Public Media Arts Hub

New 'Tiny Desk' host reveals what the future holds for NPR's popular music series


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: It's a tiny desk that's become a huge draw for some of the world's most famous musicians.

I worked at NPR many years ago and recently returned to talk to the new host of the long-running concert series about why this unique format continues to resonate with so many.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

So this is the tiny desk.

Bobby Carter, Host, "Tiny Desk": This is the tiny desk. And it's a tiny desk. It's a tiny space. It's a tiny everything.

Geoff Bennett: Bobby Carter's new job is a big one, overseeing NPR's tiny desk concerts.

Launched in 2008, this wildly popular series has racked up billions of views on YouTube, along the way convincing some of music's biggest names to play a stage like no other.

Taylor Swift, Musician: I just decided to kind of take this as an opportunity to show you guys how the songs sounded when I first wrote them.

Geoff Bennett: These intimate, stripped-down performances offer major stars like Taylor Swift the chance to showcase their talents in ways audiences rarely get to see.


Geoff Bennett: She stepped behind the tiny desk in 2019.

T-Pain, Musician: This is weird as hell for me.

Geoff Bennett: Or when rapper and autotune pioneer T-Pain showcased his real voice five years earlier.


Geoff Bennett: In all, more than 1,000 artists have performed here, including Alicia Keys.


Geoff Bennett: And some you have maybe never heard of, like Chicago-based marching band Mucca Pazza, who somehow fit more than 20 musicians behind the tiny desk.

The performances happen in front of an audience made up of mostly NPR staffers inside its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

We should say this really is an office space. This is NPR's office space.

Bobby Carter: You would be surprised how many people don't realize that. So we forewarn them. You're walking into a regular office. This is just a desk. The acoustics aren't great.

So, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse because it's different.

Yes. And then go straight into it.

Geoff Bennett: Carter leads a team of producers, videographers, and sound engineers who film performances about three times a week, including a recent one with jazz pianist Bob James, who played alongside D.J. Jazzy Jeff rapper Talib Kweli.

Are the rules still the same for people who want to perform at "Tiny Desk"?

Bobby Carter: Yes. We always let them know that this is unlike what they're used to doing on stage. There are no bells and whistles and tricks. What you hear and what you see is what you get. But intimacy is still the key. That won't ever change.

Geoff Bennett: But change did come for tiny desk in October, when longtime director and series co-founder Bob Boilen retired.

Bobby Carter: When Talib starts rapping, everybody just comes down just a tad.

Geoff Bennett: Bobby Carter, who's been at NPR for 24 years and who's been producing these concerts for a decade, was promoted last month.

How do you see "Tiny Desk" evolving under your leadership?

Bobby Carter: We can continue to evolve by just not touching this. Of course, we can grow in many ways, but it's more so, how do we maintain the essence of what we're doing?

Geoff Bennett: That has always been a challenge, but never more so than during the pandemic, Carter says.

As concert venues across the country, including the "Tiny Desk," shut down, he worried he might soon be out of a job. But several artists, including many from around the world, like British pop star Dua Lipa, and Spanish singer C. Tangana came to the rescue, filming home concerts.

Bobby Carter: Those home shows, not only did they help us sustain, but it really helped us grow.

Geoff Bennett: Now back in person, the tiny desk looks and feels as cluttered as ever.

Bobby Carter: Justin Timberlake recently left his megaphone.

Geoff Bennett: In large part, Carter says, because of what artists, like rapper Juvenile leave behind after they perform.

Bobby Carter: Juvenile's Juvie Juice sip, plenty of those.

Geoff Bennett: Right.

Bobby Carter: Pretty much everything you see back here has a story.

Megan Thee Stallion left her stallion. Gary Clark Jr.'s sweat rag.

Geoff Bennett: Yes.

Bobby Carter: Our centerpiece for the whole desk is that brick bear. Bob Weir from The Grateful Dead left.

Geoff Bennett: The most recent addition, a cue card from "Saturday Night Live"'s spoof of the series.


Actor: Guys. Hi, yes, can we be quiet please? Some of us are working.



Geoff Bennett: Artists have around 15 to 20 minutes to express themselves as they wish in a space that holds only 200 people.

Man: I think I'm going to need some help again.

Geoff Bennett: And Carter says the planning for these concerts can be months in the making, especially before the series welcomed legendary R&B singer Babyface last year.

Bobby Carter: Usually, we're just talking to the teams, the representatives, the producer.

His assistant got on and said: "Hey, we got Babyface right here ready to talk."

I'm like: "What, bro?"


Bobby Carter: He was like: "Hey, I'm going to get behind the desk. I'm going to have three background singers, all of which you know. And I'm going to get behind the desk, and I'm going to run through all the hits."

That show was a flex, but also he flexed on the time because he went way over, but who the hell is going to tell Babyface to stop?

Man: Back again, "Tiny Desk."

Geoff Bennett: "Tiny Desk" has also long spotlighted up-and-coming artists. Since 2014, the series has hosted the Tiny Desk Contest, which invites unsigned musicians to perform original songs at a desk of their choosing.

Winners like Gaelynn Lea have a chance to play their own "Tiny Desk" concerts.


Geoff Bennett: And some like Tank and the Bangas, who won the contest in 2017, have gone on to find commercial success. The New Orleans band was nominated for a Grammy as best new artist two years later.


Geoff Bennett: But even some of the biggest stars, like Usher, have used the tiny desk to reach new audiences.

I'm convinced that you can draw a line between Usher's resurgence and him booking that Super Bowl halftime show to his meme-making performance here at "Tiny Desk."

Bobby Carter: Near 100 percent. I always say, someone like an Usher, they don't necessarily need us. He's Usher at the end of the day, but this definitely helped put some fire under what was going on.

Geoff Bennett: Now 16 years after the first "Tiny Desk," Carter says he still respects any artist willing to perform here.

Bobby Carter: I salute each and every artist who's willing to be that vulnerable behind the desk, because it is not easy.

Geoff Bennett: Who's on your personal wish list?

Bobby Carter: Oh, God, where's the camera?

I'm talking to you, Sade.

Geoff Bennett: Wow.

Bobby Carter: I'm talking to you, Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen and Kendrick Lamar.

And that's why I'm so excited. I'm still excited about this, because there are so many artists who haven't taken that shot at this yet.

Geoff Bennett: Bobby Carter, congratulations on your new role and continued success with "Tiny Desk."

Bobby Carter: It's good to see you back here, G.


Geoff Bennett: It's good to be back.

Bobby Carter: Yes, sir.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.