The snippets of music were almost an afterthought. They were meant to be brief interludes between segments on NPR’s signature news program, “All Things Considered.” For years, the show’s director, Bob Boilen, filled the pockets of dead air with songs he loved. His tastes veered toward the quirky and the obscure. What was that song? listeners began to ask. So he started an online show called “All Songs Considered,” a place where he could share his musical finds. “I felt the responsibility, with all this music I was getting, to get the word out,” he says.
That was 16 years ago. “All Songs” still airs mostly online, but it’s no longer second fiddle to NPR’s marquee news shows. The “All Songs” podcast is consistently parked at or near the top of the iTunes and Stitcher music podcast charts, averaging more than 2.3 million downloads a month. Not far down the list is the “Tiny Desk Concerts” podcast, featuring intimate, unplugged performances that take place at Boilen’s desk. “All Songs” and “Tiny Desk” are big reasons R.E.M. manager Bertis Downs has said a plug on NPR is as good as a Rolling Stone cover or a gig on “Saturday Night Live.”
Music industry insiders have long known how influential Boilen is as a tastemaker. But this year, he cemented that status further with a cameo on “The Simpsons” and his first book, “Your Song Changed My Life,” due out this month, in which he asks the likes of Philip Glass, Hozier and Lucinda Williams what song has had the biggest impact on them.
What changed in the past 16 years? Not Boilen, who just turned 63. He still tries to see 10 concerts a week, does not dance and records an album once a year with the same guy he has played with since the ’80s. What changed was everything else: the decline of college radio, the rise of music-streaming services and a podcasting renaissance fueled by the rapid proliferation of smartphones. The more consumers feel overwhelmed by choices, the more his endorsements mean. Now when he ducks into clubs to see bands nobody has heard of, it’s as if millions of people are tagging along.
Shortly before 1:30 p.m. on a Friday in early January, Boilen kneeled down on the floor by his desk at NPR headquarters in Northeast Washington. He had on a faded black shirt, black jeans and black boots. Off to the side was a couple dozen NPR employees, waiting to hear a Tiny Desk concert by El Vy. The duo is pianist Brent Knopf and Matt Berninger, lead singer of indie band the National. Berninger, a tall, thin guy with straggly blond hair and a beard, told the crowd to move closer, “because I sing like a mouse.”
Tiny Desk had its 500th concert a few days earlier. In videos of the shows, Boilen often introduces the acts, and his quirky sensibility infuses everything. The detritus on his desk that day included a James Brown doll the size of a small newborn, a copy of music writer Greil Marcus’s “Mystery Train” and an Emmy Award (which he and NPR Music won in 2011 for a video about Moby) that doubles as a hat stand for his signature brown fedora. (He suffers from face blindness and once said he wears it whenever he goes out “in sympathy” for others like him who have trouble remembering faces but can recognize a hat.)
As he has become better known, more people have started coming up to him. He obliges with a smile, a handshake and some brief conversation. But in some ways, he’s still getting used to the higher profile. With journalists, he’s generous with his time, as long as the questions don’t stray too far from work. Divorced with a 23-year-old son, he was less eager to have a reporter hang out with him at his Silver Spring, Md., home.
The parts of himself he shares more freely start with memories of discovering the Beatles and the Doors as a kid growing up in Queens, N.Y., and later in Bethesda, Md. In the introduction to “Your Song Changed My Life,” he recounts how he started listening to records because he was a “failure” at playing the guitar.
As a teenager, he worked at Waxie Maxie’s record shop in Rockville, Md. He made $1.75 an hour and worked 48 hours per week — which at the time was enough to pay his tuition at Montgomery College. He later transferred to the University of Maryland at College Park to be a business major but hated it and dropped out. “I could never connect what I loved with what I did in college,” he says.
Soon after, he and a friend got an apartment on Wisconsin Avenue in the District. It was 1978, and Boilen threw himself into the punk-rock scene, where he finally found an instrument he could play: the synthesizer. He formed a band named Tiny Desk Unit with guitarist Michael Barron, singer Susan Mumford and instrumentalists Joe Menacher and Chris Thompson.
They were the first act to play the old 9:30 Club on F Street NW. Their esoteric mix of dance music earned them regular gigs. But Boilen says the group, aided by alcohol, heroin and other street drugs, “self-destructed.”
He still had a day job at a local TV station, where he had taught himself how to use the production equipment. But radio was his first love, so he quit and went to see an “All Things Considered” producer he’d met before named Ira Glass. When he told Glass he wanted to work there, Glass gave him interview tape to cut. Boilen started coming every day to help out. Within a year, he was directing the show.
