In the galaxy of local cultural institutions, public radio station KEXP shines among the brightest.
Known for its eclectic musical styles and genres, KEXP’s 45 DJs combine knowledge, humor and passion to forge on-air relationships rarely found on the radio dial.
The station’s growth from a 10-watt wonder on the University of Washington campus to a global online presence is the stuff of local legend. But there have been times in KEXP’s history when the passions that fueled its growth threatened its very existence.
It took steady, compassionate leadership to keep KEXP (90.3 FM) moving forward. For the past 31 years, that was provided by Tom Mara, executive director. Last week, Mara announced he is leaving the station next year. Mara’s successor would do well to heed his management style.
KEXP began in 1972 as KCMU, the CMU representing the UW’s Department of Communications. For many years, it shared a wall with KUOW on the third floor of the Communications Building. DJs would write reviews and notes on the covers of vinyl albums filed in stacks. On a George Harrison record, for example, someone wrote: “This guy used to be in a group called the Beatles.”
In the early 1990s, the station shifted direction. Seeking to grow listeners, management hired professional DJs and tweaked the show schedules. It didn’t sit well, and a community group formed to oppose the changes, going as far as discouraging listener donations.
Mara, who served as development director during this period, became station manager. He got everyone on the same page and eventually moved to bigger digs off campus. In 2000, KCMU became the world’s first station to begin streaming its broadcasts in CD-quality audio. A year later, it changed its call letters to KEXP.
In 2016, KEXP opened a new broadcast studio, cafe and record shop at Seattle Center.
The pandemic and social justice movement in 2020 had deep impacts. While business support from venues and restaurants slackened, donations soared 26% in 2020 as listeners bunkered down and found solace and community on the radio. KEXP’s annual income is $12.4 million, more than half of which comes from 30,000 donors.
After the murder of George Floyd, KEXP faced a profound reckoning. It released a statement that read in part: “We are a white-led organization with a majority-white staff, and have a majority-white audience. We are a part of a music industry that has been and continues to be exploitative of people of color, and Black musicians specifically.”
KEXP changed its programming and added a wider range of voices, experiences and expertise. The conversation continues.
As to how he helped hold the station together, Mara said: “These are things you can’t game. Which means you’re going to be up at night, you’re going to be having conversations that are difficult, whether back in ’93 or a few months ago. Leadership requires empathy, it requires the art of encouragement. It also requires straight talk. None of the consternation would have happened if people didn’t care. As a leader, you can ignore it, or engage. If you engage, that’s more enriching than ignoring.”
Next year will mark KEXP’s 50th anniversary. It will be up to the next executive director and staff to channel their passions in a positive direction, and keep this community treasure as relevant and indispensable as ever.