Public radio's homesteaders on the pop frontier
Rock n Roots
Critique by Dave Bunker
What can pubradio give to listeners in the range of popular music? Four national programs demonstrate various options. Originally published in Current, Feb. 11, 2002
Now we come to the first of the two "have-nots" on our list, that is, programs not funded from their beginning by CPB. Rock 'n' Roots is the brainchild of Thomas Boyd and Ann Sternberg, musicians and radio veterans based in New York state who came together over a shared passion for the less-trodden paths of the American popular music landscape.
With their engineer, they're the whole production team. They prepare the show at home and record it at a private studio in New York City. It is distributed free to stations by satellite or CD. It has no network or station home, and to date gets its funding from private sources and small grants. Since it began national distribution in 1998, the one-hour weekly show has been picked up by about 80 public stations in the U.S., mostly outside the big urban markets. It has also been carried since close to its inception by the Australian public broadcasting system, and has just begun appearing in Canada.
Co-host and co-producer Ann Sternberg states the program’s mission succinctly: "To demonstrate the cross-fertilization of musical culture, and to expose both the pioneers of many genres and the new, underexposed musical talents." The Rock ’n’ Roots website proclaims that the show includes "rediscovered folk, jazz, swing, blues, rock, R&B and more", and it does indeed cover this full range. The show’s playlists overlap considerably with those of American Routes, though there are distinctions. One is that Rock 'n' Roots is more generically American, lacking American Routes’ regional identification with New Orleans. Also, the musical choices more often go way back to recordings from the ’20s and ’30s (some of which make for tough listening), and come forward to such recent AAA performers as Tom Paxton and Ani DeFranco. They are not afraid to rock, though, as their hard-driving opening theme makes clear. Also as on American Routes, each Rock 'n' Roots program focuses around a theme, with a lot of thought given to making connections from tune to tune.
If the approach to the music is similar to American Routes, the presentation style couldn’t be more different. The hosts of Rock 'n' Roots have a very informal sound. They don’t script, according to Sternberg. They go into the studio with a playlist and talking points, she says, adding, "we like to surprise each other." In their talk sets they express much more of their own enthusiasm for the music than the hosts of the other three programs, which is refreshing to hear, except when they come close to gushing. They also joke around a lot. Boyd, in particular, likes to make awful puns and otherwise get clever with language. Sternberg sometimes ends up playing a straight-woman role, though, to her credit, she holds her own as a personality and when it comes to providing commentary on the music. The overall effect is that of high-quality community radio: a couple of natural-sounding folks having fun with their record collections and inviting us to share in it. They hope to teach us something, too, though they avoid coming on like experts. "We want to be like their friends who are playing them some wonderful music," says Sternberg.
Two other elements contribute to the show’s community radio sound. One is the hosts’ consistent appeals to listeners to get in touch with them personally. The other, more problematic, is the show’s activist spirit. Once every couple of months (more frequently since Sept. 11), the producers choose social issues as themes. One recent show on health included moments when the announcer got earnest and the songs preachy, which jarred against the good-times feel of programs from other weeks.
The production values of Rock 'n' Roots are workaday but good. The hosts have their fun while keeping the breaks short and focused. Interviews with artists are rare, and there are no produced pieces, although they will occasionally put together a medley of excerpts from songs to illustrate a point.
The producers’ goals for the future are straightforward: increased carriage and increased financial support. They are also looking for someone to maintain their website, which hasn’t been updated since November 2000, when their previous website volunteer stopped working for the show.
Ann Sternberg and Thomas Boyd of Rock 'n' Roots.
To Current's home page Outside link: The program's website.
Web page posted March 18, 2002
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