BJ Leiderman: the manic-depressive minstrel of public media

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(Photo: Michael Conti)

Leiderman with members of the Anchorage Youth Symphony, who performed versions of his well-known public radio theme songs in 2011. (Photo: Michael Conti)

This coming Valentine’s Day will be BJ Leiderman’s 60th birthday, and he has big plans.

“I’m going to kill myself, live on-air that day,” he told me on Current’s podcast The Pub.

Is he serious? Probably not. But when you talk to the composer of six well-known public radio theme tunes, enough gloom and regret shows through the worn spots on his bubbly, rascally exterior to make you wonder.

Leiderman’s ex-wife, Denise Forehand (with whom he remains close), describes him as “a very tall version of Woody Allen,” by which I gather she means neurotic, funny and prone to Yiddishisms.

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine why Leiderman would be ready to give up on life at 60. He is relentlessly animated, blessed with an easy and infectious charm. By his own admission, his life has been one lottery win after another.

He was born the sole surviving baby of triplets and raised an only child in a prosperous home by loving parents (on whose posthumous largesse he is still subsisting). Starting in his early 20s, he became a household name among public radio listeners who repeatedly hear “Our theme music was composed by BJ Leiderman” in the show credits, all thanks to a series of chance opportunities that he was talented enough to seize.

“I’m the luckiest damn composer on the entire planet. I’ve got 15 minutes of music out there,” he said, and despite that modest published output, “30 million people know my name.”

But Leiderman’s ability to fully capitalize on that good fortune has been hobbled by his immediately apparent bipolar disorder and, in more recent years, the lingering effects of Lyme disease, to which he attributes his chronic fatigue and dementia-like symptoms. (At one point in the process of arranging our interview, Leiderman forgot who I was and why we were talking. This wouldn’t be unusual were it not for the fact that he was the one who called me.)

Despite sometimes feeling “disabled,” as he puts it, Leiderman is now gathering himself to finally harpoon his white whale — Natural Public Leiderman, a perpetually in-progress “pop ’n’ roll” album he hopes will appeal to his public radio fan base.

“I started talking about this fakakta album, you know, three decades ago,” he said. Motivated by a combination of renewed creative drive and financial necessity (his inheritance is running out), Leiderman is finally laying down basic tracks.

Whether the record approaches the career high-water mark Leiderman set almost 40 years ago will depend on whether he can overcome the crippling insecurity, ill health and penchant for pessimism bordering on misanthropy that has caused him to live a life of relative obscurity in the shadow of his own, singular fame.

‘I was given a great start’

Bernard Jay Leiderman was born Feb, 14, 1956, to Samuel and Diane Leiderman, themselves creative types.

As a young man, Sammy was a stage actor in southern California and New York. “His girlfriend was [Oscar-winning actress] Kim Hunter for awhile,” Leiderman said.

Diane played the piano and worked as a secretary at a large advertising firm in New York. “She was basically like, you know, what was going on with Mad Men in the ’50s,” he said.

The couple met on a blind date and, upon getting married, settled outside Sammy’s hometown of Norfolk, Va.

Leiderman filmed his parents playing music together and being generally adorable in their home in 1990:

“Dad decided to take the safe route and learn the jewelry trade” from his cousin who owned a jewelry store in Norfolk, Leiderman said. “And that was his main gig for most of his life.”

Leiderman’s parents provided him with a comfortable, somewhat conservative Jewish upbringing in the “cookie-cutter” Virginia Beach suburb of Thalia.

“I look back on it now with thankfulness and appreciation,” Leiderman said. “Because I spent most of my childhood and my teens and then some years after that pretty much terrorizing those people.”

An archetypal baby boomer, Leiderman watched The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, “and that was that,” he said. A life of music, drugs and perpetually shaky career prospects ensued.

“I was given a great start by my parents. I put them through hell, but I think they lived long enough to be proud of me with the NPR thing,” he said.

Leiderman graduated high school in 1973 and went on to study political science at Virginia Tech. But really, he said, his major was “chemistry, wink wink,” recalling an incident when he and a friend dropped acid before going to take the last test of the semester. Contrary to their plan, the professor decided to precede the exam with a lengthy lecture.

“So by the time the little form with the circles came around, we didn’t know what language we were speaking,” he said. Leiderman dropped out during his second year.

