The Transom Review

Volume 4/Issue 4

Kate Sullivan & Pop Vultures

December 1st, 2004 | (Edited by Sydney Lewis)

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!

Kate Sullivan
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.

KROQ
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.

Lester Bangs
Lester Bangs

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.

 

Mr. Rogers
Mr. Rogers

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.

Kate & Jeff
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:

  1. You can’t do a good story on a subject that bores you.
  2. Like they say in fiction-writing classes, by focusing on the specific, you can achieve universality.
  3. 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.

Studio
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?
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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.
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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.
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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
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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?
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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!
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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:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/desertislanddiscs.shtml

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?
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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.
Records:

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.
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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?
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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?
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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.”
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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.
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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?
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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.)
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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?
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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?
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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…
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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…
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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.
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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?
.
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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.
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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.
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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…
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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…
Onward!
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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!
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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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?
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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

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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
http://tvbarn.com
I also put it up on my blog where it is easier to find.
http://ari.typepad.com/tiger/2004/12/pop_vultures.html
though I may modify it to include some of the stuff below.
Seen as misfits with pubradio audience, Pop Vultures grounded
http://www.current.org/music/music0421vultures.shtml
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.
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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.

Pop Vultures Links
Pop Vultures Website
Kate Sullivan’s Oral History of KROQ
Kate Sullivan’s RockBlog


80 Comments on “Kate Sullivan & Pop Vultures”

  • Jay Allison says:

    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.

  • Kate Sullivan says:

    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!

    Kate Sullivan
    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.

    KROQ
    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.

    Lester Bangs
    Lester Bangs

    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.

    Great Pop Things

    Also Check Out:
    Great Pop Things "The Lester Bags Story"

    Mr. Rogers
    Mr. Rogers

    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.

  • Kate Sullivan says:

    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.

    Kate & Jeff

    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.

  • Kate Sullivan says:

    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.

    Oftentimes 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.

    Studio

    The interior of our L.A. studio looking into the control room.

  • Mary McGrath says:

    Kate,
    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 says:
    yeah, sure

    Thanks, Mary. Not to sound too much like Bartles & James, but I really do appreciate your support!

    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. (For that I recommend "the poor man’s speedball," a.k.a. Irish coffee.)

    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.

    Also, our guests are very busy, and I don’t think they’d have time to record every week!

    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 have tons of ideas I’d love to try if we could do it that way. 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.

    Yeah it’s 2 a.m. I’m a nightowl.

  • Tom Koetting says:
    ROQ of the 80s

    In 1982, I was 18 and Music Director of a brand-new college radio station at West Virginia University. 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.

    Thus began my love affair with KROQ, via postal cassette. That woman was Dusty Street and I would soon be a fan of hers, as well as Sam Freeze, Rodney, Jed The Fish and that British guy in the Morning. 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." A 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. So when TRIO’s "Da Da Da" arrived at our door … everyone on our staff knew what it was, as KROQ had been killing it for months (and some 20 years before it would be in a Volkswagon commercial). Those cassettes gave us a preview into the new music to soon to arrive, and a fun presentation that was inspiring.

    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! I’ve been told early New York Top40 dj’s used to throw catsup packets at the wall to shrug off boredom … but at KROQ, they were screwing with the music! 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.

    Like all things, that wild and out-of-control presentation grew up a bit. KROQ now loves super-fast burst of produced creativity. They still create magic but it often feels too scripted.

    Whenever I’m feeling that popular media (some of which I create) is getting a little too stale, I just pop in an old KROQ aircheck, lovingly transferred to CD.

    Thanks for the memories!

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    kroq

    Hey, I just noticed this Transom thing is a super way to procrastinate on other work.

