Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Add One

There is power in numbers--the more of you out there in the Internetnation who are paying attention to my words here on Barnestormin, the more attention I get. Fact is without you, I would have less writing work, since I get new clients every year based partly on what I'm doing here. Thank you for reading.
I have resisted any temptation to put ads on this site, and will continue to do so. But I must admit that I wish more of my readers, even those lurkers out there, would become a member of Barnestormin. Fourteen of you have done so, and it blows me away to see your photos when I go to my blog. Please consider joining:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Coporatocracy We Can Share

What does it mean when two TV stations say they want to help concerned citizens spread their environmental message through ads, but then they refuse to air the ads? It means the natural gas industry has all of the power and influence, anti-fracking organizer Loretta Weir says.

“The rules are made to be broken. You always have to look at who made the rules.”
- Giulio Colasante (late father of Loretta Weir)

By Jonathan Barnes

Activist Loretta Weir, a resident of Pittsburgh’s Lincoln Place neighborhood who runs the anti-fracking group Marcellus Protest, wants to know what’s up with the local television media. They’re hot and they’re cold; they want you, and then they don’t.

But after spending months playing musical chairs with television executives, Weir has found media outside of the boob tube to help her spread the message. Still she wonders, why all of the runaround?

In September 2011, Marcellus Protest was contacted by a representative of WPGH53, who spoke with Weir and told her the drilling industry is having all of the say, and her group should get their say. The TV station representative, Brian Unger, said the station would sell advertising time to Marcellus Protest if the activist group ran a campaign that would cost $15,000.

Weir met with Unger in September, telling him she wanted to run the campaign very soon. “Are you sure you’ll run these spots within two weeks? I’ve got $5,000,” she told Unger, who assured her the company would run the ads the two had spoken about. Weir and her comrades had created several spots to air on WPGH. But representatives of the TV station wouldn’t meet with her again, stringing her out from September through Thanksgiving.

In November, Weir said, Jim Lapiana of WPGH told her in a phone conversation, regarding her proposed advertising with his TV station: “If this ad would in any way reflect negatively on the extraction of gas, I won’t air it.”

“This is only fair journalism,” Weir said.

“I don’t care, I can decide who I do business with,” Lapiana said, according to Weir. “And we don’t want your business.”

After the conversation, Weir halted her campaign and stopped collecting money for the TV ads, since she didn’t know that she would have a chance to advertise on TV. Around that time she attended the Three Rivers Community Foundation conference, and gave a talk about educating the public through the media. Following the talk, an elderly man came up to Weir and spoke with her about her thwarted TV ad campaign.

“Go to CTBN (Christian Television Network),” he said.
“I called Christian Television Network and told them we are really concerned about environmental damage. Tom McGough gives me a contract and gives me 230 spots, but he says I’d have to ‘Whisper the message,’” Weir explained. “I said, ‘I’m willing to whisper the message about environmental stewardship.’”

She sent McGough a sample introduction video. In January, he told her they would produce the ad, that her group could buy 230 spots and it would be aired nationwide. But then he went to his board, and later emailed her saying the company would not run the ads, because her group is partnered with the Thomas Merton Center.

A Catholic, Weir believes that we are all one. “We are all human beings. This idea that we can subjugate one another is wrong,” Weir said.

After being blocked by one TV network after another, Weir is rethinking how she’ll advertise the message. “I’m looking into billboard advertising—I’ll see if I get blocked there,” she said, not sounding completely hopeful. Recently, KDKA Radio agreed to air a spot for her group, starting in late March.

“I was never an activist all my life,” Weir said. “But this issue has really opened my eyes about what goes on with our political system… Pittsburgh was the first city to ban fracking. Now, we’re just starting to track the health impacts. What’s it mean? It means your government is behind this.”

Jonathan Barnes is a freelance journalist who has published thousands of stories in local, national and international publications. Email him at pittsburghreporter@yahoo.com.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Shaky Ground?

