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Shining Leicht on Local Music For More Than 35 Years.

September 7, 2012

Text by Beth Ann Downey. Top image by G.W. Miller III. Other images courtesy of Helen Leicht.

It’s Helen Leicht’s day to be visible.

She hustles around Saturday’s installment of the XPoNential Music Festival, shuffling between stages to introduce bands and performing the other duties necessary of the assistant programming director of the radio station throwing the festival.

But she’s also enjoying herself.

After settling in for a set backstage, Leicht bobs her head and takes photos of an act she most likely had a hand in booking for the festival or put on air at some time.

Between performances, there’s virtually no artist who exits the stage without talking to Leicht, a 61-year-old with blonde pinwheel curls. Most artists hug and thank her, and take in her warm smile and words of encouragement.

Leicht with Jim Belushi and DJ Ed Sciaky.

She’s a woman who’s more become visible within the local music community, even though she built a 35-year career mostly by being audible only. Her voice, a stalwart force championing local musicians and bands, has been present on Philadelphia radio since 1976.

Leicht grew up in a house where the radio was always on. Her late uncle, Joseph T. Conaway, was the general manager of the pioneering rock station WIBG in the 1960s. His example led to the development of her dream, even though there weren’t many women on-air when she started out.

“When I said ‘I think I’ll be on the radio,’ even my uncle said, ‘It’s only for men. You don’t want to be on the radio,’” Leicht recalls. “I thought, ‘You don’t say that to me.’”

Even in her early teens, Leicht remembers spending most of her time at concerts – The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Supremes among many others. But when she cites the reason she always knew music would be part of her career, only one band comes to mind.

Helen Leicht with Sean Lennon.

“I love music, and the Beatles, they were important to me,” she says. “I think I know, and have known all along, how important music was to people by taking the calls on the radio. If somebody calls me up and they’re having a bad day, they’re celebrating or they’re taking their kid for their first ride when they’re 16 and they have a song [they want me to play], there’s always something connected to music. Music is really a powerful thing.”

Right from her start as a midday host at WIOQ, Leicht knew she wanted to share this love with listeners. She began her “Leicht Lunch” and “Breakfast with the Beatles” programs, and still hears praise from DJs across the country for providing the precedents.

When she started at WXPN in 1990, Leicht worked part-time as the noon to 3 p.m. host on Saturdays. Seeing that the station was dedicated to playing artists from across the country, she asked the then program director if she could cater her show toward another initiative.

“I really wanted to help the artists in Philly because XPN was always helping other artists,” Leicht says. “They did play local artists but they weren’t doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to reach out and get them to come to the studio and sing. So the director said ‘Hey, if you want to take it on, OK. It’s up to you.’”

Leicht with Amos Lee.

She started asking for submissions and scheduling guest spots for local artists. Some of the first unknown Philly artists Leicht spun on her program were Ben Arnold and John Flynn. She heard Amos Lee play in the hallway at a Folk Alliance Conference and asked him to come on her show. That’s when many listeners first heard hits like “Arms of a Woman.”

These and many other Philadelphia musicians are not so unknown today – getting record deals, touring nationally and embodying the industry ideal of “making it.”

And they have Leicht’s voice to thank for that, as music lovers all over the state and across the country have come to listen to her and trust her judgment.

“That’s why I love XPN,” she said. “We are a member-supported station, so I don’t have to test the record. I can just, after all these years, you hear it and you go ‘I know this is a great song.’ I just felt the need to nurture the artists that we had in our area, and do it in a bigger way. We played some of them but you really need to nurture them and give them an opportunity to know that if you write a song, you might get it on the radio.”

Because Leicht wasn’t afraid to speak up, we can now enjoy XPN features like her Philly Local Pick of the Day and the weekly Local Music Hour. Her initiative also paved the way for The Key, the XPN-run music blog dedicated to covering the scene, and the Free At Noon concert series.

Leicht’s influence on the local scene can still be felt today. She can’t leave the XPoNential fest without a handful of CDs and many thank-yous from artists, members and fans.

She’s aware that her voice is listened to but she lost sight of that for a little while in 2009, when she blamed chronic fatigue and pain on the stress of caring for her ailing mother, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

After her mother passed away, she knew she needed to get her own health checked out. But she had a festival to help run, then a Bruce Springsteen tribute to throw and a five-day per week show to continue. Months piled on before she finally went in to have a cyst doctors had found removed – one that blood tests said wasn’t harmful.

But when Leicht woke up from the surgery, she was told she had ovarian cancer.

After taking the necessary few months off to recover and start with treatment, Leicht came back on the air without explaining her absence. The first time she mentioned it was to promote a run for the Sandy Rollman Ovarian Cancer Foundation. Though she knew she’d have the support of artists and listeners, Leicht says it was hard to publically admit at first.

“I was a little nervous,” Leicht says, fighting through tears. “I’m still getting monitored. But I had my one-year anniversary [in 2010] and it was Free At Noon with Dawes. They were great. They were really so great. My daughter and husband were handing out the little teal ribbons.”

Leicht with Dawes.

Leicht proudly wears teal, the color used to make people aware of ovarian cancer, today at the festival, and is now a voice in the community for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. Their motto, coincidentally, is to help “break the silence.”

Leicht with Ryan Adams.

Leicht with David Dye and Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits.

“I know, as a woman, I need to let women know because I never knew,” Leicht says. “I never knew why I had pelvic pain, or when you felt really tired or when you felt bloated for no reason, when I would wake up in the morning and I would be exhausted and I couldn’t even sit at the dinner table. As a woman in radio, and as a woman who’s been in the business and doing this for 35 years, why would I not talk about it if I’m trying to help people? I really want to help. I want to help women. I want people to know that you just don’t know. You have moms and sisters and friends and you need to be paying more attention.”

Leicht’s 23-year-old daughter, Rachael, is with her at this festival, as she has been for every one either of them can remember. She has her mom’s blonde curls and she gets emotional hearing her mom talk about the difficulties of the last few years, which includes a hip replacement in January.

“She’s my biggest supporter and I’m proud of her,” Rachael says. “I was just talking to Dan [Schwartz] from Good Old War and he was saying how I was just like my mom, and how much he loved her… She doesn’t just play music on the radio. It’s not like DJing, when you come in and you have an interview, you talk, you play a song and then you go home. This is, like, her entire life.”

Leicht with Foster The People.

Artists like up-and-coming Americana band The Bailey Hounds know this first hand. Bassist Chris Cardillo says it was Leicht who sought them out after hearing one of the band’s recordings. She played their songs on the radio and helped them land a spot in the XPoNential Festival lineup, ultimately allowing them to play the biggest show they’ve ever done.

Leicht with Tom Petty.

“For us, that was certainly the biggest support that we initially received,” Cardillo says. “It helped get our music to so many different sets of ears. Helen has absolutely been one of the most kind and helpful supporters of our band, and we’re really thankful to have her in our corner.”

Leicht struggles to gloat about the affect her initiatives may have had on countless careers of local musicians, and the Philly music scene as a whole.

It’s even harder for her to say that she’s a cancer survivor.

But if there is one thing that’s easy for her to articulate, it’s the gratitude to those who have let her voice into their homes, cars or workspaces for 35 years, and have allowed her to do what she loves.

“I don’t think anyone has stopped me from being who I am,” she says. “I’m just Helen. I don’t feel like I’m anyone other than Helen, the mother of two kids and a wife. I love that because I’m the same basically all the time. I enjoy that.”

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