As Sound Opinions prepares to air its 500th episode originating from WBEZ on Friday, it struck me that some listeners might be interested to learn how it got where it is today, airing on more than 100 public radio stations across the country, and with an average podcast listenership of 50,000 per episode. Or maybe you just want to know, “Who ever thought it was a good idea to let these shmucks on the air?” Either way, you’ll hopefully excuse my self-indulgence in taking a break from the usual fare on this blog to tell the story.
To be certain, pretty much everything good about Sound Opinions today is the result of more than a decade of hard work by four people: It’s been the best experience of my professional life to work with my co-host Greg Kot and the show’s ridiculously dedicated and absurdly talented producers Robin Linn and Jason Saldanha. Yet it was a long and winding road that led us to hone this endeavor over 500 hours on public radio, with plenty of help from a lot of other people along the way. The show existed for nearly a decade before it moved to WBEZ, and its roots go back even further than that.
Although there were many inspirations over the years, if pressed to pinpoint the one moment that prompted Sound Opinions—which we’ve always called “the world’s only rock ’n’ roll talk show,” not because it literally is (especially not in these days of everybody has a podcast), but in the cheeky spirit of the Rolling Stones claiming they were “the world’s only rock ’n’ roll band” and the phenomenal Creem magazine of the ’70s bragging that it was “the world’s only rock ’n’ roll magazine”—it came during the long afternoon I spent with the greatest writer Creem produced, the late Lester Bangs, on April 14, 1982, when I interviewed my rock-critic hero for a senior high-school journalism project.
“When I look back on it, it was obvious that I was gonna end up doing this,” Lester said when I asked him why he’d become a rock critic, “because my two big obsessions were always music and writing. It’s an outgrowth of being a fanatical record collector and a fanatical listener: You have fanatical opinions that you want to inflict on people.”
What that quote does not convey is the fact that, ultra-opinionated though he was, Lester, like every critic worth his or her salt, understood and embraced the fact that criticism is at its best when it is a passionate conversation between people who love the art and think long and hard about it. Regardless of their field, good critics never want to be the last or only word on anything; they just want to get the conversation started. Lester was as interested in my opinions that day 33 years ago as I was in his: “Who are you reading? What do you listen to? What do you think?” he asked me in turn after every question I tossed his way.
Conversations with my other great critical hero Roger Ebert, whom I was honored to call a colleague at The Chicago Sun-Times for 15 years, were very much the same. Unlike Lester, Roger was lucky or driven enough to find another media outlet besides print to have these discussions. (Maybe Lester would have, too, if he lived long enough; unfortunately, he died at the age of 33, two weeks after that day we spent together, which not only led me to become a critic, but eventually to write his biography.) In any event, the elevator pitch for Sound Opinions always was: “Siskel and Ebert talk about music, but on radio instead of television.”
Mind you, it took a while to find my Siskel, even though it should have been obvious. Greg had worked with and admired Gene for years just as I did with Roger. Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Tribune; one tall, skinny guy, one short, fat guy—a no-brainer, right? So why didn’t we team up from the start? I think we both took that Sun-Times/Tribune rivalry way too seriously in the early ’90s. Greg will deny it now, but I recall us sitting side by side shielding our reporters’ notebooks in the balcony of Metro at half a dozen shows before we ever talked, and for a long time after that, it was just “hello.”
Anyway, I had two other epiphanies that convinced me that two or more opinions always are better than one. In the ’80s, I’d written for a Chicago-based fanzine called Matter. Medill-trained editor Liz Phillip had a brilliant approach to the record reviews column, wherein Liz or one of her volunteer critics would write a lead review of 500 words for an important record like Zen Arcade, Let It Be, or Bad Moon Rising, and four or five others (say, Steve Albini, Gerard Cosloy, Jim Testa, and me) would each weigh in with their 250-word responses and a letter grade, offering a wide range of views and a virtual roundtable debate. Why every arts publication doesn’t follow this model, I will never know.
