Volume 4/Issue 4
Kate Sullivan & Pop Vultures
Intro from Jay Allison
At Transom we’re not much into demographics or appeal ratings. We’re not chasing an audience, but have more of a Follow-The-Talent approach. We want to hear from the people who will carry public radio into the future.
Kate Sullivan and the team at Pop Vultures (the radio show that dissects pop music) certainly appeal to the fabled Younger Demographic, but we like them because they sound alive and knowledgeable and profoundly into what they’re doing and they’re funny. Those qualities seem good ones for public radio to take forward.
Kate’s Transom Manifesto talks about her influences (BBC World Service, early KROQ, Car Talk, TAL, Mr. Rogers) and the process of making this radio show. She worried that writing about process would jinx it, but we promised (with no authority) that wouldn’t happen. Kate and the producing team will be answering your questions on Transom all month, mojo intact.
A Pop Vultures Manifesto
by Host Kate Sullivan
Part I: Inspirations
Firstly, I feel humbled and a bit silly trying to write a manifesto on radio, since I’d never done radio until Pop Vultures—and we’ve only been working on it for a couple years. And in terms of process, this show is (I’m guessing) fairly idiosyncratic, and continually in flux. Maybe there’s something interesting about that “outsider’s” perspective—I don’t know! I hope!
Host Kate Sullivan
The process is almost wholly intuitive for me–in fact, it’s so intuitive I was at first wary of even talking about it. I thought I might fuck it up if I picked it apart.
In truth, though, what feels like instinct is probably just stuff I learned by osmosis from being a radio addict for most of my life. My biggest radio thrills of all time are: Early 1980s KROQ; the BBC World Service (esp. John Peel); Car Talk and This American Life. If I’m really being honest with myself, I think I have to admit that early MTV has also shaped my brain quite a bit.
Maybe if I explain why I loved these radio entities so much, I’ll be able to explain better about how we do the show.
Golden-era KROQ was driven by pure, mad, unabashed love of music—and the assumption that talking into a microphone should be fun. KROQ provided a kind of aural atmosphere, a mini-world, really, where the values were humor, freedom, musical exploration, total irreverence and, maybe most of all, the desire to connect people emotionally through music and smart talk about music. (They were hippies at heart, borne from the freeform FM pioneers. Check out the beard on the DJ dude!)
After all this time I still can’t think of a better way of doing radio.
Early KROQ –”Insane” Darrell Wayne in studio with Devo
Also Check Out: KROQ: An Oral History (Written by Kate Sullivan)
Later, in the early ‘90s, I lived in Prague and discovered the BBC. I love everything about the BBC World Service. Everything. But what always blew me away was how they could take any topic, no matter how seemingly dry, and turn it into a fascinating human story—a drama, really. “Farming World,” of all things, was great at this. What also excited me was that they weren’t just delivering the news—they were also, secretly, trying to help people improve their English skills and to better understand British and Western culture. When we first started devising Pop Vultures, I really wanted to emulate that. My dream was to entertain people, primarily—and, in the process, to painlessly familiarize them with pop music and culture. A now-discontinued BBC show called “Pop Words” was brilliant at this: They’d read the lyrics to a radio hit and explain them, tongue firmly in cheek, in terms people from Kampuchea to Burkina Faso would understand. To me, this crystallized the greatness of the BBC, which is its determinedly accessible intellectualism.
Car Talk does something similar in that it takes a specific, seemingly dry topic and turns it into a general celebration of humanity, humor and fun. Obviously, This American Life does that too. More importantly, for me, TAL has a unique reverence for the experiences, opinions and language of “non-experts.” Everyday people. Plus, you know, it doesn’t sound like anything else on NPR. That’s huge.
So far we’ve only used one professional critic on the show, besides myself. This isn’t due to anti-intellectualism. It’s just that most critics don’t talk about music in aurally compelling ways, whereas musicians usually do. (And most of our guests are musicians.) I guess, to me, musical discussion without passion is inherently flawed, and can become a kind of tautologous exercise. I need discussion of music to reach outward, to deal with the ways music exists in our lives, because I think that’s how most people experience music: It’s a part of their hearts, their love stories, their memories, their families, their dreams and tragedies.
Here’s where we get into my other, non-radio heroes. Lester Bangs is my rock-critic hero because at his best he struck a fine and brilliant balance between his intellect and his soul, and the ways the different parts of him processed music. His writing was as musical as music itself-in many cases, more so!
I also have a real fondness for MOJO Magazine. They have a similar radical love for music and a fantastic fluency with pop history. I love the feature, for example, where contemporary stars discuss the single record that most changed their lives. Much like the BBC reporting, this feature has multiple layers: Under the guise of an essay by PJ Harvey, you end up learning something about her hero, Leonard Cohen. And, in the end, you also get to see a new side of PJ Harvey.
I also love the comic strip/book “Great Pop Things,” which tells the history of rock ‘n roll through comics, and consider it to be some of the better rock criticism of the past couple decades. What appeals is that it takes a left-field, unorthodox approach to pop criticism, basically answering pop music with pop art. (Frank Zappa may have thought writing about music was like “dancing about architecture,” but that sounds perfectly appropriate to me—as does making comic strips about pop music.) Its irreverent, sometimes druggy evocation of music history embodies the spirit of punk rock better than most arts criticism.
Also Check Out: Great Pop Things “The Lester Bags Story”
Finally, I also looked to Mr. Rogers when we were first planning Pop Vultures. I liked how he was the primary host of the show, but would take the viewer on “visits” to his various neighbors, both in the real world and in the world on the other side of the choo-choo tunnel, and learn something from each of them. (I’d guess that that, in turn, was inspired by the “neighborhood” of the Hundred Acre Wood in the Winnie-the-Pooh books, where Pooh spends most of his time paying visits to the homes of Owl, Rabbit etc.) The idea for the phone-call element with my friend Hillary came from this. Actually, I wanted all the guests to feel like characters in a sort of “neighborhood.” I don’t think we’ve really achieved that yet, but I’m hoping if we get the chance to continue, the regular guests’ unique personalities will become more distinct and predictable-in a good way.