Experts, and some of those near fracking operations, believe the process leaves them on shaky ground. Here's the first in a series I wrote for Consumer News:


Live Strong

Hundred years old and look at those pipes:
Photo by Bikas Das, AP

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fractivists Speak Out On Law

Good opinion piece on fracking that you should read in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette if you care about your kid's health, or your own health:

Friday, March 09, 2012


Slim Forsythe
My idea that night in late summer last year was to go see some music, because I was trying to get out of a funk from losing an old friend who’d died. Murphy’s, with its dark confines and cavernous spaces, at the time was having bands every other week or so in the stage area by the back bar. I heard a song or two from Slim and the band a couple times weeks before at Murphy’s, catching the end of the performances.

I got there before the show and settled into a seat at the nearly empty back bar. I had taken up smoking again in the stress I felt after my friend’s death and nervously puffed away on cig after cig as I downed rounds of Guinness. I was blown away as I watched these folks perform, sweetly singing tunes like “Angel Band,” “The Old Account,” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” First I clapped but soon I hooted and hollered the more they sang. With the band’s smoothly layered four-part harmony, the music sounded almost heavenly. It reminded me of home, and being dislocated from my old home and on my own after many years of marriage, some kind of home was a good place to be, even for a moment.

I understand why tent revivals worked. The music cuts into your old soul, breaks open the rock of anger, sorrow or shame that your heart’s become, and lets the spring-waters of forgiveness flow. Something about those lovely old tunes and many of the new ones the band plays, too, creates a visceral reaction, felt in the gut and heart. This music is so powerful, doesn’t matter if your old man was an elder in First Presbyterian Church and a member of the Gideons, a Bible-carryin, Scripture-quotin Born Again Christian, or if he was a nonobservant Jew—you either feel it or you don’t. With Slim and his Loners when you feel it, you are redeemed.

Slim Forsythe and The New Payday Loners will be playing tonight at 10 at the Park House, a regular venue for the band that’s located along East Ohio Street in Pittsburgh’s North Side. It’s the official North Side release of Slim’s second CD, “Down On My Knees At Nied’s Hotel Again.” The title song of the CD, which includes collaborations with The Beagle Brothers, the Stillhouse Pickers and many other local country performers as well as his regular band, The Payday Loners, is a heartfelt gospel song that that attests to Kevin “Slim” Forsythe’s Christian faith. When Slim starts singing those gospel songs, you know he means it.

Having been raised in a Presbyterian family, a Born Again clan headed by a father who also led family Bible readings and who sometimes ruled with a heavy hand, I had mixed feelings about my Christian faith. I’d fallen away from the church decades ago and I wasn’t looking for a religious experience that night I saw Slim and the band—nor was I expecting such an experience when I first saw the Grateful Dead years before. But it happened and I was glad, and have been a fan ever since.
Don’t get me wrong, Slim is a regular guy who likes to have some beers and even has a beer-drinkin song on his album. But he has a faith, too, isn’t afraid to show it. He sometimes jokingly calls his group “a bar band with a Gospel problem,” making such quips in between songs, as the Loners lullaby fans into a kind mood.

I had a lot of questions for Slim after I’d seen him play a number of times, and I corresponded with him by email last year. The following Q/A comes from that correspondence.

Is it just me, or do all the country musicians in the region (or at least the greater Pittsburgh area) want to jam with you?

I'm still baffled and humbled when I see the calibre of musicians who for some reason do want to jam/play with me. You might mention in this regard the Fourth Annual "Slim Jam" at Nied's Hotel, Saturday, January 14th beginnin' @ 7:00 PM. My birthday is January 11th. I'll be 56. And I've celebrated at Nied's Hotel the last three years. At the height of the most recent "Slim Jam" last January, I was in the bar room at Nied's surrounded by 12 other musicians (two fiddlers, two mandolin players, one banjo, one dobro, four acoustic guitarists, one bass player, one accordion player) and we did Move it on Over and Ghost Riders in the Sky. When the whole circle (and a bunch of people in the crowd too!) all yelled "Yippee Yih Yaaah!" in Ghost Riders, it sent chills of joy up and down my spine! Wow! One of the greatest nights of my life. You can view both of these performances on Youtube. And what I said at the end of one of those videos accurately expresses my sentiment in regard to the many talented people with whom I have been able to surround myself at times: "I sure hope you're havin' half as much fun as I am!"