    So before I go do some actual work, a brief note on KROQ:

    Gentle reader, you might enjoy the KROQ oral history I did that’s posted somewhere around here. As you’ll read there, the playlists at KROQ’s peak of creativity and commercial success in the early ’80s were anything but supertight, particularly by today’s standards. The playlists were flabby by comparison, and uniquely permeable by DJs and even listeners. Most of the music we now associate with early KROQ began as jocks’ choices. They also played more songs by giving them a shorter life-cycle: This meant that songs didn’t get burned out, you were always hearing something brand-new, and you got to hear more of an album in the old school "deep cuts" sense. This is all, of course, before the Infinity purchase. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

  • Jay Allison says:
    TRANSOM.org: Helping Procrastinators Since 1991

    KROQ: An Oral History
    Written by Kate Sullivan

  • Tom Koetting says:
    clarification

    as quoted from your piece…

    WAYNE: In 1979 Rick Carroll came in as program director. He had come from a Top 40 programming background. Rick had what he called hot clocks, which were segmented pie charts that said when you were supposed to play what category of music. Applied to the music we had been developing, it turned into a magic combination.

    -end of quote-

    All things relative – This was very different from the WBCN and WMMR of the day. DJ’s at those stations were working with far fewer programming rules – almost anarchy.

    Listening to those KROQ tapes, you can hear very definate forced rotations. It’s hard to imagine jocks would play something like SPARKS "Cool Places" once every 3-4 hours on their own. When that pick hit was followed by TALKING HEADS "The Great Curve", then you knew the DJ was taking liberties before the repeat-o-rama would begin again. For me, the Top40 music rotation/high production value meets deep album cuts IS the hook of the station.

    None of this takes anything away from the greatness of KROQ. For music to reach a critical mass, repetition is necessary. You can’t create modern classics if nobody hears them, and the won’t hear them if you don’t repeat them.

    That repetition wasn’t for everyone. Ironically, it became a chore for my friend to send me the tapes as he grew to hate KROQ, preferring the more diverse music and less repetition of KNAC (later to fail at that format and go Heavy Metal).

  • Tom Koetting says:
    state of the art music radio – 2004

    If you haven’t heard it yet, the BBC6 is very addictive like KROQ was back in the day.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/6music/

    Favorite DJs are

    Andrew Collins (GMT 1600-1900) followed by
    Tom Robinson (GMT 1900-2130)

  • Adam Allington says:
    I heart PV

    oh Man….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 (or at least in my case) 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 Keep up the good work! …and email me if you want some great ideas for shows ;) Empathy is a large part of why I think this

  • Anaheed Alani says:

    I want to know why you couldn’t edit out the pauses between that one dude’s words. I don’t use ProTools but I’m like a ProTools groupie in that I’m totally fascinated from afar with the way it works and the way it looks and … why not just shorten the silences between his words? Would it simply have taken too long?

    Also I would like to say that I love Pop Vultures and that Kate Sullivan is a very nice woman.

  • Kelvin Cato says:
    About music?

    Hi PV,

    My first impression of your show is that it’s not really about music. It’s really more about your bieng catty – which is one fun aspect of listening to music. Have you thought about adding more musical content to your show, ie some actual critique of music rather than musicians’ attitudes? I think that would really beef things up.

    Kelvin Cato

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    hey, yeah

    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. (That show’s in production now.) 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 says:
    the way people listen…

    Brava for pulling off a pop coup on public radio, though I love all the regular programming, it will surely benefit from a good shake up. now onto some questions:

    You mentioned your love of the bbc, and so I wondered if you have ever come across Desert Island discs;

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/desertislanddiscs.shtml

    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?

    thanks and good luck with the series.

  • Clive Reed says:
    But how?

    Greetings Kate, I hugely appreciate your manifesto and have enjoyed listening to some of your shows online. I suspect my music library and piles of sheet music (I play the harpsichord) would repel you and your guests–nonetheless this show has aroused my curiosity about pop music and about your ascending radio career. 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?

  • Rod Stewart says:
    deep and terrible loneliness?

    That’s a load of old cobblers. sounds like the musicians you’ve been talking to have got it assways, back in my day it was all about drinking, shagging and having a good time. If you want another example of rock and public radio converging, check out my interview on the radio the other day, round about 40 seconds in:

    http://www.npr.org/rundowns/segment.php?wfId=4052273

  • john fishback says:
    from there to here

    Kate,

    I’d love to hear your answer to a slight variation on Clive’s question: 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 says:
    Hi kids!

    Thanks for writing, everybody! I was at the PRPD conference, and then recovering and getting back into the swing of work and such.

    Onward!

