“It’s the kind of opportunity that you don’t say no to, really,” Talia Schlanger said.
The opportunity in question was the chance to become the second-ever host of the radio show “World Cafe,” as David Dye prepares to leave the WXPN-produced and NPR-distributed show he created after 25 years.
Schlanger made the move from her native Toronto where she was working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) to Philadelphia to join public radio station ’XPN back in October. She began her journey with “World Cafe” as contributing host and radio producer.
Starting April 3, she’ll take over “World Cafe” full-time.
“For a music fan and someone who’s into storytelling and interviewing, it’s kind of a dream come true,” said the 31-year-old Jewish Schlanger.
Her interviewing is partly what got her the job.
WXPN Program Director Bruce Warren recalled listening to Schlanger when she interviewed indie rock artist St. Vincent (Annie Clark) while guest hosting a CBC program in 2015. He reached out by email afterward to introduce himself and commend her on the interview.
“I was immediately struck by her talent and her ability to interview, the rapport she was establishing with the artist, with St. Vincent, the kinds of questions she was asking, the natural conversational style she had,” said Warren, who worked at Camp Ramah for eight years.
As a fan of St. Vincent, it’s still one of Schlanger’s favorite interviews.
“I was really nervous about the week in general,” she said of filling in as guest host, “but when I found out that St. Vincent was coming in, Annie Clark in the flesh, I lost my marbles. Somehow I managed to put that all aside and just have a really great chat.”
That’s not to say she hasn’t had some great interviews since starting in Philadelphia. In December 2016, she interviewed Regina Spektor, who Schlanger said is “like a unicorn: Everything she does is fancy and otherworldly and magical.”
They spoke about Spektor’s latest album, which delves into her experience growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union.
In the interview, Schlanger asked her about the title of her album, Remember Us to Life, a line from a prayer that Spektor recently rediscovered during a Yom Kippur service.
Schlanger was also able to get Spektor to sing a Russian lullaby during the interview. Schlanger connected to it, as her own family sang similar lullabies growing up.
“My Eastern European grandparents, that question came from thinking about them and thinking about that sort of Eastern European Jewish tradition of lullabies,” Schlanger said.
It’s moments like those that stick out for her — when she can learn more about an artist and their life and how their experiences come through in their music.
“An interview where the artist is truly themselves makes a great interview, and where you hear something that surprises you and that makes you listen a little deeper the next time you put on one of their records,” said Schlanger, who also worked as a professional actress in Toronto productions of Mamma Mia! and toured the U.S. with the company of American Idiot.
“There are so many layers and levels to music fandoms,” she added. “You can just straight-up like the way something sounds for the pure aesthetic glory of it, and then you can listen to the lyrics and fall in love with it even more and then you can dig into the artist’s story and find out where those lyrics came from, and what they were thinking or feeling and how that manifests musically. The interviews that do that are some of my favorites to listen to.”
With interviews with artists like the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones already under her belt and others coming up she is “really excited” about (but couldn’t say with whom), she would love the opportunity to interview fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell. Though, she admits, she would be “very, very nervous.”
But until that happens, she’s palpably excited for the opportunity to lead “World Cafe” with interviews and conversations that she hopes will make listeners feel like they can call a friend and say, “You’ve got to listen to this song or this story” — the same way they felt about hearing one of the more than 5,000 interviews her predecessor has done.
“I really want to be, like David has been, sort of a friend and companion to our listeners and somebody who is on their same level sharing something like you would with a friend,” she said. “I really want to build that relationship and that trust with the people who listen to the show so they know that when they tune in they’re going to find that friendly voice who’s going to go on a musical journey with them.”
Dye will continue to contribute to the program on a weekly basis and host a new one-hour Sunday program called “Dave’s World.”
Warren is excited for a new chapter of “World Cafe” and expanding its reach digitally as the way people consume music has changed in the last 25 years. It’s the “iTunes economy” or streaming economy now, he said.
“We live in a different world now than we did yesterday,” said Warren, a native Philadelphian who grew up attending the now-defunct Oxford Circle Jewish Community Center. “The way music is distributed, the way people discover music, it changes every single day, and we’re up for the challenge to understand that more. And not only are we going to grow our terrestrial radio footprint with some evolving editorial decisions, but we’re also looking to … grow our digital footprint in the NPR music space.”
Schlanger is excited to continue making a home in Philadelphia, where she’s been enjoying the arts and culture scene, particularly live music shows at Fishtown’s Johnny Brenda’s, and looks forward to building on Dye’s legacy of helping people discover and connect with new artists.
Dye has championed musicians who credit their success to his backing, such as Josh Ritter — who was just in Philly with artists like Ryan Adams last weekend as part of the “World Cafe” 25th Anniversary Concert series — and even Bruce Springsteen, who cited Dye as an early supporter of his career in his recent memoir.
“The more time I spend here, the more Philly feels like home and the more I can make a bit of a community for myself,” Schlanger said. “I’m thrilled to in a year from now feel like ‘World Cafe’ was handed over to good hands, and we’re doing the legacy of the show justice and plowing forward and introducing people to new, awesome music.”
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