All of these wonderful radio, TV and literary people inspire me every day, though I feel Pop Vultures is but a mere shadow of all their great work.
Part II: Why We Do The Show The Way We Do It
A. Why We Talk Normal
Fortunately, most of our listener feedback has been positive. But when people critique the show, one of the biggest problems they have is that we don’t speak like traditional, NPR-style experts, and we don’t give our credentials. I think these people are right, in a sense: If you want a pop-music Fresh Air, you’ve definitely come to the wrong place.
Guest Jeff Whalen and Kate Sullivan taking a break
at the Pop Vultures studio in L.A.
The problem is a simple misunderstanding of our intent, and our role in a station’s lineup. Pop Vultures is, first and foremost, intended as entertainment. We really want to entertain people in the old-fashioned sense—make ‘em laugh, piss ‘em off, keep ‘em listening. The secondary goal is to convey information.
We never claim to be experts, because the whole point of the show is to promote the concept that pop music—and the discussion of it–is for everyone. We feel that we should never be able to sit on our “expert” laurels. Listeners should not be compelled by our credentials, but by our words.
Likewise, we feel it is implicit that these are merely our opinions—and that you have every right to disagree. (We do—constantly!) Furthermore, we are not presenting the final word on any given topic. Pop Vultures exists as a complement to, and not a replacement for, “serious” music criticism.
The other criticism we have gotten, almost always from young women, is that I sound like a young girl. The assumption there is that, well, it’s bad to sound young and female. Would anyone ever dare to critique Tavis Smiley for sounding black, or Daniel Schorr for sounding old? I don’t know how to answer prejudice like that. What can I say? I’m here, I sound young and female, get used to it?
The colloquial nature of our discussion isn’t an accident. Garrison Keillor had the first inspiration for the show while driving late one night in rural Wisconsin (or somewhere). He’d tuned into a local college station, and two guys were shooting the shit about music, apparently in a dorm room. The voyeurism of the experience was compelling—as was its unscripted informality. Of course, as a writer, I was totally intimidated when I heard the show was to be unscripted. But that element turned out to be crucial—and, actually, pretty natural for me.
In 1990 I met a group of songwriter-guys who liked to talk about music a lot, kind of the way sports-talk guys will endlessly debate batting statistics and trades. At the time I didn’t even know I was that interested in music. But through our conversations, I discovered that not only did I know more than I thought, but music was my very favorite number-one thing to talk about! I remember realizing one day, and saying out loud, “Music is my favorite thing to talk about! Too bad I can’t get paid for this!”
Over the following years I engaged in countless late-night beer-and-bull sessions with these friends and, in the process, learned a lot about music, and new ways to think about music. Conversation (or journalism) isn’t just about having a good subject—it’s about how you approach it.
Doing professional music journalism later, I was thrilled to learn that all musicians, no matter how fancy or sold-out, talked the same way about music. Rock stars are really just overgrown fans! I’d sit down with anyone, from Sugar Ray to Oasis, and watch their eyes light up when I’d ask them about the first moment they knew they wanted to be a musician. They always had a story: The first time they played their brother’s copy of “My Sharona”; or their first KISS record. They remembered the room they were in; they remembered playing air guitar while jumping on the bed or running around the living room screaming.
And when it came to musical analysis, they were consistently insightful—but it was usually the “mother wit” of the passionate auto-didact. And, personally, I think that’s the best kind!
The other thing is, musicians’ knowledge of music is not rooted in an intellectual desire to “master” the subject. Instead, it comes out of a deep and terrible loneliness, and the constant hunger for connection and delight. And so there’s a friendliness toward the subject that makes for expansive discussion.
Pop Vultures is an attempt to give props to that mother wit.
B. Why We Talk About Over-Exposed Commercial Music
This is the question that some public radio program directors have in mind when they first hear about the show. The official answer is that pop culture is a part of American life and as such deserves discussion, period. Why be ignorant of your own culture?
But my private answer is totally hippie-ish. Basically, I look around at the millions of eager music-lovers who turn on the radio or computer every day in search of the same things musicians do—delight, connection, and escape from solitude. And I feel empathy for them, because the junk they have to contend with is ridiculous. And yet they keep on listening, and buying records, and going to concerts. Why?
I believe that the music that “makes it big” oftentimes has something inherently interesting about it, because it has a story to tell about its historical moment and the people responding to it.
In addition, I believe that American popular music is one of our proudest traditions, and, historically, best contributions to humanity. I realized this when I lived in Eastern Europe. There is something sacred and redemptive in the blues, in folk and country, and in jazz. These are the roots of today’s pop, rock and hip-hop, and I think you can still find shreds of that sacred redemption here and there if you just look closely enough.
Part III. Process
The basic process runs something like this: We brainstorm a bunch of topics. Brainstorming is a private process for me that I don’t really want to talk about. My coproducer Kathryn Slusher also brainstorms, and together we come up with a master list of topics. We want a range of topics, length-wise—from five to 30 minutes–to give us freedom and leeway for the unexpected. We’re always looking for the itty-bitty ones that can fill in a six-minute gap. We love those! We also love “concept” episodes such as our forthcoming “Salute To Glam Rock” or “Salute to TV” episodes.
Then we do a few weeks of intense recording with all our guests, both at a studio in L.A. and in Minneapolis. (By the way, we’re constantly adding new guests.) I also record solo, which usually becomes interstitial stuff. Usually we record enough material for five to ten shows in one of these “pushes.” Maybe 30 hours of material.
