In the 1973 film American Graffiti, restless high school students zip around in classic cars, aimlessly careening through the night for the sake of motion alone. Characters wind up in different scenarios; burglaries, burger joints, brawls…kid stuff. But the one consistent element between every car ride is the radio; specifically the station tuned to the legendary, real-life DJ Wolfman Jack. Despite the seemingly chaotic habits of the characters, their differing tolerances for mischief and crime, their ability to drag race-they all tune into Wolfman Jack regardless. His gospel is the only thing they can all agree on: the gospel of rock n’ roll from the lips of a once-revered Disc Jockey.
The kids in the ‘60s may have had Wolfman Jack. John Peel rescued youth culture in the decades after. But for those of us born into an era of pre-programmed radio stuffed to the seams with commercial content, it’s difficult to imagine a golden age of rogue radio DJs. If there was some magical frequency out there playing The Germs or Throbbing Gristle, it sure as shit wasn’t broadcasting in Arlington, Washington. It wasn’t until my dad moved almost an hour south from my small hometown for work that our antenna could pick up the station that would change the way I thought about music, and radio. That station was, of course, 90.3 KEXP.
I am thinking of KEXP now because, well, I am listening to it. Not streaming it online from afar in Brooklyn, but right here, in Seattle. Right now DJ Cheryl Waters is playing “Human Performance” by Parquet Courts. Earlier in her set, Waters spun tracks like Cat Power’s “Sun,” Beirut’s “Elephant Gun,” and the brand new Let’s Eat Grandma cut, “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms” among countless tracks I’d never heard before. Each is song different from the last, abiding by no confining genre guidelines-just exceptional music curated with a whole lotta love.
The publicly supported radio station was founded in Seattle in 1972, originally under the call letters KCMU. The switch to KEXP didn’t occur until 2001, right around the time Seattle billionaire Paul Allen commissioned that multi-colored metal tumor to strangle the base of the Space Needle: the Experience Music Project. EMP and Paul Allen partnered with the station, providing it with operating support for a handful of years. It put the EXP in KEXP, I guess you could say.
The station is now independent and operated by Friends of KEXP, and is largely funded through its audience, holding biannual pledge drives and promoting its donation-based membership program year-round. The weeklong pledge drives are a small price to pay for largely interruption free year of music. Upon first hearing commercial-free KEXP, I didn’t think it was legal to do that…broadcast sans advertising. I figured this must be some pirate radio, Pump Up The Volume starring Christian Slater shit. These guys must be in a bunker somewhere. Surely no one else had stumbled upon this gem. I may have been wrong, but it did feel like my own secret station-a safe and nurturing place I could curl up into.
For someone crawling out of a sleepy lumber town, the thought that any contemporary DJ could possibly spin a Wire song was unfathomable. Not only did KEXP play Wire, they would do so at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. They didn’t have to hide their more obscure selections in the wee hours.
Each afternoon returning from high school, I would shut myself in my room, spread out the night’s homework, and turn on the radio to soak in the invaluable musical lessons KEXP had to offer. Sitting at my little desk it was often difficult to focus on the seemingly useless algebra and inaccurate history chapters. How could I when there were far more interesting things floating out of my speakers? Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, Fela Kuti, The Cramps, Art Brut…I would jot down lists of the bands I liked, later making a trip to Tower Records (R.I.P.) in the University District or Silver Platters to scavenge for CDs.
The most critical turn in my relationship with KEXP came about in that familiar scenario: sitting at my desk doing homework some weeknight…I think I was preparing for a debate the next morning. I sat, reluctantly flipping through note cards, when a storm rolled over the speakers of my Sony boombox. It was a simple gospel melody, but the voice preaching was nowhere near saintly. It sounded like gravel in a blender, like a diesel truck with emphysema, like an ex-convict whose diet consists solely of petroleum and wing nuts. The song was “Lord I’ve Been Changed” by Tom Waits. Nothing was the same after that. Waits has since become my favorite artist of all time, completely altering my perception of what makes music great, and what makes art worthwhile. I think it’s safe to say that that night changed my life forever, and it was of course all because of the good people at 90.3 FM.
KEXP not only exposed me to music I’d never heard before and to the records I would grow to love, it also taught me how to re-contextualize my tastes and break free from the boundaries of genre. After trying on a new subculture every few years for the better part of a decade, strictly adhering to each one with sonic intake and dress code, it was a relief to let the edges blur a little. I was no longer militant about remaining within the confines of what was punk, or mod, or rockabilly, or ska, or glam-I could eat all of them in one meal and add other flavors should I so desire. KEXP taught me that listening to The Dead Boys one minute and Dolly Parton the next was not only ok, it was totally badass, and far more realistic for the diverse needs of the human mind.
The versatility KEXP champions is not new to the station. Back in the KCMU days amidst a heavy indie rock rotation, they were the first station to play artists like Grandmaster Flash, which is no small thing. Yet another milestone for KCMU, just on the heels of the name change, was that it was the first station in the world to stream high quality (128 kilobit per second) online audio 24/7. That may sound a bit jargony, but think of all the online radio platforms that have followed suit since, and it’s rather impressive.
When people learn that I am a native Washingtonian, they often want to talk about music. And why wouldn’t they? Our alumni include Quincy Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Neko Case, Bing Crosby, Rickie Lee Jones, Kurt Cobain, Mark Lanegan, Mia Zapata, Carrie Brownstein, and countless others. But despite Seattle’s rich musical history, it is maintaining a fruitful present as well. 90.3 provides a sort of congealing community approach to nourish that kind of progress. Music is a main artery here, and I like to think KEXP is the heart of it all, pumping blood for the love of it.