Over the last 45 years, KEXP has expanded from a shoestring college radio station with a quarter-mile range to a multi-million-dollar media-production operation with listeners all over the world. As KEXP moves into its new headquarters at Seattle Center, we present the story of a Seattle institution that has thrived amid the ongoing social and cultural whirlwind of the new millennium, as told to Jonathan Zwickel by the people who’ve made it happen.
Dow Constantine (former KCMU DJ; King County Executive) At the time there was an AM station called KZAM: “Ka-zam 1540! Rock of the ’80s!” KZAM was more into the popular end of that music, but they were still playing things you weren’t hearing on the big rock stations.
Jon Kertzer (former DJ and station manager) I helped start KZAM in ’75. If you ask people around music back then, it was a good station. Half the on-air staff were women; it had a strong news program. It lasted from the mid-’70s to the early ’80s. I was music director there ’til ’78.
Faith Ventrello (née Henschel, former DJ and music director) KZAM was a commercial station that was not commercial at all. It operated on a shoestring but had great DJs and their music mix was edgy and great. It was like, “Oh, this is what radio can be.” That’s why I thought KCMU could be fun.
Constantine Then KZAM went off the air. They were replaced by smooth jazz or something, and it was, for a small percentage of the population, a traumatic experience. That was motivation, as KCMU was bumping along, to go down there and volunteer, late in the summer of ’81, starting my sophomore year.
Kertzer When I quit managing [Seattle rock band] the Heats in ’81, I went back to school in ethnomusicology at UW and I hear about this opening at KCMU for a station manager. I was a grad student and teaching a course on the history of American pop music, but I had this background in radio, so I got the job.
Kim Thayil (former DJ; founder and guitarist of Soundgarden) I was asked to work at KCMU by members of the staff because I kept winning all their phone giveaways—those quiz things where they ask some question about Devo or Black Flag or X or some band coming to town. People said, “You keep winning these things, you should think about working here.”
Kertzer It was an interesting time at KCMU because it was making a transition. The Communications Department kept using the station for their classes but withdrew their financial support. They still gave us the space, a couple rooms on the third floor of the Communications Building. And we had an engineer from KUOW who was the chief engineer. But because the Communications School pulled its support, in the spring of ’82 we did the first on-air fundraiser and it was all about tying in local music. For me the start of the station was all about community support.
Constantine I expressed my interest in being on the air and they expressed their interest in having me sit at a desk and call people for money. That was my first experience dialing for dollars, a skill that’s been remarkably useful as my career has unfolded.
Don Yates (Swingin’ Doors host, music director)Kertzer was instrumental in taking the station away from the university broadcasting curriculum to make it an independent radio station.
Constantine After not too long, they gave me the coveted 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. slot on Thursday night, when literally dozens of people were listening. It was only 10 watts so the signal was pretty clear up to like 47th St. or so.
Mark Arm (former DJ, founder and lead singer of Green River and Mudhoney) I went to the UW so I was within the 10-watt radius of the station but I didn’t start working at KCMU until after I graduated.
Constantine A lot of the fundraising was about increasing the power. Once we kept the doors open, it was going up to 100 watts and further from there.
Kertzer The format had been eclectic, but then it started focusing on new wave music—what we call now indie.
Thayil New records were always being sent in, usually major-label but some indie stuff. We had a policy of playing college rock and new-wave pop and indie stuff. But the major labels dominated. A lot of it was crap we wouldn’t play.
Bruce Pavitt (former DJ, co-founder of Sub Pop Records) When I first got to Seattle in April of ’83, KCMU was playing Flock of Seagulls, lots of corporate new wave. I got a show almost immediately. I did a specialty show called Sub Pop USA, Tuesdays from 6–7. Getting people to think about the power and value of regional music was the purpose of the show.
Kertzer I started the show called Audioasis in the early ’80s as a weekly local music show, but I never hosted it. It’s still on the air.
Pavitt Jonathan Poneman [co-founder, Sub Pop Records] was doing Audioasis and he invited me on to promo the first Sub Pop record, Sub Pop 100. We both had that passion for local music so there was good synergy. The Sub Pop 100 being discussed on Audioasis—the revolution started right there.
