Friday, August 3, 2001

Pushing the Musical 'Buttons' for an NPR Newsmagazine

A Web show and a CD give fuller voice to the eclectic artists and songs featured in the tuneful interludes on 'All Things Considered.'

By Steve Carney, Special to the Los Angeles Times 

WASHINGTON — A delightful discovery, a little humor, and a chance to breathe and reflect--that's an awful lot to pack into a 10-second snippet of music. Especially one nestled in the middle of a news program.

Bob Boilen (source: NPR)
"All Things Considered," the afternoon newsmagazine on National Public Radio, features two hours daily of headlines and features. Between the stories, though, a listener might catch a few twangy notes by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, or a buoyant Basque accordion, or the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" as played on traditional African instruments. The interludes, called buttons, serve as cushions between the segments.

To some listeners, the musical moments may seem like throwaways, if not invisible altogether. But for many others, the buttons are as vital to the program as reports from Capitol Hill or Kosovo--and that popularity has turned the buttons into a cottage industry at NPR. To quench listeners' interest, last year the network launched a World Wide Web show called "All Songs Considered" ( , the eighth episode of which just debuted. And last month it released a compact disc by the same name, featuring songs and musicians excerpted on "All Things Considered," after clamoring fans said they needed more than just a few seconds of these artists they weren't hearing anywhere else.

"There's gobs of great music out there. I can't pass on enough of it," said Bob Boilen, who, as director of "All Things Considered" since 1990, chooses the music for the buttons and also is host of "All Songs Considered."

"'Eclectic and accessible' is sort of the motto. The accessible part is really important, because it's easy to be eclectic," Boilen said. Easy, because more than 5,000 CDs line the walls of his 10-foot-by-10-foot office at NPR, and hundreds more arrive every week. Each day for "All Things Considered," which airs locally on KPCC-FM (89.3) from 3 to 6:30 p.m., and on KCRW-FM (89.9) from 4 to 6:30 p.m., he grabs a stack of CDs, encompassing a variety of moods and genres, to fill 15 to 18 buttons during the show.

The term's origin is unclear. Some say the music snippets are called buttons because, like the clothing fasteners, they connect disparate pieces of the program. Others say it is short for "panic button." "When you feel the show teetering on the brink of completely falling apart, you want something there that can buy you some time," Boilen said.

Marika Partridge, who directed "All Things Considered" from 1987 until she left earlier this year, said, "The music gives [listeners] a chance to reflect on the material." That's unlike what she labeled "the BBC model," which is wall-to-wall talk.

Amid all his other duties as the show's virtual traffic cop -- cueing the announcers, making sure each microphone comes on when it should, checking that the tapes are ready to go when needed and that the stories are in the right order -- Boilen is on the fly, picking music from his stack. "What can I give people for 22 seconds that will give them a chance to think and breathe?" he asked. "I find that if you leave your mind open, the right song will come up."

Sometimes it involves just matching the mood of the previous story. Every once in a while, it means injecting a sly reference or musical joke -- "Mack the Knife" after an essayist rhapsodizes about her Macintosh computer, or a story about Vladimir Putin followed by "Puttin' on the Ritz." Then there was the story about scientists working with fruit flies to investigate cell and limb regeneration. Among other experiments, they had successfully transplanted cells, growing eyes on the fruit flies' legs. The story ended; a pleasant instrumental began. Then, for some listeners, the unheard lyrics started echoing in the back of their minds: "I'll be seeing you, in all the old familiar places...."

"The perfect music is only barely upfront," Boilen said. "If you know the lyrical line, you laugh. If you don't, it's a nice piece of music. It's a line above subliminal.

"Always shoot for mood," he adds. "The jokes and references you have to be really careful about."

Partridge said, "If it's your first, most obvious, pedestrian choice, I won't do it. If it's like three layers down, I might do it. The good thing about going to CDs--faced with a library of 4,000 choices keeps you from being so cliched."

Listeners may love the buttons, but the director is wedded to them out of necessity. Affiliate stations nationwide rely on every segment of the show beginning and ending when it is supposed to, so they know exactly when to air their own news or station identifications. If an "All Things Considered" story scheduled for five minutes comes in at only 4:47, the director can toss in an interesting piece of Norwegian fiddle music or an Adrian Legg guitar instrumental, fade in, fade out, and fill the 13 seconds.

From the show's debut in 1971 through the early '80s, directors needing buttons simply used variations of the program's familiar theme. In the late '80s, they began sampling new age or jazz-fusion tunes, then moved toward a broader range of music.

"Over the years, as the music got this eclectic feel, we got stacks of mail. 'What is this?' 'What is that?"' Boilen said. Listeners sent stamped, self-addressed envelopes asking for artist and song information. In 1995, the staff began listing the music credits on NPR's Web site.

For about a decade, Partridge and Boilen worked to get the "All Songs Considered" disc made, fighting artists' labels and other legal obstacles. Meanwhile, Boilen and NPR engineer Bill Deputy launched the Web show in January 2000.

"I think the Web has this remarkable potential that we're starting to realize," Boilen said. "It takes the music to one more level. Now you're engaged in this thing that's like a little movie."

"All Songs Considered" is essentially a computerized slide show, with still pictures and captions about each band or its music fading on and off the screen while the music plays. A caption on one episode illuminates the show's goal, and Boilen's daunting task: "There are more than 30,000 CDs released each year. This program is an attempt to showcase some of the more remarkable music that most radio stations don't play."

Such as Michael Masley and his cymbalom, a table-like dulcimer he's played on the streets of Berkeley for 16 years. The tiny bows extending from his fingers make him look like Freddy Krueger but let him pluck, bow and hammer the strings to make ringing, haunting music. It'll never crack Casey Kasem's Top 40, but is featured in buttons and on both the "All Songs" CD and Episode 7 of the Web show.

Exposure Increased Sales, Musician Says

"NPR has just been the best friend of musicians in my class that I can imagine. It's our culture's best friend," said Masley, 48, who added that every exposure increased sales of his CDs and traffic on his Web site ( "I feel like I'm getting an audience educated to my particular sound.

"The fact that my music occupied 20 seconds of sonic space on all these millions of speakers--it's uniquely satisfying," he said. "Much more satisfying than being on a commercial station in a given region."

Boilen knows the feeling well. Eighteen years ago, he was a keyboard player trying to get his music played on "All Things Considered," eventually succeeding: "It meant the world to me. It changed my life.

"That's the thing that drives me crazy -- every CD I get in, it's somebody's life. It's not glass and plastic, it's their dream," Boilen said, while auditioning a disc he'd just received from a New England bluegrass band. "This is their life's work, and I've given it three minutes. 'All Songs' is one window, but there should be more outlets.

"I'm this fortunate guy--people send me great music, and I want to share it," Boilen said. And he hopes, now that "All Songs" has gotten more established and is nearing a regular schedule, "there will be a great place every week or so where people can listen and watch and get turned on to new music."

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