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Forget Michael Powell? It’s almost too easy to do. When he’s not out antitrust busting at corporate cocktail parties where John Q. Public and the paparazzi are shunned, Powell’s been staying out of the public view on his own. The job of FCC Chairman, as Powell sees it, involves keeping his head down and doing the detail work: poring over industry indices and cleaning up the remnants of communications monopoly restraints.
The very last in a line of media deregulators (what’s left?), Powell seems to view his custodial duty as sweeping away the few regulations that continue to delay the enthronement of the American Orwellian Broadcasting Network. The public will not attend and the press will probably not be invited to that fete either, so don’t expect headlines like MEDIA MONOPOLY CELEBRATED!! These days corporate journalists are too docile to be gate crashers and, like Powell, are not asking the questions they should.
Why focus on Powell? After all, this is the age of deregulation (newspeak: monopoly capitalism). The now-defunct Fairness Doctrine was born before Powell came into the world. This 1949 amendment to the Federal Communications Act mandated diverse and opposing viewpoints be present on the public airwaves. Michael Powell was a college freshman when Reagan, Packwood, and Fowler first took the Fairness Doctrine to the mat and passed a tag to Scalia and Bork, who subsequently ruled that Congress actually hadn’t made the Fairness Doctrine a "binding" law (like they usually do). By the time Bush 1 left office and the Doctrine was dead, Michael Powell held only a minor Republican sinecure in the Department of Defense.
But In the early 90s Powell finally found his calling as a trustbuster at the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. He must have been good, for just as the ink had dried on the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Clinton appointed Powell to the FCC in an after-the-bell punch. The 1996 Act immediately transformed the original FCC Act of 1939 into an all you can eat buffet for corporate media consolidators. By the time Powell arrives on the scene, six conglomerates control a preponderance of electronic media in the US. Their mammoth holdings also encompass non-electronic First Amendment endeavors like book publishing, newspapers, and magazines. So, after all this, it is Powell’s turn now. What he does will affect what America sees, reads, even the music it listens to.
At this juncture, there’s not much more to do to complete the monopolistic infrastructure that accepts news as a profit-driven commodity occupying a shrinking space between the commercials. At the same time, wider audience shares are sought by applying market values of saturation and dominance and production values of uniformity and low cost. The news included. At this corporate media end time, it may seem as if Powell’s just there to cast a vote and turn out the lights, but there’s still much to lose when the final vote is taken on June 2nd. And it is Powell who holds the key that may lock out what’s left of the diversity and public interests he is sworn to protect.
Somehow I still feel uncomfortable reminding everyone that it’s all come done to what Powell and what he will do. Even it there were only crumbs left to offer the six-headed Hydra that controls the propaganda waves, to single out custodian Powell for criticism just feels wrong. In his work-a-day world at the FCC, Powell sees his public interest duty as a binary task to ‘validate or eliminate’ in his own words. With so much at stake and with such clear and pressing choices, Powell already seems a figure besieged. So much so that he has eschewed normal public contact. So beleaguered he is that even away from his offices he has felt compelled to stay in anonymous hotel rooms like a Howard Hughes recluse, only emerging to confabulate with corporate media reps. Ought we not leave this lonely laborer and weary traveler alone, and let him emerge on his own June 2nd Groundhog’s Day to perform his coup de mot on the free press? And even if we wanted to question him, where would we find him?
Don’t look for FCC Chairman Michael Powell with his collar up at your local bus stop. Though he walked up the civil service ladder in three striding steps, he is no longer a mass transit rider. Chairman Powell doesn’t catch the Yellow or Blue Line out of DC as much as he rushes about with a plane ticket and an agenda in the back of an ordinary DC limousine. With the maddening global schedule his communications crusade demands, he rarely has time for sluggish terrestrial transportation at all. But if you do see a chubby African American in a tailored suit suspiciously eyeing the advertising panels at your pick up point, it will probably not be Powell, although it should be him.
After all, some institutional force needs to guarantee that the public’s interests of fair play and free speech are upheld even in the non-electronic media. But Powell’s purview does not include billboards or bus panels, Newsweek or, heaven forbid, The Wall Street Journal. Or could it? The crossover relationships between electronic media and traditional print media are now intimately and vastly incestuous. Ironically, may Powell who should be signaling frantically. It seems that electronic news and print news are often the same words from the same computer. And the same corporation. But wait a minute. Make Michael Powell into real Big Brother? O writer, regulate thyself!
