Heartstrings Interview

Inside KEXP: ‘where the music matters’

By: Lauren Jahoda

My visit to the KEXP office/studios, as the next likely stop on my list of Seattle staples while in the area, did not arise out of mere convenience. In fact, I might go as far as to say that my Tuesday afternoon meeting was bucket list-worthy. You see, the magic of KEXP caught my attention long before the brainstorm that was the inception of this magazine. The happenings inside the live performance room you see above, with the walls dressed in their signature black curtains and pinpoint white lights, may very well have been the catalyst of my alternative music explorations 8 years ago. For many, like myself who live outside the Pacific Northwest area, each performance, emanating from that small but illustrious room, marks the alluring moment of discovery of this inspiring organization.

My journey to KEXP at the corner of Denny Park was actually the first time I set foot in the city of Seattle. Preparation for my navigation through a brand new city was close to none, as I thought…how hard could it be? With that being said, there certainly was no shortage of haphazard turns trying to find my destination. To my surprise, and very much unlike New York City’s massive but rudimentary grid, Seattle is chock full of zig-zags and gargantuan hills. I assumed Denny Park would be the easiest landmark reference, and so I asked at least five different people for directions to there– each conversation played out like this:

Me: “Hi. Can you please tell me how to get to Denny Park?”
Stranger: (Puzzled) “Huh??”
Me: “KEXP?”
Stranger: “Oh, Yeah. KEXP! Sure! It’s just this way…”

Although each seemed to point me in a different direction (neither of which was toward KEXP or Denny Park) and all other navigational challenges notwithstanding, each person enthusiastically confirmed that a) KEXP is the heart and essence of the city of Seattle and b) this girl was never going to find it.

Once I finally arrived (30 minutes later), the building itself was suddenly obvious, with the music-themed murals across the outside walls. I walked in and was greeted by the receptionist and Rob Knop, the marketing director, who could tell my trek had not been an easy one. He offered me coffee, but as the sweat was in full swing and I was still trying to catch the breath I had lost somewhere on the way up the last gargantuan hill, he could tell that without cold water instead, there would be no productive conversation. First stop, kitchenette. The lovely young woman inside handed me water. As I drank, I could suddenly hear Rob’s voice explaining to me that Parquet Courts was just in the studio for their performance, and that the studio likes to have someone available to provide refreshments when needed.

The building KEXP currently inhabits is clearly “home,” but it was also clear that for this growing organization, these digs just aren’t going to cut it for much longer. For this reason, KEXP is now well into their plans to move to a new location near the Space Needle, by early next year. The new location was originally built for the World’s Fair and only meant to be a temporary structure, but is now considered a historical landmark. It’s about 3 or 4 times the size of their current space and allows for a more open floor plan, instead of the private offices lining the perimeter they have now. There will also be a corner room which will house their media library with exterior glass walls, making it visible to the outside. Accommodations for  in-studio performance artists will also improve with the addition of a lounge room and better outdoor access for moving instruments and equipment. The current hallways on Dexter Ave. are quite narrow (see photos).

IMG_0327

IMG_0324After making our way through the performance room, we stopped in the music director’s private office. Since Kevin Cole was currently on-air right next door, it was a convenient escape. 85% of Don Yates’ day is spent inside this small room, door closed, alone, yet crowded amid stack after stack of CDs delivered to his attention from hopeful new artists seeking coveted airtime. This room and Yates’ listening process was of particular interest to me because I was recently at the other end of this process — writing, packaging, addressing and stamping each album to corresponding music directors at various stations, to promote independent, singer-songwriter, Bill Scorzari‘s 2014 debut album. This room is the enclave where all such artists are received and, at KEXP, certain to be heard. Yates was not present at the time of my visit, but Rob assured that Don truly does listen to every record that comes in. Rob described him as the preliminary filter for all incoming music. Each week, after the bulk of his listening, he sends out an internal email to the staff, letting them know what he’s listening to and what they might want to begin listening to. It was then that Rob gave me one of the many answers to the main question I had throughout my entire visit. Based on my personal experience and enjoyment of KEXP, as well as my recognition of their success in the music industry, I wanted to get the staff’s opinion on a pressing question — i.e. What is it that so successfully sets KEXP apart from the countless other non-commercial radio stations?  In Yates’ office, Rob explained that KEXP is one of the only stations that doesn’t have a predetermined or mandatory log of songs to pull from. He elaborated and told me that it’s an unofficial requirement that every 6 songs or so, the DJ should be playing music from a local act. This is one small, but powerful piece of information: KEXP’s success is rooted in their reciprocal support of the community that so willingly supports them.

