Be Relentless with Talia Schlanger
Have you heard the groundswell women making waves in music lately? Talia Schlanger has. The public radio powerhouse joins us to talk about the art of interviewing, the importance of uncomfortable conversations, and why “women in music” isn’t a theme—it’s just what normal looks like…on her airwaves, at least.
Talia is the host of World Cafe, the iconic radio show produced by WXPN in Philadelphia and distributed nationally on NPR. Before joining the show in 2016, she was a producer and host at the CBC. In this live episode from the Philadelphia Podcast Festival, we talk about scheming and scamming her way into radio, what it was like to take over World Cafe from creator David Dye, and why she’s fighting every day for way more diversity in music.
We’re not doing this as some summer camp project to try and make the world better for everyone. We’re trying to remove the biases that we have, so that we can hear the best stuff that’s out there—so that we’re not missing out because we have outdated ideas or because our ears are closed or because maybe we don’t have a frame of reference for something because all the music that we listened to maybe at a different time in the music industry was male.—Talia Schlanger, host, World Cafe
- World Cafe on NPR
- Talia’s bio
- Talia on Twitter and Instagram
- The interview with St. Vincent that got Talia noticed at World Cafe
- The (awful) Jian Ghomeshi backstory (content warning: sexual violence allegations in here)
- Two very different interviews with Lizzo: Fresh Air and World Cafe
- Everyone in Canada knows Drake
- Sara gets her bra signed by Australian teens
- Katel totally loves ska, pass it on
- We’re all gonna BFF Alanis someday
- Butt masks: a bridge too far
Thanks to The Philadelphia Podcast Festival for having us, Indy Hall for hosting, and all our friends and fans who made it out!
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
Harvest, makers of awesome software to help you track your time, manage your projects, and get paid. Go to getharvest.com/strongfeelings to get 50% off your first month.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher Hey, everyone, today’s show comes to you live from the Philadelphia Podcast Festival, recorded July 20th at Indy Hall in Old City. And just like usual, it’s sponsored by Harvest. Harvest is the tool for easy, intuitive time tracking. It works with your existing workflow and integrates with all your favourite apps like Asana, Basecamp, and Trello. You can even turn your team’s data into cool visual reports that show you how a project is doing or what your team’s really spending their time on. It’s simple, it’s scalable, and you can try it free. Just go to getharvest.com/strongfeelings to check it out. And when you upgrade to a paid account, you’ll get half off your first month. That’s getharvest.com/strongfeelings. [theme music plays for eleven seconds and then fades out] Hello!
Katel LeDu Hi!
SWB My name is Sara!
KL I’m Katel, hi.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings. Thank you all so much for coming out today on this very hot Philadelphia day. We are very excited to be here in the air conditioning and having a good conversation. So, if you are not familiar with Strong Feelings, what we do on the show—we talk about work, we talk about friendship, we talk about feminist issues, we talk about all of the emotions we are having on a regular basis, and it’s a lot of them. And we also interview all kinds of people that we find really interesting. It tends to be a lot of women and nonbinary folks who are doing creative work, who are doing ambitious work, who are entrepreneurs—all kinds of things. And today, specifically, we’re very excited! We have somebody we love who is going to be joining us on stage in a few. That is Talia Schlanger, she is the host of World Cafe, which is the iconic NPR show that’s produced right here in Philly from WXPN. And, Katel, I have to tell you something.
KL Tell me.
SWB I’m actually super nervous to have Talia here with us.
KL Oh my gosh, I know. I am kind of too!
SWB Because we just made friends with her and I want her be my cool friend.
KL [laughing] Yes! Yeah.
SWB And, you know, I’m a public radio nerd. I love public radio.
KL I know, me too! And I love music—
KL —I feel like it has always been such a big part of my life being a teenager, and growing up, and just…all through life! You have songs that you think of and you’re like, “that was a moment in my life.”
SWB So, I think about being a person who has been going to shows for like two decades—more than two decades probably now actually—I think a lot about always wishing I was one of the cool girls at the show. And I was never one of the cools girls at the show, and I think Talia was probably the cool girl at the show. [KL laughs] Do you know what I mean?
KL [laughing] We’ll ask her. I don’t know.
SWB We’re going to ask about that.
KL [laughing] We’ll see!
SWB Because I always felt like I wanted to be that kind of music fan, but didn’t ever feel like I really quite fit in. But I went to [laughs] so many shows growing up—
KL Oh my god, yeah.
SWB —so I’m really excited to talk about music and talk about women in music, especially, today with Talia.
KL Yeah, me too. I am so excited! Okay, so what was the first show you went to that you were really excited about going to?
SWB Oh gosh, okay. [KL laughs] Do you remember the band, Silver Chair?
KL Oh yeah!
SWB Because I do.
KL Mhmm, I sure do. [laughs]
SWB So, Silver Chair for those of you who do not know—for those of you who were not tweens and early teens in the nineties—Silver Chair looked like a baby Nirvana, like Nirvana cosplay on Australian teenagers, but sounded like a really, really over the top Eddie Vedder impersonation. And I loved them a lot. I had this men’s extra large Silver Chair t-shirt that I wore in the seventh grade—
SWB I wore it, of course, with my corduroy pants from the Goodwill department—
KL Obviously, obviously.
SWB —from the Goodwill men’s department, right? And my Airwalks. I did not have a skateboard. [KL laughs]
KL [laughing] That’s okay.
SWB It was important to me. [KL laughs] So, I loved them in seventh grade. So, at the end of the eighth grade—it was the summer of 1997–I was about to go into my freshman year of high school and Silver Chair was playing the Oregon State Fair.
SWB So, you know their career was going—
KL [laughing] Really well.
SWB —up. Up and up, right?
