Casting a wide net: Indie station KEXP beamed worldwide via Web

E-mail E-mail this article
Print Print this article
Print Search archive
Most e-mailed articles Most e-mailed articles
Other links
Search event listings
Search movie listings
Sign up for Movies e-mail

The world map on KEXP's studio wall shows its march toward global domination.

There's a little yellow pin in London: Of course. Anyone who's sampled the U.K.'s radio wasteland in the last several years would toss Simon Cowell right off of "American Idol."

Tokyo: Natch. Their love of Yankee pop culture couldn't have ended at just zombie movies.

A yellow pin in Antarctica. Uh, strong word-of-mouth down in Antarctica?

The pins are beachheads of a sort for Seattle's noncommercial indie-alternative station, representing listeners who have reached out from the far-flung corners of the country and the Earth, where KEXP's kitchen-sink content and whiz-bang technology have put it at the vanguard of Internet radio.

Radio research oracle Arbitron has likened the rise of Internet radio to the rise of FM in the '70s and cable TV in the '80s. Four in 10 Americans have listened to Internet radio, and the combined monthly audience of the roughly 5,000 Internet stations is eight times greater than that of the two satellite radio broadcasters combined.

The rise caused Arbitron to stop its Internet ratings in March to revamp its measuring system. But in the last ratings period, KEXP was the 4th ranked Internet station and the 6th ranked Internet broadcaster. (Many of the other broadcasters operate multiple stations; Live365.com, for example, hosts thousands of individual channels, from different flavors of techno to a station that only plays old "CBS Radio Mystery Theatre" shows around the clock.)

Looking down at the world maps, station director Tom Mara says, "They remind us that our role has broadened over the last few years. Just a few years ago we were a small radio station serving people in a 15-mile radius."

O'Mara, 40, is a big man whose polo shirt and glasses make him look more like a banker on casual Friday than the guy behind the spread of Snow Patrol and Kinky to listeners in Mongolia. It pleases him when bosses complain that employees listening to KEXP while they work are using up their companies' bandwidths.

So what are they plugged into?

KEXP's content and vibe fall somewhere between college radio and NPR. Its music is either eclectic or obscure depending upon your mood, but as far as you can get from the sameness and heavy rotation of a few artists, played by the strenuously unfunny morning hosts on most commercial pop stations. If there's one thing that fans and detractors agree on, it's that you can listen to KEXP for long stretches without hearing a familiar tune.

DJs as curators

But it's what a cigarette company would call the "delivery mechanism" that's spreading the KEXP addiction. In addition to the radio dial — 90.3 FM in Seattle, 91.7 in Tacoma — about 25 percent of its audience listens over the Internet at www.kexp.org.

"They really have maybe the most elaborate, sophisticated Web site of any Internet radio site, maybe in the world," says Kurt Hanson, who runs "The Radio and Internet Newsletter" (www.kurthanson.com).

The real innovation on KEXP's site is a vast online archive that lets listeners bring up previous shows by the genre, the host, the program's title or the time. Housed in a computer at the University of Washington, the archive also contains every one of the live performances of bands that have played in KEXP's little studio in the nondescript white crackerbox building on Dexter Avenue North — about four or five bands each week.

And finally, Hanson points to the multi-tasking air staff that Mara, without hyperbole, calls the hardest-working one in radio.

The no-nonsense DJs choose ("curate") their own music — nearly unheard-of on professional stations these days. One of their few top-down mandates is to work local artists into their mixes — thus exposing the globe to the Seattle sound more than any time since grunge's peak.

Lisa Wood, one of the relatively few KEXP jocks with outside experience, recalls the rigidity at another Seattle station where she'd worked: Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" was on the play list, but she got a request for "If 6 Was 9" and played it instead. "The next day, I was sat down in my boss's office and told, 'Don't you ever (expletive) with my music again, or you're done!' "

"So when someone criticizes (the song selection), they're critical of your taste. They're telling me my taste is bad," says "Morning Show" host John Richards.

