On the afternoon of June 4, 2020, musician and late-night KEXP DJ Gabriel Teodros got a surprise phone call from his boss.
John Richards, known on the air as “John in the Morning” — the station’s most famous personality, and supervisor of all the other DJs — was offering Teodros a promotion from his overnight and fill-in shifts to a new weekday morning show. Richards pitched a 4-7 a.m. slot. Teodros asked if he could start at 5.
“It was funny because I’d been complaining about my hours, overdoing the overnight thing,” Teodros says. “John told me: ‘I’m gonna mess with your sleep schedule even more!’”
Despite the jokes, this was a major moment at KEXP. For nearly 20 years, all the anchor, prime-time DJs at the multimillion-dollar nonprofit — which had carefully constructed an identity around musical adventurousness and community-building — had been white.
Since its founding in 1972, the station at 90.3 had grown from KCMU, a DIY project by four frustrated journalism students at the University of Washington, into KEXP, a cultural force with a global audience and an annual budget hovering around $11 million.
These days, KEXP has roughly 180,000 weekly listeners on the airwaves, 100,000 listeners online, and a YouTube channel with 2.69 million subscribers and nearly 1.4 billion views — 75% of them outside the United States. Its biggest international audience is in Mexico.
But from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, listeners had been hearing the voices of Richards, Cheryl Waters and Kevin Cole. (They were also the biggest earners during fund drives.) Now KEXP’s leadership was rewriting the schedule, shortening white DJs’ sets to make room for two new shows hosted by Black DJs: “Early” with Teodros and “The Afternoon Show” with Larry Mizell Jr.
The move was one in a kaleidoscope of changes, which included promoting Teodros and Mizell to leadership roles — associate music director and director of editorial, respectively — and bringing other DJs of color into regular rotation.
That shift was notable, in part, because of the timing: 10 days after the murder of George Floyd. Demonstrators were still very much in the streets — the Capitol Hill Organized Protest hadn’t even coalesced yet — and many entities, arts and otherwise, were flailing to respond. Most hadn’t gotten beyond solidarity statements and proposed task forces. Two years later, some still haven’t.
“I thought it was major, John and the others giving up time on their shows,” Teodros says. “Larry is an executive now, in rooms and meetings he wasn’t before, and I’m at a manager level. There’s work we’re able to do, perspectives we’re able to bring — in rooms that didn’t used to have any Black folks, to be real with you.”
Riz Rollins, who’s been a DJ at KEXP since the 1980s (and was, at times, its only Black voice), puts it more bluntly: “I call it ‘KEXP: The Blackening!’ ”
The station, he says, had been talking about equity for years, working with consultants and making incremental hires as people left. But attrition was slow, and there are only 24 hours in a day to schedule DJs.
“KEXP consolidated time to make room, and room is hard to make,” Rollins says. “But the degree of your humanity will be measured by your proximity. If you’re at arm’s length, everybody can tell — but when you open your table, as it were, you’ll serve cornbread and greens from time to time, and everybody will benefit.”
KEXP SEEMS TO have benefited, at least financially. Its post-announcement fund drives were the highest on record: Fall ’20 (over $1.1 million from more than 7,000 donors), Spring ’22 ($989,794) and Fall ’21 ($933,741).
But it’s tricky to draw direct lines of causation: A lot happened in 2020. As music director Don Yates and others point out, the pandemic itself — people at home, isolated, wanting connection — consolidated some listeners’ relationships to the station.
More concretely, and more importantly to listeners, the station’s sound diversified — and perhaps none too soon. In some corners, KEXP had been developing a reputation as an increasingly ossified monument to Pavement, the Pixies and other indie-rock oldies.
In late 2019, the business-analytics company Tableau published data on KEXP’s most frequently played artists. The top five, from 2001-19: Radiohead, Beck, the Pixies, LCD Soundsystem, David Bowie. The only nonpredominantly white band in the Top 25 was TV On The Radio. In later, individual years, a few artists of color (Lizzo, Prince) made the Top 10, but it remained an overwhelmingly white, guitar-rock field.