SWB So, I convinced my parents to take me to the Oregon State Fair to see Silver Chair. Now, I am fourteen. The Oregon State Fair is like a good hour drive away, so this was a big feat to convince them to do this. It took a lot for to be like, “drive us up there, me and my friend, and hang out while we go to this show.” And my parents were not the kind of parents who would go with the show with you—no, no, no, no, no, no. I don’t know what they did at the fair. They went and looked at livestock or whatever you do at a state fair typically, [KL laughs] while me and my friend went to go and see Silver Chair. And I was like…losing my mind!
SWB So, of course, after the show I’m like, “I need to wait outside and see if I can see this band.” I want to meet this band, right?
KL Yeah, why not?
SWB So, I’m waiting up against the little plastic fence or whatever they have up for the Silver Chair bus—I don’t know. Eventually, the band comes out and I start talking to their bass player, I believe. I believe his name was Ben.
KL Very cool.
SWB Super cool. I believe he had a mohawk at the time. [KL laughs] And he was really sweet and so Australian. I”m like, “I absolutely have to get an autograph.”
KL Sure! Why not?
SWB Okay. [pauses]
KL Oh god.
SWB I had him autograph my bra.
KL [audience laughs] Oh my… oh my god. That’s a really specific type of souvenir that you want to take home from that show. [laughs]
SWB So, I had him autograph my bra and [laughs] I wore that bra for a really long time.
KL Oh my god. Are you wearing it right now?
SWB You know what? [KL laughs] Nobody needs to know. So, I went to a lot of shows. That was the first that I was very, very excited about though. I got over the weird warbling Eddie Vedder eventually and moved on with my life, [KL laughs] but the good many punk shows I went to after that. How about you? What was the first show you were super excited about?
KL Oh, gosh. So, I lived in Maryland and lived about forty minutes outside of DC, so I was always trying to get into the city to see shows in high school. And there was actually a park called Fort Reno that’s just north of downtown DC. And they were awesome because they always had this free concert summer series. And Fugazi played there!
SWB Oh my god.
KL Like all the time! They hung out there.
KL So, I got to see them there.
SWB Did you know that that was special at the time?
KL I definitely don’t think I did. I thought they were so cool and DC really loved them, but I definitely don’t think I realized how revered they were in the punk scene.
KL But that place was so special. I think in 2014, there was a little bit of drama because the national park service tried to shut the series down, and the public and the community completely revolted, and they reinstituted it that summer. So, it was so great because everyone was like, “we need this, this is part of where we live.” So, I don’t know. You went to shows there and you felt like you were part of something.
SWB Mhmm. That was such a huge reason that I was interested in going to shows—you did feel like you were part of something.
SWB But what’s interesting is when I look back on my youth and think about the hundreds upon hundreds of shows I went to, I…can not remember very many women at all that I saw.
SWB It was a lot of dudes.
SWB It was a lot of dudes onstage.
SWB And it was a lot of dudes in the audience. And there were some girls and women there too—I’m sure I saw a few bands who had girls and women involved—but it was pretty rare. It was male, male, male all the way down.
KL Especially in the punk scene and…ska? [SWB laughs] Which I was extremely into for a while.
SWB How into ska were you? [KL laughs]
KL Okay. So, this week leading up to when we knew we were going to talk to Talia—I have a box full of concert ticket stubs that I have saved. And I’m glad that I did that. I went down this very long memory lane thing. [laughs]
KL I found some gems.
SWB Like what?
KL I found a ‘93 concert ticket from The Toasters.
KL And I was super into Operation Ivy and The Specials. And I was also embarrassingly—okay, now it’s just going to be on tape—but the Mighty Mighty Bosstones for a minute.
SWB Everybody was! Everybody was.
KL [sighs] You know, you’ve got to do it.
SWB If you were a nineties teen, I’m sorry, it just happened. Ska just happened to you and you couldn’t really do anything about it.
KL It did. It really did.
SWB Ummm…if I start going “pick it up, pick it up, pick it up,” will you skank for us here today? [audience laughs]
KL No! I’m not wearing the right shoes. [audience laughs] No, you have no idea. That was part of the whole thing. I went to some of these shows by myself, but I also really only went to them—I think I started going to more of them when I knew my guy friends were going because I felt sort of slightly safer, but I also was wearing steel toed docs…because…
SWB What other shoes were there? There were no other shoes in the nineties.
KL No, there weren’t. Exactly. [laughs]
SWB That was the only shoe that was for sale in the 1990s.
KL [laughing] Yes.
SWB And my Airwalks.
KL Yes. Yes, that too.
SWB So, I remember going to so many punk shows—and also ska shows, I definitely had a ska phase. [KL laughs] I had a big crush on this guy in a ska band.
SWB Yeah, I can’t remember the band anymore, [KL laughs] but I do remember the big crush. But I remember going to this one show. I was up at The Gorge in George, Washington. It’s this really beautiful venue overlooking the gorge over the Columbia River. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, incredible place to see a festival.
SWB And I remember being out there watching some band and some guy comes by and pinches my ass.
SWB But this is the kind of shit that I thought was so normal then, that here’s how I responded. I turned round and laughed and smiled, “ha, ha, ha, ha—
SWB —what a fun joke.” And then all of his friends individually—one at a time—pinched my ass.
KL Ugh. I want to say describe my face right now. [laughs]
SWB I can see your face right now. [KL laughs] But I feel like there were so many times when I just put up with what was this incredibly male environment because I wanted to be part of something badly enough. And I think about that and I think, “what the fuck was I doing?”
SWB I was living in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. What wasn’t I at Riot Girl shows?
KL I don’t know! That’s a really good question.
SWB How did I not know? I just didn’t know what I was missing?
KL I know!
SWB I didn’t know what I was missing I think musically, and then I also didn’t know what I was missing emotionally. I didn’t know that that kind of community could have been there, so I was trying to be part of some community that was never going to be healthy or helpful—
SWB —to me as a human person.
