The Presidential Election and John Chambers

John Chambers former Cisco CEO
John Chambers, World Economic Forum

Why can’t it be John Chambers running for President? On CNBC’s Squawk Box this morning, the Executive Chairman and former CEO of Cisco Systems said he’s a moderate Republican.  And yet he spoke admiringly about Bill Clinton’s 8 years as President.  When, Chambers said, 22.5 million jobs were created. And there was 17% growth in real per capita income. The Information Age. The last time, Chambers added, America got a pay raise.

Fast forward to the current election cycle. We’re in the Digital Age. Which Chambers thinks could have the same effect on America and its people.  Only 3 to 5 times larger. Except – he says – the US is missing the bandwagon. Unable to move fast enough to create the start-ups needed if middle America is to benefit.   Because business and government have to work together to make a digital plan. Something we don’t have — but every other country in the world does according to Chambers. And is implementing them. Quickly. Even countries with recalcitrant unions and socialist leanings. Like France. They have a meeting or 2 or 10. With the relevant players. How do we create a million new business jobs? What tax reform is needed? How do we “re-skill” (Chamber’s interesting substitute for “retrain”) the unemployed and underemployed? The middle class? What about childhood education? Then you walk away Chambers said — and come back 6 months later. And it’s done.

As I said — why couldn’t John Chambers be on the ballot in November?

When I look around me at this country — I see political stalemate instead of cooperation. And no urgency to change. A Congress controlled by one party determined to thwart anything suggested by the President from the other party. And vice versa. A legislative system completely broken  At best a government treading water. And business? The thinkers like Chambers are in Washington this week. Trying to pound some sense into everyone. The rest are mostly making apologies to Wall Street for a bunch of less than stellar quarterly reports. Any US digital plan is far, far from the top of the agenda. Again – my thoughts – not Chambers’.

We haven’t even gotten to the general election itself yet. It’s still primary season. And yet we are already battle weary.  Our ears plugged against the insults hurled party to party and candidate to candidate. Instead of the serious discussions we so desperately need. And it can only get worse.

John Chambers says 92% of the jobs created over the next decade will require some kind of technology skills. In both the service industry and in manufacturing. Requiring the courage to make fundamental changes in order to fill most of those jobs with American middle class workers earning real American middle class wages. Chambers and his co-business thinkers have some ideas. Some possible plans. But it seems to me no one who can do anything about implementing those plans is listening. Or more to the point — acting.

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Starbucks Redux

Starbucks Logo

Back in late February when it was first announced I wrote about Starbucks’ revamped rewards program. And how it seemed to me just another way to appease Wall Street’s insatiable profit and revenue demands by cajoling more people to spend more money at their local coffee hangout.

Since that post the Twitterverse has erupted with snarky comments  and “goodbyes” from rewards program members. Based partly on the unfavorable reaction – and the timing as rival Dunkin’ Donuts rolled out its own loyalty program – a major Wall Street analyst gave Starbucks a well publicized downgrade. The stock fell – but partially recovered.

You may recall the rewards program was changing from one star per visit  – a transaction-based system – to a dollar-based plan. 2 stars for each dollar spent. You used to achieve gold status (which you need for your rewards) with 30 stars. So buying one small coffee each day would give you gold status in about a month. After that you needed just 12 stars (or 12 visits) to get your free extra large caramelized honey latte – or whatever. Now gold status takes 300 stars. And then 125 stars for each reward. Big difference.

So Starbucks barged ahead. April 12th was the big changeover. Since then stores have been plastered with gold-lettered signs urging coffee lovers to join the rewards program, buy something and get one year of gold status virtually immediately. Current gold members would automatically get another year of gold. Of course I jumped at that. Even though I knew I was being bribed. Maybe a lot of other disgruntled rewards members did the same. Or a lot more new members signed up. This week in its second quarter results Starbucks said membership jumped 16 percent year on year and 8 percent from the previous quarter.

But wait. There’s more. In those same second quarter results the coffee giant reported revenues somewhat below analysts’ expectations. And after just matching profit forecasts – warned of weaker earnings for the current quarter. Of course the stock fell again.

Flopuchino! As CNBC so elegantly captioned  it on TV.

Hmm. Maybe all those potential freebies to keep people like me happy will actually hurt Starbucks’ bottom line? But isn’t that just what the new rewards program was designed to change?

