Music has always played a prominent role in Michaela Majoun’s life. Growing up outside of Boston, she studied classical piano, and a high school career aptitude test suggested she should become a professional musician.
The test was only slightly off key. This month and next, the host of the WXPN Morning Show is celebrating 20 years behind the microphone. The station is marking the milestone by sponsoring a host of special events, culminating in a March 12 concert at the Blockley Pourhouse featuring two of Majoun’s favorite artists, Rhett Miller and Francis Dunnery.
The Current caught up with Majoun just after she made it home from the studio during the Feb. 10 blizzard—nothing keeps Michaela off the air—to chat with her about her prodigious run with one of the nation’s preeminent public radio stations.
Q. What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
A. I came from a classical music family, so we always listened to plenty of Mozart. As far as pop music, it was the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, mainly what was on the radio.
I always loved listening to the radio. WMEX, WBZ, they were both really great stations. They had some on-air people who I thought were intriguing at that time. I also loved folk music. Dylan and Baez are the king and queen. I know so much music and so many artists. The assignment I least like at XPN is having to pick out my favorites. They love lists. Whenever they ask me for one I throw in Mozart. God bless them, they sometimes play him. Mozart’s my main man.
Q. What was your first experience in radio?
A. When I was in college (a small liberal arts school in Ohio) I got on the radio there that just broadcast to the dorms. Later, I moved to Wisconsin to work in Madison.
Q. What did you like about being on the radio?
A. I think that I always felt that nobody ever listened to me. It was a way of compensating for that. I like to say that I started talking at six months so it was natural for me.
Q. What were the circumstances behind you coming to XPN 20 years ago?
A. People that I had met at the station in Madison actually gravitated to XPN. I had moved to Los Angeles and I was trying to get a foothold in TV and writing, and they kept asking me to come back and do the morning show. I had done the morning show in Madison from a greasy spoon—a diner. I would sit there surrounded by people having breakfast.
Q. How has the morning show evolved over the years?
A. The first year was really different, then after that it became more like it is now. The biggest change was that I went from interviewing everybody live to producing features myself. A lot of them are features about arts and culture. Last year, I did a whole series on sustainability.
We now team-teach a class in the fall for Penn students about writing for radio. It’s a really great opportunity for them, and they’re so talented. We have a lot of students who become interns at the station.
Q. When you walk into that studio every morning at 5, what are you hoping to deliver to listeners?
A. My goal is always to be as present as possible and to mirror what’s happening with the audience, but also to bring something that’s different to them.
Q. Do you ever get used to getting up at four in the morning?
A. My biggest claim to fame over most of the 20 years has been going out to clubs and being [at work] the next morning, seemingly unfazed by it. I still stay up way too late. Lately I doze, and I wake up in time to see Letterman. Believe it or not, I’m really not a morning person.
Q. What makes XPN such a special place to work?
A. It’s been a leader in creating a kind of radio that harkens back to the old days of FM—and yet it’s very current. There are few other places where new artists are broken in the way we do it, while still embracing the older pop, world music, reggae and so many other things. It really is a proving ground for new talent. The station has bent over backwards to make sure of that.
Q. Have you ever come close to leaving?
A. Originally I was thinking it would be just a year and then I’d go to L.A., but I got so embedded. When I was on the morning show in Madison, I had a career as a realtor so I was busy all the time. I thought I could do [the radio show] here, and in the afternoon I could write great plays, but I quickly learned it was much more than just being on the air.
Q. What are the main differences between a place like XPN and a commercial radio station? Do you think you could have stayed 20 years at a commercial station?
A. Absolutely not. I’ve never worked at a commercial station, but people don’t usually last very long there. Even if they like you, at a certain point it’s enough and they have to get something new. Evidently there still is a rule on commercial radio that you can’t play two women [artists] back-to-back. That is so obnoxious. There’s so much freedom at a place like XPN, and in public radio, to explore music, to explore the arts, to be yourself on the air.
Q. Why would listeners choose XPN over new options like satellite or internet radio, or iPods?
A. First of all, the way that you get those other things are just different. I think people are still listening to radio. A stream that’s created by a computer is different than music that’s put together by people who are there to talk to you about it. Each person’s show takes on their personality. People get to know you and feel like we’re friends. It could be the hallmark the way radio is now.
Q. Who’s on your iPod or in your car CD player these days?
A. A lot of them haven’t changed from 20 years ago. We’re having a concert for my anniversary with Rhett Miller and Francis Dunnery. He’s wonderful and wild and wooly, and he’s my astrologer too. He’s a wonderful musician, just an amazing guitar player. He used to be in Robert Plant’s band. Of course, Rhett Miller is from the Old 97’s.
I’m loving Corinne Bailey Rae’s new album, which just came out. It’s called ‘The Sea.’ I had the great pleasure of interviewing her on World Cafe when her first album came out. Jonatha Brooke, I’m always listening to her.
Q. How has the way the music business has changed affected the quality of music that’s coming out, if it has?
A. The thing is, there always was some amazing music and there still is. There’s more music to sort through now because there are so many sources and ways of finding it. …Our embrace is much larger than what’s in mainstream pop music.
Q. When did the Women’s Music Hour begin, and what do you hope to accomplish with the show?
A. I didn’t start it. It started at a time when women had not made quite as many inroads in the music business. When [the previous host] left the station, I took it over. The idea was then, and still is now, to show the diversity and amazing quality of music by women. It’s a fun gig putting it together and having people on.
Q. Which 20th anniversary event are you most looking forward to?
A. The March 12 concert definitely. It’s going to be awesome. It’s at a place that used to be the Chestnut Cabaret when I moved here. I spent a lot of great times there. I remember hosting many shows there including Billy Bragg and Luka Bloom.
We’re doing an actual arts crawl. I just love the arts scene in Philadelphia. Philadelphia has changed and grown enormously in the past 20 years. It was a natural thing to highlight the arts on my show. So now we’re doing an actual arts crawl. We’re getting a trolley and we’re going from one end of town to another.
Q. I’ve heard that you have a soft spot for cats. How many do you have?
A. Way too many. I don’t want to say how many because I’d sound like a crackpot. Not more than 10. It’s just because I’m a soft touch. Animals tend to come to you, and when they show up and need a home, I tend to give it to them.
Q. How do you react when people—fans—come up to you when you’re out and tell you what fans they are of your work?
A. People are usually really great. Sometimes somebody will say, ‘Hi Michaela,’ when I’m walking by, and it takes me a minute to realize that I don’t know them, they know me from the radio. But it’s not intrusive. People are really respectful.
Q. So do you have another 20 years in you?
A. Who knows? I am so surprised that it’s been this long. I just can’t believe it. Maybe I’ve just forgotten a lot of it. It’s just wild. I’ll try—we’ll see.
Originally published on February 18, 2010