Seattle boasts a distinctive history in radio broadcasting. It was home to several pioneering stations at the dawn of this new technology about a century ago, and one of these pioneering stations went on to establish itself among America's most influential breakout stations in the rockin' '60s. In more recent times is the saga of the mighty "listener-powered" KEXP, which traces its roots to its predecessor, KCMU, the University of Washington's modest, student-run, 10-watt station, founded in 1972. Adopting a community funding model -- and a heavy focus on local music in the 1980s -- KCMU played a significant role in the rise of the Pacific Northwest’s famous Grunge Rock movement. After shifting from its largely volunteer organizational model in the 1990s, the station received support from Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, was renamed KEXP in 2001, and moved into new state-of-the-art quarters on the Seattle Center campus. In the years hence it has debuted innovative new technologies, streamed digitally, posted live in-studio performance videos online on YouTube, issued exclusive compact discs -- and become a globally treasured model of radio excellence.
Once Upon a Time
The earliest pioneering radio stations in the 1920s typically aired commercially sponsored 15-minute blocks of news, religious content, mini-dramas and comedy, 78-rpm recordings and/or live musical performances by the likes of homegrown pianists, violinists, and singers -- along with plenty of scripted ads. But just as electrical technology advanced, and the stations' broadcast ranges expanded, the quality of on-air talent also improved.
Along the way -- and as additional stations arose -- stations began specializing, and classical music and country/western formats became popular. Then in the late 1950s, rock 'n' roll records began appearing on the playlists of stations that had adopted the Top-40 pop-hit format, and soon the wars between competing Seattle stations, such as KJR (950-AM) and KOL (1300-AM), commenced.
KJR was founded in March 1922, while KOL (formally founded in 1928), traced its corporate history to KDZE in 1922. While KOL valiantly battled KJR over the Top-40 slice of the Northwest's radio pie throughout much of the 1960s, KJR established itself as the prime station under the leadership of star disc jockey Pat O'Day (b.1934) and debuted many hit records that stations across the nation subsequently adopted.
Classical to Classic Rock
Meanwhile, on the underutilized FM dial -- traditionally the province of tiny classical music stations, weather reportage, as well as the minority of households who even owned an FM radio -- things were more sedate. One local pioneer was KUOW (90.5-FM), a non-commercial, student-serving educational station based on the University of Washington campus. It had begun broadcasting in 1952 with student volunteers serving as staff. In 1954 KUOW upgraded its base to a "studio" in the Communications Building, where it continued airing such mundane content as classroom lectures, school sports coverage, and classical music well into the 1960s.
Another classical station that would play a major role was KISW (99.9-FM), founded in 1950 at 9201 Roosevelt Way NE. Sold to the owners of KJR AM in 1969, by 1971 KISW had switched to a rock format and the FM band’s popularity was soon to skyrocket -- the fuse having been lit in June 1968 by KOL (94.1-FM), Seattle's first free-form, or "underground," all-music station. Meanwhile, KTW (102.5-FM), a country station founded in 1964, switched to a "classic rock" format a decade later as KZOK. It and KISW became crosstown rockin' rivals for many years.
The early '70s saw the peak of student unrest, with swirling interconnected issues including antiwar and civil-rights protests, and general strikes, on campuses. In the wake of the Kent State killings in May 1970, KUOW's studios were invaded and overtaken by the Communications Coalition: 50 radicalized UW students who felt the station's milquetoast airings were not adequately presenting the burning issues of the day. This "Radio Free KUOW" crew was allowed to broadcast its "liberated radio" content throughout that night, and with that venting, things then settled down. But the demand for student-run radio content persisted.
In 1972, four undergrads convinced the UW's School of Communications to provide them with the space (Room 304) and limited funding to launch a new monaural station (KCMU) as a lab for communications majors. The station was assigned 90.5 FM (KUOW had moved over to 94.9-FM in 1958) and was intended to air student news and light entertainment. The founders were: John Kean (station manager), Cliff Noonan (program director), Victoria "Tory" Fiedler (jack-of-all-trades), and Brent Wilcox (engineer). The school's faculty director, Dr. Don Godfrey, assisted in preparing the paperwork required to attain proper FCC licenses, etc.
