Public radio's homesteaders on the pop frontier
Critique by Dave Bunker
What can pubradio give to listeners in the range of popular music? Four national programs demonstrate various options. Originally published in Current, Feb. 11, 2002
Now in its 10th year in national production out of WXPN in Philadelphia, World Cafe established the first big public radio outpost in the American pop landscape with hefty funding from CPB: $1.45 million over the first two years. Since then production costs for the show have become part of 'XPN's budget, with revenues from PRI affiliate fees, 'XPN's listeners, and sales of a successful line of World Cafe compilation CDs, according to 'XPN general manager Vinnie Curren.
The station dedicates the talents of six full-time staffers to its production, with 'XPN program director Bruce Warren serving as executive producer. He says the show reaches 150 stations, about half airing it a few hours a week and the other stations scheduling a five-day block of up to two hours. There is also a weekend version of the show and a new one-hour weekly version called Conversations from the World Cafe, which is designed to fit better at news-format stations. PRI began national distribution in October and has enlisted nine stations so far.
Warren says World Cafe aims to provide "a contemporary alternative music service in communities where none exists" and to identify "issues, trends, and ideas that are music-related and talking about them." Beyond these services to listeners, the show also intends to serve performers directly through exposure and promotion. "We help artists quit their day jobs," says Warren.
The music mix on World Cafe is described on the show's website as "a rich eclectic blend of contemporary rock, folk, alternative country, rhythm and blues, world beat and jazz." Examination of recent playlists reveals that, while wide-ranging, the mix airing does not quite reach this level of eclecticism, with the rarest appearances made by world beat and jazz. The core sound is the singer-songwriters of the AAA format. (There is some question as to what "AAA" stands for. Warren prefers "Adult Album Alternative," noting that the older option, "Adult Acoustic Alternative," has been rendered inaccurate by the increasing appearance of non-acoustic instruments in the mix.) The show covers several decades of names in music. Songs by such veterans as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Sting appear alongside songs by such recent singer-songwriting luminaries as Dar Williams, Gillian Welch, and David Gray, whom Warren describes as "today's James Taylor." The bias, however, is toward the contemporary. The veterans are mostly veterans who are still working, and the songs featured are usually their more recent stuff.
The producers avoid hard rock, which they define by citing bands: Counting Crows yes, Creed no, softer Pearl Jam okay. If a piece has what Warren calls "adult sensibility"—that is, intelligent, articulate lyrics with something to say—it can rock moderately hard.
The music on World Cafe is tasteful, well performed and well recorded, but intermittently humdrum. Not all of these many soulful poets writing understated songs are equally inspired. Some seem to take the general mellowness of the singer-songwriter vibe as permission to write unimaginative and unvaried music to accompany lyrics that sometimes stray into pop-song clichés.
World Cafe is unique among the shows critiqued here in being a daily service, so it is not as highly produced as, for example, American Routes. The production values are still high, though, and the show has an appealingly straightforward music radio sound. Host David Dye has an affable but authoritative presence and keeps his announcing brief and focused during the presentation of disc-based material. The scale expands within the regularly featured live talking-and-playing sessions with artists, which are edited for air but can still run up to an hour long. A relaxed editing style keeps in hellos and goodbyes, speakers fumbling to formulate a question or answer, and answers that go on a bit but convey a deeper sense of the guest's quirky individuality. The overall effect remains that of natural conversation. Dye does an excellent interview, engaging in lively banter with his guests, laughing, complimenting them without fawning, and at the same time making sure the discussion moves along and doesn't get too technical or obscure.
As for the future, "My staff calls me 'The World Dominator,'" confesses Warren with a half-sheepish, half-gleeful laugh. The moniker refers to his ambitions for the AAA format, which find expression both in 'XPN's home market and in the national program. 'XPN management has set the goal in Philadelphia of placing their station among the city's top five cultural institutions in the minds of its citizens, and when asked about his vision of where World Cafe is going in the next ten years, Warren laughs his World Dominator laugh again and says "300 stations!" But then he adds, "We also want to make sure that we are serving our core listeners. It's not just about the numbers."
'XPN management has also been looking into the possibilities of starting a record label and producing a television version of the show.
To Current's home page WXPN and a local entrepreneur developed a concert venue in Philadelphia that also provides studio space for the station. Outside link: World Cafe's website.
Web page posted March 18, 2002
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