It’s true: I’m a public radio fan. When I’m driving around town I’m often listening to public radio in my car. When I’m on production assignments around the country, I usually find the local public radio station and tune in while on the road. When that proves to be challenging – – or when local stations decide to carry local talk shows on regional wheat and soy bean prices (I mean, I know that matters to certain audiences…) – – I stream my favorites (I’m lookin’ at you KNOW St. Paul! You too WAMU, DC!)
There’s a lot to say about the extraordinary creativity of the whole crowd working to make public radio do what it does. I could talk about the producers, the reporters, or the engineers. No doubt I could also say a lot about the people often featured in the stories, essentially representative, pointillistic samples of all of us. The colors of the world shine on the radio in prismatic shades and textures. They captivate me as a writer and storyteller. But often when I’m listening, I find myself perking up for something meant largely to disappear. I find myself leaning in and carefully thinking about the music segments that separates stories.
I used to work in public radio so I have a little insight into this. Those little musical cues are called bumpers. They act as audible space holder’s between other aspects of programs like pre-recorded features or live interviews. They let things “bump“ into each other without crashing.
It may be hard to hold this thought, considering the ubiquity of highly polished media you can stream on to any device within reach, but those musical bumpers were created… by musicians. Strings, electronica, percussion: somebody had to create those sounds using a tool of some sort, an instrument. In many cases, those musicians have spent majorities of their working lives perfecting their abilities to make those sounds. As I listen, I find myself attracted to the specifics that go into the details those bumpers. Are the players shaking a small rattle to create a textured bit of rhythm? Are they using a wooden flute or a metal flute? I wonder how they’ve programmed that synthesizer, either directly through a computer or patched right out of the keyboard?
It goes deeper, too. Those musicians inevitably want to play music. That’s what musicians do. But when their work appears for 12 seconds separating a story about eastern European political unrest and domestic infrastructure spending, do they feel like second-class citizens? Do they feel relegated to small, interstitial spaces between the stuff that’s really the reason for the program? I have to wonder. Somewhere out in the world are people writing and playing music, putting their creative selves into work that they certainly can’t envision will get its broadest performance spotlight when a harried producer needs to give two news stories a little breathing room.
Ultimately the entire experience refracts, various sounds blending together. Public radio would not exist without all of these parts working together, music, news, feature, and personalities. But as I consider artworks I have not yet created in my own life and career, I think about the musicians. They are unnamed and largely unknown relative to the programs where their music bumpers appear. Somewhere out in the world they’re thinking about how to get the tempo right, how to achieve a particular mood, a raucous chorus or smooth vibe or swinging melody. They’re not making music to organize news programs. Punctilious producers are similarly too busy to care about musical creative processes, alas, alas.
Musicians are making music because music needs to be made. Music between news stories may be interstitial elements for many people, but for those who play to keep the world turning, those music bumpers are the main reason for the show.