Those local heroes and institutions are part of a three-hour live broadcast on the ABC television special, In Search of America: A July 4th Musical Celebration. ABC anchor Peter Jennings will host the show live -- with the help and commentary of New Orleans' Nick Spitzer, host of the acclaimed syndicated radio series, American Routes. It will be the second high-profile national media segment featuring Spitzer, courtesy of ABC; on Wednesday, July 3, the network's Nightline news program is airing a half-hour profile of Spitzer's American Routes show, including footage shot in Spitzer's Royal Street studio. In the Nightline program, ABC documents Spitzer assembling an American Routes show, as he interviews Ray Charles in California, legendary folk guitarist Doc Watson in North Carolina, and Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas in Lafayette.
That type of diverse range of musical artists, mixed with Spitzer's insightful commentary, is what's landed American Routes on almost 200 public radio stations nationwide. (It's carried locally on WWNO 89.9 FM, at 9 p.m. on Sunday nights.)
But in an era of mainstream media consolidation and market domination by corporate giants such as Clear Channel, Spitzer's public radio audience is a comparative sliver of the national listening audience. So how does an independent New Orleans radio producer with eclectic musical tastes land a primetime gig on one of the major television networks?
"We knew that our Nightline colleagues were working on a segment on American Routes," says New York-based ABC executive producer Tom Yellin, one of the producers for the Fourth of July special. "So it was easy enough to call up Washington and say, 'What's the story with this guy? Is he boring?'"
To ultimately answer that question, ABC called Spitzer and told him about the planned Fourth of July special, then asked if they could call him back at a later date to discuss concepts and logistics. Spitzer still didn't know what to expect during the follow-up call. "I've never done network television," says Spitzer. "I'm on the phone with ABC in New York, and someone asks me where Kirk Franklin fits in the contemporary gospel scene. I'm no expert on Kirk Franklin, but I certainly know enough about him to talk about the sacred message being able to reach a secular audience.
"Then I think they thought they could really stump me by asking me if Keith Frank would be appropriate representing French Louisiana. I did field work for three years in Keith's community. So I finished telling them about Keith, and this room full of executives literally started applauding. I didn't know it, but they were auditioning me."
The mediums are different, but Spitzer's a perfect choice for the Fourth of July special -- the content of the television broadcast mirrors the format of his American Routes show. ABC has constructed a central soundstage in Montana for the show's headliners, which encompass a wide spectrum of artists with roots in traditional music. Those acts include Tex-Mex rockers Los Lobos, pop-rock singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow, haunting country singer Gillian Welch and country outlaw Hank Williams Jr., and gospel singer Sandi Patty. The rest of the performances are culled from events around the country that were already planned before the broadcast, giving the broadcast an authentic patchwork of American diversity. They feature barbershop quartets in Oregon, the Boston Pops in their home city, Alicia Keys and India.Arie at New Orleans' Essence Festival, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys in Erath, La., and a host of others. The styles and locales vary, though the message is the same: indigenous culture and music deserves to be heard and spotlighted.
"It's music as a way to express cultural freedom," says Spitzer. "That cultural freedom means the freedom to keep existing cultures and also transform it and find new culture. Music expresses culture better than almost any art form. [On the broadcast], people can see it, hear it and share what they know about it. Peter Jennings is the architect of the broadcast, and he's been adamant that this not be American Bandstand."
Jennings was unavailable for comment, but producer Yellin says that the Fourth of July special is a continuation of a news format that Jennings and his news team are championing. "The special is brought together by the same people that provided 24-hour coverage of the millennium," he says. "It's a news form that's a hybrid and uses entertainment elements to tell as story, to provide a deeper understanding of the world we live in. It's a format we used last Fourth of July and New Year's Eve, and each time we've learned some new things. It's a form that we want to develop further, taking cultural events and strains in the country, under different circumstances, and use them to show how we're all different and we're still all the same."
While Yellin was unfamiliar with Spitzer in the early planning stages of the broadcast, he isn't a neophyte when it comes to Louisiana music and culture. "Steve Riley happens to be one of my personal favorites," he says. "My wife is a big fan and she first introduced me to his music, and we've seen Steve Riley probably 20 times now -- but most of my friends have no clue who he is."