Back home, his father secured him a job as a cameraman at CBS television affiliate WTAR (now WTKR) in Norfolk. “It was a nonunion shop, so we did everything — it was glorious,” he said. “We lit sets, we built sets, I ran audio, I ran teleprompter.”

Being a keen observer of world affairs (which he remains) and having been bitten by the broadcast bug, Leiderman decided to go back to school and study broadcast journalism at American University in Washington. (Disclosure: Current is owned by AU).

“That’s when American was cool, because they were burning down the ROTC buildings and marching and stuff,” he said.

Leiderman studied with legendary CBS News journalist Ed Bliss, but his de facto major remained “chemistry.” He played keyboards in a cover band that did a lot of Beatles, earned lackluster grades and eventually lucked into his big break.

‘Get me BJ Leiderman!’

Somewhere between high school and college, Leiderman had parlayed a personal connection from his Mad Men mother into a side business writing commercial jingles for local businesses in coastal Virginia. One jingle for Newport News–based dairy company Marva Maid featured the bouncy piano style that would be Leiderman’s hallmark.

“If you want fresh taste, it’s in the dairy case,” it went.

Flash forward to 1977 in Washington, and Leiderman’s friend Skip Pizzi asked him if he’d like to try writing some theme music for a new morning news show. Pizzi was then an engineer at the little-more-than-fledgling National Public Radio network. Its first show, All Things Considered, was only about six years old.

Leiderman said “Sure.” Pizzi got a tape of Leiderman’s jingle reel, including the Marva Maid tune, to Jim Russell, who was then in charge of developing a new show at NPR that would be called Morning Edition.

Pizzi found a note from Russell in his box: “Get me BJ Leiderman!”

Russell, now a renowned programming consultant, gave Leiderman a specific problem to solve with music. Most public radio stations at the time played classical music overnight and/or in the morning. The debut of Morning Edition threatened to be a sudden jolt to listeners who weren’t expecting it.

“I said to BJ, ‘You have about 10 seconds to get the audience that will stay with it from classical music into something lighter, jazzier, more intriguing and evocative of the morning than they are usually prepared for on public radio,’” Russell recalled in an interview.

Leiderman created a demo with his Crumar Orchestrator, a primitive polyphonic synthesizer. It consisted of a faux-classical prelude followed by a building vamp (which NPR anchors would later talk over), and then a descending melodic sequence that remains Morning Edition’s musical signature.

While generally self-deprecating about his work, Leiderman remains unabashedly proud of that melody. “I don’t know if you could have picked out a more perfect bunch of notes than I did,” he said.

NPR was pleased as well.

“I was much taken with what he’d done,” Russell said. “It wasn’t like the classical music ended with like a hammer breaking records and then somehow completely switching formats. It just seemed to evolve from something classical and musical to something that was much more like the sun rising.”

Russell left NPR in 1978. Management hired new producers who made Morning Edition pilots that were detested by member stations, and the whole team was subsequently sacked.

The job of rescuing ME with mere months to its debut fell to then–NPR arts correspondent (and future top NPR programming executive) Jay Kernis, who by chance remembered Leiderman’s demo cassette, which Russell had left for him.

“Jay took me under his wing,” Leiderman said. He remembers Kernis taking him to a coffee shop and drawing shapes on a napkin for Leiderman to imitate with bumper music.

“‘Imagine you’re walking in a museum and you look to the left and see a piece of artwork, and you react to it, it’s an uplifting reaction,’” Leiderman remembers Kernis saying. “I took the napkin home and wrote the thing to the damn napkin, because I can’t read music.”

Leiderman then partnered with two classical players who could read and write music, Dan Latt and Armen Boyajian, to add real instruments to his synthesizer parts in the studio.

The result was Morning Edition’s first theme and bumper package, heard in the show’s Nov. 5, 1979, premiere.

The “whoosh” sound at the end of the prelude was the result of Leiderman playing a piano chord and a cymbal crash and reversing the tape in the studio. “I learned from The Beatles,” he said. “We actually turned the 24-track tape upside down.”

Subsequent arrangements, which eventually shed the classical prelude, were done by trombonist and composer Jim Pugh, with whom Leiderman has enjoyed a creative partnership ever since.

Permanent credit

To the best of Leiderman’s recollection, NPR paid him $5,000 for that initial work in the late ’70s, about $20,000 in today’s money. This was actually “small potatoes,” Russell said, for a “buy out,” where the composer signs over rights to the music and forgoes any future royalties.

