- Carolyn Grace
Ringing phones and sudden bursts of applause sound throughout WXPN, the adult album alternative radio station operated by the University of Pennsylvania. Amid the hustle and bustle, Michaela Majoun manages to slip into her booth unnoticed. Curly black hair a-fly, she takes a seat in the tiny studio crowded with microphones, recording devices, and piles on piles of music. A glass window dominates the front wall, overlooking the entryway. Those coming and going are Michaela’s daily audience, but this afternoon they are packed in the back rooms.
It’s fund drive season here at XPN, and Michaela has just finished her stretch of asking for member donations. “I was shrieking by the end of my shift!” she laughs. Now 11:00 AM on a Friday, the place buzzes with excitement, but no one’s energy runs as high as Michaela’s. And she’s been up since 4:00 AM.
The host of the XPN Morning Show, Michaela has been behind the microphone for almost 25 years, but her love for the radio blossomed at a much earlier age. “I grew up listening to the radio,” she says, “and I’ve been talking since I was six months old, so the two just sort of created a natural outlet.” Michaela had her first experience with radio as a student at Antioch College in Ohio, where she got involved in the school’s station as soon as she set foot on campus. Not long after, she had her own show: Michaela’s Mix. “[It] was only heard in the dorms on their AM channel,” she remarks, “but when I got on, I was hooked. I played music and I talked to people, and today I’m still doing that.”
“We’re not going to say how may years later though!” she adds, laughing.
After her early experience, Michaela was bitten by the radio bug, and she wanted more. In the intervening years between college and XPN, she found herself broadcasting from the corner of Dolly’s, a greasy spoon in Madison, Wisconsin. She conducted interviews on the community station with just about anyone. “There was always somebody there to talk to. Even if I didn’t have a guest set up that day I could tap into the people who were [at Dolly’s] for breakfast.”
Her guests were always entertaining. An interview that sticks out in Michaela’s mind happened when TV actress Lily Tomlin came dressed as her waitress character. “We did the whole first break as if she were a waitress there,” Michaela remembers. “She came in and yelled out to people, ‘Don’t bug me! I’m late. Who wants coffee?’ Then at one point she said, ‘I’m going on break,’ and she sat down at my table and lit up a cigarette. She didn’t even smoke! It was hilarious.”
Since then, Tomlin has been featured on Michaela’s Morning Show at XPN, along with a number of talented artists including Sting, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Paul McCartney…the list goes on and on. The show debuted on XPN in 1989, when Michaela, who had been working as a TV writer in Los Angeles, first arrived in Philadelphia. “I had a hard time when I moved here from L.A.,” she admits. “[The city] wasn’t the way it is now, but the one thing that was true was that Philadelphia was rich in music and culture.” In fact, Michaela planned to go back to L.A. after a year at the station. “I had an agent for writing screen plays, but I needed a better way to make money,” she explains. “So I was going to be a success on the air here, then go back and do morning radio and write in the afternoon.” She pauses before continuing with a smile, “But I forgot to go back.”
Michaela became intent on building up XPN into the station it is today, taking a particular interest in Philadelphia’s music scene. “Music in Philadelphia today is so much better even then it was then, in part because of XPN. People started looking toward us as a place that broke new artists.” The station carved out a niche for itself with Michaela leading the charge. “We said we were really going to focus on the local music scene once we moved [to West Philadelphia]. We did, and people are moving here now to be a part of this music scene.” The same holds true, she adds, for all realms of the arts. “[Philadelphia] is an incredible town for arts and culture. It’s one of the best dance towns in the country. It’s one of the best theatre towns, with both traditional theatre and the Fringe Festival.” She then lists some events that are happening in the city this coming week, including everything from the DesignPhiladelphia Festival to an obscure Tennessee Williams play.
