I know I’m not the only one in the United States to make a more determined attempt to find community, since, let’s say… November 9, 2016. And, while I’m usually in a bit of a climate action bubble, I was able to find the people, the joy and the feeling of real hope for the future by becoming more involved with Seattle's community radio station/nonprofit arts organization: KEXP. So that, dear reader, will serve as full disclosure for how I came to see their work through social impact eyes and to conduct this interview with John Richards on the eve of their week's worth of "National Radio Day" tributes.
With a deep personal history and appreciation for what community radio has meant in his own life, Richards , KEXP’s Associate Program Director and Morning Show Host/Producer, decided this year was the time to do a deeper dive into the ways radio has impacted the lives of so many people across the nation; listeners, artists and local communities. KEXP’s (streaming worldwide) programming from August 14 – 18 will be a tribute to the influential stations, both here and gone, that have provided a place for music discovery and celebration of community.
During the week, the KEXP Morning, Midday and Afternoon shows will take turns talking to the influential people behind community radio music, like Matt Pinfield and Rodney Bigenheimer – and, of course, play the music they’re known for. Among the many stations that will be featured - one or two of which may well strike a chord from your own background - are: WOXY (Cincinnati), KUKQ (Phoenix), WFNX (Boston), INDIE 103.1 (Los Angeles), KJET (Seattle), WHER (Memphis), WLIR (Long Island), KDGE (Dallas), WHTG (New Jersey), WGTB (Washington, DC), and REV 105 (Minneapolis).
Ultimately, KEXP hopes to spur action, to remind people across the United States that community radio can bring people together and be a safe place from which to weather challenging political and cultural times. ALL who love music are welcome "left of the dial." So, realize what you’ve got before it’s gone, people.
And, now… to my recent conversation with John Richards.
I know the crew at KEXP is pretty excited - and busy - prepping for National Radio Day/Radio Week, so thanks for taking time to talk with me a bit. To start, would you give us a little radio insider background, to help readers understand the commercial and noncommercial radio definitions? (Additional information can be found here. )
I’ll start with the smallest to largest. You have your low-powered stations, which have always been around. These are very specialized small stations that are approved, for now, by the FCC. They are clearly community based and hyper local.
Then, college stations – there are fewer of those, but that’s what stations like KEXP are built from. Where a station is licensed to a university or even a church or nonprofit. Those are non-commercial, clearly, and rely on a mix of community funding, grants, and business support (aka underwriting). College stations, unlike community stations, do not do fundraising. A lot of universities sell their license because of the high cost of paying for the upkeep of the station.
KEXP is an interesting case in that we were licensed to the University of Washington for years, but we were not a college station like people think (or, only very briefly). But, way back, the university stopped funding the station. In a case like that, usually a lot of stations would go under, so it became a public radio station. KEXP is an NPR affiliate, but we are all music, which is very rare.
Then, go on from there and there’s commercial radio, which is owned by corporations. It used to be that commercial radio was the community radio competition or what you compared yourself to, but there’s not one independent commercial radio station now.
What inspired you and the KEXP team to dig deeper and celebrate community radio and National Radio Day at this point in time?
First, it’s not just community radio, but it’s celebrating the dial as a whole. We can’t not recognize those commercial stations that tried to make a difference. Being a commercial station itself is not evil, if they are trying to create community and support music… and that just doesn’t take place anymore, so we have to point that out.
KEXP’s own Kevin Cole came from REV105 in Minneapolis, which was a commercial station. And there was KJET, which was in Seattle … that’s DONE. We are paying tribute to those stations as well.
What inspired me wasn’t just KEXP’s success as a nonprofit and as the station that we have, but it was seeing license after license being sold from universities.
Commercial stations are getting eaten up. And, we’re now seeing noncommercial stations being sold off, often to religious broadcasting. That’s why when you are driving through Washington State, and you turn to the left hand of the dial, you have three, four and five religious stations. They buy ‘em up.
