EXCLUSIVE: Alt 92.1 host Johnny Popko launches own podcast, The Popko Project, about local music and more
When Scranton alternative rock radio station Alt 92.1 suddenly disappeared from the airwaves last month, many listeners were shocked and disappointed, but none more so than Johnny Popko, the host of Alt-Natives on Alt 92.1 and one of the most recognizable personalities in Northeastern Pennsylvania media.
In nearly 17 years, Popko has been employed by both major newspaper companies in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Times Leader Media Group in Wilkes-Barre and currently Times-Shamrock Communications in Scranton, working his way up from an intern at the TL’s alt-weekly The Weekender to its general manager, earning him the nickname “Johnny Weekender.” As that paper began a serious decline under new management, he saw the writing on the wall and moved on to become a Senior Media Consultant at Times-Shamrock. While these jobs have mostly been in sales and marketing, his passion was in the artists he met and worked with along the way.
“I’ve been drawn to entertainment, specifically the local music scene, since I was 18. I remember in college wanting to be 21 so bad so that I could go out to the bars. Not to drink, but so that I could enjoy the music,” he recalled in an exclusive interview today with NEPA Scene.
“There are so many musicians that come from this area that I’d put up against anyone currently on the radio today. And it helps that while they are extremely talented, they are also just genuine people. It’s easy to want to be part of something when those two things are combined.”
In early 2017, he joined NEPA Scene as a co-host of the NEPA Scene Podcast when it relaunched as a live show with streaming video, contributing to interviews with over 100 varied guests, most of them musicians. Later that year, he premiered his own program through one of Times-Shamrock’s radio stations, Alt-Natives on Alt 92.1, that played an hour of original local music on Saturday nights. Recording on his own time, he occasionally added clips of conversations with musicians in between the carefully curated songs, which led to an online-only interview spin-off, the Alt-Natives After Hours Podcast, in 2019, and he also hosted a live Alt-Natives concert series at Karl Hall in Wilkes-Barre featuring many of the same unsigned artists he dedicated airtime to.
“I felt that there was a need for it. There are so many talented musicians here locally and regionally that deserve recognition, and I wanted to give that to them. And honestly, when I started it, I thought I had my finger on the pulse of the local scene. I was proven wrong almost immediately. I learned of so many young talented artists in the first week or two. I felt a real sense of purpose hosting that show,” Popko explained.
“The reception was amazing right from the start. Most musicians locally never knew an outlet like that could even be a thing. And when I’d tell them I was featuring their song on the show, they were so excited. Some would tune in from their cars and record themselves on the radio with their cell phones. That was always something really cool to see. There was a time when an artist told me that they were considering putting an end to their music writing until they heard their song on the radio. That was probably the greatest moment for me. I really felt like I was making a difference.”
Despite its award-winning popularity, including a big sweep of the Local Podcast/Streaming Series of the Year, Local Radio Station of the Year, and Local Radio/Podcast/Streaming Personality of the Year categories in the 2020 Steamtown Music Awards in Scranton, the radio station itself changed to 24/7 Christmas music on Nov. 4 and will switch to a new programming format in 2021, leaving Alt-Natives on an indefinite hiatus.
“What I feel like I accomplished with the show was that it shined a light on artists who never got any recognition from the other shows in the market. There was a whole generation that was basically being ignored. And I didn’t stick to a genre. Anything, as long as it was good quality, had the chance to be on the show,” he emphasized.
Through all his experiences in media, he learned “the art of conversation,” which will serve him well in his next step.
“My primary job is in sales for Shamrock Communications. And even though Alt-Natives is on a hiatus, I’m very thankful that I still have a job working in sales. But I think I’ve learned how to talk to people like they are people. That’s how I’ve approached everything in media. Whether it was speaking with a potential client in sales or interviewing a band, I just always spoke to them like a person. I never pandered to anyone.”
After a month of not speaking about it publicly at all, the 38-year-old Duryea resident has announced The Popko Project, a new podcast he will produce on his own. He started working on it the day he found out about the dubious fate of Alt-Natives.
“It seriously happened that fast – faster than I wanted it to, to be honest. For a moment, I felt like it happened for selfish reasons. I thought maybe I needed the local scene more than it needed me. But when it was announced that the show was put on hiatus, the support from everyone was so overwhelming. And so, for selfish reasons, I wanted to continue doing something. And as someone who has been able to give a voice to so many, I wanted to somehow continue to be that,” he said.
“First step was creating a name. That actually took quite a bit. I didn’t want the name Popko in it because I felt like it was so pretentious. The last thing I wanted to do was for people to think that I think I’m this amazing radio or podcast host. I still have a long way to go, but my delivery is genuine and I know for a fact that comes across in what I do. For anyone who thinks I am full of myself, they don’t know me. I second guess myself all the time, but from a marketing/branding sense, my name needed to be in the name of the show. I’ve been Popko since junior high. My first name is John, and there were three Johns in our class from kindergarten through 12th grade. By the time junior high came around, none of us went by John.
