The first song that David Dye will play on his new WXPN-FM (88.5) radio show when it debuts in April will be “Walk Awhile,” by the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention.
The lead cut on the Richard Thompson-led group’s 1970 album Full House was also the first song Dye played when he first went on the air at XPN in 1989.
Dye played the song then for the same reason he’ll play it now, as he eases into semiretirement and steps down as full-time host of World Cafe, the XPN-produced show he founded in 1991: as a musical invitation to commune with his audience. “Walk awhile, walk awhile, walk awhile with me,” the song goes. “The more we walk together, love, the better we’ll agree.”
Audiences have been connecting with Dye over the airwaves in Philadelphia since 1970, when the then-19-year-old Swarthmore College upstart landed his first show at the pioneering album-rock station WMMR-FM (93.3). His impact in that stage of his career can be measured in part by noting that in the “A Deejay Saved My Life” chapter of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run memoir, the Boss is referring to Dye.
But never mind those glory days: For a quarter century now, public radio listeners have tuned into Dye on World Cafe, the two-hour daily music-and-interview show that started out on five stations and is now carried by 214 around the United States. Station manager Roger LaMay calls it “our marquee show. It’s what we’re known for all around the country, and it drives everything we do.”
At the end of March, Dye, who’s 66, will step down as full-time host. He’ll make way for Talia Schlanger, 31, the Toronto native and Canadian Broadcasting Co. radio and video veteran who arrived at XPN in October as part-time host of the show.
Dye is confident he’s entrusting his baby to capable hands: “She’s incredibly personable, smart, and incisive,” he says of Schlanger, who has worked as an actress in Toronto productions of the rock musicals Mama Mia!, We Will Rock You, and American Idiot and who also writes her own music, which she characterizes as “scrappy, edgy folk.”
XPN program director and World Cafe executive producer Bruce Warren first contacted Schlanger after hearing a CBC interview she did with St. Vincent in 2015. He was struck by her “warm, friendly, conversational, confident” approach, and praises his new hire’s “natural storytelling ability.”
When she interviewed for the job, Dye thought: “ ‘Wow, this is exactly what we need.’ It’s rare to have something that’s been on as long as this has and -- mark my words -- it’s going to get better.”
Schlanger says Philadelphia has been “aggressively friendly” since she moved to Center City in the fall. She calls Dye “one of the pioneers of this kind of radio. The fact that he’s still doing it so well is bananas. It’s bananas!”
As Schlanger takes over, Dye won’t be going away. That’s wise, especially since the jock who rightly cites “being a friendly presence” on the air as one of his main attributes, is so central to the station’s brand.
He’ll still do his popular Funky Friday dance party. He’ll record one interview segment a week on the Cafe, plus a weekly music banter session with Schlanger. And on Sunday April 2, he’ll launch Dave’s World, an hourlong show that will give him freedom to keep doing what he got into radio for in the first place: “To sit in a room alone and put songs together.”
‘You think the World Cafe was my taste? No, this is Dave’s World.” There’ll be more jazz -- like sax player Rahsaan Roland Kirk -- and “my sweet spot for music is really from 1968 to 1977, so expect to hear a lot of that.”
On Friday and Saturday, 25th Anniversary Concerts at the World Cafe Live will host Ryan Adams, Sylvan Esso, and Ben Vaughn (Friday) and Josh Ritter and Rodney Crowell (Saturday).
When World Cafe launched, Dye was acting host. “I said, ‘I’ll do it till you find someone.' From that point on, I kicked and scratched to keep anyone else from the microphone. ... I did everything myself because I was afraid I was going to get fired.”
Over time, the show’s influence grew. U2 (sans Bono) and Joni Mitchell were early coups. Eventually, the network of stations grew to more than 200, and begging was not necessary. Paul McCartney wanted to be on the show.
Dye has boosted innumerable careers. Idaho songwriter Ritter is one: “I really don't know where I'd be without David and WXPN,” he said via email. “From the very first time I met him, David treated my music as if it was something special and new and worthy of attention. The respect he paid me and my albums so early on was a revelation, and I feel so lucky to have been able to build a musical relationship with him.“
When Schlanger was hired, Dye’s exit wasn’t clearly imminent. But, Schlanger (rhymes with anger) says, “I knew that I would have an outlet for all the creativity I want to bring. Cool, amazing things happen here, for the sheer purpose of discovering, digging, and sharing great music. That really is top of mind.”
XPN is doubling down on the show, says LaMay, who also serves as chairman of the board of National Public Radio. The station has launched World Cafe Nashville, in which NPR’s Ann Powers will interview five or six artists a month, and the station has plans to hire another contributing host.
In a fraught political environment, LaMay says, “it’s really important that leading public radio programs across the country in news, music, and culture focus on being increasingly relevant to new audiences on multiple platforms.” He concedes, “It’s a precarious time in some respects, but if you work in arts and culture, you’ve had some experience with that.”
“Moving to Canada” may be a popular fantasy, but Schlanger did a reverse commute. “I think that for a young woman with a career charging forward in America, this is a good time to do it," she says.
Dye regards his World Cafe quarter-century as his career high point. “I feel good about what I’ve done,” he says. With enthusiasm for chasing the new thing waning, though, he’s happy to step back, albeit “with 25 percent fear or dread about it.” The deejay, who is married to former Inquirer and current Washington Post writer Karen Heller, plans to spend time with a soon-to-be-acquired springer spaniel, go to Phillies games, and read mysteries, like the new Denise Mina book he’s itching to crack.
“What David has built here ... is unbelievable. So I feel equal parts intimidated and inspired to do the same.” World Cafe, she promises, will always be a show on the radio where your friend will come to you and say, ‘You gotta hear this. You gotta hear this story!’ ”