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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."