Wilcox and Kean led the construction of the control rooms, wired-up and installed equipment, and then a transmitter was erected atop the McMahon Hall dormitory. The laughable 10-watt station boasted a broadcast range that barely covered the physical span of the campus itself (its power would be boosted to 182 watts in 1975). Before the year was out, Paul Sands replaced Kean, while Dean Smokoff replaced Noonan and in 1973 became the station manager. Tom Bowman joined the team as KCMU's first news director. Among the earliest student DJs were Jeff Peel, Michael Marti, and Leroy Skeers. As DJ Smokoff recalled: "We started KCMU FM as a way for UW broadcast students to have hands-on experience and training. Some of the first announcers were not Communications majors because we needed to fill positions" (Smokoff). Thus, the tradition of allowing some outsiders, even non-students eventually, commenced.
Thus, plenty of folks got valuable experience associating with KCMU, and went on to notable careers. Among them, Leroy Skeers went on to KZOK, KZAM, and KEZX before managing Starbucks' Global Music Programming; Tom Corddry (a Communications Department teaching assistant) went on to KZAM and KZOK; Paul Sands became a news producer at KIRO-TV; Robert Cardenas went on to KISW; Jude Noland went on to KZAM; Steve Lawson went on to KING AM, and helped found Bad Animals recording studio; Cheryl Marshall went on to KOMO AM; Bob Branom went on to KUOW and then KING-TV; Steve Poole went on to KOMO-TV; Tim Hunter went on to KOMO and KLSY; John Steckler became sales manager at KIRO- and KING-TV; while co-founder Brent Wilcox worked at KUOW, and Dean Smokoff had a long radio career at KXLE, KAYO, KVI, KOMO, KBSG, KNDD, and KMTT.
In August 1981, and due to the faltering Reagan economy, UW budget cuts slashed funding for its broadcasting program, but the Save KCMU Committe arose -- led by Lynn Olson (later a KIRO radio news editor) and DJs including Sherman Peabody, Neil Sussman, Troy Apollo, and Billy Fortune -- and its public fundraising campaign produced a whopping $28,000 for KCMU. KUOW also stepped up in 1981, taking over supervising KCMU, and providing a professional accountant and an engineer. That same year also saw a new crop of notables joining the team. UW student Dow Constantine (b. 1961) became a volunteer DJ/promotion director and also met his future wife, volunteer DJ (and then, music director) Shirley Carlson, at the station. Constantine later served as a Washington State Representative, then as a Senator, and was first elected King County Executive in 2009.
In addition, KCMU hired a new manager, Jon Kertzer, who'd helped launch the refreshingly eclectic KZAM (1540-AM) in 1975. Under his leadership KCMU began refocusing as a "modern rock" format in September 1981 -- with the slogan "You're riding a New Wave with KCMU" -- and the Audioasis all-local new-music program was launched. Kertzer recalled that in January 1982, "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" (Zwickle).
The community responded, and that same year KCMU was able to increase its power to 182 watts, finally stretching its broadcast range beyond University District and nearby Capitol Hill neighborhoods. In 1983 KCMU went stereo and to a 24-hours-a-day schedule. From then into 1985, Kerry Loewen (formerly at California’s KFCJ) served as manager before being replaced by Chris Knab (co-founder of San Francisco’s 415 Records label), who oversaw the 1986 move from 90.5 to 90.3 on the dial, the relocation of its transmitter to Capitol Hill, and the increase in power to 404 watts, expanding KCMU's coverage to about 15 miles.
By this point the station was forging an identity by focusing its programming to underserved realms of modern music by adding new hosts and shows highlighting roots music (country, rockabilly, and blues), reggae, jazz, contemporary global music, and, importantly, Northwest rock. The impact that its support for the latter category had cannot be overstated.
"For several years KCMU was ground central for the Seattle music scene," noted Charles R. Cross, the editor of Seattle's influential music magazine, The Rocket. "It was the only area radio station that regularly supported local bands, and, if its listenership was tiny, it was influential in breaking many bands ... At times the station had more DJs than listeners, but it's no exaggeration to say that virtually every volunteer who had an air shift in the late '80s ended up getting a job in the music industry or playing some role in the Seattle scene" (Cross).