Constantine We were able to incubate our own homegrown music here, in houses and garages, and this little radio station helped lead to what exploded from Seattle in the late 1980s.
Kertzer Along with doing on-air fundraisers we did events with local bands playing in clubs to raise money for the station.
Thayil Bands were very aware of the role KCMU was playing in helping them out. KCMU was a networking hub for that seminal Seattle scene, Sub Pop and what came to be known as grunge, though I hate that word. It pivoted around KCMU.
Constantine It was the beginning of the heyday of college radio as the catalyst of musical culture around the country. It was an energetic time. You could feel it.
The mid-’80s and early ’90s were a crucial time for the station, when a lingering DIY sensibility collided with growing staff, structure and accessibility. Seattle’s local music scene was gaining visibility on a global scale and listenership was booming. But some of the longtime volunteer DJs—and listeners—were unhappy with the station’s changing complexion.
Ventrello It was a great time, but when you have something that’s really cool but there’s no money in it, people gravitate to ego and power.
Thayil A lot of these guys were careerists. They were students looking for employment opportunities in the field of radio and television. Some wanted to be DJs and on-air personalities or work at record labels. The rest of us just wanted to play our weird records.
Yates I started volunteering in 1987 and before long I had an air shift and was working in the music department, and I became the volunteer program director. I started doing music tracking, going around to record stores and finding out what was selling out of the stuff we were playing. That’s how I met Riz.
Riz Rollins (Expansions DJ) I used to manage a record store on Broadway and Don used to come in and track every week. After a while we struck up an affinity and we’d go out after he was done tracking and have beers. After a year or so of him doing that he asked me, “Do you wanna do a show?” And I was like, “Nah.” “Why not?” “I don’t wanna be on anybody’s radio.” I wasn’t DJing at all at that time.
Cheryl Waters (Midday host, live performances booker) I was on the air from day one. It was all brand new to me. It was a four-hour show and Don Yates told me what was going on and he let me fly solo the last hour. I came in a week later and did a whole four-hour show by myself, with Don working in his office. It was 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. I remember having a full minute of dead air at one time before Don came running in. I couldn’t figure out the board! That would never happen now. It was still a college station then.
Ventrello Chris [Knab, station manager] was the adult running the station. He tried to change it, which was antithetical to everything the station was about.
Tom Mara (executive director) Chris hired me as development director. He took a chance—my record didn’t propel me to the position. He became my mentor. That was my first experience getting paid to do this work.
Chris Knab (former station manager) The University had asked me to slowly take the station and make it grow. Except for Tom and Don and Faith, the resistance I encountered in trying to mold it into what it is today was nasty. By ’92 they thought my job was to turn it into a commercial rock station, which was nonsense because we were on a noncommercial band. We couldn’t be a commercial station—the left side of the dial is reserved for public radio. I couldn’t convince them. Some volunteers and students formed a group called CURSE—Censorship Undermines Radio Station Ethics. Wonderful, eh? They tried to launch a lawsuit, which went nowhere.
Arm I had a little bit of conflict with Chris Knab when he came in. He had this cockamamie idea to turn the station into something that stores would be willing to play during the daytime. He wanted to relegate anything abrasive or interesting into the night shift.
Knab And Mark Arm was never on during the day. He was a nighttime, once-a-week guy.
Mara In the late ’80s, we’d spend seven days [fundraising on-air]. If we crossed the $30,000 mark, that was a reason to celebrate.
Yates Then we started hiring people to DJ every day of the week. People use radio as a companion, and to have that person there every day when you wake up, it’s a good thing. Volunteer DJs felt threatened by that, and on the whole, staff was not supportive of those moves. Once we actually did it, with Debby Letterman in the morning, we had a bigger audience, we raised more money. We did the same thing with Riz in the afternoon. And then we added World Café in the middle of the day, a syndicated show out of WXPN in Philadelphia.