KL Yeah, I totally understand that. And it’s tough because you don’t even realize that that’s the crew, that’s the environment that’s there.
SWB So, we both went to a lot of shows. We were very interested in music.
SWB But I very much have never worked in the music industry, which I find incredibly…confusing? [KL laughs] It sounds like there’s a lot of glitz, [KL laughs] a lot of people who think they’re very self important, a lot of things that are not glitzy at all, and I don’t understand how it works. You did work in the music industry, right?
KL I did, yeah. So, I lived in New York for a while and I worked at this record label called Abco. They own sort of an older catalog. Old Rolling Stones and The Kinks and some Sam Cook, so it’s really cool—
SWB It’s like a cash cow.
KL Oh yeah, absolutely.
SWB Okay, okay.
KL But it was more of a licensing business; we weren’t signing new artists or anything. But because we worked in the industry, everyone who worked there got to go to all these great shows. And even one year, I got to go to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony where Prince was inducted.
SWB Wow. Did you—okay—did you get to meet Prince?
KL No, I didn’t. But I have imagined it many times [audience laughs] and I’m always like—
SWB Like you’re shaking Prince’s hand?
KL Yeah, but…does he shake one’s hand?
SWB Well, not anymore for sure, [KL laughs] but I don’t think even when Prince was alive, I just don’t think…Prince is an eternal pure being of light.
SWB I don’t think you can shake Prince’s hand.
KL No, he’s cosmic.
SWB I just don’t think it works that way.
KL And everlasting, thankfully. [SWB laughs]
SWB So, you got to go to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. You got to almost meet Prince, [KL laughs] not quite. What was it like day to day working in the industry? What did you experience?
KL Yeah, I mean, it was navigating and being around a lot of skeezy dudes. I was relatively low on the totem pole, but I remember working with this guy from Sony. He was a rep, I worked on the production side of things. And, I don’t know, he was just always trying to take me out to lunch—
KL —and talking about his expense account—
SWB Mhmm. [KL laughs]
KL —and saying, “hey, if you ever need lunch, let me know.” And I was just like, “I just…I’m fine?”
SWB It’s so thirsty!
KL Yeah, it’s kinda.
SWB Were there a lot of men who were very eager to mentor you?
KL Yeah, yeah. I’d go to these events and if that guy was there, for example, he’d introduce me to one of his other label friends or some other vendor, and it was all under this allusion of “oh, you’ve got to network, you’ve got to work your way up.” And I think it was just they wanted to be seen talking to women at these parties—
KL —so it felt kind of gross.
SWB It’s like surrounding yourself with young women makes you feel more important or more valuable.
KL [laughing] Sure, yeah.
SWB So, I think the thing I really think about a lot when it comes to music and my history with music is just how much we need to have more women involved at literally every level, every piece of that. So, I think with that, I think we should bring Talia on the stage—
SWB —because I want to talk to her about her experience at World Cafe and what she’s doing to change some of these shitty stories we have. [laughs]
KL Yes, let’s do it!
SWB Alright. Talia?
KL Whoo! [audience claps]
Talia Schlanger Hi!
SWB Hello, Talia.
TS Hi. Thanks for having me here, this is fun.
SWB Yeah! Welcome to Strong Feelings. So, we talked about at the very beginning that you are the host of World Cafe, which is produced here in the city and then is distributed nationally on NPR.
SWB That’s a pretty big deal, so I think first question—although, I want to go back to before you did that, which is you’re Canadian, correct?
TS Yes I am!
SWB Okay. Do you know Drake? [all laugh & audience laughs]
TS I actually have a really funny story about Drake [all laugh] and my—
SWB Yes! [claps]
TS —about Drake and my dad in a bathroom once. [laughs] But you know what? I feel like I shouldn’t betray my dad by saying it. I’ll just say—you can fill in the blanks. Drake was incredibly famous as Drake at the point that my dad ran into him in the bathroom, but my dad made a Degrassi joke to him [SWB laughs] because, of course, being Canadian.
KL That’s amazing.
TS He was just completely oblivious that he had met this super famous rapper. He was like, “I just met Jimmy from Degrassi, [SWB laughs] I made a really funny joke in the bathroom!” I’m like, “oh Dad.”
SWB That’s great. [laughs]
TS And his mom went to my great aunt’s funeral—yes, we all know him. [audience laughs]
SWB Canada’s so small? But it’s giant!
TS It’s giant. That’s just a lucky thing.
SWB Question number two. [TS laughs]
SWB Do you know Alanis Morisette? [KL & TS laugh] No, I’m sorry, wait! Hold on. In Canada, it’s just Alanis, right?
TS It’s just Alanis, yeah. [laughs] She’s totally one name in Canada, that’s correct. No, I don’t. And actually she’s one person that I have not met yet through this job that I would just—I think I would be so excited, I don’t even know if I could do my job around her. I think I would be too excited about that.
SWB I would lose my literal shit.
TS She looms so large in my life.
KL [laughing] Yeah, yeah.
TS So, yeah, I don’t know her.
SWB Yet! [KL laughs]
KL Yes, exactly.
TS If anybody does.
KL Yeah. So, World Cafe is, as Sara says, pretty iconic. It’s an NPR institution, it’s a local love. Can you just tell us a little more about what it is?
TS Yeah, sure! So, World Cafe is a daily music show that is distributed by NPR across a couple hundred stations in the country. Our focus is on emerging artists and essential artists. So, we’re going to introduce you to the band that nobody is talking about yet before anybody else does and, hopefully, we’re going to give you a special experience with Willie Nelson or Rosanne Cash—as somebody you already do know—or Macy Gray or whoever. The show is a mix of playing music for people and also artist interviews. We do an artist interview every day and we have people in to come and perform too. My favourite part of my job and sort of the reason I got into it is the interview part of things and talking to people about what they do.
