Seattle’s KEXP bucks the Internet radio trend and thrives. The tiny but influential station is soon to move into palatial, high-tech headquarters near the Space Needle.
Internet radio was supposed to squash small FM music stations like KEXP. Someone forget to tell that to KEXP, the little station that has helped launch the careers of big music acts like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and the Lumineers.
Last week John Richards, the morning disc jockey at KEXP, walked through the station’s gleaming new headquarters not far from the Space Needle. It is a $15 million project designed to further the station’s evolution into a brick-and-mortar music programmer for the Internet age.
As workers put the finishing touches on the soaring public performance space near the building’s entry, Richards pointed to a corner that will eventually have a cafe and another that will house a record store. A large soundproof window provided an aquariumlike view into the booth that Richards and other DJs will begin broadcasting from next month.
“It’s like ‘Star Trek’ in here,” Richards said, inspecting the electronic consoles, microphones and computer displays inside the booth.
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Music fans live in a time of plenty, when nearly every song for any musical taste can be listened to in an instant over the Internet, from Spotify, Pandora and dozens of other sources. Satellite and commercial radio crowd the airwaves with further options for discovering new music and listening to the old.
And yet a handful of nonprofit music stations like KEXP with roots in college radio have never been doing better. They are using the Internet to reach bigger audiences around the globe, adding to their video programming and seeking to become in-person destinations for fans.
Most of all, they are trying to stand out with their music programming, with genre-hopping mixes selected by DJs rather than software or dictated by program directors at commercial radio chains.
The abundance of music and methods of distribution has increased demand for human tour guides for all of it.
“There’s so much music out there, so many places to go,” said Roger LaMay, general manager of WXPN, a public music station in Philadelphia, and chairman of the board of National Public Radio. “But finding curation from a trusted source is a lifeline for most music lovers who don’t have the time or wherewithal to sift through it all on their own.”
KCRW, a public radio station in Southern California, is another tastemaker. At the end of next year, the station plans to move out of its basement studio beneath the cafeteria of Santa Monica College to a $48 million facility with a public performance space.
“The thing that has helped KEXP and KCRW is we’re not traditional radio,” said Jennifer Ferro, the president of KCRW. “We’re really building this tribe of people that are interested in music discovery and curious about the world.”
Even Apple has cottoned to this approach, introducing a human element into its Apple Music service with Beats 1, a live, Internet-only radio station anchored by Zane Lowe, a former BBC radio DJ, and other musical tastemakers.
KEXP has made thematic narratives for music junkies, rather than pop hits, one of its specialties. In July, it dedicated 12 hours to a meticulous deconstruction of “Paul’s Boutique,” the seminal Beastie Boys album, in which it played every track on the album along with the original songs that they sampled. Music fans raved on social media.
The station’s DJs are walking Wikipedias of musical trivia, not commercial radio personalities who seem to have had one too many espressos. Mike McCready, the lead guitarist for the rock band Pearl Jam, singled out for praise a show in which Kevin Cole, a KEXP DJ, played songs from all the bands that were inspired by being in the audience of an early show by the Sex Pistols, an influential punk-rock band.
KEXP does not have anything like the tens of millions of listeners of an Internet channel like Pandora, and it probably never will. It reaches about 206,000 listeners a week, just over a quarter of whom stream the station over the Internet. That is more than three times its audience 15 years ago. New York is the second-biggest source of online listeners, after the Seattle-Tacoma area.
As a nonprofit, it does not have to chase ears like its commercial rivals. KEXP receives about half its annual $6 million cash operating budget from listener pledges, while the rest comes from grants, corporate underwriting and other sources.
KEXP has significantly expanded its audience through its YouTube channel, which features sessions with musicians at its studios and at music festivals around the world. It posted more than 500 such videos last year and its channel has about 743,000 viewers a week.
Its most popular video, with nearly 30 million views, showed a kinetic Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the Seattle hip-hop duo, performing “Can’t Hold Us” four years ago, when they were on the cusp of mainstream stardom. “That was a moment we knew something was special,” Richards said.
While its audience cannot compare in size to its digital rivals’, the station is revered by many influential fans.
“I am listening to @kexp and @loserboy on @iHeartRadio and I am LOVING it!” Jimmy Fallon, the “Tonight Show” host, tweeted last month. (@loserboy is the Twitter handle of Richards, and iHeartRadio is an app from the radio conglomerate of the same name for listening to radio stations over the Internet).
Wesley Schultz, the guitarist and lead singer for the Lumineers, the Denver folk rock band, said Richards played his band’s song “Ho Hey” twice a day, back-to-back, for a week during his show in 2012.
“It started making waves for our band that we would never have anticipated,” Schultz said, adding that he listens to the station every morning. “All these people started finding our music through this station.”