Music from NPR: Not So Inscrutable?

Listeners who comment on the music heard from NPR have strong opinions, which is usually to say that they don't agree with NPR's choices — especially over what is aired on NPR's newsmagazine programs.

So what kinds of music does NPR News choose to feature, and which ones provoke hurling of radio sets out the windows of America?

'Buttons'

First, there are "buttons." These are the short musical pieces or interludes aired between reports on the NPR newsmagazines. "Buttons" (so-termed because they hold the garment of the program together) have no explicit role for the news piece other than they seem to suit the report just aired. More importantly, they allow the listener time to think between news segments.

Many "buttons" have resulted in significant listener inquiries, so much so that NPR's Bob Boilen created an online music program called All Songs Considered where listeners can hear many of those snippets in their complete form.

'Turn Down Those Buttons!'

Some say that the "buttons" sound much louder than the spoken reports that immediate precede them. According to NPR engineers, this has to do with something called "compression rates." Music is transmitted at the same rate as spoken words, but music exits the speakers at a higher volume than words. That may be the explanation, but it is hardly a solution. This difference is clearly irksome to many people. Couldn't NPR's engineers devise something that can override this technical flaw and not do damage to the musical fabric?

Reporting on Music and Musicians

The second means by which listeners hear music from NPR is through the reports about performers as well as reviews that are the mainstays of programs such as Morning Edition, Day to Day All Things Considered and the weekend newsmagazines.

Classical and Jazz

The third way listeners hear music from NPR is via the stand-alone programs, (especially classical and jazz) that are separate from the newsmagazines. While these are also important elements of NPR's programming, for financial and "mission" reasons, they are less prominent than they used to be. Partly this is because stations say it is easier from them to play this music themselves (from CDs), and partly because these music programs play to smaller audiences than the newsmagazines. That may be unfortunate, but it is the reality in public radio.

While I receive complaints about the music choices on NPR newsmagazines, I almost never hear about the jazz or classical music programs. On the contrary, listeners say they want to hear more about these two genres. NPR's support of classical and jazz programs and the relative absence of these musical forms on NPR News programs seem like a contradiction that deserves a separate discussion in a future column.

Complaints to Queries

Recently, the newsmagazine music complaints have begun morphing into queries. Listeners notice that the music seems different than it once was, and at the same time, some listeners are finding it more interesting (if not always pleasing).

I asked Assistant Managing Editor Bill Wyman about this perceived change. Wyman is in charge of the Arts Desk at NPR and he oversees most, but not all, of the network's music coverage. He says the listeners may be right — there has been a deliberate attempt to do arts journalism differently, both for films and music.

"We started coordinating the films that would be reviewed and we found that although we still were covering the major films produced by Hollywood, we also wanted to report on films that were less visible to the viewing public.

"We also wanted to avoid having several interviews and reviews of the same film. So even if Morning Edition and Weekend Edition Saturday wanted to hear about the same film, we found ways to explore the film differently."

What to Choose?

But the bigger change for many listeners is in the choice of music and musicians that is being reported by Wyman and his colleagues.

One example is a group called 'The Hold Steady.' They sing about four things: the suburbs, religion, rock 'n' roll and drugs. One of our writers, Jacob Ganz posted an annotated explanation of their lyrics on line at npr.org. I thought it was a pretty serious look at the band that transcended the usual 'music profile'.

Another story traced the online buzz that developed over the band 'Clap Your Hands Say Yeah' over a two-week period. It was a pretty trenchant look at a phenomenon that is making for overnight sensations in an almost literal sense.

It's really about (reporting with) distinctive voices who are saying interesting things about our culture.

A look at the music link on npr.org has a very wide range of musical possibilities including new bands such as Arctic Monkeys, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Deadboy and other groups that may not be as well known to the average NPR listener, as say, Willie Nelson.

They certainly weren't to me, but they are now. Listeners may not love them, but at least they understand them better and that should be the goal of arts reporting. Practitioners of this improved music journalism can also be heard on NPR's Day To Day where Christian Bordal does a good job reviewing new artists.

Another relative newcomer to NPR is World Café from member station WXPN in Philadelphia. It is, for a number of new listeners, a program that is musically engaging and thoughtfully hosted, and I agree.

As some may remember, listeners and I took NPR to task in June 2004, both for its near-obsessive approach to singer-songwriters from the 1970s and '80s, and for its more contemporary but archly impenetrable music reviews.

Music criticism on NPR newsmagazines — especially on All Things Considered — can still be inaccessible, but to my ear it's not as dense as it once was. And of course, ATC does air a lot about new music that younger listeners (and staffers) find appealing. But music reviews should be less about the critics and more about the music and, oh yes, the listeners. It sounds like NPR editors are actually getting their hands on the copy before it goes to air.

I like Wyman's approach and direction to arts reporting because, on the radio, those reports sound a lot more journalistic, accessible and comprehensible than what used to pass for music features on NPR News programs.

Music featured on NPR newsmagazines is now more attuned to listeners of a certain age (ahem), and I sense it is becoming more interesting to a general (i.e., older) audience as well. But in doing so, will it still be as interesting to that elusive and much sought-after "younger demographic?"

Ports Story: 'Planned Takeover' or 'Management Change?'

If you listen to NPR, you might not know if U.S. ports are on the verge of being seized by Arabs or if the ownership of the port operations was simply being shifted from London to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

NPR newscasts seem to prefer the more inflammatory "takeover" as does Weekend All Things Considered.

Morning Edition and All Things Considered. during the past week gave listeners whiplash between "planned takeover" (ATC Feb. 22) and "controversial ports deal" (Morning Edition Feb. 23).

NPR's Adam Davidson did some good reporting on this story, but too often his thoughtful explanations were unnecessarily "hyped" by eager editors who wrote "intros" to his reports that sounded like they came from the "ripped from the headlines" school of copy editing.

Perhaps someone could give all the copy a once-over before it goes to air to ensure consistency among NPR News programs?

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