Later, in 1990, I became assistant editor at Request magazine in Minneapolis—my first paying job as a music journalist and critic after a decade of writing for free in fanzines. There, I did something similar with a goofy front-of-the-book column called “Them’s Fightin’ Words,” wherein my editor Keith Moerer and I would debate the merits of, say, Elvis Costello or Alex Chilton, one pro and the other con. But the one thing a writer cannot do in print is play the music he or she is expounding upon. Taking this idea to radio seemed like a natural.
After I arrived in Chicago in the summer of 1992 to become the pop music critic at the Sun-Times, I started to become a regular guest on the late-night talk show Eddie Schwartz hosted on WLUP-FM, mainly because his producer at the time Mitch Rosen thought that WGN refugee “Chicago Ed” needed to freshen up his take on the music scene so it no longer ended with the Buckinghams. After the second or third time I spent a few hours trying to make Eddie a little hipper in his studio at the Hancock Tower when no one was listening but cabbies, truck drivers, and nurses on the late shift, I told him and Mitch that these chats might be more fun if it was me and another critic. Enter Bill Wyman.
Wyman, then the rock columnist at The Chicago Reader, was the first real friend I made in town, and he was as verbose as I was. So Eddie and Mitch let the Jim and Bill show run on for hours in the middle of the night any Friday when we were game to stay up until dawn. The best thing about Bill was that he was so easily riled. I could say something stupid about a roots-rock treasure like Lucinda Williams or Steve Earle—“That’s just 40-year-old white-guy music!”—and he would never fail to take the bait and start sputtering in fury. It made for entertaining arguments, if not necessarily solid criticism.
Eventually, I told Bill we should ask WLUP’s program director if he’d give us a regular slot. Bill was dubious: The station had begun to shift from classic rock to “adult talk” (this was the heyday of Kevin Matthews, Jonathan Brandmeier, and Steve Dahl and Garry Meir), but the Loop still had an enduring love for REO Speedwagon, Styx, and a lot of hair metal that we children of the indie-rock underground despised. Plus, beyond a few summer fill-in slots at WPRB, the college-radio station at Princeton University (where I didn’t even go to school) and sitting in on my friend Frank O’Toole’s show on New Jersey’s legendary free-form WFMU (when it was still in East Orange, long before it moved to my native Jersey City), I had no real radio experience, and Bill had even less.
Nevertheless, because he was experimenting with a Sunday-morning lineup that also featured a guy playing comedy records and someone who talked about astrology, Dave Logan gave us a shot starting in June ’93. Now we needed a name. I was fond of Bill and Jim’s Excellent Radio Show, a bad joke spinning off an even worse movie, but that would have gotten old fast. So we became Sound Opinions, which Bill says was my second suggestion, though I really don’t remember.
We had a considerable amount of fun on the Loop until June ’94, thanks in large part to Geli Corbett, the spirited young producer/overseer whom Logan had assigned to keep us in line. But the station was not our ideal home, and there were tensions. Logan once railed at us for spending half an hour discussing “a band nobody cares about”—Pearl Jam—while giving a mere 10 minutes to viciously panning Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell. In time, we thought we’d try our luck again and see if anybody else in Chicago radio would be silly enough to give an hour or two a week to two rock critics who didn’t know anything about radio.
Highlights from the Loop: Cramming the Flaming Lips into a tiny studio for an interview and performance circa Transmissions from the Satellite Heart; presiding over an outpouring of grief from callers shortly after the death of Kurt Cobain; chatting about Led Zeppelin with Cameron Crowe, and spending two hours playing doo-wop as snow fell outside the Hancock. And what became of our allies? Geli eventually left radio—she’s now a teaching assistant working with high school kids struggling with their writing skills—while Mitch now is the programming chief at WSCR. Eddie died in 2009, but I can still hear that weird, wheezing, high-pitched helium trill if I close my eyes. He was a true original.