After July 2020, the situation changed. Radiohead and Bowie are still frequent fliers, but the most-played artists are more diverse, both racially and sonically. Between July 2020 and late March 2022, the Top 25 featured 13 groups led by artists of color, including Sault (#1), Stevie Wonder (#5), The Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio (#6), OutKast (#17) and Japanese Breakfast (#18). (That data comes from Mark Puckett, creator of KEXPlorer.com, which scrapes KEXP’s online playlists.)
As one might expect from a large arts nonprofit making swift and dramatic changes, the process wasn’t entirely frictionless. “If some listeners don’t like it, then they won’t,” DJ Eva Walker recalls arguing in a 2020 meeting. “But we don’t want to attract the Aryan Nation. If people don’t want to hear any hip-hop, or a Black woman on the air, do we really want them?”
Some people complained — “this is a rock station,” “hip-hop isn’t real music” — but overall listenership seems to be holding. KEXP’s January-February numbers were record-breakers: its biggest-ever streaming audience and its second-biggest broadcast audience. Consciously or unconsciously, KEXP’s moral move might have been an act of self-preservation, a reinvigorating blast of fresh air. But it will take time to know for sure, and nobody pretends the process is over.
“This is not a six-month project but a six-generation project,” says executive director Tom Mara. “We realized we couldn’t truly fulfill our mission of music and discovery unless we became an anti-racist organization.”
THE STATION TURNS 50 this year; it has lived several lives.
KEXP wasn’t even KEXP until 2001, after two thunderbolts struck (money from billionaire Paul Allen, and a technological makeover from a high-octane team at the University of Washington) and turned the station into an online global phenomenon.
But in the beginning, it was KCMU: a tiny, 10-watt project by four students who just wanted a little airtime.
“We were at the school of communications,” says John Kean, who created KCMU with Cliff Noonan, Victoria “Tory” Fielder and Brent Wilcox. “KUOW was right there in the building — a big, 100,000-watt FM station with a huge coverage footprint. But students were only allowed to go on the air a few minutes at a time.”
So they decided to make a station of their own.
They scanned the FM dial for blank spots, read federal broadcast regulations and submitted an application, petitioned the university to hold the license, politely cadged equipment from a friendly KUOW engineer, built studio furniture from scratch.
One rainy day in 1972, they shivered across the roof of a nearby dormitory and, with the help of maintenance staff, erected a broadcast tower. To send audio from their studio in the communications building to the dorm roof, they needed a high-fidelity phone line — but the telephone company rates were expensive, so they leased a regular line for $3 a month. Kean made some basic hardware and upgraded the line himself.
The day they went live, a procession of students streamed by to see whether it would work — and whether they could get in on the action. “It was kind of electrifying,” Wilcox says. “DJs played the music they liked personally. I played classical.”
KCMU, and later KEXP, kept that play-what-you-like ethos — which is increasingly rare on the airwaves. In this age of radio consolidation, when a handful of companies own so many stations, dictating and automating their playlists from above, Wilcox still appreciates the station he co-founded, where live DJs with broad discretion curate their own sets.
But his heart still beats Beethoven.
“I’ve got to tell you, these days I don’t like anything they play, hardly,” he says. “But I support them every year with a check!”
IN WILCOX’S DAY, KCMU wasn’t collecting money from listeners. The university supported the station with some caveats, like keeping an Associated Press teletype machine so journalism students could read the news on the air.
Mike Fuller, who worked at 90.3 in three chapters over four decades (1980-84, 1990-92, 2009-18) recalls the machine — but somehow not being able to afford paper for it.
“One day, a friend and I figured out that the paper-towel dispenser in the men’s room was the same size,” he says. “So I jimmied the lock, started taking paper towels and put them in the AP teletype.”
By 1981, trickle-down budget cuts from the state to the university wiped out the station’s finances, so it turned to pledge drives and benefit concerts, raising around $20,000 at a time. KCMU was now listener-supported radio.
The station grew. Nonstudents would DJ alongside students and, instead of going dark in the summers, when campus got quiet, KCMU started broadcasting year-round. It expanded and refined its sonic palette as one music director after another came in, rolled their eyes at whatever was happening and pushed in new directions.