The diversity in the dial is hurt more and more. But, there is also just being inspired by KEXP – and our own KPLU [Ed. note: in Tacoma, Washington], which recently became KNKX. They were able to buy their license because, again, Pacific Lutheran University was selling it and KUOW /University of Washington was trying to buy it. But, the community spoke up. I thought UW did a great job of allowing them to raise the money. And, guess what happened? They raised the money with no problem.
That tells you something, and not just about our community. It tells you that people want these stations to survive. So, now they are independent like us. They have the ability to broadcast without any constraints or to have the rug pulled out from under them.
The University of Washington didn’t charge us $7 million dollars for it, but KEXP was able to work out an agreement with them where we hold our license. So, …just being inspired by our ability to be independent and not answering to anybody else. I know how rare that is.
I felt it was really important to start pointing out what has happened to the dial. It is easy to say awhhh… radio is dead. Radio on the commercial side has been dead forever, but radio on the left end of the dial has been getting better and better, in my opinion. It represents the community more and more, because there is such an interest in it.
KEXP was on the road along with these stations that we are paying tribute to, so it’s not like we’re looking back and saying: ‘well they built it and now we are here.’ We’ve been here around 40 years. We managed to get through it. And a couple of times we almost didn’t. There are three or four major milestones where the station probably should have gone under. But, because we had the community, because we are in the city we are in, and because of the people who worked here - some of whom, to this day, are still here – we did not.
It sounds like KEXP is really cognizant of the particular ways the station - and the Seattle community that supports it - is unique. However, with this week of radio days programming, you were also interested in figuring out where your experiences might be helpful for other community stations across the country. In the interviews you did for this tribute, were there themes about why stations went under in the past or in the broader challenges those that remain have been facing?
In almost every case, it was the license being sold. I think part of it is that some of these stations could have been supported more. It would have been harder to pull the license out.
One of the reasons we are able to make the case is because - and I say it all the time and during donor drives – ‘we’re here because of our donors’... and not just because of the money they’ve donated, but because of the passion they have for what we do. The University of Washington would not want to irritate thousands of people donating thousands of dollars from all aspects of our community. That doesn’t make any sense. And, they were such a great partner, they wouldn’t do it anyway. But, let’s just say they weren’t.
Think about moving to a new neighborhood because it’s a great neighborhood, right? In Seattle, you’d move up to Capitol Hill because you love it and the music scene there. And then, you start bitching and moaning about the clubs and the music and the diversity and the loudness. And then, you gentrify it. And,… why were you up there in the first place?
That’s like what has happened to all these stations. They come in, they take over, and they have their formula, they dumb it down…
And that’s why we’ve been so successful in our community. Because, we don’t follow that formula. The minute any corporation gets into it, they plug in their formula and change the heart and soul of the station… and now, you are affecting the heart and soul of a community.
In the interviews we did for this, the license being sold was the obvious issue. They all got taken over, so, to be honest, we didn’t spend a lot of our interview time talking about that…we didn’t focus too much on the negative.
So, does it have to reach a time of “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” in order to rally the community around these stations?
KCRW, XPN, The Current, … they haven’t even been threatened because the community is supporting them each so much. But in most cases, even when the community does speak up… There was a station in San Francisco and the community rose up, but it didn’t matter. It was gone.
We wouldn’t have survived if we weren’t in Seattle. Seattle is a unique community – so supportive of the arts and so supportive of music. It’s a music town. They truly believe in the mission here. Yet, only 1 in 10 donates, still.
That is such a great point for community radio fundraising! Talk a bit more about this math of how listeners becoming donors. That seems so critical as a call to action in this history of disappearing stations.
Imagine how many people you broadcast to. Then, let’s say it’s a donor drive, and now how few are listening because so many tuned out? And now, of those, how many think we are talking to them? And then, of those, who are the ones that are going to take action? You are getting very small amounts of people, here. It’s like voting.
So, we are going after a very small group of people, but they are passionate and support us. And, we are able to touch those other nine people eventually. We never give up. We absolutely believe that if you use a nonprofit’s services, you have to pay for them.
