Careers: Interviews
Acclaimed Writer, Editor, Journalist, Media Expert

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Steve Kovsky.

Veteran journalist and author Steve Kovsky is a contributing editor for ZDNet AnchorDesk and a regular Technology Commentator on KFWB News Radio 980 in Los Angeles. His latest book, “The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Windows XP Media Center Edition,” is among the first to explore this new home technology.

Steve has served as writer and editor for publications such as PC Week, Computer Systems News, Digital Review, Computer Sources, and Electronic Components.

As Executive Editor at PC Week in Boston, he helped create the magazine's pioneering Webcast effort, PC Week Radio. After joining cable television network ZDTV (now TechTV) as a TV news reporter, Steve launched sister station ZDTV Radio. As General Manager and News Anchor, he drove ZDTV Radio to become the country's No. 1 streaming audio news service (Arbitron, 1999 and 2000). A recognized expert in the creation of streaming media content, was appointed Editorial Director, Broadband, by ZDNet in 1999.

As Executive Editor for CNET Radio (KNEW AM 910, San Francisco; WBPS AM 890, Boston; XM Satellite Channel 130), Kovsky managed the station's newsroom and Web site, in addition to hosting a popular 3-hour call-in show (9am to noon PT daily) on current tech topics.

His first book, “High Tech Toys for Your TV: Secrets of TiVo, Xbox, ReplayTV, UltimateTV and More,” was published in 2002. It was the first book to dissect and try to explain both the use and the significance of this new generation of intelligent entertainment devices (IEDs), which has truly blurred the line between computers and home appliances.

In addition to his journalistic pursuits, Steve now serves as Vice President and Editorial Director for Centric Events Group, an organizer of technical trade shows and conferences across North America.

Discussion:

Q: Steve, with your extensive successes in technology and the media, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

A: Thank you. It’s my pleasure, Stephen.

Q: Tell us more about your computing and media background; describe some valuable lessons learned.

A: Like most of my peers, we usually hark back to our earliest memories of teething on a Commodore 64 or something. In my case, it was actually a Radio Shack TRS-80 (or the “Trash 80,” as we affectionately called them). It was really an overgrown calculator, but it did some amazing things, and particularly as a writer, I found it wonderfully useful.

When I landed my first job as a professional newspaper reporter – at the Half Moon Bay Review and Pescadero Pebble in Northern California – we were using ancient IBM Selectric typewriters. If you wanted to rearrange the paragraphs in a story you were writing, it involved REAL cutting and pasting – with scissors and glue sticks! When the newsroom finally went electronic and installed a fairly primitive client-server system with “dumb” alphanumeric terminals on every writer’s desk, I was hooked. I became the first “power user.” It was just a matter of time until I stopped reporting about anything except technology.

Q: What is your most surprising experience?

A: That may have come when I moved to my next job, working for Computer Systems News. My very first day as a technology journalist involved flying to Las Vegas and attending my first COMDEX trade show, along with a few hundred thousand other people. After my editor, Mike Azzara, sketched out the basic components of a computer system on a napkin for me, he sent me off to my first interview. A rare storm had unleashed a flash flood in Vegas, turning the alley between the cavernous North and South halls into a raging torrent, with hundreds of people stranded on either side. Fearful of missing the first appointment of my new career, I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up the legs of my suit pants, and forded the stream. The surprise came at the end of that first interview. After discussing the company’s new “storage subsystem” for the better part of an hour, I had to conceal my surprise when they showed me a device that looked like a cassette tape recorder. The whole time I had been harboring a mental picture of a floppy disk – the only kind of computer storage I had ever seen before. Who knew?! That was the first of many surprises this new industry had to spring on me.

Q: Do have any humorous stories to share?

A: Well, while I’m on the subject...I also had my first run-in with “identity theft” on that fateful day at Comdex -- and I turned out to be the thief. My immediate boss, CSN Bureau Chief Mitch Irsfeld, and I had both hung our jackets on the backs of our chairs in the press room at the convention center. We both had chosen a tasteful gray tweed that day. I accidentally put on his jacket when I left for my interview. For the next few hours, people inexplicably insisted on calling me Mitch (his name badge was affixed to the front of the jacket). When I returned to the press room that afternoon, still completely unaware of my attempt at impersonation, Mitch had already notified the L.V. police about his stolen coat and wallet, which was in my breast pocket the whole time. Great first day on the job, huh?

