Distinct music, active DJs help KEXP-FM stand tall

Dana Weissman smiles broadly as she turns up the stereo, filling the air with the pulse of the Chemical Brothers "Chemical Beats." Nodding with the tempo, she swings her hands in the air, catching a groove as everyone cheers her on. Hips swinging, her energy is infectious, and soon everyone in the room is moving.

Did I mention it's 8 in the morning? Yes, indeed. Normally around this time I'd be wondering why I wake up every day looking like Yahoo Serious styled my hair while I slumbered. This day, though, I was already at KEXP-FM's Dexter Avenue headquarters to witness the inner workings of the happiest pledge drive on Earth. The shift has been going strong since 6 a.m.

This is how Weissman met four of her closest buddies last November, at their first pledge drive for the station. Now they are frequent mini-reunions for her posse. The group includes April West, who moved from Seattle to Santa Rosa, Calif., in January but flew back this week specifically for volunteer duty. "My company will schedule trips for business purposes, so I conveniently scheduled a meeting around the pledge drive," she said with a smirk, adding, "I love this station."

A rapt devotion

Contrary to what you may be thinking, Paul Allen has not laced the donuts and coffee with mood enhancers at his recently underwritten venture. Anyone who regularly listens to KEXP-FM (90.3) understands this rapt devotion is because there is nothing else out there like it in Seattle, or anywhere else. This is the station whose music mix has led the Fizz to expand her CD collection, and empty her meager coffers into record-store cash registers.

Since it became part of the Seattle Partnership for American Popular Music with the University of Washington School of Music and the Experience Music project in March 2001, KEXP's reputation has grown from that of funky local gem to one of the few great independents. As part of the deal, the station got a power boost to 720 watts and beefed up its presence on the Web (www.kexp.org), where it innovated CD quality streaming Webcasts and features real-time playlists. KEXP has applied to the Federal Communications Commission for an additional boost to 3,300 watts, bumping the listeners it could reach from 1.3 million to almost 2 million.

Rolling Stone and Spin churn out accolades for local heroes Modest Mouse, but this Seattle station is one of the few non-college outfits that plays them. Or 764-HERO. Or Bauhaus, Bowie, Robyn Hitchcock, Blackalicious and any number of artists commercial radio won't touch.

But West doesn't add to her frequent-flyer miles just because the music is outstanding. She and other listeners connect with the DJs who, in their listeners' minds, cross the line from being just vocal personalities to becoming actual friends.

The fact that many of KEXP's DJs have active roles as tastemakers and musical evangelists around the city contributes to that notion. Take DJ Riz Rollins, a widely acknowledged local music guru who rocks hip-hop every Friday at the Re-Bar in addition to his on-air duties. Last weekend Darek Mazzone, host of the station's Wo-Pop program every Tuesday night, bumped tunes for a Chaya benefit at I-Spy. (Chaya is a nonprofit serving South Asian women in crisis.)

Weissman and West's favorite KEXP DJ John Richards, aka John in the Morning, rewards his fans' devotion with parties expressly for his "Morning Faithful" listeners. One is coming up June 21. (Can't tell you where, sorry.) It's bound to make more strangers into friends than, say, KUBE-FM's recent Botox-themed shindig, brought to us by the T-Man.

A community role

Station general manager Tom Mara says he's amazed at how KEXP's built connections with its listeners and the music community at large. "We have a role as an agent in helping develop this community of music lovers," he said. "Naturally, folks identify with that and see KEXP as having a role in their lives."

For Weissman's crew, it's certainly had a role in getting them out of bed — and raising $150,000 in pledges this time around. "We're all willing to get up at 6 a.m. for this," said another pal, volunteer Liz Riley. "And none of us are morning people."

"That's the irony of the Morning Show," West added with a laugh.

No, that's the glory of a station that helps keep our local music scene distinct and thriving, and puts some fizz into the Puget Sound. Be glad we have it! Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to bed.

Thought bubbles: Speaking of public-radio support, check into one of KPLU's Jazz & Blues Cruises, which mixes salmon and sausage with the stylings of Mimi Fox and Greta Matassa on Sunday June 30. Log on to www.kplu.org for details.

First Joey, now Dee Dee Ramone gets an RIP? Heaven's never-ending rock show must need some punk in the mix.

Spare some change for the new BRMC CD? E-mail Pop Fizz at mmcfarland@seattletimes.com.