KL Yeah, it’s so cool to hear the story that goes along with it.
TS I agree, yeah.
KL So, backing up just a little, what got you into radio in the first place?
TS Yeah! I grew up on radio. CBC is the public broadcaster in Canada, so sort of the NPR equivalent. And I listened to it a ton when I was a kid growing up; I loved talk radio. There was also this amazing rock station called 102.1 The Edge and they had this show called The Ongoing History of New Music, it was hosted by this guy named Alan Cross. And he was like this encyclopedia of musical knowledge, and every Sunday night there would be an hour long music doc with thought, and humour, and songs, and the whole thing sort of mixed together. And I remember thinking that was the coolest thing in the whole entire world. And I don’t think I thought about it consciously even at that time, but that’s something that has influenced me a lot later on. I ended up going to broadcasting schools in an open ended way because I loved writing and talking to people and loved media. And really, really fell in love with radio and ended up in the job I have now because at the end of school, I interned at CBC and then I sort of weaseled my way into getting to stay in that building through a bunch of different little jobs that I had there and then…yeah! There you go.
SWB Yeah, tell us a little more about that weaseling. [KL, TS & audience laugh] I’m very curious about the weaseling.
TS [laughing] I was such a weasel!
SWB I’m always interested in a good scam. So, I want to hear about the scamming. [TS laughs] So, you were an intern at the CBC, and then you kind of got into some staff roles, and then—so, at some point, I would love to hear more about this—you were doing some interviews for Q, which is Canada’s huge, big arts program.
SWB So, that’s like a really big deal interview show.
SWB So, how did you go from intern to being in the front and center most famous radio spot in Canada?
TS Yeah. Well. Yeah. Through a lot of weaseling, through a lot of hustling. [KL laughs] Basically…I’ll tell you a couple key points, I guess. At the end of my internship, I was working on this current affairs show, and I was like, “ugh, I really want to stay in the building, just for like a little bit longer. I wonder if I can find somebody who will take a chance on me.” So, I just downloaded—the last week of my internship—I downloaded the company directory and I just starting cold calling people. [SWB laughs]
KL Love it.
TS I know, seriously!
SWB This is a good scam, I like it.
KL Yes, I like it.
TS You’ve got to do it. I think that you have to do it. And people really respond to the phone more than they respond to email because you just get a million emails, but who calls you on your phone? Nobody. Except me. I’ll call you on your phone. So, I ended up finding the name of the Executive Director of CBC Music and I also had a background as a theatre performer and singer. And so I just called him and I said, “look, I’m about to graduate, they’re not going to let me in this building as of this coming Monday, will you have coffee with me and just tell me a little bit about what you do at CBC Music and I can tell you a little bit about where I come from?” And this was on a Thursday. And we had a coffee and at the end of it, he said, “I have a project starting on Monday and I don’t have a producer for it yet and I think that you could be a really good fit for it. Take this USB stick home with you for the weekend and see if this is something that you think you could do.” And, of course, it was something I could do. Duh! Whether I could do it or not, I was going to do it! So, I ended up producing this cross country road trip through CBC Music. It was my first thing that we did. And we won a Canadian screen award. And then… that was it! It was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. And then I ended up weaseling my way on air by talking to people. So, by the time—it was about two years from the time that I made that cold call to the CBC Music guy, Kai Black, who is the most amazing human being and I had a really lucky ride with him. So, it was about two years later that I was at a point where I had a radio show on the weekends—a weekend morning music show—and I was doing this weekly TV show, but I hadn’t really done long form interviews. And Jian Ghomeshi, the former host of CBC’s Q, which was sort of like he was the star of the network—the whole network hung their hat on his celebrity, he was untouchable—and he was ousted in this big scandal that I think a lot of people heard about here because I got asked [laughs] about it a lot when I first came here.
SWB Y’all should look up Jian Ghomeshi because his story is fucked up. [TS laughs]
SWB Like really, really, extensive lon- term abusive stuff going on. So, he gets ousted…
TS He gets ousted. And I should say because I’m a journalist and have to say these things, he is “allegedly an abuser.”
SWB I’m not a journalist. [TS laughs]
SWB I’ve got a lot of feelings about that guy.
TS I have a lot of feelings about him too.
TS And I have my own personal story that is connected to him where…[sighs] how do I want to say this? He didn’t commit any crimes against me, but our involvement is part of a pattern of behavior—
TS —that is what took him down.
TS So, I was part of an investigation and all that stuff. And that from the time that I was an intern when I got there, and he was this really powerful, powerful figure. So, he did something that he should not have done. And here we are! So, there we are. So, two years later, he gets ousted and I was like, “you know what would be fucking great?” [laughs]
SWB Uh huh. [KL laughs]
TS I would love to do a week on that show while they’re looking for a new host.
TS I would really love to get the chance.
SWB And you did.
TS I did. I had not done long-form interviews before, but I went to the person who was the interim executive producer and we sat down and had coffee. I didn’t tell him the Jian part of the story, but I just said, “this is my background, this is where I am, this is what I think was amazing about what he did.” We had a sort of critical conversation about the art of interviewing, and then I said, “I don’t know why you would do this, but if you want to take a chance on me and let me have a week on this show, I will work so hard, and I will do my best, and I will ask all the questions, and I will try and learn.” So, he let me do it! So, I did a week! And that was the most terrifying and wonderful thing.
SWB And in that week, you interviewed St. Vincent, right?
TS I did, [KL laughs] yes. [laughs]
SWB And that was kind of like a spark for you?