But NPR gave Leiderman something that turned out to be much more valuable: the contractual guarantee of a permanent on-air credit.

Leiderman is, today, the only off-air creator who receives regular on-air credit from NPR. The network stopped reading all credits in 2013, including Leiderman’s, but just one letter from his lawyer restored his name to the air. According to Leiderman, an NPR employee called him and said, “Oh, we’re so sorry. There’s a lot of new people here, none of them were here back in the day.”

As Morning Edition grew to become the nation’s most popular morning radio program, the value of that credit skyrocketed.

“I was aware [in the late ’70s] that this was a big break,” Leiderman said, but he had no idea how big.

Leiderman achieved the kind of name recognition that gets him knowing looks when he hands over his credit card to store clerks. The All Things Considered theme is easily as recognizable as Morning Edition’s, but have you ever heard of its composer, Don Voegeli? No? That’s because Voegeli didn’t ask for a credit.

NPR brought Leiderman back to write themes for Weekend Edition and Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! He gets a particular kick out of hearing Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon briskly tuck that contractually obligated “Our theme music was composed by BJ Leiderman” credit into unrelated copy.

Apart from NPR shows, Leiderman also did the theme for Science Friday, the “Stump the Chumps” segment theme for Car Talk, and when Jim Russell went to the American Public Radio Network to start Marketplace in the late ’80s, he called on his old friend BJ.

Russell was determined to create something with Marketplace that would be a fresh departure from the calcifying public radio sound. He thought that by commissioning a BJ Leiderman theme, he could allay station fears that the show was going to be too different from NPR.

“And [Leiderman] did exactly what we wanted him to do,” Russell said, “with like a copywritten BJ Leiderman sound.”

Leiderman was, Russell said, “the security blanket” for Marketplace.

Indeed, Leiderman themes — which some critics, such as myself, have criticized as now sounding dated — form a kind of security blanket for millions of dedicated public radio listeners.

One fan wrote an email to Leiderman saying that no matter what kind of political tumult or violence is in the news every morning, that innocuous, familiar music makes it feel like everything is going to be OK.

For my part, I don’t think it’s Leiderman’s fault that the themes sound dated. Rather, it’s the fault of the show producers who haven’t brought in Leiderman, Pugh or anyone else to freshen the arrangements in many years. To the best of Pugh’s memory, NPR commissioned the current Morning Edition arrangement circa 2000.

The dark ages

When I asked Leiderman what he has been doing all these years when he wasn’t writing public radio themes, he replied with another Yiddish word: “gornisht,” meaning “nothing.”

That’s a bit of an overstatement.

In the ’80s, he spent five years in New York working on a rock opera called A Rock Carol — a retelling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol set in a recording studio where interns cut demos during unbooked hours, hoping to make it big.

“You know, it’s been done at some community theaters across the country,” he said with a tinge of sadness.

During that time in New York, he continued jingle-writing, with Pugh providing arrangements. He played keyboards in working bands, covering Beatles and Elton John tunes.

During a second stint in New York, he got another gig in advertising, this time writing copy instead of music. “We were selling basically sugar and plastic to kids,” he said. “I don’t feel good about it.”

For example, he wrote the copy in a commercial for a Looney Tunes board game called Smush ’Em.

Throughout this period, Leiderman never contemplating getting married and starting a family.

“I guess I thought for the longest time that I’m too much of a kid myself, that I would screw somebody up,” he said. “But then it got a little more serious, along the lines of, ‘No no no, don’t bring someone into this world.’”

Leiderman’s fatalistic streak appears to be a result of his concern about global affairs combined with his lifelong struggle with depression.

“I’m pretty much for extinction,” he said. “You can’t bring on global warming fast enough for me.”

His parents encouraged him to settle down. Ironically, their efforts led to a near-death experience for Leiderman.

In the summer of 1991, he said, “my parents booked me on a singles mission [to Israel] with 500 single Jews on the same plane with hopes I’d come back married, or something.”

Within days he was violently ill and “almost died” in a Bedouin camp, suffering from Lyme disease. He believes he contracted it from a deer tick on New York’s Shelter Island, where he stayed with a cousin prior to his flight to Israel out of Kennedy Airport.

Ever since, he’s suffered chronic aftereffects of the disease, including tiredness and forgetfulness.

He did eventually get married though, to Denise Forehand, in 2001. She already had children, to whom Leiderman continues to serve as a father figure.

