WXPN picks the hits

Bruce Warren has heard the future of rock ’n’ roll on the South Dakota prairie.

And because he has, listeners to Penn’s public radio station, WXPN (88.5 FM), will hear it too.

And if they behave as they usually do when Warren hears something interesting, before too long people across America will all be talking about Indigenous, a hard-driving band of Native American blues-rockers Warren referred to as “the next Allman Brothers.”

Warren is program director at ’XPN, having risen to that position when his predecessor, Vinnie Curren, succeeded the man who hired him, Mark Fuerst, as general manager. Together, these three men — assisted by a stable of on-air personalities who are equally passionate about music — have created a public radio powerhouse that has helped define contemporary music in the ’90s.

Indigenous is one of a number of relatively unknown acts that get airplay on ’XPN and thus cease to be relatively unknown. The station, which is considered one of the pioneers of the format known in the radio industry as “adult album alternative” (A3), plays a critical role in getting new music from both promising performers and familiar ones in front of an eager audience.

The artists and the industry appreciate the effort. For instance, Curren mentioned singer-songwriter Dar Williams, another of Warren’s finds. “[She] may sell 1,000 records” in Philadelphia without airplay on ’XPN, he said. “But if something catches Bruce’s ear and it gets on the air, she may sell 5,000 records.

“And success in a single market like Philadelphia makes the difference between her working in Northampton [Mass.] as a waitress during the day and being able to stay at home, write more and tour,” he said.

Among the other musicians who credit ’XPN with helping launch their careers, according to Curren, are Counting Crows, Jewel, Ben Folds Five, Chris Isaak and Dave Matthews.

The industry has shown its appreciation by showering the station with awards. This year, for the fourth time in five years, the station swept the top honors at the annual Gavin Awards, winning its fourth A3 Non-Commercial Station of the Year award and a Program Director of the Year award for Warren, who took home the same award last year and the Non-Commercial Personality of the Year award in 1995, 1996 and 1997. The Gavin Awards are the tip of the iceberg: The station and its staff have received numerous awards from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and industry publications as well as eight “Best of Philly” awards from Philadelphia magazine.

The station’s nonmusic programming also has won praise. “Kid’s Corner,” hosted by Kathy O’Connell, boasts a Peabody Award and a Major Armstrong Award among the 27 local, state and national awards it has received, and “Gaydreams” (now “Q’zine”) and “Amazon Country,” ’XPN’s programs for the gay and lesbian community, have won numerous local awards as well as awards from the National Capital Area Chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

And the listeners — 250,000 of them each week, Curren estimated — show their appreciation at pledge time, contributing an average $156 to the station. Member contributions make up 54 percent of the station’s annual budget of about $4 million; business underwriting, merchandising and support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting account for the balance. The only Penn support it receives is in in-kind services, a far cry from the situation when Fuerst was hired in 1987.

The station also continues to provide learning opportunities for Penn students (see “Student Spotlight”). Each year, more than 100 students work at the station as interns or in work-study jobs, and the station also provides support for WQHS, Penn’s student-run AM station, including a late-night Sunday slot for ’QHS programs on ’XPN.

In short, Curren says, the station now lives up to the potential Penn administrators saw in it when they heeded a consultant’s recommendation to raise its profile and professionalize it. “The global vision is, the plan worked.”

Originally published on March 2, 2000