How does Michaela know all this? Because it’s her job. Michaela covers the forefront of arts in Philadelphia on the Morning Show, and she does so in a variety of ways. She publishes her Arts Crawl online every Friday morning, highlighting upcoming arts and culture events for the weekend. She features one album each Monday and plays it throughout the week. Both her Fall and Spring Arts Previews consist of a week’s worth of features on the upcoming seasons of various arts organizations, from big names like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Walnut Street Theatre to new independent organizations and fledgling theaters. This year’s Fall Arts Preview, entitled “30 Days of Philly Arts,” was on the air every day with a different event happening in the area.
Music – Michaela’s first love – is the main focus of the Morning Show. “Music is like water,” she explains. “While water is the universal solvent that dissolves things, music brings it all together. Music is the thing that affects us, I think, on all levels that we live on – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.” Michaela prides herself on her extreme diversity of musical taste. “About the only thing I don’t like is barbershop quartets,” she giggles.
Michaela has several programs on the Morning Show that showcase music in a distinctive form. Her Women’s Music Hour, which airs at 9:00 AM on Fridays, shows off a diverse variety of work by thriving female artists. The show was initially started by a feminist who worked at XPN at a time when women artists needed more exposure. Since then, “it’s become a thing that XPN does,” says Michaela. “It really shows off our unique programming, because we have music by women in all different genres, up-to-the-minute and older artists.”
Michaela’s Select a Song feature is another quirky addition to the show. “We celebrate something with a song,” she says simply. “It can be a musician’s birthday or a historical event, even some whacky national holiday like World Vegetarian Day. We celebrated that with music about not eating meat. I think we played a song about vegetables.” The celebration can also be something more serious. “We’ve commemorated September 11th during Select a Song. People request things then, like ‘Imagine’ or Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The Rising.’”
And, of course, there are the guests. One already feels star-struck just reading the names mentioned earlier. For Michaela, it’s now become old hat. She’s had a lot of them in her twenty-plus years at XPN. “Sometimes it’s a matter of wanting so much to do justice to an artist you love that you try too hard when you’re interviewing them!” Michaela explains. “I met Joni Mitchell at a party in Austin and froze in my tracks at first, but she was wonderful to chat with. I met Bob Dylan when I had complete laryngitis!” There have been and continue to be moments like these. But for the most part, there aren’t that many people that Michaela finds intimidating.
There’s an element of spontaneity with the Morning Show, mostly because Michaela is herself a spontaneous individual. “My big claim to fame forever has been going out at night and coming in early in the morning for work,” she jokes. Michaela knows that rising before the sun is no easy task. “People ask me how I do it,” she says. “I think it’s because underneath it all, I’m an insomniac.” Michaela doesn’t go out as often anymore, now that she lives on the outskirts of the city and has a newfound appreciation for sleep. But she has a reputation to uphold. “Even though I’m not out all the time, people still think I am,” she says mischievously.
Her energy certainly carries over to her work behind the microphone. “I really want to be on all the time,” she says. “I don’t want to be distracted. I don’t want to be tired. I don’t want to be thinking about something else. I really want to show up and be present, one hundred percent.” And Michaela’s presence is certainly heard by many. In an atmosphere like XPN – public radio powered by the people – the staff works in concert with their listeners. “It’s more in your mind on the radio,” Michaela explains. “When you’re on television, there are people around you can talk to. But here, you have to envision that you’re talking to some person in the audience, more than just everybody. Radio is theatre of the mind, both for the people listening and the people on the air.”
Michaela gives one hell of a performance, largely because even in today’s rising digital age, she sees the importance of radio. “I think people still need the radio station,” she says. “You can go nuts on the Internet hearing music, but we’re still curators. We still bring music to people.”
The clock in the booth reads 11:29. Outside the window stands a large crowd, anxiously waiting to file downstairs to the World Café stage. Amos Lee is performing today for the Free at Noon concert, and Michaela is thinking of attending. It’s been a long day, though, and after deliberation she finally decides, “I may just go home.” She’s forgiven. After all, she’s already been up for almost 8 hours.