Among the most notable volunteer DJs was Jonathan Poneman, rock guitarist and one-time UW student, who took on hosting the Audioasis show. One day in 1986 he invited as a live guest, Bruce Pavitt, who had his own indie-music column in The Rocket and had already founded the Subterranean Pop cassette label in Olympia. Now he was promoting his first vinyl set: Sub Pop 100. "We both had that passion for local music so there was good synergy," he said. "The Sub Pop 100 being discussed on Audioasis -- the revolution started right there." Pavitt was soon hosting his own Sub Pop USA show on KCMU. As he would recall, "Getting people to think about the power and value of regional music was the purpose of the show" (Zwickle).
Meanwhile, two of Pavitt's old musician pals, Kim Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto, had also moved to Seattle and Thayil began listening and calling in and winning various KCMU telephone music-trivia contests. So, one day, "I went down to pick up my prize, and they said, 'You're always around anyway, how'd you like to work here full-time?'" (Cross). He began hosting his own show, while simultaneously forming the band Soundgarden with Yamamoto and then-drummer Chris Cornell (1964-2017). That was about when Pavitt and Poneman began really connecting and decided to ratchet Subterranean Pop up a notch, cut some tunes with Soundgarden, and release them on the Sub Pop label. With additional support from KCMU DJ Mike Fuller, the 1987 single "Hunted Down" got heavy play on KCMU and Soundgarden was on its way to global Grunge glory.
The Rocket was proving to be a taste-making influence in the culture, and additional contributors served as DJs for KCMU. The publication's hip-hop expert, Glen Boyd, became a publicist/promoter with Sir Mix-A-Lot's new Nasty Mix label, and then American Records; its heavy-metal expert, Jeff Gilbert, hosted the BrainPain show and founded the Ground Zero label; its local music history columnist (this author) founded the Northwest Music Archives and served as Senior Curator for Seattle's music museum, the Experience Music Project; and KCMU DJ Veronika Kalmar worked as managing editor at The Rocket.
The 1980s brought additional talents to the KCMU volunteer DJ roster, among them Paul Aleinikoff (host of the edgy and noisy On The Edge show), Norman Batley (founder of the alt-rock Life Elsewhere and Positive Vibrations reggae shows), Riz Rollins (the popular manager of Orpheum Records, and eventual ace dance-club DJ), Clark Humphrey (longtime columnist at The Stranger, and author of 1995's Seattle rock history book, Loser); and Don Yates, who served as a volunteer DJ and then program director.
KCMU also benefited from the contributions of numerous active musicians who volunteered as DJs, including Mark Arm (guitarist/singer with Green River and Mudhoney), Steve Turner (guitarist with Green River and Mudhoney), Jeff Smith (singer with Mr. Epp and the Calculations), Ben McMillin (singer with Skinyard), Marshall Gooch (guitarist with the Power Mowers), Dave Brooks (drummer with Coffin Break), and Scott Vanderpool (drummer with Room Nine and the Chemistry Set), who later moved on to KISW, KZOK FM and CBS Radio.
As UW student, KCMU DJ (and then, music director) Faith Henschel would recall: "KCMU helped create a really vibrant and self-aware music scene. It gave everyone a sense of community" (Cross). That the scene was gaining in vibrancy was undeniable -- but it seemed no one outside of Seattle knew that or cared. In 1986, Henschel proceeded to produce a now-legendary compilation double-cassette set titled Bands That Will Make You Money that featured promising yet overlooked Northwest bands (including Poneman's Treeclimbers, Vanderpool's Chemistry Set, Arm and Turner's Green River, and Thayil's Soundgarden). It was comprised of tunes that KCMU was airing but were otherwise being ignored by the radio industry. She mailed it out to every mover and shaker in the business, and it is credited with having drawn the earliest attention from outside labels and stations to the emerging Seattle Grunge scene. That cassette ultimately helped get Soundgarden signed to a major label, A&M Records. It thusly proved her foresight and acumen; Henschel went on to serve as a vice president of marketing at Capitol Records in Los Angeles.
