I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. Click here to subscribe!
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Trilloquy‘s Garrett McQueen. This week, it’s co-host Scott Blankenship‘s turn. In addition to his work on Trilloquy, Scott is on the air with American Public Media, working on video series such as Hop Notes and Classical Kids Storytime, plus mentoring and training new radio hosts. As listeners to Trilloquy* will also know, he spends plenty of time with his dog Radar.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
The short answer is…parking. I attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha, at the time it was a commuter campus. Parking was like big game hunting, if you got there early in the morning and then decided to head off campus for lunch, you’d never get a parking spot anywhere close to the building you needed to be in when you came back. Of course when you’re studying broadcasting you need to get an internship for course credit, and there happened to be a public radio station there on campus. That meant I could fulfill the internship requirement AND keep a decent parking spot. I was at KVNO for almost 15 years in various roles, including at one point Assistant Program Director and for 5 years hosted the morning show, Blank’s Morning Blend.
I decided to give radio a try after realizing I probably wouldn’t make a very comfortable living as an actor and writer, and getting the chance to tell stories on the air was sort of a natural way to transition out of theater as a profession. Along with 3 other friends from UNO we formed an independent theater group called The Shelterbelt that focused on producing plays by local writers. That started in a little sandwich shop called Kilgore’s, it was in a rough area of town and needed work. Since it was only open for lunch during the week, that left evenings and weekends for us. In the beginning all the shows we did took place in cafes as a result.
I loved the feeling of creating art that wasn’t happening anywhere else, that immediacy of theater. Acting and writing became my main pastime, and I scraped by on the public radio day job.
The group ultimately took over the space completely and for almost 25 years it operated in the black, until Mr. Kilgore sold the building so that Creighton University could expand.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
I did, I had a great one that I’m still close with to this day. Shout out to Mark Ford who was my first Program Director, he really took a chance on me when I was just a green 19 year old kid that had big dreams but little idea of what it would take to reach them. He helped me with so much, from the nuts and bolts of building a good on air break, to music programming, managing personalities, and maintaining an audience. But before he left the station, he gave me a card that I still have at my desk. It says “A ship is safe in the harbor, but it’s meant to be at sea.” Whenever I get nervous about something new or trying something from a different angle or vantage point, I think about Mark and that one-liner. It’s safe to say I owe the start of my career to Mark Ford. If I could do for someone else what he did for me, that would be just the best feeling.
For those who aren’t familiar, please describe the podcast and talk a little bit about why you decided to start it.
The podcast was Garrett’s idea in embryo. He commuted to work on buses and the light rail and spent the time listening to podcasts, but he said the one podcast he really wanted to listen to didn’t exist. We brainstormed about what it might sound like, and landed on the idea of trying to capture real talk about sensitive issues and put it out there unedited. Initially I was just going to be the producer, but about 25 episodes in, there I was in the co-host seat as well.
Trilloquy deals with the intersection of music and issues like race, gender, power structures, and basically any ‘ism’ you can think of that manifests in music. It’s billed as a classical music podcast, but we haven’t shied away from touching all genres, just check out the Trilloquy Tracks playlist on Spotify. It has all the music we’ve referenced in the last two seasons, it has something for everyone.
There are opuses (episodes) where we have really helped each other to see an issue from a perspective we hadn’t before, there have been times when we’ve gotten emotional, and even sparks flying during the conversation. That’s what you get with each episode; True and Real (Trill) conversations. Most of our listeners are younger, but I have gotten emails from people around my age (50) telling me that they have gotten a lot out of the podcast, and have learned from my experience and mistakes as well as Garrett’s. What’s really interesting to me is that we have a handful of listeners who will write an email with kudos one week, and then the next week write in completely outraged by something we said, and back to loving it the next week. I think that’s a Venn diagram that tells you we’re on to something.
Walk me through a typical day-to-day for you right now.
