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Hitting the right note to go with war news

Special To The Times

During their network’s coverage of the Iraq war, National Public Radio executives say they’re working hard to strike the right balance -- conveying the gravity of the situation without veering toward pacifism or jingoism. And that’s just for part of the broadcast they believe most listeners notice only in passing.

The music between segments on NPR’s news programming is supposed to be unobtrusive, primarily serving as a cushion to ensure that every report ends the second it is supposed to. The interludes also offer listeners a chance to reflect and take a breather between stories. Sometimes they even wryly refer to the segment that just aired, such as Herb Alpert playing “A Taste of Honey,” after a story Tuesday about people with more taste buds than the average person, for example.

“You don’t want to call attention to the music,” said Jay Kernis, NPR’s vice president for programming. But, he noted, “We’re very aware that the music choices are of great interest to public radio listeners. During a war situation, music choices become very sensitive. After all these pieces, if we had fifes and drums and horns, it would be a bit much.”

Bob Boilen, who as director of NPR’s afternoon newsmagazine, “All Things Considered,” picks the music for that program, said, “Whenever you come into something so heavy and serious, you try not to over-dramatize.”

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Instead, he’s chosen instrumentals from eclectic artists, such as a song by the band the Frames, which Boilen said just “felt right.” Or a selection by musician Eric Bachmann, originally for a movie about baseball, “Ball of Wax.”

“I always liked it, it had these beautiful strings in it,” said Boilen, who’s also host of NPR’s online music program, “All Songs Considered,” where the songs are archived. “Even though you try to be as neutral as possible, there’s an element of compassion in this music.”

The network even created a “war theme,” Kernis said, music to delineate its special coverage of the war, to lend a seamlessness to its coverage by replacing the normal themes for its programs, such as the jaunty wake-up call for its “Morning Edition.”

“Because music is such a personal and subjective experience, every piece of music is going to have certain meanings,” Kernis said. “This is not a science, it’s an art.”

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And if the network hits the right note, it resonates with listeners. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, NPR drew praise not just for its coverage, but for the music that ran between the stories. Singer-songwriter Patty Larkin wrote in her online diary, “As far as music was concerned, only the discordant, mournful snippets of music played between news segments on NPR made sense to me. My music was irrelevant -- from another, more innocent time.”

“I was stunned,” Boilen said, estimating he received 500 to 600 e-mails in the first week. “I came to realize this stuff meant a lot. Especially in these times, a minute to think and breathe meant a lot.”

Using music this way, Boilen said, is “one thing that NPR does that works really well, that TV could never do.”

“All Things Considered” airs weekdays from 3 to 6:30 p.m. on KPCC-FM (89.3) and 4 to 7 p.m. on KCRW-FM (89.9). “All Songs Considered” is available via NPR’s Web site (www.npr.org).

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April Fools’ Day, without pranks?

One of the busiest days of the year in radio arrives Tuesday, a date that in the past has been marked by embarrassing on-air fights, unannounced format changes, jarring news flashes and impromptu free concerts.

But will April Fools’ Day be the same this year, with hoaxes and fakery beaming over the same airwaves listeners are relying on for the latest news from the front?

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“Obviously, this has been a staple of local radio around the country, and it has been for some time,” said Ken Mueller, radio curator at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York. “In light of what is going on, I think what you will see is fewer of the larger-scale pranks. People are going to think twice about what they do.”

Mueller said he expects hoaxers will avoid war themes and keep the jokes light. He cited the example of “Kevin & Bean,” the morning show on KROQ-FM (106.7). Two weeks ago, the show’s entertainment reporter, Ralph Garman, impersonated Jerry Lewis and spoke at length about world affairs to someone who said he was French President Jacques Chirac.

“I don’t think they necessarily would have done that had the war started at that point,” Mueller said.

KROQ has made a tradition of its April 1 pranks, however. In 1993, the alternative rock station pretended to switch to an all-'70s format. And in 1998, Gene “Bean” Baxter got into an on-air brawl with Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke after indelicately quizzing him about his wandering eye. But it wasn’t really Yorke; the fight was a gag.

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On the opposite end of the dial, NPR, too, cuts loose this time every year. Last year, “All Things Considered” aired a story about Congress spending $345 trillion to extend universal health care to pets. In 2001 “Weekend All Things Considered” ran a piece about a company planning to project advertisements on the moon. And in 1996, the program reported Starbucks was building a nationwide pipeline to send slurries of fresh beans directly to its coffeehouses.

Whether or not NPR continues the tradition this year will depend on the news that day, according to network spokeswoman Laura Gross. The gravity of breaking events might make such levity seem inappropriate, or simply redirect the efforts of staffers who otherwise would be working on the hoax.

“We’ve cut out a lot of our feature programming,” she said.

Mueller said that, for the most part, listeners enjoy the jokes, and recognize they’re “just to have fun.”

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“Why does anyone pull a prank? If you do it properly, there’s a publicity element. Certainly, that’s good for your station,” he said. Otherwise, it can backfire pretty seriously.

Every year, police somewhere are forced to relieve traffic jams at nonexistent free concerts. And in 1998, a pair of radio hosts in Boston, Opie & Anthony, were fired after they falsely reported Mayor Thomas Menino had been killed in a car accident.

Mueller said a little levity, on the other hand, can offer a respite “at a time when people are concentrating on what’s going on over in Iraq.”

“As long as radio stations handle that responsibly, they can add something to our lives,” he said. “We need that diversion. If all we had were 24 hours of war everywhere, it would get very depressing very fast.”

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