On the surface, “Sound Opinions” on WXRT-FM (93.1) is a talk show about rock ‘n roll–about bands that rule and bands that suck; about albums great and awful; about the search for backbeats that move the soul.

But listen closely and it’s about more than that. Listen closely, and “Sound Opinions”–perhaps the country’s only rock ‘n roll talk show–is about friendship and passion and life.

Hosted by local rock critics Greg Kot, of the Chicago Tribune, and Jim DeRogatis of the Sun-Times, the show’s formula is straightforward: Review new music releases, maybe interview a musician, take a few calls. But like the best rock music, the show–which airs Tuesdays from 10 p.m. to midnight–isn’t slave to formula. These guys let things rip.

During a recent night in the studio, the theme was “the year’s most hyped records.” Neither critic likes the new Michael Jackson record, and neither critic can discuss the music without discussing the man. “That’s an incredibly believable role: Michael Jackson as ladies’ man,” Kot scoffs. “Messianic lunacy,” DeRogatis adds. “Historians centuries from now will say, ‘Never has a public figure melted down so publicly as Michael Jackson.'” Both critics agree that Michael Jackson “has no clue about what the public thinks of him.”

The conversation somehow evolves into an analysis of whether longtime producer Quincy Jones is a hack. “You want proof Quincy Jones is a hack?” DeRogatis asks. “He’s the most Grammy-winning guy of all time!” Kot’s deadpan reply: “OK, that’s true. But so’s Sir Georg Solti.” The free-flowing nature of their conversation rings true with listeners: Real and passionate people–in dorm rooms, at work, over dinner–talk like Kot and DeRogatis.

On to Britney Spears: She is, they agree, a “product, a toy.” They laugh at a tape of DeRogatis quizzing Spears at a press conference: “Hi, Britney. Your album is pretty hot and horny. How do you think that affects your young female fans?” Flustered, Spears spits out an answer Kot concedes is pretty good. “You’ve got a thing for her!” DeRogatis charges. Kot rolls his eyes. Then they trash the album.

Such candor makes for great radio, but it takes a bold home to air it. Kot and DeRogatis aren’t afraid to criticize some of the music WXRT plays regularly. They also endorse artists that the station might ignore. Such independence is anathema in an industry expert in self-congratulation. “From that standpoint, ‘XRT is pretty brave,” Kot says.

The show continues, dotted with gems of insight. Kot: “McCartney is brilliant, but he’s always been at his worst singing about his puppy love.” DeRogatis: “There is a newfound urgency in McCartney’s songs after years of life as a country squire.” Kot: “Much like Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger has become a parody of himself.” DeRogatis: “Incubus is the one band in new metal that doesn’t suck.” Both: “We hate power ballads.” Between reviews, they find time to play a practical joke on a phone-in guest, then laugh hysterically.

None of the two hours is scripted, and the hosts’ spontaneous humor has attracted such a loyal following that Chicago superagent Todd Musburger is shopping the program for radio and television syndication. Until then, Kot and DeRogatis say, they will soldier on for Chicago fans. “We listen to Britney Spears,” DeRogatis says, “so you don’t have to.”

This story was originally published in the March 2002 issue of Chicago.