The other thing we do is we treat everybody equally, no matter how much they donate. We’ve been supported by the community probably well beyond what we should be. Only 4000 Watts and no Internet reach for a long time. And, now we see 30% of our donations come from outside the state of Washington.
So, tell us a bit about how community radio impacts the artists. How have these stations in your tribute interviews made a difference? This came up in a recent interview you did with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and I hear you bring it up a lot in the many artist interviews you do.
It’s universal –musicians refer to college and community radio as key in their career paths.
You can go back to people like Kurt Cobain, and he’d talk about KCMU (which KEXP grew out of) and the Sub Pop guys, a lot of whom DJ’d here, as an example. KCMU was the place our audience discovered Hip Hop, or it was the place they discovered some other genre. A place like this will expose you to other genres and reinforce the genres you already love.
So artists get that. Artists are so open to so many different genres, and in a lot of cases, they want to hear what other people [Ed note: as opposed to algorithms] want you to hear. Again, you have all your different services that provide music and mixes, and there’s a place for that. But with community radio, there’s a human being deciding that ‘this needs to be heard now,’ which has an affect on artists. And, I think it influences them. I’ve heard this from so many of them.
Think of all the stations supporting artists, and then the artists listening to these community stations. And, it’s not just what these artists are exposed to in this way, but when an artist hears their band next to the Violent Femmes or Tacocat next to Radiohead played next to Chastity Belt, which is played next to Chemical Brothers. You, the emerging or local artist, for example, have been given the respect of being on an even playing field. This isn’t some token play of a local band. You are at their level and we believe you need to be played next to the internationally acclaimed bands.
Then, there’s the other side, that you don’t just ignore artists because they are on a major label, right? We can’t be too snobby. We can’t be like Jack Black in High Fidelity. And, we don’t do that. We just don’t play it if we don’t like it.
Our idea is music discovery at any age.
Do you consider yourself, and your own radio career, as an example of the power of community and college radio?
I didn’t realize it when it was happening, but I grew up on radio. And, fast forward… even for this week of programming, I talked to Jonathan L. , who was part of KUKQ in Phoenix. He now lives in Berlin and does syndicated radio. My brother lived in Phoenix at the time and listened to that station. Jonathan L. championed The Pixies. My brother then discovered The Pixies and shared them with me. So, if it weren’t for Jonathan L. and my brother listening to that… and making sure I got that, I wouldn’t be here (at KEXP)… or here at all. I mean, music discovery, to me, saved my life. And, Jonathan L. had no idea he’d influenced me.
Then – you get back to Seattle and THE END (commercial radio) was good, I mean, it took chances. You had Marco Collins breaking singles … and hearing him play Weezer for the first time or Loser from Beck…, while also listening to Riz Rollins here at KCMU, now KEXP, where he’s playing 45 minute long sets that are like the most incredible, mind blowing things you’ve ever heard.
It was also getting these things called The Peel Sessions from the BBC, which I’d known nothing about. I just went to 4000 Holes in Spokane and they gave one to me. So I decided to buy them all. From that discovery, I bought an EP from a band called Inspiral Carpets, which I love to this day.
The greatest compliments I can get are from fellow DJs, who are inspired by my show to become DJs. That blows my mind that I am doing that for someone. If even one of the little kids who comes in here goes on to a career in music, I will have done my job.
What is the ultimate call to action here? Are there currently points on the U.S. map with community radio stations that potentially need help to stay on the air?
What we want to do is set the stage with this. And, I think the next phase is.. and we may do it a little bit during the week.. is to point out those stations that need your support.
We are “fellow travelers” as KEXP’s Executive Director Tom Mara likes to put it. These stations are traveling down the same road. Maybe it’s been for just the last year. Maybe it’s been for 40 years. But, I guarantee they could use the help, so we do everything we can to provide that help and that would include this. We are putting a call out to say 'who needs our help right now?'
In radio, in communities, we need the stations to survive for the musicians, for the music, and for the community to have a place to go. And, so, if we can point that out to other people, we will.
Note: For specific details of when this week's KEXP programming is focusing on which radio stations, visit their blog.