunners

When I first encountered the word “showrunner” I thought it referred to the person who went for coffee and bagels for the tv production crew. You know, the “runner.”

We had a runner when I worked in corporate, all those years ago. This was the person who delivered important documents to the FedEx counter at the airport in time for the last flight out. The person who drove the signed contracts to the clients across town, the person who picked up pastries for the conference room in that long-ago time before Door Dash.

A “runner,” I have since learned, is not the same as a “showrunner.” Heh.

Forgive me if I’m telling you something you already know — I’m late to so many parties anymore — but the position of showrunner in tv production is, quite literally, the person who runs the show. Yes. In a time of patronizing, specious job titles, you have to appreciate one that’s so blessedly straightforward.

The showrunner has creative authority and responsibility for keeping a TV show’s writers focused and moving forward, keeping the director on point and up to speed, and keeping the whole effort within budget. In decades past they were called executive producers. And still are. Which is confusing, but I didn’t make the rules.

I’m sharing this with you because a link showed up in my inbox recently to an essay called “11 Laws of Showrunning.” It came courtesy of the Do Lectures newsletter, (Chicken Shed, highly recommended) and it was written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who has an IMDB profile a mile long. His creative cup runneth over, truly.

Anyway, it’s one of those “this may be about (insert specific topic) but it’s really about life” pieces, even though, from what I can tell, Grillo-Marxuach wasn’t intending universal relevance; he just wanted to share his thoughts about being a good showrunner.

No matter. It’s relevant.

I may not be a television-producer person but I appreciate frank advice about acting like a grown-up, knowing yourself, learning how to work with other people, how to collaborate, how to trust others and get out of their way so they can do their work, but also how to ask for what you want and not be precious or pompous about it. Also: how to deal with auteurs and other assholes and not become one yourself.

So, yeah. Useful.

I’ve read it through twice, and now I’m on my third read, taking notes. If nothing else, it gets my head out of the daily doomscroll. Which is to say, worth its weight.

This Rigged Game

A locally-owned food-based business in my community found itself in hot water on social media this week after announcing it would be closing on Sundays because “nobody wants to work.”

The comments that followed were blistering. Even I was surprised. Apparently the working class in my community is fed up with being called “lazy.”

The response certainly surprised the original poster. “Why is everyone so negative?” they wrote, after wandering through hundreds of versions of “pay your people better!”

Why, indeed.

The “nobody wants to work” trope was tired before it even put on its shoes, especially in the food industry, where 18 months of pandemic upheaval has left restaurants and cafes unable to offer employees enough hours on a regular basis to make the jobs work for them. As long as the pandemic persists, customers cannot — and may not wish to, for myriad reasons — return to their former dining-out habits. And serving the ones who have returned is often fraught, with issues over mask-wearing and concerns over vax status adding to the emotional workload.

It’s an unfortunate feedback loop, and I see little reason for optimism in the near term. And no reason to blame workers, who are, after all, reacting to market forces beyond their control.

As someone who has spent many years owning and working in food-based businesses, I do commiserate. The foundational assumptions on which the industry was erected have always been flawed and exploitive, and individual restaurant owners are at the mercy of this exploitive system, even as they themselves become exploiters.

The only winning move is not to play the game.

We should ask ourselves, our communities, and our government: if a business can’t pay a living wage, should it be a business? If it’s too expensive for businesses to provide healthcare for their workers, maybe we need to decouple it from employment? If childcare is a market failure, but we need childcare for the economy to work, how can the government build that infrastructure? If the pay you provide workers doesn’t allow them to live in the community, what needs to change? Collectively, we should be thinking of different funding models, different ownership scenarios, and different growth imperatives. Failure to do so is simply resigning ourselves to another round of this rigged game.

– Anne Helen Petersen, The ‘Capitalism is Broken’ Economy

Listeners Like You

I work in public radio. It’s an on-again, off-again relationship that began long ago at a community station in Boulder, where I volunteered for a few years, hosting shows, stuffing envelopes, answering phones. I’m now a host at my local station in southern Indiana, the voice that reminds you that “support for this station comes from listeners like you.”

