Audio, Etc. (Mar. 1980)

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Recently I went to one of the most magnificent press events I have ever eaten at pardon me, I should say listened to a Presentation of Information on New Audio Products at. Matter of fact, they got us all seated at the banquet tables after a session of bibulosity and then served nary a crumb until the entire Presentation was all over, at which point I was raving hungry, just watching those silent, white-coated catering people standing over their tables of smoking chafing dishes and heaping piles of ice, waiting .. . just waiting for the talk to end. Me too! Then such a royal splurge. Unforgettable.

Do you think I'm not talking about audio? This is the happy way (for journalists) in which audio is born, folks, the way it first hits the big time sequence, long before you ever hear of it, maybe before the trade shows, the CES winter and summer, before the AES shows, the local dealer seminars, the hi-fi shows for the general public, and at last the actual sales rooms. It's the American way even if the sponsoring outfit is German or Scandinavian or Japanese or others various. The route to a man's heart goes via his ingesting apparatus and the same with Ms., don't you believe. Not being on any sort of reducing diet yet, I approve decidedly.

This is also, oddly enough, the way to a man's and a woman's thinking apparatus. Not many journalistic scoops have been composed on an empty stomach.

Now let me see, just what were the audio products on display that time? I find my memory momentarily a bit hazy. There were the shrimp, great, whopping shrimp with long tails. And the oysters, enormous, bumpy, opened with a blunt knife before your very eyes. And the smoked salmon and tender roast beef and Bardolino NOW I remember; it was tape.

Of course! How could I forget.

Thanks, tapemaker, for an extraordinary occasion. And great, whopping success to the updated lines of cassettes, also the ongoing reel-to-reel products, of an equivalent sophistication. In all truth, I was more impressed by the extraordinary expansion of this firm's tape business during recent years than by my second helping of oyster. And if I say nothing much about their TV cassettes, in both formats at various levels of excellence, it is because this doesn't wholly fit into audio, which is our business here.

Model of the Minute

Quite seriously, for a roving journalist the press conference can be immensely helpful. Most of us, of course, are busy taking notes on all the technical details being put forth and/or the sales plans in hand, and do this even though we are invariably furnished with a press kit containing the whole thing to take home with us. Plus generous samples when not too heavy to carry. But, food aside, there is much more to ponder. One looks for hints, for clues as to current thinking, in the very style of the Presentation they are always, of course, very upbeat and full of confidence but, even so, one can find all sorts of meanings that do not come from the printed press release page. More important, I think, is that it takes many press conferences, and especially among rival concerns, to make a true picture of the larger state of things.

No I do not for an instant mean to imply any "lack" in the usual Presentation we attend. This is a kind of ritual, obeying very strict and sophisticated forms of communication, almost an art form. There are accepted norms, useful and understood by all of us. If they sometimes border on exaggeration, in favor of the product of the moment, they very seldom involve deliberate untruths. Indeed, again and again I have been astonished at the depth and extent of technical detail offered to the untutored journalistic ear I have had to summon up every bit of brain I had, time after time, to follow the arguments in favor of the brand X of the moment.

The rules are keenly drawn. One can expect to hear praise to the skies of the current development and it is always permissible to imply no more that indeed there really is no important competition. One does not often say so in explicit terms. That is, naming names. Or even by merely implying names. True, current advertising practice elsewhere is undergoing a wave of explicitness, particularly among the auto makers; but in audio we are perhaps more conscientious. I do not remember hearing A mention the inferiority of B or C or D or E, or whomever.

It just is not done. It should not be done. The function of a press conference, you see, is NOT to make comparisons a la Consumers Union. That is the art form of it and on the very few occasions where I have heard somewhat more direct downgrading of a rival product, even without actual names, I have sensed a definite negative reaction among the listeners.

Rightly. You are expected to tout YOUR product, as skillfully as you are able. But you simply do not touch what is not yours.

The really successful press conference is that which persuades the waiting journalists wholeheartedly of the merits of the product on its own, without the slightest suggestion of the cast aspersion, "casting asparagus," as we used to call it, not even by implication.

It is wholly a one-way discussion that we want and expect. If these formal structures are rightly followed, as they are remarkably often, then we journalists get what we want and need.

Comparisons, indeed, are very bad press. We are instantly suspicious.

Maybe the product itself can be "rigged" to enhance its own value, and to an extent it often is-which is no more than a kind of acceptable drama that is easily seen through by those who are savvy when it is overdone.

We take this with amused indulgence--it's OK, if they, the promoters, really feel it's something they must do.

But any sort of direct comparison with a non-house product is something else. The whole fragile edifice of communication is destroyed-how can it be fair? Now we are outside the law, the accepted format; anything goes, but everything is suspect. No good! Even if true, it doesn't pay off. In fact, we are likely to smell an untruth when in plain fact there isn't any. Cynics that we are. So it is better to accept the etiquette that the situation demands and thereby retain the confidence of those all-important listeners.

The ffrr Was Flying

I remember, for instance, a time in the early years of hi-fi when the record wars were breaking out, the LP coming in and before that the "wide range" 78, notably London's ffrr (full frequency range recording) which appeared at first in the 78 format.

Things got pretty hectic, along about that time, and some press conferences became, shall I say, rather strident. The ineffable rules began to slip, under stress. Invidious comparisons did get made. It was just then that I was entering our biz, and these were some of my first press "dos." Frankly, I was shocked. I remember one famous occasion when it was audibly proved that a certain domestic label's records were superior in sound to those of London in ffrr. I heard it. I didn't believe it. Sorry. This was simply NOT the way I wanted to hear a comparison of a kind which was very serious and important in that day.

