One Year On Air With 'World Cafe's' Talia Schlanger

Apr 3, 2018
Originally published on April 4, 2018 8:08 am

In honor of Talia Schlanger's "OnAirNniversary" on April 3, NPR Extra caught up with the World Cafe host and discussed her favorite artists, appreciation for the WXPN team, and love of public media.

You were previously working at the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, as a host for a triple-A radio show. What originally drew you to public media, specifically public radio? Why did you decide to join WXPN in the United States?

I love the depth, moral compass, and heart of public media. I grew up listening to CBC radio in Toronto where I'm from. When I was faced with the choice of where to apply for an internship in my last year of broadcasting studies at Ryerson University, I knew that was exactly where I wanted to be. I wanted to be in the same building as some of my Canadian broadcasting heroes, including Anna Maria Tremonti, Carol Off, Brent Bambury, and Matt Galloway, in the hopes that I could osmotically benefit from their brilliance. I was lucky enough to land a spot interning on a show called Day 6, hosted by Brent. After the first week of my six-week internship stint, I knew public media was for me. I loved learning that the audience's interests came first in terms of the way stories were shaped and the way editorial decisions were made.

After I moved from intern to employee at CBC, I ended up hosting a national music show on the weekends, and a national weekly music TV show. I also had the fortune of filling in as a guest host on the flagship "Arts and Culture" show. One of the interviews I did in my first week as guest host was with St. Vincent. The following week I got an email from a guy named Bruce Warren in Philadelphia, saying he enjoyed the interview and wanted to keep in touch. He encouraged me to apply for the Contributing Host position at World Cafe, which I took on in October 2016 before taking over for David Dye in April of 2017. I decided to join WXPN because I could tell it was a place guided by heart and connection to audience. I was also a big fan of NPR Music, which is closely linked to World Cafe. I saw an opportunity to be part of a growing choir of young voices shaping public media in the United States and was really excited about the conversations the job opportunity would allow me to engage in. It was certainly difficult to leave home, but the leap has allowed me to grow in ways I could never have imagined.

What do you think makes World Cafe NPR's most listened-to music program? Is there something special about Philadelphia or the sound of the show?

I can't take credit for the fact that World Cafe is the nation's most listened-to public radio music program. That credit belongs to the original host of 25 years David Dye, along with the remarkable team of people who've gotten it thus far long before I hit the scene, including Executive Producer Bruce Warren, Talent Coordinator Dan Reed, Technical Director Chris Williams, Senior Producer Kimberly Junod, Producer John Myers, Line Producer Carina Giamerese and Logistics Wizard Ellen Oplinger. My job has been, frankly, to not sink the ship and to balance what I think the existing audience loves about the show with the need to broaden our horizons and bring in new audiences that maybe look or think or listen a little differently.

The guiding principle of programming songs and choosing guests for World Cafe, since it began, has been quality music. That's the beauty of public radio—we're lucky not to be beholden to commercial interests or album sales or record labels or any of the industry stuff that can get in the way. That mindset allows the show to tap into a kind of musical discovery that I think our listeners appreciate. That's part of the equation. I think the other part is the approachable and accessible way the show presents music. Sometimes music discovery can feel snobbish or exclusive. "Ego" isn't part of the DNA of the show. World Cafe isn't made with the intention to show our audience what we know about music. It's made with the heartfelt intent to share what we love about music with you. I think (read: hope) people can feel that, and I think that's why our show is popular.

We're also broadening our horizons in ways that will hopefully make more people feel their tastes and backgrounds and stories are reflected on World Cafe. World Cafe is definitely not a Philly-centric show in terms of the bands we book being local. We try and think globally, really. Although we do benefit greatly from being located in a city where so many tremendous artists pass through. I think there is something very special about our facilities. The studio space is warm and inviting and Chris Williams is an exceptional engineer both in terms of his technical prowess and his calm demeanor. I often hear bands comment on how great they think the sound is in the room. I also get the sense that they can perform their best when they feel like they're in good hands. That's Chris. I'm very proud to work with him. He's a very humble man, and this might make him uncomfortable so I hope he's not reading this.

Stephen Kallao recently joined World Cafe as a contributing host. What about his joining the team are you most excited for in 2018?

The first thing that struck me about Kallao when he came in to interview for the gig is that he's so alive. He's excited about being on a team, he's excited about music and storytelling and he's got the chops to pull it off. He's funny, gracious, and generous. And I'm very excited about having someone around to take a bit of the weight off. My job is incredibly fun but it's also a lot of pressure to do a deep dive interview with a different artist pretty much every single day along with hosting the rest of the show. Knowing we've got a contributing host to dive in when things get hairy helps me sleep better.

World Cafe often has a special focus on Latin roots and other underrepresented genres. Why do you think showcasing global music is so important?

First and foremost, because the music is fantastic and exciting. Sometimes when we talk about underrepresented genres, the conversation gets muddied and airtime gets framed as a "public service" effort to be more inclusive rather than a "holy moly you need to hear this!" It's definitely the latter. (While we're on the subject, I think a similar thing happens when we talk about women's voices. Still definitely the latter).

