Why KEXP is still Seattle’s independent radio station


The shelves are full of vinyl, and the windows darken with passers-by pressed against the glass, hoping to catch a glimpse of a DJ running a finger along wrinkled backs before wiggling a free-chosen album. KEXP’s current headquarters, which opened at the Seattle Center in 2016, is a major glow from the cramped cinderblock room in the University of Washington’s communications building, where the modest 10-watt station lit up. for the first time in 1972.

Today, a choir of voices sings a common refrain: KEXP is special. The station champions public media in the digital age, with listeners around the world and an impact that comes from its strong and enduring local commitments. “There’s a reason KEXP is in Seattle,” says executive director Tom Mara, who is retiring in late June after 31 years at the station.

Four UW students are the reason KEXP – then known as KCMU – exists. Waves of radical, anti-establishment sentiment in the 1960s set the tone for 90.3 in the early 1970s; UW’s airwaves thickened with strains of the station’s eclectic and intellectually demanding programming, its institutional backing insulating it from commercial demands. But shaken by Reaganomics, the university cut funding in 1981. The following year marked the station’s first on-air fundraiser, signaling a shift from an experimental student enclave to community radio “fueled by listeners “.

The station has faced its share of growing pains distinct from Seattle. A push for more accessible content in the 80s and 90s drew accusations of selling out purists who preferred the subversive programming of the station’s early years. Mara played a major role in the evolution of 90.3 during this time, helping to make it a financially viable operation. A $3 million donation from Paul Allen in 2001 transitioned the station to its current KEXP identity and ensured that it would remain independent, even as public radio began to warp and warp under commercial pressures.

Ironically, the station’s backing of a tech billionaire is what has allowed it to remain a vital counterpoint to for-profit streaming platforms. “They play stuff because they like it, not because it’s cool,” says Ryan Devlin of local rock band Smokey Brights. Chris Kellogg, Chief Programming Officer, puts it this way: the goal of an algorithm is to give you more of what the AI ​​thinks you want to hear; KEXP gives you what it thinks you should listen. Its success in preserving and modernizing a human-curated live listening experience is due to its ability to walk a tightrope between competing interests.

Even in the age of streaming, people still drop off CDs at reception, says Alaia D’Alessandro, the station’s video producer and member of punk band Tres Leches. “We’re a music city,” she adds, though it’s sometimes hard to remember that in the face of glitzy new condos no self-respecting indie rocker could afford. This delicate union of seemingly divergent interests — progress and nostalgia, alternative and mainstream, analog and digital, commerce and artistic integrity — is at the heart of what makes 90.3, and the city that birthed it half a century ago. -decade, so special. KEXP may have mastered the art of selling.


Powerhouse 1972 releases and recordings with Pacific Northwest ties.

  • “Red House” (Hendrix in the West) by Jimi Hendrix
    rolling stone called the posthumous release a “masterpiece of a performance”. Consider it a 13-minute blues showcase of the Seattle-born musician’s guitar brilliance.
  • “Running Back to Saskatoon” (Living at Paramount) by guess who
    Catchy riffs aside, this Canadian rock anthem never gained traction in the Lower 48, despite being recorded at Paramount. Pearl Jam then shared their hometown love, covering the song while on tour in Saskatoon.
  • Fanz live only by the sonics
    A brief reunion of this now iconic ’60s garage punk band led to a wild gig in Seattle. The short was released as an EP from Etiquette Records over a decade later.
  • “The Street Drummer” (Sanford and Sons) by Quincy Jones
    Hit sitcom Sanford and sons debuted in 1972 with the legendary songwriting skills of the Garfield High graduate powering the sax-heavy theme song.
  • Grateful Dead Download Series Volume 10 by Grateful Dead
    At a gig in town on July 21, 1972, the band revered by generations of stoners played for some 230 minutes on 31 songs.

Seattle Met Composite Image: SEARICK1, MR TACT HILL, DOUG RAPHAEL / Shutterstock.com.

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