Next, we decide which topics should go together to make up individual episodes, looking for some kind of link (if there is one), but textural and emotional contrast. Then we listen back to all the material for each topic, and democratically decide which material is the best. I love this part of the process, because it is so totally democratic. I have to say, I am completely in love with my collaborators, and working with them is unadulterated joy. I cannot believe how much fun we have!
Then we make a rough “blueprint” for how the material should be ordered and what music to play.
At this point editing in ProTools begins. This is a very private moment in the process as well, where Tiffany Hanssen communes with her muse and comes up with all the little moments that make me smile or laugh.
After the first round of cobbling-together of material for a show, we listen to it and decide what needs to be cut—because it’s always too long.
Often times subjects surprise us. Our “Jesus Rock” episode was originally going to be just a short segment on the band Evanescence, but it turned out to be much bigger, and good enough for a whole show. The bummer is when a topic doesn’t pan out, and we’ve got to either go back into the studio and do more recording, or figure out how to pair it with something longer. Or scrap it. Or put it back on the stove to simmer. We’ve scrapped numerous topics; and we’ve got numerous ones that’ve been simmering for a long time.
After the second round of editing, we do our “fine-tooth listening” where we get extremely fucking nitpicky, about everything. “Can we play the chorus—but the second chorus–and not the verse?” “We need a softer transition from the Nirvana into the talk about ‘The O.C.” “I think that joke should go at the top.” “Can we cut that part where I totally contradict myself?” “Oops, we missed a ‘fuck’.” “We need more cowbell!” (Just joking.)
One more round of editing, then we listen one last time, and then the finishing touches go in and it gets mastered by Jason Keillor.
This happens over and over, and now we’re at the point where we’ve got shows coming down the conveyor belt one after another, so we’re constantly working on different parts of the process at once.
A Note On Choosing Topics:
The only thing I want to say about choosing topics is this:
- You can’t do a good story on a subject that bores you.
- Like they say in fiction-writing classes, by focusing on the specific, you can achieve universality.
- The way you approach a topic is just as important as the topic itself. It reveals your own biases and perspective, and can make the difference between sounding patronizing, reductionist, predictable and fucked-up, or sounding respectful, fresh, expansive and fun.
A Note On Finding Guests:
There’s no real system; it’s all about chance—you know, who I happen to meet at the record store or doing an article. It would be nice to know everyone in America and choose accordingly, but I tend to trust the mystery of kismet.
The main quality I look for in guests is largely dictated by the medium: That is, do they have an interesting way of speaking? I once met a forensic musicologist, who serves as an expert witness in high-profile song-plagiarism cases. Totally fascinating guy, right? Well, we got him into the studio, and it turned out that he talked extremely slowly. What he said was good, but impossible to listen to for any length of time because you’d start to fixate on the gaps between his words. And there was no way to edit that stuff out.
A good radio voice is a plus, of course.
Our guests are good at party-conversation—they know how to have back-and-forth, or else their soliloquies are fun.
So that’s about all I have to say for now about the production of Pop Vultures. I’m happy to answer any questions or just talk about stuff.
The interior of our L.A. studio looking into the control room.
A Conversation with Kate Sullivan
Mary McGrath – September 27, 2004 – #5
I’m a diehard fan. You’ve invented an original, fresh sound in public radio, and that’s not easy as you surely know. I was surprised to learn that you record so many shows over such a short period. I guess I assumed you picked some show themes ahead of time and then taped your discussions weekly or more regularly, cut them down and added music. Why not do it that way? Are you happy with the way the show sounds now? Have you tried things that didn’t work out and are there other ideas you’d like to experiment with?
Kate Sullivan – September 28, 2004 – #6
I honestly don’t remember how we came up with the current production system. As far as I remember, it just happened organically. Because of this, it *feels right*–but I also hope we’ll get the chance to try other things, too.
For better or worse, it’s been a given from the beginning that we would not be able to be totally up-to-the-minute on our show, because the show is so highly edited, so much planning goes into each episode, and we have such a small crew. It takes much longer than one week for us to make one show. If we had a bigger budget we could do it, and that would be awesome, and I would be able to try some things I’d like to try.
Even so, I would still want to record a lot of material at once. It helps us to plan the whole season, or at least half the season, as a body of work, like chapters in a novel. Plus, there’s a delicious I-feel-so-alive joy in recording a whole bunch of crap in a really short period of time.
Anyway, part of the whole challenge is that any number of seemingly great topics might not pan out in recording. (Or they meld into one another.) It would be dangerous to depend on a week-to-week basis for any one topic to work. Likewise, some topics blossom way beyond our expectations, and it’s good to have the flexibility to accommodate surprises.
Example: Over a year ago, I had an idea for talking about “slutty” music (Lil Kim, Peaches, Barry White, etc.–sex music). But I didn’t have an idea for how to frame the discussion, and so our recorded conversations on the topic didn’t go anywhere, and we tabled the topic.
Then while recording on numerous topics this past summer, the producer/rapper Kanye West kept coming up in conversations with different guests, including his song “Slow Jams”—a recent single about, you guessed it, sexy music. This led into a really natural discussion of all the aforementioned. So now, totally unforeseen, we’re doing a show half devoted to Kanye West and half to sex music, with “Slow Jams” as the transition.
This would never have happened if we had been stuck in a week-to-week schedule.
My dream would be to have a hybrid system where part of each show would be recorded in the old long-term way, and part would be plugged in last-minute on a weekly basis…I’d love to be able to comment on the weekly news in pop; to discuss the current number-one single; to have callers, etc.
Am I happy with how the show sounds now? Sure. But naturally I can imagine much more. We talk sometimes about how we’d change the show if we went to an hour. I’d like to be able to play longer snippets of songs, for one thing. And I have tons of dreams for little features and experiments.
But I think it’s better to do one small thing well than to try to do many things not-so-well. So until we’ve perfected this particular format I’m wary of too much experimentation.
