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.
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!
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.
Also Check Out: KROQ: An Oral History (Written by Kate Sullivan)
Later, in the early ‘90s, I lived in Prague and discovered the BBC. I love everything about the BBC World Service. Everything. But what always blew me away was how they could take any topic, no matter how seemingly dry, and turn it into a fascinating human story—a drama, really. “Farming World,” of all things, was great at this. What also excited me was that they weren’t just delivering the news—they were also, secretly, trying to help people improve their English skills and to better understand British and Western culture. When we first started devising Pop Vultures, I really wanted to emulate that. My dream was to entertain people, primarily—and, in the process, to painlessly familiarize them with pop music and culture. A now-discontinued BBC show called “Pop Words” was brilliant at this: They’d read the lyrics to a radio hit and explain them, tongue firmly in cheek, in terms people from Kampuchea to Burkina Faso would understand. To me, this crystallized the greatness of the BBC, which is its determinedly accessible intellectualism.
Car Talk does something similar in that it takes a specific, seemingly dry topic and turns it into a general celebration of humanity, humor and fun. Obviously, This American Life does that too. More importantly, for me, TAL has a unique reverence for the experiences, opinions and language of “non-experts.” Everyday people. Plus, you know, it doesn’t sound like anything else on NPR. That’s huge.
So far we’ve only used one professional critic on the show, besides myself. This isn’t due to anti-intellectualism. It’s just that most critics don’t talk about music in aurally compelling ways, whereas musicians usually do. (And most of our guests are musicians.) I guess, to me, musical discussion without passion is inherently flawed, and can become a kind of tautologous exercise. I need discussion of music to reach outward, to deal with the ways music exists in our lives, because I think that’s how most people experience music: It’s a part of their hearts, their love stories, their memories, their families, their dreams and tragedies.
Here’s where we get into my other, non-radio heroes. Lester Bangs is my rock-critic hero because at his best he struck a fine and brilliant balance between his intellect and his soul, and the ways the different parts of him processed music. His writing was as musical as music itself-in many cases, more so!
I also have a real fondness for MOJO Magazine. They have a similar radical love for music and a fantastic fluency with pop history. I love the feature, for example, where contemporary stars discuss the single record that most changed their lives. Much like the BBC reporting, this feature has multiple layers: Under the guise of an essay by PJ Harvey, you end up learning something about her hero, Leonard Cohen. And, in the end, you also get to see a new side of PJ Harvey.
I also love the comic strip/book “Great Pop Things,” which tells the history of rock ‘n roll through comics, and consider it to be some of the better rock criticism of the past couple decades. What appeals is that it takes a left-field, unorthodox approach to pop criticism, basically answering pop music with pop art. (Frank Zappa may have thought writing about music was like “dancing about architecture,” but that sounds perfectly appropriate to me—as does making comic strips about pop music.) Its irreverent, sometimes druggy evocation of music history embodies the spirit of punk rock better than most arts criticism.
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.
The problem is a simple misunderstanding of our intent, and our role in a station’s lineup. Pop Vultures is, first and foremost, intended as entertainment. We really want to entertain people in the old-fashioned sense—make ‘em laugh, piss ‘em off, keep ‘em listening. The secondary goal is to convey information.
We never claim to be experts, because the whole point of the show is to promote the concept that pop music—and the discussion of it–is for everyone. We feel that we should never be able to sit on our “expert” laurels. Listeners should not be compelled by our credentials, but by our words.
Likewise, we feel it is implicit that these are merely our opinions—and that you have every right to disagree. (We do—constantly!) Furthermore, we are not presenting the final word on any given topic. Pop Vultures exists as a complement to, and not a replacement for, “serious” music criticism.
The other criticism we have gotten, almost always from young women, is that I sound like a young girl. The assumption there is that, well, it’s bad to sound young and female. Would anyone ever dare to critique Tavis Smiley for sounding black, or Daniel Schorr for sounding old? I don’t know how to answer prejudice like that. What can I say? I’m here, I sound young and female, get used to it?
The colloquial nature of our discussion isn’t an accident. Garrison Keillor had the first inspiration for the show while driving late one night in rural Wisconsin (or somewhere). He’d tuned into a local college station, and two guys were shooting the shit about music, apparently in a dorm room. The voyeurism of the experience was compelling—as was its unscripted informality. Of course, as a writer, I was totally intimidated when I heard the show was to be unscripted. But that element turned out to be crucial—and, actually, pretty natural for me.
In 1990 I met a group of songwriter-guys who liked to talk about music a lot, kind of the way sports-talk guys will endlessly debate batting statistics and trades. At the time I didn’t even know I was that interested in music. But through our conversations, I discovered that not only did I know more than I thought, but music was my very favorite number-one thing to talk about! I remember realizing one day, and saying out loud, “Music is my favorite thing to talk about! Too bad I can’t get paid for this!”
Over the following years I engaged in countless late-night beer-and-bull sessions with these friends and, in the process, learned a lot about music, and new ways to think about music. Conversation (or journalism) isn’t just about having a good subject—it’s about how you approach it.
Doing professional music journalism later, I was thrilled to learn that all musicians, no matter how fancy or sold-out, talked the same way about music. Rock stars are really just overgrown fans! I’d sit down with anyone, from Sugar Ray to Oasis, and watch their eyes light up when I’d ask them about the first moment they knew they wanted to be a musician. They always had a story: The first time they played their brother’s copy of “My Sharona”; or their first KISS record. They remembered the room they were in; they remembered playing air guitar while jumping on the bed or running around the living room screaming.
