Seattle is becoming a music capital again, a decade after the city's "grunge"-rock movement faded. Only this time, instead of bands like...

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Seattle is becoming a music capital again, a decade after the city’s “grunge”-rock movement faded. Only this time, instead of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, a small, Internet-savvy public-radio station is leading the way.

Seattle’s 720-watt KEXP, partly funded by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, last month became the first station in the U.S. to offer a “podcast” of full-length songs from albums for Apple Computer Inc.’s iPod music players. Podcasts typically are free broadcasts delivered via the Web to computers, allowing users to transfer the digital audio and listen anytime.

In the next few weeks, KEXP says it will become the first to make its live radio broadcasts suitable for cellphones and handheld organizers.

The nonprofit station is building an international profile by adapting to the Web faster than commercial rivals such as San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications Inc., whose stations typically broadcast on signals of tens of thousands of watts.

“They’re really thinking ahead of the game,” says Seattle music historian Charles R. Cross, who has written biographies of Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, both of whom were from the Seattle area. “Part of it is that KEXP brings an authenticity to their mission that Clear Channel doesn’t, and so bands don’t question their motives.”

Cross credits KEXP, whose license is held by the University of Washington, for part of the success of Modest Mouse, a local act whose album “Good News for People Who Love Bad News” was the 64th-best-selling album of 2004, according to Billboard.

With a library of 500,000 songs, the station has made diversity its calling card: It plays everything from alternative rock to folk music, reggae and blues.

The station, 90.3 FM, got its start in 1972 as KCMU, a student-run outfit with a 10-watt transmitter. It earned a place in music history as the first to play Nirvana. Cobain himself dropped off the tape of a single — then called in a request to hear it on the air.

In 2001, Allen agreed to cover the station’s operating losses and donate new equipment. In return, the station was renamed KEXP to promote the Experience Music Project, Allen’s museum of rock-music memorabilia near Seattle’s Space Needle. The University of Washington still uses the station for engineers to work on new digital technologies.

KEXP has focused on gaining new listeners through the Internet since 1999, when it began live Web broadcasting. As many as 60,000 people listen through KEXP’s Web site at least once a week, in addition to 100,000 terrestrial listeners, says Tom Mara, 41, the station’s director.

KEXP is tapping into a growing market: The number of people who tune in to Internet radio weekly has quadrupled since January 2000 to 8 percent of all Americans, or more than 20 million, according to Arbitron Inc. That compares with just over 6 million subscribers to satellite radio.

KEXP offers its podcasts free for download to iPods or other MP3 players from its own Web site or from a free podcast clearinghouse at Apple’s iTunes online music store.

Commercial radio operators like Clear Channel, the largest U.S. radio broadcaster, have been comparatively slow to adopt Internet technology, says Kit Spring, an analyst with brokerage Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Denver.

The big hurdle is ownership rights. Many U.S. radio stations offer podcasts of talk shows, interviews and concerts recorded in their own studios. Songs from albums have been off-limits, because the stations are still trying to hash out terms with the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the record labels that hold the copyrights.

KEXP bypassed those talks by approaching bands that own their music and independent record labels. The result was the first podcast July 21, a 14-song collection of original songs by such Northwest acts as Tullycraft.

“Everyone is sitting around waiting for the labels to sign off,” says John Richards, 31, who hosts KEXP’s morning show from a room decorated with world maps marked by yellow pins showing KEXP listeners from northern Finland to Antarctica. “I said, ‘Let’s just get the rights.’ “