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Sullivan in superhero drag Pop Vultures' host, Kate Sullivan, works "at the Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris level, in the way that she's utterly suited to radio," says Ira Glass. Pictured: Sullivan's avatar on the program's website.

With Vultures, Keillor hips his peers to pop

Originally published in Current, June 21, 2004
By Mike Janssen

If you've ever gushed over a band, crushed on a rock star or scrawled a favorite song lyric on your sneaker, the Pop Vultures are your kindred spirits.

The Vultures are a crew of mouthy music junkies who, though they sound like no one else with a public radio show, have landed a weekly self-titled half-hour to opine on the pop scene.

Not everyone will understand their lingo and references — they are musicians, critics and creative types under 40, well below the average age of the public radio listener — but older eavesdroppers need not fear. Pop Vultures was conceived as a painless, even pleasurable way they can get hip, or at least fake it.

The show has a funny, conversational tone that strikes many ears as brand new. A project of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Productions, its pilot season airs on just a handful of stations. (You can listen at popvultures.org.)

It's provoking strong reactions, pro and con. Some say Pop Vultures is the first program with a unique sound since This American Life. Others question whether that same individuality will turn off core listeners, especially those who don't care about the culture of younger generations.

Pop Vultures' producers profess to be unconcerned. Keillor, the show's creator, admits he's unfamiliar with pop music but wants to shake the starch out of public radio.

"Radio is much too terribly, terribly self-conscious," Keillor says, his voice betraying weariness with the status quo. And so we need new, young, less self-conscious people to come in and let fly. But we're all kind of regimented. We're all still marching to Mozart. We're still committed to playing background music for upscale furniture stores."

Pop Vultures' alternative-rock playlist of Nirvana, Weezer and the Foo Fighters surely clashes with that soundtrack, and the show even tackles rap, which at times seems to be the third rail of public radio.

Keillor jokes Pop Vultures might be more popular with public radio diehards "if we had Harold Bloom lecturing on rap."

"But to actually play the stuff, even in little tiny snippets, is a very bewildering and painful thing to most people in public radio," he says. "This makes me regret being in public radio, but it's too late. I'm 61, and it's too late, and I don't know how to get retrained."

A laid-back classroom

Keillor began talking about his idea for Pop Vultures two years ago with Kathryn Slusher and his son, Jason, both producers for Prairie Home. Slusher became producer of the new show. The younger Keillor is its engineer.

The Pop Vultures oeuvre to date consists of 13 pilot episodes produced by Keillor's outfit and offered through the Public Radio Exchange. The series launches nationally in September, distributed solely through PRX. Prairie Home and Minnesota Public Radio contribute to its shoestring budget.

Each episode takes a band, genre or musical phenomenon as a starting point and spirals into a flowing sequence of ultracasual dialogues between the show's host, Los Angeles writer Kate Sullivan, and her friends. Their talk floats over a continuous bed of music, which sometimes steps to the forefront for a chorus or two.

Opinions whiz by at thrash-band speed: "Who cares if they can't play? Whatever!" says Sullivan of retro-rockers The Strokes. Silliness abounds: Sullivan introduces a pal as "Miz Hillary, baby-pants, sugar-bomb, my own favorite Lucy Liu."

Some risqué material could spook programmers cowed by the FCC. Sullivan compares rapping to oral sex. She and a guest wish rock stars would have the guts to stick awards up their butts at industry galas. "An Oscar would work. Just oil that up," Sullivan says. And slang such as "wack" and "b-boy" flies by without explanation, which could baffle older listeners.

Though giggly and hip, Pop Vultures is not all froth. Keillor insists that it's educational, and indeed the show touches on the historical roots of today's musical trends. Rap, for example, is explained as the marriage of Jamaican dance music and turntable wizardry in late-'70s New York.

Staking claim on "that crazy music"

Admirers of Pop Vultures praise its laid-back tone and cite its approach to pop music that sounds in-the-know, especially by public radio standards.

Its informality starts with host Sullivan, a freelance writer and music critic found by Slusher through a mutual friend. Though Sullivan is in her 30s, she sounds much younger, with a giggle in her throat.

"She is sort of the prototypical child, the listener's child or the listener's niece who, when you ask her, 'What are you listening to? What is that?', she'll tell you," Keillor says. "This is the most basic sort of journalism there is."

