About 200 fans, supporters and staff members of KEXP 90.3 FM launched the roomy new broadcast studio, where the first song played, at 9:03 a.m., was Robyn Hitchcock’s “Viva SeaTac.”
A warm and celebratory feeling suffused Seattle Center’s Northwest Rooms Wednesday morning as about 200 fans, supporters and staff members of KEXP 90.3 FM christened the radio station’s new broadcast studio.
“Long live everything in Washington State,” regaled Robyn Hitchcock in his song, “Viva SeaTac,” as morning show DJ John Richards, standing in the station’s new broadcast booth, cued up the first record from the new location — appropriately, at 9:03 a.m.
It was a signature moment for the 43-year-old nonprofit, which has been raising funds for the move since 2012 and has so far made $13.7 million of its $15 million goal. The sleek new space — at 27,000 square feet nearly four times what the station had before — is finished. Wednesday marked the start of broadcasting, but over the next week, the rest of the station’s operations will make the move, with a grand opening slated for April 16.
The independent station, with a $6 million annual cash budget and 50 full-time employees, is known for its eclectic mix of music that might not otherwise find airtime, including cutting edge rock, jazz, electronic music, world music, hip-hop and Americana. That experimental attitude, with no corporate parent to hold the creative reins, helped make the careers of local and regional artists such as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.
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Jon Kertzer, who managed the station in 1982 when it was KCMU, at the University of Washington, agreed: “I’ve been to lots of college radio stations, but somehow, in this place and in this time, KEXP has become an international powerhouse.”
One of the reasons for that renown is KEXP’s video podcast program, which so far includes 9,421 performance videos that snag more than 1.7 million views per week. KEXP’s new home has a space for live performances four times the size of its old one, with an indoor viewing gallery for 75 and windows to an outdoor courtyard.
An hour before the inaugural song, a crowd of about 50 KEXP staffers — thankful for suddenly clear skies after an early-morning downpour and lightning storm — paraded to Seattle Center from the station’s old location on Dexter Avenue, off Denny Way.
Some wore whimsical costumes, with DJ Kevin Cole sporting a Joey Ramone wig, social media coordinator Janice Headley dressed as Scooby-Doo and development communications manager Kurt B. Reighley, aka DJ El Toro, carrying a toilet plunger and wearing a pink Piglet get-up.
More importantly, volunteer Ken Tarleton toted a translucent plastic file box containing the station’s licensing papers, required by the FCC to be on site before the broadcast switch.
The parade route could not have been more Seattle-iconic, starting as it did across the street from the Pink Elephant carwash, then passing by the Monorail, Space Needle, Mural Amphitheatre and Seattle Center fountain.
The symbolism was no accident, said executive director Tom Mara, easy to spot in a crowd at 6 foot 8.
“Today is happening because we are in Seattle,” said Mara, who extolled the community’s special enthusiasm for music.
KEXP’s new home has a space for live performances four times the size of its old one, with an indoor viewing gallery for 75 and windows to an outdoor courtyard. Performances begin in the new studio in January.
Passers-by at the corner of Republican Street and First Avenue North can see through other windows to KEXP’s vast library of 10,000 vinyl LPs and 40,000 CDs, which has started to make its way across town, as well.
Richards views those windows as the architectural replication of the station’s welcoming public spirit.
“That was the Great Wall of Seattle Center,” he said. “ There was nothing that said, ‘Come in.’”
Physical albums are like museum pieces today, but the station is in the process of digitizing its entire library, a project currently about 20 percent complete.
When Richards was broadcasting Wednesday, the crowd gathered to watch in a large space that used to be the lobby between the Rainier Room and Olympic Room but will soon host a cafe and stage for live performances.
“We asked the music community, ‘What would you like?’” said Cole. “What we found out was that listeners wanted to see the inner workings of the station and gather with fellow music lovers.”
The new station even has a washer and dryer so musicians who have been on the road can clean up.
KEXP has come a long way from its humble beginnings as KCMU, named for its location at the UW’s Communications Building (CMU). A pioneer in audio streaming, in 2000 KCMU was the first station in the world to offer 24/7 CD-quality audio on the Internet. In 2001, the station entered into a partnership with Experience Music Project (now EMP Museum) gaining significant financial support from billionaire and EMP founder Paul Allen. That year, the station changed its call letters to KEXP and moved to Dexter Avenue, where Allen rented a modest building to the station for 10 years, for $1 a year, from 2001 through 2011.
“This is a significant moment in our history,” said Richards, as he was getting the feel of the new control booth earlier this week. “We’ve been planning this for so long. There’s just an eagerness to get moving now.”