Do you see yourself as a central figure in Pittsburgh's country scene (you headline Johnny Cash Day, a locally famous country benefit concert, for example)?

I don't consider myself to be at "the center" of any scenes (particularly Bluegrass or Rockabilly, which have both been around here for many years, waxin' and wanin' through the decades). Rather, thanks to these bands on the record and others like them, I find myself at times on the outskirts of several different musical communities. Sort of "outside lookin in." And once in a while I tag along...escorted into the "center" courtesy of my friends. A great example of this would be last January when the Stillhouse Pickers invited me to join them at the Butler Ice Jam at some motel up on Route 8 just south of Butler, PA. I played with them on about half of their set in the ballroom, then we all jammed in the hallways for another couple hours. Bluegrass and trad. bands all over the place...stairwells, motel rooms. Wonderful. The Stillhouse Pickers' bass players' wife commented: "Slim, when you start singin' those old Hank Williams songs every man over 60 within a five mile radius just seems to appear." She wasn't too far off the mark. And you could see it in their faces, Jon. I was connectin' with them. Not a word was spoken. Just the songs. It was very mysterious and beautiful.

Were you raised Christian of some kind? How does faith affect your choice of music?

I was raised Episcopalian. We prayed in the language of Shakespeare.
I got a short answer and a long answer to this and you're gettin' each one:
Short answer: I believe in Jesus Christ. I trust Him to be my Lord and Saviour. I hope that a lot of what I'm doin'...the shows I take, the songs I select to perform, the songs I write and record...I hope it comes from my faith and I hope it's pleasin' to the Lord, or, at least, that it's not buggin' Him too much! I would be wonderful to find on that Last Great Day that it was all a gift from Him. I remember you wrote to me early in the game that you weren't "religious." I'm not either. I just love the Lord. I'm not a church goer now, though I was for many years. And I love and respect those who do attend regularly.

Long answer: Like I said: I believe it. Believe with the faith of a little child. But even if I didn't believe, I would still do "sacred" material (actually, all good music is sacred, I believe, but we've got to use certain conventions if we're gonna communicate, so you know what I mean...). I would do it, firstly because it is inextricably interwoven with the genre. But secondly and most importantly, I would do it because time and time again I have seen how a gospel song can change the entire chemistry of a live performance. I don't care how good you are, if you stand up there and do ten "love gone bad" songs in a row in the key of G, folks are gonna get bored! There just seems to be somethin' about that upliftin', toe-tappin', soul-stirrin' gospel sound. I've played rooms where nobody was really movin' till we got to Hank Williams' Calling You. Then the hands start clappin'. The heads start bobbin'. Some people start to dance.

And I've also noticed that, strictly from this standpoint (which you might call "performance strategy") it's a fine line to walk and you cross it at the risk of breakin' the spell. You can over do it. It's a tricky balance. A bar is not a church. And yet it may still be a place where the greatest healin' work happens. I do play straight church gigs now and then (includin' three years in a row on the hay wagon, in the parkin' lot, of the Bryn Mawr Church of Christ, across from Stan's Restaurant in White Oak, PA!) but my steady gig is singin' gospel music in honky tonks till way past Midnight along with a whole traincar load of Hank and other Classic Country artists and some of my own stuff which sounds a lot like that mostly.

By "Classic Country" I mean primarily what came out in the 1940s and 1950s. I go back earlier sometimes (Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers) and up more recently sometimes (Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Gillian Welch and this could all change over the next few years. I'm tryin' to follow the music and see where it takes us.

