When you watch “Morning Joe,” you can’t help but notice the music. Every commercial break is book-ended with tunes from a mix of bands — the Rolling Stones, Smashing Pumpkins, Rilo Kiley, The Grateful Dead and Arcade Fire, to name a few. The music’s catchy, and it helps capture the show’s feel-good vibe.
But it’s not just the type of songs and artists that make the music stand out, it’s also the way they’re selected.
Behind the scenes, the “Morning Joe” producers are busy at work, listening to the MSNBC show’s guests to see if there’s a song or band that could illustrate what they’re saying. The show’s audio director, David Quanvie — or “Q” as he’s called on set — selects much of the music with the help of the show’s producers and hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.
“We don’t have a rundown of the songs we’re going to play; it’s completely organic,” executive producer Chris Licht said in a phone interview. “Really anyone in the control room can shout out a song and Q can literally dial up a song in a couple seconds.”
It makes sense that music is such a big part of “Morning Joe”; Licht was a disc jockey at WRKI, a rock n’ roll radio station in Connecticut, and Scarborough is an avid guitarist who once wrote a musical.
“Morning Joe,” which had an average of 387,000 viewers per day in 2010, has hundreds of songs in its library. Many are from some of Scarborough’s favorite bands — The Clash, Elvis Costello, The Rolling Stones and Radiohead. He loves the Beatles, too, but the show doesn’t have the rights to play their songs.
“Once in a while, Joe will say, ‘Hey, let’s mix these songs and send a list of 15 songs,’ so we’ll mix those in somewhere.” Licht said. “But nine times out of 10, it’s just something that makes sense because of the direction the segment is going in.”
Using music to capture dialogue, tone
To truly appreciate the music on the show, you have to understand the stories behind the songs.
Selecting the songs is like a game for the “Morning Joe” folks. Take, for example, a recent “Morning Joe” segment featuring Jon Meacham. During the show, Meacham said something to the effect of, “We gotta kick it down the road ’til Tuesday.” Licht heard this phrase and decided to go to break with a “‘Til Tuesday” song.
Similarly, during a “Morning Joe” segment in which guest Dylan Ratigan talked about his “Steel on Wheels” tour, Licht thought it would be fun to play a song from the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” tour. Being the Stones fan that he is, Scarborough picked up on the connection.
He and Licht like to test each other’s knowledge of music and see if they can pick up on the nuances of each other’s song selections.
“It’s not like I’ll say to him, ‘We’re going to come in with this song.’ The most fun is when we can surprise each other,” Licht said. “Occasionally, I’ll throw up a song and Joe will say, ‘What the hell is that?’ ”
They’re trying to play less of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years,” said Licht. It’s the most played song on the show and has been featured more than 300 times since “Morning Joe” debuted in 2007.
Subtlety is key when selecting songs. The show, for instance, wouldn’t play the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” if there were reports about a hurricane in Miami. “We don’t ever want to be caricatures of ourselves,” Licht said, “and we resist the urge to be obvious.”
There are, however, occasional exceptions.
To accompany its commentary on Republican Christine O’Donnell’s campaign ad in which she said “I am not a witch,” “Morning Joe” featured a string of songs that had the word “witch” in them. The songs, which included the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” and Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” could have been borderline gimmicky, but Licht said they effectively illustrated the absurdity of the story.
Using music to guide the show, connect with the audience
Viewers regularly ask Licht how music is selected for “Morning Joe” and whether it’s possible for the show to name the songs and artists it plays in real time. This wouldn’t be practical, Licht said, because the songs are chosen so spontaneously. There is a playlist on the “Morning Joe” website, but it features only some of the songs in the “Morning Joe” music library and isn’t updated daily.
Just last week, “Morning Joe” started taking requests from users on Facebook. Scarborough has mentioned some of the songs on air as they’re played and has been using Facebook to encourage song requests.
“In Chicago getting ready for the show. Oprah, David Axelrod, Tom Brokaw, and Blago (so says Willie) will join us at RL,” he wrote on Facebook last Friday. “Send us your Chicago-themed song requests.”
The Facebook page has become a place for Scarborough to generate enthusiasm around music, and simultaneously, the show.
“How about some Vampire Weekend?” a commenter wrote last Friday. “Good ‘get up and go’ music for the end of the week.” Scarborough responded: “Can NEVER go wrong with Vampire Weekend!” (Drawing on recommendations I solicited on Twitter, I requested Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry,” which “Morning Joe” played Tuesday morning.)
In addition to providing “Morning Joe” with a way to connect with its audience, music helps Licht maintain control on the set. Thirty seconds before the show breaks for commercial, the music starts playing, letting the show’s hosts and guests know that it’s time to wrap up. Licht pointed out that it’s similar to when the Oscars play music to let winners know that they need to end their speeches.
Music also helps foster a spirit of collaboration on “Morning Joe,” since everyone on the set is encouraged to recommend songs. And it makes the three-hour show go by faster, Licht said.
In many ways, “Morning Joe” has shown how news and music can work together to creatively capture a show’s identity — and make it that much more appealing to viewers.
“Since we’re a show that depends on vibe, music is immensely important; you can have a contentious segment or talk about stuff that’s not uplifting, but the music can put you in a good mood. It’s a bookend to reality,” Licht said. “Music is in the fabric of our being. If we didn’t have music, it would really change the show.”