TS That was nuts! That was [laughs] so scary! I loved her so much, I still do, I think she’s such an amazing musician and person—and talk about somebody to be nervous to talk to—
TS —because she’s also so smart! So, we were going to sit down together and this was maybe my ninth or tenth long form interview I had ever done in my life, but of course I didn’t really say that to anybody, I just sort of…went with it. And it went well! I think it went well because I got an email a couple of weeks later from Bruce, who is now my current boss at XPN, saying that he heard the interview with St. Vincent, and he really loved it, and he just wanted to talk to me about music. So, that week that I ended up getting to guest host sort of snowballed into the rest of my life.
SWB And then World Cafe is just like, “please come here next.”
KL Do that, do just that.
TS [laughing] Well, actually this is a funny story. Bruce sent me an email—and he’s a very casual boss. He’s a very casual person in a great way. And the subject of the email was “Bruce from Philly.” [all laugh]
TS So, I saw this email in my inbox and you know when you’re busy and like, “I’ll get to it! I’ll put that in my category of when I’m catching up on emails in a couple of weeks and I’ll get to it.” And then I think I might have gotten another one. And then I got an email from my friend Max who is in this band called Arkells, and it was like, “hey, Talia, Bruce Warren is one of the most important people in radio in the United States. Can you maybe write him back [all laugh] to the emails that he’s trying to send you?” And I was like, “okay, sure.” So, I went back with my tail between my legs and was like, “hi, Bruce, I’m so sorry.” But then we ended up talking and a contributing host position became available here at World Cafe, so I decided to pack up my life in Toronto and take a chance and move here. And then David Dye, who is the original and only host of the show, retired after 26 years and they let me take over.
SWB Yeah, okay. I want to talk about what that was like because David Dye created the show, he was already kind of a Philly icon on the air by the time that show came around.
SWB He did it for 26 years, and he had a method and an approach and that was what he did. And then you show up.
SWB Was that intimidating or weird or difficult to take over from somebody who has been doing it for so long, and who created it, and try to make it your own?
TS Yes. [all laugh] Very simply, yes. You know how when you meet somebody for the first time, the first thing they’ll say is, “hi, nice to meet you”? For probably the first year, maybe two years, maybe even still now when people meet me in the position I’m in who know the show say, “hi, wow, you have really big shoes to fill.” [SWB & KL laugh] I got that like every single, person. And I didn’t know anybody here and I had just moved here with all these big ideas and it’s just…what a weird thing to say to somebody else! If I was talking to the person whose shoes were being filled and say, “wow, when you leave, people are really going to have some big shoes to fill,” that’s one thing. But to look at this young, new person…anyway! That was really annoying, but it also filled me with a great fire and fury to try and [laughs] put my mark on things and prove them wrong. And I had a really different approach than David did and there were very different things that were really important to me. In particular, a lot of what you’re talking about today—the way that we talk about women, the way we represent women on the air. And I don’t even think I realized how much I would have to learn and go inside and ask myself and also go outside and ask women, especially, but people in general and nonbinary people about how to do this. We’ve come up against some really interesting—one of the first things that I came up against was a discussion about this theme day where the theme was women. And some people who have feminist outlooks would say, “that’s so great! They want to focus on women for a day!” And my stance had to be like, “no, women aren’t a theme or a genre.
TS The thing that we’re going to do here is normalize a playlist where we represent as many different types of people and gender identifications and all of that as possible, so then it’s just normalized. We don’t have to say, ‘we did women’s day! [KL laughs] We fixed it! This is so great!’”
SWB Ladies, you got your day already!
TS Holy crap. [KL laughs]
SWB Relax! You got a whole day though! [KL laughs]
TS Oh my gosh. Days and months. Black History Month too, for example, this year.
TS That’s something that I wanted to try to do justice to. And one of the things that I’ve learned in my job is I can’t be a different person than I am, and I can’t bring anything to the table that’s different than what I have or who I am or where I come from, but I can call people and I can give them the microphone and I can ask them. So, for Black History Month this year I called Rodney Carmichael, who is an amazing writer at NPR music, and said, “Rodney, can you help me brainstorm something that would make sense and be meaningful and not be tone deaf?” And he was like, “well, I don’t even like to think about it as Black History Month, I like to think of it as Black Future Month.” And I was like, “that’s brilliant, we’re going to do that. So, let’s convene a round table around that.” And he helped me curate it and we did it. Trying to do justice to voices and trying not to say, “okay, we’ve ticked that box, we’ve celebrated that month, we’re done now.” No, that’s not it; we’re all in this together all the time. And I’ve learned—it’s been so humbling to learn how much I don’t know and also how difficult it is to talk about this stuff and how we’re all figuring out together.
SWB Did you have to have a lot of difficult conversations internally to make some of those changes happen?
TS Yeah. [all laugh]
SWB What was that like?
TS I did! [laughs] I did, I did, I did! Things had been a long way for a really long time and I think that the biases, especially towards male musicians and especially towards whiteness, are so ingrained that people don’t even notice them. So, the thing that happens when, for example, it’s guitar month and somebody programs a show for you and it’s literally all white dudes for two hours. And then you have to go into their office and say, “hi, it’s me again to destroy your day [laughs]—as I did yesterday with something else that was [laughs] probably similar—but I don’t accept this. This isn’t what it is.” And then also when you’ve been in a place where things have been a certain way for a really long time, people’s defenses go up because they get embarrassed about not realizing things. And that’s okay too. One of the things that has been a cool challenge for me has been holding space for that. Holding space for a male boss who needs to get really mad and freak out about it for a minute and then… learn. One thing that I will say is over the last couple of years, two really interesting things have happened. One is that my boss who does the programming on the show, Bruce, has had just a really radically open mind about changing the way we program the show—so much so that I’ve learned from it. My favorite thing about him is how open—I hope he won’t mind me saying this, but I’m saying it—is just really how open he’s been on my show when I bring it to his attention to do that, and trying to set the groundworks so that beyond this show that becomes the norm on our station. And public radio at large is another thing, and I’m trying to do that too, and we’re all doing the best that we can. But yeah, there are some difficult conversations that had to happen. Another thing that’s happened, though, that’s been undeniable is that there’s this groundswell of powerful women and nonbinary people making music that nobody can ignore.