As I recall, Bill and I met with three stations when we wanted to leave the Loop, but only one showed interest: Q101, then riding high post-Nirvana as Chicago’s “new rock alternative.” This was a station that actually played some of the music we cared about, plus, as Bill said, “They sponsor a float in the gay pride parade,” instead of trotting out half-naked “Loop Girls” at bonehead sports bars. Bill Gamble assigned us a whip-smart producer and overseer we always called “Young James”—a.k.a. James Van Osdol—and we had a blast on Sunday nights from 10 to midnight from June ’94 until October ’95.
As at the Loop, we took calls live on air at Q101, and it was the first time the station ever did that. Again, there were occasional tensions with the boss when the two of us gave a negative review to an artist he was playing once an hour—say, Bush or Soundgarden—but we always pointed out that we tried to balance that by talking to listeners who strongly disagreed and were eager to call us idiots.
Highlights from Q101: Live performances and interviews with Blur circa Parklife; Red Red Meat, John Cale, and Robyn Hitchcock, who vamped a program ID for us (“You’re listeningggg… to Sound Opinionnnnnssss...”); regular reports from “the Record Store Guy,” Joe Kvidera, then the manager of the late, lamented Tower Records on Clark Street, and a freewheeling, two-hour, live conversation with the ultimate heroine/villainess of the moment, Courtney Love. (Only the fleet finger of our engineer on the dump button that night—James and I can’t recall whether it was Greg Easterling or Robert Chase—saved us from a mountain of FCC fines.)
And what became of our Q101 allies? Gamble now is director of digital media and radio operations at WSBT TV and radio in South Bend, Ind., while Young James, no longer quite so young, wrote an oral history of Q101’s alternative years for which I penned the introduction. He seems to enjoy blogging and podcasting much more than he did commercial radio as it increasingly lost its soul to corporatization and consolidation in the late ’90s and early 2000s. As for Bill Wyman, he is living in Phoenix and freelancing for outlets including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as doing commentary on media and arts news for Al Jazeera. On the way there, he worked at an alt weekly in San Francisco, served as arts editor of Salon during its heyday, and then became an assistant managing editor at NPR, overseeing the arts, entertainment, media, and digitial coverage (so he actually got to public radio before I did). I still very much miss pushing his buttons; Greg just doesn’t take the bait like that.
So, if we were having so much fun at Q101, why did Sound Opinions Mach I and the Jim/Bill partnership come to an end? In the fall of 1995, I unwisely accepted a job as deputy music editor at Rolling Stone and moved to New York. (Bill continued on Q101 for a while, co-hosting with Chicago fanzine veteran Pat Daley and none other than Billy Corgan, but soon enough he moved to San Francisco). Rolling Stone did not turn out well for me, but that’s a whole other story. Suffice it to say that in the summer of ’96, I fled the East Coast again and moved back to Minneapolis.
Living in the Twin Cities for the second time, I freelanced for a lot of magazines and alternative weeklies, wrote that book about Lester, and revived Sound Opinions on KSTP-AM, then a talk and news station, but now all sports. This time, I drew on a number of local rock critics to fill the role of “the other guy,” including my editor at Request and Rolling Stone, Keith Moerer of the aforementioned “Them’s Fightin’ Words,” and freelancer James Diers. Eventually, after corporatization and consolidation killed Minneapolis’ legendary REV 105 “Revolution Radio,” I was lucky to recruit Shawn Stewart as permanent co-host.
Shawn was the first real radio pro I ever co-hosted with, and we had a great time, especially because our show was followed by and often bled into another hosted by fellow REV veteran Mary Lucia. At one point, our version of Sound Opinions also abutted a talk show hosted by former wrestler Jesse Ventura, who would soon become the governor of Minnesota—and boy, was that weird.
