Radio has undergone many changes since its prime. The seemingly dying medium has done anything and everything to change with the times. The biggest change that terrestrial radio has undergone is to incorporate the Internet as a viable tool and broadcast medium. One music-based radio show has gone to great lengths to utilize the Internet as a way to expand its scope and allow for dialogue between host and listeners.
All Songs Considered started as an online radio show in 2000, putting itself slightly ahead of the curve. The show is now syndicated weekly on many NPR affiliate stations. Every week, host Bob Boilen presents a variety of tracks from forthcoming albums of many genres for the listeners' consideration. Aside from the normal show broadcast, Boilen hosts Tiny Desk Concerts at his own desk, allows musicians to guest DJ, streams full albums in advance on the NPR music website (the First Listen series), brings musicians into the studio to chat about their albums (with live questions from listeners) and maintains a live concert podcast. Boilen and his affiliates also provided extended coverage of SXSW Music Festival, including podcasts and videos detailing newly discovered artists.
Boilen started podcasting in 2006 because, "listening to a forty minute, fifty minute show while sitting at your computer was not as inviting as listening to it when you wanted to, where you wanted to." Now, one can even look at individual episode blog posts on the web site and choose particular tracks to stream.
All Songs receives hundreds of CDs each week and Boilen personally sorts through them. "There are just so many hours in a week," said Boilen, "I used to try to listen to every single thing I got, if not, just at least the first song. I still stay pretty true to that although I have to say I've gotten discriminating to the point where a bad album cover filled with an aesthetic that doesn't appeal to me, or just a bad opening cut, sometimes even a label where I've never liked an artist, I will pass on if I'm really backed up. So, all of it that goes on the show is something I really, really like, and that's the bottom line." Boilen will sometimes include music less appealing to himself if he thinks that it is something listeners will truly want to hear (like the new U2 single). As the host of the show for almost 10 years, Boilen's discerning taste is easily trusted. But, when there is dissension, radio listeners no longer have to remain mute at the other end of the transmission.
"The community's built up to the point that I am constantly getting suggestions from audience members," said Boilen. He interacts with listeners through e-mails, Facebook, Twitter and blog post comments on the All Songs Considered blog. "I always like to have a dialogue with people on an individual basis. I think it's what public radio should do," he illuminated. The surge in communication has made it difficult to keep in touch with everyone, but he is certainly doing his best. Boilen also poses questions on his shows from time to time to encourage dialogue between listeners. Recent questions include: "When you go to a show and hear prerecorded backing tracks, does it bother you?" "How much would you pay to see your favorite band(s) live?" and "What does your vinyl collection look like?" The response to informal questions allows for one to get a feel for trends in music today.
The benefits of this increased communication via the Internet has transformed listening to a radio show into an entirely new experience. Radio DJing no longer consists of talking and playing music into the darkness. Now, all of the people out there listening actually get a chance to talk back.
KH: Well, I was just wondering, just as background, how did you get into radio in general?
BB: Oh, haha, let's start big, huh? Well, let's see…This goes back a long way. In 1983 (like I said, a long way), I was a composer for a theater company based in Baltimore and I did a piece using sampling that NPR heard my music and did a story on my music. About five years later, the person that produced that story was Ira Glass, working at All Things Considered back then, and I went and visited Ira five years after he had produced that piece and said "Remember me? I wanna work here. How can I do that?" I quit my job at a TV station at the time and just sort of determined to work at NPR. Long story made very short is that I started working at All Things Considered the following week, and about a year later I was directing the show and I did that for eighteen years (of directing, nineteen years with All Things Considered).
KH: So when did you start podcasting All Songs Considered and what brought you to podcasting?
BB: Well, first of all, All Songs Considered started just as an online music show in the very first month of the year 2000. Podcasting started in the summer of 2006, August 2006. I had learned about podcasting from a listener earlier in the year and I approached NPR about podcasting…and NPR was already starting to work on the idea of podcasting and launched All Songs Considered as a podcast along with a number of other podcasts. Our show is perfectly suited for it, so that's sort of what interested me. I mean, listening to a forty minute, fifty minute show while sitting at your computer was not as inviting as listening to it when you wanted to, where you wanted to. Podcasting is just sort of natural. It brought up a whole lot of legal issues that didn't exist with streaming. It was a big nut for a lot of record labels to chew to allow downloading, basically, of their music. It was a real uphill battle for a long time to podcast full versions of songs.
KH: And it's progressed to the point where you stream full albums, which is pretty great.
BB: We stream full albums, we don't podcast full albums. It's been quite a game changer in the record business, with how they feel about particularly what we do in general and I guess they see value in it. Now they're clamoring.
KH: You said it's more comfortable for people to be able listen when and where they want. Are there any other differences between podcasting and regular radio?
BB: Well, being able to rewind, being able to listen more than once. We have people who listen to our concert podcast; we have a number of different podcasts: we have the All Songs podcast, the All Songs Considered live concert podcast, we also have a podcast called Second Stage, and especially the live concert podcast is something that people can listen to over and over again.
KH: In general, when did you think of podcasting the live concerts and what process did you go through to do that?