    Briefly: Rod Stewart posturing as some defender of the DIY garage rock spirit is funny, creepy and definitely heeby-jeeby. Please, someone, corner that guy and make him listen to "All For Love" for 24 hours, straight. Abetted by Sting and Brian Adams, it is a crashing, stinking turd of a tribute to everything that’s gone wrong with rock. Kiss my ass, Rod!

    Helen:

    Thanks for your kind words. And thanks for the desert island link–I remember there were a couple different "desert island discs" shows in L.A. at various times when I was growing up. I think one was on KCRW at one point. 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. Don’t get me started on the loveliness of Indie 103!

    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.

    Records:

    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. This happened, more or less, when we were all living in Prague in the early ’90s and working at our newspaper, Prognosis, which was a sort of rock ‘n roll/gonzo paper that attempted to document the creative chaos of post-Communist vertigo. Matt and Jeff and most of the other songwriter/journalists at the paper used to play on the streets a lot. Amazing harmonies.

    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.

    I have to get back to work but I’ll answer those other questions asap.

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    hi again!

    Hi, Clive, John and friends:

    Clive, I love harpsichord! I was sad when I found out that the instrument used on the Beatles’ "In My Life" was not a harpsichord, but a doctored piano. I love the underappreciated "specialty" instruments such as harpsichord and viola.

    I am also fond of the specialty organs inspired by harpsichord, such as the roxichord and clavinet. I’m sure you’re familiar with Stevie Wonder’s stuff, yeah?

    Anyway, I tried in the manifesto to tell the story of how I got "from there to here"… I’m not sure what else to say about it. You don’t really want to hear my dumb long story anyway! Right?

    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."

    I’m flattered you’d even care, actually.

    I will soon post a really long-ass thing on my backstory, for anyone who’s curious.

    Love,
    Kate

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    From there to here!

    Your questions:

    "Could you please elaborate on exactly how you got this radio show? I imagine public radio is not an easy institution to break into–especially if you have no previous radio experience."

    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. And through my friends, I learned how to talk about it better.

    "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.’ But I have yet to rid my speech of collateral language such as ‘like," and ‘whatever." But hey, that’s what ProTools is for! I’ve given my editor free reign to eliminate all that shit.

    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. Interestingly, after barely writing for a year or so, I’m beginning to feel the itch again. I guess it’s just something I’ll always love.

    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.

    On that note, I would love to talk about the show itself! We just finished a new episode I love, about R&B idol Usher and our favorite breakup songs. KUOW and whoever else will air it this weekend, and I’m very happy.

    Love,
    Kate

  • helen woodward says:
    british institutions…

    Thanks for your response Kate. I am glad to hear that desert island discs made an impact on LA radio; the Beebs version has been going since 1942! I wish they had the archives available to listen to.

    Being of a british (and somewhat stodgy) inclination myself I was pleasantly surprised to see some familar 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. I worked in a restaurant here in woods hole, MA. where their music still plays constantly; it seems to have had such an impact on a cultural level, that I dont get how it stayed put. So cutting to the chase, finally, what do you think makes for a classic band?

    thanks again
    Helen
    ps you get a bonus book for your desert island sojourn; shakespeare’s complete works is already included in the survival kit, along with the bible!

  • helen woodward says:
    British Institutions part 2…?!

    In spite of the unsavouriness of his posting, Rod touches on something I too was intrigued by in your manifesto. You write that the musician’s knowledge of music comes out of a deep and terrible loneliness. perhaps you could elaborate on that.
    helen

    ps.I couldn’t resist listening to Rod’s interview, and was (I am only partially ashamed to admit) proud to hear a fellow countryman say the word shag on Morning edition. I only wish I had heard it live, driving along the highway some cold wet morning, it would have made my day. In my defense, as a kid I was exposed to rather a lot of rod stewart, my dad was a fan, and it made me quite nostalgic.

    pps. of course this might also explain why I hadn’t heard of the dead till I fled the homeland!

