New ‘Morning Edition’ theme aspires to be ‘inclusive and inviting’

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Musicians perform the "Morning Edition" theme in an NPR promotional video.

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.

Leiderman with members of the Anchorage Youth Symphony in 2011. (Photo: Michael Conti)

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.

“It sounds like they had some interesting production ideas, and they took… ALL of them.”

Amory Sivertson, WBUR

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.

24 thoughts on “New ‘Morning Edition’ theme aspires to be ‘inclusive and inviting’

  1. The new Morning Edition theme music brings to mind 1980’s Musak. It is a bland reimagining of the cheerful and welcoming original theme music, and unlike the original, it is not remotely hummable. Whereas the original is like a bracing cup of coffee first thing in the morning, the new theme music is like a powdered medicinal drink, with a flavor that is not quite recognizable. NPR apparently has not learned the lesson that change for its own sake is not necessarily positive. Remember Bob Edwards!

    • This music sounds like it was stolen from Epcot. And not in a good, Jerry Goldsmith way. Seriously, it makes me feel like I’m about to get an update from the Action News Chopper. But the committee has made up it’s mind and there’s not turning back, I’m sure. The one odd exception to that being the Stalinesque disappearing of Sabrina Farhi.

  2. It’s playful, it’s upbeat, ebbs and flows. I’d have fun writing the voice overs around the transitions. Soon we won’t remember the old theme. Remember how roundly critiqued the “drunken circus band” ATC theme was upon unveiling? This one is a keeper — IMHO.

  3. Appreciated the simplicity (and hum-ability) of the old edition. This one reminds
    me of the old definition of a camel: a horse put together by a committee. Too
    much going on!

  4. A little too much at wake up time. Electronica dance music is for 1 am when you’re out partying. Not 7am when you need to be readying for a desk job. And yes, it does have a bit of old fashioned commercial radio teletype quality embedded — although the youngsters don’t even know what a teletype is. If course, the Don Voegli’s original ATC theme, with its electronic “dinks” noises did the same. Whats old is new. Except for my aging body!

  5. There is nothing thematic here, merely some vague musical noises. Entirely forgettable and disappointing.

  6. It sounds energetic. Must it? It sounds in a hurry. Why? Maybe it is because the original theme offered energy and confidence to begin another day – awake and informed. So far the new arrangement offers me a slightly abrasive, possibly careless start to the day..

  7. I feel i need to talk to my doctor about options on my medications after hearing it. It’s very cookie cutter in the advertising world in that respect. It’s not bad, but it’s not original either.

  8. It’s utterly generic and forgetable. This could be background for any bank, car, or deodorant commercial. The key is can it be hummed?

  9. Agree with those who say it’s not doing it for me. It doesn’t lead into the soundscape of the rest of the broadcast effectively imho but seems to be at odds with it. When it’s playing behind/under the beginning of spoken parts of the broadcast, it sounds jarring and discordant rather like unconnected background noise rather than an effective bridge into the broadcast.

    • The jarring and discordant sounds you hear are the spoken parts of the lead in to the broadcoast. Some hosts managed to screw it up even with the old theme. The same is true with the new theme, it is very important the integration of the news with the words has to be done melodically and with a trained professional. This is what branding is all about.

  10. I don’t particularly like or dislike the new music, although I wonder if it’ll prove as versatile as the old theme was for all the little, shorter iterations that appear throughout the hour.

    The lack of hummability is a good one, but I’m not sure it’s a deal-killer.

    What I wonder is why NPR felt the need to separate itself from a previous era, especially when it’s coasting pretty hard on nostalgia and previous engagement these days. NPR hasn’t adapted very well to the Trump Era of News (it’s not just Trump, but he’s the most visible aspect of it). Granted, neither has most of journalism, but we’re talking about NPR, not about whataboutery. When the substance is lacking, marketing can go a long way to preserving your audience until you can fix the substance. But there’s no fix in place (nor one coming, as far as I can tell; this CJR article from yesterday doesn’t cite NPR but I haven’t seen any evidence that they’re not just as guilty as those Todd does cite – https://www.cjr.org/politics/journalism-lessons-2020.php) and now NPR is throwing away an important part of the marketing.

    Again, I don’t necessarily think the music is bad…which given how much a curmudgeon I am, probably means most people will think it’s pretty good. But I just don’t get the logic behind the change in the first place….?

  11. It never gets started. No form, focus or conclusion. It’s simply some vague tones strung together. Yeccch! You totally blew this one! I demand a rewrite by someone who knows how to compose a musical theme song! Two seconds after it’s over you can’t remember what you just heard! A really bland half baked idea. Needs someone with talent to rework it until it is actually a new theme song! This is drivel!

  12. This arrangement brings Morning Edition into the 21st-century. It is, indeed, reminiscent of EDM and other styles from the 2000s which, I believe, fits the target audience’s familiarity zone.

    Thus far, much of the feedback I’ve heard has been by generation, including those who remember and still pine for the original theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CviovvTuHK0

    The best comments have been from those who’ve written, “It may not be my style, but I appreciate NPR is working to bring quality journalism to listeners under 50.”

  13. I like it. I can appreciate its complex blending of the different genres of today’s music. It’s fresh and hits the mark. Now if NPR can get rid of those bland midwestern news personalities and install some people who better represent America, people who can properly pronounce Oregon and Nevada or maybe even properly pronounce French and Spanish words, they might be better able to expand their listening audience.

  14. As we all know, there ARE lyrics to the old Morning Edition theme, but nobody had lyrics to the new theme…until Conan stepped up and made some:

  15. I’ve got no problem with the new opening music, but to call it a new “theme” is real stretch. It’s jazzed up the rhythm, and taken a snippet from the original theme…that’s it. It’s fun, but nobody’s gonna be hummin’ it.

  16. Sorry, it reminds me of a generic ring tone from a cheap Android knock-off. It sounds like it was created entirely out of pixels and numbers without ever having an honest musical instrument within a hundred feet of the studio. But I’m 60 and a 30-year member; what do I know?

  17. Or hold music! That’s it! Straight out of some corporate phone system Hell, waiting on Janice in Customer Service to pick up while the same 16 bars loop over and over and over and ….

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