KEXP MEMORY #1: It’s the early 2000s on Capitol Hill, one those heavy-snow days when the buses are down and the cars are stuck: If you can’t walk to work, you pretty much have the day off. It seems like half the neighborhood convenes at Denny and Olive, one of Seattle’s most serious hills, with sleds, snowboards, skis bolted to the bottoms of beat-up chairs, trash-can lids, whatever. People speed down the hill, crash into stuff, cheer each other on, make new friends. Apartments around the intersection have their windows open, radios all tuned to 90.3, the volume loud. The day turns into a block party; the station is our DJ.
KEXP memory #2: It’s Jan. 6, 2021, and I’m working from home, not looking at the internet but listening to the radio. DJ Eva Walker is on the air, and something catches her attention: a right-wing riot in D.C. Shots fired in the Capitol. Are we in the middle of a coup? Walker sputters, unsure what to say — unsure what the rules allow her to say. Or is this the end of rules? So she plays “Arrest the President” by Ice Cube. Then she plays it again. A few minutes later, after some rebellion songs by Kendrick Lamar, Public Enemy and the Clash, she plays it a third time. This day is tension and worst-case speculations; the station is its soundtrack.
Over the years, I had a vague impression of the station’s arc from KCMU to KEXP — a scruffy little project that hit the Paul Allen jackpot and grew up, graduating from thrift-store clothes and barber-college haircuts to something more sleek, buffed, professional — but no real understanding of how that happened.
So for this story, on 90.3’s 50th anniversary, I pushed aside the celebrity tidbits (Kurt Cobain, et al.) for more structural questions: How did the station get this way? What were its inflection points? How did things change after June 2020, when it swiftly hired and promoted DJs of color (“swiftly,” that is, compared to other big cultural nonprofits)? Are there any lessons there for other cultural institutions?
Despite learning about how it’s grown into a global phenomenon — its top 10 international markets include Mexico, Argentina and Turkey — KEXP still feels like a hometown institution. Longtime local listeners tend to have strong feelings about it, sometimes with a sprinkle of ownership, the way other people might feel about sports teams. When they love it, it’s with pride. When they’re mad at it, they sound aggrieved.
And conversations inside KEXP remain thoroughly local. While talking with Tom Mara, executive director of the station for more than 30 years, he said KEXP is now concerned about “artist flight” and housing affordability.
“It’s on our radar, and we’re increasingly talking about it,” he says. “I think there’s an opportunity for us to seize and start building solutions to keep artists in our midst.”
A public-radio station mulling over how to preserve local artist housing? Take that as another piece of evidence: KEXP is a Seattle station, and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else.