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This month’s Community Radio Profile Bob Boilen, host of My Tiny Morning Show on WOWD Takoma Radio and new WOWD’s new Program Director. Obviously many of us know Bob from various NPR shows over the years like All Songs Considered and the amazing Tiny Desk Concert series. For this interview I was steered away from getting into the sausage making of the aforementioned iconic public radio shows—instead I wanted to learn more about Bob’s unique connection to community radio and to music discovery. It’s a wonderful conversation, we hope you’ll enjoy it!

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Serah Mead : Hi Bob! Tell us who you are.

BB: I’m Bob Boilen. I am currently program director at WOWD Takoma Radio, Takoma with a “K,” which is in the Washington, DC/Maryland area.

 

SM: You’ve had such an interesting and storied career. I would love to hear a little bit about how you came into radio and how WOWD Takoma Radio fits into that.

BB: I mean, radio was a huge part of my life growing up, you know, a transistor radio by the ear, in the early and middle 1960s, Listening to AM radio. It was a huge part of my life. I wound up working in record stores 48 hours a week for a chunk of my life.

But I never did radio in college like most people did, but I became a musician. The punk movement and New Wave movement inspired me to quit that record store job and buy a synthesizer and form a band—that band was called Tiny Desk Unit —1979, 1980, and ‘81. 

And that led to a friend, (who was starting a theater company called Impossible Theater), asking me to compose music for this multimedia extravaganza theater piece called “City of Strangers.” I had just started using this fancy shmancy synthesizer called the Synclavier. I became friends with the person who recorded Tiny Desk Unit, Nick Koumoutseas—he owned a recording studio and had that synthesizer in the studio and so I started composing music. 

I’m untrained. I still don’t know the basics of music, but I love working with computers and music, and I’ve been doing that since 1979. I was working with synthesizers and electronics and I wrote some music and worked with this theater company for a while and eventually the company that made the Synclavier made a sampler instrument, where you can play samples, and I wrote a piece of music using that. And NPR heard about it, and they did a feature on this piece I did, called Whiz Bang: a History of Sound. It imagines the history of sound from the beginning of time to the end of time, using music and visuals, and it was part of an installation we put into the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. So NPR called me up, and Susan Stamberg interviewed me for All Things Considered. It blew me away, just because I was such a lover of that show. 

Five years later, I’d gotten married, we had two cats, and lived in an efficiency apartment, with no responsibilities beyond that. I said to my wife, “You know… I’m going to quit my job,”—which was doing TV production at the time and I didn’t care much for TV—I said, “I’m gonna go to NPR, and I’m going to find the people who produced the music story five years ago, and I’m going to get a job there.” And I went to NPR, and sure enough, some of the folks remembered me and they hired me to start producing, cutting tape and producing stories for All Things Considered, which was totally insane. 

I had no radio experience ever, and here I was working for my favorite radio show, All Things Considered. I directed that for 18 years.

And the person who I worked with closely was Marika Partridge. Marika was director of All Things Considered, and then she ran off to start a radio show in New York. When she did that, I became full time director of All Things Considered within a year of working there. Marika came back and we split the job in half and shared responsibilities for a dozen years. Around 10 years later, Marika left the station again and she began to start a new station in Takoma Park which got off the ground in 2016. At that time I was deep into Tiny Desk Concerts, which started in 2008. We were doing three of those a week! I was also hyper-focused on producing All Songs Considered, which I started as NPR’s first original music show that, five years later, became a podcast.  And most recently, in August of 2021, I started My Tiny Morning Show, a weekly one-hour show here on WOWD Takoma Radio.

Bob Boilen hosting My Tiny Morning Show on WOWD Takoma Radio

SM: I want to go back to something you said earlier: When you were working in the record shop and making moves to start your own band, was there something that you were listening to that really turned you on to the synthesizer?

