City Paper is not for tourists
In the lobby of National Public Radio’s plush headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue NW, dozens of black-and-white photos attach faces to the familiar voices of All Things Considered and Morning Edition. The mugs of Noah Adams, Bob Edwards, Renee Montagne, et al. smile warmly, like the self-actualized, mellowed, and thoroughly establishmentarian ’60s radicals you may have imagined them to be.
Into this parking lot of limousine liberals ambles Rick Karr, a lanky, 6-foot-5 hipster geek with an angular face and short, frosted hair. Karr, 32, sports huge black Frankenstein boots and a gregarious manner. Whereas so many Gen X-ers in the media areto steal Michael Kinsley’s quote about Al Gorean “old person’s idea of a young person,” Karr looks as if he’d be more at home lurking in the shadows of the Black Cat than at NPR.
Yet, improbably, Karr has joined the ranks of D.C. journalists. Alongside Montagne, he co-hosts Anthem, a weekly two-hour radio magazine covering an eclectic mélange of music, media, drama, literature, and probing interviews with the artists and writers who create them. “If Morning Edition is like the morning paper,” Karr says, “then we’re like the free weekly. Our tag line is, ‘It’s the stuff you think about when you’re not thinking about the news.’”
The show broadcast this past weekend, for instance, combined interviews with one-hit wonder ? and the Mysterians (“96 Tears”), a bunch of high school kids yakking about local urban legends, and a story on ‘zines and Web sites obsessed with conspiracy theories. Anthemwhich was launched on Jan. 3 of this year and now beams to about 40 stations nationwide, including NPR outposts in San Francisco, Chicago, and Bostonpairs Karr with the 46-year-old Montagne, who’s been at NPR since 1980 and has become a familiar grown-up voice for listeners. “Rick comes at [our subjects] with all this knowledge, and I come at them with curiosity, and there is a tension,” Montagne says. “But it’s a good tension.”
The show’s range “is intended to be broad,” she says, aiming at both longtime listeners and newer, younger ones. “It’s quite a thing to try to pull off.” Anthem is strange and different from standard NPR farethis is a network where clueless programmers notoriously passed on Ira Glass’ quirky, wildly successful This American Life, after all. Anthem is so strange and different, indeed, that if you want to hear it on the radio, you’ll have to drive all the way to Philly, because neither WAMU-FM nor WETA-FM broadcasts it.
Some folks say that D.C.’s two major public radio stations are locked in permanent stodgehow much bluegrass do we need to listen to, really?that won’t embrace a show as out-there as Anthem. WETA-FM’s program director, Dan DeVany, says that Karr’s show “doesn’t quite fit for us in terms of its content.” While WETA does “some eclectic programming, sparingly, on the weekend,” the station focuses on local people and places. WAMU’s reasons are much harsher: Program Director Steve Martin says that when he was pitched the show last year he didn’t find it “particularly compelling. Nor did I feel like it was filling a particular need.”
But despite Washingtonians’ inability to hear Anthem, Michael Abrahams, NPR’s communications manager, says that the show is catching on elsewhere in the U.S.slowly. “It’s really unfamiliar and familiar at the same time,” he says. “It’s doing some interesting things, but in a format and a voice that people are used to. I think people are starting to get it.”
Karr attended Highland High School in northwestern Indiana”just like Beavis and Butthead,” he jokes, probably alone among NPR’s smooth-voiced anchors in paying attention to such things. His work in the school paper, the Trojanal, caught the eye of a local music magazine editor, who offered to pay Karr, then 14, $25 a pop for record reviews. Karr, it happened, had been studying piano since he was 6 and destroying the family hi-fi with 12-inch vinylby the likes of ELO, Cheap Trick, and Queenfor almost as long.
Like a typical junior-high radical, Karr discovered punk and New Wave in the early ’80s, took up the guitar, and formed his own seven-boy band. “We changed our name like 20 times,” he says. But the skinny leather tie, de-sleeved dress shirt, and Chuck Taylors came off when Karr and two of his bandmates went to Purdue University, where they formed a new band. Karr also continued to keep a foot in the world of journalism, eventually taking a semester off to write a rock column for the northwestern Indiana daily The Times. He kept writing about music even as he was getting his master’s degree in philosophy from the London School of Economicshe wrote so many music reviews for local rags that the British government refused to extend his visa, claiming he’d been working without a permit.
In other, more depressingly ordinary ways, Karr was mired in the Gen X stereotype. In 1989, he was 23, living in his parents’ house, and bumming. His girlfriend, Birgit Rathsmann, whom he’d met in Europe, was thousands of miles away in Scotland. His parents didn’t think of either music or music journalism as a career worth pursuing. So he continued to play in Chicago bars and clubs with yet another band, and eventually he took a job he didn’t likewriting for a trade newsletter that covered event sponsorship. After two years, he realized it was “a dead end.”