Highlights from KSTP: Regular in-progress reports from the Flaming Lips as they were in the studio recording The Soft Bulletin; a sparring match with Minneapolis Star Tribune rock critic Jon Bream as we were broadcasting live from the Minnesota State Fair, and an interview with veteran rock critic Greil Marcus that left me speechless for the only time on air that I can recall. (I asked what song he’d recommend that a young Green Day fan play as an introduction to appreciating Bob Dylan, about whom he’d just written a long book, and he said, “Oh, I really don’t care if they listen to the music.”) And what became of my allies? Shawn is now a producer at Xbox Entertainment, Keith is a very big deal at Apple, and James Diers is “a professional maker and doer of creative things.”
Why did Sound Opinions come to an end at KSTP? In the Fall of ’97, I got a call from a former editor at The Sun-Times wondering if I’d like to return as rock critic. The troublesome managers who’d been part of the reason I left in ’94 were gone, replaced by some new managers who worked for Conrad Black; in time, Lord Conrad would be even more trouble for the paper, but I liked most of the editors he put in place while he was secretly pillaging the Bright One. I returned to Chicago vowing I’d never leave again, and the first call I made this time was to Greg: “Hey, I’m back. Whaddya say we do Sound Opinions right?”
I neglected to mention earlier that when Wyman and I left the Loop, they didn’t take it so well: They’d sort of come to like this dueling rock-critic idea, so they turned to Greg and Michael Harris, then the editor of The Illinois Entertainer, to replace Bill and me. (Unbelievable, but true: Chicago for a time had two weekly dueling rock-critic radio shows!) You’d have to ask Greg why their show sputtered out, but he wound up catching the radio bug as bad as I had it, so when I rang him in ’97, he said, “Sure!” And a few weeks later we were meeting with Norm Winer, a legend in AAA radio and the boss for life at WXRT.
Norm was, and perhaps rightfully so, super-protective of XRT’s ethos, and he never really was sold on two opinionated contrarians dissing some of the music he played and loved, to say nothing of veering far from his playlists to air hip-hop or death metal. Wary of the damage we could inflict, even though we aired from 10 to midnight on Tuesdays when only slightly more people were listening than back on Eddie’s show, he at first posted the great Marty Lennartz as our overseer, guardian, and wrangler. Though Marty is amazing (the Regular Guy!), the third wheel thing never really worked, and I think Greg and I made him miserable. Eventually, Norm let us fly unfettered as a duo under a brilliant producer, Matt Spiegel, who did more to shape the show than anyone besides the Fab Four mentioned earlier.
Spiegs sat behind the console and ran the board while Greg and I yakked, and we came to love the way he’d laugh at many of the inanities we spouted. Fans of the show in this era still miss that laugh. Once again, we took calls live on air—this was a first for XRT, too—and for a long time, Shawn Campbell worked the phones for us. Somewhere along the way, we also attracted two ridiculously talented and hardworking volunteers, Robin Linn and Jason Saldanha, who both wasted several hours with us every Tuesday for years with minimal or no recompense.
Jason was the guy who first said, “Hey, you should have a website,” when we barely knew what one was, while Robin did more from the start than anyone else to impress upon us a level of professionalism we’d never had before. (She’d interned at NPR in D.C., doncha know.) Slowly but surely, all of us working together learned about things like “the clock” (timing our segments so we hit the breaks), following a bona fide show outline instead of flying by the seat of our pants, and solidifying a magazine format of news up top, a feature segment in the middle, and record reviews at the end.
This is not to say we became pros at XRT, just that we at long last got a little more professional.
Throughout our time with him, Norm never hesitated to tell Greg and me we both were jackasses because of some review, comment, or take on rock history with which he disagreed. But the primary reasons we began looking for another home were that we were severely limited by the live performances and interviews we could host in XRT’s tiny old studio on Belmont west of Cicero, during a fixed time slot late on Tuesday night. XRT was against us distributing the show on the Web (oh, to reclaim that archive!). And we had long believed that Sound Opinions had the potential to be national, like the best music publications, even though we’d had zero success in finding national distribution to that point.
