6 Questions with Jane Feltes


"This American Life" producer Jane Feltes says she used to be lucky to run the volume controls on a BBC documentary. That was back in 2003, when she was pouring drinks three nights a week at Bar Vertigo in Chicago and interning at public radio station WBEZ-FM. She went full time with WBEZ in 2004, working with Ira Glass on the observational-style journalism of "This American Life." Today, she also serves as a music supervisor on the television version, which debuts March 22 on Showtime. She discusses her crash course in learning the difference between scoring a radio series and television program.

What characterizes the sound of "This American Life"?

In radio, we look for something with a pretty clear melody and rhythm and something that builds and builds. It'll start kind of quiet under some important thing somebody is saying, and then at the moment someone has a nice little quote, the music will post — there will be some change in the music. That's really the only requirement, and that it's easily loopable, since we do all the mixing ourselves. We look for the same stuff on the television show, but it's mostly unknown artists.

What has been the biggest challenge in jumping to TV?

We use anything on the radio. We use tons of film scores, and a lot of Jon Brion and Mark Mothersbaugh, and a lot of stuff from Philip Glass and David Byrne. But we also use some DMX instrumentals, and Ira likes to use the instrumentals from Dr. Dre's "Chronic 2000." It's across the spectrum. Anything, as long as it's an instrumental, we will use on the radio show. When we moved into TV, we couldn't afford any of that.

Even independent music?

We use a lot of Calexico on radio, for example, and I was talking to them and they were like, 'Oh yeah, totally use everything on the TV show.' We started mixing with their songs and then had to get into making up some license agreements. We contacted their publisher, and they said, 'Great, that's $40,000 a cue.' I don't even know if we had $40,000 to make the entire series.

Can you talk people down to better terms?

I feel like some of the artists we wanted to work with would just rather not deal with this side of it. They'll say they really want to be involved in the show, but we have to talk to the publishing agency. Then we talk to the publishers, and often they say: 'It's $40,000. That's the bottom line.' We have to walk away. There are some people who call the publisher and say, 'Well, how about 1% of that?' We were just so used to using whatever the heck we want. But we just jump on MySpace and click on "electronic" and find an act like Baikonour, who we used.

So it challenged you to dig deeper?

We did a piece about (hot dog stand) the Weiner Circle in Chicago. Towards the end, there's this beautiful scene where the women working there are singing "Shout" by Tears for Fears. They're slamming on the counter and singing it really loud, and the whole crowd is jumping up and down. It was exciting tape. But to have them singing it for 15 seconds was going to cost us $30,000. But I have this friend Kenny Blue (aka DJ Krash), a hip-hop producer in Chicago, and we put his song on. We just didn't use the shot where you can see people's lips moving.

Did you think about having someone score the series?

Mark Mothersbaugh called me in the beginning of the whole TV thing. He said he wanted to do the music for the entire series. I said we couldn't afford him, and we probably didn't want to go that route, in that we'd want to mix it up a bit. But he sent us his entire libraries. He has all these leftover, half-made tracks, stuff that was rejected for films. We used a lot of those, and he was really nice about letting us use them.

Todd Martens is a correspondent for Billboard.