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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I also have a Gateway 610 “All-in-one” Media
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
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