Nirvana's Radio Debut
In early 1988 Seattle’s ace recording engineer/producer, Jack Endino, passed off a new cassette of fresh tunes he'd cut with a little band from Aberdeen named Nirvana to a few industry folks including KCMU DJ Shirley Carlson. And thus did the future-megastar group garner its very first radio airplay when she chose to broadcast "Floyd The Barber." Months later, the band's leader Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) walked a copy of their debut Sub Pop single "Love Buzz" into KCMU hoping that they might air it.
Then, as he and a girlfriend made the return trek home in her car, dashboard radio locked onto 90.3-FM, he was disappointed that the disc wasn't being aired. So mid-route, she exited I-5 and, using a gas-station payphone, Cobain called in an anonymous request for the song. Soon after, the record was blasting forth and the couple reveled in that magic moment. KCMU would also debut tracks from Nirvana's follow-up album, Bleach. Three years later, in September 1991, a grateful Cobain (and Nirvana) returned to the station to do an on-air release-day interview promoting the band's second album, the immortal Nevermind.
The CURSE Revolt
In 1991, KCMU manager Chris Knab began to phase in "a watered-down format and an authoritarian management system," shocking the staff and listeners alike (Humphrey). The key objection was that Knab seemed to be attempting to convert a beloved and quirky public radio station into a slick commercial one. In his defense, Knab explained, "The University had asked me to slowly take the station and make it grow." Toward that end, he hired Tom Mara as development director, DJ Don Yates as program director, and began hiring paid on-air staff.
Debbie Letterman joined as morning-shift host (replacing four other DJs). And, surprise, listenership actually began increasing, as did KCMU's annual fundraising efforts. So far so good, but Knab also opted to subscribe to World Café, a syndicated program of Adult Contemporary music produced by the University of Pennsylvania's WXPN. These changes --highlighted by a new slogan: "KCMU: A World of Difference" -- sparked a remarkable backlash by disappointed DJs and listeners alike.
"World Café was the straw that broke the camel's back," Yates said. "The audience plummeted. So we dropped it. But by then the station had broken apart" (Zwickle). Some staffers departed by choice, others were cut loose. An activist organization called CURSE (Censorship Undermines Radio Station Ethics) arose to fight what it considered "a betrayal of KCMU's democratic mission" and it "encouraged local KCMU supporters to stop donating money to the station in protest" (statemaster.com).
Knab responded by instituting an in-house no-criticism policy that resulted in at least 20 staff departures. "People started complaining on the air and Chris started firing them," Yates recalled (Zwickle). Among those who quit was music director Kathy Fennessy; she had been there since 1989. CURSE founded a publication, CURSEword, and began holding events to help publicize its battle.
A lawsuit was filed against the UW, and the U.S. District Court struck down Knab's gag rule. Still, by then many popular volunteer DJs were gone. The brouhaha eventually settled down, and new talents, including DJ/host Cheryl Waters with her live-band performance feature called The Live Room, emerged. Then, after Knab’s departure, Mara rose to station manager in December 1993. More tumult awaited as management worked to further professionalize the station: the KCMU News Hour was cut, in 1996 three more paid DJs were hired, and in 1997, the last remaining volunteer DJs were let go.
KCMU to KEXP
Feeling cramped in its shabby old studios, KCMU successfully raised funds and moved into KUOW's former facility in the basement of Kane Hall when the latter station moved off-campus in 1999. In December 1999 the UW Computing and Communications department took over KCMU from the University Relations department, and the station began serving as a platform for testing new Internet technologies. In 2000 KCMU became the world's first station to begin streaming its broadcasts in 1.4 Mbit/s uncompressed, CD-quality live audio via the Internet.
In June 2000 the Experience Music Project, founded by Paul Allen (1953-1918), opened while his team also joined negotiations between KCMU's executive director Tom Mara and Ron Johnson, UW professor (and VP of the Computing and Communications Department). The result was a deal that brought dramatic changes to the station thanks to an influx of $3 million.
By April 2001 Allen had helped fund the conversion/expansion of KCMU to KEXP, which was to be relocated to KZOK’s 6,300-square-foot former studio at 113 Dexter Avenue N in Seattle. The station's new call letters were a nod to Allen's obsession with the Jimi Hendrix Experience -- plus a clever reference to an acid-addled comedic bit on the band’s Axis: Bold As Love album from December 1967, which contains a voice (of drummer Mitch Mitchell) playfully acting as an "announcer” from "Radio Station EXP" who poses a silly interview question (to Hendrix) about UFOs.