Huge admirers of what Ira Glass and Torey Malatia had created with This American Life on Chicago Public Radio, we pestered Torey for three years to let us bring Sound Opinions to WBEZ, pressuring him at meetings every few months and ambushing him in the halls whenever one or both of us visited Navy Pier to be a guest on Chicago Public Radio. (We were especially fond of appearing on Gretchen Helfrich’s Odyssey, because her laugh was almost as great as Spiegs’.) Eventually, encouraged by Kelly Leonard of Second City (just because he was a fan and he loves bringing ambitious people together), we linked up with WBEZ’s Todd Bachmann, who worked on This American Life, and Mike Danforth, now the big cheese at Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, and we worked with them, Spiegs, Robin, and Jason to craft the “perfect” one-hour demo of what Sound Opinions could sound like on Public Radio. Finally, Torey was sold.
Ultimately, we did 354 shows over seven years on WXRT, and once again, we had a tremendous amount of fun. Some highlights: Sitting with Tom Petty as he talked about sitting with George Harrison, driving around his farm on Hawaii atop a bulldozer; live conversations on the phones the night of the Columbine massacre, when the mainstream press was rushing to blame “goth-rocker Marilyn Manson”; a performance and interview with Wilco just days after 9/11, when many of the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot suddenly took on new meaning; Grandaddy appearing on the show high on mushrooms, then climbing the XRT transmitter tower; the Ryan Adams voice mail; a tough interview with then-head of the Grammy organization Michael Greene, soon to be deposed in scandal (he hung up on us); squeezing Bloque, a Columbian octet, into a studio space that was maybe six by six feet square, and a live event at Millennium Park with the great Mavis Staples. And what became of our allies? Shawn Campbell now runs CHIRP, the Chicago Independent Radio Project, and godspeed to her! Marty is of course still Marty, and Norm still is Norm. Everybody else came with us to WBEZ, but before we get there (er, here), we need to take a brief detour from radio into another medium.
Frustrated by our attempts to take the show to the next level at WXRT, Greg and I approached then-new program director Randy King at WTTW television, which of course is where Gene and Roger started out. Randy took a leap of faith with two guys whose faces were made for radio (and who hated makeup and having to think about what clothes to wear) and we made 17 half-hour episodes of Sound Opinions for Chicago Public Television in 2004, with Spiegel producing, the super-sharp Scott Taradesh directing and editing, and of course Jason and Robin once again helping out.
While television offered one advantage—adding the visual element to our discussions that radio could not provide—there were many, many down sides, chief among them the fact that with a mere half-hour, the music necessarily got short shrift. Then, too, if commercial radio could often be a slime pit of rabid vipers and soulless weasels, television was a thousand times worse. We made those 510 minutes of TV with almost no money, just a lot of spit and some duct tape, in true D.I.Y. fashion. But the model for Public Television held that we had to find an underwriter before WTTW would bring the show national and anyone got paid.
That search went nowhere fast, more or less ending when a national concert promotion entity said, “Sure, we’ll back the show, if only you change the name to [National Concert Promotion Entity’s] Sound Opinions, tape only at our venues and, hey, it would be great if you talked mostly about the acts that we’re booking.”
Um, no thanks.
Not quite ready to give up on TV—we were nothing if not eternally optimistic and endlessly naïve—Greg and I connected with television consultant Ray Solley, who had played a role in the success of South Park with Trey Parker and Matt Stone after years at WTTW, where he’d been part of the team behind Gene and Roger. (Obviously, he knew how to work with challenging duos.) The man we called Uncle Ray set up a series of meetings in New York and L.A., and in the Fall of 2004, the three of us spent several days on the coasts pitching Sound Opinions to cable and broadcast networks, television distributors, and production companies—pretty much everybody you’d think might have been interested in a show reviewing popular music at that time.