Tom Koetting – September 28, 2004 – #7
In 1982, I was 18 and Music Director of a brand-new college radio station…While the new station was trying to sort out its musical identity (“should we play ALABAMA or THE CLASH?”), a friend in Long Beach started sending me cassettes of KROQ. About 5 minutes into the first cassette was this killer mix into a Ian Hunter’s “Bastard” and over the intro a scratchy older woman rips, “now who says you drive a Mack truck through MY seg-ways, you BASTARDS?!” Ok, you’ve got my attention…
I’m convinced that what made KROQ special was Rick Carrol’s neo-Top 40 approach. Take a super tight playlist and surround it with zany dj’s talking over introductions and playing bits of audio between almost every song. Hmmm, sounds like WMCA, WIMS, WMGM and WABC in 1964. Everything old is new again. As an added twist, DJ choices would frequently creep in between the almost-painful repetition of the “hits.” An element of surprise was always afoot.
While we didn’t copy KROQ’s sound 100% on our college station – it did have a huge influence, even to this day. MANY of the songs on Rick Carrol’s super small playlist were imports, not yet released or promoted in the U.S… KROQ was also the first radio station I heard to weave odd bits of pop media into its presentation. Frequently, instrumental bits in the middle of songs would be laced with old movie clips. In the middle of some new wave song would be … The Maltese Falcon! … Tired of playing “Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage” for the 100th time? Take some porn movie audio and drop it over the instrumental parts. Hearing it floored me, and I started collected weird audio that very moment.
Adam Allington – September 28, 2004 – #12
one of the reasons I enjoy Pop Vultures so much is that you guys are not afraid to call a spade a spade. That folk sleezeball show was RIGHT ON! Finally a show on public radio that is not afraid to say “Hey John Mayer…you suck”
Being in my late 20′s I think my generation is one of the first in America to literally grow up with public broadcasting. Many of us…are used to and familiar with the voices and programming of NPR, APM, PRI…etc. I cherish these shows and would not trade them for anything.
It is nice however to have a show like Pop Vultures that realizes there is a lot of fertile ground yet to be plowed when it comes to critiquing pop music. I mean, aside from current pop features like boy bands, rap metal, goth, etc, there are still interesting points to make about say…Queen, Motown, the Stones. All of these things are related on some level. I think even my dad would get a kick out of Pop Vultures
Kelvin Cato – October 4, 2004 – #14
My first impression of your show is that it’s not really about music. It’s really more about your being catty – which is one fun aspect of listening to music. Have you thought about adding more musical content to your show, i.e. some actual critique of music rather than musicians’ attitudes?
Kate Sullivan – October 4, 2004 – #15
Ira Glass’s phrase is, “Pop Vultures isn’t about music; it’s about pleasure.” I might say, “Pop Vultures isn’t about music–it’s about how people love music.” (Or hate it!) Of course, critical analysis is part of that process, certainly for me anyway as a critic myself.
To that end, I’m excited about the way we’re continually expanding the cast of Vultures to include people with wonderful specialties and passions, and the intent is that our discussions are always becoming more distilled, insightful and soulful. My favorite moments are always the ones where we express something you could call “love”–Liam Lynch talking about feeling the presence of God in his car while listening to the Bulgarian Women’s Choir; my dad describing the Mozart clarinet concerto he wants played at his funeral; me getting gooey about the White Stripes; Zoe explaining the “girl power” she finds in Pretty Girls Make Graves. But the goal is to always stay true to the ways that people really talk about music, which is usually personal, and distinctly different from traditional criticism. There’s a wonderful marriage to be found between the intellect and the heart, and achieving that balance is my eternal goal!
helen woodward – October 5, 2004 – #16
You mentioned your love of the bbc, and so I wondered if you have ever come across Desert Island discs:
with some exceptions, it tends to stodginess in its choice of guests, but the host spends 45 minutes discussing (and listening to) the guest’s choice of 8 records (and a book and a luxury) that they would take if marooned on a desert island. Listeners learn a great deal about why the music they choose matters to the guests and it can be quite surprising and engaging. your manifesto gets at this point too, music matters because of the associations we have with it.
SO…. If you were marooned on said island, what 8 records (and book and luxury) would you take with you, and why?
And, should you have the choice, who would you want to maroon, to find out the music they couldn’t live without?
Kate Sullivan – October 6, 2004 – #20
I remember there were a couple different “desert island discs” shows in L.A. at various times when I was growing up…No doubt that was part of the radio-stew in which I was steeped as a kid–there was this amazing and brief period of time in L.A. radio, which may only really exist in my romantic imagination, during which we had real creativity on all sides. KCRW was full of weird local music, KROQ was bizarre and boundary-trashing, the old-school rawk stations were still waving their hippie freak flags a bit and we had a wonderful locally owned “urban” station on AM called KDAY. Plus, college radio, of course. Sigh. I still love L.A. radio and feel a bit of the old excitement now with Indie-103, a Clear Channel-sponsored freeform rock station that carries the torch of old KROQ beautifully.
So, to answer your question. My top 8 desert island discs-n-things would be:
1. Shakespeare’s collected works
2. A computer–of course, if I had a computer, I wouldn’t need to bring any records with me! So, barring a computer or a phone, I guess my luxury item would be a lifetime’s supply of paper and pens.
1. The Beatles’ Abbey Road
2. Van Diamond–a collection of unreleased eight-track recordings by my friends Matt Welch and Jeff Whalen, both guests on the show, who write the most delightful, wistful bubblegum pop songs you ever heard. These are the people who first helped me to realize that music was my best subject…
3. The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle
4. T. Rex’s Electric Warrior
5. Prince’s Sign O The Times
6. The Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile/Smile (I haven’t heard the new Smile so I’m not sure)
7. That awesome Frank Sinatra box set (This way I get to bring Cole Porter)
8. Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy (This way I get to bring some remnant of Delta blues)
9. Ellington Indigos (This way I get to bring Billy Strayhorn)
10 Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies
I know I only get 8, but hey. I remember this being a 10-disc game.