He started “All Songs” in 2000. He had ideas for segments, too, and he would bombard co-host Robin Hilton with them. (“Sole of a Band,” a series of photos of performers’ shoes, comes to mind.) It got to the point that Hilton wouldn’t sit next to him at work.
“A lot of it was great,” Hilton says. “It was just overwhelming.”
In 2008, the inspiration for Tiny Desk concerts came from seeing folk singer Laura Gibson perform at a bar during the South by Southwest festival in Austin. Boilen and NPR Music editor Stephen Thompson could barely hear her over the crowd. Thompson quipped that Gibson should just play at Boilen’s desk. A month later, Gibson was in his office, when Boilen announced over a loudspeaker that there would be a concert at his desk in five minutes. Boilen’s co-workers looked around in disbelief, Gibson says. The singer was just grateful for the endorsement: “I really think it’s the initial embrace that’s stuck with me for the past eight years.”
On a relentlessly cold night, five days after El Vy’s visit, Boilen was backstage at the 9:30 Club watching folk singer Sharon Van Etten strum a guitar and hum sweet campfire songs before a few hundred people. Mist billowed as her voice echoed in cavernous waves. Behind her, bright orange and yellow lights spelled out “All Songs” and “16” in honor of the show’s anniversary.
When the song was over, Van Etten joked about wishing she had written happier songs for the occasion. It was, after all, supposed to be a party. She and a string of musicians were there to pay homage to Boilen and Hilton for helping to push their careers to the next level.
“It really makes me happy when people come up to me and say, ‘I wouldn’t be here if it were not for you,’ ” Boilen says. “There’s nothing more satisfying than that.”
If he likes an act, he’ll gush about it. And if he doesn’t, he just doesn’t mention it. He sees himself as a music fan, not a critic, first. The most contrarian he gets is a general resistance to “mainstream music.”
“I’m one of the people who didn’t care for Michael Jackson,” he says. “Talented, yeah, but there are so many other people that will never get their voices heard, and it’s so cool to be able to find the ones you connect with. I just try to find music that makes me think, ‘This needs a champion.’ ”
Many of the acts he loves, such as the Low Anthem and Taken by Trees, fall into the category of indie rock. And he’s been criticized more than once for his indifference to country and hip-hop in particular. Frannie Kelley, co-host of NPR’s “Microphone Check” podcast with rap icon Ali Shaheed Muhammad, was asked to create an “All Songs Considered” for rap music, but she declined. “We said we didn’t think hip-hop needed that, nor was recommending new rap music something that took advantage of either of our skills and assets,” Kelley says. “We said we would make something where we spoke with people in the culture.”
Boilen invited Kelley to his show a handful of times, before and after “Microphone Check” existed, but not to talk about the show. He wanted them to recommend new rap music to his listeners, “songs that he approved,” she says. “I couldn’t do the work I wanted to do within the context of his show. ... You can’t challenge Bob on his show. Ali and I had to create our own show to make NPR Music great.”
Boilen has acknowledged that he tends to play “music that speaks to me,” and his “lack of love for hip-hop, country, classical and metal stand out as big holes in our coverage.” He’s tried to fill them by inviting people with eclectic tastes such as Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio to play DJ. When Kelley suggested the NPR Music team invite hip-hop artist T-Pain to do a Tiny Desk show, Boilen was open to it. T-Pain’s October 2014 appearance is still the most-watched Tiny Desk performance, with nearly 9 million views on YouTube.
But Boilen doesn’t apologize for his tastes. In response to an email from a listener with the subject line “All Indie Rock Considered?,” he once wrote, “I won’t fake what I do when I host the show.”
Boilen says he has no plans to retire or slow down. He’s never really had a plan. In his book, he says he owes his career to people like Glass who were willing to take a chance on him, a college dropout with no radio or journalism experience. “In life,” he writes, “certain people see things in us that we don’t see in ourselves.”
He describes his relationship to musicians much the same way. “I’m always hoping to get knocked out and surprised,” he said in a 2015 Reddit chat. “I’m not sure why I don’t burn out.”
A few weeks ago, he flew to Austin for South by Southwest. Within hours of landing he was at a small bridge overlooking a creek to see the band Lucius perform an acoustic lullaby. (He recorded it for a segment called “South X Lullaby.”) From there, he walked to another club where rapper Open Mike Eagle was giving a rousing performance. Boilen darted past him to an outdoor patio where he was delighted to see a band called Mothers in the middle of its ear-splitting set. (He’d been going on about them for weeks.) He stayed until the set was over, then he pulled out his phone to find his next show.
Marcus J. Moore is a music critic and journalist based in Hyattsville, Md.
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