Philly.com Reports: XPaNsive sounds
JONATHAN TAKIFF, Daily News Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org, 215-854-5960 POSTED: Wednesday, July 24, 2013, 3:01 AM EMILY
"Being at this radio station is such a treat," whispered Robison after last Friday's "XPN Free at Noon" show at the adjacent World Cafe Live music club, in University City, where she and Maguire led a punchy, 45-minute set of material from the just-unleashed Court Yard Hounds album "Amelita." "At most radio stations, they make it seem a big deal to let you just play one song." But thanks in large part to LaMay - now celebrating 10 years as WXPN general manager, and also popping the corks this weekend for the 20th annual WXPN summer music festival, now called XPoNential - Philadelphia's "adult alternative album" powerhouse can afford to be generous with its idealism and airtime. The LaMay-launched Friday midday concert series doesn't just please the 600 or so folks who get in to the performance for free, the thousands more music buffs tuning in at 88.5 FM and the local underwriters (Comcast/Xfinity), who enjoy good vibes by association. MORE COVERAGE Dylan, Wilco, Morning Jacket: Can Philly expect an onstage collab? Clap Your Hands Say Yeah return with new EP Listen to new Dr. Dog song, album out in fall The same show also will pop up on xpn.org and as a spotlighted feature on the well-curated NPRMusic.com website, streamable on request. And it might be re-fashioned into an hour of music and chat for the "World Cafe" radio show, hosted by David Dye, which WXPN and National Public Radio distribute weekdays and weekends to about 220 radio stations and 550,000 listeners nationwide. A Court Yard Hounds live track also could crop up on one of the homegrown CD music samplers that WXPN presses as a premium for listener donations. Working all angles "We really appreciate Roger's entrepreneurial spirit," said Gary Knell, CEO of National Public Radio, which last year elected LaMay to its board of directors - reportedly a "first" for a music-station GM. Other current board members all hail from "news/information"-focused public stations. "NPR prides itself on being nonprofit," continued Knell. "The vast amount of money for our stations comes from the private sector. So, you have to be on your toes, putting out a great product, being a good community citizen while also driving revenues. Roger's been a real asset in helping us focus on all that at once." Doesn't hurt that the "50-something" LaMay cut his teeth in commercial broadcasting, including 18 years at Fox 29 - the first eight as news director (he put the "10 O'Clock News" on the air) and the last 10 as station general manager supervising a "$100 million a year business," he calculated. But, even in his short-locked, corporate-suited years, the now shaggy-haired, casual-dressing LaMay was a "Dead Head" at heart, he allowed, a serious alt-music buff. "My first job out of college was as a country-music DJ in Santa Fe, N.M., playing a lot of Tex-Mex. I always liked jazz and folk, too." So, LaMay made it a mission to funnel underwriting funds from Fox to WXPN "as an antidote for some of the things we were doing," and to serve, when called, on the radio station's nonpaid Policy (advisory) Board. "Then one day XPN general manager Vinnie Curren told me he'd accepted a job offer from CPB [the Corporation for Public Broadcasting] in Washington, and asked me to help find his replacement," LaMay recalled the other day in his office lair decorated both with groovy music lore and white-boarded lists of station priorities/aspirations. "Vinnie had no idea he was calling my bluff, that I secretly wanted the job," LaMay said. "And I've never regretted it, not a single day. Well, maybe a little on paydays. But the autonomy can't be matched." When running a commercial station, "a lot of decisions are being made for you on a corporate level," LaMay explained. "Here, you're responsible for everything that happens. I was already familiar with the great group of people working at the station. But I saw an opportunity to help XPN grow, make it sustainable and raise the level of service it provides. Make it more than just a radio station, but a good community citizen and asset." Much more music While sticking to a $7 million budget and "not spending money we don't have," his priorities include projects like "Musicians on Call" - a WXPN outreach program that sends musicians to entertain hospitalized