(Article first published by Clarion Ledger Aug. 27)
Of all the celebrities Robert “Bobby” Carter has encountered as the producer of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, he counts meeting Big Bird of “Sesame Street” fame as his ultimate fan moment.
“I mean he’s a part of our childhood. When he walked out of the green room, I lost all professionalism. It went straight out the window. We’ve had a lot of stars, but when you’re looking at Elmo and the Cookie Monster, that’s a whole different level,” says Carter, laughing.
Aside from the big yellow bird, Taylor Swift, John Legend, Mac Miller, Lizzo, Coldplay and Michael McDonald are just a few of the musical guests featured on Tiny Desk. The online video series offers a stripped-down version of performances by emerging and mainstream artists for over 30 million viewers a month.
It all began at ‘Thee I Love’
A 2000 graduate of Jackson State University, Carter, 41, had no idea the three-month internship he secured fresh out of college would turn into a 20-year radio career at NPR’s Washington D.C. headquarters.
“I was interning at WJSU, the school’s radio station, and a recruiter for NPR walks in. I rushed her and asked for a job. She told me to slow down,” recalls Carter. “She said I couldn’t have a job, but she could give me an internship.”
After that internship ended, the St. Louis native worked his way into another internship, eventually becoming an official employee. For years, Carter served in various capacities until being named producer for Tiny Desk last year.
“When I first started, I would have to reach out to different artists and convince them to come onto the platform. Now, it’s a nice mix of both. I don’t have to convince as much anymore, and artists are reaching out to us,” he says. “The Tiny Desk brand stands on its own at this point. I’m pretty proud of that because I feel like I play an impactful part in the whole thing.”
Tiny Desk originated in 2008 when Bob Boilen, creative director, and Stephen Thompson, NPR producer, heard Laura Gibson playing in an Austin, Texas, coffee shop for SXSW. Preoccupied patrons seemingly neglected the sounds of the talented acoustic guitar-playing musician.
“Bob and Steven just casually walked over and told her they enjoyed her performance. They then invited her to NPR to perform in the office, while they recorded it. That was the start of Tiny Desk Concerts,” Carter says.
Advocate for hip hop, R&B
An office of the fourth floor of NPR is now the recording studio for musical guests – a far cry from over-the-top stage productions and wardrobe changes for some. Yet, that is a large part of the show’s appeal. Since the coronavirus pandemic, the series pivoted to Tiny Desk Home concerts, where artists stream performances from the safety of their homes. It’s the same vibe, just a different location.
The show is also known to launch budding artists’ careers while bridging the gap between generations for more seasoned performers. Carter says he helped usher in the hip-hop era of Tiny Desk, which appears to be the link needed to connect demographics.
“At the time, they were doing rock, folk, indie, and then I talked to them about incorporating hip hop and R&B into the program. I thought it was something the platform needed, and they were receptive to it.”
And now, soul singer and songwriter Anderson Paak is their most popular video to date with an astounding 50 million views. However, it is a 2014 performance by rapper-turned-singer T-Pain that became their first viral video with 16 million YouTube hits.
T-Pain’s set displays how the series allows artists to be their most vocally vulnerable. Known for his heavy use of Auto-Tune, T-pain scrapped it for the show. Instead, listeners were treated to an austere version of the singer. BeyondtheStageMagazine.com described it as one of the most soulful Tiny Desk performances of all time.
As producer, Carter works with legal, publicists, managers, entertainment labels and social media teams while ensuring show producers, and the audio and visual teams have the necessary details and resources for each show. In other words, Carter provides oversight from the moment an act is booked to the date their video appearance is published.
Artist discovery part of mission
It is a career apex for the music lover who also moonlights as a DJ by the name of Cuzzin B.
“Looking at my impact and finally having the music team say, ‘We appreciate what you’ve done. We want you here [at Tiny Desk] officially now’ — that’s one of my proudest moments, and, as a whole, just being at NPR and being a part of so many newsworthy life-changing events.”
Carter says some of his most challenging moments are getting people to understand the power of Black music and what it can do for any said platform.
“We know. The culture knows. But a real hurdle is having to constantly explain, educate and get the message through to people that this is going to work,” he explains. “When I think of adversity, I think about being in board rooms and having to scale back what I’m talking about so people can understand what Black music offers.”
Once the message is received, the results are stats racked up by appearances like Anderson Paaks. Carter counts the singer among his successes at NPR. At the time, the Californian had yet to become a household name.
“That was a situation where we really had to push to bring him on. We had to explain that this was someone we really need here. He wasn’t signed to Dr. Dre’s label yet, so it took some convincing. Anyone you present or pitch, you have to make a strong case,” he says. “So it was a success becoming the No. 1 Tiny Desk video.”
Carter says when colleague Abby O’Neill invited Paak back to NPR, the artist said their Tiny Desk video is “their most important video to date.”
That is the power and finesse of Tiny Desk, which incorporates artist discovery into its mission. As a DJ, Carter is used to scouring Twitter, Spotify and SoundCloud or relying on his DJ circle – Point Blank DJs – to find new talent.
He encourages musicians on the come-up to stay aggressive, telling them to “get on people’s nerves” because they’ll be remembered in the end.
“I’m always on a quest for new music. It’s a daily thing, and we use different methods here. We get hundreds of emails a day saying, ‘check this out.’”
In 2018, Carter “checked out” an email from a PR agency promoting a new artist named Lucky Daye. When the producer clicked on the submitted link, it contained Daye’s unreleased debut studio album “Painted.”
“I listened to it, and I knew he was a star,” says Carter.
Shortly after, Carter and Sidney Madden, co-producer, went to hear Daye perform as an opening act for Ella Mai. The two invited him to perform on Tiny Desk, and he accepted.
In 2019, Daye became a four-time Grammy nominee.
Power couple: Wife works on films
Carter seems to have a knack for discovering gifted creatives. His wife Melanie is a digital compositor who has worked on Oscar-winning films for Best Visual Effects – “Blade Runner,” “Life of Pi” and “First Man.”
“We’ve always been pretty unconventional. We spent about eight years living bicoastal. We’re both kind of weirdos, so it just works out,” says Carter of their 18-year relationship. The couple married in 2012.
Melanie has an impressive filmography with credits on movie productions like “Venom,” “The Fate of the Furious” and “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.”
She describes her husband as super supportive, saying, “I’ve had to live in other countries for a while. I lived in Canada for two and a half years. I also lived in Los Angeles for about five years, while Bobby was in D.C.”
They agree that when two people are equally driven, it all just balances out, but communication is also essential.
‘Wouldn’t be here at NPR if it weren’t for Jackson State’
It’s an adage that further rings true as Carter recounts his days as a mass communications major at JSU, calling it the most pivotal point of his life.
“It was also the most important four years of my life. I grew up and became a man at Jackson State. Not to mention the friends and family I made there. I formed real brotherhoods and sisterhoods,” he said. “It changed my life. I wouldn’t be here at NPR if it weren’t for Jackson State. If you take JSU out of my life, it would just be a huge question.”