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From AJR,   January/February 2000  issue

Hitting the Right Buttons   

Related reading:   Some NPR Musical Moments

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


W ITH THE WORD, "Up," and a conductor-like wave of his hand, Bob Boilen draws in the strings, the clarinet or even the accordion for a quick musical interlude on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." As the program is airing, Boilen, one of the show's two directors, periodically snatches a CD from a stack of about 15 and pops it into the player in front of him. He hands discs over to the engineer, saying things like, "cut four at 1:38."
The result is a fairly satisfied and often intrigued listening audience, some of whom may call and ask, "Just what was that you played between the segment on the WTO talks and the one about mass graves in Mexico?" The answer, for the December 1 edition: a bit of jazz‹Tuatara's "Smugglerõs Cove"--and a touch of classical piano--John Arpin's rendition of "The Flirt."
Listeners have always taken notice of these musical interludes--"buttons" as they're called--on NPR programs, whether they're during "All Things Considered," "Morning Edition" or "Talk of the Nation." The audience services department alone gets about 30 calls a week inquiring about the music. The tunes are quirky and obscure, sometimes recognizable, often not, all over the lot, and a vital part of the programs. Radio, after all, is sound.
Music is functional, helping to fill time or end a show for local stations, says Boilen, who job-shares his director post with Marika Partridge. But, beyond that, "it's mood, and it's a breath in the show," he says. "It's a place to either think about something you just heard or get you to the next place."
In 1995, Boilen says, ATC began listing some information about each day's buttons on the NPR Web site, www.npr.org. In January, he'll satisfy listeners' love for the music even more: Boilen will host a weekly hour-long Webcast, "All Songs Considered," where he'll play the full versions of the songs excerpted on NPR, also giving Web users a little information on the pieces.
In the two hours of an "All Things Considered" show, there are about six to nine minutes of music time, with about 12 cuts aired, Boilen says. Unlike many directors, he picks much on the fly, having brought into the studio a small, wildly varied stack of CDs--try the B-52's to Miles Davis--from the approximately 3,500 in his office. About 50 percent of the time, he says, he'll find a song in advance.
NPR directors, producers and reporters often elicit the help of Robert Goldstein, NPR's music librarian, harborer of about 5,000 CDs and 3,500 LPs, searchable in a database by artist, song, instruments and keywords, such as emotional states. Need a song on alienation? How about an old folk song, "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore," The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" or The Yardbirds' "Over Under Sideways Down?"
"Robert is a good source for those moments when I'm in a show and I need Beethoven's Fifth, and I don't have it," Boilen says.
Goldstein's a good source for just about anything a director doesn't have. Though, he says, there are times when he can't fill a specific request--at least not right away. For a story on the beginnings of the automobile industry, Goldstein searched the Web for a 1914 Billy Murray ditty called "The Little Ford Rambled Right Along" and found it at a California retail outlet for old music.
His role, Goldstein says, is as "music consultant," making suggestions for particular segments or shows. "Talk of the Nation" needed something on memory, and Goldstein handed over four or five selections, including the pan pipe version and the "schlocky cocktail version" of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory."
Goldstein, who played with a Washington, D.C., new wave band, Urban Verbs, in the late '70s and early '80s, says his job offers many chances to be creative. NPR shows "all have their different historiesŠtheir own peculiar music," he says. "I have a particular understanding of the music persona of a showŠa template in my mind of what they like to sound like."
Much of a show's musical personality comes from the director. Boilen, an ATC director for 10 years, says his show tends toward "eclectic, accessible music" and a bit of "surprise." Both he and Partridge "have wide-open ears to a wide variety of music from all sorts of cultures," he says, "from the teens to the '90s." They might play King Oliver--music from the '20s and earlier--and then move into some Knut Hamre--a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle player--Boilen says, "without blinking an eye." Where else can you hear the Philadelphia blues/funk group G. Love & Special Sauce and a mandolin quartet?
The original premise of the 28-year-old program, says Bill Siemering, the first director of programming at NPR who helped develop "All Things Considered," was that "the cultural life of America is of equal importance to consider [as] political life." The music, he says, has always garnered a lot of feedback. "I think it adds a very important texture to the program," he says. "It makes it more listenable."
What about finding a place for a favorite? Goldstein has been unsuccessfully "trying to foist songs from 'Zorro and His Romantic Guitars' "--Los Angeles studio musicians playing 1930s Latin pop standards--on music-seekers. "But," he says, "it's kind of tough to find a place to put that sometimes."
Goldstein compiles suggestions for particular days, such as Halloween or Veterans Day, or for specific topics, such as Kosovo, and posts them to a small NPR listserv. Soon his database, accessible by NPR staffers, will include the cultural division's mostly classical collection and the collections of individual directors.
There are plenty of those magical music encounters when a song just fits perfectly. "All Things Considered" said goodbye to a coworker recently, and Boilen aired a version of "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" by Vince Guaraldi, famous for his music from the "Peanuts" TV cartoons.
"It was like, 'Yeah, now I can play that song,' " says Boilen. "For me, it was a nice moment." But, he adds, "that happens all the time."