TS I didn’t do anything over the past couple of years to make sure we played Brandi Carlile or Maggie Rogers or Emily King or Janelle Monae. These are all people who are making noise. Or Hooray for the Riff Raff. This isn’t the work of people who are saying, [laughs] “hey, public radio needs to be more open minded.” This is the work of people just making amazing music that we’re now trying to take the blinders off and hear. And I think that’s a really important distinction too. We’re not doing this as some summer camp project to try and make the world better for everyone. [SWB laughs] We’re trying to remove the biases that we have, so that we can hear the best stuff that’s out there—so that we’re not missing out because we have outdated ideas or because our ears are closed or because maybe we don’t have a frame of reference for something because all the music that we listened to maybe at a different time in the music industry was male. You know? What are your frames of reference? We have to change those.
SWB Yeah. What have you not even realized you’re missing, like you said.
TS & KL Mhmm.
SWB You can definitely see the shift happening I think broadly speaking within music and definitely on the show. It’s going somewhere! It’s shifted!
TS I hope so! I think it sounds really, really different. And it took, I was—well, was I worried? That’s a lie. [KL laughs] I don’t want to lie to you. I wasn’t worried, I don’t care. [all laugh]
TS I care about making a show that we believe in—
TS —that we think is really good, and beyond that, it’s totally not my job to care. If we’re not appealing to the people that we were appealing—I appreciate listenership and I appreciate that in public radio, the public is your boss because you really are beholden to the people who donate to the station, but what you’re beholden to them for is not to represent what they think they like about music, you’re actually beholden to them to find what you think is the greatest music out there and show them that. And maybe if we lose some people along the way, maybe we find new people that we were missing before and maybe that’s better. Not better, different.
SWB Yeah, and if you piss off some bosses along the way…
TS Hey, listen! You’ve got to ruffle some feathers. It’s uncomfortable! It’s uncomfortable for everybody. It’s super uncomfortable, and we’ve had lots of those kinds of conversations and it’s not fun, and it stinks, and that’s it. The place where I think some people fall off or maybe have difficulty in having these conversations is we have to know it’s painful for people to acknowledge that they’ve done things in a close-minded way for some time. There’s pain in that. They’re going to react in whatever way they’re going to react, and that’s not yours.
TS I’ve had to teach myself that. That’s not mine.
TS And there you go. Yeah.
SWB Man…we all have feelings. [TS laughs]
TS We all have strong—there are some strong feelings!
SWB We can all have feelings.
SWB But they are not necessarily somebody else’s fault or problem.
SWB It’s an important realization!
TS Mhmm. It’s a big one.
SWB Do you wish you could send all of your bosses to therapy?
TS I wish I could send everybody to therapy!
SWB Yeah, okay.
TS Literally, truly, everyone. There are also some amazing young women in public media who are banding together and holding the fort across the country and that’s something that I really appreciate too. I know people that I can call when I feel down, when I feel like I’m not getting somewhere.
SWB That’s so valuable. I feel like that’s something we talk about all the time. You need to know how to tap into a network and how to find your people, and if you don’t have that—the people you can call and say like, “okay, some shit happened today….am I wrong? Am I being totally gaslit here?” The people you can talk to about that I feel like have been so valuable to me and have been probably the only reason that I am able to keep doing stuff that is visible. So, speaking or being on a podcast—that kind of visibility I think is really hard if you don’t feel like you have people in your corner all the time.
SWB It’s been so powerful.
KL And there are levels because you can go to them, but then you can also activate them—
SWB Mhmm, mhmm.
KL —if they need to come and support you for something. That’s so powerful.
SWB So, I want to ask a little bit about the interviewing process and what it’s like to do these longform interviews. I was thinking a little bit recently about one of the interviews I heard you do this summer with Lizzo.
SWB So, we love Lizzo here.
KL We do!
SWB We stan for Lizzo on the show. We’ve been big fans of hers for a very long time, she’s amazing. And she’s known for being very open and honest. She’s willing to be vulnerable because she talks about finding love for body so often, and that’s a hard thing to do—
SWB —as a large, black woman. That was some shit she had to really deal with and then people ask her about it constantly. So, you might expect Lizzo is going to be this big, open interview. And in your show she was, but I also heard her interviewed by Terry Gross—
TS I heard that too.
SWB —pretty similar kind of timeframe as she was blowing up. And it was a very different interview.
SWB It was awkward. It was not open. You could tell Lizzo did not feel comfortable in that conversation. And what I’m curious about is how do you go into a conversation like that? So, you’re going to go in and interview Lizzo—what do you do to do your best work to make sure that the odds are in your favor? That she’s going to be able to open up and be vulnerable and bring that to the conversation?
TS Yeah. Well, I owe a lot to Terry as a student, not only of what she does on air, but also what she does behind the scenes. She was really generous and had me to a taping of the show to watch her whole process the whole way through, even down to what she says to a guest before she talks to them. Which is like…gold.
SWB If you could let us in on those secrets. [KL laughs]
TS I know! [KL & SWB laugh] How much am I allowed to share? One thing that I’ll say I’m sure would be okay is she always tells people that if she’s got something wrong to please correct her, to not let her say, “oh, you wrote this book in 1997” and then to know in your head that you wrote it in 1995, but to not want to be like, “mmm, sorry expert person.”
KL Mhmm, mhmm, mhmm!
