Arts, Culture & Media

Just one of the remarkable people who you've heard in the past 20 years of The World

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The World's host Marco Werman with underground comic artist Robert Crumb in 2004. 

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Marco Werman

 It was 20 years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play

Sergeant Pepper at the time was The World's man in the corner office — Neil Curry, a terrific producer and a friend whom I had worked for previously at the BBC's Africa Service in London.

His job for PRI was to create a version of the BBC's Newshour, but for American ears.

The original team of PRI's The World, in the UK.

The original team of PRI's The World, in the UK. 

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PRI's The World

When he first told me about the concept in the winter of 1995, I was personally thrilled. I had long thought American radio listeners needed a program that made them feel part of the global community.  We don't have enough passport holders in this country.  Despite American prominence around the world — or maybe because of it — we don't feel any huge drive to discover the rest of the globe. A friendly radio program could change that, I thought.

And I wanted to be a part of it.

I was. Neil brought me over in June of 1995 to be part of what he affectionately called "Brains," where a dozen of his favorite radio producers came together at the Yankee Clipper Inn in Rockport, Mass., to design what would become The World.

I met my future wife there, Schuyler, and she would actually name the program in the lobby of the Inn at Harvard that week. (She also came up with another possible name — "The Daily Planet" — and claims to have invented the Global Hit. Being in a mood of goodwill today, I will give her that one just once. Tomorrow I will take credit for it again.)

There were lots of things that we came up with in Rockport that are no longer part of The World. But the music has remained. We always knew that music from around the globe was a surefire way to explain the world, and to be entertained at the same time. And the basic thesis of the show is still in place: To let American listeners in on what makes the planet tick through stories of people who are there when it does.

This world we live in can be a spooky place, and all we wanted to do was remind them that spooky gets the big headlines, but the planet is actually filled with people who are doing their best to make the world less spooky. And in addition to the news, those continue to be the stories we want to tell you — and we believe we are telling them better than we ever have.

"Hot Women" included songs drawn from Crumb's personal collection of vintage records.

"Hot Women" included songs drawn from Crumb's personal collection of vintage records.

And so it was when I was helming the aforementioned Global Hit, and wandered into Tower Records (remember the brick and mortar record store?) at Harvard Square one night back in 2003, and discovered a new CD collection of very old music on the German Kein & Aber records label. It was titled "Hot Women: Women Singers from the Torrid Regions."  It was compiled by underground comic artist Robert Crumb, drawn from his own collection of vintage records.  Aside from his pen and ink creations that have become icons of the 1960s and '70s, Crumb is also, by his own admission, an obsessive collector of 78 rpm recordings, originally pressed on shellac.

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from Robert Crumb's collection the “Crème de la Crumb."

So I decided to go visit him at his medieval home in southern France and hear his own stories about some of the singers on "Hot Women." It was one of the best assignments I ever got with The World.

And it was great in part because, over 20 years, The World has afforded me and the other reporters and producers here unique editorial independence — rare in this business — where the stories we select are driven by our own personal passions and curiosity.

This two-part interview with Crumb is from The World's archive. I keep it on my iPod because, about once a year, I listen to it just because it makes me smile and because Crumb has some really smart things to say about music.

Here's to another 20 years!