Industry Spotlight: Stephen Thompson (NPR Music)

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Say what you will about the life of top 40 radio and whether or not it will still exist the way it does today in a decade, but in my opinion NPR – otherwise known as National Public Radio – is eternal. It’s all a matter of public funding, I know, but it deserves to last forever. There is not a day of my life that goes by without at least a few minutes having been spent engaging with their brand, be it through radio or article on the web, and I always come away from that experience feeling like I have done something positive for myself and my world perspective.

When I engage with the music side of NPR, something different occurs within. I see the way the contributing staff writes about the artists and songs they feature, and I challenge myself to one day create content that is as engaging and thought-provoking as what they have presented. I learn as well, of course, but more importantly I recognize that there is still room for personal and professional development in my own life, and that motivates me to work harder with each passing day.

I always wanted to bring my admiration for NPR to this blog, but to be honest I was not sure it would ever happen. The demands of being a member of the NPR news team are numerous, and as a result it can be difficult to find individuals willing, or even able to carve out an hour to work share their story. I knew we hard to try regardless, and after months of back and forth we finally have something substantial to present to all of you.

Stephen Thompson is a writer and editor for NPR music. He also appears on a number of NPR programs, including Pop Culture Happy Hour and All Songs Considered. He has spent the better part of the last decade guiding the music efforts at NPR, and in that time has helped bring many new features and shows to life.

Thompson’s influence on and presence within the entertainment industry extends beyond NPR as well. He is also credited with aiding The Onion in creating The A.V. Club and copy-editing six best-selling comedy books, as well as editing the 2002 book, The Tenacity of the Cockroach: Conversations with Entertainment’s Most Enduring Outsiders.

I had the opportunity to ask Stephen Thompson about all of this and a whole lot more over the last month and am thrilled to present his responses to you in in the interview below. If you would like to learn more about Stephen and his efforts in writing, please take a few moments to follow him, as well as NPR music, on Twitter. Additional questions and comments can be left at the end of this post.

H: For the record, please tell everyone your name, job title, and the company you work for.

ST: I’m Stephen Thompson, and I’m a writer and editor with NPR Music. I also talk on a handful of NPR shows – every week on Pop Culture Happy Hour, more or less every week on Here & Now, and usually once or twice a month on All Songs Considered.

H: Thank you again for participating in this feature. I know you’re a busy person, but before we get your work today I would like to take a look at your career up to this point. When you think back to the formative moments and experiences in life that led you to pursue a career in music journalism, what comes to mind?

ST: The interest first surfaced when I was 12 or 13 and began chronicling the pop charts in spiral-bound notebooks; I’d listen to Casey Kasem and Rick Dees every Sunday and take notes on chart movements and whatnot. I took music very personally and seriously from an early age. I once rode my bicycle into the back of a parked car because I was reading Billboard magazine at the time. I was probably… 15?

Career-wise, the single biggest moment came in October 1992, when I bumped into The Onion’s Dan Vebber – a friend and former colleague from one of the campus daily newspapers at the University of Wisconsin – and he asked me to write record reviews for him. Even in 1992, The Onion was a desirable gig; less than a year later, I was the founding editor of what would eventually become The A.V. Club, which I edited until the end of 2004.

H: Did music always play a large role in your life, or is it something you grew to appreciate with age?

ST: I’d say music and adolescence came as a package deal. Over time, though, I began to discover music beyond the pop charts I’d so eagerly documented. I grew up in Iola, Wis., just outside the reach of the nearest (terrific) college radio station in Stevens Point. So I didn’t really get immersed in great stuff – aside from a few hand-me-down punk records from my sister and uncle – until I came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and stumbled into a vacuum at the then-dormant student radio station. I became the music director at 19, and that was it for me. I was hooked for life.

H: While we’re still on the topic of your early years, we should touch on your life in writing. Do you recall what initially sparked your interest in journalism? 

ST: I was raised by editors and writers; my parents, Don and Maggie Thompson, co-edited a magazine called Comics Buyer’s Guide until Dad died in 1994. He’d been a newspaperman since long before I was born, and Mom’s involvement in CBG continued until it went out of business early last year. So journalism and writing of one sort or another were always deeply ingrained in the household. Writing in my family goes back many generations: My grandmother was a Hugo Award-nominated science-fiction writer, and that side of the family tree forms a straight line back to the 17th-century American poet Anne Bradstreet. (I can’t write poetry worth a damn.)

So I always felt I’d go into some sort of field relating to writing, and I seized every opportunity to get published. I remember obsessing over the idea of my words getting professionally printed on paper; how thrilled I was when I’d, like, take second place in an essay-writing contest that would get me published in the Appleton Post-Crescent. It’s always been there, basically.

H: What was your first gig in the world of journalism, and how did you go about obtaining that position?