  • Clive Reed says:
    Fooled by April

    Hi Kate,

    I love Stevie Wonder. His tape is the only music that I have in my car–(songs in the Key of life and Secret Life of plants. It was my brother’s tape and nothing makes a dreary drive to Home Depot more enjoyable. Who knew that buying a bullseye flap and a rubber malett could be fun?) I also enjoyed your disc selections, Satie, Sinatra and Strayhorn are among my favorites. Of course all those guys are part of the popular culture scene too. Will you ever have a show on sinatra and invite current pop stars to weigh in on old blue eyes? Thanks again for your time. I’m inspired, impressed and a tad envious by your work.

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    sinatra, shagging, etc.

    "Shag" is the best. Even better than "snog" and "knackered." I lived with an English girl once and I miss the days of using those words freely.

    "I totally snogged him." It’s just so good.

    By the way, I was just giving old "Rod" a hard time.

    Anyway, I think the Dead phenomenon stateside probably had more to do with the culture around their concerts, which was a novelty here but certainly not in England and Europe in general, home to the camping-taking drugs-dancing barefoot tradition.

    I love "Workingman’s Dead" and "American Beauty" but I never got into the whole Dead scene.

    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). If I were to ever start a band with hopes of making it big, I would make damn sure our music and our group-identity were securely aligned with a specific region.

    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. Bowie was not diminished by Marc Bolan; the Who were not diminished by the Kinks.

    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! My favorite bands are all coppers of Delta blues, so I’m tempted to say the blues are an essential influence for any great American band. But I don’t necessarily think that’s always true.

    I do think any American songwriter should contend with Dylan and the Beatles.

    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.)

    That’s all I can think of right now.

    I wanna talk about Pop Vultures, if anyone else does.

    Love,
    Kate

    PS: Sinatra will have more than his due. He’s with us all the time, in our hearts, which is why we played him at the end of our "Salute to Glam Rock" episode.

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    listen up!

    I’m very proud of our newest episode on PRX, "Usher/Breakup Songs."

    Dunno if this link works but give it a try:

    http://www.prx.org/piece/2433

  • Kelvin Cato says:
    death of substance

    That coy denial of substance was the death of rock radio and the death of MTV. Every broadcast medium now panders to this lowest common denominator. Does anyone care about music any longer?

  • John Fishback says:
    two things

    As someone who’s only heard Pop Vultures over the web, I’m unlucky in that I don’t get to hear it on my local station, but lucky in that I can listen to a bunch of shows at once – which leads me to two questions:

    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 says:
    Transitions

    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 matchups and about your choice not to prepare us for the transitions?

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    conjuntion junction

    Cool questions!

    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. That’s the good stuff, and that’s the stuff I listen to.

    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. I hear what you’re saying, Jay, and I’ll keep it in mind as we work on our transitions. 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." (Is that what they call them in radio, too?) 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. Fortunately, it’s usually not too difficult to pick that moment

    My Dodgers are being brutalized so I must go now.

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    cool

    I just got an excited email from a 16-year-old fan whose mother works at WNYC and gave her a tape of the show. I should note, WNYC does not air us.

    One of our guests, Baz Dreisinger, is a professor and journalist in NYC and she heard about the show via a tape someone had made for her, as well.

    There are fans and many more potential fans of the show in New York City.

    So…. if you dig the show, I encourage all you New York people to get on the horn/email and tell both WNYC and WFUV that they need us! Now’s the time. There will be no future time. Now is the time.

    Sorry if that was an inappropriate use of this forum, Jay! But see, this is part of the story of making this show.

  • John Fishback says:
    too many questions

    Sorry. I’ll be quiet after this.

    Kate, 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? How do you fall in love again?

    Okay, maybe not that last one. But you know what I mean.

    Thanks again.

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    No, don’t be quiet!

    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 says:
    Okay, I won’t!

    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 says:
    opinions

    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 leary 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. What do you think?

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    whoah!

    John! And everyone!

    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. In a few weeks, we’re going to have a writer on to talk about a subject he wrote a book about. (And I’ve been lobbying with my favorite songwriter/producer, too!)

    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 …

    I think you’re right, Jay. 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 declasse 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.

    At the same time, I try to avoid negativism on the show, and when it’s unavoidable, to make it "positive-negativism." That is, outrage in defense of quality and proud traditions. In our new show I rant a bit against pop-rock starlets Ashlee Simpson and Avril Lavigne, while giving props both to riot grrrls and Gwen Stefani, whom I consider responsible defenders of great (though very different) rock traditions.

