I interviewed Bob Boilen a couple months ago for a profile piece. Here is the short version…I’ll keep the full one. Best. PO
On occasion Radiohead have been hailed as the world’s greatest band. SPIN Magazine called their 1997 release of Ok Computer the best album of the last 20 years, and the band has broken barriers in the music industry. Last year they released their latest album, In Rainbows, as a digital download where the listener could pay whatever they chose, even if that meant nothing.
Lead singer Thom Yorke has been known for his bouts with depression and his quirky actions. He is a well-educated, grammy winning, lazy-eyed genius of a human being whom fans would love to sit face to face with and ask a myriad of questions. Bob Boilen of NPR’s All Songs Considered did not care if he never had the chance to speak with Yorke.
“I really, really, obviously love their music, it oozes out of me” said Boilen in a recent phone interview. “But I really didn’t care if I ever talked to Thom Yorke in my life. I take music for its face value. I remember people telling me that Thom would be a hard interview and I wouldn’t have fun with him as a guest DJ. What a fascinating person he turned out to be.”
Boilen has the opportunity to listen to and interview many bands. Part of his job depends on it. In 2005, All Songs Considered began webcasting concerts from DC’s 9:30 Club (Boilen and his band Tiny Desk Unit were the first band to ever play the venue in the late 70s). To get a feel for an interview Boilen may watch sound checks and observe the attitudes and moods of the bands.
“The key for talking to musicians is understanding what their life is like,” said Boilen. “They have demanded time from city to city and it is not that much fun for them answering the same questions over and over. I am not really looking forward to interviewing anyone. You’ll be damned if you’re gonna get a good interview. Let’s take Jeff Tweedy for example. Wilco was in town and I was at the sound check. This is a good way to observe the band and find the mood. Something had come up with my son and I was talking about it and Jeff Tweedy started talking about his kids. By making small talk, this allowed him open up and talk about things he doesn’t usually get to talk about. I’ve found that people will like you better if you just talk to them. I don’t overly prepare for interviews. Sometimes I will latch onto a lyric, but I gave up preparing for interviews because I found I was always waiting for the next question.”
This is part of what has made Boilen’s show such a success. He talks with the guest rather than talk to the guest. Anyone can research and find out where a band is touring or what kind of instruments they play. Boilen converses with musicians about influences, recording styles and processes, and their lives in general. He gives the fan a chance to learn things you may not have ever known before, sometimes even turning over the DJ role to the guest.
“Guest DJ shows are the most fun for me,” shares Boilen. “It gives me a chance to learn so much about the musicians as people and the music I love.”
Boilen’s time and dedication to the music world is all part of his goal in making All Songs Considered what is today after just nine years. 20 years ago Bob Boilen showed up on the doorstep of NPR headquarters in Washington DC determined to find a new line of work. He quit his job in television and told his wife he was going to work for National Public Radio. Boilen was first asked to cut and edit tape for Ira Glass. Glass remembered Boilen from Susan Stamberg’s 1983 interview with Boilen on All Things Considered. He was working for Washington DC’s Impossible Theater and just finished a composition using a new technique called audio sampling. Satisfied with his editing, Glass asked Boilen to come back the next day.
It was around this time 20-years ago, as the holidays were approaching, and the NPR was short on help. Persistent and determined, Boilen continued showing up. He would acquire a two-week assignment here, and a four-week assignment there. This went on for more than a year until Markik Partidge, director at the time for All Things Considered, took a job in New York for a year, leaving Boilen the job. It was here that the seed for All Songs Considered was planted.
One of Boilen’s duties as director included choosing the music used in the program. The music was used to separate stories and add character to the show. It wasn’t before long that letters began pouring in inquiring about the songs being played throughout the program. The indie music played was not something typically heard on radio. With the increasing use of the internet, Boilen decided to launch his internet radio show in 1999 and All Songs Considered was born.
“There is never a single moment where I get sick of my job,” Boilen says with sincerity. “I created it and look forward to every minute of it.”
Feedback on the piece….
The Bob Boilen profile is strong indeed. Most writers would have chosen a formulaic lead for this profile – starting off with Boilen’s words or actions, present (a pull from his show, perhaps, or a phone call to a star asking him to be on his show) or past (A man knocks on the door of NPR, his resume in hand. It’s his tenth time there.). Such leads put me off so much. So I really value unusual approach you took with your lead. It is risky – taking a while to set up your introduction – but you handled it well and the risk pays off. It’s unusual to find a twist in the beginning of a piece. The way this article reads, I feel assured that its writer made hard, exacting and wise choices on the quotes that are used. It reads well. This ending is also abrupt, but in a successful way; it ends on an upnote that is logical and leads you wanting more – more of the interview subject – and that is a writer’s achievement.