But look out! This one goes to 11!
11. Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (This way I get to bring Minnesota)
If I could maroon anyone and ask them about their musical choices, I would want to talk with songwriter/producers, since they seem to have the largest ears. I guess Jeff Barry, arguably the greatest pop songwriter/producer of the past 30 years. Maybe Andre 3000 of Outkast.
Clive Reed – October 5, 2004 – #17
…Could you please elaborate on exactly how you got this radio show? I imagine public radio is not an easy institution to break in to–especially if you have no previous radio experience. Technically what have you had to master? How has talking about music influenced your writing about music?
john fishback – October 5, 2004 – #19
…Why music? You’ve had a life and career before pop vultures that led to your stint there (I’m guessing, because who appears in the world fully formed and ready to host a radio show?). I’m interested in the moment you woke up and realized that thinking and talking and writing about music was what you did for a living. How did you get there?
Kate Sullivan – October 6, 2004 – #21
…Basically, my so-called career has been built on intuition and kismet. I never had a plan and still don’t; I just follow the “muse.”
Kate Sullivan – October 7, 2004 – #22
“Could you please elaborate on exactly how you got this radio show?”
I couldn’t say for sure, but I’d imagine this was a case where inexperience was more of a help than a hindrance.
Garrison Keillor conceived the idea for the show and then assigned his producers to make it happen. Because of my writing and what I lovingly term the “Minnesota Mafia” (i.e., everyone in the Twin Cities knows each other), my name came up. On a trip back to visit my folks, I went into the Prairie Home Productions studio, formerly home of the great alt-rock station Rev-105, put on some headphones (or “cans” as we call them), and answered a bunch of questions about music. Those early recordings were used in the first shows, including the “Breakbeat/White Stripes” one.
GK, as they call him, liked the idea of having a writer at the helm of the show. You’d have to ask him why. I do think that my years of writing about music at alt-weeklies, daily newspapers, glossy magazines, and my blog all helped.
When I finally spoke with him on the phone (yes, getting a call on your cell phone from Garrison Keillor is just as surreal as it sounds), he gave me the mandate for the show: No script. Opinionated opinions. No public radio-style “elegiac tone of authority.” He knew he wanted this show to sound like nothing else on public radio.
This was amazing to me, because it happened at a time when both mainstream radio and journalism had hit an all-time low. When he described the show, he seemed to be reading my mind. He was literally ordering me to follow all the instincts that been coldly refused by the magazines I worked for, and were lacking in most radio.
Curiously enough, I had once done a record review for All Things Considered in Minnesota, and it was lame. I was trying to sound like NPR, and it was just totally dorky, and confirmed my suspicions I had no business in radio.
But with the mandate to actually talk like myself, everything changed.
I’ve tried to explain how years of lonely, pathetically addictive radio-listening might have helped prepare me in that regard. Early KROQ, the BBC, This American Life, Car Talk, Howard Stern, sports talk, college radio, even freeform hero Jim Ladd on 95.5 KLOS all gave me wonderful examples of inspired, creative, important radio.
I chalk my radio addiction up to geography and genes. L.A. has always been an important place for progressive radio. And as my parents both grew up during the golden age of radio, all I ever heard as a kid was how radio was so much better than TV. Living without a TV for three years in Prague, and listening to the BBC day in and day out, proved they were right.
Likewise, Lester Bangs, Lenny Bruce, and the blogging phenomenon also taught me about the wonderful power of intelligent colloquialism.
And then there was the real thing, which was all those years of arguing with my friends about music. Let me just say that these particular friends are brilliant, and marvelous debaters, and all men. Through our debates I came to realize that I was more than a music fan: Since childhood, music and radio had become a place where I could dwell that felt like home…
“Technically what have you had to master? How has talking about music influenced your writing about music?”
I’m still learning about technical stuff. I’m starting to get the hang of talking into a mic. I’ve learned the obvious stuff, more or less, like ‘don’t talk over each other.’…
So far the show hasn’t affected my writing, except that I’m doing an awful lot less of it. I don’t know if any of you fellow multi-taskers out there have ever experienced this, but I found that as the show took up more and more of my creative juice, I began to lose the drive to express myself through writing. Radio satisfied something in me that had apparently been denied for ages…
What really affected my writing most was having a blog. At a moment when I truly didn’t see how I could continue in corporate journalism, blogs came along and saved my ass. The blog showed me how I wanted to write. Once I started writing in an “authentic” voice, the LA New Times and LA Weekly started to like me and want me to write for them.
I am currently existing in a suspended moment, a waking dream, wherein I have the freedom to write in my own voice, and to make a radio show that feels true. I know Pop Vultures has lots of flaws and cracks and rough edges, but there is something at its core that is hard, and good, and necessary.
helen woodward – October 7, 2004 – #23
…Being of a British (and somewhat stodgy) inclination myself I was pleasantly surprised to see some familiar and well loved choices on your list. Classics are classics, wherever you are from I guess. That being said, it is interesting that some music just doesn’t make the transition across the pond, at all. For instance, I am still flabbergasted that the grateful dead just didn’t make it in the UK…So cutting to the chase, finally, what do you think makes for a classic band?
Kate Sullivan – October 8, 2004 – #26
…What makes for a classic band? I have a few theories on that, incomplete at best:
1. A sense of place. Many of the important bands of the past few decades have either been part of a geographical movement (Merseybeat, Detroit punk, New York punk, West Coast hip-hop, Manchester, northwestern grunge, etc.) or have derived an important chunk of their identity from their surroundings (say, the White Stripes, the Replacements, the Beastie Boys)…
Part two of that: Many great bands are part of musical/cultural movements–psychedelia, garage rock, glam, what have you. This does not diminish them, but only serves to prop them up…
2. Historical roots. Every great band or solo artist is a passionate historian, usually attempting (at the beginning, anyway) to mimic their heroes. But to my mind, you’ve got to choose the right heroes. Incubus is not a great band, because their historical heroes are the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Steve Vai and Primus.
