by Nathan Lerner
These days, it has become commonplace for radio stations to radically revamp their formats. In many instances, this becomes an ominous portent of divesting the station’s on-air hosts of any modicum of control over the content of their programs.
Somehow, WXPN’s (88.5 FM) David Dye, 61, has managed to buck these disquieting industry trends. The long-time Mt. Airy resident is celebrating 20 years of his nationally syndicated show, “World Café.” On every Monday through Friday, 2 p.m., it features a distinctive amalgam of live music and interviews.
A native of Glen Falls in upstate New York, Dye grew up in Swarthmore since the age of six. He matriculated at Swarthmore College, where he initially majored in biology before switching to history.
Dye recalled, “I think I always wanted to do radio and was banging on the door of my college station on the first day of freshman orientation. That year, my roommate saw an ad that WMMR was looking for DJs and dared me to apply. About six months later, I got a call out of the blue to do an interview and got the prized Sunday morning 8 a.m. to noon slot. I was in heaven.”
At the tender age of 19, Dye made his on-air debut. He conceded, “I was incredibly nervous. Time was the only thing I used to overcome my fear. The more I did it, the less fearful I became. As any DJ will tell you, we all still have dreams about messing up.”
Back then, WMMR was a free-form progressive station which granted wide latitude to their DJs, even the inexperienced college kid. “On the air, I was allowed to be wildly eclectic. Playing avant garde jazz, old-timey country, show tunes, whatever I wanted. Beyond my life being more carefree, it was not that different than the freedom I am allowed now on ‘XPN. Progressive rock ruled … Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Procol Harum, the Grateful Dead. WMMR had a British progressive rock bent.”
Following a four-year stint at WMMR, Dye departed for Maine, where he spent five years at WBLM. Dye returned to Philadelphia, where he was at WIOQ for a decade. In 1989, Dye began his tenure at WXPN, where he initially hosted “Sleepy Hollow.” Dye enthused, “All of them were great experiences. I am certainly more at home on ‘XPN!”
Dye analyzed what makes WXPN and his nationally syndicated show, “World Café,” different: “First of all, ‘XPN is a non-commercial station. Our goal is to entertain our audience, not return a profit. I feel a lot of pressure to make great radio, not so much to please sponsors. That said, figuring out ways to support the station without endless fundraisers is increasingly important.
“World Café is that rare thing, a stand-alone radio show rather than a part of a format.” As Dye pointed out, Since World Café is not simply local to Philadelphia, he has to think about music on a national level. “Also the World Café has an interview in every program, allowing artists to play live for a large audience.”
Dye has attracted top-notch performers to appear on World Café. “Boy, have I been lucky! I hope I never take it for granted that I get to sit across a room from the likes of Yo Yo Ma, Herbie Hancock, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Al Green, Peter Gabriel and so on.” He cited two of his biggest surprises. “I was taken aback that Paul McCartney, a man who has been interviewed zillions of times, actually answered my questions like he had never been asked them before. And Dr John really does talk in his own New Orleans language!”
Before moving to their current studio at 30th & Walnut Streets, WXPN broadcast from a Victorian building on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The somewhat dilapidated condition of the venue generated an amusing memory for Dye. “The funniest thing that ever happened has to be the time a squirrel dropped down through the ceiling into the studio right in the middle of an interview. Grown men scurrying and screaming ensued.”
According to Dye, “The biggest challenge is listening to enough new music and finding the time to prep for all the interviews, sometimes multiple ones in a day.” He lauded his crew, “We have an amazingly proficient staff; Producer Kim Junod; Beth Warshaw-Duncan, who actually assembles each show; Chris Williams, who engineers our live sessions; Ellen Opplinger, who keeps everything organized, and Executive Producer and ‘XPN Program Director, Bruce Warren, who is a font of ideas and enthusiasm. These people have my back and keep the show as good as it is!”
Dye has lived in Northwest Philly since 1980 and moved to Mt. Airy in 1985. In addition to celebrating his 20th anniversary of World Cafe, Dye is also coincidentally celebrating his two decades of matrimony. His wife is Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, Karen Heller. They have a daughter, Cece, and a son, Nick. According to Dye, “They are always telling me about music and life.” Rounding out the household is a cat named Binky.
Dye is unabashedly enthusiastic about living in the neighborhood. “I love Mt Airy and Chestnut Hill. It comes down to the people, the park and the beauty. Not to mention the institutions like Weaver’s Way, Kilian’s, High Point Cafe, Hideaway Music and … Well, you get the picture. We are all very lucky.”