This American Life host and producer Ira Glass, who critiqued early episodes of Pop Vultures for the producers, raves about Sullivan. "She's, like, at the Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris level, in the way that she's utterly suited to radio," says Glass, who loves the show. "That's really, really hard to find."

Most of the other Vultures are friends of Sullivan's. Their conversations are free of the businesslike formality that marks most public radio interviews. Sullivan introduces subjects with a sentence at the most. Then she and her guests bounce ideas and jokes off each other like friends eating pizza in front of MTV.

Slusher and Sullivan start work on an episode by hashing out ideas, then record the other Vultures as they share stories and opinions. They cook down 12 to 15 hours of banter for each half-hour show.

"So many radio conversations don't sound like conversations," says Mary McGrath, a public radio producer and fan of the show. "They sound like interviews, Q&As. They sound forced. This really feels like you're in on something."

The Vultures talk about music in a way that will sound familiar to many young listeners. Critics of public radio's arts coverage object to its fawning attitude. The Vultures, in contrast, don't shy from mockery. In an episode about awards shows, Sullivan says Grammys are selected by a vote of "executives, record producers, publishers, mailroom guys, temps, gofers, whores and coke dealers."

Yet they recognize pop music often deserves affection, even fanatical devotion, despite its vain and fleeting nature.
"Public radio, for all of our strengths as a national institution, has always been terrible at dealing with rock and pop and rap," Glass says. "There's always a feeling of, 'What's this crazy music these young people are into?' . . . There's no reason that public radio shouldn't do pop music better than anyone else, in the way that we do the Mideast better than anyone else. That should be ours. We should own that."

Teaching old dogs New Wave

Just half a dozen stations have been airing Pop Vultures, including Seattle's KUOW and Philadelphia's WXPN. Prairie Home Productions is pitching the show to news and triple-A stations and expecting little interest from classical music outlets.

With the show's distinctive sound and purview, listeners say, it may need to perform a balancing act if it wants to catch on. Keillor conceived it as an educational show for public radio's core listeners, who skew older. Slusher says the producers worked without an audience in mind but hope it will appeal to young adults as well.

"If public radio wants to remain as viable as it is, they're going to need to broaden their schedules to accommodate a younger audience," says Slusher, 29.

The show would likely appeal more to stations if both old and young find common ground in Vultureland.

"It's a show that has to serve two masters," Glass says. "It has to both be there for the people who actually know a little bit about pop music, but also for the people who are a majority of the public radio audience, people who aren't following pop music very closely."

Glass says the show should take more care to explain a few more references per episode.

But listeners who can follow the conversations may have more trouble with the substance of what the Vultures say.
"I don't think you can do a show that's shaped around the opinions of a group of five or six people without risking alienating a lot of other people," says Raquel Maria Dillon, a reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio who listened to the show on PRX.

Dillon, 27, gives high marks to Pop Vultures' Sullivan and unique sound, but she finds the show too fluffy and opinionated. Her station airs a folk music program, and "I don't know if your folk-show type is going to listen to something like Pop Vultures," she says. "And I don't think that your average p.d. feels courageous enough to play something like Pop Vultures."

Roger Duvall, station manager of Alabama Public Radio in Tuscaloosa, was skeptical when he first heard the show. "It sounded like just kids talking about music," he says. But on second listen he found the discussion insightful. He began airing it June 6 and has heard from a few listeners who thought Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera had no place on public radio.

Another Alabama listener wrote Pop Vultures an enthusiastic note. "I was so pleasantly surprised on Sunday to turn to a station that featured people who talked about things that my friends and I talk about in language that we actually use!" she said.

Web page posted June 22, 2004, revised June 30, 2004
Current
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2004

EARLIER ARTICLES

An earlier pubradio attempt to capture conversational commentary, WNYC's Satellite Sisters, had its fans but folded after two seasons.

LATER ARTICLE

Producers cancel Pop Vultures, 2004.

OUTSIDE LINKS

The program's own website, including audio files of first 13 shows and profiles of the Vultures (click on the caricatures).

A Seattle blogger writes: "Pop music is a guilty pleasure of mine, but now, with the accidental discovery of Pop Vultures, a Minnesota Public Radio show, I no longer need hide my head in shame."

In Philadelphia, WXPN aired the shows on Tuesday nights.

Host Kate Sullivan's blog.

 

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Garrison Keillor in live performance

Keillor aimed for a program to demystify music he doesn't know. (Photo: Current.)