During his 31 years leading KEXP, Tom Mara grew a volunteer-run college radio station into a global music institution that he says reaches 2 million people a week. Mara will retire as executive director of the station on June 30, 2022, as the organization turns 50. He’s known for helping KEXP grow while maintaining a focus on finding artists who deserve to be heard and connecting them with music lovers.
Mara says he’s been mulling over the question, “should there be another chapter for myself,” for the last few years — he’s 57 and has worked in public radio his whole career. Mara is not sure what his next chapter will be, but he says now is the perfect time to leave KEXP.
“This is a great time to pass the baton because we’re in really good shape,” Mara says. He’s helping with the search for his successor.
Megan Jasper, the CEO of Sub Pop Records and a member of the KEXP board, says donations to KEXP are at an all-time high. The organization has around a $12 million annual budget. And Riz Rollins, a longtime KEXP DJ, says its staff and programming are the most diverse and inclusive they’ve ever been.
When Mara started volunteering at the station in 1987, it was still the University of Washington station KCMU, which had only a 15-mile range. But in 2000, Mara says he received a grant from the late Paul Allen for $250,000 a year (then the organization’s operating budget) for 10 years, and a $1-a-month lease at a new facility in South Lake Union. The next year, KCMU became KEXP, and the organization grew by leaps and bounds under Mara’s leadership.
In 2016, KEXP moved into its new home in Seattle Center, a community space with a record store, coffee shop and spaces where visitors could watch live sessions. Mara says he cried at the opening event for the space. It was one of his most memorable moments during his time as executive director. KEXP’s new home was an important step in Mara’s goal of connecting music lovers to artists who deserve to be heard.
Through the growth of KEXP, Jasper says Mara stayed committed to the artists whose music filled the station’s programs. In its early days, KEXP was an important platform for grunge bands like Nirvana. Later, KEXP aired music from Sub Pop-signed artists like The Head and the Heart and Fleet Foxes when nobody had heard of them.
Jasper says KEXP is unique in how it champions artists it believes in, even when the artists aren’t seeing commercial success. This makes the artists feel a connection to KEXP.
“KEXP is the kind of station that understands nurturing artists and developing artists,” she says. “The station ends up being requested by artists. And that’s unusual.”
Even outside of his role at KEXP, Mara is an advocate for Seattle’s music scene, says Jasper. She says Mara was instrumental in developing a paid internship program to help people break into the music business, and a high school music-business career day that included stars like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
She also says Mara’s leadership at the beginning of the pandemic — quickly getting DJs what they needed to work from home to prevent any interruption in programming — helped her feel connected to the world during an isolating time.
And she and Rollins say they admire how Mara navigated the racial reckoning starting in 2020. Rollins says Mara recognized the diversity issues in the station’s staff and in its programming.
“KEXP didn’t always serve the entirety of the community,” Rollins says. The programming had variety, but was “steeped in rock,” and didn’t cater to all the Seattle area’s diverse residents.
Rollins says that, though Mara didn’t spearhead the changes made in the station since then, he encouraged them — something he says is a sign of “exceptional leadership.”
The on-air staff shifts have since changed to give a more diverse group of DJs airtime, especially during the day. For example, Rollins, who’s been hosting night shows for years, now plays jazz, African music and alternative hip-hop during the day.
“Particularly after the changes of the past year, I’m as proud of KEXP as I’ve ever been,” Rollins says.
Mara says the future of KEXP is global. The station has been establishing connections with local music scenes from Reykjavik to Mexico City in the last few years to find the best artists from all over the world.
But even with this expansion, Mara says the organization will hold on to its mission of enriching life by championing music and discovery, keeping all its music curated by its 45 DJs — something that he says is rare among radio stations.
“It has been an honor to serve the KEXP community over the past three decades,” he said in a statement announcing his retirement. “I am also eternally grateful for the musicians who inspire and heal us — they are the connective tissue between our communities.”