King of the world

David Dye
Photo credit: Candace diCarlo
David Dye's Top 5

Joni Mitchell, Hejira (1976): “I am honestly a singer-songwriter fan. Hejira is incredible lyrically and she has some of the most amazing backing, with Jaco Pastorious on bass. It’s just a fabulous disc.”

Bob Marley, Natty Dread (1974): “It’s just a great, understated reggae album with political themes. But it’s mostly a great summation of Marley’s sound.”

Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (1965): “Just because it’s a classic album and I grew up with it. There’s a bit in nostalgia involved with that.”

Miles Davis, Sorcerer (1967): “This is middle-period Miles. A real favorite. I love that period of Miles.”

Bruce Springsteen, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973): “Incredible use of language. It was a real turning point for me to fall in love with that album. It got me back into rock.”

David Dye’s first official job at WXPN wasn’t as a disc jockey. It was as a researcher.

After serving as a volunteer DJ at the station, Dye was finally given a full-time job in 1990, just after the station received a public radio grant to develop a new radio show. The program was supposed to be the first-ever public radio show about world music—and it was to be called “The World Cafe.”

“World music was really big at that point,” says Dye. “Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ had just come out. We thought, ‘Oh, these intelligent public radio listeners, they’ll want to know about this music. They’re globally oriented, right?’”

Apparently, they weren’t.

When Dye and his colleagues tested the world-music idea on a focus group of 100 public radio listeners, the idea fell flat.

“They hated the world music,” Dye says, laughing. “It was way down at the bottom of the list. They would write things down like, ‘It all sounds like salsa.’ They just didn’t want to hear it.”

What they wanted to hear, coincidentally, was the very music that Dye himself had loved for years: Intelligent, grown-up, singer-songwriter-penned tunes that commercial radio wouldn’t dare spin. So while he knew the world-music show wouldn’t fly, Dye saw an opportunity: He scrapped the world music, kept the proposed show name and, in 1991, launched The World Cafe radio show. It was a smart move.

Now heard on nearly 200 stations nationwide, Dye’s program is one of the most influential music shows in radio, having hosted such high-profile artists as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Tom Waits and countless others. This month, the show will be honored with an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, given each year in recognition of outstanding print, broadcast and new media coverage of music.

Recently we sat down with Dye to talk about his hugely successful program, the state of radio and, of course, the music he loves.

Q. When you launched The World Cafe, was there any other public radio show like it?
A. We really were one of the few that was doing this and we got a little resistance from public radio at the beginning, with people asking, “Who needs a popular music show on public radio?” But they didn’t understand what we were going to do, or that the music we were going to highlight was not getting played on commercial radio, and barely on public radio.

Q. When you were a new show, was it hard to find decent guests?
A. Oh my God. It was ridiculous early on. We should be pinching ourselves every day that we pick up the phone now and Tom Waits wants to come be on the show. I mean, they call us now. In the beginning it was really pulling teeth. We didn’t have much of an audience. Nobody knew who we were. We had no reputation for what we did. You would make an ask for an artist and they would say, “Sure, we’ll put you on the list.” Finally, one of our early producers, Bruce Raines, got a couple of members of U2 to be on the show.

Q. How did he pull that off?
A. He had a relationship with the band’s manager. Now, it wasn’t Bono [that came on the show]. It was Edge and Adam, the bass player. We had to go to them and record in their hotel room. But it turned out to be a pretty good show. Then, after that, when people asked, “Who have you had on?” we could say, “We’ve had U2!” That was a totally great thing. Also early on, we got Joni Mitchell, which was personally a big thing for me, and then it kind of flowed from there. So it’s very different today. We have the cachet of NPR, plus almost 200 stations. And for 15 years we’ve been at it. People know what to expect.

Q. Do your guests ever surprise you?
A. There have been a few guests that I haven’t been particularly interested to talk to that have been totally charming and fabulous. One guest that I was totally surprised by was Branford Marsalis. He and I just hit it off. I think he appreciated what I knew about him, and to tell you the truth, I think he had just come from an interview at a jazz station and they were very reverential toward him, and he dug that. Recently, Gang Of Four came on the show, and they just totally blew me away. I was familiar with Gang Of Four, but because of the age I am and what I was into, some of those 1980s punk years passed me by. I knew Gang Of Four more by reputation, and I’d listened to some of their albums. But they came on and ...had this vitality. I didn’t know what to expect from them, but [in the interview] I learned so much about their political background and what they do. It turned into a great interview.

Q. You’ve interviewed some fairly famous people over the years. How do you typically prepare?
A. Well, you always want to know your facts. Recently we interviewed Tom Waits, and I was very nervous about talking to him, number 1, because he’s Tom Waits, and number 2, because he’s a character. But I found that while I maybe didn’t over prepare, I was over-anxious for it. We ended up talking on the phone and he was far more normal that I expected. He wanted to give me good quotes, which was just so fabulous. My pet peeve in interviews is bands of young guys who are just 23 years old, in their first band, having some success, and they’re just terrible interviews. They haven’t done anything and yet they have this insularity, just from being in the band. And I look like their dad.

Q. I imagine you’ve had a few weird things happen in your studio.
A. We had an interview early on with a band from England called the Levelers, who were still drunk from the night before. It was in the morning. They came down from New York and one of the guys had a waste-paper basket next to his chair. That actually happened. And one of the early cringy interviews was with Lou Reed, who for the first 10 minutes of the interview gave me only one-word answers. He was totally testing me to see if I’d flip out. But I stuck with it and he finally warmed up. It was like, “Oh my God, please cut me a break.”

Q. We hear lots of people lamenting the state of commercial radio. What are your thoughts?
A. It’s not going to get better. The state of commercial radio is kind of like—and this is very uninformed analysis here—the state of business in this country. Everything is leveraged to such an extent that the amount of money you have to make from whatever product you’re selling is so high that you can’t afford to take any chances. It has to be all about how to make as much money as possible. I came up in radio at a very unusual time. I have been trying to wrap my head around things that are happening like satellite radio. FM radio, when I started out, was a castoff that nobody was interested in. So, consequently, a new group of people got to build something out of that, and that is happening again in sort of aspects, like the Internet. So yes, commercial radio and radio in general has got to really work to be competitive. We are a broadcasting media, and so much of what is out there today is very narrow. If I hear something I like on The World Cafe, I know where I can go hear two hours of music just like that, any time of day. [In radio], you have to be a generalist. Our strength, I think, is being generalist in that way.

Q. How much of what we hear on the show—either the songs or the guests—is your call?
A. All of it. It’s always been that way, for better or for worse. But I work with a bunch of people. For instance, we’ll have a booking meeting, and if I can’t support why I want to have somebody on, or why they’re important, or why they’ll be a good interview, everyone will say, “No, forget about it.” So I do have that, but I’m usually the one coming up with the ideas. We’ve learned from experience that if we sign up somebody to interview that I don’t really like, it will not be a good interview. So we try to avoid doing that. One of the things you have to do [in my role] is that you have to be really open to a lot of music. I cannot be a snob about music and say, “I don’t like that, therefore forget about it.”

Q. Looking to the future, what would you like to do with the show?
A. Musically, we can’t be sure, because we’re not sure what’s going to happen. The show has changed. We are trying very much to appeal to a younger audience than we have been. It is much less singer-songwriter oriented, and much more in tune with what’s going on today. And there’s a real move afoot, editorially, to do more with this show. I think, as great as it is and as much as people appreciate us just playing CDs, I think there’s a way to do the show that is going to have more “there” there.

Originally published on December 7, 2006.

Originally published on December 7, 2006