I'm not sure this is truly the biggest mistake I have ever made. But it still pains me to think about it some 15 years later.
A lot of people wonder who picks the music that comes after the stories on NPR. The answer is the director of the show. Sometimes there are little jokes hidden in the songs, to give the knowing listener a chuckle. Always the goal is to pick a song that hits just the right tone to transition from one story to the next or to take the show out to the credits.
My first real job in public radio was directing a show called The California Report. There was a daily 10 minute broadcast and it was my job to make sure the date on the credits was correct and to pick the music, among other things.
I love listening to music, but finding the perfect song wasn't ever my strong suit. At some point I isolated a bunch of short clips of instrumental music I could use on a regular basis. Rather than label them with the song name or the artist, I labeled them with things like "6 seconds, peppy." There was one I labeled "sad song 10 seconds."
There was one show that was particularly terrific. I remember the stories being really strong, especially one from (I believe it was him) Kai Ryssdal, who was a KQED reporter at the time. He had witnessed the execution of a prisoner at San Quentin and wrote beautifully about the man's chest moving up and down as he took his last breaths.
To transition to the next piece, I pulled out my old standby "sad song 10 seconds."
I thought the show was perfect! I was so proud of it. And then the e-mails started coming in. Listeners wanted to know if the person picking the music was trying to be funny. They made very clear is was NOT FUNNY or clever and actually was rather offensive.
Why? Because it turns out the song was called "Better Off Dead."