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Arts & Culture

Composing For National Public Radio: A Conversation With BJ Leiderman

Composer BJ Leiderman will present at San Diego's Orchestra Nova.
Composer BJ Leiderman will present at San Diego's Orchestra Nova.
Composing For National Public Radio: A Conversation With BJ Leiderman
Public radio fans may not recognize the name BJ Leiderman (unless they listen closely to credits!), but they likely know his work. Leiderman composed the music that launches NPR shows like "Morning Edition," "Car Talk," and "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me." Leiderman is in town for a concert produced by Orchestra Nova.

Public radio fans may not recognize the name BJ Leiderman (unless they listen closely to credits!), but they likely know his work. Leiderman composed the music that launches NPR shows like "Morning Edition," "Car Talk," and "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me." Leiderman is in town for a concert produced by Orchestra Nova.


BJ Leiderman is a composer. He composed the theme music for many NPR programs, including "Morning Edition," "Car Talk," and "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me."


Orchestra Nova Concert

"Celebrating San Diego's KPBS" will be performed in three San Diego venues. St. Paul's Cathedral on April 1st, Qualcomm Hall on April 2nd, and Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla on April 4th. Showtimes are 7:30pm. You can learn more by going to the Orchestra Nova website.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Many of you listening probably start each day with this music, it's the unmistakable theme song to NPR's morning edition. Now, if you composed this theme song, you might be satisfied that you left a significant mark on popular culture [CHECK] and several other public radio shows, he is NPR's theme song power house, and he's here in San Diego for a concert that will celebrate his work. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh issue listen listen. I'd like to welcome my guest, composer, B. J. Leiderman.

LEIDERMAN: The news is next. Sorry.

CAVANAUGH: That was beautiful.

LEIDERMAN: Did I write all that stuff? Really?


CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, B. J, I never knew the morning edition theme had lyrics?

LEIDERMAN: Well, they do. They do.


LEIDERMAN: They didn't at first. But then --

CAVANAUGH: Have they ever been sung.

LEIDERMAN: They have been sung. But I don't believe on a local wonderful radio show. I'd be glad to sing them to you, but not now. Because then everybody's gonna tune out.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I just want to say, oh, I hate to get up in the morning --

LEIDERMAN: I'll sing them.

THE COURT: Yeah, please do.

LEIDERMAN: Let's just wait fair few minutes.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, all right. You have to warm up.

LEIDERMAN: You're in radio. You've done this before.

CAVANAUGH: You were starting out, as I understand it, studying broad cast journalism, how did this lead to coming up with this grit music for NPR.

LEIDERMAN: Let's see. I was taking broadcast journalism at American University, DC. And some very good friends of mine, Skip Peasey, and Jerry Peasey, who I thought for years were cousins of mine, but it turns out I'm an only child, I didn't figure this out till later. They came up to me, Skip was the chief engineer at NPR at the time, and they were cooking up a new morning news show. And I said, do you want to try out this theme? I said sure, [CHECK] with a Krumar orchestrator, it was a little -- pretended to be an organ and had string, and it was just awful. But I did this four track thing, and I gave it to Skip who gave it to the then first producer of the show, Jim rustle, who went on to bigger and better things. And he loved it. And they didn't really have the show. This will is how they tell the story. They would play the cassette, yes, folks, cassette, of the mix of this demo for their creative meetings in the morning. They said, we don't have a show yet, but this is how we want it to southbound. This is the tone we want.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I understand that they were trying to wean their listeners off a regular diet of classical music, but not sort of -- sort of transition them from classical music to something a little bit more upbeat and newsy.

LEIDERMAN: Exactly. And that was the tough order of the day, to sort of wake them up with a little blaring, you know, and shaking them. And the instruction was yes, most of the member stations will be coming out of a classical programming. And I knew enough about classical then, you could put it in my naval and still have room for whatever.

CAVANAUGH: A lot more, huh?

LEIDERMAN: So I did this pseudoclassical thing with a flute. [CHECK] orchestrator. And then we transitioned with what we called by then Jay Kernis was the producer. And by the way, Jim is the reason I'm talking to you, Jim rustle, because Jim, just before he left NPR, he gave the tape, he demoed a tape and said we like this music. Why don't want you use it? [CHECK].

CAVANAUGH: And if you'd like to tell us what your favorite is, give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. So --

LEIDERMAN: By the way, can I get some makeup?

