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American Routes' 15th anniversary

Brad Rhines talks to Nick Spitzer about the history -- and future -- of the NPR favorite

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It's been a long road for Nick Spitzer, host of the public radio program American Routes. Spitzer, who also teaches anthropology at Tulane University, began his career in Baton Rouge as a folklorist focusing on Louisiana culture. He left to work with the Smithsonian Institute and National Public Radio (NPR), moving back to New Orleans in 1998 to produce America Routes, a show devoted to blues, R&B, country, zydeco and other regional music. Initially only seven stations picked up the show, which today it airs on nearly 300 public radio outlets nationwide. Spitzer celebrates American Routes' 15th anniversary with a concert showcasing Louisiana's rich musical heritage at Rock 'N' Bowl Friday.

  As early as 1974, when he worked in college and rock radio, Spitzer toyed with the idea of a show called "American Roots." As he continued his education and research in ethnography and cultural anthropology, his perspective shifted.

  "I began a transition in my thinking from R-O-O-T-S to R-O-U-T-E-S," Spitzer says. "The metaphor of the traveler, the migrant — from the Middle Passage and the horror of enslavement, to the choice of the family vacation and Route 66, to migration from South America to North — all the ways that people move."

  Spitzer believes migration and movement are the basis for America's most compelling music traditions. Since much of this music is outside the mainstream, Spitzer says he works to keep American Routes entertaining and informative, especially as many public radio listeners gravitate toward news and talk shows like All Things Considered and This American Life. His playlists often consist of three songs linked by a common thread.

  "Familiar song, familiar artist, or familiar genre," Spitzer explains. "You can play an offbeat song by a familiar artist; you can play a familiar song by an unfamiliar artist; you can play ragtime country blues guitar by the Rev. Gary Davis and you can put it next to the Rolling Stones doing [their version of Mississippi Fred McDowell's] 'You Gotta Move.'"

  The songs are edited together at a small studio on Tulane's Uptown campus, where Spitzer adds voiceovers and segments from interviews. The end result is a polished product ideal for public radio, but different from live radio broadcasts. Spitzer says some friends call NPR "National Perfect Radio," poking fun at the network's high production values. But Spitzer believes the show's style respects music and musicians often marginalized by popular culture.

  In the early days, American Routes was a three-hour live show on WWOZ-FM that was edited to two hours for national broadcast, but Spitzer wasn't completely satisfied with the results. The program attracts big name guests, including Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, Les Paul and Fats Domino, and the prerecorded approach lets Spitzer fix flubs and highlight engaging moments from lengthy interviews.

After leaving WWOZ in search of a more flexible format, Spitzer started recording the show at the University of New Orleans. The new facility was great for production, but he had a hard time getting aired locally on WWNO-FM, the city's NPR affiliate, despite American Routes' success in bigger markets like New York and Boston.

  "They were still spinning classical records dominantly at WWNO," Spitzer says. "The station manager at the time, who shall go nameless, said to me that my work 'represented the decline of Western civilization.'"

  Spitzer moved to Tulane in 2008, and now he reaches nearly a million listeners each week. People also tune in online, and almost every program from the last 15 years is archived in a searchable database. Licensing agreements prevent users from downloading shows, but entire episodes can be streamed from computers and mobile devices.

  To celebrate the popularity of American Routes, Spitzer and his staff are throwing a party. The first half of the concert features the Treme Brass Band and the Lost Bayou Ramblers, acts that pay homage to the musical traditions of New Orleans and South Louisiana. The second half of the show is a soul and R&B revue anchored by pianist Jon Cleary and his band, with star turns from Irma Thomas, Robert "Barefootin'" Parker, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Ivan Neville and a few surprise guests. Between sets, Spitzer will interview some of the people responsible for the show's success to share behind-the-scenes stories from their 15 years on the air. The concert and interviews will be recorded for a special 4th of July episode of American Routes.

  "I'm confident that New Orleans and south Louisiana music, known and unknown, has a national audience," Spitzer says. "I've taken the view that America should not be dictated to by media and cultural centers in Washington, New York, Boston, or for that matter, Los Angeles and San Francisco. We've argued that it's not just two coasts; it's not East and West. There's the Gulf South, the Gulf Coast, the Lower Mississippi Valley — call it what you want, but it's the source of so much American vernacular, so let's start with that as the centering point rather than the marginal."

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