BB: You know, I’d have to say that my musical God is Brian Eno. And Brian Eno is… such a creative soul. I have very little talent or skill when it comes to playing regular instruments. I knew that I was never going to be good at that, plus there were too many musicians that were doing things much better than anything I could do. The cool thing about a synthesizer, and what I learned from listening to things like Roxy Music, was that it was a field wide open. I thought that I could find my voice in the thing and create something that wasn’t another guitar lick, another drum beat or another, you know… just do something out of the box. And I really took to it, it totally wound up suiting me, and still does. My band Danger Painters just put out its 20th record. I don’t even remember how many solo records I’ve done, but I’m about to put out a new solo album. And I just love doing it.

 

SM: I love what you said about kind of going out on a limb on the synthesizer, but thinking that it was something that you could find your voice in. It sounds like having a conversation with the instrument rather than trying to tame it.

BB: There is that “finding your voice,” but also the synthesizer and computers come up with things on their own, so to speak. My imagination is not the greatest, but when I hear something that sparks something in me, it’s much like sculpture where you start hammering away until “Oh, wow, that looks like… Oh, I’ll make a bird out of that!” I can start seeing shapes and hearing things. It doesn’t start from something in my head. It starts with something on the synthesizer, even mistakes can put you down paths to something interesting. And yeah, I love that.

 

SM: I’ve been thinking about you a bit of late when I have conversations about music discovery and the upswell in algorithms and AI. Many of us in community radio still remember buying a physical album based on a cool record store clerk’s recommendation. Probably an equal number of us have finely crafted our streaming services’ algorithms to deliver interesting and unique new sounds. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the state of music discovery in a time like this. 

BB: Well, I mean, there’s certainly much to be said about getting out of your house, going to a record store, seeing something tangible, thinking about it, making a decision, taking something out of your pocket, (that we remember as money), putting it down as something you’d earned, making a commitment, taking it home and putting it on. It’s not the same as something just popping up on your feed and hitting you.

I think they both have value. Yes. But that act of discovery is amazing. I mean, I still remember going into E.J. Korvette’s, or whatever the store was, and seeing the cover to a Led Zeppelin record that had just come out literally that week. I had to have it. There’s a real connection between the aesthetic of an album cover and the band that made it. I mean, if it’s a successful cover, and reflects who they are. 

When I was at NPR, I would get three, 400 or 500 promos in my inbox a week. I still get a gazillion and I have to filter out which ones I’m going to listen to, so I look at the cover art and think, “Okay, this looks interesting.” It’s not the same as that commitment of going to a record store looking at your money, and feeling much more invested, literally invested, in it. There is something to that.

 

SM: In your experience, have you felt like this shift has changed your relationship with the music that you decide to commit to?

BB: I’ll speak for myself first. And then maybe I’m going to speak for a general audience.

It’s been, you know, 20 plus years of mostly discovering music by publicists sending me music, so I don’t have the same experience as most people. My relationship with discovering new music was all about finding something I was passionate about, and I get it in my inbox, for the most part, or I’d get it in the mail as a CD in the late 90s, in the 2000s. So it was a very different experience than most people have. When I grew up, and the amount of music I heard in a year, these days, comes out in a week. Yes, the quantity can be, and is, overwhelming, and the commitment to an album, and listening to an album over and over again, is probably less so because you have so many to go through and people listen more song-based than album-based. 

I think there’s a lot of value in streaming platforms and their algorithms because most people don’t have a good radio station to discover music. You know? Certainly in DC, after WGTB died in 1978. It was 38 years before Washington, DC had another music discovery radio station that I loved. I mean, that’s generations! So yeah, I think it’s a blessing to people who might live in an isolated place. 

I go to an awful lot of shows with performers who are in their 20s which means their audiences are in their teens and 20s. And the passion, you know, of people singing back all the words to the artists… I mean, these people are committed to this music. And so I don’t dismiss it in that way. They’ve discovered it probably through either word of mouth, or an algorithm, possibly. I think it’s wonderful.