However unlikely, consider that if we are to be saved from a homogenized corporate media that is dealing in electric and paper media and whose own unbridled animus is profit and whose public offerings will not be permitted to vitiate (or touch a hair on the head of) its own great Cash Nexus, young Powell is, indeed, first in the line of defense against the media giants. He’s got a few remaining rules he could whip out and use, but where is he when you need him?
Topping the crest of monopolistic capitalism has been a giddy ride, as the often airborne Powell himself might tell you, could you catch him in mid-flight. Indeed, he and his entourage have generally remained aloft like NORAD bombers in a continuing first-class air marathon from Las Vegas to Palm Springs to London and then back to Vegas again–an endless vigilant circle of ‘validating or eliminating’ the remaining few restraints that have imprisoned the Big Six media monopolists in an open cage since the 1996 Telecommunications Act was passed without public hearings by either Congress or the FCC.
Examine the voluminous flight logs of the Have Fun Will Travel (HFWT) Committee of the FCC. You will see New Orleans and Las Vegas for what they are: sumptuous but lawless convention centers that menace media fairness again and again. Switzerland and Singapore are among the many foreign hot spots that have demanded dogged public interest protection. According to The Center for Public Integrity, both Democratic and Republican FCC Commissioners and their watchdog staffs have been whisked away on 2,500 junkets since 1995. As CPI’s investigation makes clear, there is no exotic location that lies beyond Powell and crew’s vigilance, which does not cease even when the final shrimp bar has been rolled away. (Powell’s two day Honolulu raid somehow became a nine day expense paid maneuver). But who’s complaining? These 2500 out of office forays aren’t expense account items coming out of the pocket of those overtaxed denizens at bus stops and Metro lines. They’re junkets and don’t cost a thing!
If this trip to Honolulu sounds like a vacation, don’t be fooled like the gullible media giants who fall for the FCC’s white pockets routine time after time. This year’s Hawaiian Broadcaster’s Convention demanded the same endless two day treadmill. The only obvious reward after some toe-to-toe get-togethers (‘Motivation, Commitment and Mental Toughness’) was the Cocktail and Pupu Reception that comprised a third of the total agenda hours. Imagine the weary evening: after training sessions, a group exhausted DC media crime-stoppers talking First Amendment shop over corporate canapes and booze. Mental Toughness? Aye, and courage as raw as oysters.
However, for the series of recent meetings that his Commission held for citizen stakeholders, Powell’s act-dumb-and-hand-‘em-the-check routine could not work. So after attending the first meeting at Columbia University, Powell, a parsimonious spender of government (not corporate) funds, declined to attend further public meetings concerning the ramifications of further centralization of the media infrastructure. The infrastructure that also gives First Amendment free speech a place to be. Or not to be. He saved the taxpayers a lot of needless free speech talk (he’s made it clear, his mind’s made up), and saved them a few hundred bucks of travel money. More costly will be his vote to dissolve diversity and disenfranchise public interests in the air waves.
The final public meeting was held last Wednesday in Atlanta. Powell, of course, was not there, saving the country the usual per diem. But neither was CNN that only had to walk a few blocks to get there. Even more cost conscious than Powell, ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS saved themselves a lot of money by not showing up with cameras or mics. The media no show at the Atlanta public meeting typifies corporate journalism’s weighing-in on the issue of the public interests vs. the profit motive. Based on this non-coverage of such an important issue, we may suspect little movement in the February poll numbers that showed 72 percent of Americans had heard "nothing at all" and 23 percent claimed to have heard only "a little" about the current FCC media cross-ownership debate. Look for full coverage on June 3rd.
Powell contrasts today’s media mix of cable, Internet, and satellite broadcasts to the pastoral party-line, Real McCoy Fifties. He draws the conclusion that today multiplicity means diversity. Susan Eid, Powell’s legal adviser who worked for MediaOne Group (a DOJ antitrust target), says Chairman Powell "has long since advocated that, if you’re going to do an honest evaluation of the rules, you have to look at the marketplace as it exists today, not how it looked thirty or forty years ago when we had black-and-white TV, no remote control, and three choices of TV programs."
