David Dye On 20 Years Of 'World Cafe'

Oct 29, 2011
Originally published on October 30, 2011 12:45 pm

Twenty years ago, in October 1991, a little college radio station in Philadelphia made a big splash when it launched a music program called World Cafe.

Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn was host David Dye's first guest. In the two decades since then, the program — produced at Philadelphia's WXPN — has become an NPR-syndicated program with a half-million weekly listeners, showcasing some 4,000 artist appearances. World Cafe was ahead of the curve, giving air time to Coldplay, Sheryl Crow and Mumford & Sons well before they were household names — not to mention memorable appearances from established stars such as Joni Mitchell, David Bowie and Paul McCartney.

All this month, WXPN is celebrating the anniversary with special programming and events (a local brewery even produced a World Cafe beer for the occasion). This weekend, there were concerts by Feist and Indigo Girls, and the festivities culminate Sunday night in a special show for contributors to the station's $6 million capital campaign.

For those not familiar with the show, a radio program called World Cafe sounds like it might offer heaping helpings of Afro-pop and tango. Speaking with Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish, Dye explains that that was the plan at first.

"When we first started, we actually did music research and our goal was actually to showcase world music," Dye says. "[But] even the astute public radio audience throughout the country that we talked to about it were reluctant to hear music that wasn't in English. So we kind of changed the focus towards the singer-songwriters and independent music that we do now."

That change was, in a lot of ways, forward-thinking. Twenty years ago, when the show began, public radio's music formats were largely classical or jazz. WXPN and World Cafe helped give rise to the popularity of the so-called Triple-A format.

"It originally stood for 'Adult Album Alternative,' " Dye says. "I think the idea was to play the less-popular contemporary artists that don't get airplay: singer-songwriters, independent artists, a little bit of reggae, blues ... things that everybody had in their record collection, but weren't represented on the radio dial."

In exploring the world outside the mainstream, Dye interviewed thousands of artists, including a few of his idols. He remembers a particularly rewarding session with Joni Mitchell in 1994.

"I think she's just an amazing musician, songwriter, everything about her. We went off-site, we went to New York and interviewed her there — and it was not a no-smoking room, I will say that," Dye says. "Just being able to engage her about music and see her light up, [and] touch on topics that she really wanted to talk about... It was really a joy."

It hasn't all been smooth sailing, however. Especially early on in the show, the World Cafe staff witnessed some disastrously awkward moments — like the time Bruce Hornsby sat down at piano the show had rented and found it completely out of tune. Dye has also had his share of difficult interviews.

"Lou Reed came in, and I'm sure he was testing me. For the first 10 minutes, he gave me one-word answers as I ran through my entire two pages of questions," Dye says. "I think finally he said, 'OK, he suffered through all this, I'll start giving him real answers.'

"There's someone who I've since developed a wonderful relationship with; the first time I had the chance to talk to Paul Simon, he was not very forthcoming until the microphone was turned off, and then he regaled us with stories about rehearsing with Bob Dylan in his apartment," Dye adds. "I just wish we had the mic on. But later, he's been really forthcoming and a great person to interview."

Ultimately, artists must have one specific quality to earn a spot on World Cafe: a great story.

"It's difficult for me to interview brand-new bands, because there's not much of a story there, and sometimes they get lost in their own genealogy and things like that," Dye says. "I tell you, give me a septuagenarian and I'm in heaven. I just love finding out about things that happened early on in music.

"I tend to act as an advocate for the listener," Dye adds. "If I hear something the first or second time I listen to a song that I don't know what's going on, I need to find out what that is."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Twenty years ago, in October of 1991, a little college radio station in Philadelphia made a big splash when they launched a music program called World Cafe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREAT BIG LOVE")

BRUCE COCKBURN: (Singing) Great big love sweeping across the sky...

CORNISH: Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn was host, David Dye's first guest. In the two decades since then, the program produced at Philadelphia's WXPN became an NPR-syndicated program with a half-million weekly listeners, showcasing 4,000 artist appearances. World Cafe was ahead of the curve, giving airtime to artists Coldplay, Sheryl Crow, and Mumford & Sons well before they were household names. Then there were the established stars: guests such as Joni Mitchell, David Bowie and Paul McCartney.

All this month, WXPN has been celebrating with special programming and events - a local brewery even produced a World Cafe beer for the occasion. This weekend, there were concerts by Feist and the Indigo Girls. And the fest culminates tonight in a special show for contributors to the station's $6 million capital campaign.

World Cafe host David Dye joins us now from WXPN. David, welcome and congratulations.

DAVID DYE: Thanks, Audie. It's great to be here.

CORNISH: So first, about your name…

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: First, those for familiar with the show, it sounds like World Cafe would serve up Afropop and Tango, but that's not exactly what you do.

DYE: You know, it's really funny. When we first started, we actually did music research and our goal was actually to showcase world music. And even the astute Public Radio audience throughout the country that we talked to about it, were reluctant to hear music that wasn't in English. So we kind of changed the focus a little bit towards the singer-songwriters and the independent music that we do now.

CORNISH: Twenty years ago when the show started, Public Radio music formats were mostly classical or jazz. But WXPN and World Cafe kind of gave rise to the popularity of the so-called AAA format, which I hadn't really heard of before.

DYE: It originally stood for Adult Album Alternative. And I think the idea was to play the less-popular contemporary artists that don't get airplay: singer-songwriters, independent artists, a little bit of reggae, blues; things that everybody had in their record collection but weren't represented on the radio dial."

CORNISH: There's a list of your 20 favorite interviews on our website. And I was wondering if you could start by describing your favorite moment over the years. I know it's 4,000...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: …interviews...

DYE: Yeah...

CORNISH: ...but what's one that sticks out?

