On Thursday evening, a scene that surely played itself out all across America this week—in kitchens, car interiors, and waiting rooms—was repeated in the green room of the Neue Gallerie in New York. The classical composer Timo Andres and the jazz singer Theo Bleckmann stood and listened to two pieces of music: the old theme for National Public Radio’s flagship morning news show, Morning Edition, and the new one.
The old theme—known for its inquisitive guitar and jazz piano—went off the air last week after 40 years of service. It was replaced on Monday with a new one that churns through dozens of ideas in 58 seconds: There’s a trip-hop remix of the old melody, a synthesized set of chimes conveying either urgency or the imminent arrival of an elevator, and a clatter of percussion that sounds “global” without evoking any one country in particular.
“For me, it was so reminiscent of childhood, of car rides to school,” Andres told me later of the old theme. “Even though, objectively, it sounds like an artifact from a universe where Steely Dan was co-opted into writing state-propaganda music.”
The new theme, meanwhile, was summarized more pithily by Bleckmann. “Yeah, it sucks,” he said.
Pandemonium struck the airwaves this week as Morning Edition’s millions of listeners tried to accommodate themselves to the new, unasked-for change in their daily routine. They did not take to it well. More than 400 listeners emailed NPR with complaints, according to Elizabeth Jensen, its public editor. “The vast majority of the reaction has been negative,” she wrote.
The complaints ranged from the straightforward to the Seussian. “I do not like it one bit,” said one listener, according to Jensen. “I would not listen to it on a plane or in a car or on a train….you get it.”
And it would be easy to laugh at that response, to mock the dozens of men and women who clutched their totebags and feared even the smallest change—but it would be wrong. The hundreds of upset NPR listeners are correct. The new theme is soulless and hollow, and it gives up something special about NPR. The old one was much better.
Morning Edition is more than a radio show; it’s a national ritual, a high-quality product that’s free, plentiful, and ubiquitous from Boston to Bel Air. In the hourly liturgy of the American broadcast day, it serves as the Lauds: Just as Jeopardy will always come on after work, and The Late Show croon as you get into bed, so too will Morning Edition steady you at dawn. Your kid may be late for school, traffic may be a nightmare, but Morning Edition is still there, reassuring you that somewhere far away, beyond the subdivisions and the parking lots and the corn fields, a friendly person is sitting in a quiet room, calmly talking about the news, and they want you to have a great day.
That’s what the old theme promised, at least. But now Monday Night Football is played on Thursday nights, Meet the Press airs every weekday, and Morning Edition blasts you with frenetic electronica. No wonder people are pissed.
Read: [How NPR tote bags became a thing]
Local NPR stations tried to ease the transition. “The music you’re listening to right now—it’s the last morning of Morning Edition’s theme,” warned Richard Hake, an anchor for WNYC in New York, last week. Bree Zender, the morning host for KUNR in Reno, tweeted a video of herself dancing to the new jingle. WHYY in Philadelphia posted its own clip of employees “flossing” to the new theme. (Flossing is a two-year-old dance fad popular among parents and school administrators for its relative lack of racy subtext.)
It hasn’t worked. The old theme’s YouTube comments have become an impromptu wake. “I always thought this was ‘just fine,’” said one user. “I had no idea I would appreciate it as much as I do now after hearing the millennial music-by-committee version they just released.”
The new theme was indeed composed by a committee—Man Made Music, a commercial-music production firm, handled the contract—and it was in fact written to draw in the youths. It is “intended to attract a younger and more diverse audience,” according to The New York Times. “I wanted a sound and a mood and a tone and a feel and a vibe all mixed in one,” said Kenya Young, the program’s executive producer.
But as a 28-year-old, I would beg: Please don’t pin this on us millennials. We know what the new theme sounds like, and it’s not 2019.
“The vibe and the feel and tone that they’re setting is… The Sims. It sounds exactly like the Build-a-Sim music in The Sims 2,” said an employee in the NPR newsroom who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the press. The Sims 2, for reference, was a best-selling PC game in 2004.
“So maybe NPR is always 15 years behind,” mused the employee. “The last time [Morning Edition] refreshed the music, which I want to say was the late Nineties, it sounded like 1980s smooth jazz.”
The employee is right: What I’ve been calling the “old theme” came out in 1999. But that version was just a rearrangement of the original theme, which B.J. Leiderman—then an undergraduate at American University—composed in 1978. Yet his work held up, and it was arranged and re-arranged through the years with sincere attention to detail.
Listen to the first second of the 1999 theme. Seriously: Just the first second, which stands alone as its own micro-composition. There’s a shimmery roll of the hi-hat, a relaxed trill on the guitar, a crescendo of the strings, and then the first expectant piano chord hits—and suddenly the sun has peeked over the horizon, the coffee’s in the pot, the morning’s begun. That sound was intentionally written to segue out of silence, to alert the listener while putting them at ease. For the last approximately 5,000 weekdays, millions of clock radios have roused themselves awake with that sound. If it was a little corny, well, sometimes kindness can be corny.