From other contemporary viewing positions, however, the screen looks smaller than ever. Just a few days ago, nonprofit Children Now released a study of children’s programming in the Oakland area before and after media takeovers there. From 1988 to 2003, children’s programming declined by 47 percent. In fact, diversity is dying everywhere on U.S. TV screens, and what’s replacing it is a bland homogeneity that make media companies more profitable, whether it’s the cheapest of reality programming or the "reality" news interviews that often substitute for expensive investigative news stories. For instance, only a few significant news stories appear on CNN, recycling around the clock, with the remaining filler between the advertisements relegated to interviews with "experts" or debates between "experts." It’s a thin product.
The political viewpoints shown on the corporate news are either one, two or three, depending on your own political viewpoint. Some who perceive remnants of political pluralism say there’s two viewpoints available. There also a case to be made for the Republican, the Democrat and what’s between them, though that middle ground is smaller than a Coalition of the Willing island. While CNN is certainly not responsible for the make-up of the American electorate, there is an evident case to be made that the right and far right now have an embedded presence on the corporate media, with talking heads like Richard Perle and James Woolsey everywhere. Their think tanks and policy institutes are ubiquitous and their pedigrees most often go unidentified by CNN. Though maybe I’m wrong. Somebody get Michael Powell or a congressional sub-committee over here and let’s find out. But hearing Noam Chomsky or Arundhati Roy on corporate TV is like winning the Power Ball. Buy a ticket and wait.
The public’s views are represented by e-mails and a few man-in-the-street, woman-in-the-studio one-liners. Public polling, often blatantly unscientific, is presented as symptomatic of the nation’s views , even as Wolf Blitzer reminds you this may not be so. It is a wonder that, on a planet of two hundred nations and six billion people, so few events, issues and viewpoints air on CNN’s 24/7 news marathon.
Subtracting out the air time for whatever Black Man Wanted or White Woman In Peril inhuman interest story currently running would leave space to examine events like the massacre in the Congo or the current FCC giveaway. So it’s not just the homogeneity that’s troubling, nor the lack of political diversity, it’s also a disturbing absence of critical issues. In the FCC case, it’s an advantageous omission by Big Six media corps that have lobbied Powell to decide on the case on their terms and not the public’s.
If the 1996 Telecommunications Act is a fair precursor, the mergers and consolidations Powell may facilitate will narrower coverage even further, and the currently proposed deregulation simply liberalizes the 1996 Act. That act, while allowing more concentrated control and ownership of coast to coast venues, also let national media players reach deep into local markets, homogenizing further, and sometimes with a right-wing ideology of the raving persuasion.
Paul Schmelzer’s "The Death of Local News" describes how the big players conduct themselves when they go on the road:
Tune into the evening news on Madison, Wisconsin’s Fox TV affiliate and behold the future of local news. In the program’s concluding segment, "The Point," Mark Hyman rants against peace activists ("wack-jobs"), the French ("cheese-eating surrender monkeys"), progressives ("loony left") and the so-called liberal media, usually referred to as the "hate-America crowd" or the "Axis of Drivel." Colorful, if creatively anemic, this is TV’s version of talk radio . . . Hyman’s commentary is piped in from the home office in Baltimore, MD, and mixed in with locally-produced news. . . . it is very likely to spell the demise of local news as we know it.
The company that serves up this screed is Sinclair. No matter where your hometown, Sinclair offers right-wing viewing only. As the U.S.’s biggest TV broadcasting company not run by a major call letter network, Sinclair’s 62 stations have 24 percent of the national market.
Although there is some overlap, when combining Sinclair’s market share with the 36 percent of Americans that watched Fox News for their primary war coverage (Gallup), even a dead asleep mathematician can figure out that media constriction of the neoconservative brand has become rampant. And grassroots political activism is inconsequent here. It’s the corporate media Juggernaut that’s delivering a unilateral political product.
Fox’s yellow journalism before and during the Iraq invasion remains regrettable and embarrassing. Sinclair’s political bias is as easily recognized as it is broadly disseminated. But when you look at their viewership figures, the search is over for the balance that the Fairness Doctrine called democratic fair play, even before taking into account any of the political proclivities of CNN, NBC, CBS, and ABC.
