In its 20-year history, the roster of artists who have appeared on WXPN’s “World Cafe” reads like the canon of any music lover’s exhaustive collection: Jeff Buckley, Ry Cooder, Carole King, Charlie Louvin, Paul McCartney, Les Paul, Liz Phair, Mavis Staples and Jack White have all chatted with about their lives and music on the radio show.
Senior Producer Kim Junod has been there for more than half of that two-decade run.
Junod started her career at WXPN as an unpaid intern in 1997, when she was still an undergraduate at Penn. After graduation, she was hired to work as a production assistant for the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift. About a year-and-a-half later, she got a job working for the “World Cafe” show, helping to mix the music played by bands that visited the studio. In her current position as senior producer, Junod produces all the interviews between host David Dye and the musical guests. She also oversees all editorial decisions regarding the show.
Junod credits former “World Cafe” Senior Producer Tracey Tanenbaum with teaching her how to edit interviews; Jonny Meister, host of “The Blues Show” and Junod’s intern supervisor, with teaching her how to use the editing program; and Chris Williams, the technical director of the “World Cafe,” with showing her the intricacies of mixing music.
Along the way, Junod earned her Master’s of Social Work in 2004 from Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice, which she says provided her with skills she uses in the studio.
“I wasn’t really sure that I was going to stay in radio when I started,” she explains, adding that by the time she was halfway through the degree she’d made up her mind to pursue a career in radio but she “didn’t want to not finish.” In fact, she says, what she learned about social work turned out to be useful at the radio station “in terms of organizing people and leading people,” she says. “Even in suggesting questions [for artist interviews], it still comes in handy.”
In celebration of 20 years on the air, Junod and others have pored through the “World Cafe” archives to re-air some of the most notable interviews, and hosted a series of concerts highlighting some of the artists supported by the the program over the years.
“Mostly, I’m just so proud about how the show has evolved over the 20 years,” says Junod. “When they started, they were only on, I think it was five stations, and now we’re on 216.”
Q. How’d you get interested in the technical side of radio?
A. I went to the last two years of high school in Australia. Because the seasons are flipped, I graduated six months earlier than I would have if I had been in the United States. And at the time, despite having lived there for two years, I wanted to go back to the States.
My parents made a deal with me, because I had always been really interested in music, that if I would stay, [I could] take these courses I had been looking at in audio engineering. So I stayed and took a course on how to mix music at a recording studio for six months, before I went to college. When I got to college, I was worried that I would forget all that stuff I had learned, so I found the internship at ‘XPN after about a year. Before that, I used to mix the a cappella groups on campus and I did sound design for one of the Theatre Arts groups.
Q. When you started working at WXPN, were you located in that beautiful old house on Spruce, near the high-rise dorms?
A. I did start in that building, which was beautiful, but studio-wise, there was no real soundproofing. People [would] set up someone in the bathroom, or down the hall to get some separation [during recording]. Or if you were on the second floor and you were trying to do work, you would hear the sound of the band coming through the ceiling. It’s amazing the quality of the recordings that we got out of there considering what we were working with at the time. I think the expectation level has definitely risen a great deal in our current studios.
Q. What makes a good interview?
A. If they are a good storyteller. The worst thing is if someone gives you ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. I personally like when they tell stories that reveal something about themselves more than stories about how they technically accomplished something. Despite my background, I found that I want to know something about who the person is rather than how they got the result that they got. At this point, I want to know who they are, and why they wrote something.
Also, people who are animated. It makes a huge difference. If you’re telling a great story and you talk in a monotone and don’t sound excited about what you’re talking about, it doesn’t come across the same way.
Q. What are some particularly memorable interviews?
A. I can remember the first one that Jonny let me edit. I don’t think they were going to air what I edited; I think he was giving it to me to practice editing. But it was someone who giggled constantly and it was really hard. That one, technically, I remember.
I’ve gone back and listened to a lot of stuff we’ve done over the last 20 years, and we did an interview with Al Green. He was a really good storyteller, and he was a very animated person. The way he talks is just so engaging. He was telling a story about when he went into the studio with Willie Mitchell, who was his producer. Al Green didn’t know what ‘Al Green’ sounded like. He was trying to copy all these popular singers of the day and he didn’t really have a style that was his own. He was getting very frustrated and he went outside, did donuts with his car, came back in the studio and decided, ‘I am not going to put any effort into this. I am not going to try and sing like anyone else, I’m just going to sing. I don’t think it’s going to sound good, but I’m just going to sing.’ And what came out was what you now hear as Al Green. What he did during the interview was sing a little bit off-the-cuff. I liked that because he sang, it was kind of a funny story the way he told it, and it was something that I didn’t know about. Al Green, he’s such an icon, you wouldn’t think that there was a time when he was sitting around going, ‘I don’t know how to sound like myself.’ I find that interesting.
Nick Lowe is also a really great interview; we’ve had him on a couple of times. He told a really great story, the most recent time, about meeting Elvis Costello and how he thought Elvis’ songs were just way too wordy, they weren’t very good. Elvis Costello really popularized [Lowe’s] song, ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?’ Their relationship totally flipped when they met—Nick Lowe was more established, and Elvis was this up-and-coming person. Later on, Nick Lowe produced Elvis Costello, but it got to a point where Elvis Costello was so much more famous.
Q. Do you see your job, and the purpose of the show, as helping to tell these stories people would never otherwise hear?
A. The interview is only one part of the show, but I do think that yes, that’s a big part of it. David Dye is such an amazing interviewer. He’s so good at establishing a rapport with the guest. He’s so conversational with them and it brings out really great stuff. Michaela Majoun, who’s the morning host at WXPN, also does interviews when David is unable to, and she’s a great interviewer, as well.
The nice thing about our program is it’s not just about the surface level stuff or only having a sound bite. It’s about hearing the [artist] over the course of 20 minutes, hearing them play their songs live, in the studio. One of my favorite things about the ‘World Cafe’ is when we get performances where the person is not just copying or trying to replicate what they recorded, but trying to come up with some arrangement that makes you hear the song in a different way.
Q. I know that you’ve been reflecting on the show’s history in celebration of its 20th anniversary. Where do you see this show going in the next 20 years?
A. It’s hard to guess how the media environment is going to change. It’s weird to think about, but at this point, I’ve worked on the show for basically half of its life. I find that surprising. But even in the time I’ve been here, which is 10 years, the number of changes has been huge.
Now, when I edit interviews, not only will you hear them over the air, but you can go to the website and on-demand stream them on your iPhone. You can do things for the web that wouldn’t work on the radio. For a while, David had a streak of asking people about album covers. It’s much cooler to see people talk about it when you’re on a website.
Besides that, we’re launching a new series on the music scene of a certain city. We’re going to do one every three months. We’ve gone to Dublin and Portland to record them. … We actually have two trips planned, one to New Orleans in January, and one to London and a few other cities in England that will be in May. … Not only will there be a radio program with content that we’ve collected from these places, but we’ll make a cool travelogue so that when you hear something on the radio, you [can] go [on the web] and explore it more. To be able to have that on the web and have people look at video of David with the musician in the place, as well as see other suggestions when you’re there: ‘Oh, I’m visiting Portland and Colin Meloy said this record store is his favorite place to go.’ Well, I’d want to know that and see what it’s like.