Part of Riley's relative anonymity can be chalked up to America's fascination with pop culture, which often dictates media coverage. But one notable aspect of the ABC broadcast is the absence of high-wattage celebrities a la Britney Spears or *NSYNC.
"Mass popular culture is very familiar, and many people are turned off by it," says Yellin. "What's motivating us is that there's a lot to say about this country that's unsaid, particularly on networks. Our culture is rich and diverse, and there are art forms in every medium that are underappreciated. We're being opportunistic in the best sense, following stories that are not being seized by the mainstream media. If you listen to Nick's show, that's a relatively small audience, but it doesn't speak to a lack of appeal."
Still, television programs rise and fall according to Nielsen ratings. For Yellin and ABC, their Fourth of July music special provides a safe platform. "If we were trying to do this on a Thursday night in November, those are risks we're probably not going to take," says Yellin. "But July 4 has its own logic, and that's what we're attempting to celebrate. Research shows that HUT (Households Using Television) levels are quite low on July 4, so it's a relatively limited risk, and ABC's not giving up a huge audience. But the network isn't doing this as a favor to us. If you can say to people responsible for running a network that you're trying to discover something that's new and exciting, they recognize the value of that."
Before a second of footage has aired, the broadcast has already stirred up a measure of controversy, thanks to rising contemporary country star Toby Keith. Keith -- who's receiving a massive marketing push from the Dreamworks record label -- was contacted about appearing on the show and says he was dropped from the broadcast after Jennings heard the lyrics to his current single, "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue." Keith wrote the lyrics in question after Sept. 11: "This big dog will fight/When you rattle his cage/And you'll be sorry you messed with/The U.S. of A./'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American Way."
When asked about Keith, Yellin audibly sighs with exasperation. "We certainly were interested in having him," he says. "He's someone among many performers that we were considering, but there were all sorts of problems that had nothing to do with the content of the song. He needed another plane and needed to be scheduled first on the broadcast, and that was too complicated to arrange. Now he's trying to sell records on the basis of our inquiries. That's his business."
At press time, Spitzer was still navigating those kind of logistical obstacles, in hopes of including a second-line parade in Treme. If it happens, it would make for a tantalizing trio of New Orleans segments played out for a national audience. "You've got Wynton Marsalis in New York, probably doing a Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong song, then at the Superdome you've got India.Arie, and then we could segue and show viewers the oldest black community in America," says Spitzer.
Intelligently connecting that trio of musicians, performances and places is Spitzer's forte -- and what initially caught the attention of ABC's Nightline team. "We're fans and regular listeners of American Routes," says Nightline producer Peter Demchuk. "We hear the program on WGMU, our Washington NPR station. Then I read a Wall Street Journal piece on Nick and the show. So correspondent Dave Marash did a profile of Steve Earle last fall, and we had Nick provide commentary, but we ended up not being able to work it into the piece. Dave and I started talking, and decided that Nick himself would be an interesting profile."
Spitzer's double dose of ABC publicity comes as roots music is experiencing a surge of sorts, spearheaded by the unexpected success of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Timing aside, Spitzer's spent his career documenting folk culture, working as a folklorist in Texas and Louisiana -- he founded the Louisiana Folklife program and is currently Professor of Folklore and Cultural Conservation at the University of New Orleans -- and his radio show is an extension of his personal passions. "It's kind of funny, because I feel like I've been preparing my whole life to do this," says Spitzer. "I think we're coming into an age where they're asking people to talk about culture, not just the economy or politics."
"The success of Nick's program touches the same kinds of issues as the O Brother soundtrack did," says Demchuk. "Music on radio seems more and more homogenized, and O Brother reminded us of music's historical roots. That's the eclecticism that Nick brings to the program, and you're reminded as a listener that there's intelligence behind that. You get a sense of things that are real and authentic."
With Spitzer as the guide, such real and authentic Routes will always run through New Orleans and Louisiana.