You mean after enraging its loyal customers to keep Wall Street satisfied Starbucks had to backpedal to keep those same customers from walking away? And then find a way to make the now more expensive rewards program attractive to newbies?  And keep both groups away from Dunkin’ Donuts? At least for the short term. Which is all anyone cares about these days anyhow. And which is why Wall Street bid down the stock again.

And which is why for Starbucks right now – it’s a kind of a zero sum game. At least as far as the rewards program goes.

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Radio Is Dying. Again

Old Standup Radio
Old Standup Radio

I love radio. There’s an immediacy and singularity about it that TV or internet video streaming can never match. And certainly not Pandora or its multiple offspring – with their endless, depersonalized music. Listening to radio creates a personal connection – a one-on-one relationship with the talk host, the news anchor, the DJ or the music.  And it also works the other way. When I’m doing radio news — or just talking into a live mic – I feel like I’m in someone’s home or car. Having a conversation. That connection never quite carried over to TV. Although I’ve always tried to imagine someone I actually know behind the camera lens – watching the screen.

I started my on-air career in radio as a Boston teenager and after decades of on-camera TV reporting and anchoring, I’m back on radio doing business news. And back to that personal connection.

So why am I writing all this?  Isn’t radio so last century?  Certainly CBS thinks so – putting up it’s iconic radio stations for sale.

Well – I got an email today from a very good friend. Who has had a similar career. And whose memories of growing up in radioland reminded me of mine.

Like my friend, I had a cheap plastic table radio in my room. Which somehow pulled in New York’s legendary WNEW in all its Make Believe Ballroom glory whenever the clouds provided a decent enough bounce for the AM signal. My parents were musicians with ties to the big band era and Broadway musicals. WNEW played The Great American Songbook.  William B. Williams and his fellow hosts made even commercials interesting. I listened well into the overnight – (Remember Al “Jazzbo” Collins?) pulling my little radio under the covers so my mother wouldn’t hear. Once it was dark out and the daytime stations were gone from the airwaves, the signal was often as clear as if it were coming from next door.

Beyond my own little radio, we had a big old standup radio (like the one above) in the foyer of our apartment. In the back was a shelf for a long ago junked “victrola”. But in the front was a magic dial.  2 of them actually. One selected the radio band. Short wave, medium wave, local. The other slid the selector across the dial. When the radio was set in short wave, all kinds of foreign languages flooded in. Medium wave usually brought in stations from the West coast – unimaginably far away to a little girl who had never been further from Boston than New Hampshire. And if I was allowed to stay up late enough I could sit crosslegged on the floor in front of that radio and hear broadcasts of the remaining big bands from the few 40’s style ballrooms still standing. Pure magic.

When I was 14 I talked a small Boston radio station into broadcasting a weekly show hosted by me and my locally well-known pianist father. It was a clash of generations.  I played my teenage music; he played his swing era, Boston Pops favorites.  I think it lasted for at least a year. The first of several weekly radio shows I talked that station into broadcasting – all built around music.  Then I discovered jazz and in college did shows for the 2 college owned FM radio stations in Boston. And as many of you know, I eventually spent 10 years as a CBS Radio Network news correspondent until I migrated to TV news.

Now in my car, I too listen to satellite radio. Mostly the audio of the TV news channels. I feel like a traitor. But when something big happens, when there are major snow storms or high winds or floods I fall back on AM radio.  When I need a traffic report I switch between the 3 news stations which have them (Sirius’s is always very out of date).  WAZE is useful but somewhat distracting when you’re driving. Traffic and weather together on the 8’s. Or the 11’s. Or the 5’s are still a commuter’s best friend. Along with the top local stories.

There has been talk of radio’s death for decades. It’s always survived. But the Millenials and Gen Y think radio is preceded by Apple. And they’ll be running things soon. Most local radio stations are now just automated clones, owned by a couple of giant companies loaded with debt and interested only in extracting whatever revenue they can to make their quarterly reports look better for Wall Street.  The CBS radio stations and the network which distinguished them may soon be among that group.

I love the new tech. I live on my iPhone and iPad. I try tons of new apps. But when I need to know what is breaking right now I turn on the radio.  Or, if I’m anywhere but in the car or at home I stream from a radio app. Real radio app.