TS That’s one thing. It seems so obvious, but it’s such a brilliant thing to say to somebody because it says you’re in good hands with somebody who cares about telling the truth about where you are and doing justice to your story. And I think that’s one of the things that she does to earn people’s trust, and I’ve taken that on since I saw her do that to do myself. And it’s so great! And you can see people’s shoulders sort of go down because they know that they’re not out to get them and that you’re invested in making sure that the truth is what comes across. But for me, to make people feel comfortable—this might sound really woo woo—but before I talk to people, I ask myself what the point is of talking to them and really before they walk into the room, I sit in the space that I’m going to talk to them in and say, “my purpose today is to help this person tell their story and to feel safe with me and to do justice to the art that they’ve made.” And also I say a little silent prayer for their success and fulfillment because it takes a lot to get to the point where you’re being interviewed on a national music show and I really respect that. So, that’s not something that I say to people, but it’s something that I hope that they can feel when they come into the room.
KL Yeah. I love that.
SWB I know, I’m going to do that later.
TS Go for it! [KL laughs]
SWB Get you into that headspace where you’re very present and focused on that intention with them.
TS Yeah, honestly, my job? I don’t do accountability interviews for politics. Sometimes there are things I need to hold people to account for and lately there have been a lot more of those and we talk about serious stuff and I have to not play the devil’s advocate, but try and represent all sides and go there and ask tough questions. But most of the time, I’m there to hold space to help somebody share their story about their art, and that’s it. And I try to come into it with as few assumptions as possible about why somebody might have done something or what somebody might be feeling. I think when it comes to body image stuff and feminism, I think—like I know the moment you were talking about in that interview with Lizzo and it was such an interesting butting of heads—
TS —of two different waves of feminism I think.
SWB Yes! [laughs]
TS But what I love about them keeping that tension point in the show—and Terry’s done this before. She did it in her interview with Greta Gerwig where she was asking him about working with Woody Allen and they had this really uncomfortable conversation where Greta turned it around and said, “well, what about you and your love of Louis CK, and don’t you think I’d rather talk about the first film that I’ve written and directed than talk about some man who is now dominating my Fresh Air interview?” But they left it in! And you have to respect that they leave stuff like that in so that we can hear people working out differences of opinion on the radio. That’s the most powerful thing that you can do through conversation. The interviewer is not a perfect being who is going to get it right and say the right thing about feminism or say the right thing about body image or whatever. The interviewer’s job is to model for society how to ask questions, hear surprising things, react, change your opinion, be open, and not be defensive, and just have a conversation. I think that’s the best thing you can do. So, I love that they leave moments like that in the show. There you go!
SWB Yeah, yeah. Hell yeah!
TS But Lizzo…she’s the best! [KL laughs] She came in and I was like, “how are you?” And she was like, “I’m tired.” [KL laughs]
KL I love that.
TS And I was like, “I love you so much for saying that!”
TS Because we’re always like, “I’m great, I’m fine.” Just…no. We’re all tired.
SWB If Lizzo’s not tired—
KL Oh my gosh.
SWB —with everything she’s doing right now.
KL I worry about her. [SWB laughs] I’m like, “she’s doing a lot. And I just want her to keep doing it.” So, I hope wherever you are, Lizzo, I hope you’re resting.
SWB She buys herself flowers every Sunday, she’s doing okay.
KL I’m glad. I’m very glad.
TS I have the same feeling. [KL laughs] Often when people leave, I’ll be like, “I worry about your happiness [KL laughs] and I want you to be okay.” I also have to get something off my chest. I had a really hard day at work yesterday with a feministi battle that I felt like I had to fight. And then I had to buy some hair mousse as a little treat at Sephora, and on my way out of the counter I was like, “ooh, maybe I’ll get myself a face mask too, that’ll be a nice treat yourself.” And next to it, there were butt masks! There were masks of sheets for your butt. Yes! And that really…I walked out. I put my stuff down and I walked out. I was like, “no, I can’t live in a world [KL & SWB laugh] where you have to be a boss at work and then have nice skin on your butt!” I can’t. [audience laughs]
SWB Too much!
TS That’s too much.
SWB Too much pressure.
TS That’s why we’ve got to stick together and be honest!
KL Oh my god, banish those. Just leave your basket—
TS I was so deeply offended.
SWB I have several questions about butt masks.
TS I know. But also if you have nice butt skin, that’s great. I shouldn’t have gendered it. I shouldn’t have assumed it was something marketed to women, maybe it’s—
SWB I’m pretty sure that’s being marketed to women. [KL laughs]
TS Anyway, it was too much. [laughs] I had to get that off my chest. I have strong feelings about that. [audience laughs]
KL I love it.
SWB Well, I think that we are almost out of time with our interview and we are going to move into our last segment of the show here in a second. But I think before we go, Talia, I just would love to hear from you. I think public radio is amazing, lots of great things about it, lots of people have dreamed of doing it. You’ve talked about a lot of things that can also be kind of hard about it, and you’ve really pushed through. Do you have any advice that you would give people who are entering that kind of environment where they’re so excited, they’re so ambitious, they want to get there, and then you get there, and…it’s not exactly what you wanted it to be?
TS Hmm. That’s a very good question. Looking at your dreams up close, as opposed to from afar, is always a different experience. I really believe that individual people can make a huge difference by being open-minded and respectful and also fucking relentless. We change things by being change and by asking better of the people around us as much as possible. And also you’re only one human. I don’t know, it’s both things. You are infinite and your ability to create change is infinite—and also you are one person, so be nice to yourself and acknowledge that at the end of the day, you’ve done the best that you can. That’s the only advice that I’d have. And also, we’re at a sea change. We’re at a major sea change in all of media, in public media everywhere, where, hopefully, power structures that have been in place forever are being dismantled and there’s space to make change. So find it. Find the cracks, get in there, weasel your way around, and go for it.
SWB Be relentless.
SWB Take care of yourself.
TS Yes, that’s it.
SWB All right! Hell yeah to that!