Fuller, for example, balked at the station’s affection for album rock (Boston, Foreigner), switching the format to new wave. In 1985, Faith Henschel-Ventrello flipped over the new wave apple cart: “The music was a little too soft for me, a little sappy, like Josie Cotton. I wanted to make it more eclectic.”
She advocated for blues, African music and, crucially, a focus on the blossoming local scene — making KCMU a center of gravity for what the world would soon come to know as “grunge.” Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, founders of the label Sub Pop, had shows at KCMU, as did Mark Arm (singer for Mudhoney), Charles Peterson (the paradigmatic grunge photographer) and others.
By 1986, KCMU was earning a national reputation. That year, it appeared prominently in a Rolling Stone story (“The Taste Makers: College Radio’s Growing Clout”), and Henschel-Ventrello made a two-cassette compilation of local artists titled “Bands That Will Make You Money,” mailing them off to record labels. Soon afterward, a Seattle band named Soundgarden got a call from A&M Records — which sent Henschel-Ventrello a $1,000 finder’s fee. (Her KCMU experience helped set a course for what would become an executive-level career at Elektra and Capitol Records.)
KCMU was zany and unruly, airing absurdities like its fake promos for a nonexistent, 112-part docuseries about Annette Funicello. But it also cultivated serious relationships with labels, and artists came in for live interviews: The Ramones, Laurie Anderson, X, King Sunny Adé, Duran Duran (before they were famous).
Something else significant happened in 1986, though it didn’t seem important at the time: An eager journalism student named Tom, who’d grown up in Germany and worked as a club DJ in Munich, put on a tie and went to a volunteer meeting.
“I bounced over like Tigger in ‘Winnie the Pooh,’ ” he says, “but didn’t hear a damn thing back.” Why not? “I probably shouldn’t have worn that tie.”
Henschel-Ventrello agrees. “That would’ve immediately identified him as not cool,” she says, laughing. “But they should’ve known. The guy in the tie will wind up running the place!”
That disappointed journalism student/club DJ was Tom Mara — who’d eventually become the station’s 31-year executive director.
When Mara started, KCMU’s signal reached a roughly 15-mile radius; its budget was around $90,000.
“Life was simple then,” he says.
Things would get significantly more complex.
THE 1990s SAW more growth and turmoil, including a passionate internecine conflict that nearly ripped the station in half and wound up in federal court.
In brief: Station management made changes, including the introduction of syndicated content. Several DJs complained, saying it was a violation of KCMU’s local, maverick spirit. Management forbade any on-air criticism. DJs broke the rule, got fired and filed suit. In 1994, U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly struck down the “no-criticism” policy as a violation of the First Amendment.
But another, more transformational storm was brewing, and KCMU was improbably — but precisely — positioned to get zapped with two near-simultaneous bolts of lightning.
Bolt one: The curiosity of supercharged tech pioneers, some of whom helped build the original internet, at UW’s Office of Computing and Communications (C&C). These pioneers had been experimenting with high-quality streaming (video, music, on-demand content) and wanted to field-test their ability to move data across the globe.
“Now it sounds so provincial, like ‘back when we invented fire,’ ” says Vickie Nauman, who would become KEXP’s first director of online operations. “But you have to remember: This was the dawn of the internet.”
Ron Johnson, vice president of C&C, was an avid KCMU fan and wanted to bring it to the world. But that would take money: people, hardware, legal minds to decipher the new and shifting field of digital music rights.
Bolt two: Allen was financing the Experience Music Project, his museum/temple to pop music at Seattle Center, and thought it would be cool to partner with a radio station. During 1998 and 1999, Allen and the UW were in talks about a suite of philanthropic gifts, including a new computer sciences building — Johnson, of C&C, was part of that team. In another serendipity, former KCMU station manager Jon Kertzer was working on the EMP with Vulcan, the company overseeing Allen’s various business and philanthropy projects.
Allen was looking for a station. C&C wanted to harness the power of the internet. KCMU happened to be sitting at the confluence of those two powerful forces.