I think every great band or artist attempts to borrow stature by tapping into old and grandiose traditions–and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what they’re there for!…
3. A classic band has magical chemistry between its members that cannot be reduced nor destroyed–but may in time destroy the band! This chemistry is the source of their unique sound.
4. A classic band has a unique sound that takes its influences and does something genuinely “original.” This is one of the great paradoxes of music.
5. A classic band is mostly made up of musicians who are wildly brilliant and incredibly unique on their own, and each bring a complete musical universe to the band. Led Zeppelin would be an obvious example, or the Beatles.
6. A classic band has a message of freedom, especially from the limitations of gender and “race.” (That word and concept is so antiquated now!) This is partly why I love the White Stripes and Outkast.
7. A classic band has an agenda, if only in their own minds, of showing everyone else how it’s done. Band-rivalries spring from that, and rivalries are good for everyone. (The Beatles had the best rivalries, to their credit.)
John Fishback – October 10, 2004 – #29
…1) How much do have to think about getting the show on more and more stations? Does that chore mess with your head as you make new episodes?
2) You do an incredible job of the “tease” into the show. On one hand, it is similar to the first moments of most other radio shows – some music, concurrent with or quickly followed by a single speaker. On the other hand, your show grabs me more than others from that first moment (maybe because you’re teaching from word one – “this is what we’re going to talk about” happens after I’m already rapt). In short, Pop Vultures has great opening hooks. How do you think about making that happen?
Jay Allison – October 10, 2004 – #30
Having heard a bunch of PVs, I realize you treat your conjunctions as dividers not uniters. When you have a billing like “Beyonce and Grief,” you mean that half-way through there’s going to be a hard right turn from awards shows to music for dead puppies.
I kind of like this theoretically, but in the moment I have sometimes found it unsettling. Can you tell us how you conceive these match-ups and about your choice not to prepare us for the transitions?
Kate Sullivan – October 10, 2004 – #31
1. Yeah, we’re obliged to find more stations to call home, and yeah, it can be a little discouraging for me sometimes. Fortunately I am learning how to recognize and embrace valuable constructive criticisms from folks who like the show’s basic concept and want to help us improve…The criticisms I value have to do with making the show more clear, seamless and accessible.
2. On that note, Jay’s comment is a good example…Most of the time we pair subjects that have a natural connection–Usher/breakup songs, Neptunes/songs that changed our lives, or the forthcoming episode on Kanye West/sexy music.
Sometimes, though, we just want to mix it up for texture’s sake. We’re trying to use the intro at the top of the show to set people up for the coming shift, but it’s possible we could be doing a better job of softening the transition between emotionally disparate subjects.
One way to soften it is through music–a nice musical break to signal a shift in gears, followed with some kind of spoken intro to the subject. On the Usher one, we tried to do it three different ways–we closed the Usher segment mentioning his own breakup, and his breakup songs; then we played two mellow torch songs with no talking over them, and then we had a brief intro to the subject of breakup songs.
(Ideally, kismet takes a hand and a song works to connect two subjects–that’s the best feeling. The Neptunes transition did that in a satisfying way.)
I think there are times to jar the listener’s ear in a pleasing way, but I never want to *confuse* the listener.
3. As far as the “hooks” at the top of the show go, thanks for the props! It’s a huge compliment to a journalist, since writers are always looking for the perfect “lede.” …I suppose being a journalist taught me something about trying to grab the reader.
It’s pretty straightforward–as we listen through all the raw material for the opening segment, we keep an ear out for the punchiest moment. It’s important not to use something too insidery that will confuse or bemuse the listener.
John Fishback – October 14, 2004 – #33
…One of striking things about your show is that you’re interviewing, or at least in conversation with, the same core group of folks during each show.
In your manifesto, you mentioned that great moment when a musician talks about their first encounter with the music that inspired them. How do you get to that with people you’ve already spent a lot of time with? How do you keep it from going stale?
Kate Sullivan – October 15, 2004 – #34
The trick is to be constantly adding new guests. We’ve added at least seven new guests since the first set of 13 shows, and the goal is to continually hunt for new people. Cuz yeah, everyone has their specialties and passions, and it can get repetitive.
John Fishback – October 15, 2004 – #35
Adding new guests make sense. And you’ve mentioned at least two criteria for guests on these pages: 1) musicians, not critics and 2) enthusiasts, not experts. Those criteria make sense. But they both exclude candidates that would make for easy wins — people who are used to speaking intelligently about the subject. It’s their job. Which means you’ve set yourself to a harder task. You’ve got to find folks who can set the radio on fire with the way they talk about something that they are neither expert on nor have a critical framework for. From the shows I’ve heard, you find people who do that very well. How?
Jay Allison – October 15, 2004 – #36
I like the strong impassioned opinions and rants on the show. Interestingly, I bet they also give Program Directors pause. Public radio likes the neutral zone–partly born of journalistic and academic tradition–even with the downside that neutral can be, well, dull.
I think PV fits just fine with public radio “values” when the passionate statements are about music that is loved. I wonder if PDs are leery of the passion about music or musicians that are reviled. Those happen often to be the fun and funny parts, but I’m guessing they might come at a cost in carriage.
Kate Sullivan – October 15, 2004 – #37
I fear I have not been clear! Yikes. I never, ever ever would say “no critics.” We have three professional critics on the show and one former critic, and just two days ago I sent a pitch to a critic I admire in hopes she’d consider being on the show.
Also, I *do* want experts on the show…I picture the show becoming filled with “authoritative” opinions and analysis. The difference from other shows will be in the delivery. All my favorite critics (and musicians) are overgrown fans, and that’s really the main criteria–besides an entertaining delivery.
