John Richards is used to beating the crowd. KEXP’s longtime man in the morning typically strolls into the station’s Seattle Center offices well before its public-facing Gathering Space opens. By the time La Marzocco’s baristas start slinging their first espressos across the room, Richards is already an hour into his drive-time show.
But these days there is no crowd. The stream of laptop-toters and curious tourists who normally give KEXP’s spiffy, 4-year-old headquarters its pulse are gone, chased out by the global COVID-19 crisis that’s upended life in Seattle and across the world.
“It’s like I’m back at KCMU, DJ-ing in the dark,” says Richards, referring to the station’s predecessor and its solitary digs. “It is really symbolic, as we DJ, to look upon an empty Gathering Space, an empty courtyard. It reminds us what’s going on. I gotta say, I don’t like it. But it tells me every day this is the world I live in.”
KEXP’s offices are a ghost town, too, with few staffers coming in beyond the DJs, who now rotate between two booths as a safety measure. However, amid the physical isolation of a quarantining city, the community-funded station has been overwhelmed by messages from listeners eager to share their stories and offer words of encouragement. Even for a nonprofit indie station that prides itself on listener engagement, the volume has been high. On a recent Friday, Richards says he received 500-600 emails and texts — an unprecedented amount that has been flowing in since the beginning of March.
“Everyone wants to hear a human voice and music to help them escape,” he says. “I can’t keep up with it.”
While Seattle’s flagship radio station — with its small army of local DJs regularly playing hometown artists — is unabashedly local, it’s well known outside the city and the inbox deluge is coming from online listeners around the world. A note from a West Seattleite sharing their home-schooling challenges might follow one from an anxious quarantiner in Ukraine. During these uncertain times, KEXP’s transmissions from under the Space Needle’s shadow have been a source of comfort and connection for many.
“Right now it’s important to let people know they’re not alone,” says midday host Cheryl Waters. “Let them know that what they’re feeling is OK and that other people are having similar feelings.”
Eight time zones and 7,500 miles away, KEXP is part of the soundtrack at the U.K. hospital where Paul Lilly works as a nurse in an intensive care unit. The former musician discovered Seattle bands like the Melvins, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam back when they were playing small clubs in Birmingham, England. A devoted Mudhoney and Sub Pop fan, Lilly still has some of the old flyers.
Despite tapping into the “Seattle sound” during the grunge era, the 49-year-old Birmingham man only found KEXP a few years ago, when Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm took part in an all-star Stooges tribute organized by the station.
The past few weeks in the ICU have been busy, to say the least. Instead of having one patient himself, Lilly’s overseeing three or four ward nurses, each with patients of their own, to handle the volume. While the hours have been long, Lilly says it’s been more draining psychologically than physically. That’s where KEXP — and independent U.K. stations like BBC Radio 6 and Absolute Radio — come in.
“When you are working full tilt for excessive periods of time in full infection-control battle gear, a bit of music is a most enlightening thing,” Lilly wrote an in an email between 14-hour shifts. “It offers some relief from the incessant alarms and work noise, a bit of normality, escapism.”
Andrea Learned got hooked on KEXP around the same time as Lilly, though the frequencies didn’t have as far to travel. In search of community, the Seattle woman started volunteering with the station after attending KEXP’s Inauguration Day rally when President Donald Trump took office. A climate-action communications strategist by trade, Learned jokes she “pressured them” into letting her participate in KEXP marketing meetings on a volunteer basis.
Already a daily listener, Learned has “doubled down” on her workday listening habits since the pandemic broke. She’s enjoyed hearing the flood of messages coming from around the world, as KEXP DJs read them on the air in real time.
“They’re reminding you that this person in Spain is having the same fears that you’re having,” Learned says. “That solidarity of global citizenry, they’re able to express that and that comes across on the airwaves.”
“We need each other more than ever before”
With 20-plus years of radio experience each, both Richards and Waters — who bring an emotional honesty to their shows — have been on air during heavy historic moments before the coronavirus pandemic. For Waters, Sandy Hook stands out. Moments before her show started, news broke of the school shooting that left 26 dead — including 20 children ages 6 and 7. “It shook me to the core,” Waters says. Suddenly, the radio vet had to reprogram her entire show on the fly, trying to play something soothing while keeping herself together.