As a Vulcan spokesperson puts it: “Things came together nicely.”
Allen pledged around $3 million to KCMU, plus other resources, including a building in South Lake Union he leased to the station for $1 a year. C&C brought a direct connection to the internet’s backbone and a hunger to see what they could do on the web’s open road. It was, Johnson says, an “improbable, sometimes it seems magical, juxtaposition of events and halo effects that made the KEXP miracle happen.”
Meanwhile, Mara had left for a radio job at the University of Pennsylvania. He came right back.
“We were going from 10 to 500 miles per hour in 15 seconds,” he says. “I just remember having to hold on tight.”
He even raised the stakes. Allen pledged $250,000 a year for 10 years, but Mara asked him to front-load that money into the first few years so he could assemble a team at speed.
“I put myself on the hook,” Mara says. “Sometimes, those things work.”
In 2000, KCMU became the world’s first station to stream uncompressed, CD-quality audio. In 2001, it was operating as an independent nonprofit and changed its call letters to KEXP.
By 2006, the station was financially self-reliant. Its prime-time DJs — John Richards, Cheryl Waters, Kevin Cole — were in place. KEXP was becoming the station listeners know today.
Its annual reports and federal 990 tax forms show a growth in revenue from $3.3 million in 2006 to $12.5 million in 2020. In recent years, 42% to 54% of that comes from individual donors. By 2005, its two highest-compensated employees (Richards and Mara) were earning six figures a year.
In 2014, the station bought its broadcasting license from UW for $4 million in value: $400,000 worth of ads for 10 years. In 2015, after a $15 million capital campaign, it moved into its new home, just a quick stroll from the base of the Space Needle, with a public cafe, laundry machines for touring bands and a “live room” to film performances for YouTube. (Its most popular video, by Colombian band Bomba Estéreo, has 54 million views. Macklemore has 46 million.)
But critique follows success like a shadow. As the station continues to professionalize, sanding down its rougher edges, some long for the weirder days of KCMU.
“I think the station has changed in ways Seattle has also changed,” says Fuller, who started at KCMU in 1980 and left KEXP in 2018. “In almost every measurable way, it’s better than it was in the ’70s and ’80s — but it also felt more fun and approachable and salty then. The station is very serious now.”
Henschel-Ventrello, who went from KCMU to major-label jobs, isn’t having it.
“That’s the biggest complaint you’ll hear, that KEXP isn’t KCMU,” she says. “But with how bad most radio is now, to have something as big and cool as KEXP — that’s so clutch. No other city has that. KEXP is incredibly special, so Seattle should consider itself lucky and stop bitching about stuff.”
Riz Rollins isn’t having it, either: “I’m proud of Gabriel Teodros and Larry Mizell being added to the roster, and Eva Walker and the rest. We have the strongest group of DJs now — all of them — that we’ve had in my 33 years here.”
Mizell remembers the old KCMU fondly. He recalls first finding it in the ’90s, during high school, while spinning through the dial and hearing sex columnist Dan Savage “talking about something spicy.” From there, he discovered “Rap Attack” — the hip-hop show, later called “Street Sounds” — and KCMU’s other programming.
“I was fascinated by the variety of things I was hearing,” he says. “It really expanded my understanding of music I was a dilettante with. It helped me go deeper.”
As years passed, Mizell found himself on KEXP with his own group, Cancer Rising, and as the host of “Street Sounds.” In 2020, he — like Teodros — had a conversation with Richards about becoming a weekday host. These days, Mizell’s “Afternoon Show” is one of the most encyclopedic on KEXP, an extension of his ’90s discoveries. An average set might include Kendrick Lamar (new hip-hop), Black Flag (old punk), Miriam Makeba (’60s Afropop) and the Cranberries (’90s alt-rock), and splice it all beautifully.
“I feel like these days we’re recapturing that more adventurous spirit of KCMU,” he says. “I’m not saying KEXP wasn’t adventurous — but this ‘let’s go for it’ spirit, which was my experience first listening to 90.3, is alive again.”