World Cafe's Latest Adventure

Hosted by
World Cafe's latest adventure The changing face of public radio.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat on KCRW.

How good is your air quality? Few markets are blessed to have innovative public radio programming. Los Angeles is incredibly fortunate to have had KCRW at the doorstep for the last 30 plus years. Seattle is the home to the progressive non commercial radio station KEXP as well as the Experience Music Project, a rock and roll museum extravaganza.

You can now add Philadelphia to that list of trend setters. Philadelphia is home to WXPN, a non-commercial public radio station owned by the University of Pennsylvania. Just this month, WXPN joined with a private organization to bring a new vision to public radio. This hybrid union between non-commercial and commercial enterprise may become a future model of things to come.

The station produces the popular World Cafe syndicated radio show which airs nightly. The show is two hours and features a live performance in every segment. A couple of weeks ago, WXPN moved into new studios. But this was no ordinary radio station move. The station lent the name of their syndicated World Cafe show to group of private investors who built a for profit upscale coffee house, restaurant and concert hall under the title World Cafe Live.

The radio station, restaurant and live venue are all housed in the same building, though run as separate entities. The station is non-commercial and all other businesses are commercial ventures . World Cafe Live is a beautiful 350-seat venue with restaurant built to engage audiences in the same kind of music that World Cafe is most known for -- from KD Lang to John Hiatt, from The White Stripes to the British pop band Keane. Upstairs from the venue, there's a coffee house and acoustic performance area. The new commercial ventures will bring hundreds of thousands of people into a live setting with similar music.

Next door, the radio show World Cafe is produced, and though they currently showcase an entirely different group of artists live, expect to see recordings from World Cafe Live on the syndicated program soon.

The radio show is now in over 170 markets, including NYC, LA, Chicago, and many more. Though on the air for 14 years, it's been a rough road for World Cafe. The old WXPN studios were located in an 18th century house. Highly unsuitable for recording, artists would arrive, with instruments and backline in hand, and be told to hike their gear up to the third floor -- which was actually constructed more like six flights of stairs -- no elevator. The recording area was so small for artists that often the bands wouldn't fit. In fact, Lyle Lovett recorded sessions there with two of his band members playing from the WXPN bathroom.

But life is different now and because of this new business association, the radio station has moved into much nicer digs. World Cafe Live is not the first music-themed restaurant slash concert hall. The Grand Ole Opry, House of Blues and others have already been there, done that.

But it is the first time a public radio station joined forces with a private restaurant and venue to attract a particular kind of consumer. Purists may argue that commercial enterprise and non-commercial ventures should not be allowed to live side by side, but I think the lines of non commercial radio continue to blur every day.

What is most evident is that the sophisticated music listener has come unto its own in America and is far more mainstream than ever before, and that, in my opinion is good all the way around.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.