DYE: I keep getting asked this and I'm pretty consistent with my answer, which was one that happened very early on, on the show. I believe it was 1994. I had a chance to interview my hero, Joni Mitchell. And I think she's just an amazing musician, songwriter, everything about her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COYOTE)

JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) No regrets, coyote. We just come from such different sets of circumstance. I'm a...

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

DYE: We went offsite. We went to New York and her there. And it was not a no-smoking room, I will say that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DYE: And just being able to engage her about music and to see her light up, touched on topics that she really wanted to talk about. And it was really a joy.

CORNISH: Tell us about some of these in-studio performances because that came to be a huge part of your format. And were there any disastrous moments or moments that gave you goose bumps?

DYE: Many of both, I'll put it that way. Some of the disastrous moments - our show was originally in a third floor studio. And a baby grand piano that had been left out in the sun for a bit of time was taken up the stairs by five guys from New York City, set-up for Mr. Bruce Hornsby. Bruce Hornsby arrives after its tuned, sets down, puts his hands on the keys and it's completely out of tune. And the...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DYE: And the piano tuner has left. And luckily, we got him to - that he made the music from his home studio for us. But it was like just one of these learning moments.

There've been many, many wondrous moments. We are huge fans of Andrew Bird - violinist, fiddler, songwriter, guitarist - who tends to overdub himself. He just tape loops and does it all live. He still hasn't attained the stardom that we certainly hope he does. But he's well on the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DYE: I like to talk to somebody who has a story, who's been through something. It's difficult for me to interview brand new bands because there's not much of a story there.

CORNISH: At the same time, you've got World Cafe Next which presents emerging artists. And what's your track record been with those then? Have you had artists kind of flame out on you?

DYE: Well, yeah. You never know. You never know what's going to happen. In fact, I probably can't even tell you the ones who have flamed out. When we were putting together this 20th anniversary shows, we went back over and we have huge lists of everybody who's ever been on the show. And there are literally artists on there that none of us can remember. And which just shows you what a kind of a crap shoot the music business is.

But, you know, you talk about somebody like a Tori Amos. You know, nobody really knew what was going to happen with her. But you have to admit, by hearing her play the piano, by hearing her songs, by hearing her forthrightness, the way she uses language, all these things were really appealing.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILENT ALL THESE YEARS")

CORNISH: Now, I'm fairly new at this job. And doing interviews with musicians, I find can be really hit or miss. Sometimes just getting them to kind of articulate things about the music; I wanted to know what's your secret for drawing people out.

DYE: Well, you're right. Sometimes people who can say things so eloquently and with such precision in a song are not prepared to talk about the emotions within the song, or maybe not so aware of their craft.

CORNISH: I feel sheepish even asking sometimes. Like the art should stand for itself.

DYE: Yeah.

CORNISH: And like I shouldn't ask what that particular lyric means.

DYE: Yeah. I tend to act as an advocate for the listener. If I hear something, say, in the first or second time I listen to a song that I don't know what's going on, I need to find out what that is.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

CORNISH: There seemed to be a lot of I-didn't-that moments that come out of these interviews, as a result of you being our advocate. I mean I think of the conversation with the Beatles producer, George Martin, had a lot of back-stories that I didn't expect to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

DYE: That was one that we were just really, really excited about being able to do. Because who isn't a Beatles fan and who doesn't have a question about how certain things happened? I just remember that whole interview just sort of sitting there going, you know, oh, my God. This is a piece of information I've never heard before.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DYE: I have to tell you a funny thing about that interview. We did it trans-Atlantically. And George was in the studio at the BBC and we were here. But George is very hard of hearing and he was reluctant to do the interview live. So what we did is I would ask the questions - and I had typed out all the questions I was going to ask - faxed them and a handler in the studio would point to question I asked. He'd read it and answer it.

CORNISH: What? It sounded so casual.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DYE: I know. He was - I guess he'd done that before. He was great with it.

CORNISH: We're there any people who just didn't play ball?

DYE: The answer is yes. I'm reluctant to reveal all of them, although I kind of think the one I'm about to reveal wouldn't mind, ‘cause I think he wears it as a badge of honor. And it's Lou Reed.

Lou Reed came in and I'm sure he was testing me. For the first 10 minutes, he gave me one-word answers as I ran through my entire, you know, two pages of questions. And I think finally he said, OK, he suffered through all this, I'll start giving him real answers.

The first time I had a chance to talk to Paul Simon, he was not very forthcoming until the microphone was turned off, and then he regaled us with stories about rehearsing with Bob Dylan in his apartment. And how when he and Dylan would get out on stage, Bob would always misplace his harmonica...

CORNISH: Oh, that's the worst when people do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DYE: Oh, I just wanted to - yeah, I just wish we had the mic on. But later, he's been really forthcoming and a great person to interview. So...

CORNISH: So give us a look ahead. And tell us who are some of the bands to watch that we're going to be hearing from soon on World Cafe.

DYE: Well, I am fans of a lot of people and I believe you've had a chance to talk to some of them, as well; people who are coming up. Lisa Hannigan has been around for a bit, but she's got a wonderful, wonderful new album. We recently had St. Vincent on and Annie Clark is someone I'm just a huge fan of. We just recorded a session with people that aren't necessarily newcomers but they are in this band of alternative females, Wild Flag, who just rock and were just a whole lot of fun to have on the show.

So those are just some things we have coming up. But I'll tell you, I'm so focused on this 20th anniversary that I've got to start listening to some more new music. I've spent a lot of time listening to the archives.

CORNISH: David Dye is the longtime host of World Cafe. He joined us from the studios of WXPN in Philadelphia.

Thanks very much and congratulations on your 20th anniversary!

DYE: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: There is a showcase of the best moments from World cafe's 20 years on our Web site, NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.