ST: My first real gig was an internship at Joe Jones Publishing, a trade-magazine operation in my hometown. I was brought in to empty wastebaskets and proofread ads, and through an assortment of coincidences – nothing Machiavellian, I swear – I wound up editing their flagship magazine (Camping & RV) after three weeks. At 17, I was simultaneously editing a nationally distributed magazine and working as a stock boy at the local grocery store, the latter a job I’d held for three years. I remember, at the end of that summer between high school and college, Joe Jones saying, “Boy, I wish you’d come to me three years ago! You never would have had to work at the grocery store!” At which point the bitter memories of a thousand $3.35-an-hour urinal-scrubbings came flooding back.

H: While still in school, you helped The Onion launch The A.V. Club, which has since gone on to be one of the most influential voices in entertainment. We read it daily, in fact. Was it an easy sell to editors at the time? If possible, we would love to know the origin story.

ST: As so many worthwhile things do, it happened very gradually – really over a matter of years. As I mentioned earlier, I was brought in to write a few record reviews each week; those ran in the back of the paper alongside other non-comedic odds and ends like concert listings and movie reviews. As The Onion grew in popularity, it became harder and harder to crank out enough decent comedy to fill, say, 48 pages. So there needed to be something else, and I was an ambitious kid – I started there when I was 20 – so I took on every available opportunity. I started compiling the concert listings, assigning more reviews, and generally taking over more and more of the non-comedy parts of the paper. In the summer of 1993, we started formally separating out my stuff under the banner “ENTERTAINMENT” (really rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?). I edited everything therein except the movie reviews, which were someone else’s baby until a couple years later, when we renamed the section The A.V. Club

For the editors at the time – mensches and all-around class acts like Rich Dahm, Dan Vebber, and Scott Dikkers – it was a very easy sell, because it made their jobs so much easier. My section could expand or contract based on page count, which meant theirs didn’t have to. It was quite a bit trickier to convince the comedy writers that it was wise to turn all that stuff over to someone who wasn’t a comedy writer. As I grew into the role and started developing more of a vision and voice for the section – bringing in and training my own people, taking on a more serious tone – it got easier. But there were some early battles.

H: You joined the NPR team in 2006, which was two years after your departure from The A.V. Club. What inspired you to go after the position you now hold, and what can you tell us about the interview process?

ST: It was 17 months between the two jobs. I was burned out after 12 years at The Onion, and had bought stock in the company years earlier. Basically, I had enough money from selling my stock to take eight months off, so I took 17 months off – much of which was spent snacking, taking naps, and waiting for NPR to figure out what to do with me. It also meant moving from Madison, Wis., to the area around Washington, D.C., which was a pretty big deal to me and my family. 

Only about three months after I left The Onion, I met Neda Ulaby, an NPR Arts Desk reporter, while at SXSW. We hit it off and became friends, and a little while later, someone in management happened to ask Neda if she knew of anyone with experience spearheading large and ambitious projects related to music journalism. Truth be told, I wasn’t the right person to run the entire project – I have little patience for meetings, for one thing – but they realized that they wanted me in some capacity. So I went through several rounds of interviews in D.C., one for head of what would become NPR Music, and one for the job I took, which had more to do with editing and production. My job has evolved a lot since then to where I am now; at this point, what I do is split surprisingly evenly among writing, editing, and talking into microphones.

H: Your start at NPR roughly coincides with the initial boom of social media. How has your role at NPR evolved over the last several years as a result of technology?

ST: Well, we spend a lot more time discussing how to promote our content offsite. I used to sit through hours of training for things like search-engine optimization, and now it’s much more nuts-and-bolts: “Can we get this promoted on NPR’s Facebook page?” “Is this headline grabby enough?” Aside from that, I’m careful to cultivate an approachable public persona on Twitter and Facebook. But really, most of the job comes right back to writing, editing, and talking. It’s all communication, and the use of social media only enhances that.

H: In addition to your normal duties at NPR, you have appeared on a number of NPR programs and podcasts. You also helped Bob Boilen launch the Tiny Desk Concerts series. What have you yet to accomplish during your time with NPR that you hope to achieve in the future?

ST: I like the idea of sitting here, typing this, and having no idea what as-yet-unhatched idea will develop into something cool. As much as humanly possible, I try to stay notionally open to new ideas and projects, because you never know where they’ll lead. The Tiny Desk Concerts were hatched six years ago while Bob Boilen and I were commiserating at a concert; we’d never have guessed that that conversation would spawn a signature project for NPR Music. A little less than four years ago, Linda Holmes and I were drinking beer in my living room when we sketched out the entire vision for what would, in a matter of weeks, become Pop Culture Happy Hour. Big ideas can pop up at any time, and I’m hoping to have a few more of those as the years roll on.

H: Beyond this job, do you have any other career aspirations you are currently working towards? Another book, perhaps?

ST: I’m really focused on NPR, honestly. I’m a big believer in attaching yourself to something great – a great idea, great collaborators, a great goal – and then growing along with it. I just want the stuff I do at NPR to get better and better, and in the process reach more and more people. I’m a stubborn incrementalist, and that means playing the long game and pushing yourself to get better every day.

