The ultimate genius of William Donald Schaefer was the funny hat.
Schaefer came along, as mayor of Baltimore, at the same time local television news was first flexing its muscles. He knew TV’s big secret: they wanted characters, they wanted visuals.
Schaefer provided them.
He’d put on a funny hat, or a turn-of-the-century swim suit, and go take a swim with the seals at the National Aquarium. His audience was charmed. And once he had an audience, he had a chance to get out a message.
Schaefer’s message, even in the toughest of times, was simple: Baltimore is Best. That was the marketing pitch, and the funny hats carried the visual effect, and the message carried all the way out to the distant suburbs, whose young people decided they wanted a piece of the city’s charm.
Charm City – remember that expression? Better question: when is the last time anyone used it with a straight face?
Another question: If you’re the mayor of Baltimore, how do you sell your message today?
In Schaefer’s time, WJZ’s “Eyewitness News” was drawing roughly half a million viewers a night. The other two stations combined for nearly another half million. Today, if any Baltimore station grabs literally one-tenth of what WJZ used to draw, they’re doing cartwheels all the way to the bank.
Nobody watches TV news when they’ve been checking their cell phone all day long.
Then, we have newspapers – or we used to, anyway.
Some months back, I’m having lunch at Attman’s on Lombard Street with an old pal from The Sun, Rob Kasper, who was the paper’s “Happy Eater” food writer for a lot of years.
“There’s nobody at the paper doing what you used to do,” I said.
“Heck,” he said, “they don’t even have the section where my stuff ran.”
He wrote for one of the features sections. These were the sections which would tell everybody about a community’s culture: the museums, the shows, the neighborhood festivals, the ethnic gatherings, the characters doing great stuff. You lose those feature sections, you lose the mirror image of how we look in our loveliest self-perception, which is then reinforced each day
But on a daily basis, that kind of coverage is gone now. With the modern newspaper, we’re left alone with the news section, which tells us how many were shot last night. And that’s how we come to think of the city these days: a place where some people get shot, or carjacked, and you don’t want to go there, do you?
So if you’re a modern mayor – if you’re Catherine E. Pugh, mayor of Baltimore – how do you get your message of hope and healing heard today? How do you tell people the city’s life is computed in more than body counts?
Because everywhere I go today, when the talk gets to the city of Baltimore, what follows is talk of danger. And I’m exhausted trying to defend my city, even though I know there are countless areas — downtown areas, scores of neighborhoods, ballparks, museums, theaters, shopping areas – that are completely safe and there’s never a sense of menace.
But how does a mayor get such a message across when there are people who remember the Freddie Gray riots and haven’t been inside city limits ever since?
Today, we have social media, we have websites all over the place. But I don’t know the effect on those who use them. Many have small followings. With newspapers, and with TV news, there was always the sense you were seeing what great multitudes of people were seeing – and this alone legitimized it and often made you want to be a part of the municipal tribe.
But in a time when fewer people than ever read a daily paper or watch the local TV news, how do you get the feel-good stuff out to the general public? That’s not a rhetorical question. In sadness, I don’t have an answer myself.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.