Regrettably, the "public public" airwaves are also takeover victims, gradually sliding down a slippery slope into corporate arms. PBS’s Sesame Street and Frontline depend on corporate noblesse oblige for air time. Sooner or later, children may be confusing Big Bird and Captain Crunch, while adult viewers have already become suspicious of corporate exposes sponsored by the corporations themselves. PBS still has public dollars and support, and Bill Moyers is still on, where ownership of the airwaves is a recurring issue. How long ownership of the airwaves remains an issue is the issue that Michael Powell will help to answer on June 2.
Jeffrey Chester and Don Hazen point out that during the war US media shut out debate and selectively limited analysis–a pandemic circumstance that a vigorous FCC should investigate. Also never reported, behind the telescreen invasion maps, other maneuvering was going on. The Big Six were sending their best troops towards the executive branch:
For the media companies to be heavily lobbying the Bush administration for give-aways that will net them billions of dollars–while they are providing mostly uncritical coverage of the war–gets to the crux of our media problem. (AlterNet, May 1, 2003)
What Michael Powell must decide on June 2nd is whether further consolidation of TV media will restrain or facilitate an already monolithic voice that puts government-friendly chauvinism in its journalism, giving the uneasy impression that its news is for hire.
It should be no surprise that the public’s radio waves are similarly concentrated in corporate hands. Many are cross-media corporations that control TV stations, among a long list of information venues. Clear Channel Worldwide, Inc. acquired more than 1200 US stations in their ride to the top during the deregulated nineties. But Clear Channel’s influence runs deeper than this. It controls about 40 TV outlets, while its subsidiary, Premier, syndicates 60 programs to more than 7,800 radio affiliates. On the air, Clear Channel’s is clearly pro-war. Typically, one of its major personalities, Glenn Beck, lead in organizing pro-war "Rally for America" demonstrations across the country. Clear Channel thus directs a huge media infrastructure, oversees content distribution, and wields a particular political axe over its holdings. Michael Powell’s examination of the broader public interest could start here.
Clear Channel has not been content with broadcasting pro-war calls to arms. On their radio stations, voices against the war are exposed, ridiculed and extinguished. How suffusive is their strength? Everyone in America witnessed the vilification of the Dixie Chicks, whose Clear Channel opponents held CD stompings. Under overwhelming pressure by media-inspired attacks, the Dixie Chicks folded their tents, recanted a single sentence uttered, and tried to pick up the pieces of their tractorized CDs.
Of course, the despised kind of CD stomping or book burning would be a bonfire lit by government’s match. Citizens and groups are free to burn anything, from flags to Dixie Chicks CDs to Enron certificates. The performance of such acts demonstrates that a healthy range of dissent is live and kicking. However, when these acts are approved and enabled by a spreading corporate behemoth that has a political plan for everyone, someone should start shouting "Fire!" And there is no counterbalance. Pacifica Radio, a progressive venue, has 4 stations.
For television viewers and radio listeners alike the results are concentrated and uniform: we see and hear a narrowed range of images and talking points that the corporate giants distill for us.
I am praying that Michael Powell is a big music fan. If he has neglected to see the stagnation and constriction of political diversity on corporate TV, he’s still got a great chance to identify censorship and content manipulation, for music spans television and radio alike and it’s been hit hard.
A week after 911 Clear Channel advised its stations and affiliates to avoid a list of 150 songs, among them Lennon’s "Imagine," and, quite oddly, Barenaked Ladies "Falling For The First Time." Though Clear Channel soon claimed the songs were not "banned," we all know what we’ll play when the boss suggests tennis. Albeit awkwardly managed by Clear Channel, the list was the first unmistakable landmark of the vast new media control after the passage of the Telecommunications Acts of 1996.
No such Clear Channel list for content manipulation emerged during the invasion of Iraq, but by then the DJ’s ducks were in a line and the ideological hush in place. These days nothing in the way of protest songs, which so dramatically framed and even defined the Vietnam era, are heard on Clear Channel’s hundreds of outlets. As Brent Staples remarked in the February 20th New York Times:
Which brings us back to the hypothetical pop song attacking George Bush. The odds against such a song reaching the air are steep from the outset, given a conservative corporate structure that controls thousands of stations. Record executives who know the lay of land take the path of least resistance when deciding where to spend their promotional money. This flight to sameness and superficiality is narrowing the range of what Americans hear on the radio–and killing popular music.