Radio has become a legacy industry. Like traditional publishing, radio is in the midst of the kind of creative destruction that Joseph Schumpeter and others, including Karl Marx, understood to be the essential fact of capitalism: an incessant revolution from within that upends culture and unmakes livelihoods while providing the system its essential juice.

Out with the old, in with the new. Onward and forever, ’til death or abject poverty do us part.

Like others in legacy media, my station is grappling with a diminished audience and decreased underwriter funding in the aftermath of the pandemic. We’re trying to do more with less (the mantra of our times!) and asking ourselves how we might attract new listeners and if we might somehow broaden our appeal to become relevant to a younger audience.

It’s the Holy Grail, that younger audience. It’s also a bit of a red herring.

The working assumption in commercial radio for the last half-century is that one needs a strong showing among people aged 18-34 in order to survive. There is a reason for this. An ad-driven reason. This is the prized age group that drives trends, defines the popular culture, and spends money with the greatest abandon.

Advertisers love this cohort.

But public radio is not ad-driven. Its funding comes from listeners, foundations and philanthropic organizations, local fundraisers, underwriters, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Like any not-for-profit organization, public radio operates under a complex business model that doesn’t look much like that of the HOT-101 commercial station down the street.

And yet, when facing down the steamroller of creative destruction, the siren song of that young demographic persists, even among experts who really ought to know better.

Here’s a tautology, one that those experts might want to ponder: public radio skews older because its content is of interest to older people. That’s not a bad thing. As younger people become older people, they’re more likely to become interested in public radio.

Let them come when they’re ready. When they’re older. It’ll be okay.

After all, legacy industries don’t automatically disappear when they’re dislocated from their central positions within an economy. Sometimes they transform into elite preoccupations, like horseracing, or tourist railways. Some people say public radio is already an elite preoccupation, but anyone who’s listened to Alternative Radio, for example, or even recent episodes of NPR’s The Takeaway, knows otherwise.

It remains to be seen how public radio will transform. It’s always been a long-tail operation, appealing to a small subset of the overall audience. An older subset. Listeners whose curiosity about the world didn’t end when they finished school.

Hello Summer

Where are we and why are we in this handcart?

Never mind that the Solstice is still a week away. It’s full-on summer in the Ohio River Valley, which is to say, swampy and nap-inducing. It feels like an injustice that we should have all of the humidity and none of the joie de vivre of, say, New Orleans, but this is our fate.

My writing space is on the second floor of my (antebellum) house, with its retrofitted AC system that does its best but barely manages to lift a scintilla of cool air from the cellar two floors below. Do you dislike the phrase “first world problem” as much as I do? Fair enough. In another younger day we might have gone down to the river to cool off, but our Belle Riviere is by most measures the most polluted waterway in the U.S., carrying the industrial and agricultural effluent of six states, including the waste water from 58 power plants, more than half of them coal-fired, which means mercury, arsenic and lead are among those waste products.

This is a river from which five million people get their drinking water. Yes, it is.

Meanwhile, my U.S. representative as well as the state’s two senators, all three of them Republicans who supported the deregulatory efforts of the Former Guy, have positioned themselves squarely in the DGAF camp. Commerce uber alles.

You’re appalled, I’m appalled. Let’s move on.

I heard from my former chef from the now-defunct cafe where the two of us stumbled through the pandemic last year. He’s now the manager at a plant-based joint on the other side of town. He still wants his own restaurant, even after the pandemic tore the curtain aside and revealed the plantation system that is the restaurant industry in this country. This is (one reason) why we should welcome immigrants (he is from Ecuador): they are hopeful, optimistic. I wish him well.

Speaking of cafes, I bought a version of this sandwich at least once a week from the Alfalfa’s Market down the block from my third-floor walk-up on Capitol Hill in Denver, back in the day. Alfalfa’s got swallowed up by Whole Foods, which is now owned by Amazon, but the sandwich still rules. (via Joy the Baker.)

What’s on your plate this week?

