Every Thursday this year we're celebrating All Songs Considered's 15th birthday with personal memories and highlights from the show's decade and a half online and on the air. If you have a personal memory about the show you'd like to share, drop us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are two questions I get asked the most about All Songs Considered: (1) What's Bob Boilen really like? And (2) how on earth did you get this job? Since we're sharing our reflections on the show's 15th birthday, I figure I can finally put all of this out there.
To answer both questions you need to go back to 1981. That's the year Bob's experimental new wave band Tiny Desk Unit (and namesake of our Tiny Desk Concert series) broke up. Not long after the split, a friend of his who started a political performance art group in Baltimore asked Bob if he could write a bunch of original music for a couple dozen scenes in a multimedia production. Bob had never written a note of music for anything before, but he said "yes." He had two months to do it. Twenty three songs.
Bob became a permanent member of that troupe. Among its many projects was an idea for a performance piece that imagined the history of sound in 20 minutes. They pitched the idea to the Smithsonian, the Smithsonian took it and wound up with an installation at the Museum Of American History. To produce the audio, Bob convinced the Synclavier company to loan him a $100,000 sampler, one of the first ever in existence. This got NPR's All Things Considered interested in it enough to do a story about it:
The producer of that piece for All Things Considered? A very young Ira Glass. The year was 1983.
Listen to that piece. I love how Bob sounds like he's about ten years old. In reality, he was a grown adult who, in addition to making no money at his theater job, worked as a production assistant for a local TV station.
At some point, about five years after that All Things Considered story ran, Bob decided he'd had enough of his TV job. So he quit. Just quit, with no other gig lined up. He was a huge NPR fan and decided that was where he was going to work. So he basically just started showing up every day, asking if they had anything for him to do. Ira asked if Bob knew how to cut tape (to actually slice up reel to reel tape with a razor blade — that's how we used to edit audio). Bob didn't really, but he said "yes." This went on for a little while. Bob kept showing up and NPR kept him busy with things, hiring him for a week or so at a time. Within a year they asked Bob if he could direct All Things Considered, an insanely stressful, high pressure job. He'd never so much as directed traffic let alone an internationally broadcast news program, but of course Bob said "yes."
We all spend our entire lives doing one of two things: trying to get something, or trying to get away from something. You either want something and go for it, or you want to avoid something and say "no." While most people spend a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to avoid things, Bob spends most of his time saying "yes." But more than that, he says "yes" when most people with better sense would say "no." That's what Bob is like. Although to be fair, I'm pretty sure an undiagnosed brain injury prevents him from sensing fear.
Anyway, after ten years of saying "yes" at NPR, Bob created All Songs Considered (you can read that story in last week's entry in this series) and I entered the picture. The year was 2000.
I'd been a reporter at NPR member stations before. I taught English in Japan for a few years. (I'd also been a blackjack dealer, a produce manager at a grocery store and an assembly line worker in a fruit cake factory). And I was a big music geek with a large, debt-funded music collection (this was when people still paid for music). One day a friend of mine sent me NPR's job listing for the All Songs Considered Assistant Producer position. I was unemployed at the time because I'd left a job with no other gig lined up and was looking for something. This looked like it. I applied.
A couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from Bob. It was really just a courtesy call with some perfunctory questions for me. (I later learned they already had an inside candidate they intended to hire). But I told Bob I'd love to meet in person. And even though I lived a ten-hour drive away, I asked if I could come to NPR the next day. Bob said "yes."
I had learned a little Photoshop and HTML when the this whole Internet thing was taking off in the mid '90s, so that night I stayed up redesigning and building a new All Songs Considered site just to illustrate my ideas for the show and what I could do. Here's what it (and the old "NPR Online" main menu at the top) looked like:
Don't laugh. This was 15 years ago! It was a fully functioning site with multiple pages and took me all night to do. I didn't sleep that night. By the time the sun started peeking over the horizon, I burned working versions of the site onto CDs so I could hand them out to anyone I'd meet at NPR. Then I got in my car for that ten-hour drive up to D.C. I met with Bob that afternoon. I handed out those CDs, gave a little presentation to several different people, and I stuck around as long as they'd have me. In my own way I was saying "yes" to everything, too. But my real strategy was to just punch above my weight. To fully commit. To go all in.
About a week later I got the call offering me the job. I told them I'd think about it and get back with them in a few days. I know, right? Did I mention I was unemployed? Of course, when I hung up the phone I cranked my stereo and danced the happy dance. By the way, I remember it was T. Rex's Electric Warrior.
So let's go back to 1981 when Bob said "yes" to writing music for that theater group. If he'd said "no," there would be no ATC story about his music, he wouldn't have gotten into NPR, he wouldn't have created All Songs Considered, he wouldn't have hired me, I wouldn't have met my wife and my son wouldn't be walking the earth.
How do you get the greatest job in the world, and what is Bob really like? In a word, "yes."