Public Radio Is Getting Even More Public Thanks to KEXP’s Enormous New Home

90.3’s massive new headquarters is a public boon, even if it means DJs have to deal with more stalkers.

When KEXP started in the early 1970s, known then as KCMU, no one at the station imagined it would grow to become one of the biggest public-radio stations on the planet. But what began in intimate studios at the University of Washington now calls Seattle Center home, preparing this Saturday to celebrate the grand opening of its brand-new 28,000-square-foot facility. With these considerably larger headquarters, KEXP is on a trajectory to grow both its local footprint and global reach exponentially.

“This new studio is huge for us,” says music director Don Yates, who began with the station as a volunteer in 1987 and became program director in 1992. “We’re going to be sharing it with the public in ways we haven’t been able to do before.”

The new building features, among other amenities, a record store, a cafe, a large live-performance room, and more working space. “It’s something I couldn’t have imagined,” says Yates. “We just didn’t have the resources to do anything like this back then.”

KEXP’s wildly expanded present was foretold back when KCMU was taken over by the UW’s computing and communications department in 1999, separating it from KUOW and opening a window to online streaming.

“I had been trying to get us broadcasting online, and was told we weren’t able to do it,” explains Yates. “But as soon as the computing and communications department took us over, we were online in various formats—the station went from lagging way behind, technologically speaking, to one that was on the cutting edge. Just like that.”

Being online attracted a lot of attention. Today KEXP has a weekly streaming audience of more than 62,000 listeners and more than two million weekly YouTube video views. “You can’t find anything like us anywhere else,” says Yates confidently.

KEXP plans to unveil its new live room, which will hold 50 to 75 viewers during performances—a big step for a station that, when inhabiting UW’s Kane Hall, couldn’t even fit in full bands to play live. The most they could do back then, says afternoon-show DJ Kevin Cole, was bring in a singer with an acoustic guitar.

The station moved from UW to its most recent location on Dexter Avenue thanks to a “generous gift” from Paul Allen, says Cole, who began at the station in 1998. “That provided us the opportunity to have a new facility and for us to invest more in programming and in fundraising so we could sustain our operation,” he says.

"Last night there was a guy jumping up and down and waving. He had an old Sonics T-shirt on and a broomstick or something. He must have stayed outside for half an hour."

It was on Dexter where KEXP grew mightily—producing podcasts, creating a mobile app, and shooting thousands of in-studio live videos earning millions of YouTube views all while continuing to broadcast on air and online. The station had to move primarily because of space issues, but KEXP officials also cite a unique motivation: They wanted to have a new space where the community could interact with the music more directly. To do this, the station raised about $15 million.

Looking ahead, it’s anyone’s guess what KEXP will morph into next, but in many ways the blueprint is there for it to become more and more internationally focused. For seven years, KEXP has been broadcasting from the Iceland Airwaves festival in Reykjavík, and for two years it’s been live-streaming festival videos on its YouTube channel, showcasing some of the isolated country’s best local music. This model, says Cole, can be applied to other countries with rich musical histories. Prior to that, the station had first broadcast abroad from the CMJ festival in New York City and then from SXSW in Austin.

While growth is on the mind of the DJs and programmers, there’s also a desire to return to the intimate feel of KEXP’s smaller origins. “We want to be global,” says Cole, “and I think that’s part of the future, but at the same time we are Seattle-based and really proud of it, and KEXP is really about building a vibrant music community here in Seattle.”

The station’s new home will offer quite a bit to the world of music, from increased space to produce content to opportunities to train and mentor KEXP’s next generation of DJs, videographers, audio engineers, and bloggers. Midday-show DJ Cheryl Waters, who began at the station in 1994, says she couldn’t have dreamed of it being on the Internet back then, let alone becoming the global force it is today. “I never thought it was going to be even a full-time job,” she says. “But there’s a lot of reasons why we’re successful—the biggest is our format. Very few radio stations have their DJs picking the music. But that resonates with people; that’s the biggest reason we have our listenership.”

The station and its playlists and videos have become so well known that Waters says she gets recognized when she travels, an oddity for a radio DJ. “I was in the MOMA in New York and this woman from Italy, she just about shit her pants when she saw me,” she laughs.

Some might consider the new station something of a musical palace. But according to Expansions DJ Riz Rollins, that’s not quite right. “Palatial isn’t the word for it,” he says. “It’s more like flying a plane.” For him, the new space brings many opportunities, but also its fair share of challenges. “I’m sure I’m going to get used to it, I’m looking forward to getting used to it,” he says. “It’s a matter of getting used to all the gadgets—and the kitchen is close to a city block away from the booth.”

During KEXP’s massive fundraising efforts over the past few years, the station promised that the new headquarters was being made for the entire city. That it’s ours, so to speak. And while this is a boon for Seattle, it can also be contentious for KEXP DJs. “I think we have restraining orders against some people,” Rollins chuckles. “If people like you, they assume a familiarity with you. We’re encouraging people to think of the station as theirs, which it is, but it also tends to bring out people who are overly familiar.”

Rollins recounts a story from the first few weeks of the new building in which a listener was standing outside the station: “You can see the DJ booth from outside,” he says. “Last night there was a guy jumping up and down and waving. He had an old Sonics T-shirt on and a broomstick or something. He wanted to get in and give it to [Street Sounds DJ] Larry Mizell. He must have stayed outside for half an hour.”

KEXP’s content manager, Jim Beckmann, one of the people responsible for the exponential growth of KEXP’s video production, says he was as pleasantly surprised as anyone when the views for the “scrappy” videos started to skyrocket. Bringing music to viewers and listeners, he says, remains the station’s supreme goal. “Our whole philosophy is wanting people to discover music,” he says.

The station has outgrown two homes, and this new studio will provide options nobody could have anticipated even a few years ago. “By allowing people to come into the building, we’re trying to facilitate music discovery,” Beckmann says. “We’re not doing it for ourselves, we’re doing it because we think people will be excited about it.”

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