I got so cynical, there, for awhile, that I went around making jokes--wasn't it funny that RCA records invariably sounded awful at Columbia demos, and, of course, precisely vice versa? This was largely rhetoric on my part, because it didn't really happen that way every time. But there were enough. It left a bad taste.

Perhaps you can get what I am driving at, which is that the formal (or informal) press conference is not a big lie and a publicity puff, in spite of its totally one-sided approach to reality.

Accentuate the positive!-what stage character sang that? There is the art of it and the whole of it.

At an artfully managed conference, then, you can really size up the offerings, if you have a mind to and enough technical background and experience to make your own comparisons. Hence the real necessity is attending lots of press conferences, and particularly those offering similar products. I was thus especially glad to go to this recent big affair because I have attended a number of excellent presentations, on the positive side and remarkably well informed in a technical way, by other makers of cassettes.

In each of these I was artfully persuaded in the best sense. I went away very much impressed with the positive values of what was being done. Now to these I added the present firm (and so did some hundreds of other perceptive journalists). The "truth," then, is more than ever up to us. It is our business to assess each of these and to figure out for ourselves any unmentioned negatives that just might be around in one case or another. Whether we do this via direct instrument testing or by intelligent general evaluation is really beside the point. The ball is in our court; we have a large quantity of (positive) material in detail, and we must make what we may of it. A good system.

Knowledgeable Neophytes

Of course, one of the beauties of the press conference is that one may always simply quote. With ascription.

"The company says that-" and down goes the press release, word for word.

You don't even have to say "claims” indeed, that might be unintentionally negative, not meaning to be. You are absolutely safe if you merely quote the printed or Xeroxed or Kodaked word.

Thus, if you are an innocent new comer to hi-fi wiles, you can be "authoritative" in an unassailable fashion without knowing a d-thing. After all, we have to start somewhere. This, too, we all can tolerate; it is one of the graces of the system.

Back to the question of nutriments, etc. It always amuses me to watch the various producers of press events juggling the physical parameters for best effect-when shall we have drinks, when food, when the actual Presentation (obligatory for the journalist who is not a freeloader). They differ; they try various ways. It's hard to know.

And success in this respect is vital, needless to say. I have walked out of a number of press events in my life in sheer disgust-overly loud and much too long. Our fault in a sense, the journalists'. But in a more serious way, this is also a miscalculation on the part of the producers. Maybe we writers stood around waiting for so long that the drinks just piled up? At one affair a couple of years ago I arrived at 12 noon and we sat down to luncheon--followed by press material-at two.

Frankly, several of us were less than attentive. (I wrote an article for this magazine on the widget, but I'm not telling you which.) Then there are the dry presentations.

Nice, sober dinners with really excellent and informed material for us, low-key, quietly precise. But not a drop, unless coffee, tea or water. I hate to be worldly but it doesn't really work.

Ours is a depraved society, no doubt, but we all have to get along and to the next event. Coffee helps but likker is quikker. I won't argue further--as always, it is the happy mean which works best and is so very hard to achieve.

I can only say that in general the easiest way to digest facts is on a reasonably full tummy, when the drink is wearing away and one is, above all, relaxed and comfortable and in a good but attentive mood! I am aware that, this being a national mag, some of you readers may yourselves be shocked at all this talk. But I am only being objective; these are the facts of our useful life as writers and I can only suggest that if you find a better way to Sell, go right ahead. As I say, most publicity firms ardently seek for the most workable, the optimum effectiveness, in terms of the two essentials, persuasion and factual communication. And this depends on many other tricky factors, you may be sure, including the nature of the product itself and the best way to present its values.

Data Banks

I might say that I really appreciate, as do we all, any reasonable and genuine alteration of the usual arrangements providing it works. One such happy approach is the continuous press conference, with a Presentation and/or feed at intervals, and high-rank attendants on hand to give individual briefings whenever desired. One team, father and son, does this thing particularly well and with much gentility. Another approach, maybe the opposite, is the enormous and running cocktail party in some flossy top-of-the-world eatery I remember some lovelies of this sort. And please do not think that such a big event is merely a noisy party. It is much more, and that by intention. These things cost money; they are designed for a cold-turkey purpose.

The promoters know it, we journalists know it, and we do, in spite of all our noise on occasion, we do, indeed, play the rules very carefully.

Oh, yeah forgot one important item. Just as the elite and wealthy used to take the waters at Saratoga each summer mainly to find out what the other elite were up to (Edna Ferber, Saratoga Trunk), so we in the hi-fi writing trade go to gossip, to retail the "in" info we have ourselves and to absorb the tidbits that others can offer.

It's fair game! A good journalist picks up much factual background in this way after all, we can't all know everything and the better one is at his trade, the more easily can he integrate this new material (sometimes, to be sure, on the negative side!) with the large useful background of his general understanding. AND with the material of the press conference itself.

Ah yes. The question period. And the individual questions put to attending officials. Doesn't get us very far.

You can go as far as you want in extra detail, within the set scope of the Presentation itself did I say, for you outsiders, that the official talk and/or demonstration is always called the Presentation? but if you pull any journalistic tricks on those guys, like the loaded questions they fire at the U.S. President, for instance, you will get nowhere at all. That, you see, is NOT what a hi-fi press conference is for. It is indeed an art form! The thing is set up with the utmost precision and delicacy and nothing, but nothing, is added on the spur of the moment. Unless by ghastly mistake. (And the guy can be fired quick-like for his indiscretion.) So please remember that the shrimp and the oysters and the tender roast beef are important and dead-serious elements of our basic information system in this, our hi-fi world, part of the orchestration of the presentation of the production. Very, very useful and again, thanks.

by Edward Tatnall Canby (adapted from Audio magazine, Mar. 1980)

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