Greg and I still talk about those meetings once in a while, and every time we do, we say that no one would believe us if we told some of the stories, since our experience played into every show-biz cliché you can imagine, and many you cannot. One tale that sort of sums things up was the female programming executive at a top cable network who loved, loved, loved the show but told us that two middle-aged white guys wouldn’t do as hosts and what we really needed was (to paraphrase) “an African-American woman with an ample chest.”
And so we gave up on the boob tube.
Back to WBEZ: What took so long to wind up where we clearly always belonged—the media equivalent of independent music, where you can be as smart and challenging as you want, and the audience rewards you by creating a supportive community unlike any other that exists in media today?
To be certain, Torey believed in the show from the beginning, and in fact, it only still exists today because of his faith in it. But things sometimes move very, very slowly at Public Radio; resources always are stretched thin (hence those pledge drives!***), and there can be institutional resistance to change at stations less adventurous than our home base. Torey was and is a visionary, though, and far beyond his faith in Sound Opinions, I respect his views on journalism and cultural criticism more than any other programmer or editor I’ve worked with. Cheers, now and forever, South Side!
Spiegs stayed with us for a while after our move to WBEZ—some of the segment and show opens we use to this day he crafted—until he went on to bigger and better things. (He now is co-host of The Spiegel & Goff Show on the Score, as well as writing about baseball for The Daily Herald, fronting Tributosaurus in its 13th year, and raising a son he says gets all the music and sports he can handle.) Todd worked with us a little longer, until moving to the Pacific Northwest. And then there were four. Jason and Robin were there for Show No. 1 on Public Radio—Dec. 3, 2005—and they’re still here now. And Greg and I never can thank them enough.
Actually, our core team now numbers five, with the recent addition of a third full-time producer, Evan Chung, thanks to a generous grant from the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation. We also had invaluable help from three part-time producers over the years, Annie Minoff (now with Science Friday in New York), Anthony Martinez (still working hard at WBEZ), and Alex Claiborne (who’s with us now), as well as many, many other people at Chicago Public Media, from enthusiastic interns to studio pros Mary Gaffney and Adam Yoffe; from our video guru Andrew Gill to underwriting reps Geary Yonker and David Raphael; the major donors, events, and pledge folks; Alison Scholly, our current bosses Goli Sheikholeslami and Ben Calhoun… well, everybody on Navy Pier, really, past and present.
In addition to the accusation of self-indulgence in writing a piece like this, the biggest danger is all the people who’ve played a role in the show’s success who haven’t been mentioned. Even if memory cooperated, including everyone would quintuple the length of this already exorbitant memoir, but a few more must be noted: our friend and attorney Dino Armiros; always reliable advisors Kate Darling and Rob Feder; our speaking agent Michael Nejman, and of course Deb Kot and Carmél Carrillo-DeRogatis. Then there are the folks who worked with us at our first distributor American Public Media, especially Jim Russell, Chris Coates, and Steve Nelson; John Barth and Jake Shapiro at our current distributor PRX; all of the program directors who air and champion the show, among them Hawk Mendenhall, Jim McGuinn, Chuck Singleton, Rita Houston, Christine Dempsey, Bruce Warren, Lynne Clendenin, Dale Spear, Matt Martin, and Jeff Hansen; the music industry publicists who’ve brought us some of our hardest-won guests, including Jim Merlis and Ken Weinstein, Steve Martin and Laura Eldeiry, and Jessica Linker and Jacob Daneman; our underwriters past and especially present (that’s you, Goose Island and Dark Matter!)… the list goes on and on and on, but it must by necessity end now, with YOU, the listener and public radio supporter. Thank you, one and all.
Oh, yeah: What about the highlights from Sound Opinions on Public Radio over the last 499 episodes?
Sorry, but for that, you’re just going to have to tune in to Show No. 500 this weekend. And just wait until you hear what we have in store for the next 500!
(*** Speaking of pledge drives, WBEZ is having one now. Support the station and Sound Opinions: soundopinions.org/support. And thanks!)