There’s no reason people can’t be smart and knowledgeable *and* funny, outspoken and passionate.
Which leads us to Jay’s question …
Our biggest obstacle when it comes to program directors is aesthetic.
We’re simply not supposed to get emotional on public radio. We’re also not supposed to be casual or colloquial. The few major shows I’m aware of that have tried to do this (Car Talk, This American Life, Prairie Home Companion) all had an uphill battle with PDs—and eventually succeeded, because actual listeners have no problem with it. Humorous colloquial debate requires no cognitive leap for most people. It’s what humans do every day.
We’ve got an even steeper uphill climb than those shows, though, as I sound young and female. (And, like my heroes, I believe in colloquialism; I don’t flash my credentials; and I cover a subject some consider déclassé or irrelevant). To some decision-making ears, this diminishes my credibility as a host.
In any case, we believe in this format. There are many things we can and will do to make the show better, more clear and accessible. But changing the basic spirit of the show is not an option any of us would choose. Anyway, that’s not the mandate we were given by Garrison. We were hired to make a brand-new kind of show that wouldn’t sound like traditional public radio…
Jay Allison – October 15, 2004 – #38
a brand-new kind of show that wouldn’t sound like traditional public radio.
amen. I wonder if your efforts will spawn others. Of course, there’s the risk they’ll rip off your ideas, but be more mainstream and public radio-y. Then it’ll be like that episode you did, where you’re Pearl Jam and they’re Stone Temple Pilots; you’re Robert Johnson and they’re the Rolling Stones… they’ll do a good job and be easy to listen to and we’ll all feel a little guilty for liking their show because you were first…
Kate Sullivan – October 16, 2004 – #39
I’d rather not be painted into some tragic heroic corner. Our show is not intended to be too cool for school or “hard to listen to.” All we need are a few sophisticated programmers in major markets to follow the lead of KUOW, KNOW, WBEZ and all our smaller stations, and just give us a chance to evolve. I can promise we’ll deliver listeners.
In any case, after compromising for too long in corporate journalism, this show is my first shot at finally doing something right. I know all you guys out there know what that means. Work feels palpably different when it’s done purely.
To do something purely is an experience that feeds you forever.
John Fishback – October 22, 2004 – #47
… while the show is unscripted, there might be some things you look into in order to figure out where fertile conversational ground might be.
Let me try a horribly awkward example:
Once you’d picked “God Rock,” for instance, did you read up on how music has been used in church services across the history of this country? Or which popular musicians have toured with Billy Graham?
Kate Sullivan – October 22, 2004 – #48
…One of the things I feel most strongly about is strengthening our foundation of factual knowledge on the show. Part of that means having so-called “experts” here and there as guests, but mostly it’s a question of me educating myself.
Education is always good, but there’s also a danger to keep in mind–on this show, anyway. In the context of a show based on organic conversation, you’ve got to be careful how you present facts-and-figures and historical info you’ve picked up through research. Our ill-fated “Tupac” episode was over-researched in a sense, without enough personal testimony. I’m starting to learn that we’ve got to follow the secret logic of happenstance. If a topic doesn’t spark much interest among guests, we need to save it for later, no matter how much great research material we may have. We also need to be a in a position where we have the luxury to do that, time-wise–which we haven’t always had.
Now, I want to share with you my happy news this morning. We got our first letter from a listener who’s subscribing to his local NPR station (KUOW) because of us!
I know that may not seem like a very big deal, but I’m savoring every little baby step we take.
Daniel Makagon – October 29, 2004 – #54
I’m picking up at the beginning here (i.e., your discussion of influences), but I think it’s important to highlight the ways in which you as a host fit into a history of women who have done creative work on the radio in LA as far as a passion for popular music is concerned…in the face of a general perception that serious discussion of popular music is, borrowing the James Brown lyric, a man’s world, PV could be heard as another example of how it ain’t nothin’ without the women and the girls (to complete the lyrics more or less). Anyway, PV is an exciting show.
Kate Sullivan – November 1, 2004 – #55
Is here. Just got back from Third Coast, which was inspiring and joyous and heartbreaking, in the sense that when you fall in love, your heart hurts, because it’s growing. After being a radio junkie for years all by myself and not working in radio, meeting a whole group of kindred spirits was a revelation…
Kate Sullivan – November 6, 2004 – #57
…Just to add a nice sense of dramatic arc to my time here at Transom (Ira Glass told me to work on my dramatic arc ), my latest news is that our funders decided to fold the show! We have two more shows to finish and then it’s RIP Pop Vultures.
Obviously it wasn’t a surprise, but it’s funny how an unsurprising event can still come as a shock.
I get new ideas for segments just the same; they come to me like children at my door and I want to invite them in. I just thought of doing a show on session musicians, focusing on the ‘secret’ performances–like Led Zeppelin’s work on Donovan records, or Flea’s work on Young MC and Alanis Morrisette.
I should write them down anyway.
Naturally I’m sad in a selfish way, but I’m also sad because of all the people I met at Third Coast who were excited that a show like this was being supported. I don’t want adventurous people to look at this as proof that we can’t try crazy new ideas in public radio, you know?
The death of PV was due to a confluence of forces. It wasn’t the weirdness of the show per se that killed it. Not in my book, anyway. The very fact that major stations like KUOW and WBEZ liked it is proof to me that we could have had a future, if other forces hadn’t been at play…
Mark Tomas – November 7, 2004 – #58
Anything we can do to convince the powers that be that they should keep you on the air? That you bring diversity and supporters to public radio, and most of all, that your show totally rocks? I’ve really enjoyed you guys — I’d hate to see PV disappear without a fight!
Steve Rhodes – November 11, 2004 – #60
I hope they will reconsider. Stations worry they aren’t attracting younger listeners.