Even with the pandemic going on I feel like every day is jam packed. I’m on the air with American Public Media Thursday - Saturday nights. The shift is 5 hours long and it usually takes me about a half hour to get ready for an hours worth of music. My office days are taken up with other projects, like my video series called Hop Notes, a program that connects the dots between music and craft beer. It might sound strange, but most of the beers we drink today were around when your favorite composers were writing their best music.
I’m also on a team that’s putting together a fellowship program that will launch soon. I write and voice stories for Classical Kids Storytime, and most recently I’ve been doing some training and mentoring with new/part time hosts. That part has been the most fulfilling for me right now; I feel like my time on the air is short. Not because I want to get off the air, but because if public radio is going to change with the times (which it desperately needs to do), the way needs to be cleared for young, BIPOC, hosts to have the platform. I think my contribution will be bigger and more personally meaningful behind the scenes in a training/mentoring capacity. I love helping new hosts find their distinct voice, and one day I hope to move into talent acquisition and show development.
When I’m not doing all that you can find me hanging out with my dog Radar, playing guitar, or making beer.
Where do you see music podcasts headed?
Dang, that’s a loaded question. I’m reluctant to predict because when podcasts first came out, if you told me they’d be one of the more dominant media platforms, I’d have told you you were nuts. The most interesting thing the podcast platform has done is remove barriers for content creators of all kinds; you no longer need to work for a radio station or production house to do a show. All you need is a computer and a microphone and you’re on your way. It’s a terrific way for people to make more money for themselves since they’re not creating content for a station or production house. No middle man.
What would you like to see more of in music podcasts right now?
I think Rissi Palmer is doing some amazing things with her show Color Me Country, it’s an Apple product that is closer to a radio show than a podcast. She plays full versions of songs like you would hear on the radio, and balances it out with long form interviews with Black country artists. Listen to her conversation with Darius Rucker, it was great. She also has an artist grant program.
The podcast format gives you the space to really dig into subjects without worrying about legal IDs at the top of the hour or ending at a certain time. That’s a great feature for people who geek out on the minor details of any given topic. Take a listen to Song Exploder, the host picks a song and they interview the artist and break down how it came about, the evolution, even little things like amp settings and production tricks. A great example is the one with The Decemberists, they break down “Once in My Life,” just great storytelling and production. Trent Reznor’s is revealing as well.
Then there’s pods like Beautiful Anonymous that takes a phone call each episode from one random listener lucky enough to get through. They spend an hour talking with only three rules—no names, no places, no holds barred.
Recently The Sopranos have come back into the zeitgeist, I guess the show was rediscovered by a whole new generation with the new HBO Max streaming platform. I’ve loved listening to Talking Sopranos with Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa, they break down each episode and man, do you ever get a real behind the scenes look. I’ve binged the show so many times, I feel like I could be a third host on that pod.
What would you like to see less of in music podcasts right now?
There is nothing I’d like to see less of. Podcasting is the wild west of media right now…it’s a wide open field, room for all.
What would you like to see more of in classical music right now?
More people of color in positions of power. More music by living composers played on the air and in the concert hall. As it is now, you could say an orchestra in the traditional sense is a big cover band with a narrow set list. I don’t know if the genre will stay viable with the European canon being so prominent. There are plenty of people who will debate me on that, keep in mind it’s just my opinion. Plus there are so many great composers working today that could breathe some new life into things. Jessie Montgomery, Jennifer Higdon, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Devonte Hynes, Judd Greenstein, DeVon Russell Gray, way too many to list.
I think the pandemic has presented a huge opportunity. You have to give the listener a really good reason to come to the concert. Are you going to put on pants and sit in a crowd for Beethoven 5? Chances are good you know how that goes. This could be the chance to reach out to new listeners, broaden the seasoned listeners’ palette, and reflect the community the orchestra serves. A real sea change.
What’s one tip that you’d give a music podcaster starting out right now?
