When You Say Wisconsin In Song

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Photo: Jeff Miller

When we learned that an alumnus listens to songs for a living, we couldn’t resist asking him to pick five that say UW-Madison and tell us why.

While growing up in a small town in central Wisconsin, Stephen Thompson ’94 spent Sundays parked in front of the radio, armed with a notebook to meticulously document the charts from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40, followed by Rick Dees’s Weekly Top 40.

“This is before I discovered girls,” says Thompson, now the editor for National Public Radio’s music Web site.

Thompson’s music obsession grew during his sophomore year at UW-Madison, when he became music director of the now-defunct student radio station WLHA in fall 1991. The station transmitted at just 1.5 watts and could only be heard in some lakeshore residence halls, but it was a transformative experience for Thompson.

“I had an opportunity to dive in head first, and just immerse myself in all this new music,” he says, recalling that the first song he played on the air was Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Thompson’s access to the station’s music library also gave him the chance to discover bands and genres he had missed during the 1980s, when he was glued to the pop charts.

“It’s part of what everyone treasures about college,” he says. “You certainly had your eyes opened to new things.”

His interest in music eventually turned into a full-time job at the Onion, where he started writing music reviews after a stint with the Daily Cardinal. “There’s sort of an inverse relationship between my professional development while in college and my interest in going to class,” says Thompson, who graduated with degrees in history and journalism. He helped launch the Onion’s entertainment section — “The A.V. Club” — while still an undergraduate, and his role grew as the satirical newspaper did.

Thompson served as the section’s editor until he left the Onion in 2004. He joined NPR’s Digital Media team in 2006 after contributing pieces as a freelancer, including some for the music Web site’s “Song of the Day,” which features tunes by artists ranging from Death Cab for Cutie to Scott Joplin. Now, reviewers e-mail Thompson a digital file of the song they want to write about, and he decides whether it’s worthy of being included on the site.

“My number one criterion that I tell writers is just love the song,” he says. “And if you love the song, and you can write a passionate defense of the song … then if I don’t despise it, it will make the cut for ‘Song of the Day.’ ”

Thompson also appears as a music commentator on NPR’s All Songs Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend All Things Considered. One thing you won’t hear him do is disparage a piece of music as a “guilty pleasure,” even if the source is a former American Idol winner. An example is Kelly Clarkson’s hit “Since U Been Gone,” which Thompson has defended on air.

“There’s no such thing [as a guilty pleasure],” he says. “You should not feel guilty about something that’s awesome. If you think something is awesome, it’s awesome. If a song is sort of catchy, and wonderful, and it makes you feel good, it’s awesome.”

Jenny Price ’96 is a writer for On Wisconsin. She would add “Beer Barrel Polka” to the list of songs that say UW-Madison.

Published in the Fall 2009 issue

Tags: Arts, Faculty

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