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I can think of only one time that I've ever been on radio or TV (a small sample, admittedly) when there was really first-class food in the green room. That was at WGN Radio a few months back, and the other guest was Barry Sorkin of Smoque who arrived with the full catering setup full of brisket, so it's not really a fair comparison. Anyway, we were there as the on-air guests of James VanOsdol, who you may know as the author of a terrific inside look at modern radio (about the life and death of Q101), and is now the "programming maestro" of a startup called Rivet Radio. He's also a pinch hitter for WGN Radio, and likes to talk about food when he has a slot to fill, so there we were. Apparently, he likes to talk about food so much that he even launched a podcast about it with voice-over talent Mike Bratton: Car Con Carne.
In each episode of Car Con Carne, VanOsdol, Bratton, and a guest pile into VanOsdol's Mazda 3 go out for barbecue. That's it. Well, and they talk, which of course is the point. Car-based podcasts have become a thing lately—most notably Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee—and it's a great format for informal radio because instead of the artificiality of formatted radio, you feel like you're just hanging out in a car with quick-witted friends (which you may or may not have, or be, in real life). VanOsdol and Bratton's guests have included radio personalities like Eddie Volkman of the former Eddie & Jobo radio team, singer Chloe Orwell of the Handcuffs, and Internet humor person (he's a bit indescribable) Steve Gadlin. The shows are breezy, fun, and especially when it's pledge week on several stations at once, this kind of no-money-no-worries audio is an enjoyable companion.
But even no-money radio has expenses (like the barbecue), so VanOsdol and Bratton have a Kickstarter going to raise money to keep it going and improve the sound quality of Car Con Carne. I talked with VanOsdol about it all via Skype (which gave me intense feelings of audio inadequacy) the other day, but I'll be in the WGN studio with him next Tuesday night talking Italian beef, so come by and press your face into the glass.
Michael Gebert: Tell me where you got the idea [for the podcast].
James VanOsdol: My friend Mike had lived in New York for a few years, and I knew he was coming back and we talked for a while about doing a podcast together. And we were having lunch at Smoque and we thought, we should do a podcast together about barbecue. And we thought about how would we do that, and we thought about recording in a restaurant, and besides being hard to listen to from an audio perspective, there's nothing special about that.
He's a professional voice-over guy. And he was telling me a story about how he always carries his laptop and a really nice mike with him. Because he's always getting calls and e-mails about doing voice-overs on the fly. And when push comes to shove he can do it in his car because it's pretty well soundproofed. And that kind of turned the lightbulb on, we could record in a car. We could drive around to eat barbecue and record in the car.
So listening to the shows, I wondered if one of the things that motivated you to do it is the ability to get out from under the structures of radio and having to time cutting to commercials and everything else, and just talk—radio guys, just talking.
That's part of it, but the bigger reason is that Mike and I are good friends, and this forces us, every two weeks, to get out of the house and hang out. As life becomes more demanding and we have families and squirrely schedules, this forces us to do it. We like to be together, we like eating barbecue, it's just a fun way to spend time that also has a weird voyeuristic component too.
Do you feel freer when you're doing this and driving in a car?
It's . . . different. Yes, at its most basic level it's a radio show in a car that's not on radio. It's just different. I don't look at it as podcast vs. radio. It's highly edited, so maybe it's a little more polished than a live radio show, I don't know.
What reaction have you gotten to this?
It's a slow build. I think podcast listeners want you to prove that you're not going anywhere. I think when podcasts come out, there's the expectation that they won't last the year. There's been a very slow momentum build, but people have said it makes them hungry and it sounds like two friends hanging out, which is exactly what it is.
Now, you started a Kickstarter for it, what are you trying to raise and what do you plan to do with that?
We've set very modest goals, it's nothing crazy. Neither of us is loaded, and there are some costs involved in doing each episode. We pay for our meals for us and our backseat guest, we don't ask for comps so we can be objective, there's hosting costs and gas and—basic operating costs for six months while we try to grow this.
Right now we're using lav [lavalier] mikes, they're serviceable, it does have that raw charm, but we could use better mikes. The thing we record it on is this old Zoom recorder that eats batteries, we need better recording equipment. Everything so far has been fine, but if we do this for the long haul we need better equipment.
What so far has been your favorite barbecue joint?
So far my top two are Pork Shoppe on Belmont, which has a pork belly pastrami sandwich that can make a grown man weep—
I know it well.
Oh my God. And I really enjoy Real Urban Barbecue in Highland Park. Their sides are fantastic, their burnt ends are like meat candy—I really enjoyed that.
Now, there's only so many barbecue places, do you worry that you're going to run out?
I think, for a twice-monthly show, between the north, south, west sides, there are plenty of places. We haven't even been to Smoque yet. I'm not too worried about that. I figure by the time we hit every conceivable Illinois and northwest Indiana barbecue place, we'll be at a point where we can expand and do legitimate road trips. We'll have to pick our guests well for that.
Yeah, you've only had to tolerate them for an hour so far. So have you despoiled your car eating barbecue in it?
Well, we have a strict no-ribs policy, for that very reason, and I carry wet wipes in the back seat.
My car looks like that anyway, and I'm not doing a radio show in it.
The next morning is always great, it smells like ketchup and every possible sauce component imaginable.