Some day – when real radio has been destroyed and a huge hurricane knocks out the power for weeks as Sandy did almost four years ago – we’ll need local radio to hold communities together and tell a frightened public where to go for food and shelter and help. But radio will be gone. And there won’t be anything to replace it. Because without power, the internet and broadband won’t work. And even the battery-backed-up cell towers fail after days with no electricity.

Good luck world.

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Dispatch from a Boeing 777-200ER

I’m flying home. From Prague to New Jersey. Connecting though Paris. Pretty normal. Done it many times. Ok – it’s never exactly fun. Security checks, passport controls, crowded waiting areas and fully booked planes. With just enough legroom between seats for a mouse to sit comfortably. You know – the usual nightmare.

But no. Not today. Today we have a specially-created French nightmare. An air traffic controllers’ strike. A suddenly called one day strike in solidarity with and for the same reasons as the same one day strike by French transport unions on the Metro and railways. Because French President Hollande wants to change the country’s cushy work rules which bloat the government’s budget and make hiring, firing and doing business in France more difficult than in the rest of Europe. Ergo: France is strike central. Even more than it’s always been. The air controllers have been on strike a total of 43 days since 2009 including their last 2-day walkout just over a week ago. Both during the extra busy Easter holiday/spring break travel period.

Where is Ronald Reagan when you need him.

Eventually my husband and I get to Paris. Two hours late. Of course missing our connecting flight from Paris to Newark International Airport. But all is not lost. I still have plenty of data left on my Czech iPhone package. And before that delayed flight from Prague even starts loading @Delta Assist on Twitter has us rebooked on a 5pm Air France flight to JFK. Somewhat out of the way but at least we’ll get home tonight instead of sleeping in the airport.

So we get on the JFK flight. Almost on time. And what do we see after walking through the spacious business class section? The 3-4-3 seating configuration I had just read about on new or retooled Boeing 777-200 planes. Translation – there is always a middle seat instead of the normal 2-4-2  or 2-5-2 seating used for decades on international flights. Giving airlines an extra 20 or so revenue producing seats per plane. 7 hours in a middle seat. Oh no!

Boeing 777-200 3-4-3 seating in coach

Oh yes. But this time it actually works in our favor. In the back of the plane – where it narrows – even Boeing can’t squeeze in that 3rd seat. So there are 3 rows with just 2 seats on either side of the 4 middle seats. With a little elbow room between the window and the seat and a few inches more leg room. Ok they’re next to the bathrooms. But here’s the thing. These are PREMIUM seats in tourist class. Because all the other seats are now even worse. We got them because they weren’t sold and the plane was otherwise full. Lucky us!

Until the average size guy in front fully reclines his seat into my lap. He speaks good English so I politely ask him to recline only halfway. I mean – we haven’t even had dinner yet! He looks at me like I came from another planet and says with annoyance, “but I have the right to put my seat back”. Yes I say in so many words – but – there isn’t much legroom and it would be polite if you didn’t. He looks at me, basically says F you without the F, and then fully reclines his seat back. His female partner gives my husband a break and pulls up a bit.

Maybe this guy actually paid extra for that seat in the 2 seat row ahead of ours. Maybe not. But his mother must have never taught him about consideration for others in a tightly packed world. Or maybe he was just born with the “entitled” gene like so many others of his generation.

Of course one can argue – and I do – that it’s really the airlines’ fault. They decided to extract every penny of revenue from their hapless passengers some years back. And of course it’s paid off royally with some of the best earnings in years in 2015 as they unapologetically kept every penny of the windfall from lower jet fuel prices instead of cutting ticket prices the way they raised them when oil went through the roof. And as they kept shrinking seat sizes and leg room over and over to squeeze another row or two of seats into the configuration. So shouldn’t the airlines also be cutting the recline angle drastically on that smaller seat back? When someone like the jerk in front of me fully reclines – he’s literally in my lap. Try eating when the food is hitting your waist! (He left his seat back ¾ reclined even during dinner!) I can’t even get up from the seat to go to the (very) nearby bathroom. And this is even with a few inches more legroom in these “premium” seats!

So OK you say. You didn’t pay extra for the seats, you’ll get home by midnight and life could be a lot worse. You are so right. But. Your rights (and those of the surly passenger in front of me) end where mine begin. Call it Apple against the FBI (before they dropped the case). When rights clash each person (or entity) has to give a little. That’s how most of us in democratic nations manage to live together without killing our neighbors.

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