After culling their music from the station's library, the DJs operate the CD players and the audio board (with no help from a producer, board operator or the like), and answer listener calls and e-mails. "And on top of that, they have to think," Mara says.

All of that is what makes the station unusual in the expanding Internet radio universe, which is generally split into two halves: local over-the-air stations that simulcast their programming online, mainly to local listeners; and the thousands of Internet-only stations with no local markets, whose operators range from big companies to guys on desktops in their parents' houses.

Between 25 and 50 million Americans listen to Internet radio. Nearly all Americans listen to at least some regular radio, but the top Webcasters are growing at a rate of 40 to 100 percent a year. That's happening for a few different reasons, according to Hanson. More people are using fast broadband connections, mainly. But Net stations also have fewer commercials, serve greater niche genres and suffer from much less of "the perceived cookie-cutter sameness of broadcast radio," he said.

And that's how you spread yellow pins over maps.

Mara is especially proud of another unusual thing that the station has inspired: KEXP "posses" — a much hipper term than "fan clubs." Posse members in a number of cities around the world show their devotion in ways that range from sharing newsletters to getting together for live performances of bands they've heard on the station. KEXP has also begun to sponsor a few of these out-of-town shows.

"Unfortunately, there isn't a KEXP in these people's back yards," Mara says. "They find us, listen to us and support us."

When's the last time you heard of a radio fan club that wasn't mainly a promotional tool for listener-bribing giveaways?

Kari Mosden, 29, of the Seattle KEXP posse, says, "It seems like KEXP listeners are a lot more of a community — or a club — than other stations. There's a lot of people I know that KEXP is the only station they listen to, so there's a lot of solidarity there. It's very exciting. And I love the idea of a pre-established group of people that I can hook up with and go to a show, and find out what's going on in the local scene."

Guerrilla posses

This — as Edward R. Murrow would say — is London: Amy Buckingham, 28, says the handful of members in the London posse let each other know what's happening and when with local shows and less popular bands, and pass on tips about the local club scene.

If much of British radio is clogged with uninspired cover versions of old songs, Buckingham says, "Even over here, you can find stations that play noncommercial stuff you don't hear in the U.S., but you have to put up with commercials. Also the commercial nature of the DJs, as well." KEXP, which Buckingham calls "amazing," provides its London fans a welcome alternative.

In Brooklyn, Kristi Woitasek, 31, had been trolling for music when she started a new day job. "I don't turn on the radio here ever. If I don't have a CD in the car, I don't listen to music."

Then she found KEXP online and started telling everyone she knew about it, harassing them for donations for the listener-supported station. Now she has a mailing list that boasts more than 200 people. "We'd go to shows, hand out stickers that John (Richards) sent us, and do the guerrilla thing where we'd stick them on telephone poles and street signs.

"It's completely unique. I love it for that reason. It's kind of a little family," Woitasek says.

As wireless Internet use grows on cellphones, PDAs and other gadgets, Hanson predicts that KEXP and stations like it will grow, too. But surprisingly not at a cost to the old radio dial.

"It's maybe an increase in listenership more than a replacement," he said. "People are listening to Internet radio where they previously might not have listened to radio at all."

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

The KEXP story


Circling the globe

Founded: In 1972 as KCMU, a tiny, 10-watt station at the University of Washington.

Expanded: To 182 watts in 1975, taking the signal beyond the University District; and to 400 watts in 1985, giving it a 15-mile broadcast radius from its new Capitol Hill transmitter.

On the Net: In 2000, KCMU begins offering uncompressed CD-quality audio on the Internet, 24 hours a day.

Renamed: KEXP in 2001, as a joint partnership between the UW and Paul Allen, creator of the Experience Music Project. Increased to 720 watts of transmitting power.

Frequency: 90.3 FM; this year, added 91.7 FM serving the Tacoma area.

Listeners: 80,700 on air, 27,000 on the Web (average weekly figures).

Source: KEXP