More answers to this question were made evident in the manner in which I was treated by the KEXP staff during my visit. Firstly, Rob Knop. Yes, I know, his job is marketing, but the heartwarming level of welcoming and respect he so effortlessly showed me is uncommon. Secondly, every additional staff member I encountered during the time I spent at KEXP (well over an hour), was as friendly, inviting and genuinely informative as the next. I had the chance to spend some extra time with DJ Kevin Cole, who hosts mixed-genre shows. Cole and I discussed some of the bands that KEXP is responsible for discovering (another key factor that has propelled KEXP into a category of radio all its own). One of which is, Of Monsters and Men. This discovery took place years prior, but Cole continues to describe the incredible story with as much enthusiasm, animation and excitement now, as I’m sure he had at the time. Each year KEXP partners with Iceland Airwaves for an international broadcast showcasing acts from “the land of fire and ice.” As the story goes:

Back in 2010, we filmed Of Monsters and Men in their living room as they were rehearsing for a gig during Iceland Airwaves that year. It was a special moment, for sure, but at the time none of us could predict the outcome or know that we happened to be at the right place in the right time. That video of “Little Talks” caught on like wildfire and soon other stations began playing the song. When the band released it officially in the U.S. in 2011, “Little Talks” was already a hit. Major label record deal, international tour, and top selling album were soon to follow.

(Jim Beckmann, KEXP.org)

See the groundbreaking video here:

kevin_rsd2014Kevin Cole, KEXP.org

Cole brought me into his office, filled with comfortable clutter and subtle lighting, sat down at his computer, logged onto YouTube and proceeded to show me Of Monsters and Men’s timeline in video form. He began with the their living room in Iceland, then at KEXP and again in Iceland. The most fascinating part was the seamlessness of their sound across recording spaces and years. When we finished our giddy video binge, Cole handed me three of KEXP’s mixes to check out.

IMG_0338During our final conversation, Rob humorously expressed the intimidation of Cole’s vast repertoire, remarking that his shows feature so many genres, it’s hard to find a sound Cole hasn’t already listened to. We laughed and I asked Cole if he himself is ever intimidated by that reputation that precedes him, and the expectations for him to know everything out there. He replied, completely at ease, with a simple matter-of-fact, “No.” He explained that there is a constant exchange of music occurring among artists and DJs, and that very basically, these expectations just aren’t part of the equation for him.

At one point during our conversations, Rob referred to KEXP as “handmade radio.” He explained further that, all of the DJs take pride in their personal media collections and libraries, constantly incorporating these selections into their respective shows. Rob’s choice of words, however, goes even deeper — “handmade” is defined as “made by hand, not by machine, and typically therefore of superior quality.” I was shown “the office” of the Executive Director, who has been at KEXP for 20/30+ years. His office is in fact, not an office at all but rather a spot on top of a file cabinet in a hallway.  I am told that this is by choice, and am convinced–by the displayed passion of the KEXP staff for what they do–that it must be true. All of these details, and more–including the yellow tacks on the map hanging on the wall in the On-Air room (placed there long ago to mark KEXP’s initial growth and listener reach)–are what characterize and distinguish KEXP from other stations. Rather simply, the operations at KEXP are made up of one-of-a-kind individuals who are producing one-of-a-kind results as a listener-supported labor of love. If you haven’t yet discovered their magic, tune in and join the  community that supports this important station.

Leave a Comment