by Bryan Culver
LiveConnections Big Hurrah, taking place October 6th at The World Cafe, will recognize veteran radio host and WXPN mainstay, Helen Leicht, with the Connector Award, commemorating her 40-year career built around supporting Philadelphia’s local music community.
Leicht is one of the Philadelphia music community’s true mavericks. She is credited with helping create numerous WXPN institutions including Free at Noon, Artist to Watch, Leicht Lunch, XPoNential Music Festival, and music blog The Key. More than anything else, her career has been dedicated toward championing local musicians: “When they get recognition—and they get support—they can support causes they’re passionate about, they can support local artists they’re passionate about, and they can pay it forward.”
With her soothing, raspy voice, Leicht was born to be a radio broadcaster. The quick phone chat I had with her recently almost felt like I was having a conversation on her show. What I wanted to know more than anything else: how she got her start.
Leicht’s career stems back to 1976—where she got her start on WIOQ Album Oriented Radio (AOR), introducing Philadelphia to the likes to Tom Petty, The Cars, The Pretenders, Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello. That same year she began hosting her nationally syndicated program Sunday Breakfast with The Beatles.
But in 1990 Leicht changed trajectory when she joined WXPN. She was encouraged by then programming director Mike Morrison to play whatever she wanted—something that wasn’t common in the radio world at the time. She immediately chose to dedicate her air time to local artists—placing ads in the newspaper encouraging artists to mail in their demo tapes. Over the years she’s introduced audiences to the likes of Amos Lee, Jim Boggia, Ben Arnold, John Flynn, Good Old War, Mutlu, Lauren Hart, Andrew Lipke, Melody Gardot, Matt Duke, Sharon Little Kuf Knotz.
In 2003 Leicht, along with Bruce Warren, she began presenting their Artist to Watch. This has been an invaluable vehicle for launching the careers of many local musicians. In 2005 she started the concert series Free At Noon which has featured David Gray, Adele, Hall & Oates, Damien Rice, The Smithereens, Citizen Cope, Arlo Guthrie, Richard Thompson, Buddy Guy, Sean Lennon, Rosanne Cash, and Calexico. And in the spirit of paying it forward, Leicht helped establish WXPN’s Musicians on Call Program, which has provided over 80,000 patients from surrounding area hospitals with performances by local musicians since 2004.
As an aspiring writer and freelance music journalist, my life perpetually revolves around discovering new music, and XPN’s eclectic range of programming is one of the more robust resources for getting truly engrossed in Philadelphia’s music scene. Often times, you don’t even realize you’re listening to local artists because it meshes so well with the other material. That’s what is so great about listening WXPN: they play the most exciting music from artists performing right in your back yard. To put it simply in the words of Helen: “These are artists you’re going to hear about.”
If you’re a frequent listener to WXPN you’ve no doubt heard it a hundred times: WXPN is a member-supported radio station. Their eclectic array of programming is made possible by enthusiastic listeners, that take the extra step to give back to the community—Philadelphia’s music community is one of the most vibrant in the country, and it all starts with supporting the artists from the bottom up.
To say the least, Helen Leicht’s merits make her an ideal recipient of the connector Award, and her passion and contributions will continue to reverberate throughout the community for years to come.