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Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009 | 4 p.m.
Sitting in the lounge at the Palms, Gordon Absher, a vice president at MGM Mirage, was preparing for an interview as part of the second annual Podcast-a-Palooza, looking like a student cramming for an exam. He was studying notes with some intensity, as if he was in for a major media press conference. He looked like a man minutes from a grilling by a congressional committee.
In fact, he was about to be questioned by a group of Vegas-focused podcasters, part of the second annual Podcast-a-Palooza. The event brought three of Vegas’ most popular podcasts—The Vegas Gang, The Strip and Five Hundy by Midnight—together onstage for a live stream. Absher was a guest on The Vegas Gang, whose questioners included Hunter Hillegas (RateVegas.com), Chuck Monster (VegasTripping.com) and UNLV professor Dave Schwartz—three people with an interest in the tiniest details of Vegas-related news. (For their parts, The Strip and Five Hundy offer, respectively, interviews and humorous banter for the purpose of exploring Las Vegas.)
Would they ask him about room rates at Aria, construction deaths at CityCenter or just about a new carpet at Luxor? How could he know? The people about to question him could have asked anything, although, as Absher probably expected, most of the questions would focus on CityCenter. These were not just any interviewers.
There are likely a lot of things Absher did not want to talk about in front of this crowd. He was clearly not there to break news. For example: VegasTripping had recently posted a not-meant-for-the-public construction report about CityCenter, offered by an outside company as a case study of its work. That report was taken down by the company after VegasTripping blogged about its contents; MGM Mirage’s unhappiness with the report’s accuracy and appearance on the site was also blogged about. Could that stuff come up?
Not that any of that matters to most Vegas tourists. Podcast listeners and broadcasters form an elite of Vegas aficionados. How elite? About 150 Vegas hobbyists were sitting in the Palms lounge watching, with 450 or so listening to the live stream on the ’net.
It goes without saying that some 600 folks following Absher’s comments couldn’t fill even a single floor of the MGM Grand, one of the nine properties (pre-CityCenter) under the MGM Mirage umbrella. So why answer questions for an audience this small, filled with nitpickers, second-guessers and self-appointed commentators who mostly fall outside the “mainstream media”? According to Absher: “This is worth our time, because these are people who cover us regularly. Vegas is one of the most searched destinations on the Internet. People who come to this town, our customers, rely on this medium, on blogging and on podcasts and the social media. We are here to maintain our contact with these people who are so interested in Vegas. A lot of our customers, especially our younger customers, don’t trust what I, corporate dude, say on my corporate website. They are going to back-check what I say against this. So it is important that we have a continuing dialogue with our podcasting, blogging and tweeting colleagues.”
Still, Absher complained that new media can often be inaccurate—yet just a Google click away from his customers. “You say something, and someone is sending a tweet and missing the context you are putting it in. We really worry about bad information getting out there. And there is a desire in new media to be first with something that encourages that.” The web inspires questioners, hoping to get what Absher later described as “gotcha” moments.
During his interview, Absher offered long answers to short questions, limiting the number of questions he had to answer and allowing him to stay on message, repeating only what has already been released about CityCenter. Controversial construction problems and changes, along with plans for the Harmon, never even came up. It was a skillful performance. (One thing Absher successfully did not mention: a nearly $1 billion write-down on CityCenter his company would announce a few days later—exactly the sort of news the Vegas Gang would have been eager to break.)
Still, Absher did fall into one “gotcha” moment. He made what he thought was an obvious joke about reporters who questioned the Excalibur and Circus Circus not being blown up, and tossed out the name “Steve” to general laughter, implying Steve was one of those guilty. But to Steve Friess, the journalist who hosts The Strip podcast (and a Weekly columnist), the humor was lost. “Lie,” was his description in an immediate tweet that I read to Absher.
“I did not mean Steve said that. I meant a lot of journalists did, and I said Steve as a joke, and now I am called a liar.” With a slight tinge of frustration, Absher added, “It was a flip joke.”
And so it goes, as companies and new media grope their way to an understanding of an uncertain future in an era of instantaneous and world-wide communication.