Mara World Café provided listeners with something we couldn’t do at the time, which was live performance. The studio in the Communications Building, it was 1,000 square feet. If we wanted to have two artists perform, they had to perform in the hallway. But World Café turned out to be way more singer-songwriter-oriented than we expected. It would have a lot of Shawn Colvin…
Yates Sting! Shit like that. World Café was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The audience plummeted. So we dropped it. But by then the station had broken apart. People started complaining on the air and Chris started firing them. We couldn’t be on-air late at night because so many people left.
Rollins I quit during that whole time. I just walked away for a year or so—didn’t want any part of that while it was happening.
Mara That disagreement started to snowball within the station and it became a pretty intense time of conflict. We should’ve done a better job thinking about it. Looking back, I think we learned the lessons we needed to learn.
In 1999, the UW’s Computing and Communications Department took an interest in KCMU as a means of experimenting with the new field of online radio. At the same time, department director Ron Johnson and Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen were in talks to establish a broadcast extension of the new Allen-led Experience Music Project. Allen, Johnson and Mara brokered a deal that changed the station’s call letters to KEXP, relocated its broadcast facility to a former radio station at Dexter and Denny and provided a $3 million influx of capitol. A slew of new on-air and administrative talent further established the consistency that Yates and Mara sought.
Kevin Cole (Afternoon Show host, senior director of programming)I started volunteering and doing a weekend show in ’98, ’99. I had radio experience from Minneapolis, where I started a station from scratch called Rev 105, Revolution Radio. The whole transformation of KCMU to KEXP provided an infusion of cash to invest in programming and fundraising, and that’s where I came in full time, as program director.
Yates When they told us we had to change the call letters, of course we freaked out. But the more we thought about it, the more we thought it would work out. We’re gonna be the same people playing the same music, not some Jimi Hendrix rock-block station for Paul Allen.
John Richards (Morning Show host, associate director of programming) I don’t expect billionaires to do anything great like this. Then it ended up being the greatest thing that ever happened.
Cole There was concern from listeners. Tom and I talked about it and Tom was like, “The proof is in the programming.”
Richards The Morning Show began around that time. I called it The Morning Show—I was on the spot, I had to think of something.
Ron Johnson (former head of UW’s Computing and Communications Department, UW professor) Our main motivation in transitioning old-media-based KCMU into broadband-Internet-based KEXP was to try to use Internet technologies to springboard DJs and listeners into a wider global audience. We hoped that by using the Internet to tie together those otherwise niche communities across the globe that we could make KEXP a viable force supporting truly authentic music.
Richards I feel like this station represents a thousand stations that didn’t make it and a few that did.
Sharlese Metcalf (Audioasis host, music community events coordinator) I modeled my show at Green River College’s radio station after Audioasis when John was the host. Then I started volunteering at the desk at KEXP, and assisting John with the show.
Constantine Our little radio station became a global musical phenomenon. Its funny to think about this little 10-watt station where the signal could barely reach across Interstate-5 being presumptuous enough to share a musical perspective with people in Europe and Asia and Africa.
Waters It’s so different now, but it’s also the same. I go in and program my show the same way I did 21 years ago.
Metcalf This is my time and its not gonna be forever but I’m gonna do everything I can to be the best at it. I love this community. I love all the talent we have. This is a special place—Seattle itself and the Northwest. We have the most musical fulfillment. Musical discovery, its like candy here.
Richards It takes people streaming to tell you, “This isn’t going on in my city.” Ex-Seattleites, they’ll say, I didn’t realize there isn’t a KEXP in wherever they live. We want others out there like us but we just realized there weren’t others out there.
Rollins I had my first DJ training yesterday—it was pretty overwhelming. I don’t wanna use plantation imagery, but if you lived in the field your whole life, and then you find out that the big house is available and you walk around inside and there’s indoor plumbing, and I don’t have to burn wood to keep warm… We’ve gone from Montessori to college. We’ve gone from signs posted in the bathroom saying “Please don’t flush this with your foot” to fully automated toilets.
Waters We’ve created such beautiful work in the old space and have that instantly recognizable look in our live videos. We love the new space but we can’t wait to personalize it, make it our own.
Rollins And it’s yours. After 25 years of being mine, in a sense. It’s different now. It’s a whole new set of responsibilities.