ATC 'buttons' find newfound fame on eclectic web-only music show
Originally published in Current,
April 4, 2000
The mother lode is here, in Bob Boilen's cramped office at NPR: a wall of 5,000 CDs that Boilen, co-director of All Things Considered, draws from to find the perfect "buttons," those snippets of music that punctuate ATC's flow of news reports.
The instrumental bits--everything from avant-classical to old-time banjo picking, from New York to Nigeria--have pricked up the ears of ATC listeners for years, often spurring letters and e-mails that open with "What was that music you played...?" Well, the curious are now getting deluxe answers with a show especially for them, All Songs Considered. Hosted, written and assembled by Boilen, the web-only labor of love has become NPR's sleeper hit. It landed coverage in the New York Times and the American Journalism Review, and tens of thousands of listeners heard ASC in its first month. (You can hear it at www.npr.org/programs/asc.)
Fans have flooded Boilen's e-mail box with praise and thank-yous, "and we haven't even done our best yet," Boilen says. "I don't think anybody envisioned how many people would love it, plain and simple."
Like ATC, ASC contains multitudes of musical genres. The second show includes saxman Stan Getz, a string quartet performing R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," and bluegrass supergroup NewGrange. Some tracks will ring a bell with ATC fans, such as the jazz version of the show's theme, presented in full. The index to each program links to related NPR stories.
Giving the music this uncharacteristic amount of breathing room, rather than 30 seconds at a time, is a marked change from the pinched confines of ATC. Likewise, it gives Boilen a chance to highlight the music he loves, whereas the limits of ATC force him to get listeners smoothly from story to story without calling attention to the music that does it. "The things that give the show a color are the things you don't really remember," he says. "They're sort of invisible. ... Sticking out should be on purpose, or else you've done the wrong thing."
Boilen and Marika Partridge, who alternate directing duties on ATC, are top-notch at sticking out when it's called for--playing "Who's Sorry Now" after a commentary on wearing a sari, for example, or cranking Booker T. and the MG's "Green Onions" after an interview with a cookbook author. But buttons are usually fleeting and anonymous, forcing enthralled listeners to sate their curiosity by writing NPR or, now, visit the network's web site to peruse program rundowns. And they have, in droves.
The steady stream of mail and web hits made Boilen think a radio show could fly. But the director had never deejayed before, and wasn't sure if he could make a show up to NPR's standards, so the web presented itself as an attractive alternative. With help from ATC Technical Director Bill Deputy and guidance from NPR's new media department, ASC went online Jan. 19 . Two episodes have been completed, and a third is underway. At first, Boilen planned on doing 20 shows; now, buoyed by the overwhelming response, he's talking double that, and describing a growing show with its own staffing and budgeting.
"Almost all of the letters say, 'This is exactly what I wanted,'" reports Boilen, who believes the show's success proves that NPR listeners, starved for adventurous radio programming, aren't finding it on their local stations. "It's all segmented," he says of the radio dial. "That's not what people want, or at least judging from NPR listeners, they're not the kind who want that."
The attention flatters Boilen, who displays a passion to popularize obscure music. He answers every piece of fan mail personally, and has even been known to call ATC listeners who complain about his buttons to ask what they would rather hear. Yet Boilen seems reluctant to take much credit for the success of his fledging program, or for the flair his buttons lend to ATC, saying, "It just so happens that my taste coincides with the people who are listening."
Boilen directing his other program, All Things Considered.
Web page April 5,