Q: What are your favorite features in Windows XP Media Center and why?

A: It’s really quite remarkable what happens when you give your computer a remote control and turn your television into your PC monitor (and vice versa). It completely transforms the essentially solitary experience of computing into a social activity. Now viewing digital pictures, listening to MP3s, editing home movies, even surfing the Web are suddenly group activities.

By the same token, Media Center lets you take those living room entertainment experiences and integrate them into your personal computer. Why not watch (and record) some of your favorite TV shows while working on that boring spreadsheet or tax program? Having trouble following the plot line of your movie while you figure out your Alternative Minimum Tax? Just pause the show, or rewind it, or save the rest for later. Media Center makes it just that easy – even for listening to digital music or FM radio. It really is a breakthrough product on many fronts. That’s why Bill Gates calls it “the centerpiece” of Microsoft’s strategy for creating the home of the future.

Q: With so many books out, what differentiates your latest on XP Media Center?

A: Actually, very few books have been written about Media Center to date – in fact, only two that I know of. Mine is the only book to cover the important final additions to the operating system that were released in the 2004 Edition of Windows XP Media Center, code-named “Harmony.” These include a very rich Web interface called Online Spotlight which finally delivers on the promise of interactive TV – a technology which has been essentially an empty promise for decades. You can fire up your Media Center PC today and buy music, software and other services with your remote control from the comfort of your couch. That’s a pretty exciting new capability and it’s going to be very important in this “home of the future.”

My book also provides some tips, tricks and shortcuts that no one has ever documented before -- not even Microsoft. For example, you’ll learn how to create your own Internet radio station presets within Media Center’s FM Radio interface, how to customize Media Center to launch any application with your remote control, and how to connect multiple Media Center PCs so that you can record TV in one room of your home, then watch it in another.

Q: Share your top lessons/tips from your successes:

A: 1) PC Week Radio:
I guess the lesson there was no matter what line of work you’re in, follow your heart. I had an absolute blast working with our brilliant management, staff and advisors at PC Week and creating brand new forms of information media. I got to do cool things like have live conversations with fascinating people -- from Tom Brokaw and Douglas Adams to the CEOs of most of the top technology companies around the world – and we were able to really push the envelope for creating compelling live video and audio information services that were instantaneously accessible from anywhere around the globe. There were many “firsts” that we shared, and some lifelong friendships were formed in the process.

2) ZDTV Radio:
This was a terrific challenge: To create a world-class 24/7 broadcasting service in the space of about two months. It was a time when Dot Coms could do no wrong, and nothing seemed impossible. We assembled an incredibly talented crew that included some seasoned pros (several of whom were age 22 or less), a few interns and even a former fry cook. The result was one of the best “all-talk, all-tech” audio information services ever broadcast. And no streaming audio service has ever surpassed the quality of the hot waffles we served in the news studio. I think the takeaway there is to accept nothing less than excellence in any endeavor – even an ultimately doomed one. The respect you earn may be your own.

3) Editorial Director ZDNet/Contributing Editor AnchorDesk:
As ZDNet’s Editorial Director for Broadband, I learned the corporate side of the media business, and faced first-hand the difficulties of translating a great idea and a really cool capability into a profitable enterprise. It was an exercise in perseverance at times, and an abject lesson in how little I knew about getting the wheels of commerce to turn in the right direction. There were successes here, too, such as the creation of GameSpot’s streaming video clip service, which has informed and entertained millions of gamers around the world.

As Contributing Editor of AnchorDesk (www.anchordesk.com), I continue to enjoy publishing columns that tell the very human stories behind every technology. And my focus on great gadgets and “tech toys” always keeps me at the forefront of the coolest new consumer technologies and trends.

4) Executive Editor CNET:
Perhaps the greatest day for CNET Radio was the worst day our country and its people have suffered in modern history. On Sept.11, 2001, we were all shaken out of our beds by the calamity of the
Twin Towers. While CNET’s top executives were still debating whether the radio staff should even be called in to work, we were already in the studio and on the job, performing a mid-air format change from “tech talk” to breaking news and headlines. I’ve never seen a staff work harder and better, as we provided the vital function of reporting every twist and turn of that day’s awful events. It was a privilege to be part of that team, and to feel that in some small way, we were helping people to understand and react to those life-changing events.