And when it came to musical analysis, they were consistently insightful—but it was usually the “mother wit” of the passionate auto-didact. And, personally, I think that’s the best kind!
The other thing is, musicians’ knowledge of music is not rooted in an intellectual desire to “master” the subject. Instead, it comes out of a deep and terrible loneliness, and the constant hunger for connection and delight. And so there’s a friendliness toward the subject that makes for expansive discussion.
Pop Vultures is an attempt to give props to that mother wit.
B. Why We Talk About Over-Exposed Commercial Music
This is the question that some public radio program directors have in mind when they first hear about the show. The official answer is that pop culture is a part of American life and as such deserves discussion, period. Why be ignorant of your own culture?
But my private answer is totally hippie-ish. Basically, I look around at the millions of eager music-lovers who turn on the radio or computer every day in search of the same things musicians do—delight, connection, and escape from solitude. And I feel empathy for them, because the junk they have to contend with is ridiculous. And yet they keep on listening, and buying records, and going to concerts. Why?
I believe that the music that “makes it big” oftentimes has something inherently interesting about it, because it has a story to tell about its historical moment and the people responding to it.
In addition, I believe that American popular music is one of our proudest traditions, and, historically, best contributions to humanity. I realized this when I lived in Eastern Europe. There is something sacred and redemptive in the blues, in folk and country, and in jazz. These are the roots of today’s pop, rock and hip-hop, and I think you can still find shreds of that sacred redemption here and there if you just look closely enough.
Part III. Process
The basic process runs something like this: We brainstorm a bunch of topics. Brainstorming is a private process for me that I don’t really want to talk about. My coproducer Kathryn Slusher also brainstorms, and together we come up with a master list of topics. We want a range of topics, length-wise—from five to 30 minutes–to give us freedom and leeway for the unexpected. We’re always looking for the itty-bitty ones that can fill in a six-minute gap. We love those! We also love “concept” episodes such as our forthcoming “Salute To Glam Rock” or “Salute to TV” episodes.
Then we do a few weeks of intense recording with all our guests, both at a studio in L.A. and in Minneapolis. (By the way, we’re constantly adding new guests.) I also record solo, which usually becomes interstitial stuff. Usually we record enough material for five to ten shows in one of these “pushes.” Maybe 30 hours of material.
Next, we decide which topics should go together to make up individual episodes, looking for some kind of link (if there is one), but textural and emotional contrast. Then we listen back to all the material for each topic, and democratically decide which material is the best. I love this part of the process, because it is so totally democratic. I have to say, I am completely in love with my collaborators, and working with them is unadulterated joy. I cannot believe how much fun we have!
Then we make a rough “blueprint” for how the material should be ordered and what music to play.
At this point editing in ProTools begins. This is a very private moment in the process as well, where Tiffany Hanssen communes with her muse and comes up with all the little moments that make me smile or laugh.
After the first round of cobbling-together of material for a show, we listen to it and decide what needs to be cut—because it’s always too long.
Often times subjects surprise us. Our “Jesus Rock” episode was originally going to be just a short segment on the band Evanescence, but it turned out to be much bigger, and good enough for a whole show. The bummer is when a topic doesn’t pan out, and we’ve got to either go back into the studio and do more recording, or figure out how to pair it with something longer. Or scrap it. Or put it back on the stove to simmer. We’ve scrapped numerous topics; and we’ve got numerous ones that’ve been simmering for a long time.
After the second round of editing, we do our “fine-tooth listening” where we get extremely fucking nitpicky, about everything. “Can we play the chorus—but the second chorus–and not the verse?” “We need a softer transition from the Nirvana into the talk about ‘The O.C.” “I think that joke should go at the top.” “Can we cut that part where I totally contradict myself?” “Oops, we missed a ‘fuck’.” “We need more cowbell!” (Just joking.)
One more round of editing, then we listen one last time, and then the finishing touches go in and it gets mastered by Jason Keillor.
This happens over and over, and now we’re at the point where we’ve got shows coming down the conveyor belt one after another, so we’re constantly working on different parts of the process at once.
A Note On Choosing Topics:
The only thing I want to say about choosing topics is this:
- You can’t do a good story on a subject that bores you.
- Like they say in fiction-writing classes, by focusing on the specific, you can achieve universality.
- The way you approach a topic is just as important as the topic itself. It reveals your own biases and perspective, and can make the difference between sounding patronizing, reductionist, predictable and fucked-up, or sounding respectful, fresh, expansive and fun.
A Note On Finding Guests:
There’s no real system; it’s all about chance—you know, who I happen to meet at the record store or doing an article. It would be nice to know everyone in America and choose accordingly, but I tend to trust the mystery of kismet.
The main quality I look for in guests is largely dictated by the medium: That is, do they have an interesting way of speaking? I once met a forensic musicologist, who serves as an expert witness in high-profile song-plagiarism cases. Totally fascinating guy, right? Well, we got him into the studio, and it turned out that he talked extremely slowly. What he said was good, but impossible to listen to for any length of time because you’d start to fixate on the gaps between his words. And there was no way to edit that stuff out.
A good radio voice is a plus, of course.
Our guests are good at party-conversation—they know how to have back-and-forth, or else their soliloquies are fun.
So that’s about all I have to say for now about the production of Pop Vultures. I’m happy to answer any questions or just talk about stuff.