KEXP now hopes to raise its profile and connect more people to the local music scene with a new $15 million studio at Seattle Center, at the base of the Space Needle.

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For a while, KEXP Executive Director Tom Mara had to roll his desk out of his office to make room for bands to play live on the air.

That was in 2000, in the public radio station’s old space in a basement at the University of Washington. A decade and more than twice as many listeners later, the station’s studio in South Lake Union is nearly as cramped. Staff members work in hallways and converted closets.

While the station’s live studio shows are technically open to the public, fewer than a dozen people can peer over the shoulder of an engineer to see the band.

“After about eight people in here, you start sucking the oxygen out of the room,” Mara says.

KEXP now hopes to raise its profile and connect more people to the local music scene with a new $15 million studio at Seattle Center, at the base of the Space Needle.

A selection committee will make a recommendation to the city about use of the prime space as soon as next week from among eight proposals that include a Dale Chihuly glass-art exhibit.

While Chihuly offers private, for-profit investment in the Center, KEXP brings less money to the table. Supporters of the station say they bring other public benefits.

Both money and civic value will be weighed by the committee, which seeks a project to modernize and draw visitors to Seattle Center. With city budget problems and a lagging economy, the winning proposal must pay for itself.

Since its founding in 1972, KEXP (90.3 FM) has grown from a tiny college station to the embodiment of Seattle’s music scene. It thrives on its independence: no commercials, no playlists and hordes of volunteers who are into the music.

Through a partnership with the University of Washington, the public radio station became the first in the nation in 2000 to live-stream music online at CD quality, giving it worldwide reach and making it an “ambassador,” Mara said, for Northwest musicians.

Between 2003 and 2005, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen donated millions to the station to prop up its budget during a major expansion. He also bought 80 percent of KEXP’s equipment and leased to the station a cinderblock building on Dexter Avenue North for $1 a year.

In the crowded hallways of that studio today, you’re as likely to run into an internationally known musician looking for the bathroom as you are an intern on a coffee break.

KEXP proposes converting the Arcade Pavilion building into a studio with big windows and a wall that would open like a barn door so the public could see DJs at work and watch musicians performing live on-air — something that happens, on average, more than once a day at KEXP.

Free first-come, first-served tickets to live performances would get people to an indoor-viewing area.

“It connects many more people to many more artists,” Mara said, comparing the station’s mission to that of the public library. “It’s all about access.”

KEXP also wants to redo the existing mural amphitheater for outdoor shows. Its white building would become a backdrop for the Horiuchi Mural.

The station is open to combining its proposal with another idea for an outdoor space called “Open Platform.” That group of artists and urban designers wants to design the outdoor area into a sustainably designed park with changing programming. There might be a theater performance, a town-hall discussion, a poetry reading or an environmental demonstration at any given time.

Laid-back accessibility

In 2009, KEXP played more than 500 live performances.

Artists routinely swing by the studio on their way to a local concert, play a 20-minute on-air show and head to their venue for the night. It’s created a culture where volunteers and interns share a laid-back accessibility to music they love.

“Sometimes I will just give someone who I would have considered a rock star, directions down to the bathroom,” said Tommy Enright, 25, an intern at the station. “When I was in the ‘intern nook’ I lent my chair to Jonsi, who is like an international music star. … Little, what I think of as, like, Seattle moments.”

The station’s guiding philosophy is to help people discover a “deep array of music,” said Mara. “Our mission is to bring the unfamiliar into your life.”

That mission of helping people discover something new is why many station supporters think a move to a highly public space such as the one at Seattle Center would be a good fit. Tourists and locals wandering across campus could stop for 10 minutes of live music and discover a new favorite band.

“This is not a business venture in our mind at all,” Mara said. “This is a relocation of a station and being able to provide much more of a public benefit. … It’s not a case of, ‘OK, we need to bring in 200,000 people and have them pay us $10 apiece for this to float.’ “

Based on the number of people who want to attend its shows now, the KEXP proposal says it would draw more than 100,000 visits a year to Seattle Center.

The city would benefit from parking revenue and the $20 per person KEXP estimates people attending their shows would spend while at the Center.

Plus, the station points to publicity Seattle Center would get every time DJs announce they are broadcasting live from Seattle Center. KEXP values the free advertising at $248,000 a year.

KEXP has offered to pay about $80,000 a year in rent, much less than the $250,000 to $500,000 annually the Space Needle Corp. has proposed for a Chihuly exhibit. KEXP says $80,000 is the “going rate” for nonprofits at the Center.

The station has $2 million saved for the move, plus about $5 million in promised donations from its top donors. It plans to borrow money to finish the project by the Center’s deadline of 2012 — in time for the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair held at the Center site.

In early August, Dave Matthews, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready, and Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart submitted letters of support. So did University of Washington President Mark Emmert and NPR president and CEO Vivian Schiller.

In a follow-up to KEXP’s original proposal, committee members asked whether the station could think of another suitable location. Mara said they couldn’t think of a better one.

“We have an opportunity to make KEXP at Seattle Center what ‘Austin City Limits’ and ‘Prairie Home Companion’ have been for Austin and St. Paul,” Mara wrote in a letter with his answers to committee questions.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com