Videos: http://youtube.com/user/TheCowboySweethearts
Facebook: Slim Forsythe

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Municipalities Organize for Lawsuit Challenging State

A group of municipal leaders is considering challenging a state law that overturns local control of zoning related to natural gas drilling. The grassroots collection of local officials is looking to challenge the recently passed Pennsylvania House Bill 1950, which will charge natural gas drillers a per well fee, but which also largely removes the right of municipal leaders to enact zoning regulations on hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for natural gas.

Last year, Forest Hills borough and the city of Pittsburgh passed laws prohibiting fracking, but under the new state law signed by Gov. Tom Corbett on Feb. 13, those regulations must be changed to comply with the state law.

Peters Township leaders spent years developing regulations on natural gas drilling, but the new law essentially trashes them. That doesn’t sit well with David Ball, a Peters councilman. Ball, along with Cecil Township supervisor Andrew Schrader and Robinson Township supervisor Brian Coppola, recently led a gathering of local officials that was held on Feb. 22 in Monroeville. At the meeting Ball, a metallurgical engineer, gave a summary to local leaders on HB 1950: “Regardless of what state politicians said, it does pre-empt local zoning control. It’s a one-size-fits-all state ordinance. The problem is, the requirements in our township are not the same as in others,” he said.

The three leaders of this fight represent the gamut of municipalities that are affected by the new state law. While Peters is suburban, with some open space, Cecil is a mix of open space and developed areas, and Robinson (in Washington County), is rural, with a lot of open space and some drilling activity. Despite their differences, leaders of the three municipalities share a concern that’s growing among municipalities in the Commonwealth—their inability to create laws that effectively govern natural gas drilling in their municipalities.

“The new law takes away a township’s ability to control where drilling takes place. It also makes it virtually impossible for the community planning of a township to occur,” Ball said. “Peters spent 2½ years developing a drilling ordinance that is specific to 40-acre sites. Now, you have to allow drilling anywhere.”

In many municipalities, there is a concern for parks, schools, home values and the quality of life of residents and business owners and workers. At the Feb. 22 meeting, officials from Monroeville, Murrysville, Lower Burrell and Forest Hills attended. Ball personally is not opposed to natural gas drilling, but Forest Hills Mayor Marty O’Malley, who attended the Monroeville meeting, is no fan. Though he didn’t vote on it, O’Malley favors the fracking ban that Forest Hills Council unanimously approved. The small borough, an eastern suburb outside Pittsburgh, soon will be in violation of state law unless it rescinds its anti-fracking ordinance. From the time of the enactment of the new state law, municipalities have just 120 days to change their zoning to comply with it.

“A number of township solicitors are trying to determine if there’s a legal strategy to fight it. If so, we’ll pursue it,” Ball said.

If it is fought, the legal battle should be a straightforward legal case in which municipalities will be arguing that the legislation passed by the state—and written by the drilling companies’ lawyers—violates the Pennsylvania Constitution, O’Malley said. “The state constitution mandates that elected officials are constitutionally bound to protect the water, the land and the air… We want 40 municipalities [involved in the lawsuit], not just four,” he said.

O’Malley has recommended that Forest Hills Council support the effort, which could cost the borough $1,000 to $2,000 to start.

Ball is opposed to laws that remove the rights of local leaders to regulate natural gas drilling. The new law allows natural gas compressor stations to be built 750 feet from a residential area, but the facilities operate around the clock and make a lot of noise, Ball said.

“I think drilling should be done in the right place and be done safely. I also think townships should retain the zoning control to determine where and how drilling is done,” Ball said.

The Peters councilman gave the state legislature more of a break than O’Malley, saying he believes politicians were misinformed on the bill and told by their leaders what was in the fracking legislation. But overturning his municipality's laws does smart.

“I worked very hard to develop a reasonable ordinance to control drilling… As councilmen, we have an obligation to protect the health, safety and welfare of the community. The state law took away control of what happens in our own township—including setbacks, hours of operation, pipelines, compressor stations and seismic testing,” Ball said.