Roger LaMay

Roger LaMay

The creator of “The Ten O’Clock News” finds noncommercial radio liberating.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

When Roger LaMay (G’99) created the “Ten O’Clock News” at Fox-owned WTXF (Channel 29), he was not afraid to break the rules. He hired anchors who hardly qualified as “pretty” by TV standards, his reporters had hard to pronounce names like Schratweiser and he reserved valuable time for coverage of arts and culture.

Although he was a great success and was promoted from news director to general manager of Fox Philadelphia, somehow it seemed ordained that he would break out of the corporate mold.

That day came six months ago, when he left to become general manager of Penn’s very un-corporate public radio station, WXPN-FM.

But ‘XPN is hardly some sleepy public radio backwater. It practically invented the world music format and its program “World Cafe” is the gold standard for over 150 stations that carry the program. Exciting things are happening at WXPN. In LaMay, WXPN has a leader with all the people skills and all the corporate savvy to keep it growing yet firmly anchored to its devoted—not to say fanatical—audience.

Q. The station will be moving into the newly-refurbished Hajoca Building [at 31st and Walnut streets] next summer. What are the next steps for WXPN?
A.
The big challenge is to take full advantage of every opportunity that the new facility will offer us, both in terms of having a state-of-the-art facility, combining our staff in one place, but perhaps more importantly sharing the building with a for-profit venue.

The challenge is to grow and take advantage of those opportunities and still stay little WXPN and stay in touch with our audience and keep our grassroots support.

The second challenge—ironically, after having just left a huge media conglomerate—is that as the consolidation of the media gets greater and greater—and obviously it is a burning issue right now—the importance of places like WXPN grows monthly. Public radio and TV stations are becoming the only locally-controlled entities in the media landscape. At the same time, the music business has become increasingly corporate. In radio, they have essentially shrunk the play list so that now there are huge numbers of up-and-coming and long established artists in our general sphere of music who can’t get their music on the air—except for places like WXPN.

The thing that ties together the new facility and the trend toward media consolidation is that we have a very strong music-based mission and everything we do needs to relate to that.

Q. What is this new music venue that will be sharing space with WXPN?
A.
A little more than one-third of the building will be ‘XPN. Upstairs there will be a coffeehouse—Cosi-style, but with a stage where you will hear live music. Downstairs—what I think in terms of quality will be the finest music club in Philadelphia. There will be dinner seating for about 350 people and high-end sound and lights. It will be a your-feet-don’t-stick-to-the-floor environment to hear music—most of which is the kind of music you hear on WXPN.

It will be owned by Hal Real, the owner of Real Entertainment. He is a long-time friend of the station. It will be called World Cafe Live. We will not be booking the acts or cooking the food. That is not what we do. We are a radio station. They will be paying us a licensing fee for the right to use that name.

Q. Is this a part of Penn’s plan to link West Philadelphia with Center City?
A.
Yes, this will be an anchor for that. It will be very high-profile and there is a lot of interest and excitement from the city. They see it as a tourist destination. Here is where the World Cafe originates, but you can go see a concert, we expect, six or seven nights a week.

Q. What are the differences between the commercial environment and the university environment?
A.
The biggest difference is in the big picture. In the corporate environment virtually every decision, ultimately is being made on a financial basis. That is just not the case in the public radio and university setting. Obviously, what things cost and all of that is always a huge consideration, but there are higher ideals in place here.

Q. Is that liberating?
A.
Oh, yes. It is tremendous. In the corporate set-up—it doesn’t mean that what happens is done for bad reasons—there are a lot of good things that can happen. I believe in capitalism, but it is gratifying to me, at this point in my career, to be at a place where you still have to have a strong business rationale for what you do, but essentially it is about quality of service. That is exciting.

Q. There has been some controversy about a plan to take the program “Amazon Country” [aimed at a lesbian audience] off the air. Would you call it a typical public radio flap?
A.
It was an interesting first taste of public radio. If this was the corporate world, we wouldn’t have paid any attention to it. Although there was a lot of controversy about it, it was from a very small group of people. Several things struck me. A reasonably high percentage of the people that communicated with me about the show, didn’t regularly listen to it. It was more the idea that Amazon Country existed. I thought the most compelling argument that came out of that reaction was that there was no real place for this program in any other media and for that reason, if we could find some other place for it we should continue to serve that community. We came up with a compromise which, I guess like most compromises, didn’t make anybody happy. We kept the show alive and I expect it to have a place on ‘XPN for years to come.

Q. What are the changes you have made?
A.
We wanted to move Gene Shay, our folk show, back to Sunday nights where he was for so many years on WHYY. We thought that he would reach a wider audience and it was a better time for the program. That was one of our primary points. We want to increase the hours on the weekend of our general music mix.

We also want to launch a new program airing on Monday nights called “Jam Nation.” It is a show that serves some of our younger listeners. We particularly want to keep bringing new people into the radio station. It will feature bands like Phish, String Cheese Incident and Disco Biscuits that are incredibly popular on the college and post-college scene today. I call it the lineage of The Grateful Dead. There is a huge following across the country and nobody is really serving those folks in terms of one place to find this music.

Q. What is your favorite music?
A.
I do come out—in my younger days—as a jam band fan. The interesting thing is that since I moved to Philadelphia in the ‘80s. I’ve had my radio on WXPN and listened to it 15-20 hours a week. In my most frustrating moments in my corporate days, I used to say that one of these days I am going to chuck it all and go to work at WXPN. Little did I know that I meant it.

Originally published on September 18, 2003