CAVANAUGH: No, this would be radio.

LEIDERMAN: I still need makeup.

CAVANAUGH: Let's hear another bit from another theme that you composed, and that is weekend edition. So that's the concept behind weekend edition we can hear that it's different, definitely, from morning edition am weekends are different, right? Is there a concept behind each of these theme songs.

LEIDERMAN: The concept behind weekend edition was to make much money as possible for the member station, while at the same time not giving them thrombosis, heart attack, whatever, wallet introduction of strings. Okay? And jay kernis was very careful, and very fretful when we were doing this, he said he didn't want people to wake up and take acid, take LSD when they heard -- 'cause we were breaking new ground here. First of all, NPR in and of itself broke ground, and to have music associated with news shows or bumpers in between, so it was -- I still love weekend edition. I mean, all of the other programs, most of the other programs, we have gone through new arrangements every few years to freshen it up. Weekend edition is still using their originality arrangement, and I think it still holds up.

CAVANAUGH: Now you said that you originally composed the morning edition on this what did you call it.

LEIDERMAN: Krumar, it's like a box of Kleenex tissues with keys on it, you know? It's just -- that plugs into the wall with a nine volt battery.

CAVANAUGH: Do you do the orchestrations for these themes?

LEIDERMAN: Well, I -- I hear the parts in my head, you know, I don't read music, so how do you write songs if you tonight read music? Well, it's the same if you were a [CHECK] you tell it to people or you dictate it into a tape recorder. So I hear the parts, and especially in today's world of the sample her and multitrack, you know, computer work stations, even on the iPad that's sitting in front of me, I can down load garage band with a little keyboard in front of me, may a piano part, [CHECK] on top of that. And Jim Pew, that's the best thing that happened to me with NPR, they introduced me to an a list trombone player, he's on most of the [CHECK] and he's a fabulous arranger, and the inspect I met him, my work floured and took off. And I realized at that moment, surround yourself with people who are better than you. [CHECK] because I'm going on tour, I want to be the worst thing on stage.

CAVANAUGH: Everybody else is better.


CAVANAUGH: When you compose a theme them like marketplace, which you did for public radio international, a show that's heard every single day here on KPBS, again with this concept, what is the concept behind the music for marketplace?

LEIDERMAN: I have no idea.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, I'm --

LEIDERMAN: No, I -- remembering these things is tough pause I'm having I memory problem, and I do remember what I had for breakfast this morning. It was a great deli. Lox and eggs, can you smell tell from here? The deal was international finance. So that ding that you hear, you know, could be construed as opening bell. And okay, marketplace folks, I love you dearly, but you've edited the hell out of the thing, and it's very short now.


LEIDERMAN: And so it used to have sounds of the floor, in the old times, I guess, 'cause it's mostly computerized now, but there was a lot of yelling and screaming going on, and you could hear the teletype and all that stuff. So the idea was to get that energy across, and still musically, when the music came in, to have a world sort of sound. So there's -- a lot of instruments that I wasn't really familiar with at the time buzz they were all played by my fingers on the keyboard.


LEIDERMAN: No, actually what you're hearing now is not orchestra from marketplace, it's all me on keyboards.

CAVANAUGH: We have a --

LEIDERMAN: And I play the drums.

CAVANAUGH: We have a little clip from marketplace, let's play it now. That is marketplace, heard every day here on KPBS, composed by B. J. Leiderman, my guest. That's all you.

LEIDERMAN: It's all me. And the best part of going into a studio for me is getting mind a drum set, and playing the drums can every everything's done. 'Cause I'm a drummer before. Piano is percussion, and I beat the heck out of a piano. But man, I just want to be a drum are in pay rock band.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I don't know if we can arrange that. I want to talk about the concerts you're gonna be doing here inning assistant district attorney of just really quickly, when you're doing, like, the weekend shows, the themes for wait, wait dent tell me, and car talk, is that more like I commercial jingle than the stuff you do for news programs?

LEIDERMAN: No, I treat them all the same in my mind. To me, a jingle is a jingle. And that's selling cars and selling whatever. These things are in a different category. They're my babies upon they have been at work in the back ground for me for 30 years now. And I get these e-mails from people who say they're such a part of my life. And thank you for writing that, and I'm going, lady, it's a little piece of music that people talk over. But I'm proud. I'm proud now.


