DeRogatis (left) and Kot
Greg Kot, the Chicago Tribune rock critic since 1990, used to ride home from work with his colleague Gene Siskel, who generally talked about two things: the Tribune and Roger Ebert. “He would say things like, ‘Roger was wrong about such and such a movie and here’s why,’” recalls Kot. Sound Opinions, WBEZ’s nationally syndicated rock talk show that Kot hosts with Jim DeRogatis, has a platform similar to Siskel and Ebert’s old TV show At the Movies: Two critics armed with deep knowledge and mutual respect duke it out for a mass audience—but, in this case, without the pissy competitive streak. To see if I could explain what makes 200,000 people a month download their weekly radio show, I went on a 24-hour Sound Opinions podcast binge, and then I sent Kot and DeRogatis each a questionnaire. Here’s what I learned.
Kot, 54, hails from Syracuse, New York (first concert: Grand Funk Railroad at the Syracuse War Memorial in 1970), and has always been measured and obsessive. He routinely streams scenes from This Is Spinal Tap; his 5,000 records are alphabetized in his Edgebrook basement, with 12-inch singles and jazz filed separately. DeRogatis, 46, a Jersey City native (Jethro Tull, Madison Square Garden, 1978), is an English professor at Columbia College and an aggressive punk-rock drummer with a garage full of old musical instruments and a radio in both bathrooms of his Lincoln Park home. During his 15-year tenure as the rock critic at the Sun-Times (he left the paper in 2010), DeRogatis slammed so many performers that one blogger wrote, “DeRogatis hates sunshine, blowjobs, and the polio vaccine.”
Neither man qualifies as an elitist, however. DeRogatis has an inexplicable weakness for the Black Eyed Peas; Kot suffers from a Neil Diamond fixation. Both men are skilled debaters who—with a mountain of perspective—will defend critically unpopular artists so effectively that you’re surprised to find yourself nodding in agreement. Wow, I kind of like this Lady Gaga song. And frankly, a purist would not talk, as DeRogatis does, about converting 85 percent of his collection to digital files. “I’m not nearly as anal about keeping everything as Kot is,” says DeRogatis. “He has, like, 17 Gordon Lightfoot CDs alone.”
What makes people tune in, I think, is Kot and DeRogatis’s irresistible dorkiness. Rock critics have rarely been hip, but these guys make Ira Glass sound like Isaac Hayes. Instead of verbally castrating each other like Siskel and Ebert, they might spend half an hour professorially dissecting a 44-year-old Van Morrison record—and hold your attention doing it. “They get so excited about music it’s hard not to feel that way, too,” says my wife, and she doesn’t even care about music. For us rock geeks, the show sounds like conversations we wish we were having.
While the two do not interact outside the walls of WBEZ’s studio, their rivalry is tinted with amusement rather than competition. When Kot calls a record “a worthy addition to the Springsteen canon” and his counterpart trashes it as the work of “an unrepentant cheese dog,” you might expect Siskel-and-Ebert-style attacks. Kot and DeRogatis laugh it off. “Gene fed off that tension and sense of rivalry,” Kot says. “For me, that kind of working environment would be a drag.”
Everyone else attacks them instead. Kot has had sod thrown at him by Guns N’ Roses partisans; the occasional dirt bath would be a walk in the park for DeRogatis, a man so loathed by so many that even Mariah Carey’s otherwise docile fans seem to have issued a fatwa on him. (If you think I’m exaggerating the level of antipathy DeRogatis inspires, Google “Ryan Adams voicemail.” And turn down the volume.) “Music is life, but it’s not life and death,” says Kot. “We don’t care who you like, just as long as you listen.”
Photograph: Lisa Predko