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Q&A: Bobby Carter on leading Tiny Desk, his time at Jackson State, early career advice

Bobby Carter took over as series host and producer for NPR’s "Tiny Desk Concerts" in April. Carter says he hopes to elevate smaller artists to a broader audience in his new role.
Photo courtesy of Bukunmi Grace
Bobby Carter took over as series host and producer for NPR’s "Tiny Desk Concerts" in April. Carter says he hopes to elevate smaller artists to a broader audience in his new role.

NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concerts” has a new series host and producer — Bobby Carter

A St. Louis native, Carter took a journey down South on his way to NPR, getting his start in radio at Jackson State University. Now, the 25-year radio veteran looks to the future of Tiny Desk.

The Gulf States Newsroom’s Maya Miller recently chatted with Carter about bridging the gap between music and news and his advice for young people hoping to become journalists.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

So, Bobby, I’ve got to ask: as a fellow Carter, how do you feel about Beyonce’s newest album?

You know, I love it. I’ll be honest — I won't say that I'm the biggest country music consumer. I say that to say, I think when she said, “This isn’t a country album, It’s a Beyonce album,” I think that she was spot on because there is a lot of country influence. As the album begins to move and we get toward the second half, it feels more like Beyonce’s version of a country record. I really do enjoy the album. My favorite song is II Hands to [Heaven].

You got your start in radio at Jackson State. I also attended JSU but changed my major a half-dozen times — a very long route to public radio. What was it like working at WJSU in college and when did you know, “OK, this is something I want to do for my career?”

Well, I'm a DJ first. I learned how to DJ when I was in high school. Once I caught the DJ bug, I knew very early in my sophomore, junior year in high school that I wanted to do something in radio, or something with music. I knew that I wanted sound to be a part of my life.

With JSU, that was really just the foundation for me, in terms of learning radio. When I was at WJSU, I learned how to work the board. I was learning how to speak on air, just learning all of the ropes of radio and figuring out my voice and the technical side. Obviously, a lot has changed since the summer of 1999, in terms of technology, but it was the foundation for me. It was a start.

And you're not all music. You've done some producing covering elections, the Iraq War and 9/11. How do you feel about the connection of NPR Music as a gateway to getting people to listen to NPR for their news coverage? 

That's one of the biggest challenges at NPR and what I do over here at Tiny Desk. At Tiny Desk, we pull in the youngest, most diverse audience in this building, and in thinking about the demographic of our listening audience, [we’re] trying to figure out how do we bridge that gap.

A huge sector of our audience, in terms of when we think about Tiny Desk, they only know Tiny Desk. Some of them don’t even know what NPR is. So we're really working hard and trying to put our heads together and throwing spaghetti at the wall to figure out how to hold that younger, diverse audience over to our listenership.

That sort of leads to my next question. Tiny Desk Concerts has kind of turned into the new MTV. You show a range of artists. I listen to Summer Walker’s and Little Dragon’s concerts all the time, but then I discovered Chappell Roan and J Noa. In your new role, how do you hope to balance some established acts with those lesser known artists, Black artists and some experimental artists?  

I mean, you just said it, right? That array covers a lot of different areas, a lot of different audiences. It's all in the curation. We shoot three days, three shows per week. We have a nice number of producers on our team, all of which have the thing they love, all of which are passionate about their bands and things they listen to all the time.

Part of my job is looking at our calendar to be sure that for every big rapper, every big pop star, we stay hanging our hat on discovery. We spend a lot of time making sure that our intent, in terms of bands, is balanced. There's no shortage of big, big names who want to come to the Tiny Desk because it sells records. It sells out tours.

With that, we know what Tiny Desk can do for someone with 5,000 followers. We’ve seen how that can really help them explode, so we're doing our part here. It's all about making sure that it is completely balanced — as balanced as we can do.

Who's someone on Tiny Desk that you haven't seen yet that you really want? Can you give me a hint of who's on the summer lineup? 

I always say this, and I say this anytime anyone wants to listen because you never know when they're listening, but my dream is to have Sade at the Tiny Desk. That's been my number one for as long as I've been producing these things.

Stay tuned to what we have coming up in June. This Black Music Month is going to be very special. We just locked in our lineup, and I can just say that we are trying to make sure there are very few blind spots. We're going all out. We are trying to make a statement. We are trying to let people know that the radio is right here at the Tiny Desk — big and small.

Next week will be my first time as a mentor for NPR’s Next Gen Radio, where I’m paired with a college student for a week and take them through the radio story process from pitch to air. What advice do you have for journalists starting out?

Be courageous. If your instinct says that you're bringing something unique to the table, if your instinct is telling you that you could provide something that no one else is providing, speak up quickly. No matter how young you are. No matter how intimidated you may feel.

This is kind of speaking to my younger self. I've been in radio now for 25 years. I took the long route. I don't necessarily advise anyone to take this long to get there, and I'm still nowhere near where I want to be. It took me a while to find my place and really use that voice and speak up in these rooms.

So any of those kids who may feel socially awkward, may not be as outgoing, fight your way through that and speak up. If you're offering something unique and special, make sure someone knows that.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

Maya Miller is the reproductive health reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom

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