New experience

KCMU becomes KEXP as a university-run station partners with Paul Allen's rock museum.

AT 9:37 MONDAY MORNING, just a few hours after going on the air for the first time as a DJ for KEXP, morning show host John Richards mistakenly tells listeners they're tuned to KCMU. He catches himself and says with a laugh, "You're gonna hear that a lot from me."

The change in call letters, announced just last Thursday, creates a minor dilemma for DJs compared to the major public relations hurdles facing representatives of the station, license-holder the University of Washington, and Paul Allen's Experience Music Project rock museum. The new partnership changes more than just the call letters: The station moved to a new location at 113 Dexter N, in the old KZOK space; the signal at 90.3 FM increased to 720 watts from 400, extending the station's reach slightly; and the bulk of funding now comes from EMP and the Allen Foundation for Music, which provides the studio and all its high-tech gadgetry rent-free, along with up to $600,000 over four years.

Despite such changes, station representatives emphasize what they say will stay the same, such as the DJs and programming.

"The agreement is pretty unambiguous," says KEXP program director Don Yates. "It says the station will retain control of all programming." Pressed for a declaration, the KCMU veteran says, "I will definitively state that there are no programming changes in mind." Yates and others at the station say this extends to the weekend public affairs program Mind Over Matters.

Still, news of the partnership stirred skepticism throughout the music community and among listeners of the noncommercial station, mostly stemming from the involvement of multibillionaire Paul Allen's organizations.

"The word I would use is apprehensive," says Jason Hughes, a DJ at The End and a former KCMU DJ.

Sub Pop college radio promotions director Sara Pourghasemi says she doesn't expect changes to the programming or in the way she deals with the station, but she notes that the situation needs to be watched. "I'm curious," she says of the deal. KCMU did "more for local music than any other station."

A microradio DJ from Central Seattle Grassroots Radio who goes by the name Charlie Bucket predicts that Allen and EMP's involvement will eventually alter the station. "If there's money coming from him, he's going to have a voice."

Because of KCMU's importance in the music community, the change will likely bring continued scrutiny. Some wonder why Allen, who owns two commercial stations in Portland, didn't simply purchase a commercial station.

"It made sense to collaborate rather than get into a competition," counters Diane Andolsek, project development manager for Allen's Vulcan Ventures.

For KCMU, such collaboration became necessary when the station was split off from KUOW and the University Relations department in late 1999, and became part of the school's Computing and Communications department. Rather than move into the then newly built $4.5 million off-campus studios it was to share with KUOW, KCMU found itself in the basement of Kane Hall. "KCMU was kind of a fifth wheel and an orphan," says Ron Johnson, vice president for Computing and Communications at the UW. At the time, the rumor was that Allen had engineered the split in order to take over the station (see "Station Break," SW, 9/23/99).

But Johnson says he began seeking partners for the station shortly after taking control, primarily seeking assistance from organizations or companies that shared his high-tech vision for KCMU. He says he met with senior executives at RealNetworks and Microsoft, but, he says, "I got the warmest reception from EMP."

EMP also gave him and KCMU a new home outfitted with the latest in technology, including an all-digital studio equipped with fresh-from-the-boxes Technics turntables, a rack of Denon CD players, and a 16-input, all-digital recording studio for hosting and taping live performances.

What do Allen and EMP get in return? There's the obvious talk of "synergies" between the nearby museum and the station, as well as with the university, especially relating to the museum's educational programming. An artist-in-residence at the UW could lecture at EMP and play a live on- air show at KEXP, for instance. While skeptics might predict the infiltration of programming to include an all-Jimi Hendrix hour, as befitting Allen's musical taste, industry observers say there's no cause to believe the Microsoft co-founder will meddle.

"I haven't seen Allen come into any of his radio stations and make wholesale changes," says Tom Taylor, editor for the radio trade newsletter M Street Daily. "He really is driven by the desire to do good for the community."

Nevertheless, those involved in the changeover are keenly aware that listeners may doubt the intentions of Allen and his representatives, even after the station began broadcasting with the new call letters and the same format on Monday.

"For some listeners, there's going to be a reaction of anxiety," notes KEXP executive director Tom Mara. "My advice: The proof is in the listening."

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