Compare that to the first second of the new theme. It will be a hard task, because there really isn’t any gateway sound at the start of the new work. The theme appears out of nowhere and immediately barrels down the tracks, providing only an electronic yowl as a how-do-you-do. Its first several seconds are dominated by a string instrument—perhaps a mandolin—clacking away like a teletype machine. (A teletype machine was an antiquated form of Twitter that vanished from newsrooms around the time that millennials were born.)
At the five-second mark, a new sequence of piano chords kicks in. But they turn out to be mere prologue for the sonic equivalent of the confetti emoji, which bursts at the 13-second mark, announcing the arrival of the main theme. At which point the mood becomes EDM meets PBS Kids.
This new “main” melody nods at Leiderman’s work. According to the reporter Adam Ragusea, the show will continue crediting him on air every week. But the new version harmonically neuters the older one. Where Leiderman’s theme leaned forward, giving way to a waterfall of interesting modulations, the new theme leaps up and down and goes nowhere. Rhythmically, we live in the age of triplet-based flow, yet the new theme is less syncopated than the old one.
The theme is not a gentle salve for the American underslept; it is several swimming pools of Red Bull, delivered via helicopter drop, to a stadium full of management consultants. In a behind-the-scenes video, Matt Myers, NPR’s vice president of marketing, actually encapsulates its vibe far better than I can: “We think [the new theme] is going to be a great way to set the stage, the expectation, that awesome content is gonna follow.”
Can’t you hear it now? For NPR News in Washington, I’m Giles Snydr—and here’s some awesome content.
Perhaps this is too cruel. Meg Goldthwaite, NPR’s chief marketing officer, told me by email that the new theme celebrates Morning Edition’s 40th birthday. “It was time to create fresh music that was engaging, energetic, and holistically reflected the program as it lives today,” she said.
Rewriting the Morning Edition theme was never going to be easy. Yet updating a beloved jingle is not an unprecedented challenge. Fox tinkers with its NFL fanfare every few years without much drama. The Jeopardy theme sounded very different three decades ago. Even the Empire carpet jingle—800-588-2300, Empire!—has gone through more than a dozen iterations since 1977 with the core material intact. Morning Edition has squandered the thing that most brands would die to have: a sense of history and authenticity, a link to the past. “I’m basically the same age as that song, and I’ve heard it on the vast majority of the days of my life, and I’m a little shocked to learn that I might not hear it again,” said The New York Times reporter Binyamin Appelbaum on Twitter last weekend.
So why did NPR do it? The writer Josh Benton speculates that it’s a “going-away present” to Jarl Mohn, NPR’s outgoing chief executive. Apparently Mohn has thirsted for a new theme for years. Since he took over NPR in 2014, he has emphasized the local member stations and engaged in “relentless over-promotion” of Morning Edition and All Things Considered, NPR’s afternoon flagship. That campaign has worked, and NPR listenership is moderately up. This is to be celebrated. NPR, lousy theme or no, is one of the country’s finest and most trusted news organizations, and the new theme is meant to signal its renewed focus on news.
But the new theme represents an impulse that dogs the American press as a whole and NPR in particular—“the CNN-ification of NPR,” as the newsroom employee put it. The U.S. press is afflicted by a chronic lack of humility. In the current flare-up, prompted by post-2016 soul-searching, you can see the disease in the gradual tendency of every print outlet to resemble The New York Times and every broadcast outlet to mimic CNN. The instinct is always to talk at you, not with you. Maybe that CNNification—and the internal desire to compete with CNN at a minute-to-minute level—is why so many have compared the new theme to that of The Newsroom, the short-lived Aaron Sorkin HBO project about television news. “It sounds like a theme for a fake radio show that would be on a scripted drama,” Andres said. And the reason why, he said, was that “it’s a little self-important.”
I should confess my bias: I am one of those new listeners that Mohn snagged. Five months ago, I happened to find the Morning Edition theme on YouTube, and as the hi-hat glimmered and the jazz guitar began, I was surprised to find myself transported. Suddenly I was sitting in the back of my dad’s Mazda sedan, being driven to elementary school, listening to the NPR sports commentator Frank Deford, the car smelling of seat leather and something acrid that I couldn’t place.
The acrid smell, I realize now, as an adult, was coffee. I knew that the Morning Edition theme smelled like coffee before I knew what coffee smelled like. The next day, I bought a clock radio, and I’ve been waking up to Morning Edition ever since.
Nearly everything about the show of my childhood is gone. The show’s hosts have cycled in and out. The magnificent Deford retired from NPR in 2017 and died a few weeks later. But what remained was a warmth, a calm ease, and that theme. Now that too is off the air.
But this may not be the last mistaken change at NPR. A pervasive rumor among NPR employees holds that All Things Considered will be the next to get a musical refresh. If that show’s theme is replaced wholesale, it will mark an even greater loss. ATC’s trademark fanfare is more recognizable than the Morning Edition chimes, and better composed, too: Hear how the current arrangement plays with the same clacking teletype sound in the piano before turning it, at the 11-second mark, into a musical question. Likewise All Things Considered is more malleable: You can arrange its theme for a music box, a jazz big band, or an a cappella group, and it will remain itself. Can the same be said of any second of music in the new Morning Edition theme?
“We are not ready to discuss any potential changes to the ATC music,” Goldthwaite said.