KEXP-FM (90.3 FM) is a public radio station based in Seattle, Washington, that specializes in alternative and indie rock programmed by its disc jockeys. Its broadcasting license is owned by Friends of KEXP, an independent 501(c)(3) organization. The station operated under the call letters KCMU until 2001, when a partnership was formed between Paul Allen's Experience Music Project and KEXP, which provided the station with significant funding through 2005. Since then, KEXP has operated independently by Friends of KEXP.
Besides the alternative rock that fills most of KEXP's schedule, there are weekly programs dedicated to particular musical genres, including rockabilly, blues, world music, hip hop, electronica, punk, and alternative country. Live, in-studio performances by artists are also regularly scheduled.
KEXP's streaming costs are covered by the University of Washington (UW), which also provides most of the Internet technology used by the station. KEXP is often a testing ground for the university's Computing and Communications Department. Music licensing fees associated with internet radio are covered by the station's affiliation with National Public Radio (NPR). The association and financial help by these two organizations have allowed KEXP to experiment with its online offerings.
Groundwork for the station that would eventually become KEXP began in 1971, started by University of Washington undergraduates John Kean, Cliff Noonan, Victoria ("Tory") Fiedler, and Brent Wilcox. KUOW-FM (94.9), then an instructional radio station, now an NPR affiliate, had recently made some cutbacks that had removed most opportunities for student involvement in the station. The four students convinced the Communications Department to provide space and a tiny budget with which they bought "turntables, tape cartridges, and a few other items like plywood." They built their own console cabinets, successfully petitioned the UW and the FCC for a frequency and a license, and ultimately raised their own antenna. The 10-watt signal "barely reached the Ave" (the commercial heart of Seattle's University District).
In 1972, the station started operations as KCMU, a small album rock station staffed by University of Washington students that broadcast at 90.5 FM to the UW campus. The "CMU" in its call letters referred to the abbreviation of the campus's Communications Building, the station's facility.
In 1981, under the direction of Jon Kertzer, KCMU began soliciting donations from listeners after the UW's budget was cut. Throughout the late 1980s, the station tapped into Seattle's burgeoning music scene. Members of local bands Soundgarden and Mudhoney worked as volunteer DJs, as did both Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, the founders of Sub-Pop. During these years, Billboard Magazine called KCMU "one of the most influential commercial-free stations in t country."
In late 1985 Chris Knab, who co-founded the record label 415 Records and was a former owner of Aquarius Records in San Francisco, sold his interest in 415 Records and became KCMU's station manager. Mr. Knab moved the station away from alternative rock-only programming, adding jazz, hip hop, world music and other genres to its lineup.
In 1986, KCMU switched frequencies to 90.3 FM and increased its transmitter signal to 400 watts, increasing its broadcast radius to 15 miles.
In 1992, KCMU dropped many of its volunteer DJs and elected to run syndicated programming. Some listeners and DJs considered this a betrayal of KCMU's democratic mission, and formed a group called CURSE (Censorship Undermines Radio Station Ethics). A program called World Cafe, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was a particular bone of contention.
CURSE encouraged local KCMU supporters to stop donating money to the station in protest. Volunteer DJs who criticized the station's policies were fired, although a lawsuit from CURSE resulted in that policy being struck down by a United States District Court. World Cafe was dropped from KCMU's lineup in 1993, but none of the fired volunteer staff returned to the station.
KCMU hired its three full-time paid DJs in 1996. In 2000, KCMU started streaming 128 kilobit per second mp3 compressed audio over the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This made KCMU the first station in the world to offer online audio of this quality. KCMU then moved from its long-time home in the Communications Bldg (CMU) to Kane Hall, at the University of Washington. In 2001, KCMU was recalled KEXP. At the same time, it moved to a new studio near downtown Seattle (which it broadcast from rent free), partnered with the Experience Music Project (EMP), and increased its power to 720 watts. The kexp.org website was nominated for two Webby Awards in 2003, Best Radio Website and the People's Voice Award.
In 2004, KEXP started broadcasting on KXOT 91.7 FM in Tacoma, Washington, which extended the station's broadcast range to Olympia and the south Puget Sound region. Before then, KXOT was known as KBTC, was owned by Bates Technical College, and featured a classic rock format. Bates sold the station to Public Radio Capital for $5 million, and PRC leases it to KEXP.
KEXP began podcasting their live, in-studio performances beginning with Seattle hip hop trio Boom Bap Project who appeared on 21 July 2005. On November 3, 2005, KEXP announced it was terminating operation of KXOT 91.7 FM at the end of the calendar year. The agreement with EMP in 2001 was set to expire, so KEXP had to prepare for increased operating costs with a smaller budget. On March 10, 2006, KEXP increased the power of its terrestrial frequency to 4,700 watts. The signal is radiated in a cardioid pattern.
In August 2007, New York City's public radio station, WNYE, part of NYC Media Group, was planning to overhaul their programming, moving to an all music format. The plans, detailed in a February 11, 2008 press release, are to partner with KEXP, and move to a simulcast and music format branded as "Radio Liberation."
On March 24, 2008, KEXP DJ John Richards', or John in the Morning, broadcast was heard on 91.5 FM in New York City for the first time as part of Radio Liberation. Radio Liberation is the collaboration between KEXP and Radio New York (91.5 FM) to introduce New York listeners to more independent music. The collaboration aimed to simulcast one part of KEXP's original broadcasting and three originally-produced programs. John Richards' morning show is the only program that will be simulcast on the dial in both Seattle and NYC. The other programs (Wake Up, Music That Matters, and Mo'Glo) will be produced specifically for Radio New York, but not available to Seattle or online listeners. Radio Liberation said this would reach 14 million listeners in New York. KEXP has a long-standing relationship with New York, broadcasting live from there a couple times a year. Richards began splitting his time between live broadcasts in both New York and Seattle in June 2008 John Richards, who frequently creates playlists based on themes, opened the first Radio Liberation broadcast with "Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf)" from the Pixies, his favorite band, "Pike St./Park Slope" from Harvey Danger, a Seattle band singing about Seattle and Brooklyn, and "Marching Bands of Manhattan" by Death Cab for Cutie containing a NYC reference. The joint venture ended on June 1, 2011. WNYE replaced KEXP programming with the WFUV show "The Alternate Side".
KEXP's website has dynamic playlists, live streaming radio, and an archive of all programs from the last two weeks, and a collection of previous on-air live performances. The performers include national and international artists such as Patti Smith, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and They Might Be Giants and local Pacific Northwest artists such as Harvey Danger, The Long Winters, and Maktub.
KEXP's website was the first site on the Internet to offer a 128 kbit/s, high-quality stream of live radio. Innovations such as the high-quality stream helped KEXP's website to win a Webby Award for best radio website in 2004. It had been nominated for the same award in 2003 but failed to win.
KEXP has produced many specialty theme shows which celebrate the lives of musicians who recently passed away, celebrate particular bands (See International Clash Day), or break down complex albums like Paul's Boutique by the Beastie Boys or De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising.
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