You’d think an indie label (or several) would be willing to fund it (maybe someone should talk to Danny Goldberg at Artemis). Or perhaps even Apple. And record stores on a local level.
And even without sponsors they should keep it going. It took a while for This American Life to get sponsors and to grow their audience.
Jay Allison – November 11, 2004 – #62
…Kate, did everyone know going into this that you’d only get 20 or so shows to… what?… succeed? What did success mean, lots of carriage? Was the decision to kill the show made on the basis of carriage or on qualitative judgments? I’m unclear on why such a precipitous decision was made about something so developmentally young. Did the show perhaps OFFEND somebody?
Kate Sullivan – November 11, 2004 – #63
I am quite sure we offend a few people, but I wasn’t told if that played a part in what happened. As I understand it, we were expected to have a certain number of major markets by a certain date, and our funders didn’t foresee that happening.
Sydney Lewis – November 12, 2004 – #64
I’m taking the liberty of pasting Bill McKibben’s PRX review of one of your programs right here… the first sentence tolls loud…
“Is there some reason that this show isn’t on public radio every week, every station? It’s really really good–a child of the TAL era of radio, with the great transitions., perfect pacing, and a sound that somehow combines polish and comfortable familiarity (as opposed to fakey intimacy). But I would guess its prime audience would be a few years younger, which is just what we want, no? And it’s about a world that older listeners should understand too. It makes listeners work a little bit–it’s about five minutes into most shows that you’ve figured out enough about the subject to feel comfortable. But I like doing that work.”
Jay Allison – November 17, 2004 – #66
I thought I should report that I had four Pop Vultures episodes on my iPod for a long drive to New Hampshire with the kids. They listened to one, then asked to hear all four. Then they asked to hear them all again. They said they liked how funny they were and how they made them think about music in different ways. Now they are quoting from them.
Kate Sullivan – November 21, 2004 – #67
…I never intended Pop Vultures to be aimed at kids, but it seems like they sort of naturally got it. Judging by the letters we got from teens, anyway.
So, just for fun… anyone have any ideas for what I should do next?
Adrienne Pombuf – November 28, 2004 – #68
So as soon as I start to really dig your guys’ program, MPR cuts it! They’re airing it through the end of the year, but what consolation is that?! Maybe if they put you in a better time slot, more people would listen. Ironically, the time is exactly why I started to listen. You guys are on right after “This American Life”, and between the two of you I go to sleep way too late every Sunday. Anyway, I just wanted to offer my consolations to you all. You were the hip island awash in a sea of square-dom in public radio land, even if I totally disagree with a lot of the stuff you guys say.
- An Obscure Demographic in Maple Grove
Steve Rhodes – December 1, 2004 – #69
I just saw the current article and wrote a quick
item which is on the Ticker (scroll down a ways) at
I also put it up on my blog where it is easier to find.
though I may modify it to include some of the stuff below.
Seen as misfits with pubradio audience, Pop Vultures grounded
There is a lot to pull apart in the article including these gems:
The show was definitely a polarizer,” says Bruce Warren, p.d. at WXPN in Philadelphia. “The younger end of the comments we got were like, ‘We love the show.’ The older end was like, ‘Give us more Genesis! What is this crap?’” Warren says.
Abby Goldstein, p.d. at KERA-FM in Dallas, listened to several episodes on PRX. She praises Prairie Home for experimenting, but says, “I don’t think the program makes sense for an adult-leaning news-and-information NPR talk format…. Our listeners are 35 to 54, and I just don’t think that that program is something they’d relate to. Their kids, maybe.”
Far be it they’d disturb their precious aging genx/boomer audience to possibly attract “kids.” If they don’t make an effort to attract them, those future iPods with FM will never be pulling in NPR or subscribing to podcasts of their shows….
And then there is this:
The decision to end Pop Vultures after only two months of regular production struck some as abrupt, considering that program producers often anticipate low carriage for at least a year. Hanssen says Pop Vultures has actually been in production for two years, dating from its first undistributed trial episodes. Its first 13 episodes were not pilots, she says.
I’d call that lying since the website says Pop Vultures is available “as a package of 13 pilot shows.” Not a pilot, but 13 pilot shows.
Kate Sullivan – December 1, 2004 – #70
Yes, Steve, as you astutely noted, indeed, our first 13 shows were pilots.
The temptation in a situation such as this is to blame the show itself for whatever problems we had sales-wise. It’s OK. I’m grateful for a wonderful experience, and I’m moving on.
About Kate Sullivan
Kate Sullivan was born and raised in Los Angeles, but has also lived through numerous winters in Eastern Europe and Minnesota, which she feels gives her drinking a poetic “edge.” Kate’s father was a music critic at the NY Times when she was but a preconceived notion; this probably affected her drinking, too. Kate has written about music for Spin, Blender, Rollingstone.com, The New York Times Magazine, Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002, LA Weekly, City Pages, Los Angeles Magazine, Nylon, Black Book, Seventeen, Nerve.com, Teen People, et al. However, her “Rockblog” is her favorite place to publish (katesullivan.blogspot.com). Kate’s journalistic career began at Prognosis, the first English-language newspaper in post-Communist Czechoslovakia. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Toby, a.k.a. “Spookytooth.”
About Pop Vultures
Simply put, Pop Vultures is a radio show where music freaks argue the finer points of pop music appreciation. Our job, which we undertake with the utmost seriousness is to obsess over pop music so you don’t have to. If you’d like to impress your kids or sound like you know what you’re talking about at parties, we’re your one-stop shop for practically meaningless trivia and an endless stream of band names ripe for the dropping. We’re not here to tell you how to think or who to like, though we’ll try relentlessly to do so. Instead, we’re here to wax gassy over our fave raves, possibly cheese you off, and mostly give you an undeniable reason to waste thirty minutes you might otherwise spend listening to Radiohead.