  • Jay Allison says:
    trailblazing vs. walking trails

    >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.

    I kind of like Avril Lavigne’s music.

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    no thanks!

    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.

  • Jay Allison says:
    To do something purely is an experience that feeds you forever.

    May we take that as our motto?

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    :)

    I would be flattered.

  • Anaheed Alani says:

    I love Avril! Also Gwen. Don’t be a h8er, Kate!

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    hmmmm

    I don’t h8te Avril! I totally didn’t diss her music at all. Plus I love Gwen too.

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    hi guys!

    Just wanted to say Hi!

  • John Fishback says:
    collateral material

    Sorry for missing the mark on my last question.

    Everyone I know who creates something out of nothing – even if that something is really boring, like a spreadsheet – usually has some "outside" resources (academic research, expert analysis, literature, music, etc.) that they draw on to spur their thinking.

    I’m not talking here about "I listen to Operation Ivy while I work because they really get my blood flowing." Rather, I’m interested in the touchstones that inform an episode of Pop Vultures that we never hear. If that makes any sense.

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    oh, right

    I’m not sure what your question is precisely–are you wondering how we choose topics?

    Or something more subtle?

    My touchstones are the people I mentioned in my silly "manifesto"–Lester Bangs is a constant source of inspiration; come to think of it, so is "The Simpsons"–anyone who’s bouncing off pop culture in a fun, smart way. I wish I had cable and could watch Jon Stewart because everything I’ve seen and read of him shows him to be doing exactly this in the context of "popular politics." I think I could learn a lot from him.

    I don’t have too many inspirations within contemporary print journalism right now, but I do find myself in sync spiritually with my friend Jim Walsh, who is currently a columnist at City Pages. Our brains run along the same power lines and I often get an idea and then find that he’s just written about it in his column. (Jim hired me at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1997 or something.)

    Other than that, I guess I steal most of my ideas and inspiration from my friends, who are so much more clever and insightful than I am!

    I don’t know how to explain this, but I get a lot of inspiration from Cameron Crowe’s movies, too. Which is strange, because he’s not even my favorite director or anything. What I love is that for him, (most of his) movies are really about music. The people are vessels for a celebration of music. He sees music as an integral part of life like food or water, which makes sense to me.

    I don’t think I’ve answered your question.

    :)

  • John Fishback says:
    That’s okay, I asked it wrong

    I guess what I’m thinking about is that, 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?

    Hope that makes more sense. Apparently the transom boards scramble my ability to ask clear questions.

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    Oh!

    I think you’re talking about research?

    That’s funny, because today is a designated "research day" for me. 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.

    Also, tonight I’m going with my brother and sister to see Paul Williams play at some weird church in Orange County. "Bugsy Malone" was a big deal for all of us as kids, as well as all his other stuff. Has anyone heard Willie Nelson’s version of "The Rainbow Connection"?

    I’ve been trying to decide for a few years now what that song is "really" about. Yesterday I came to the conclusion that if the world were to go haywire and chickens could fly and the karma police were to hold a gun to my head and force me to give a cogent analysis of "The Rainbow Connection" in order to gain entrance to the supermarket, this would be my answer: "The Rainbow Connection" is a tribute to the siren call of imagination, in all its manifestations–romantic, artistic, spiritual.

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    Thank you

    Rock In Peace, John Peel.

  • Jay Allison says:
    Amen.

    Will you do an episode about him, Kate?

  • Cameron Stallones says:
    swoon

    i 3. The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle

    the zombies are unquestionably the greatest rock band of all time, and probably the biggest force for good in this world.

    begin here might even surpass odeyssey and oracle for me.

    that is all.

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    what a great idea

    We could do a show on radio heroes and radio-loving. How cool would that be?

    Hey, I’m going to be at Third Coast and would love to meet and gab with everybody! This is going to be fun.

    My English landlord who lives down the hill from me called this morning crying. He needed milk for his coffee, but he was crying about John Peel. Well, as he admitted, he was really crying for himself–and his future without John Peel.

    XO

  • Anaheed Alani says:

    My radio hero: Howard Stern.

    And J-Hova Allison, of course.