Not to say the killing of an ideology that allows and encourages the possibilities for peace.
Finally, forget MTV. On March 27th, MTV devised an amorphous "war" category of music videos that were verboten for the duration of the war against Iraq. Among the odder titles expurgated in this massive censorship were Aerosmith’s "Don’t Want to Miss a Thing" and "anything" by the B52s. We might ask, "What was left?"
The airwaves you once had a share in are now managed those who brand the Dixie Chicks traitorous femme fatales and predict attacks from the B52s, who’ll come out full force, hurling . . . rock lobsters. From the Love Shack. Odd, indeed, but what else aren’t we hearing? Lenny Kravitz’s "We want Peace," for starters.
If you don’t like Clear Channel’s 1200 stations and can’t pick up anything else, you can dive headlong into the thicket of websites. Indeed, it is your best option for joining your voice to a free speech stream. But if you opt for the Internet, hope you become at least as well known in your field as Lenny Kravitz, and even then your visibility, like Lenny’s, will be marginal.
Kravitz, who covered John Lennon’s "Give Peace a Chance" in 1991,found out about the constriction of free expression in the televison and radio marketplace. Without the Approved stamp from media centers like MTV (Clear Channel Worldwide also peddles concert tickets) even the well-known like Lenny are unvoiced or marginalized. This time Lenny went for the Internet. Recorded with Kadim Al Sahir, "We Want Peace" was issued by the rock artist only on the web site of Rock the Vote . Ever heard of that site? (It was down when I tried it today). Ever heard the song? (It’s mighty fine).
The FCC’s proposed deregulation allows for more megacorp control of the Internet. At least right now the Internet gives you the possibility of voicing alternate political and artistic perspectives, and forming alliances with the like-minded. Certainly, the neoconservatives who are fueling the Angry Simpleton’s administration with their flammable ‘power projection’ foreign policy have also looked the Internet over. Not surprisingly, they have recognized the free speech free-for-all the Internet currently affords. They’re deeply concerned about it.
The New American Century’s "Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources For a New Century " identifies the Internet as a key asset to be dominated. Among a grandiose list, this bulleted entry:
"CONTROL THE NEW ‘INTERNATIONAL COMMONS’ OF SPACE AND ‘CYBERSPACE,’ and pave the way for the creation of a new military service–U.S. Space Forces–with the mission of space control."
Looks like the Big Six have a silent partner. I don’t expect Michael Powell to don his space boots and guard the satellite feeds–it’s very chilly out in space, and it’s getting downright freezing here. Maybe you’d better fire up that site today–tomorrow may be too late.
Let’s see. For balanced news and diverse political discourse, we’ve had to forget TV and radio. The Internet is fine for now, even though corporate media dominates the news there. (The 20 twenty news sites with the most hits are Big Six cyber spin overs). How about something simple that you know even your neighbors will see? Local and direct. How about a billboard to get your message across? Forget that, too.
Peace Together, a small group from Beckeley, West Virginia raised funds and signed a billboard contract with Lamar Advertising. Encouraging forethought and reflection about the impeding war, Peace Together’s billboard simply asked, "Why Iraq? Why Now?" But Jim McMillan, vice president and general manager of Lamar Advertising, killed the deal, refusing to sign the contract.
"I decided to remain neutral. I am exercising the freedom to remain neutral.” McMillan said. As recent as Camus and old as the New Testament stands the ethical proposition that lukewarm neutrality is offered no one in life–a decision not to choose also expresses will and viewpoint. McMillan effectively chose to obstruct Peace Together’s mild, thoughtful free speech. The sign never went up.
A fine and practical precept: think globally, act locally. Sinclair, whose NewsCentral is piped from a corporate hub and masquerades in the local news space, is doing exact that. Peace Now tried Lamar Advertising and failed. The way other electronic media conglomerates are buying up a dominating local presence–in non-electric local advertising as well–is a few bus panels short of totalitarian.
In 2000, The Anti-Trust Division of the Justice Department jumped into the billboard debate. Looking at the restraints that DOJ’s imposed on Clear Channel, its seems as if they were trying to act for competitive public interests when they made an anti-monopolistic ruling that included all Lamar’s billboards.