BB: Well, first of all, in January of 2005 we approached Bright Eyes who had then just released two albums and was coming to town and we asked whether or not he and his band would mind if we tried live webcasting, so, not just streaming it but literally doing it live at the site at the time, and they were up for it. We didn't podcast that, we didn't think there would be a chance in hell anyone would let us podcast an entire concert. A few months later after doing Wilco as a live concert, we approached, I think it was Bloc Party who was a smaller, fairly unknown band at the time and asked them if they would care to podcast, figuring it would be pretty cool if we did that. That was just part of our regular podcast. We did concerts in our regular All Songs podcast for the first year or so and eventually decided to split it off and do a separate live concert podcast.
KH: Do you find that all of these methods with which your listeners can interact, through the blog post comments and Facebook, does that influence how you do your show?
BB: I mean, the best thing is I get more feedback. People can listen more, they can listen again and again and then write to me about it. The community's built up to the point that I am constantly getting suggestions from audience members. We did a series of shows about sort of your "secret band," bands that you know and love that maybe others don't, and I asked suggestions. We did a number of shows based just on listener's suggestions. I listen constantly to things people are suggesting to me, so in that way it influences the show. The audience we've built up is such a music savvy audience that I'm always trying to find stuff to keep them happy, stuff that's already out there or stuff we get way in advance. Our theory used to be don't put anything on the show that isn't out yet. That's what we used to do back in the year 2000. Because it was hard to find stuff; even finding it on Amazon it was hard. But now, we look forward to previewing stuff that's a month before release, six weeks before release, because there's so many ways to get music that we want to constantly surprise people.
KH: With those web-based things, are you the person checking and reading all of them?
BB: Yeah, I've always answered all of the e-mail personally, the Facebook as well. It's mind numbing and overwhelming, I have to say. It's getting to the point where I'm not able to answer every single person and that is very frustrating to me, because I always like to have a dialogue with people on an individual basis. I think it's what public radio should do. So it's a little frustrating now that it's gotten so overwhelming, but I'll keep just doing my best.
KH: If all of your listeners are finding out about great music from you, where do you find out about this music, aside from artists that are established, I mean, you must get so many CDs it's probably mind numbing as well, so how do you weed through that?
BB: We get a few hundred a week. You know, I have lots of different methods. Some of it has to do with, I used to try to listen to every single thing I got, if not, just at least the first song. I still stay pretty true to that although I have to say I've gotten discriminating to the point where a bad album cover filled with an aesthetic that doesn't appeal to me, or just a bad opening cut, sometimes even a label where I've never liked an artist on a given label, I will pass on if I'm really backed up. I'll just say I'm not going to deal with this, because there's just so many hours in a week and if I start falling behind then I'm not going to get stuff on in a timely manner. So, all of it that goes on the show is something I really, really like, and that's the bottom line. If I don't really, really like it, it doesn't go on the show, with very few exceptions. For example, we put a U2 song on the show, and I've never been a big fan of U2 but I think they're a really talented band and I think people would want to hear it. We got a slightly early release of it so we put it on the show. Tom Jones was a novelty to me, I thought he would be fun to put on the show. Not an artist that I'm in love with, but certainly an incredibly talented person. But, really, for the most part, the stuff on the show is stuff I'm in love with.
KH: I was just going to ask if you put things on for the sake of the listeners even if it's not your favorite. And, you answered that.
BB: It's very rare I do. And if I do it, it's usually to generate a conversation tossed to the blog. Like with the U2, I started a conversation about, "why do we love the music we love?" I mean, obviously U2 is a talented band, they have something to say, they're innovative and I don't love them. So what is it about a band that makes you fall in love with them and care about them? I used it as a jumping-off point to try to get comments about that and they've been absolutely fascinating comments.
KH: When you're listening to so many CDs in a given week, if you find something you really love, where do you make time to listen to it? What's been the most recent thing that you've really been in love with and gone for multiple listens?
BB: Well, the Decemberists record, the new one that comes out the end of March on the 24th, I listened to four times over the weekend. One of the only drawbacks about this job is that, I used to, when I fell in love with an album I'd listen to it over and over and over again, and I just don't have time to do that. So, four times in a weekend is a lot for me, and I'll do that at home, I'll do that in my car while driving around. That's where I listen to stuff that I really, really like: either in the house or in the car. But it is rare that I get to hear things multiple times.
KH: Is there anything exciting in the future of the All Songs podcast or the live concert podcast?
BB: Well we've been doing this Tiny Desk concert series, but the biggest thing coming up is South by Southwest, which is always a hoot. I have no idea what we're going to do down there, well I have some idea what we're going to do down there because we've been planning for three months. We have a number of concerts we're going to present live. They'll all wind up in the live concert podcast. We're bringing video cameras and stuff. Last year we grabbed Lightspeed Champion and we put 'em in a field in Austin. We found Jaymay and we put her on a porch. We'll try to do some fun stuff like that this year too. I have no real idea what those are going to be. I'm the sort of person who on one level plans a bit, but I also like to be able to do something on the spur of the moment and be flexible. We'll see.