  • LA Women

    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. I’m thinking about Stella and Stray Pop (oh how I miss KXLU–the greatest college station on the face of the earth), Andrea Enthal’s (sp?) 12 O’clock Rock on KPFK, and Deirdre O’Donahue’s Snap on KCRW. I’m not saying that you have to be this role model for young girls and women (the kind of person that I think Stella, Andrea, and Deirdre are/were), but 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. Good luck with it. Take care.

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    November

    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. I told a couple people there that I was experiencing Gonzo’s journey of self-discovery portrayed in the marvelous and underappreciated film "Muppets from Space." In this film, Gonzo discovers he is a space alien, and is reunited with his people. When he comes out to Kermit and friends, he says, "I’ve always had alien tendencies. This is who I am."

    I wanted to thank Jay Allison, who has been supportive and angelic all out of proportion, as well as everyone else who has given Pop Vultures any kind of encouragement, even unintentionally–such as Susan Stamberg, whose recorded address on Saturday night was shockingly relevant to my current situation.

    Stay gold!

  • Jay Allison says:
    It’s only EARLY November

    We’re reluctant to let you go. Can you linger by the door for a bit, waving goodbye? It’s been great having you here.

    Before too long, we’ll gather this all up into a PDF file for the Transom Review, but not just yet.

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    but of course, my dear

    I didn’t mean to bail. I thought my time here was up! It’s quite comforting to know I can hang out here a little longer among kindred souls.

    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.

    Anyway, I’m proud as hell, and I want to thank Jay, Ira, Eric Nuzum, Garrison, and everyone else who helped us for having balls and a sense of fun and adventure.

    Onward!

  • Mark Tomas says:
    RIP?

    Oh no!

    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!

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    i love you

    I was trying to get some team spirit going in the last days… I encourage anyone so moved to contact Minnesota Public Radio, aka American Public Media, or to post a message on our website at popvultures.org, and, further, to email their own station if they were airing us. If nothing else, it would make us feel better and remind our kind and gentle funders that their support was not in vain, and Garrison’s idea was appreciated by many.

    Thanks for the props!

  • Steve Rhodes says:
    Continuing

    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.

    If protest doesn’t I hope they will allow you to continue doing the show and self-distribute it to the stations which carried it (and perhaps podcast it to the rest of us).

  • Steve Rhodes says:
    Also

    would it be possible to get the more recent shows on the PV site?

    And perhaps a few of the best as MP3s?

    It seems like it would be possible to get some of the MP3 blogs http://www.mp3blogs.org and podcasters http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podcasting http://www.ipodder.org/directory/4/podcasts could get behind.

  • Jay Allison says:
    shows

    You can stream them on the Public Radio Exchange http://www.prx.org

    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 judgements? I’m unclear on why such a precipitous decision was made about something so developmentally young. Did the show perhaps OFFEND somebody?

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    hmmm

    Steve, maybe you should email me, because I don’t know @!#$ about any of that stuff you’re talking about, but I’d like to learn. My email is heykate17@earthlink.net.

    Now, Jay, I don’t really know the answers to your questions. 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 says:
    quoting bill

    Hello Kate,
    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."

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    wow

    That’s amazing. I don’t even remember that one! Thanks a lot, Sydney (and Bill!).

    In the interest of team spirit, I’d like to invite any and all Pop Vultures supporters to personally email me or leave a comment on my blog (katesullivan.blogspot.com), so that I have everyone’s email and can keep everyone periodically updated on new ventures.

    We’re a team, now, of sorts. Please contact me at heykate17@earthlink.net

    :P

  • Jay Allison says:
    kids

    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 says:
    shucks

    That’s so cool, Jay! How old are your kids? It’s funny, because 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?

    :P

  • Adrienne Pombuf says:
    The Demise of Pop Vultures!

    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. Maybe you’ll pull a First Ave and return to us. Pop Vultures is dead, long live Pop Vultures!
    - An Obscure Demographic in Maple Grove

  • Steve Rhodes says:
    Currently

    Sorry I haven’t emailed you.

