NPR’s Tiny Desk Is Actually Not Tiny at All
One of America's most respected media institutions is hiding a secret that's anything but tiny.
“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” —Albert Einstein
In the age of supposed Fake News, we as citizens have a duty to hold our press accountable. Whether it is political reporting or lifestyle journalism, the truth matters, and there is no fact too small to go unchecked. So it’s troubling, then, that for a decade, one of America’s most respected press outlets may have been deceiving the public. Since 2008, National Public Radio has hosted an ongoing live music series called Tiny Desk Concerts, which features artists from all genres of music, performing selections of songs behind a cluttered office desk in NPR’s Washington, DC, headquarters. Now in its tenth year, the popular series has amassed over 700 performances, from T-Pain to Wilco to Adele, and has racked up over 80 million views on YouTube. But after reviewing hours of footage, speaking with sources close to the desk, and analyzing photos, one thing is becoming clear: The “tiny desk” in NPR’s celebrated Tiny Desk Concert series is not actually that tiny at all.
Many people who have been behind the Tiny Desk speak of its misleading name. Alex Luciano of the band Diet Cig, who performed a Tiny Desk Concert in 2017, tells Noisey that she and her bandmate Noah Bowman often talk privately about “how the desk is not small at all.” Luciano remembers the desk’s size as being fairly average. "It seemed just like a regular L-shaped desk,” she says. “But it was more structurally sound than we expected.” In fact, the desk is large enough that Luciano, who is 5’ 3”, had enough room to stand on it during the band’s performance.
“Yeah, actually, the desk was extremely average in size,” says country artist Sturgill Simpson, though he did note that the seat provided for his 2014 Tiny Desk performance was on the smaller side. “I do remember thinking at one point while I was playing that they should’ve named it Tiny Stool Concert.”
"Yeah, actually, the desk was extremely average in size." — Sturgill Simpson
To analyze the Tiny Desk’s relative physical stature, it should first be determined what constitutes “tiny” in terms of desk sizes. The office equipment retailer Office Depot lists three categories of desks for sale on their website. The “Large” section includes desks over 60 inches in width, “Medium” desks range between 30 and 60 inches in width, and “Small” includes everything from 30 inches and under. One desk in the “Small” category was a mere 16 and 3/10 inches wide. So it would stand to reason that any desk that would comparatively be considered “tiny” would need to measure under 30 inches. Yet photos of NPR's Tiny Desk tell a different story.
Jason Isbell, who in June of 2016 told a fan on Twitter that he is 6’ 1” tall, performed a Tiny Desk Concert in August of 2017. Assuming Isbell was being truthful about his height (two sources who have met him confirm the approximation), and assuming he did not get any taller in the 14 months between these two events (men typically stop growing in height by the age of 18; Isbell is 39), let’s use his reasonably tall stature as a scale with which to make a rough measurement of the desk.
Here’s a photo of Jason Isbell behind the desk:
And here’s an artist’s rendering of Isbell’s approximate frame, unobscured by the desk:
Now let’s see how that 6’ 1” measurement stacks up against the length of the desk:
Clearly, Isbell fits handily along the left side of the desk, which would mean that the length of this side is at least 6’ 1” (73 inches). And that’s not even factoring in the right side, which would likely be slightly shorter since many have described the desk as “L-shaped.” Still, that would mean that the entire Tiny Desk is the size of one and a half Jason Isbells, or 146 inches, making it 116 inches too large to qualify as “small” by most desk standards.
And this measurement only encompasses the desktop. If the entire space behind the desk is also to be included when considering the size of the desk, the “Tiny” qualifier applies even less. Isbell was accompanied in his performance by five members of his band, the 400 Unit, and at one point even invited an onlooker in the office, Ashwin Wadekar, to join on guitar. It stands to reason that any desk area that could simultaneously accommodate seven adults of varying heights, one of which is 6’ 1”, could hardly be considered “tiny.”