5) Technology Commentator, KFWB News Radio 980:
Providing a daily, live report to millions of listeners in
Los Angeles for most of the past six years has been, on the whole, a lot of fun. It’s forced me to stay on top of the most current news and trends in technology (you can see the stories I’m tracking each week at http://kfwb.stevekovsky.com). In addition, the news staff at KFWB, working under News Director Andy Ludlum, is top notch, and being a small part of that team of professionals has always been a source of pride.

I also believe that this exercise of explaining highly technical information to “the masses” is a critical and demanding function in today’s increasingly complex society. Most of us don’t really understand how the commonplace machines that surround us and support us really work, and as everything from cars to can openers begins to adopt computer-enabled capabilities, that understanding gap is widening. Being able to break down complex issues and innovations into terms that we can all understand is becoming extremely important in our society. The bottom line in any technology story is how it affects people, and if you can communicate that, I think there will always be a role for you in the media.

6) Writer/Editor PC Week…Electronic Components:
In any field, you need to learn your “chops.” It’s usually just a matter of plain hard work. In the publishing field, the key is to get inside the head of your audience, and tell them what they need to know. That need may be driven by many things – capitalism, career advancement, personal curiosity, just to name a few. A good journalist takes the time to understand those motivations, then feeds that need in a way that is both truthful and entertaining. And yes, that can occur even at a publication with a sexy name like “Electronic Components.”

7) Centric Events Group:
After attending thousands of industry events around the
United States, I’m now helping to create them. Tens of thousands of IT professionals attend our ITEC Series and other educational events every year to learn more about the technologies that drive their businesses and their careers. For me, it’s a new arena to apply those same basic publishing principles of finding a need and filling it. And like broadcasting, producing events is a live medium. As such, it can be very unforgiving -- and extremely rewarding.

Q: Describe your current projects?

A: At Centric Events, we are currently in the midst of producing the Spring 2004 ITEC conference series (www.goitec.com), which entails more than 135 educational sessions for IT professionals, taking place in nine U.S. cities during May and June 2004. Between that, writing columns for AnchorDesk, covering new technologies for KFWB,and promoting this book, there’s a just a little time left for being a husband and a dad. I hope to be able to devote more time to helping nonprofits, in particular, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Q: What future books can we expect from you?

A: That’s a great question! My first two books both came as a complete surprise – both to me and my publisher, I think. My earlier book, “High Tech Toys for Your TV,” was the first book to talk about TiVo, ReplayTV, Xbox, GameCube, PlayStation and other computerized home entertainment devices. It not only described how to operate and hack these machines, it talked about what these new “computers dressed up like appliances” were doing in our lives, and what we can expect from them in the future. My current book, “Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Windows XP Media Center Edition,” is essentially a sequel, in many respects. Media Center is the “next big thing” in computer-enabled home entertainment. It doesn’t bother to pretend that there is not a powerful computer working inside the device, and as a result, it can do much more than a TiVo can. It’s much more flexible and customizable than any existing “standalone” digital video recorder or digital music player, yet it has a very usable and elegant interface that even a child or a computer-averse senior can love.

So that’s how I got here. Now I’m just kind of waiting for the shoe to drop, so to speak, to decide what my next book should be about. (There is an even newer version of Windows XP Media Center in the works at Microsoft, codenamed “Symphony,” so you never know. . .)

 Q: What are the most important trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations?

 A: 1) The key technologies that drove the PC revolution – storage, processing and displays – are continuing to drop in price and size, while growing in terms of power and capacity. That means that anything in your home or office that isn’t yet computerized eventually will be – and maybe sooner than you think. The day of the “smart” stapler may come sooner than you think. Be ready!

2) The creators of content – movie studios, TV networks, and the music industry – are still trying to fight against the digitization and universal distribution of their creations. It’s a losing battle. You can’t go backwards. The way to end piracy is to give people easy and affordable ways to legally access digital content. The studios are taking baby steps in this direction, for the most part, though we have seen real progress, particularly from the recording industry. They need to embrace the Internet once and for all, and start thinking about all the money they can make, instead of all that they stand to lose. Most people are essentially honest and law-abiding, as long as the laws are not unreasonably restrictive of their freedom. Black markets thrive when demand exceeds supply. All we need to do is increase the supply, and everyone will benefit – artists, copyright holders and consumers.