Don’t be intimidated by the wide-open field. I used to teach radio production as an adjunct and whenever I would assign a project that left most of the parameters to the student, some felt intimidated—they WANTED boundaries. Weird.
Also, just focus on getting one podcast done at a time. Garrett heard a quote that said the big hurdles for podcasts are the 6th episode and the 100th episode. Most podcasts don’t make it past the sixth episode, even fewer passed 100. Kinda like the wide open/no parameter idea, if you worry about what you’re going to do in a week or a month or whatever, the one in front of you will probably suffer. It’s also a good idea to have a few episodes in the can and ready to go to give you the breathing room you need to work on the episode in front of you.
The best free way to get your podcast noticed is by doing some pod trades. Try to find a podcast that’s similar to yours, or deals with a related subject, and offer to trade interviews so you can get some cross pollination.
What artist or trend are you most interested in right now?
NFTs. It sounds like a great way for an artist to be able to make a living, but I’m baffled by it at the same time. Digital currencies, too. I like to see my money in my account, but at the same time if I bought stock in Apple back when it was cheap, I wouldn’t be typing these answers to you right now.
As far as artists, I like how some composers are incorporating delay pedals and other digital effects. Julia Kent and Zoe Keating come to mind. Also, listen to Hockets for Two Voices by Meara O’Reilly. It’s all her, multi-tracking with herself in real time. Amazing project.
What’s your favorite part of having a podcast?
When I’m on the air at work, there are about 250 stations around the country taking our feed. The music is programmed for me, and I only get a few minutes each hour to tell stories. It’s limiting. The podcast allows me to pause, bumble, and take the time to catch a thought without worrying I’m going to talk too long and mess up a bunch of automation computers in the process. I get to be more like my real self, rather than code switching.
That said, it’s not always a comfortable position. As a middle-age white man in this business, I’m a part of the machine the younger generation is raging against. I’ve shared unpopular opinions and said the wrong thing plenty of times, then took the heat on social media. That’s all part of the deal, because my hope is that it shows that there are white allies out there that are making an effort. At the same time, hopefully a white listener can avoid whatever I stepped in.
What I really like isn’t obvious to listeners. When Garrett and I really get going, when there’s fun surprises, all the music really underpinning the ideas, the belly laughs…it reminds me of my theater days. It scratches that itch of creating a piece of art that’s unique to the moment. I love that.
What was the best track / video or film / book / podcast you’ve consumed in the past 12 months?
If you can, watch Joe Pera Talks With You season 2, episode 4: Joe Guides You Through The Dark. It’s a low key commentary on the realization that the loved ones in your life may not need you, followed by the realization of all your unique contributions. There is Steve Martin level humor in this series, but this one is my favorite for the artful way Joe straddles and weaves two eras, post Civil War and present day Marquette, Michigan. It also has, in my opinion, the best music cue placement I’ve heard in a while, when a track called 9 by AAESPO creeps in. That was my most played track of 2020 on Spotify, it’s a one minute piece of bliss that might be perfect.
The 1619 Project was great, but the podcast episode that highlights Blackness in Yacht Rock was expertly done, chef’s kiss. I love the way it sets the table for all the people of my generation. “Sit, eat!” it says, here’s music you love by Steely Dan, Toto and Kenny Loggins! And then six or seven minutes in the host sets the hook and says “Guess what, it’s all rooted in Blackness.” But they’re invested now, and they listen to the rest of the show. I guarantee you that shifted the thinking of a lot of white folks, that was impactful.
If you had to point folks to one podcast of yours, what would it be and why?
Opus 66. That was the most raw I’ve ever been. Our response to Garrett’s termination from APM was the lede and I was just feeling hollow. I didn’t want to record but I felt like I had to. Like I said earlier, this was part of the deal. Keep it Trill, as we say. We both took care to explain our perspectives on the issue, and I think it was a necessary opportunity for both Garrett and I to hit the reset button. Even today that’s the opus that has the most downloads, it’s in the tens of thousands.
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