The band of seven average-sized adults that comprise Isbell’s 400 Unit was not even a record for the area behind the Tiny Desk. Not even close. The series has hosted the massive ensemble of the Polyphonic Spree, the ten-member a cappella troupe Afro Blue, an 11-piece brass band, 17-member chamber rock band Mother Falcon, and the 23-member Mucca Pazza. That’s not even mentioning instruments, which have included everything from tubas to Chick Corea's 900-pound grand piano.
Gabby Smith, who has performed behind the Tiny Desk twice, once with her project Eskimeaux (now known as Ó) and once with the band Bellows, notes that although the desk is not physically small, it can feel like it is. “The desk itself is a normal size, and it's actually in a cubicle, which I wasn't expecting,” she tells Noisey. “But as soon as you start trying to cram your whole band and equipment into the space and the sound check gets quieter and quieter, it starts to feel really tiny.”
Several tall performers have noted the Tiny Desk's normal size. “I don’t really remember the desk, which suggests it’s small enough to avoid making much of an impression,” says the 6’ 3” singer Frank Turner, who performed behind the Tiny Desk in 2013. When pressed if the desk was tiny enough to remember as unusually small, Turner responded, “I suppose not, no.”
"I’m 6’ 4” and upon close inspection, I found it to be a very normal-sized desk," says Ben Walsh of the band Tigers Jaw, who performed a Tiny Desk Concert in 2017, "although I can’t rule out the possibility that I had temporarily shrunk." (NPR staffers confirm that the Desk is moveable but typically provides a performance space of 11 feet by seven feet.)
Before NPR relocated to 1111 North Capitol Street, NE in 2013, the Tiny Desk Concert series was filmed at a desk in NPR's former headquarters at 635 Massachusetts Avenue, NW. The current Tiny Desk is even larger than the previous one, according some NPR staff members. Comparatively, the Tiny Desk is not even tinier than the other desks on the office floor, they say.
The desk’s remarkably average stature seems to be an open secret among industry insiders. “It’s bigger than my desk!” one New York-based music publicist told Noisey anonymously out of concern for her clients. “It’s like two mid-sized desks pushed together to make an L shape. My whole office would probably fit [behind the Tiny Desk].”
The Tiny Desk Concerts have been the subject of articles in The Washington Post, Forbes, and The Ringer. But each of these articles focused on the impressive influence of the series or its creators, NPR staff writer Stephen Thompson and the inhabitant of the desk, All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. But none of them addressed the elephant in the room: the size of the desk.
"[T]he series’ name is a nod to not only the size of the stage and the length of the concerts, but also the history of its host," Thompson wrote in an email. "But, no, just as Bob’s show All Songs Considered doesn’t actually consider ALL of the songs, his Tiny Desk isn’t, in reality, all that tiny. Bob is a fraud, is what I’m saying."
In the late 70s, Boilen formed Tiny Desk Unit, which he described in his 2016 book, Your Song Changed My Life, as a “psychedelic dance band” but did not provide the reason behind the band’s name. In a 2015 segment with CBS This Morning, however, Boilen confirmed that his defunct band was the inspiration for the Tiny Desk Concert name, which he explained in a 2016 Vox article started as an inside joke: “Our friend Bill had this little tray with a calendar and a pencil holder. He’d just pick it up and move it around. It was his tiny desk.”
Forty years later, the “Tiny Desk” misnomer continues to be an inside joke among those in the know, according to sources. Singer Conor Oberst concluded his 2014 Tiny Desk performance by presenting a gift to Boilen, a handheld piece of miniature furniture. “It’s an even tinier desk,” Oberst said to a chuckling Boilen.
But at whose expense is this “inside joke”? Unlike many privately owned press outlets, NPR is a non-profit media organization that is part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a group that receives federal subsidies and allocates $450 million annually to public broadcasting.
“I like the Tiny Desk series, but as a taxpayer I do feel a little cheated by the name,” one music fan told me privately. “Especially if the desk isn’t actually tiny.”
Dan Ozzi is a staff writer at Noisey, covering office furniture trends in music. Follow him on Twitter.