KL I love that! [audience applauds]
SWB Talia, thank you so much. So, our last segment before we go—every week on the show we do this thing that is called the Fuck Yeah of The Week. And usually it’s just me and Katel [KL laughs] and we give a fuck yeah for something that we’ve been thinking about. But because you all are here today, we would love to see if we have any audience fuck yeahs. So, we are going to tell you how this works and then we’re going to open it up to hear from the audience. The big thing about the fuck yeah of the week is that it just needs to be something that’s giving you some goddamn joy in this world [TS laughs] because things can be real hard! We talked about some difficult stuff today—and we do this on the show all the time. We talk about things that are difficult as you’re trying to pursue whatever your ambition is, we talk about the stuff we want to see change. We also want to give ourselves a moment to just get hyped about something. So, Katel, can you get us kicked off? What is your fuck yeah this week?
KL I would love to. Okay, so I talked a little bit about this park, Fort Reno, earlier. And we know this awesome woman who was on our show last year. Her name is Becca Gurney and she designed our logo, she’s super awesome. And she’s been playing in band and sort of just starting to play little shows and stuff. She is playing Fort Reno.
SWB Oh my god.
KL So, fuck yeah!
SWB Fuck yeah! She’s basically the next Fugazi. [audience laughs]
KL I know! Her band is called Louder Messy and they describe themselves as momcore, so I’m very excited. [audience laughs]
SWB Okay, extremely into that. I want to hear more about momcore later. [TS & KL laugh] Talia, do you have a fuck yeah for us?
TS I do! I’m going to be really on brand with this one. But yesterday or two days ago, this new super group called The Highwomen, who are four of the most powerful women in Country and Americana got together to sort of do their own version of The Highwaymen, which is that famous Johnny Cash thing. So, it’s Brandy Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, who is a songwriter who everybody should know I think, and Amanda Shires, who is really phenomenal. And they dropped their first song this week and it’s so great. The video has a cameo in it from Tanya Tucker and Wynonna Judd, and it’s [laughs]—they’re very powerful women, they’re doing their thing, and more importantly than this project, they are four people who are really out there calling up—Amanda Shires had a story about calling up a radio station in Nashville and being like, “umm, you just played eighteen guys in a row, what the fuck’s wrong with you?” [SWB & audience laughs]
KL Love it!
TS So, fuck yeah to those women.
SWB Fuck yeah!
KL Fuck yeah.
SWB Well, I have a fuck yeah that’s also music related.
KL Tell us.
SWB It is also Canadia related.
TS I’m listening.
SWB I’m going to go see Carly Rae Jepson tonight.
SWB And I’m very excited!
KL That’s great.
SWB And! I think fuck yeah to—I honestly embrace pop music by women in a way I did not understand as a teen, [KL laughs] and I now realize can be transcendent. So, I love me Carly Rae Jepson, and fuck yeah to her.
TS Fuck yeah to Carly Rae Jepson. ‘
SWB Alright, so we would love to get a couple of audience participation…volunteers.
KL We also have two little prizes.
SWB We do, we have some prizes. So, if you are one of the first two people—maybe only two people, we’ll find out—who would like to do a fuck yeah, you may go home with a delightful very on brand Gritty themed koozie. [audience laughs] And inside your Gritty themed koozie, you will find a Federal Donuts gift card.
KL Ooooooh. [audience laughs]
SWB If anybody here is infested in a Gritty koozie and a Federal Donuts giftcard, and has something that they want to say fuck yeah to, come on up, raise your hand. Who you got? Come on!
SWB Whoo! Let’s go! [audience applauds]
SWB Alright. Please, what is your name?
Christina My name’s Christina.
SWB Hey, Christina, what’s your fuck yeah today?
C So, this is pretty appropriate for the topics you were discussing. I ran some interviews this week at work for the first time ever, and I was terrified to be interviewing and gathering people’s very personal stories. But it went really well and it was a major success and I’m conducting some more in the future. [audience applauds]
SWB Fuck yeah! Alright, do we have one more volunteer? Okay, we’ve got another volunteer right here. Please come up! What is your name?
Rebecca Toalson Rebecca Toalson.
SWB Okay, Rebecca, what’s your fuck yeah?
RT My fuck yeah is why go for great when you can go for extraordinary? So, I got a job offer last week for an opportunity I’ve been weaseling my way to the top to get to for six months. And after I knew I was going to get this job offer, a few days later I got a message on Facebook from an influencer that I know in the real estate market. And he’s like, “there’s this opportunity I want to tell you about that I think you’d be perfect for.” And I was like, “I already have an offer, I’m good.” I didn’t say that to him, but that was what I was thinking, right? So, I was like, “you know what? I’m a strong believer in the laws of attraction and putting out there what you want in the world.” So, I listened to what he had to say and next thing you know, he introduces me to who is going to be my boss—an extraordinary, amazing opportunity. So, why go for great when you can go for extraordinary? So, I turned down the other offer that they gave me and now I have my dream job.
SWB Fuck yeah! Multiple offers! [audience applauds] Alright. Well, we are just about out of time here at the Philadelphia Podcast Festival, so we are going to have to say our goodbyes. I think we have a bunch of people we have to thank. Katel, who do we need to thank today?
KL Yeah! So, thank you to all of you who came out and participated and listened. To the folks at the Philly Podcast Festival for putting this on, this is amazing. To our beautiful space here at Indy Hall, we love you guys. We want to thank Blowdryer for the theme song that they let us use. It’s called Deprogrammed and they are an awesome, Philly based band. You should check them out. You can check out our show, Strong Feelings, every week on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows. And, Talia, a huge thank you to you! Thank you so much for joining us!
SWB Let’s hear it for Talia! Thank you! [audience applauds]
TS Thank you for having me, this was such a pleasure. Thank you, thank you. And also, thank you Sara and Katel for doing what you do, thank you so much.
SWB Thank you! [audience applauds][theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]