Allen's funding "put the station up in fancy, rent-free digs, bought the station all-new, state-of-the-art equipment, changed the call letters to KEXP, and promised the UW $600,000 over the course of four years to support the school's music programs ... KEXP has just been handed the resources to transform Seattle's tiny, beloved non-commercial radio station into an international player in Internet broadcasting. Make no mistake: radio is a dying art; the Internet is the future; and whether KEXP continues to serve Seattle's local music community or not, it will soon be international in terms of listenership" (DeRoache). Such worries were unfounded as KEXP proved to be as committed to Northwest music as KCMU ever was -- only now with 720 watts and broadcasting 24-7-365.
"Our main motivation in transitioning old-media-based KCMU into broadband-Internet-based KEXP," said Ron Johnson, "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" (Zwickle).
Numerous KCMU veterans carried over as members of KEXP's initial core crew, including KEXP's executive director Tom Mara, and program director Don Yates. Some 20 DJs were retained as well, including Amanda Wilde, Riz Rollins, John Gilbreath, Greg Vandy, Darek Mazzone, Jon Kertzer (whose Best Ambiance world-music show originated in 1984), Cheryl Waters (whose The Midday Show originated in April 1994), Leon Berman (whose Shake The Shack rockabilly show originated in 1986 and continued on KEXP into 2016), and Masa (whose Expansions electronica show aired for more than 20 years).
Then there is the case of Kevin Cole, a former radio music director in Minneapolis, then a senior music editor and creative marketing manager for Amazon, a volunteer KCMU DJ in 1998, and then KEXP's program director. Another former KCMU volunteer DJ, John Richards, excelled with The Morning Show (which is credited with breaking many new acts including The Lumineers and The National) while also managing KEXP's other 40 DJs. Marco Collins -- the hit-making Grunge era deejay at Seattle's KNDD -- joined KEXP in 2009. Other notable on-air talents have included Friday night host Michele Myers (from New York's WNYE), and Audioasis host Sharlese Metcalf (who became KEXP's music community events producer).
The technological promises inferred by Paul Allen's engagement with KEXP began to actualize. In 2001 the station's UW-based engineers developed the radio industry's first real-time playlist; in 2002 the station launched the industry's first streaming archive (which would eventually contain all of its programming from the previous two weeks along on-air live artist performances); in 2003 it began the first cellphone stream; in 2004 it won a Webby Award for best radio website; in 2005 it got permits to increase wattage from 720 to 3,300 and aired its first in-studio live-performance podcast with the Seattle hip-hop trio, Boom Bap Project; and on March 10, 2006, KEXP increased its signal to 4,700 watts.
Nearly a decade later, in 2014, the UW Board of Regents could see that KEXP was in safe, nurturing hands. The fledgling station had matured beyond anyone's original vision back in 1972. The regents voted to formally transfer (on September 30, 2014) ownership of KEXP 90.3-FM's broadcast license to the Friends of KEXP 501(c)3 nonprofit arts organization. In February 2015 construction began to convert the old Northwest Rooms at the Seattle Center -- designed by famed architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993) for Seattle's 1962 World’s Fair -- into KEXP's new 28,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility.
KEXP moved into its new home in December 2015 and held a massive grand-opening event on April 16, 2016, which was attended by some 12,000 fans. The station boasts deluxe physical features including a massive music library/archive, a 75-person area where visitors can watch broadcasting action, a 4,500-square-foot space for community gatherings, and a comfortable "green room" where touring musicians can rest, relax, and, gratefully, do laundry, while making in-studio appearances at KEXP. All this progress was impressive -- even before an anonymous donor, a non-Seattleite, gave the station a $10 million gift in April 2018: "the largest bequest to a single public radio station in history" (KOMO staff).
Back in 2014, the station had first unveiled its new live video-streaming service via YouTube, KEXP Now, which by mid-2019 had attracted more than 1 million subscribers and more than 500 million viewers worldwide. And thus, "Our little radio station," a bemused King County Executive Dow Constantine once reflected, "became a global musical phenomenon. It's 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" (Zwickle).