The new Morning Edition music debuted Monday. As a composer-turned-pubradio-guy-turned-journalism-prof who still sometimes writes music for shows, here is my take on it, along with reactions I’ve gathered from other people and some perspective from the person who oversaw its production.
Short version: It sounds a lot like the old music, I think it’s pretty good, and I doubt anyone could have come up with something much better, given the impossible set of competing objectives this music is expected to achieve. I certainly couldn’t have.
The main billboard bed proceeds in four sections. The first (0:00-0:13) opens with a frenetic acoustic guitar part that seems to vaguely evoke folk musics from various cultures while at the same time reminding me of the staccato syncopations from many classic 20th-century news show themes that were, in turn, meant to mimic the sound of the teletype machines that used to clack away in newsrooms.
A swooshing crescendo transitions us into the first thematic statement (0:13-0:35), which I hear very clearly as a recasting of BJ Leiderman’s original theme. So does Stephanie Lebow, senior audio engineer for NPR’s Latino USA and an experienced music producer, whom I invited to listen to the music and email over some thoughts.
“The reference to the original melody has one note altered, likely to accommodate for a more minimal chord progression, reminiscent of an EDM [electronic dance music] song,” Lebow wrote.
Indeed, even when Leiderman’s melodic ideas are absent, the skeleton of his chord progression remains, making this entire composition sound to me like a new arrangement of the old one, not a new piece. This surprised me, given the February memo from NPR CEO Jarl Mohn that characterized the music as a “new theme” merely “inspired” by Leiderman’s work.
Lebow’s reference to EDM strikes me as particularly apt; this entire middle section has a pounding, four-on-the-floor kick drum rhythm. I fear that might date this music as it ages, but I would have said the same thing 20 years ago, and four-on-the-floor dance beats continue to pervade pop music.
Then we get a breakdown section (0:35-0:53), with slow-strummed acoustic guitar chords and bass guitar that put us squarely in the color palette of rock music, while electronic atmospherics swirl above our heads. A slower crescendo starts to build; the kick drum kicks back in, then a nifty backwards clap part that makes the whole rhythm sound a bit more like a hip-hop breakbeat. As the build continues, orchestral strings push their way into the foreground — the pizzicato parts again reminding me of old-school news themes and their clackity teletype evocations. A pedal steel guitar part sings over top, straight to America’s heartland (or perhaps is the hope).
We finally summit the mountain, and what’s up there? A little piano coda (0:53-0:58) that simply states Leiderman’s original melodic motif, clear and sunny as morning itself.
After hearing the music, it did not surprise me to learn that NPR will continue to credit Leiderman on-air once a week, according to NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara — though the language will change, she said. You could view that as a purely contractual extension of NPR’s 40-year-old agreement to give Leiderman perpetual on-air credit in lieu of more money, but to me, it’s also simply a matter of accuracy — this is still Leiderman’s composition, in my opinion.
For his part, Leiderman was upbeat yet circumspect when I offered to send the new music to him to get his reaction. “I look forward, with positive anticipation, to hearing the debut of the new arrangement along with the rest of Morning Edition’s listeners,” he texted me.
My friend and former WBUR colleague Amory Sivertson was more loquacious: “What do I think of the new Morning Edition theme? Hmmm… which one?” said Sivertson, producer and co-host of WBUR’s Endless Thread and an accomplished singer-songwriter.
“It sounds like they had some interesting production ideas, and they took… ALL of them,” she wrote to me.
If the new music sounds a bit like it was assembled by committee, that’s because it was. It is not the product of a single artist but rather a “sonic studio” called Man Made Music; it does not have a composer/arranger but rather a “creative director” named Amy Crawford who had “four to five in-house creatives involved in this project,” she said.
NPR asked the company for something that paid tribute to Morning Edition’s “iconic theme,” she said, but pushed it into “new territories.”
“The demographics of America are changing. How do we make sure that we have a sound of the show that feels inclusive and inviting,” Crawford said, and also “make sure that we respect the audience that loves the sound of the show and not alienate those longtime fans?”
This artistic dilemma strikes me as a microcosm of the broader dilemma that faces NPR in every facet of its programming: How do you make one thing that lots of very different people will feel speaks to them? Not surprisingly, Crawford said she and her team were attracted to “hybrid” sounds.
“You talk about some electronic percussion, and then we have organic percussion,” she said. “We have live strings in there; we also have some manipulated electronic samples that are also playing some figures that are typical string-gestural parts.”
The challenge Crawford and her colleagues faced reminds me of the 2017 Saturday Night Live fake commercial for Levi’s Wokes, “sizeless, style-neutral, gender nonconforming denim for a generation that defies labels.” To be maximally inclusive, the jeans only come in the omni-color “greb” — “They’re not brown, but they’re not not-brown.”
I would say I hear a bit of the color “greb” in the new Morning Edition music, but not nearly as much as I was expecting.
Crawford said, “When we talk about how we create something that feels inclusive, I think we never want to feel like we’re pandering or throwing in certain grooves or styles of music because we think that that’s going to feel more authentic to certain types of audiences.”
As a result, I think, ME with this music will still sound like what it is — an old-school broadcast news show in the same class as Meet the Press, ABC’s World News Tonight and all the other essentially 20th-century programs that are still clacking away like teletype machines in the corner. (And long may they clack.)
Lebow processes that overall aesthetic slightly differently than I do.
“It succeeds in their search for an energetic and modern update, but it sounds more suited for network news than an NPR classic like Morning Edition,” she wrote. “While it is powerful, it somehow lacks the nostalgic and commanding warmth of the original.”
Sivertson wrote, “It’s undeniably fresher, thanks in part to its percussive elements. Loyal Morning Edition listeners (who come for the news, not the tunes) will be humming — er, tapping — along in no time.”
Adam Ragusea is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.