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Seen as misfits with pubradio audience, Pop Vultures grounded

Originally published in Current, Nov. 15, 2004
By Mike Janssen

Prairie Home Productions' Pop Vultures has ended after only two months of weekly production, sunk by a perceived lack of appeal to public radio's middle-aged core audience.

Prairie Home Companion auteur Garrison Keillor conceived of Pop Vultures as a vehicle for educating public radio listeners about the weird world of pop music. The half-hour show featured thirtyish rock journalist Kate Sullivan as host, chatting with a rotating cast of friends about all genres and manifestations of pop, from glam to hip-hop to Christian rock.

Their jokes, slang, knowledgeable references — with interjected "likes" and "you knows" — created a tone that was informal, occasionally brash and in-the-know. To some ears, that added up to a wholly new sound, a rare thing in public radio. Independent producer Jay Allison and This American Life host Ira Glass were among its champions.

A year ago, Keillor's production company began distributing 13 episodes of Pop Vultures via the web-based Public Radio Exchange. In September Pop Vultures kicked off weekly production with a promotional party at the Public Radio Program Directors conference in San Antonio.

But programmers feared the show's style and subject matter would alienate core listeners and balked at airing Pop Vultures, says Senior Producer Tiffany Hanssen. In recent weeks the show aired on just five stations, though more had picked up at least a few of the first 13 episodes.

"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."

Hanssen also considered advice from Keillor and from Minnesota Public Radio, which contributed funding and aired the program as well.

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.

But Jeff Hansen, p.d. at Seattle's KUOW, which is carrying the show, says the PRX episodes were presented to the system as pilots and questions Prairie Home's marketing strategy. "Can you think of any responsible program producer that would launch a show in September at the PRPD Conference and then pull the plug on it the following month? Who would do that?"

"It makes it look like Prairie Home Productions doesn't know what they're doing," he adds. He wonders why Prairie Home would end the show based on feedback from p.d.'s who hadn't aired the program, rather than consulting prospective listeners in focus groups. "They're basing pulling the plug on assumptions," he says.

Fans of Pop Vultures and its producers say they will remember the show as a noble experiment too far ahead of its time. Roger Duvall, p.d. at WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Ala., says the show helped public radio by raising questions about how stations could attract younger listeners and reach new audiences.

"The points that it aroused were good ones for us to be talking about," he says.

Web page posted Nov. 30, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee


The show gives pop music some serious (but not too serious) attention.


Keillor's own live radio show may become the setting in 2005 for a backstage drama directed by Robert Altman.


Pop Vultures' website.

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