LEIDERMAN: Especially since I'm here in the studio with you, and I never thought this would be -- I feel like grand funk 30 years later, still on the road, wondering how the devil is this happening? Still selling -- getting ready to put out my first album and all this stuff. What is it going on here?

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me tell people what is going on. [CHECK] that's celebrating San Diego's KPBS, which is wonderful of the and this you're going to be on stage with the orchestra performing some of these theme songs.

LEIDERMAN: Yeah. This blows my -- orchestra Nova, by the way, is one of the coolest little orchestras ever. It's a midsized orchestra, [CHECK] he was guest conducting our Virginia symphony, and I was transfix today, he had hair down to the middle of his back. And he had the orchestra so tight. It was amazing. And he took us backstage afterwards and he says, we're doing this thing next year, I'm like, yeah, I'm gonna put something on my calendar next year. The music of public broad cast, would you like to be involved in that. I said sure. And he said, you have some scores? I didn't. And I went, you know, I play piano on this stuff, and I could play the piano on this stuff very well. He said, you want to may piano on this? I said sure. So here we are, doing these concerts, the first one is Friday, April 1st, at saint Paulo cathedral. [CHECK] and the last one is the fourth.

CAVANAUGH: Sherbert auditorium on April forth.

LEIDERMAN: Right. Yeah, the -- that's the best one to get tickets for, sure, sure.

CAVANAUGH: Now, is this the first time you're gonna be on stage play this?

LEIDERMAN: Yes. And by the way, this is the first time that some of these other pieces have been played life with an orchestra. And can I [CHECK] it's for drama lovers on PBS, they're gonna play the theme from master piece theatre and mystery. And the comedy, they're gonna play Monty Python's Flying Circus theme.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, are that is great. I heard live with an orchestra --

LEIDERMAN: I'm gonna have flash backs, they're gonna play the theme from great performances, they're gonna play the front line for the news junkies, front line and the news hour theme, they're gonna do Carl sa began's theme, they're gonna do my favorite, the civil war theme. Ask [CHECK].

CAVANAUGH: You know, this has, hike, opened up a whole world for you, hasn't it, J. J.? You're gonna be touring I believe with other orchestras around the country.

LEIDERMAN: Yes, we're now booking the same thing.

CAVANAUGH: And you've got album, [CHECK].

LEIDERMAN: It's gonna be some of originals of my good friends in Virginia beach, and a few covers thrown in.

CAVANAUGH: I see. ? And I would like to actually have a contest if you could come up with a great title. I've got life at the bottom of the dial for an album.

CAVANAUGH: What has it been hike for you [CHECK] so familiar with this music something have you taken a great deal of pride in this or some something you just sort of tossed off several tens -- decades ago, in some cases, and it's no longer a part of you?

LEIDERMAN: No, I'm extremely proud of it. I've always been proud of it. I feel like Ringo when they interviewed him in hard days' night, and mouth do you think the Beatles are gonna last, well, I don't think it's gonna last it long, I plan on getting enough money to get a hair dresser.

THE COURT: I remember that.

LEIDERMAN: I can't believe the stuff is still on the air. I just guess I write all right, you know? My stuff has legs, so I'm proud of it. I'm extremely proud of if.

CAVANAUGH: And are you nervous about the concerts?

LEIDERMAN: No, I'm not nervous. I'm so excited. I just hope -- KPBS is gonna be videotaping this for broad cast later, and they're gonna have to deal with [CHECK] all over this piano. Let's see, how far back can you go, camera three? How about Cleveland?

CAVANAUGH: So do you have a favorite among your themes? Is it weekend edition? You seem particularly fond of that.

LEIDERMAN: I don't want to -- anybody off here, but the favorites of mine are cuts that nobody airs. But it's a cut for wait, wait don't tell me, it's an alternate track, and if you guys are listening, my mouth to God's ear, put it on this week and play it. It's the rock and roll track. Rock and roll funky track of wait, wait don't tell me.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. We are just about out of time, but you said that you would sing for us, and I wonder if we have the morning edition theme song set to go.

LEIDERMAN: Before we do, quickly, if you want tickets, go to by the way, go there anyway, they are very cool.

CAVANAUGH: Orchestra Nova celebrating San Diego, KPBS, again, three performances, April 1st, Qualcomm hall on April 2nd, [CHECK] and United States can learn more on the orchestra nova website. Composer B. J. Leiderman, thank you so much.

LEIDERMAN: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And perhaps we can hear you sing.