3) Just as we already seem to be living the “Jetsons” lifestyle that we dreamed about as children, today’s science fiction will rapidly become reality for the next generation. We need to help your kids adjust to the growing role that technology plays in their lives, by teaching them to be safe online, providing good role models, and setting good boundaries. For example, we need to place limits on kids’ access to electronics. “Tech toys” can never replace human interaction. Like everything else, digital entertainment should be consumed in moderation.

Q: What are your top recommended resources for both businesses and IT professionals?

A: 1) ZDNet and CNET continue to be terrific sources of information for technology professionals.

2) To keep up on the breaking news in technology, I like to browse the Tech category in Yahoo’s news section.

3) For greater depth, Ziff-Davis has several publications and Web sites that continue to offer quality content. Chalk it up to the editorial leadership of people like eWeek Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist, and ZD’s Editorial Director for Internet Jim Louderback. (Yes, both of them provided very flattering blurbs for my book – but it’s strictly a coincidence that I should mention them here…)

4) Check out the ITEC event series at www.goitec.com. It’s not enough to read about technology – you need to get out and touch it – and touch base with the people behind those technologies, including vendors, industry gurus, and plain old end-users like ourselves.

5) If you are truly interested in digital entertainment technologies, you can always visit my own site at www.tvtechtoys.com for additional news and links.

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

A: Which one?

I have three computers on my desk right now: The Windows 2000-based Dell Latitude laptop which is my primary workstation and goes with me everywhere; a Gateway Media Center tower system; and a Toshiba SP25 portable Media Center computer, which is a terrifyingly large laptop with an incredible built-in Harman/Kardon sound system. (There are two or three older computers kicking around in my office, as well.)

In my family room is an HP Media Center tower system, which is the primary hub for my DirecWay satellite Internet connection. It’s also conveniently located near my Gateway 42’inch plasma screen, to provide the full home theater experience that Media Center offers.

I also have a Gateway 610 “All-in-one” Media Center system on my kitchen counter – this is an extremely cool design. There are also a few older, Windows 98-based PCs – a Compaq and an eMachines tower system – in my kids’ bedrooms for homework purposes (note that these systems are NOT equipped with Web access – I don’t believe young children should use the Web without adult supervision).

Q: If you were doing this interview, what question would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answer?

A: Fine – now I have to do your job, too?! Just kidding. Let’s see. .

Q1) “Looking back on your nearly 20 years as a technology journalist, what are you most proud of?”

A1) One of my greatest sources of pride is the public service series I created at CNET Radio, called “Tech Gives Back.”  We needed public service announcements (PSAs) to fill out our broadcast programming. I searched hard to find some free ad spots to run for the nonprofits I care about most deeply – such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (www.jdrf.org) and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (the NCMEC Web site is www.missingkids.com). We were also interested in having top technology executives provide station IDs to play on the air. The Tech Gives Back series killed both birds with a single stone, and helped raise awareness for valuable and important causes at the same time. We invited major CEOs of tech companies to record a 60-second commercial for their favorite charities. Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, Intel CEO Craig Barrett, Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen, Compaq CEO Michael Cappellas, CNET CEO Shelby Bonnie, Knight-Ridder CEO Tony Ridder, “Father of the Internet” Vint Cerf, Infoseek founder Steve Kirsch, and many others all volunteered their time and lent their voices to the campaign. You hear the term “win-win” a lot in the business world, but this was truly a case where everyone won: the radio stations, the companies, the charities, and most importantly, the people that those charities support every day.

Prior to this project, the highlight of every year for me was producing a live Webcast from the “Chili for Children” cook-off event, which benefits the NCMEC, during COMDEX in Las Vegas. This was an even better example of how good works and good business can go hand-in-hand.

Q: Do you have any more comments to add?

A: Only that it’s been a great 19 years covering technology. When you’ve been carefully watching an industry progress for this length of time, you’d think you would get a little bored and jaded, and I suppose I have at times. But I continue to come across new things everyday that inspire my awe, and fire my imagination. I guess it’s this perpetual sense of dumbfounded amazement at technological innovation that keeps me coming back for more, year after year. I hope that from my writing and reporting, a little of that enthusiasm rubs off on others. If they share some small part of my childish wonder and glee over each new and brilliant tech toy, I feel like I’ve done my job.

Q: Steve, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.

A: Thanks for asking, Stephen, and take care.

 

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