    I just saw the current article and wrote a quick item which is on the Ticker (scroll down a ways) at tvbarn

    http://tvbarn.com

    I also put it up on my blog where it is easier to find

    http://ari.typepad.com/tiger/2004/12/pop_vultures.html

    though I may modify it to include some of the stuff below.

    Seen as misfits with pubradio audience, Pop Vultures grounded

    http://www.current.org/music/music0421vultures.shtml

    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 the post-Gabriel Genesis they’re playing is what is crap.

    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 PopVultures is availabe "as a package of 13 pilot shows." Not a pilot, but 13 pilot shows.

    http://popvultures.publicradio.org

    I guess their idea of a story with cross-generational appeal is

    Pop Culture
    Look Who’s 40: ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4193235

    Ofcourse only one generation is listening (though perhaps the kids eating breakfast won’t bug dad or mom as much to switch to Radio Disney or put on a CD this morning).

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    Thanks, Steve

    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.

  • Benjamin Roesler says:
    This is soooo sad!

    I just heard your show for the first time on sunday, and I didn’t even get to hear it all. I was so excited for this show. I’m going to write my local radio station (KNOW) and get on them to do something about this!

  • JoanS says:
    nooooooo

    I am absolutely crushed that Pop Vultures is no longer on the air. I was sad that this past saturday (air time in Seattle), I was in a quarterly meeting and could not listen at the regular air-time. So I logged in tonight to hear what I missed, and after searching, read the "Current" article that Pop Vultures is over?! I am stunned, devastated, Vultures gave me hope for women in rock and pop! I am age 49 and loved loved loved your show. Kate come back!!! Who should I send my protest message to?
    This was the best new show since the beginning of This American Life and I like Pop Vultures better. A few weeks ago i spent several hours listening to every episode online, trying to catch every episode that aired before I knew about the show. I love the Vultures – what a totally crazy idea to take it off the air.

  • Tom Koetting says:
    Why not the back door?

    Maybe the show suffered from great expectations.

    Would this story be different if PV started as 2 microphones and an M-Box in someone’s house? It could run on a SoCal station, then slowly build an audience across the U.S., via PRX.

    If the show is that good, it could (and would) survive.

  • Tom Koetting says:
    Another Thought

    pulled from Kate’s introduction…

    Garrison Keillor had the first inspiration for the show while driving late one night in rural Wisconsin (or somewhere). Heíd 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

    end of quote

    Please allow me to guess that the stations that would benefit from PV the most … don’t run syndicated programming. Around every turn, I encounter staffers inside non-NPR stations that wanted to avoid syndication with every power in their being. To them, syndication (of any kind) is akin to Clear Channel’s one-DJ-in-12-cities business model. To a non-comm programmer opposed to syndication, two local guys in a dorm room with crap mics and no production is better than PV with all of it’s L.A. slant and production. Ironically, the very stations I speak of are the ones with more music programming … and often with a younger slant. So, they have the audience, but not the desire to run programming "not made here."

    I don’t know, just guessing.

  • Mark Boudreau says:
    This is what good radio is all about

    Pop Vultures in my opinion is what good radio is all about. The only positive I can glean from the cancellation is that there are alternatives to terrestrial radio starting to bubble to the surface in satellite and Internet radio as well as in podcasting that will give shows like PV other options (hopefully). Obviously, the big problem is monetizing this so a radio show like Pop Vultures can support itseld but stations like Radio Paradise are showing the way in this brave new world of radio. Kate, what you and your team created was amazing and hopefully you can translate some of that great expertise somewhere else on the virtual radio dial. If you are interested in contributing anything to my site The Rock and Roll Report (www.rockandrollreport.com) or to its future companion podcast I would love to hear from you.
    Thanks for the great insight into producing great radio. I will be posting about your piece on the history of KROQ in the new year.
    Merry Christmas.

    Mark Boudreau
    http://www.rockandrollreport.com

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    wow!

    I had no idea the conversation could continue in the Transom "afterlife."

    The most recent comments are trenchant and provocative. Tom, my gut agrees with you. I think starting small with no expectations is the way to go, and the challenge is to figure out a way to produce a highly edited show like this for no money. As much as I admire Howard Stern, and college radio, I’m not interested in just doing live, real-time ranting into a mic–if only because I’m not that confident in my consistency!