patients - as well as the "Music Film Festival," the "Mississippi Blues Project" that's brought old-timey talents to town and this June's first city-wide and city co-sponsored "Make Music Philly" day. WXPN also hosts and exclusively broadcasts stellar shows from the annual "Non-Comm" (non-commercial) broadcasters' convention, held in the unique clubhouse that the station shares with the for-profit World Cafe Live concert venues, at 3025 Walnut St. It's a spiffy complex that LaMay helped shepherd to completion nine years ago with cafe developer Hal Real and which is the envy of many other station managers, we've learned. One of the nation's top 10 public stations in ratings, shared Knell, WXPN also jumps out with digital initiatives, like its online music site The Key, secondary content streams and HD radio channels, and with investments in signal repeaters that now carry the music west to Harrisburg, east to the Jersey Shore and south into Maryland. "We hold up WXPN as a shining example to other public stations who think their service commitment begins and ends with putting a show on the air," added NPR Music director/executive producer Anya Grundmann. She's "working with XPN every day on projects" and credits its edgy content with helping NPR Music lure in much younger listeners than public radio typically attracts. "They're filling voids, playing interesting artists and styles commercial radio often ignores. . . . The mean age of our [streaming] listeners is 35, and for social-media-connected listeners it's 28." Ready for the weekend The station's biggest and most visible outreach effort is the XPoNential Music Festival, returning Friday to Sunday to Wiggins Park, on the Camden waterfront. Unlike other pre-packaged, touring festivals with radio-station call letters attached, "we actually book the talent ourselves - the process started back in November and we sweat it to May," said LaMay. And yes, they do guilt-trip artists into playing for less "so we can keep the ticket prices as affordable as possible." But in the past few years, as record sales have deteriorated and concert touring has become the artists' only reliable source of income, getting major headliners to cut their performance fee has become more difficult, admitted LaMay. So, to keep the festival "sustainable," he made another intriguing non-comm-meets-commercial pact with promoting giant Live Nation, fusing WXPN's daytime/evening shows at Wiggins Park with two heavyweight night-time bills that Live Nation is staging at the adjoining Susquehanna Bank Center - shows "which they booked in consultation with us." Your all-weekend "Go Everywhere" ticket to XPoNential thus buys all-spots access to both Wiggins Park stages and to a lawn view for the evening Susquehanna shows - Saturday's bill of the Lumineers, Dr. Dog and Policia, and the Sunday-night AmericanaramA Music Festival featuring Bob Dylan and His Band, Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Ryan Bingham. For LaMay, the Lumineers are "the great story this year that captures what XPN is all about." Last year, these tight-harmonizing rustic music-makers were the opening act Friday on the smaller XPoNential Marina Stage (the River Stage is bigger.) This year, the Lumineers are the top act on the Saturday-night Susquehanna shed show - and a prime reason that all inside seats are already sold out. The lesson here is to trust the WXPN tastemakers to steer you right, even if you've never heard of the artists that they're dishing at the fest - be it the achy-breaky California-folk rock revivalists Dawes (our fave), second generation city-billy Justin Townes Earle, smooth soul stylists Michael Kiwanuka and Jose James, indie popsters Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Kopecky Family Band and Phosphorescent, damsels in duress Kat Edmonson and Erin McKeown, chick magnets Lord Huron and Brett Dennen or world fusionaires Red Baraat and the John Butler Trio. See you there? Roger, Roger! XPoNential Music Festival, Wiggins Park and Susquehanna Bank Center, Camden, Friday through Sunday, 3-day Go Everywhere Pass $70 XPN members, $125 general public; 3-day Wiggins & Garden Pass (doesn't include access to Susquehanna Bank Center shows) $55 members, $110 general public; 1-day kids pass (age 2-12) $5; 1-Day Wiggins & Garden Pass available at the gate $25 for members, $50 for nonmembers (doesn't include Susquehanna show). WXPN memberships start at $35, xpn.org.