For a long time, Waters thought her role as a DJ was to “enrich people’s lives through music discovery” and spinning their old favorites. It started to change that day, as listeners reached out, saying they intentionally shut off the news and turned to her show instead.
“It was definitely the worst day on the air for me ever,” she says. “But that was really the beginning of realizing how powerful KEXP was and [its] importance in people’s lives.”
The collectively somber moments that stand out for Richards are 9/11 and Trump’s election, when people were “scared and looking to music and community to give them hope.” Still, the current health crisis is different. “Those things are as close as we get,” he says. “But to experience it every day for what, 23-24 days now, there’s been nothing that even comes close.”
Four times a year, KEXP does a Music Heals day, with programming focused on music’s uplifting, therapeutic powers amid hardships. Listeners are encouraged to share their experiences with addiction, depression, cancer or grief, depending on the theme. Over the past month, the number of daily emails and texts has been on par with a Music Heals day.
“Those days wring us out,” Waters says. “They’re so emotional and draining, and we only have them four times a year. Now every day is a Music Heals day, so we need each other more than ever before.”
Navigating an unprecedented event
This added emotional weight comes on top of navigating, for themselves, this unprecedented event. Waters, who recently underwent cancer treatment, is feeling strong and healthy, but worries for her friends’ physical and financial health. “There’s a feeling of high anxiety that permeates everything I do right now.”
Richards is concerned with his family’s safety while home-schooling his two kids. His wife recently passed her medical-board exam and may be called into duty soon. With bars and restaurants across the state shut down, Richards and his partners had to lay off their staff at the Capitol Hill bar, Life on Mars, that they opened last year. Trying to help them get unemployment benefits has been a “nightmare” and while he hopes the layoffs are temporary, the bar’s future is uncertain.
“This dream of mine has come to a crashing halt and I’m petrified the government is going to do nothing to help us small businesses,” Richards says during a home-schooling break. “You have all that weighing on you and you’re just trying to do your job.”
Yet, life goes on.
A few weeks ago, Richards celebrated his birthday. Listeners taped b-day messages to the studio’s glass walls. It didn’t feel like a time to be opening presents, but his dutiful family had already purchased them. Other party accessories were harder to come by.
“Do you know how hard it is to find a cake during a pandemic when you’re a gluten-free vegan?” Richards says.
The little distractions are nice, perhaps necessary.
Brad Nelson’s typical morning starts with making his oldest child some oatmeal, reading the news and listening to KEXP. A few weeks ago, the Ballard dad tuned in in time for Richards’ 8:30 a.m. dance party segment. Taking the morning host up on his suggestion, Nelson grabbed his superhero-loving preschooler and turned their kitchen into a dance floor as Empire of the Sun’s electro-pop hit “Alive” thumped euphorically. (According to the 4-year-old, those superheroes imbued him with some kind of dancing powers.)
“It’s everything,” Nelson says of having those moments with his son. “It’s the thing that keeps our blood pressure from going through the roof with every push notification that we get.”
For longtime listener Roy Slayton, KEXP is part of the rhythm of his week. The co-owner of Camp 1805 distillery in Hood River, Oregon, knows it’s his trash day when he hears Flight of the Conchords’ “Business Time” every Wednesday and can tell the time of day based upon who’s on the air. It’s been a helpful bit of normalcy the past few weeks.
“I’ve never met half the people at the station, but there’s just this tie to ‘em,” says Slayton, who’s emailed back and forth with Waters for years, ever since her first cancer diagnosis. “I just feel like our network gets tighter and tighter every time we open up a little bit and share the experience of what we’re going through. Having the DJs there and the music to see us through … I don’t think I can get through without it.”
For Richards, the current pandemic has steeled the listener-supported station’s mission of creating connectivity through music and radio, with that all-important human element. It also comes at a time when commercial radio has faced declining ad revenues, leading to increased use of syndicated shows and algorithmic programming.
“To have a shared experience, it’s the thing that radio has always done and will always do that nothing else can duplicate,” he says. “No amount of technology or algorithms are ever going to take that experience away.”