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Thursday, July 18

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It's such a simple idea you think it would have been duplicated multiple times by now; Get two rock critics, put them in a room and have them talk about music. It's a formula that's worked wonders in other entertainment genres; the concept made legends out of film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Sports fanatics have ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" with sportswriters Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser and a handful of other similarly formatted shows. Since CNN's "Crossfire" became hugely popular, you can't seem to find political commentary that doesn't feature pundits arguing with one another.

But for the last 15 or so years, music fans have really had only one outlet in either radio or TV to turn to get expert opinion on whether or not the new Arcade Fire album is worth buying, or if this year's Lollapalooza was a rip-off, or hear insightful commentary on the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA's) recent crackdown on illegal music downloading. At least that's as far as Chicago Public Radio President and General Manager Torey Malatia knows. Which is why, two years ago, he decided to add "Sound Opinions," a rock 'n' roll talk radio show hosted by Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot and Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis to his stable of shows at Chicago Public Radio.

"I certainly don't know of any in the catalogue as something I can buy as a public radio station," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, a show like this is sorely lacking."

It is indeed, but it might not seem that way to Chicagoans, who have the luxury of listening to the show since 1993, albeit via a handful of different incarnations. It first started as an overnight program on WLUP-AM featuring Ed Schwartz with DeRogatis and former Chicago Reader critic Bill Wyman (who is now with the San Francisco Gate). It went on to have a stint with Q101 (still with Wyman), took a hiatus in the mid-1990s (when DeRogatis left the Sun-Times to work for Rolling Stone), then came back with Kot in the fray in 1998 on WXRT, where it stayed until switching to public radio in 2005.

While many Chicagoans are probably aware of the show, what they likely don't know, or at least may have taken for granted, was that up until two years ago, when the show made itself available to a national audience, they were in the only city that aired a show like this. What they also probably don't know is that now that it has funding and a national distribution deal behind it, it could very well be the next Chicago Public Radio programs to become a national household name ala "This American Life" and "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me."

"I deeply believe that's true," Malatia said.

This past December the program celebrated its second full year Chicago Public Radio and has aired over 100 shows thus far.

A Model with a Chicago Influence

It's fitting the program would come from Chicago, a city known for its critic tandems that host talk shows. DeRogatis, who originally conjured up the idea for the program while working at the Sun-Times in the early 1990s, needed only to look to a fellow staffer for inspiration.

"I always thought it was silly there wasn't a version of what Siskel and Ebert did for music," says DeRogatis, who was a big fan of the

Tribune-Sun Time duo's show during its heydays in the late '80s and '90s. "Every time I got together with any of my friends we'd be sitting on the couch playing something and they can't live without it, or they're ranting and raving about how you wasted $15 on a piece of shit. That's how all of us music lovers throughout our lives interacted."

And that's pretty much how the show goes, though with a little more structure and restraint than an argument amongst buddies. Each episode starts with the two discussing and offering insight on hot-button news in the pop music world, such as RIAA legal action, the hoopla around the new Radiohead album being available to download for free or the pre-record release smack-talking between rappers Kanye West and 50 Cent. They'll tackle record reviews, which stretch from mainstream artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Annie Lennox albums to the indie acts like PJ Harvey and Spoon. (Instead of giving an album a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," however, they'll advise listeners to "buy it," "burn it" or "trash it"). Each show usually has an interview with an artist and a live in-house performance at the Chicago Public Radio's posh studios on Navy Pier, where the show is taped. "We always have the debate whether we should we have more music or less," Kot said. "It's a recipe that we're always refining. We want to have as much music as we can within the parameters of a talk show."

While most radio stations have DJ sets that attempt to expose people new music (such as KCRW's "The Morning Become Eclectic" with Nic Harcourt), and many do interviews, in-studio performances and or taped live shows (NPR's "All Songs Considered," with Bob Boilen), there's rarely any discourse between experts. On MTV, VH1 and a lot of commercial radio, you've got a lot of celebrity-focused news and commentary, but "no thoughtful, non-'Entertainment Tonight' discussion about what this music is culturally and what it is musically," Malatia says. "It just doesn't happen. You've got either a countdown, saying so and so musician is in a No. 7 position and play one of their songs, or you've got people who are just playing the music and not really giving any kind of credence to the fact that sometimes these are connected to politics, or culture and how this is all advancing the art form."

DeRogatis feels that people just don't take music seriously enough to discuss it in any mature, cerebral way despite the fact he feels it has as much an impact on society as any other aspect of our culture. That's why he treats his newspaper beat and the radio show as though he were covering something as "important" as politics or business.

"There's still this prejudice in the media that there's no room for smart talk in something 'disposable' as popular music," DeRogatis said. "If you listen to this music, it's no different than covering any other beat like religion or the economy; it's about all of life. And yet in popular music, we were playing this stuff and people were not taking it seriously. That's why we came to public radio. We wanted to be taken seriously and see what the potential of this show could be to go national at long last, because we just happen to think there's nothing more important in the universe to talk about."

Why Do People Continue to Tune In?