“And then obviously over the last three years, Popko is what I went by on Alt-Natives. I think it’s unique. It’s different, for sure, and I’ve been told by people way smarter than me that I needed to use it for the podcast, so here we are. Second step was a logo – something that stood out, something that people would see and make them curious as to what the hell it was. I think the name incites curiosity as well. And I think Keith Perks of 1120 Studios nailed [the logo design].”
Set to go live this week, The Popko Project will be available as videos on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube as well as streaming audio on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, etc. Links to every episode will be available on thepopkoproject.com, and guests will include “anyone who wants to have an uncensored, unedited conversation, really.” His only hint as to who the first guest will be is a “girl all the bad guys want” – interpret that as you will.
“I don’t have a set format, and I don’t know that I want to have one. I just want to have conversations with people. And while the fixture of the podcasts will be musicians, I definitely want to feature artists in general, whether that be tattoo artists, barbers, painters, sculptors, photographers, you name it. But I also want to expand outside of that if the opportunity presents itself,” he described.
“I participated in sober October a couple months ago, and as I was going through it, I had a bunch of people reach out to me saying that I inspired them to do it as well, or I had people reach out to me saying they were proud of me and shared with me their struggle with addiction. Now, thankfully, I don’t struggle with addiction, so I wasn’t trying to get sober because I had a problem. But it was cool that people felt they could reach out to me and share their story with me. I think far too often people are afraid to talk about things, and I want to provide a platform for anyone who does.”
As a big fan of comedian and commentator Joe Rogan and a dedicated listener of his massively successful podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” that influence will definitely play a role in shaping Popko’s new project.
“I’ve been listening to Joe Rogan for four or five years now. He’s an inspiration for me, without question. Those who know me probably think I have an unhealthy obsession with him, but I just think he’s a great dude who has a ton of fun with what he’s doing but also has the power to change people’s lives. Now I’m not saying that I’m here to change lives, but if one person gets joy or inspiration out of what I do, I’m good with that,” he acknowledged.
“I said earlier the fixture of this is going to be musicians. I want to be a platform for them to talk about their music, upcoming shows (when they exist again), inspirations, basically anything they want to about their craft. But I want to expand the conversation not only with them, but anyone with a story – could be a business owner, a tattoo artist, a barber, a chiropractor, whatever!”
Unlike his previous shows, which ran an hour or less, he is hoping to tell people’s stories “from beginning to end.”
“Everyone has their own story, and I just want to be a platform for them to tell it on. I especially find it interesting when musicians are more than that. I think we have these preconceived notions that all bands do is play music, get drunk or high, and pass out on people’s couches. I run into a lot of musicians who are very talented and make a conscious effort to play shows and be serious about writing and recording music, but their full-time gig might be as a lawyer or a computer programmer or an accomplished hunter. It’s really cool to pull back the layers.”
Showing that he just as dedicated to the NEPA music scene as ever, Popko has teamed up with Axelrad Screen Printing in Wilkes-Barre to create an online store called Shirts for the Scene to help out musicians and other music industry professionals during the holiday season.
“The ultimate goal is to be a platform for discussion and discovery of arts and entertainment through long-form conversations. I want it to be a vehicle for good, and I think coming out of the gate with Shirts for the Scene proves that immediately. We’ve created a store for local/regional bands and artists that hosts a piece of their merch for sale. Proceeds from the shirts sold go directly back to the band/artists,” he explained.
“For example, the band Modern Ties has a shirt in the store. If someone who supports them buys that shirt, the proceeds from that shirt go directly to that band. And people have to understand that musicians, artists, entertainment publications, etc. are all being destroyed by COVID-19. Bands can’t play in bars/venues, which means they can’t make money. If they aren’t out playing, they can’t sell merch. If bands aren’t playing, the need for concert photographers goes away, which means their income goes away. If there are no events, what do entertainment publications write about? It really has been devastating, and I just want this to be a bright spot in those lives in the shitty year that has been 2020. There’s a link at thepopkoproject.com to Shirts for the Scene where you can buy your favorite band’s shirt. And if your band or entertainment-based business isn’t in the store and you want it to be, please email a vector file image to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get it up.”
Even with the current difficulties facing the scene and those that cover it, there are still various platforms promoting artists as best they can, whether independently online or through larger media like radio and television. He admitted he isn’t “entirely sure” how The Popko Project will stand out among those other options, but the answer is obvious to anyone familiar with his previous work – no one else is Popko, in both name and personality.
“I think anyone here who takes their podcast seriously has the same mission, and that’s to be entertaining, informative, and an overall asset to our area. That’s really all I want to do. I’m sure there will be overlapping guests at times, especially if there is someone trying to push an event or new product or new business, but I think those who are doing this are respected and are using their voices for good. Those are my thoughts, anyway.”