“He’s fun, he’s fun-loving,” Forehand said of Leiderman in an interview. “But there is that dichotomy of exuberance and then melancholy. He goes from high to low very quickly.”

Forehand said Leiderman is one of the most generous people she has ever known, but his reliance on drugs caused problems in their relationship.

“He would take prescribed medication in order to even his mood, and then he would lose all sense of feeling,” she said. Leiderman would then abuse “a certain magical, mystical substance of the disco era,” in his words, to try to regain his feeling and inspiration.

Although Leiderman kicked the habit, his marriage to Forehand came to an end in 2008 when he came home to find all of his things neatly stacked on the street outside their house.

“He’s just a very lovely man,” she said, “but he’s very intense — you cannot take but so much.”

‘My damn album’

In recent years, Leiderman has been living alone in Asheville, N.C., drawn there by the mountain scenery and creative community.

The move came after a realization, he said, that in all these years “what I should have been doing is writing my damn album and getting it out there, because 30 million freaking people have been listening to six different shows with my name on [them]!”

That “damn album” is Natural Public Leiderman, the one he’s been talking about doing for three decades but that has never quite materialized.

“I realized you don’t have to put an album out,” he said. “You just have to talk about it, and people think it’s out and they think you’re famous, and, ‘Oh we’re so happy for you, we love the album.’ It’s not out yet, asshole.”

But since his move to Asheville, he said, he’s been “writing like crazy” and has finished recording about half of the tracks.

The material pairs his bubbly piano sound with his tumultuous inner life, as in the case of the song “Walking Down the Street,” a sunny-sounding tune about jumping off the Empire State Building.

Between his mood swings and ill health, Leiderman works slowly. He spends much of his days sleeping, as well as walking and driving his and his friend Bonnie’s dogs, an activity he actually filmed. (YouTube is home to several Dadaist videos by Leiderman, including one in which he literally just sits in a car wash for seven minutes.)

With his savings and family money dwindling, Leiderman is hoping he can make enough with his album to pay his rent for the rest of his life. (He didn’t say whether his life will actually end on Valentine’s Day, but considering his work pace, that seems like an overly ambitious timetable.)

He’s aware that in his many years of dithering over the project, people have largely stopped paying for albums, though he hopes NPR’s generally older audience still might.

He’s also aware that the name “BJ Leiderman” and NPR remain publicly linked, and is being careful to not put anything too controversial on Natural Public Leiderman that could taint NPR by association.

“My second [album] is gonna piss off a lot of people,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll give [NPR] a lot of warning so they can get new theme music.”

One song slated for National Public Leiderman, “Pray,” includes the line “I used to think that if I worked real hard I would be OK, but in an instant some fuck with a gun could take it all away.” Leiderman says that’s tame relative to the songs that will be on his sophomore effort.

In all, Leiderman feels extremely fortunate to have crossed paths with NPR, not only for the work it got him but also for the opportunity to contribute to a news organization he sincerely believes in.

“You couldn’t have asked for a more holy, righteous, quality — capital Q — quality organization. You know, they don’t always live up to it, but they try their damnedest. They always have,” he said.

Leiderman is most audibly gratified when he talks about his late mother’s pride in his NPR work.

“There was a funny story she told me once. She was in a card game with three other women,” he said.

One of the ladies was bragging on her son, a doctor who had just performed a daring operation. Another lady, the story goes, upped the ante by talking up her lawyer son who had recently won a multimillion-dollar case.

“And my mother put her winning hand down and looked at them all and said, ‘My son is BJ Leiderman, shut the hell up.’ That tickled me to death.”

Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that Thalia is a suburb of Norfolk, Va. It’s a suburb of Virginia Beach, Va. The article also said that NPR’s Ellen McDonnell called Leiderman about the omission of his on-air credit. Leiderman said he is not sure who from NPR called him. In addition, Science Friday was not an NPR show when Leiderman was asked to write its theme music.

  • Ira Flatow

    Brief correction. NPR did not hire BJ to write music for Science Friday. SciFri is not, and was not, an NPR program when BJ wrote the music for it. SciFri is a PRI affiliated program. Thanks.

    • Adam Ragusea

      Sorry Ira, I thought it was NPR in the beginning. We’ll correct.

      • Ira Flatow

        Was NPR in the begiining until we moved to PRI. Thats when we hired BJ to write new theme.