Here’s the opening of DOJ’s own August 29, 2000 press release:
JUSTICE DEPARTMENT REQUIRES DIVESTITURES IN CLEAR CHANNEL/AMFM MERGER:
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Department of Justice today required Clear Channel Communications Inc. and AMFM Inc. to sell AMFM’s partial ownership interest in Lamar Advertising Company in order to proceed with their proposed $23.8 billion merger. The Department said the deal, as originally proposed, would have resulted in higher prices and lower quality services for radio and billboard advertisers.
Clear Channel’s voracious growth plan included a buy-out of AMFM ‘s considerable communication assets. AMFM controlled a 29 percent share of Lamar Advertising and two seats on its board of directors. But when Clear Channel was spending billions on the road to radio hegemony, it had bought up Eller Media Company, an outdoor advertising competitor to Lamar.
Thus the Department of Justice concluded: "The divestitures required by the consent decree ensure that customers of both types of advertising [radio and billboard] will continue to enjoy the benefits of competition–low prices and high quality services."
Michael Powell should have been there to see what happened. (Powell had left as chief of staff in 1997). AM/FM sold its stake in Lamar, so the DOJ stopped the billboard part of the merger. But that was all. Clear Channel grabbed up all AM/FM electronic outlets on its way to controlling 1,225 radio and 39 television stations in the US. So much for DOJ anti-trust enforcement.
And Clear Channel now controls 776,000 outdoor advertising displays, including billboards, street furniture and transit panels. Similarly, Viacom (who owns CBS) controls Viacom Outdoor which owns 900,000 billboards and hundreds of thousands of transit display faces. And the list goes on and on. Media giants aren’t just electric any more, they’re frightening.
In Florida, citizens are trying to recover home rule of their bill boards. But Fairway Outdoor Advertising (7th largest in the US) is owned by Morris Communications which owns the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville which publishes pro-billboard editorials without admitting its vested interest. So it goes.
Corporate media’s accumulative restructuring has erected massive pylons of businesses that include electronic and non-electronic outlets They have urged on deregulation for its cost-effectiveness through integration. Integration predicates that the right hand knows what the left hand is doing. Clear Channel’s 1200 stations are doing right-wing politics. What are their hundreds of thousands of billboards doing? Look at a list of the Big Six’s staggering and interwoven holdings and try and decide where free speech stewardship should begin and end.
This point is that all areas of free speech need protectionary oversight. Free speech is a constitutional sin qua non. Guardianship to prevent the public airwaves from being hijacked by conglomerates with political agendas? Certainly. And when they also own most of the nation’s billboards and bus panels, let’s send someone down to the bus stop to read them and see what they say. Then let’s all talk about it, if there’s still somewhere we can get together and talk.
Michael Powell, of course, should not go poking around down at the Metro station. He is preparing to make a momentous decision on June 2nd that will affect the practice of free speech in this nation. I all hope he realizes that current media agglomeration has produced not diversity, but an insidious uniformity of national and local control. And it’s got to be Powell who does it. Right now, Michael Powell is the last man standing.
Powell has previously in his life shown himself to be courageous and tough. As a platoon leader of an armored division stationed at Hamburg, he sustained injuries during duty that prostrated him for a year in hospital while he recovered. He persevered and walked away a whole man. I am watching to see if he will do that same thing again.
The FCC he chairs has vital and vast concerns in the cross-communications era. Holding megacom media to First Amendment openness and fairness is one of its founding mandates. Intellectual honesty is harder to demand. But if licensees mix ideology and political agendas into products clearly labeled and distributed as "News," it’s time to rein them in. Instead, a baneful deed could be done against public interests just at the moment when democratic principles and courage are most needed:
Theseus, son of King Pittheus (Colin Powell), enters the labyrinth. In the darkness, he hears voracious howls from a monster bent on domination (Michael’s old cocktail buddies). Girding his loins for battle, Theseus draws forward to allay that dark force (as ominous as Richard Perle) which is silencing the innocent (us).
Let’s finish this story together, free speech style. Let’s make this conventioneer a hero. Call him at 1-888-225-5322.
Lawrence Magnuson lives in rural Tennessee with his son on the leafy shores of Kentucky Lake. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org