Early Riser
As bright-eyed host of the XPN Morning Show, Kristen Kurtis turns up the volume
by Bill Donahue

Last May, when Michaela Majoun announced she would be resigning from her post as longtime host of the XPN Morning Show, listeners lamented her looming departure. On Oct. 12, they got to “meet” her successor: Kristen Kurtis. It’s been a figurative “love connection” ever since.

Kurtis cut her teeth at stations in Boston and Spokane, Wash., ultimately landing in one of the country’s true music meccas, Austin, Texas. She spent the four years prior to joining XPN with KGSR in Austin, most recently as midday host, assistant program director and music director.

Wanderlust aside, Kurtis is no stranger to the Greater Philadelphia Area, having spent her formative years in Downingtown. The Bishop Shanahan alumna currently lives in the city’s East Falls neighborhood.

Ask Kurtis about her “favorites” list and she’ll rattle off the names of everyone from XPN darlings Radiohead and Karl Blau to up-and-comers such as The Suffers and Kyle Craft. Her “gotta hear” also includes a number of Philadelphia-based artists, or at least artists with ties to the area: Marian Hill, Melody Gardot and Mondo Cozmo, to name just a few.

Kurtis took a few moments between songs to discuss her years away from Philly, how she spends her time off the air (including honing her skills in standup comedy) and why 2016, despite the passing of so many industry icons, has been a great year for music.

What was the first band or first song that got you hooked?
I was figure skating when I was in fifth or sixth grade and heard “I’m Just a Girl” from No Doubt. I knew I had to find out more about it.

Before coming back to Philly, you were most recently in Austin, a great place to have a job in music. What do you miss most about Austin?
The food. Some of the restaurants there were just amazing. There was one place that did experimental fusion, Uchiko, which is a sister restaurant to Uchi [from owner/chef Tyson Cole, winner of a James Beard Foundation Award in 2011 for best chef in the Southwest]. It was some of the most inventive, delicately prepared food I’ve ever had. The comedy scene is surprisingly good, too. There are bands around all time, but you probably wouldn’t think of Austin for its comedy; it was one of the more surprising things about the city. That’s where I started studying improv.

While you were away, what did you miss most about Philly?
Wawa. I also missed the attitude. … Being away teaches you that Philadelphia has its own certain personality. I missed the way of life here. I missed the food, too; wherever I go, I tend to miss the food after I leave.

Was the plan always to leave Philly, spend some time elsewhere and then come back, or was your return more of a happy accident?
[Coming home] was a motivation I didn’t know I had. When you work in radio, you always figure you’re going to move around a bit, and there were probably five or six cities I thought I would go to next, and when the opportunity came up here, it was something I thought I needed to do. So it was probably a little bit of both. … I always wanted to work at Y100, and when that went away there really wasn’t anywhere else like it in Philly where I really wanted to be; I didn’t even know about XPN when I left.

With the deaths of David Bowie, Prince and so many others, 2016 has been a rough year for the world of music. What’s the good news?
That there are a lot of classic artists who are still putting out good music; Radiohead’s new album is amazing. The cream still rises to the top, so there’s a lot of great music coming out. Now it’s just easier to share it and listen to it.

So you have an interest in improv, and I hear you also play guitar, among other instruments. How else do you spend your time off the air?
I would like to get back into standup, and at this point in my career I’ve been thinking a lot about what topics are appropriate [for standup], so I’m sort of figuring that out. I would also like to get back into writing music, because I miss doing that stuff. But for now it’s just good to be back in the area and reconnecting with people I haven’t seen in a long time.

Photograph by Alison Dunlap