American Routes will use music
to paint a cultural landscape

In April 1998, many public radio stations began carrying a new weekend program, distributed by Public Radio International, that wowed a CPB funding review panel in 1997. Current published this article the year before, soon after the program got the go-ahead.

Originally published in Current, April 14, 1997
By Jacqueline Conciatore

Public radio listeners, generally regarded as serious and aspirational, might need an excuse to get excited about songs like "Woolly Bully" by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Host Nick Spitzer may soon give them one, with a forthcoming program American Routes.

American Routes logoThe weekly two-hour program, recently awarded $265,000 in start-up money by CPB's Radio Program Fund, will travel far beyond popular fare, as it traces the origins and evolution of American music. The program's demo tape includes Nashville chanteuse Allison Kraus playing an oldtime midwestern fiddle tune, Seamus Eagan's Celtic flute, Klezmer music, and Marcus Roberts' jazz interpretation of "Rhapsody in Blue."

But the show will be eclectic in an accessible way, says Spitzer, "so that somebody's cultural icon comes up every third selection." That means American Routes will feature not only popular renditions, but familiar songs by unfamiliar artists, and vice versa. The goal: most of the time, most everyone listening should be happy.

On the demo, the rock standard "Woolly Bully" is preceded by a ranchera in the Tejano conjunto tradition, followed with something by Los Lobos. "On one side, you've knitted people together who are into ethnic regional music, and on the other side ... alternative rock meets roots rock," says Spitzer. "And in the middle is a gold carat hit that's overplayed in some settings, but in our setting it's framed by its sources and its branches. So you never hear 'Woolly Bully' the same again."

The eclecticism will have a center--a "pulse and core" that is soul, R&B, country, rockabilly and jazz, emanating north and west from the Gulf South. Spitzer ends a series of songs about New Orleans rain with a "flood opus" from Randy Newman, and uses Newman's Jewish heritage to travel to New York and Ira Gershwin. The Gershwin he chooses is jazz pianist's Marcus Roberts' interpretation of "Rhapsody in Blue." He says he's painting an American landscape with sound.

Spitzer is basing American Routes in New Orleans, where he will have access to the record library of WWOZ--a community station lively with local music and personalities--and to the resources of NPR-member and classical station WWNO. He will be the show's artistic director and host, while Mary Beth Kirchner will be executive producer. The two served in the same roles for the 13-week concert series Folk Masters.

American Routes is one of a number of recently launched or pending programs meant to help stations more fully exploit weekend audience potential. CPB supported six weekend programs in its 1997 Radio Program Fund, including NPR's music/information program Anthem, which will also highlight popular music. On the advice of public radio peers, Spitzer says, he asked the program fund for about $90,000, to conduct research over 13 weeks. But the review panelists liked the American Routes proposal and demo, and, according to CPB fund Director Rick Madden, felt that three months of piloting a weekend show wouldn't give the show a chance to either succeed or fail. So the fund awarded Spitzer and Kirchner production money--almost three times what they were seeking.

Madden points out that Spitzer and Kirchner are proven producers (Kirchner just won a DuPont-Columbia Award for a series with Norman Corwin), and says the program should fit a variety of station formats. Spitzer says it can work for news and information, classical, jazz and community stations. "If you're in Newark, you can have R&B in front of it and jazz after it; if you're in South Dakota at KILI, you can have Native music in front and a polka show afterward; if you're in L.A. at KCRW, you can have an alternative rock in front and maybe a New Age show after it." He also says the show should complement NPR's planned Anthem, which is targeting news listeners.

Stations are sometimes loathe to buy record-based programs, because they can produce their own locally. But shows such as Afropop Worldwide and Thistle & Shamrock thrive despite those reservations. Afropop producer Sean Barlow succeeded, says Madden, because he's knowledgeable about African music and hired a host--popular personality Georges Collinet--whose on-air performance can't be replicated locally.

Spitzer, who comes with a doctorate in folklore, has a rare breadth of knowledge about American music. Says Steve Rowland, who's produced exhaustive and award-wining radio documentaries about Miles Davis and popular musicians such as Frank Zappa: "Nick has an extraordinary concept of music. I'd listen to Nick playing music anytime."

Because the host is so enthusiastic about his material, he "can bring the music together in a way audiences viscerally respond to," says Madden. "And he can include the intellectual content in a way few others can, without sounding pedantic."

Researcher Leslie Spitz-Edson, who for four years has been knee-deep in Spitzer's archives--25 years worth of photographs and recordings of America's folk, jazz and blues musicians--says Spitzer loves nothing better than new ideas and projects, and exploring music's back stories. "He loves to do the segues and think about ways to combine stuff," she says. "I think his main reason for doing [American Routes] is he ... thinks it will be a blast. And he loves the music and thinks other people will love the music."

Spitzer himself plays down his academic credentials. Asked if he is using classical program Schickele Mix as any sort of model for his program, he says: "I'll admit I have a Ph.D. ... but I don't want to talk [as much as Schickele does on his show] and be pedantic." Though he loves Schickele Mix, "I'm coming from the roots into classical music. [Schickele] starts with a classical perception of the world. I want to know how Fats Domino got where he is, why Jerry Lee Lewis sounds like he does. I want to break barriers, and do it in a way that's about Americans living together on the land. ... I think it's cool that [African-American] Marcus Roberts digs back into the music of a Jewish composer who was heavily influenced by black music."

To Current's home page
Earlier news: NPR, like its rival Public Radio International, is developing new entertainment shows for broadcast on weekends.
Earlier news: A community station that Spitzer will work with in New Orleans, WWOZ, has strong ties to the city's musical community.
Outside link: American Routes' website.


Web page created Sept. 27, 1997
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 1997