    I want to make a new show on a shoestring with no hype, no expectations and no backers expecting X number of major markets by X date. Let word of mouth and the internet do some of the work and don’t put a shitload of pressure on the thing for Christ’s sake. I need time to work my chops and get really good–and like any weird new show (TAL, Seinfeld, Car Talk etc.) the audience would also need some time to adjust and embrace the newness.

    If any genius out there has some advice, now’s the time to pony up!

    kate-sullivan@sbc.global.net

    I’m quite serious about this. The other thing is, I am going to be looking for a coproducer/maybe editor to collaborate with. The main requirement is that they "get" and love PV, are aware of its weaknesses, and want to build on its strengths. The dream is that we get some money so that we don’t have to spend a lot of time on other things, but if not, I’ll still be doing this at night… Lemme know if anyone comes to mind! Meanwhile I’m learning ProTools…

    Thank god for Transom and PRX!

  • Tom Koetting says:
    To Arms!

    If I wasn’t working on two spec shows at the moment, I’d volunteer to edit.

    Ideally, you need someone local. Network from your local fans in the industry first … you’ll find the perfect person.

    Good luck learning ProTools. It’s deeper and wider than radio production software needs to be, but it’s really the only game in town.

    I recently editing a ton of video with Apple’s amazing iMovie4 and wondered, "why can’t someone make radio production software this straightforward?" Perhaps their next version of GarageBand will be a nice alternative for new radio types.

    I’m hoping you can do what you do best and not get bogged down in computer land.

    Please keep us updated – your public always wants more.

  • Benjamin Roesler says:
    I can edit.

    I’m going to school right now for audio production, it’s not exactly radio broadcasting, but I know Pro Tools (more or less, obviously it’s a huge program with tons and tons of hidden things that I haven’t figured out yet). I live in Minnesota, so I don’t know if that would work so well, what with you being in LA and all, but I would love to help out in any way.

    If I can help, let me know. My email address is benjaminroesler@hotmail.com

    Oh, and I have a Pro Tools LE rig at home, if that merits anything.

  • Mark Boudreau says:
    Pop Vultures, Podcasting and Rock and Roll

    Hi Kate,
    I tried to send you an an e-mail at kate-sullivan@sbc.global.net but it failed for some reason so here is the e-mail:

    Hi Kate,

    Just wanted to comment on your plans for a new, small scale radio venture without the pressures that the major media puts on a broadcaster. There are a lot of great sites out there now with some great sources of info for the new breed of radio broadcasters who are able to put together some incredible sounding audio right from their homes and distribute them to the ever eager "iPod nation" out there. I’ll get together a list of links for you as I am in the process of planning a companion podcast to my website The Rock and Roll Report which will be an audio companion featuring some of the cool rock and roll bands, labels, webzines and radio that I write about on the site. For 2005 it looks like I will have about 10 authors contributing their twisted rock and roll recommendations and musings and if you ever feel like throwing in a contribution or two by all means let me know.

    As far as the future of radio goes, you have picked a great time to experiment as the options for very cool radio like Pop Vultures are increasing every week. Between podcasts, Live365 and the like there is a lot of opportunity for people eager to put in the time and effort to have their voices heard. One great site to start with is I Love Radio (http://radio.blogware.com)which features a lot of tutorials on broadcasting techniques, equipment and general articles on radio for people who love radio. A great place to start and quite inspiring (as is Transom).

    I would love to keep in touch so we could possibly trade notes as to how our respective projects are progressing every once in awhile. I will be featuring on the site your article on the history of KROQ sometime this January and probably feature the late great Pop Vultuures as well. I really like your philosophy about radio and rock and roll and am quite inspired by it. Hopefully we can both keep the rock and roll radio flag waving!

    Take care. Have a happy new year and be all means let me know if I can help you out in any way. I’ll get that list together and send it off ASAP.

    Mark Boudreau
    http://www.rockandrollreport.com
    "Where Rock and Roll is Still an Adventure!"

  • Kate Sullivan says:
    oops

    Shit I wrote my email wrong!

    THIS IS MY EMAIL!

    kate-sullivan@sbcglobal.net

    I’ll check out all that stuff you mentioned YO. Thank you so much!