 

SM: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the importance, or the role, of music-forward community radio stations in an election year. 

BB: The community at Takoma Park is predominantly a Democratic community. And it doesn’t ever feel like there’s any debate going on about politics. It’s pretty solid, or it feels solid anyway, and I’m not sure that there’s an impact of the music played on the politics. I’m not sure there’s an influence of the politics on the music too much either.

Certainly, there’s a very aware environmental community, a very aware community of caring people. And music that is chosen reflects the aesthetics of the chooser. And so I think that comes out naturally. DJ’s are representing smaller, more minority groups of people in the music that they play, people representing queer culture for example. So there’s that. And maybe it’s different with college stations, where you’re getting DJs, who come from all over to come to a college. 

But because of where we’re at in the election cycle now, when you say the word “politics” to me, I think of whether the music is going to influence people in terms of voting. I’d say no. But in terms of reflecting philosophy and so forth, then my answer is yes, it does do that.

 

SM: How have you kept this fresh for yourself, this music discovery and sharing enthusiasm? In nonprofit terms: how have you navigated burnout?

BB: I have been going to much fewer concerts than I used to, but I think COVID sort of weaned me off a little bit. But I don’t know… discovery is still fun!

 

SM: Maybe that’s part of it? Maybe there’s something intrinsic to discovery— that it staves off the doldrums.

BB: Yeah, I can’t imagine stopping. 

I’m thinking about many people, of the Baby Boomer generation, for example, and how so many of those people out of their 20s stop listening to new music. That never happened to me and I’m not sure why. Whether it was the fact that I just madly loved it, or maybe it was the fact that I was put in a position where I had access to so much new music as director of All Things Considered. I tried to find music to do stories about and I was always looking—I had a mission—I wanted to present new things to an audience that was out there, hungry for new music. 

But I think that’s true of an awful lot of people where music discovery happens in their teens and 20s and that becomes the core of what they love. And it’s not people’s fault, necessarily, because there’s definitely something real about discovering music in your teens and early 20s. It’s different when you’re older. And some of that is hormonal. It really is! When you’re young, a discovery is truly something new. Like, you never have heard it before. And it affects your brain in ways that are different than 15 years down the line. And when you discover something new, your brain works differently. It literally is just a different sensation, how deep it emotionally connects to you. 

 

SM: What’s the most recent release that gave you that “new discovery” feeling?

BB: I mean, I really love the new Waxahatchee record, and I love the Katy Kirby record, that’s a great one. I’m just quickly looking over a playlist… Oh, Adrianne Lenker, but I’ve listened to her for a long time. I’m trying to think of something new new new. Saya Gray is pretty cool. This group called Friko, I’m loving. I don’t know. So much out there. 

 

SM: What’s what’s currently spinning in the Boilen house?

BB: Well, you know, the thing about what’s spinning in my house is it’s always something new. Many of the publicists have continued to send me new music and so you know, this week, I’m putting my radio show together and I’m listening to this artist Malice K. For the last few weeks, they’ve been releasing song after song and I really love his music. He’s from Chicago. 

Sometimes Saturdays are reserved to listen to older stuff. It came from my job at NPR where I’d be listening all week to new stuff, trying to figure out what’s going to be on the show next week. What’s gonna be the show next week?! What’s it gonna be?! So when Saturday morning came along it was like, oh, maybe I’ll pull out a vinyl or something I haven’t heard in a while, you know? Or maybe I need to clean the house, so I’ll throw on Led Zeppelin. 

 

SM: What excites you about the future of community radio and publicly accessed radio?

BB: One of the cool things about community radio in the 21st century is that it’s not just community being heard in the community. It certainly is an important part of connecting people—be it the 100+ volunteer DJs that are all from the community, or the listeners who are in the five to seven mile radius of the station— but we now have people listening to our community, all over the world. And that’s crazy and wonderful.