College radio

When I was young, “College radio” meant a low power station operated by students. The music was often local unsigned acts that provided cassette tapes recorded in garages. It wasn’t unusual to have a minute of dead air a couple of times a day. DJs made horrendous mistakes, often providing unintended humor.

The methods have changed over the years, the first station I was involved with didn’t technically “broadcast”, it was just a channel on the school’s public address system. Lieve worked at a “pirate” radio station, which is still around but has gone legit. A friend does a weekly “radio” program (92.1, Brussels) but I’m able to listen to it here as it streams over the internet.


A handbill for Lieve’s old radio station we found in Leuven

In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania’s radio station is removed from the college entirely. WXPN pretends to be a college station, but its employees aren’t college students. Its leading host (David Dye) is nationally syndicated, and I believe his grandchildren have graduated from college. From his initial project with NPR, “World Cafe”, a small empire has risen.

World Cafe Live” is the name of two restaurants/concert venues. They are connected to WXPN in ways I can’t determine, weaving in and out of each others operations. WXPN is officially a National Public Radio station, and as such a non-profit organization. World Cafe Live is quite obviously a profit driven enterprise. I don’t know how they do it, but I’m glad they do.

Every Summer WXPN hosts the “XPN festival”, a three day concert with multiple stages, and acts ranging from local favorites to world class headliners. Tickets run about $25 a day, and access to the artists is incredible. Not only did I stand about twenty feet from Citizen Cope and Booker T, and within an arms length of Dar Williams and Gary Clarke Jr. on “stage”, there are meet and greet tents after every performance.

World Cafe Live hosts a variety of local and national acts in a theater with a capacity that ranges from 300 to 650 depending on whether there are tables or SRO. One miserable night in the middle of a storm we saw Martha Davis play a full set to about fifty people. Tickets are rarely more than $30, and every Friday there is a free mid-day concert, “Free at Noon”, which is broadcast live on WXPN. Next week we’re going to see Suzanne Vega. Free.

When we attend the evening concerts, we usually sit in the mezzanine, which is closer to the stage than most seats at large venues, and has comfy couch seats and cafe service. Having the band play in your home wouldn’t be quite as comfortable. We recorded this from our favorite seats.

Upstairs is the main restaurant, which also has a stage although I’ve never heard a band I liked there, mostly because the acoustics are suited to acoustic instruments, and the bands are usually amplified.

The food is good, innovative, and interesting. There aren’t near enough vegetarian options, which I found rather surprising considering the target clientele. The beer selection is robust, although they stopped carrying Stella Artois last year.

World Cafe Live also has charity events, and because of the odd relationship between World Cafe Live and WXPN, the charitable donation made to attend an event ends up paying for a membership to WXPN. We attend the “Musicians on Call” event every year, a fund raising concert for musicians who perform for patients in hospitals.

Being a member of WXPN has benefits, we get a discount at the Princeton Record Exchange and for the XPN festival, and early entry for the free at noon concerts.

This merging of enterprises, profit and non-profit, may not fit what we expect of the tax code, but I think it fulfills the intention of “non-profit”. It certainly fits the spirit of radio.


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