NPR’s ‘Pop Culture’ podcast slated to debut Chicago live performance

Washington, DC – May 03, 2016: Linda Holmes CREDIT: Matt Roth

By Ariel Parrella-Aureli

NPR is unleashing the gurus of pop culture from its “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast to Chicago to discuss the books, music, movies and TV shows that have everyone laughing, tweeting or scowling at the latest cultural trends. 

The podcast is scheduled to stop in Chicago April 12 for a live performance—the first time in its seven-year history. Host Linda Holmes and panelists Stephen Thompson and Glen Weldon are bringing their pop culture knowledge and criticism to the Harris Theater at Millennium Park, 205 E. Randolph Drive. 

The live performance, in partnership with WBEZ, will include special NPR VIPs Sam Sanders, formerly of  the “NPR Politics Podcast,” and W. Kamau Bell, the critically acclaimed socio-political comedian and host of Emmy Award-nominated CNN docu-series “United Shades of America.” 

“Any time that I am working, I am 25 percent doing what I enjoy,” Holmes, a pop culture correspondent and editor of NPR’s entertainment blog Monkey See, said about combining work with ingesting pop culture news and interests. “It is also true that anytime I am doing something I enjoy, I am 25 percent working.” 

“Pop Culture Happy Hour’s” roundtable-style, minimal scripting and personal discussion makes it unlike other NPR podcasts, Holmes said. While the show’s flow is natural and raw, it is still heavily edited by producer Jessica Reedy to maintain professional quality and listener engagement, she added.

Weldon, who reviews books and movies for Monkey See, said “Pop Culture Happy Hour” should make listeners feel connected to the hosts as they are with friends.

“We want the show to sound like it is you hanging out with your friends talking about topics you are excited about—or that you are not very happy about,” Weldon said.

That is certainly true for Holmes, Thompson and Weldon, who have all become best friends because of the show, Holmes said. One can hear their close relationship in the show’s banter and inside jokes during the discussions—even when they disagree harmoniously, Weldon added.

Thompson said the chance to talk to your friends and call it work is really exciting and added that the show has educated him in more ways than one.

“It has greatly increased my own cultural literacy and forced me to see movies [and TV shows] I wouldn’t have otherwise seen, and books I certainly would not have otherwise read,” Thompson said.

Thompson brings the musical knowledge to the show. He is an editor for NPR Music and the founder of the Chicago-based A.V. Club. He also helped co-create NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts in 2008 and is a regular on NPR’s music news show “All Songs Considered.” Learning from his co-hosts and other podcasts like the recently released and already highly acclaimed Serial Productions show “S-Town” takes him out of his comfort zone and makes him more well-rounded and happier, he said.

According to Holmes, the difference between live and recorded show is that live shows are more structured, and there is more play for audience interaction. Thompson added that there is a different set of conversation muscles used in live shows, like noticing one’s own speaking ticks; For him it is a small giggle. 

Weldon said simply sitting in a semicircle to see each other recalls the roundtable format and adds a conducive energy to the show.

“Our live shows are a different way to interact with [the] NPR [community]; it is a little punchier and sillier,” Holmes said. “I like it as a way to get different tastes of what people at NPR like.”

The crew said Chicago will be a fitting place to bring the liver performance of the podcast because of the city’s strong public radio community. They hope to attract public radio fans and WBEZ fans who may not know the show but are rooted in local public radio and care about pop culture.

With a laugh, Weldon added, “You can’t force a family member or a friend to listen to a podcast, but you can drag them to a live show.”