There's a two-fold reason for the show's success, and they both have much to do with Kot and DeRogatis' personalities, which don't necessarily reflect that of the standard bitter, esoteric rock critic. Being daily newspaper reporters, they're writing as much for soccer moms, construction workers and investment bankers as they are hip-young people and music aficionados. They come from a very broad musical perspective, which makes the show understandable to just about anybody who has ever listen to music. They spend as much time talking about Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson as they do Brian Eno or The Replacements. That broad scope is what attracts listeners from all backgrounds and age groups. It's not likely two writers from underground publications or Magnet magazine could host a show like this and get national syndication and podcasts downloaded all over the world (because only about one percent of the world's population would understand what they're talking about). Malatia describes "Sound Opinions" as the perfect public radio program because it de-fragments the pop music audience.

"Our mission as a public radio station is all about de-fragmenting communities, getting people to understand other people if they don't agree with them," he said. "What we didn't want was a specialty program that would reach a very narrow group, and Jim and Greg's program is something I think anybody who has liked pop music at some point in their lives — currently or in the past — can really enjoy."

According to DeRogatis, part of the reason there's not a lot of critics can pull this show off is because many seem to seem take pride in being overly intellectual obscurants, and in the process scare the average music listener away.

"A lot of rock critics tend to crawl way up their own ass," DeRogatis said. "Greg did a radio show last week with Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker, and, you know, nobody wants to listen to that guy talk. There's no joy, there's no fun. There's an intellectualism and a coldness at the expense of accessibility. We write for a daily newspaper and we have to explain what hyphy is [a style of music and dance usually associated with the Oakland Bay Area hip hop culture] to a suburban bus driver, or a mom in Schaumburg. I don't look at that a detriment, I look at that as a challenge. How can I make them understand this world?"

Kot and DeRogatis don't necessarily think like typical rock critics, and they don't look or act like typical rock critics, either. In fact, they're almost exactly the opposite of the bespectacled, literary look typically associated with writers. DeRogatis is a short, excitable, rolly-polly fellow. Kot (who was wearing loafers during the taping I sat through) is a taller, skinny everyman who looks more like a high school basketball coach than somebody who frequents indie rock clubs. Both are in their forties, are married and have daughters (Kot actually is a coach on one of his girl's basketball teams — which frequent listeners likely know because he had to skip out on an interview over the winter with The Stroke's Julian Casablancas. DeRogatis razzed him about it a couple times during the conversation with Casablancas.)

They're both sort of average dudes that happen to know a lot about and love all kinds of music. And despite being employed by two rival papers and often reviewing the very same concerts and albums and competing for the same enterprise stories, they get along like old college buddies.

"It's an interesting relationship because they're very friendly, they like each other as people," Malatia said, "but they do severely disagree on musical styles."

DeRogatis, who authored the go-to book on legendary seventies rock critic Lester Bangs, titled Let it Blurt, very much emulates Bangs' style. He's extremely passionate, opinionated and talks a mile a minute. He's a romantic, almost to a fault, as evidenced by his frequent griping about how much better things used to be (Lollapalooza, for example) and often already has his mind made up if he's going to like something before he even hears it.

Kot, however, is more level headed. He takes a fresh, open-minded approach to anything he hears and will give just about anything a chance. (In a recent show he gave Britney Spears' new album a "burn it" because he thought the high production quality and beats would go over well in the club scene. DeRogatis was dumbfounded by this assertation.) Kot isn't as outspoken as DeRogatis (as you can tell by the number of his quotes in this story) but certainly is no less witty and humorous. The common denominator, though, is that they admire each other enough to respectfully disagree.

"When Jim and Greg disagree, they allow each other the right to believe something that the other guy finds totally dopey," says Malatia. "Jim will allow Greg to like something that he would normally think would be a sign of a person who has no taste, but he knows Greg has taste, so it's cool. And vice versa."

It's that give and take, that uncanny ability to totally disagree with somebody yet still keep it civil and entertaining, that has allowed the show to become what it has.

"I don't think it could have been Siskel and Jones or Ebert and Smith," DeRogatis explained. "I don't even think Ebert and Roeper are Siskel and Ebert. I think we have a balance with each other. As excitable as I tend to be, Greg tends to be more even handed. I tend to be over the top and he tends to be wry and sardonic. I think it has to be a particular combination and that seems to work."

And a little patience has helped, too. There are very few overnight successes in public radio despite the fact people may see a show like "This American Life" as one these days. The growth of "Sound Opinions" over the last two years has been substantial — it has gone from being aired on two stations to 30. According to producer Todd Bachman, roughly 100,000 listeners tune in each week, which is 10 times what listenership was on XRT. Its podcast is downloaded about 11,000 times a week. But those numbers still don't quite satisfy everybody involved.

"Public radio program directors are very reluctant to take new programs and put them on the air and try them out for audience," Malatia said. "This is what we experience with everything. We had this problem with 'Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me,' and 'This American Life.' Nobody seems to remember that except me. But it was a struggle to get that show going at first. What happens, though, is once audiences are exposed to it there begins a snowball effect. We've been recently added to some good markets and I think we have a really good chance of catching on here in the next year and a half."

In the meantime, Kot and DeRogatis will continue arguing about music like old buddies. They want the show to be a success and reach as big an audience they can get, or course, but you get the feeling this is the sort of thing they'd be doing regardless of whether or not anybody was tuning in.

"It's the show I wanted to listen to when I was 13," DeRogatis said. "When I was growing up in New York City, if somebody had been smart enough to put Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs on a show together, oh my god, I would have killed for that. I'm not saying we're that, but it was what we want to make it."


About the Author(s)

Jeremy Schnitker is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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