WXPN’s Roger LaMay Is Ready to Rock NPR

"NPR is the soundtrack to a lot of people’s lives," says local GM.

Roger LaMay, general manager of Penn’s WXPN and a badass Deadhead, says it’s time for National Public Radio to face the music.

As a newly elected member of the NPR board, LaMay’s mission is to raise the profile of cultural programming—particularly for contemporary music—on the news-driven public network. His three-year term begins in November.

Synchronize your watches, people.

NPR’s image as a news outlet “is absolutely appropriate,” says LaMay, 58, who was the founding news director at what is now FOX 29. “It’s an incredibly important news organization. But its coverage of arts and culture makes a huge difference to artists as well as listeners. NPR is the soundtrack to a lot of people’s lives.”

At first glance, nothing about LaMay says “NPR board member.” He wears long hair and a beard. He hasn’t put on a suit in almost two years. His wardrobe consists of khakis, an open-necked shirt and sneakers. For LaMay, every day is casual Friday.

An unabashed rocker, LaMay’s all-time favorites are Patti Smith, Talking Heads and Grateful Dead. When his kids turned five, he started bringing them along to concerts—sitting at an appropriate distance to preserve their eardrums, of course. “They grew up music fans,” he says.

Fun Fact: Lech, the eldest of three, is named after legendary Polish human-rights activist Lech Walesa. (Perhaps as payback, Lech LaMay attended West Point. A post-graduate training injury kept him out of Iraq. Now 30, he is an EMT in Roxborough.)

LaMay pere had an unusual upbringing too. Katharine Hepburn was his next-door neighbor in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, in the summer. His parents played Parcheesi at her house; his grandfather built her family’s seawall.

Young Roger and Hepburn were very close, he says. Once, at her request, the two rode bikes to a beautiful old cottage that was on the market. Hepburn just wanted a look-see, so she instructed LaMay to crawl through a window on the porch and open the front door from the inside. No harm, no foul.

LaMay, one of 10 station managers on NPR’s 17-person board, is the lone rep for contemporary music, he says. XPN’s all-music format is something called Adult Album Alternative (AAA), featuring artists from Brandi Carlisle to Wilco to Ani DiFranco.

The vast majority of music currently carried on NPR is classical, according to LaMay. He wants to build network platforms for a much broader range, to include new music, independent music, jazz and folk, among others.

Though XPN airs no NPR programming, it produces the mothership’s most popular contemporary-music show, David Dye’s “World Café,” distributed to 239 of NPR’s 269 member stations. XPN is also a leading partner in nprmusic.org, LaMay says.

LaMay has a long history in our town. He blew into Philly from L.A. in 1985 to build a news organization—literally, from the ground up—at Channel 29’s WTXF (then WTAF), a dusty old station that ran syndicated reruns and a few local public-affairs forums.

The basement at 4th and Market became a newsroom. The basement’s bowling alley, a relic from an old bowling show, was transformed into a news set. The hour-long Ten O’Clock News launched in February 1986. Eleven years later, LaMay was promoted to general manager.

In ’03, he joined XPN, raising money and spearheading construction of its state-of-the-art studio and headquarters at 31st and Walnut. For LaMay, the transition was huge—from TV to radio, from news to music, and, most important, from commercial to non-profit.

In the commercial world, “there are people doing great work, but in the end, it’s about how much money you make,” he says. In the non-commercial world, it’s “how can we do what’s best for the audience, and how do we pay for it?” Of course, paying for it is the hard part, he concedes.

Despite his new corporate status as a member of the national board, LaMay promises he’ll continue to let his freak flag fly. The long hair stays. Deal with it.

“My hair fits in perfectly with my role as general manager of the coolest station in town,” he says.