Aside from the quality of the music, artists from places outside the United States have the magical power to transport us to their homes so we can better understand the people we share this planet with. Yes, we read about Syria a lot in the news. The artist Bedouine takes us there in a different way at the end of her song "Summer Cold" with a soundscape borrowed from her grandmother's backyard in Syria where you can hear the clinking teacups, honking horns, and chirping birds. You might have heard that music was banned in Mali's north by a jihadist group in 2012. But hearing the desert punk band, Songhoy Blues perform music written about the joy they were able to find in the capital city of Bamako after fleeing their homes in Northern Mali changes the way we understand that story. To hear Venezuela's La Vida Bohème sing a song called "Lejos" about being far from home helps us understand their decision four years ago to flee the violence they witnessed on the streets for Mexico City. Music is a reflection of the human experience, and we're really lucky in public radio to have space to follow our ears to whatever corner of the globe they lead.

Anniversaries often allow us to reflect on what we've accomplished, as well as what's ahead. What are you most proud of during your past year as full-time host and what are you looking forward to in 2018, both for yourself and for the show?

In the past year since I've been full-time host, I'm most proud of the voices we've amplified. Especially women's voices, and especially since the "Me Too" movement became a big part of public discourse in October. From "First Aid Kit" performing and explaining their anti-sexual-assault anthem "You Are The Problem Here" to Tori Amos talking about her 1992 song "Me and a Gun" in the context of today's conversations around rape and playing it on the radio, to St. Vincent's declaration: "This is what feminism is—it's getting to decide what power looks like for you." I was also proud to participate in Ann Powers' "Turning the Tables: 150 Greatest Albums by Women," and thanks to our World Cafe Senior Producer Kimberly Junod, we got to provide a platform on World Cafe for some of the conversations and listening parties that project inspired. We've made a conscious move towards more equalized gender representation on World Cafe, not because the artists we need to hear more of are "women" but because they are making art that needs to be heard. World Cafe's Executive Producer Bruce Warren has been a powerful ally in that effort, and I'm proud of our whole team.

What am I looking forward to in 2018? Hopefully growing our audience, bringing more voices and points of view on to the show, having more conversations that make our audience feel less alone in the world and falling in love with new albums and artists to share with our listeners!

What's inspiring you at the moment? What gets you up in the mornings?

Learning. I'm a firm believer that everyone is a student and everyone is a teacher, and inevitably someone I get to interact with during the course of a day teaches me something that I didn't know before. I'm lucky enough to get to practice being a student as an interviewer. Artists I've spoken to have taught me about courage, the Ethiopian Civil War, feminism, giving really good apologies, what it's like to grow up blind and African American in the 1930s in Alabama, environmentally conscious touring... the list goes on. I get to have conversations every day where I listen and learn. They air on the radio. Then a listener shares that experience and we learn together. That's what gets me up in the morning.

We've never had this many options for news and entertainment. Tell us about your current media diet. What are you reading or watching?

There's not enough time in the day to consume all the media I'm hungry for. But for starters, I keep up with the New York Times and Washington Post, and as much Slate and The Atlantic I can make time for. I'm also reading a book called The Big Sort, which was recommended on Twitter by Tamara Keith. I don't have a TV right now. I listen to a lot of podcasts. I think even if I did have a TV I would still listen to a lot of podcasts. Some of my favorites include New Yorker Radio Hour, Code Switch, On the Media, Call Your Girlfriend, Fresh Air, It's Been a Minute, How I Built This, The Moth, NPR Politics Podcast, and CBC's Day 6.

Is there an artist you find yourself listening to over and over? Why?

It depends on my mood, and my job requires me to open my ears and love something new every day. But here are some of my all-time favorite artists: Aretha Franklin, because the entire human experience can fit into her vocal chords; Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell because their creativity is boundless and I hear something new every time I listen; Wu Tang Clan and Missy Elliott because they were two of my earliest windows to a world beyond the backyard where I grew up; Donovan for his very serious silliness; and St. Vincent and Jeff Buckley, but don't know how to articulate why.

Finally, who were your inspirations in journalism and broadcasting?

One of the earliest radio broadcasters I can remember idolizing is Anna Maria Tremonti, who has hosted a morning news and current affairs radio show on CBC called The Current since 2002. I remember being 16 and riding in the car with my dad, marveling at her ability to be so clear, sharp and incisive. Joan Didion is a hero of the written word for me—nobody paints a picture, puts you in a place, or makes a far-out story completely personal for a reader in the way she does. I will also always love Oprah, Katie Couric, and Howard Stern. I really had to try and keep my cool when I met Terry Gross on a recent visit to WHYY. Her work on Fresh Air blows my mind every single day. I am really inspired by NPR rising stars like Sam Sanders and Joshua Johnson and I'm very excited about Mary Louise Kelly on All Things Considered.

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