Whereas the two previous years had dragged, 1992 proved quick and crazy and fun for Karr. Rathsmann moved to the U.S., and she and Karr wed. He quit the newsletter and started writing freelance business pieces. He and another member of his latest band, Tart, bought some recording equipment, and Karr began making money running a small recording studio for local bands. Then Rathsmann spotted a Help Wanted ad for a recording engineer at NPR’s Chicago bureau. Karr snared the part-time gig.
He wanted to go on the air, but decided to “wait for the right [story] I could be passionate about.” That story came when the indie-rock band Pavement released its first full-length album. “Every rock critic has his ideal rock record; when you hear it you’re like, ‘That’s it,’” he says. That album, 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted, was “it” for Karrin more ways than one. Right before Pavement released its second album, Karr pitched a piece on the band to NPR’s
cultural desk producer, Tom Cole, who quickly developed a hunger for his work. “He was covering an area that I didn’t have a whole lot of
people doing stuff onpopular musicand doing it well,” Cole says. “I really wanted to get more on.”
Karr kept up the supply of freelance arts pieces, and at the end of ’96, the bureau offered him a full-time general-assignment job, reporting on “whatever was going on in the Midwest”politics, race relations, floods, and Dennis Rodman. He enjoyed it but missed music reporting, having unsuccessfully pitched a very Anthem-like show to a Chicago public radio station that same year.
Tart, meanwhile, made one CD, Start, funded by Chicago favorite son David Schwimmer of Friends, who saw the band in concert and loved its Cowboy Junkies-esque sound. Schwimmer even threw Start onto Lorne Michaels’ desk when he was hosting Saturday Night Live, urging the producer and career maker to book the bandto no avail. Tart disbanded in the summer of 1997. Soon afterward, a senior producer back in Washington called Karr and asked him to audition to be host of a new program she was launching. One year ago this month, he got the job that became Anthem. It’s his No. 2 dream job, short of actually being a rock star himself.
On a breezy afternoon recently, Karr fidgets at his desk, bubbling about the Flaming Lips. “They take the same eight songs, put them on four CDs, and then you get three friends, and you’re supposed to play them on four jamboxes all at the same time. But now they’re doing it on stage with 100 jamboxes.” He loves it. An Indiana state flag floats from the wall; a picture of the Cartoon Network’s talk-show host Space Ghost is taped to the door; Karr’s four Chicago press passes, from 1993 until 1997, are tacked onto the bookcase, documenting four vastly different haircuts. Pinetop Seven’s “Rigging the Top Lights” trickles out from the CD player behind him.
When he’s not in Studio 4A or at his desk, Karr’s either at home in the Shaw neighborhood or in New York’s Alphabet City, where Rathsmann has moved to pursue filmmaking. He likes living in Shaw. He digs Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Florida Avenue Grill. Otherwise, he isn’t too impressed with D.C. “When I got here, I thought, ‘Man, this is just a sleepy little town,’” he says. “In a lot of ways I still think that.” He was stunned recently when a headlining band at the Metro Cafe completed its show well before midnight.
But if D.C. doesn’t fit Karr’s definition of hip, neither does Anthem. He has to tone it down, make it accessible, ensure that listeners don’t touch that dial. “I have to be didactic,” he says. “If I had my druthers, the show would be the hippest thing on radio.” But often in entertainment, hipness equals death. (Ask the folks at MIGHT magazine, or The Ben Stiller Show.) Montagne says she “leans on” Karr to keep the breadth of the show accessible for baby boomers and out of the pitch darkness of what Karr calls “intentionally underground X-er culturelike Fugazi or the Baffler.”
“What keeps [Anthem] from being ‘cutting-edge?’” Montagne asks. “I suppose me, for one thing.” Montagne says there’s a perennial conflict “between appealing to a wide audiencewhich of course we wantand being cutting-edge.” Still, she adds, she’s always telling Karr that “the hipper, the betterif he can pull it off in a way that is creative, charming, intriguing, [and] compelling.”
“The show is about explaining,” Karr says. “I can’t just say, ‘In the latest Suck blah blah blah,’ without the producer in my ear saying, ‘What is Suck?’…I have to explain to people how important Van Dyke Parks is.” So, on the Sept. 5 show, Montagne joined Parksa legendary arranger and songwriterto talk about his career and legacy, while Karr asked musicians T-Bone Burnett and David Grubbs to talk about Parks’ influence on their work. And all of it was elegantly sprinkled with Parks’ songs.
“I want to make sure that the audience is getting the most out of every minute,” Karr says earnestly. “In the end, I think Anthem might help a lot of people support public radio.” He points out that four out of five public radio listeners don’t make donations to the NPR cause. “I suspect that a lot of people don’t hear themselves [on NPR]. They don’t hear anything that excites them. This show gives them that.” Except, among other places, right here in D.C.CP