I sometimes joke that I’m waiting to write another book until the publishing industry completes its collapse. If I do crank out another book, it’ll likely be something I put together in collaboration with someone else. I don’t have ambitions to write a novel, and I do my best work when I’m bouncing off other people.

H: Okay, now the question every aspiring music journalist has been waiting for: What advice would you offer someone hoping to break into the music journalism arena in 2014?

ST: Hoo boy. It’s rough out there, in terms of available full-time jobs, but I’ll give the advice I give everyone in any creative profession: Don’t wait to do the thing you want to do. Don’t ask to do the thing; don’t wait to be asked to do the thing. Just start doing what you want to do. Seek out vacuums, step into roles, pursue internships, work hard, make yourself easy to reach, and be as easy to deal with as humanly possible. You can never have enough friends, you can never do enough favors, you can never be there for enough people – that’s career advice and life advice rolled into one, because a good support network can be a literal and figurative lifesaver. You won’t encounter opportunities by hiding from the world, so engage and connect and communicate. Be interesting, be funny, be fun. Put yourself out there, on social media and beyond. Find your voice by writing constantly. If no one wants to publish you, publish yourself; these days, it doesn’t cost a thing except time.

H: Do you have interns at NPR? If so, what can you tell our readers about the application process and any potential openings?

ST: We have three waves of interns each year. I don’t know much about the application process – I don’t pick ‘em – but it involves sifting through stacks of hundreds of resumes. Beyond the advice above, I’d encourage applicants to demonstrate writing chops, the ability to function in a fast-paced workplace, and a low-drama personality. Pursuing internships is like pursuing any job: You need to make your skills and attributes plainly visible, and you need to communicate clearly and approachably. And experience counts, even at the very beginning of your career. 

H: NPR has long been a tastemaker in the world of music. Where do you turn when looking to discover new talent, and what advice would you offer bands hoping to one day find their way onto an NPR broadcast?

ST: To answer your first question, I listen to friends’ recommendations, and I spend a lot of time sifting through the figurative and literal stacks of CDs, downloads, and press releases that cross my desk. Every year before SXSW, I plow through songs by about 1,500 different artists, panning for gems and discoveries. I listen to Song Of The Day podcasts put together by NPR member stations, skim music magazines and blogs, try to stay conversant in what’s attracting people’s attention, and look for great obscurities wherever I can find them.

As for finding a way onto NPR broadcasts, my best advice is: Figure out your narrative. What’s your story? Even interviews with great bands are pretty boring if there’s no story being told; your story can’t just be, “My friends and I got together and started a band, and now we’re really good.” If you’re trying to get booked for a Tiny Desk Concert, all you have to do is have the stars align and be great in such a way that someone on staff will pound the table for you and your music. But to get booked on an NPR newsmagazine, it really, really helps to have a hook – a story that sets you apart.

H: If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?

ST: I’d like to see a far more robust middle class in the music industry. It feels to me like you have a few high earners on one end and a huge throng of low earners on the other – people who make so little money that they’re either desperately poor or they come from families who can afford to support them. Music, and by extension the music industry, would benefit greatly from an easier path to a stable living for people who are good at it, regardless of family support or willingness to live out of a broken-down van for 10 years. 

H: Beyond steady employment and financial compensation, how do you measure success at your craft?

ST: Steady employment and financial compensation are important! I spend a certain amount of time poring over web metrics and podcast downloads and Twitter followers and iTunes charts; I can be a number-grubber with the best of them, I won’t lie. But the real measurements are far more circumstantial, and they come in the form of word of mouth trickling back to me. A nice letter from someone thanking me for something I worked on means way, way more than an uptick on a spreadsheet, in all seriousness. I like feeling like the stuff I do matters to someone – who wouldn’t? – so kind words from strangers are by far my favorite metric.

H: I know you’re a busy man so I will make the last one relatively easy. What can we expect from your team at NPR in 2014? 

ST: It’s hard to see the forest for the trees in terms of grand ambitions; it often feels like the answer is, “More of the same, but better!” But then I think about it for a few minutes, and it’s like: Oh! We just launched this incredible R&B stream, and it’s so cool. Our Microphone Check people have been doing amazing interviews that are enhancing some wonderfully smart hip-hop coverage. Our videographers and photographers have been experimenting with amazing visuals, from hilarious GIFs to high-definition concert videos that look like DVD footage you’d pay $20 for. In classical music, in jazz, on All Songs Considered, on Alt.Latino… every subdivision of NPR Music is trying new things that make me proud to be involved, however tangentially, in what it’s doing.

H: Okay, we’ve reached the end. Do you have any final thoughts or observations you would like to share with our readers?

ST: I guess the last piece of advice I’d give, for someone just starting out or struggling along the way, is to find your tribe. Everything I’ve ever accomplished, I’ve done with the aid of brilliant collaborators – people I count among my friends, people I respect, people I want to emulate, people who make me better. Don’t go it alone unless you absolutely have to, because success is almost always a team effort, and everyone you meet has something to teach you. Life is people.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.