As a proud thirty-eight year-old member of Generation X, I have become just a little disturbed by a trend I’ve noticed in the last few years. One might call this trend the “indie-rockification” of public radio. As my fellow grunge-survivors and I, raised on the so-called “first wave” of alternative rock and derided by boomers as slackers, creep closer to middle age we have become a more valuable target demographic for public stations. And, with commercial radio hemorrhaging jobs as we graduated college, those Gen Xers who went into careers in radio pretty much only had public radio as a viable option. So not only are more Gen Xers listening to public radio, increasingly they’re in charge.
One of the best products of this trend is the program Sound Opinions, produced by Chicago Public Radio and syndicated by American Public Media. Billing itself as the world’s only Rock N Roll talk show, Sound Opinions is hosted by Gen X popular music critic Jim DeRogatis, who writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Chicago Tribune’s rock and roll writer Greg Kot (born in 1957, so just scant older than the typical 1961 cut-off to be considered Gen X… but who’s counting?).
The hour-long program is custom made for the true music geek of the sort who a decade ago used to haunt record stores and college radio stations, but who is now forced to spend more time at the corner coffee shop consuming music blogs on a laptop. Instead of dwelling in rock-star gossip, each program features music news that actually gets into the real issues affecting popular music, such as the RIAA’s anti-piracy lawsuits and the proposed merger of concert giants Live Nation and Ticketmaster (they tend to oppose both).
Some weeks they will have in an artist for an in-studio performance or interview. Their guests tend to have a lot of what one might call “indie cred,” whether they’re up-and-coming indie artists like The Dodos, or alt rock stalwarts The Flaming Lips. I have to admit that listening to Sound Opinions has turned me on to some great and unusual musicians like Saul Williams Tim Fite after getting to hear them play live in such an intimate and immediate setting.
What makes the program compelling and keeps me tuning in every week are the personalities of the hosts, where the Jersey-born and more excitable DeRogatis plays Ebert to Kot’s more unflappable Siskel. In fact, the two tend to agree more than they disagree, but it’s always fun when they needle each other for something like giving a “buy it” rating to Jonas Brothers CD. Whether they’re reviewing albums or discussing the state of the music industry, it always sounds like they’re telling the truth as they see it, not made pretty for public radio. Where AAA public radio stalwarts like World Cafe can come off as precious and self-satisfied, DeRogatis and Kot are never afraid to express real excitement or disappointment with an artist or album, regardless of what the indie rock consensus is.
Interestingly enough, Sound Opinions didn’t start on public radio, but rather begin with a successful seven year run on Chicago’s WXRT, one of the last surviving commercial rock stations that still has a vestigial claim to the “progressive rock radio” title. In 2005 Kot and DeRogatis were lured over to public staiton WBEZ with the promise of better facilities, a bigger budget, podcasting and a shot at syndication.
If you had told me when I was eighteen (in 1989) that when I reached my thirties I would be hearing new indie bands–or even grizzled underground rock veterans–every week on public radio, I’d have thought you were tripping hard. But now that it’s reality, I’m glad to get my weekly dose of Sound Opinions.
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