Behind the music

NPR theme songs are made possible by the generous contributions of this guy.

By Ken Otterbourg

There are two types of people in America: those who listen to public radio, and those who don’t. One group has no idea who wrote the music for many of its most popular programs. The other knows without hesitation: BJ Leiderman. His tunes include the theme songs for Washington, D.C.-based NPR’s — formerly National Public Radio’s — Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, the news quiz show Wait, Wait ... Don’t Tell Me! and his latest, Science Friday, as well as the “Stump the Chumps” segment of Car Talk. He composed the infectious anthem of St. Paul, Minn.-based American Public Media’s Marketplace. Its vaguely exotic background beat and dizzying opening gong evoke the energy of the trading floor.

“He’s been the musical sound of public radio,” says Jim Russell, who created Marketplace, which went on the air in early 1989, and produced and helped anchor Morning Edition and All Things Considered in the 1970s. He recognized Leiderman’s talent for writing songs that capture what a show tries to accomplish, whether that’s move programming from classical music to news or make people want to listen to stories about business. “BJ gets inside the skin of the program. If you can understand what you’re listening to in the first few seconds of the show, that’s the ultimate compliment.”

Leiderman, 58, moved to the outskirts of Asheville from his native Virginia Beach nearly two years ago. He rents a little cabin with a sweet view of the Swannanoa River valley and the high peaks beyond. His studio is in a spare bedroom, where he composes on an electronic keyboard hooked to a computer that allows him to manipulate sounds and create effects. He’s immersed in a wide range of projects, from creating music for a manufacturer’s trade group to helping Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

The BJ stands for Bernard Jay, and the initials are what he has been called since he was a kid. He took piano lessons, but most of his musical training came from learning to cover Beatles songs. He doesn’t read music, but he hears things and understands the power of sound and how music stirs something deep within souls. And he understands that a theme song has a job to do. “What you want to do as a composer is make sure your music 
is not the reason people turn the dial. That’s the minimum. The maximum — if you do your job — is that people are going to hear your music and there’s something that is going to bypass their brain and go straight to their heart. There’s emotion, and it goes, ‘Ah.’”

Leiderman attended American University in Washington, D.C., but didn’t graduate. His first commercial work was for a Nautilus Health Club, and he started putting together a demo tape. He had relatives who worked at NPR, and Leiderman’s tape arrived just as Russell and his team were preparing to launch Morning Edition. There was a start date but no music, and time was running out to put together a signature sound to rouse drowsy listeners from their slumber. “This thing just came out when I sat down at the piano,” Leiderman recalls. “It was one of those McCartney moments … hardly an effort at all.” Russell’s response: “My God, you’ve done it.”

Through the years, his work has been refreshed but never replaced. “My music, people actually like to hear it. It has — what they call in the business — legs. It has longevity. It wears well on your ears.” But longevity doesn’t pay the bills. Leiderman won’t say what he receives for his compositions, though Russell says the commission for the Marketplace music was probably around $10,000. Leiderman sees a consistent stream of royalty payments through the New York-based American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers — ASCAP. He also worked in advertising, with clients that included Tyco Toys, now part of El Segundo, Calif.-based Mattel Inc., and Nickelodeon, the cable channel owned by New York-based Viacom Inc. But none of this has made him a wealthy man.

What he has come to realize is that he’s his own brand. “I’m a prime example of somebody being a great marketer for no product.” That’s changing later this year, when he plans to release an album of songs. The tentative title is Natural Public Leiderman. “The fire’s hot,” he quips. “I’ve got to get in right now.” There’s another reason he’s in a hurry. Leiderman has Lyme disease, and it’s slowly sapping his energy. He wants to make music while his ability to hear the world and all the wondrous sounds therein still works well.

Hear Leiderman's theme song for Business North Carolina by clicking here.