During a trip to Seattle in October, 2014 for the College Broadcasters Inc. (CBI) conference (see my report on that event), I carved out time to visit five radio stations in the area. My first stop was to public radio station KEXP-FM in Seattle.
After flying into Seattle on October 22, 2014, I picked up a rental car and made my way to KEXP on apparently the rainiest October 22nd in Seattle history. Located on busy Dexter Avenue in Seattle, the station occupies a 6,000 square foot building. While it seemed spacious to me, KEXP is outgrowing it and is making plans to move to bigger digs. Plans are in the works and a fundraising campaign is in full swing in order to generate the resources to build the larger station. In its new home, KEXP will occupy 28,000 square feet of space in the Seattle Center, with a 4,500 square foot lobby/gathering space. The lease on KEXP’s current location on Dexter expires at the end of 2015.
Although KEXP began life as college radio station KCMU on the University of Washington campus, it’s now an independently-owned public radio station. KCMU launched as a college radio station in 1972 and by 2001 its call letters were changed to KEXP to reflect a partnership with the Experience Music Project. The non-profit Friends of KEXP (which had been running the station in recent years) consummated its purchase of the station’s license from University of Washington on September 30, 2014, just a few weeks before my visit. There are still some DJs and staff members from the KCMU days at KEXP and I also love that KCMU’s history is acknowledged in the vintage KCMU record reviews (Review Revue) posted on the station’s blog.
When I arrived at KEXP, a 5-year station volunteer, Ken, met up with me for my scheduled tour. We breezed past the lobby and some station offices (where I spotted one of those Leo Blais signs as well as a Steve Keene painting!) before heading into the music library for a chat. He talked to me about the station’s focus on “music discovery” and devotion to “championing new artists and local artists.”
As a volunteer, Ken wears a lot of hats. He works at the front desk, does in-studio “hospitality” for visiting artists, and assists a couple of KEXP on-air DJs. He pulls music in advance of their programs, maintains the real-time playlist of songs, and refiles materials after their shows. He started out at the station as a volunteer during the fundraiser and stuck around because he “loved the staff.”
As we talked in the music library, I asked Ken about what was airing over KEXP during our visit. I knew that the station was doing remote broadcasts from the CMJ Music Marathon in New York that day and was also told that a band was playing in the Seattle studio. Ken explained that the in-studio in Seattle was being recorded for future airplay, but that later in the day (right after my visit) a second band (King Tuff) would be doing a live on-air performance.
KEXP hosts and broadcasts a dizzying number of live performances every year. It’s not unusual for the station to host several musicians in one day. Its website provides a chronicle of recent performances as well as a listing of upcoming in-studios. Ken told me that there are around 550 live in-studios every year. In KEXP’s current space there isn’t room for people to watch these performances live, as audience members would have to cram into the sound booth. However, the sets are recorded and video is posted on YouTube. KEXP is just beginning to experiment with live video streaming, doing its first live video stream of a Pixies set in February, 2014.
In addition to live performances, KEXP has a regular schedule of DJ-curated shows. According to Ken, there are live DJs on the air at the station 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. He told me that DJs have the freedom to play what they want, but that they also have music from heavy, medium and light rotation that they are expected to play. He estimated that there were around 45,000 CDs in the music library, with around 9,600 pieces of vinyl.
Although music is a huge part of what KEXP is known for, the station also operates like any other business. When I visited, staffers seemed to be quite busy and were quietly at work in offices and cubicles or were having meetings in some of the station’s common areas. Ken explained the wide array of departments at KEXP, including business support, IT, donor services, production, traffic, development, and communications. As a larger non-commercial radio station with paid staff and plans for a multi-million dollar new facility, it’s important that KEXP keeps the fundraising dollars coming in, so it’s not surprising that people were hard at work on non-music activities.
While I caught glimpses of some familiar radio station sights, including fun pop culture artifacts, couches, vinyl records, a lava lamp, posters, and other ephemera; I sadly wasn’t able to see the KEXP on-air studio. The door was closed and I was told that it wasn’t possible to go in, so I didn’t actually see anyone “doing radio” during my visit.
Thanks so much to Ken for touring me around KEXP on a particularly hectic day for him at the station! This post marks my 70th radio station field trip and is the first in a series of articles about my fall 2014 Seattle radio station tours. You can see my most recent field trips on Radio Survivor and view all of my station field trips chronicled on Spinning Indie.