Bruce Warren looks almost too hip for public radio. With an earring in one ear and a wiry frame, the programming guru behind WXPN is a surprising contrast to other public radio personalities, for instance National Public Radio “Morning Edition” host Bob Edwards.
But Warren is very much about and for public radio. The proof is in the almost 11 years he has dedicated to making ’XPN (88.5 FM), Penn’s public radio station, the innovative musical powerhouse that it is today.
Even Billboard Monitor has taken notice, crowning Warren 2002 Triple A (“Adult Album Alternative”) Program/Operations Director of the Year.
We recently stopped by the red-brick house the station calls home, for a chat.
Q. What positions have you filled here?
A. I started on air as a volunteer. My first full-time job here was as the business administrator. I knew though when I first went on the air here, the first day I was on the air I said, this is my future, this is my real future. Radio. Public radio WXPN. Probably about 6 months or so after I started that job, there were rumors around about this national show, the “World Café.” Ultimately, I applied for a job to work on the “World Café” and got the job—I was one of the assistant producers on the show.
Q. What makes the “World Café” different from other shows you hear on the radio?
A. First, it’s a music-intensive show. The centerpiece of the “World Café” are the performances and the interviews with the artists. And clearly David’s [David Dye, who hosts the show] stamp on the show is pretty significant. On some level, while the content may be slightly different, the value of the programming is similar to other public radio shows. It’s intelligent. It’s conversational. It appeals to a certain kind of person who likes public radio.
Q. What’s the charm in working at a public radio station?
A. It’s a whole different level of experience and meaningfulness for people. On a certain level, it’s about the songs that you hear, but it’s much, much more. It’s the stuff in between the songs. It’s the way the information is presented. There’s a level of intellectual pursuit that we’re able to have on a public radio level because we’re member supported. We’re not driven by the bottom line like a commercial station is. Commercial stations, if they’re not successful, they change their formats. It’s the first thing that happens. Public radio is successful because we can afford to have a certain amount of innovation and risk.
Q. What kind of programming direction is WXPN moving into?
A. I can’t say anything new that we’re moving into. I think the core of what we do is always focused on our local service. …I’d like to see us reflect some more of the cultural and artistic kinds of things that are happening in Philadelphia and our listening area.
Q. Is there a Philadelphia music scene?
A. There’s a pretty intense music scene. Absolutely. Philadelphia has always been rich in creativity. Personally, I think it’s gotten better in the last year and a half. I think there was a while there where it was kind of mediocre at best. I think the level of singer-songwriters that are out there right now are more compelling. But there’s an incredible DJ culture right now... There’s bands like the Roots who are doing just unbelievable things. Jill Scott. The rapper Eve. I think there’s lot of excitement in music that is just coming out of Philadelphia that’s not black. It’s not white. It’s music for an innovative world, I call it. You go to these shows and you see something really neat happening, and it would be great to kind of capture that on ’XPN on a certain level.
Q. Do you feel ’XPN has a responsibility in helping up-and-coming musicians flourish within the community?
A. I think we have a responsibility to help artists quit their day jobs, whatever that means. Locally or nationally. I’m from Philadelphia and great music needs to be heard. If it’s from Philadelphia, fantastic. Do we go out of way to seek it out whether it’s local or national? Absolutely.
Q. Would you ever go into commercial radio?
A. Once for an interview, I said I would never work at a commercial radio station. And I feel pretty much the same way now. That interview was about five or six years ago. Commercial radio is not about listener service. It’s about real estate. And it’s the values of public radio that are so attractive to me personally and also are part of people who I know.
Q. What has been the highlight of working here?
A. Meeting some of my musical heroes but more important than that getting to work with the people I work with. I work with some amazing people. Some very creative, very smart people.
Q. Speaking about musical heroes, who are some of yours?
A. Bruce Springsteen. Neil Young. Elvis Presley. Elvis Costello. I grew up in the ’70s. Those were my formative years, so I was very inspired by the classic-rock era. But I also was very influenced by rhythm-and-blues here in Philadelphia. I still listen to R&B. I love hip-hop. I love rap. I think it’s some of the most creative music that’s come out in a really long time. I like to listen to jazz and soul music. It’s hard to choose between Bruce Springsteen and the Delphonics sometimes; that’s all I can say.
Originally published on May 9, 2002