Supply Side Managers

The man in the interview was trying his best to make 
supply-side management sound like something 
you would choose to do with your one precious life,

while the show host wondered if students today 
were prepared for such complex work upon completing
their four-year college degrees after six years of 

secondary school and six more of primary school 
and two of pre-k, eighteen classroom years and still 
they ask if the students are ready, if there is not

more to be done to assure a steady supply of 
supply-side managers, and I thought of Derrick Jensen, 
explaining how long it takes to break the will of a child, 

when twelve years of compulsory schooling is insufficient, 
four more in service to the gatekeepers may do the trick, 
"for the exceedingly obstinate there is graduate school," 

after which they are prepared for almost nothing beyond 
the tower and a continued allegiance to the beloved institution, 
alas, it overflows with adjuncts now, devaluing everything,

though perhaps with their multiple doctorates they might 
one day land a plum job at Google, entangling algorithms 
into AI that will make us all obsolete. 

One can only hope.

All Harness, No Horse

A little over year ago I wrote about the pressure we were facing in the early days of the pandemic (though we didn’t yet know those were the early days) to get back to normal, That pressure continues, especially in the food service industry, where workers are expected to slip back into the harness as if nothing in the intervening months should have any bearing on their willingness to do so.

I say “their” willingness, because I’m no longer among them. But my radar still pings every time a local food establishment bemoans their inability to hire sufficient staff now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted here.

All Those Harnesses, No Work Horses.

Alas, the pandemic itself has not disappeared. We’re still seeing a rate of infections in the U.S. similar to last summer. You remember last summer. We passed 100,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19 right around Memorial Day last year. We’re now approaching 600,000. More than 3500 people died this week alone. New infections topped 20,000.

So there’s that.

There’s also something called the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. Ever heard of it? A surprising number of people haven’t, even though most states allow it. Only Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington do not.

Indiana’s Sub-Minimum Wage

The state of Indiana, along with several other low-wage states, allows restaurant employers to pay tipped workers as little as $2.13 an hour. Which is the Federal sub-minimum rate.

In 2021.

Yes, those employers are required to boost that wage to the Federal minimum of $7.25 if tips are insufficient to reach that level. Though having worked in this industry for many years I can tell you that not all employers follow the law.


Nor do they restrict the job duties of tipped staffers to those tasks in which they are actually able to receive tips. Wait staff is often roped into prep work and cleaning for that $2.13 an hour. And if it’s a slow shift, they might be sent home early, having worked their 90 minutes or whatever for their $3.21 before tips, leaving the remaining staff to do that cleaning and prep work.

Tips Are Not Cash in Hand

But tips are money in the pocket, right?

Nope. Most tips are electronic, which means they’re delivered in the worker’s paycheck, minus all relevant taxes. It’s not like the old days (old, old days!) where you walked out of your shift with a wad of cash to cover the week’s groceries.

And tips depend on tickets.

We don’t have a lot of fine dining here, where a professional waitperson can expect to earn a professional wage. The average ticket in a typical full service restaurant here is less than $50 for a party of two. Sometimes considerably less. A twenty percent tip on that $50 ticket would be $10. If you’re serving to a full house and everyone is ordering big, that might bring you a fair living. But not all diners leave 20%, and very few houses are full right now. They’re certainly not full every night of the week, which means the average hourly wage across a five-shift schedule may not even meet that $7.25 baseline.

A Broken Industry, A Bad Model

The pandemic didn’t break the restaurant industry. It’s been broken for a long time. It’s built on a terrible business model in which customers are expected to subsidize staff pay, with all the bad behavior one might expect as a result.

But the pandemic did hit the restaurant industry particularly hard, first by shutting it down, then by requiring wait staff in particular to be front and center in a fraught re-open, serving a public not always willing, let alone happy, to comply with mask and distancing requirements. As any wait person will tell you, an unhappy diner is not going to tip well.

So it goes.

Then there are are the back-of-house issues to consider, where a slammed night might mean the wait staff gets a nice pay bump, while the kitchen crew who cranked out all those meals is paid the same as if the house were empty. And the crews, some of whom may be (and often are) undocumented and exploited, are unable to ask for a more equitable arrangement because they have no voice.

Restaurant work is hard. It’s stressful. And more than a few of us have decided we’ve had enough. We’ve gone elsewhere. It’s what one does, what one is supposed to do, when work doesn’t work. When there are better – or at least less awful — opportunities elsewhere.

Leave the scolds to whine that no one wants to work those shitty jobs. I mean, seriously. Would you?