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Bob Boilen — the Tiny Desk mastermind — retires from NPR after 35 years


A couple of times a week for nearly 15 years, NPR's Bob Boilen has cleared off his desk to make room for music.


KELLY: You see, Bob's desk is the Tiny Desk. It was Bob who, along with NPR's Stephen Thompson, started the stripped-down concerts back in 2008. Well, on Friday, I wandered up to the fourth floor here at headquarters to catch a bittersweet moment - Bob's last Tiny Desk show before he retires.


KELLY: How are you?


KELLY: (Laughter).

That day's artist had given Bob a goodbye cake with Bob Boyage (ph) written across it in frosting.

BOILEN: I mean, I've been here for roughly 1,200 Tiny Desks. I'll still watch them. I still love it. I'm so thrilled to have been the catalyst. But these will continue. There's so much talent...

KELLY: I have a feeling we can get you a guest pass.

BOILEN: (Laughter).

KELLY: This might be how Bob ends his time at NPR. His time at our network began 35 years ago here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And I have Bob here in the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED studio with me one more time. Hello, my friend.

BOILEN: It's so good to see you again.

KELLY: I want to go back, way back, to when you came to NPR 35 years ago. So this was 1988.


KELLY: I'm sure we started you out cutting tape 'cause everybody had to start cutting tape. But we drafted you pretty quickly to direct ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Just explain to people what that means and how - they are hearing your influence on the show every single day.

BOILEN: The director is like an orchestra conductor. I mean, I'm making sure things happen at the right moment. But also, I'm trying to segue from story to story in a way that feels seamless. And I do that with music. And sometimes it's coming from a very sad story to a funny story, and you got to find a piece of music that, you know, starts off lighthearted but gets a little thoughtful or something that would be a moment for folks to absorb this intense news that they heard.

KELLY: Yeah. So these music buttons, as we call them, I want to focus you on one day, a sad day that I remember working with you. I was line editing ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on 9/11, and you were directing.

BOILEN: I'm sorry if I choke here, but I still remember coming into the office - I had a wall of CDs - and looking at and saying, what am I going to play? And then thinking, this is the most irrelevant thing I can possibly think to do. I'm sitting here thinking about what music to play and the world is falling apart. This is ridiculous. What am I doing? I don't remember how far we were along into the show, but it was an intense unfolding. And there was a moment where we had to find some music, and I picked this piece of music from - by Philip Glass.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: With more coverage of today's attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.


BOILEN: At that moment, chills went down my spine and I choked up because it gave me the moment to absorb what I was hearing. And then the emails started pouring in to me from listeners, like how much this meant to them. Because for the first time, maybe even in the whole day - this was, you know, 4, 5 o'clock in the afternoon...

KELLY: Yeah.

BOILEN: ...That they all had stopped for a moment to absorb it. And I realized something I should have known - how music can be such a deep, important thing in our lives.

KELLY: Yeah. You took that and so many other moments you must have learned from on this show and eventually turned it into All Songs Considered. I want to share a little bit. We've got the very first episode.


BOILEN: Welcome to All Songs Considered, a music show for your computer. I'm Bob Boilen. And I'm one of the directors of NPR...

KELLY: (Laughter) Stop there. A music show for your computer. Like, what was this?

BOILEN: Well, we would get so many letters handwritten about those pieces of music I'd play between - we'd all play between those news stories. It just seemed to me that the kinds of music we access that we had to - so much different kinds of music people were loving, but really not a chance to hear them. And why not make a show out of that?

KELLY: And it became NPR's first...

BOILEN: Yeah. That's right.

KELLY: ...Original podcast, right? Who even knew what that was at that time? Like, what is this podcast thing?

BOILEN: Yeah. All Songs Considered in 2005 - it was a little over five years old at that point - became NPR's, I think, first original podcast.

KELLY: Fast-forward - the Tiny Desk concerts, which became this huge part of this whole new space that NPR was playing in - NPR Music you helped found. We've got a little bit of this. This is the very first Tiny Desk.


BOILEN: So we're going to videotape this for our blog. And maybe it's the start of something and maybe it's not, but we're certainly glad to have Laura Gibson here today.

KELLY: So I'm going to say, it was the start of something. There's so much I could ask you, but this is probably like asking you to name your favorite child - but a few favorites?

BOILEN: Oh, my God. So I've been watching a bunch of the early ones 'cause it's just like - I'm going down memory lane a lot lately. So I'm not ignoring the incredibly popular, amazing things we've been doing lately, especially in the hip-hop and R&B world. But I'm thinking back to, like, someone like Ralph Stanley, who is, you know, like, one of the fathers of bluegrass.


RALPH STANLEY: Hit me a key somebody.

(Singing) If you have friends in Gloryland.

BOILEN: Or Bettye LaVette. A couple of others who walked in the door and thought, where's the studio? Where is the - what...

KELLY: This is a desk.

BOILEN: ...What are you doing?


BETTYE LAVETTE: (Singing) If you want to sing the blues, you got to pay some dues 'cause it ain't coming easy.

KELLY: This is a bigger-picture question, but you've turned people on to so much music - you've turned me on to music I would never have known - over years now. How has the way you've discovered music changed over all these years?

BOILEN: Well, if I start with 1988, when I came to NPR, back then, it was, you know, albums, vinyl, and then, of course, CDs. And when I would listen to that stuff, I would know who I'm listening to. I would say, I'm going to put on a CD and name your artist, and I'd put it on, and I'd listen to it. What I loved about the later years is that I could take 50 new songs, put them in a playlist, drive around with it, and not know what I'm listening to. And what that did was it took away the bias I might have had - oh, I love this artist. And I love to listen to music blindly and let it hit me. And so that way of listening was really important. I also go to a million shows, and I love seeing opening acts because they're the ones that people less - hardly know. And so that's another thing that I love to do.

KELLY: So what are you going to do now?

BOILEN: (Laugher) Call me in a few months. But I think, basically, what I really want to do is I want to make more music. I'll have time for that. I make sort of ambient music of my own, and I make albums with my band Danger Painters, which is really fun. I'm a radio DJ on this little low-power FM station, Tacoma Radio. I don't know. I want to see what happens when I finally have time and not 35 years of deadlines.

KELLY: Yeah.

BOILEN: What is that going to be like?

KELLY: I have no idea (laughter).

BOILEN: Yeah. I'll let you know.

KELLY: Let me know. Keep us posted.

BOILEN: Thank you.

KELLY: Well, on behalf of everyone here in the newsroom and everybody out there listening, you have given us a gift. Thank you.

BOILEN: Thank you.

KELLY: That is NPR's Bob Boilen - the great Bob Boilen, on his last day after 35 years at NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANGER PAINTERS SONG, "STILL LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.