Advances in technology have made other, once revolutionary technologies obsolete. The telephone replaced the telegraph. The iPod replaced the CD player, which replaced the cassette tape. In an era of global Internet radio and music streaming, FM music stations were supposed to be on the chopping block. However, KEXP, a Seattle-based radio station, is still holding its own.
The station was instrumental for starting the career of hip-hop act Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who spawned the number one hits “Can’t Hold Us” and “Thrift Shop.” The station is set to receive a $15 million new headquarters near the iconic Space Needle next month. According to John Richards, the morning DJ at KEXP, the new home is straight from science fiction. “It’s like Star Trek in here,” he said. KEXP hosted a show dedicated to the 1989 Beastie Boys album Paul’s Boutique, where they played every track on the album along with the songs that the album sampled from, which was met with positive feedback from listeners.
Today, music fans are spoiled for choice with so many different options for satellite radio, commercial radio and music streaming services that can be accessed from any smartphone. This pits nonprofit music stations against the behemoth of technology in a David-versus-Goliath scenario on paper, but stations like KEXP have a huge local following, and have adapted to reach listeners from all around the world to deliver the human touch to music and its distribution.
“There’s so much music out there, so many places to go,” said Roger LaMay, general manager of Philadelphia public music station WXPN. “But finding curation from a trusted source is a lifeline for most music lovers who don’t have the time or wherewithal to sift through it all on their own,” he added, noting how music listeners are bombarded with content without the means of organization or curation.
Other stations are following suit to guide people through the ocean of musical content out there. Station KCRW at Santa Monica College seeks to move into a new $48 million facility with a public performance space, which could potentially serve as the launching pad of the next great music act. “The thing that has helped KEXP and KCRW is we’re not traditional radio,” said KCRW President Jennifer Ferro, “We’re really building this tribe of people that are interested in music discovery and curious about the world.”
While these stations won’t see listeners in the tens of millions, they are growing because of, not despite of, the Internet. KEXP, for instance, averages just over 200,000 listeners a week, triple the audience from 15 years ago. Many of their listeners come from New York more than 3,000 miles away. The nonprofit gets about half of its $6 million operating budget from listener pledges. The station also opened up a YouTube channel which averages about 743,000 views a week.
Celebrities such as Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon have taken notice of FM radio stations as well. “I am listening to @kexp and @loserboy on @iHeartRadio and I am LOVING it!” he said. Another band, Of Monsters and Men, broke through in 2010 when KEXP filmed them performing the song “Little Talks” in a band member’s living room – the song went quadruple platinum. “It lifted them out of the mass of things going on that year,” said Heather Kolker, the band’s manager. Richards claimed that KEXP and stations just like it have more functions than just a radio station. “We barely call ourselves a radio station,” he said. “We do so much more than that. We see ourselves as a media organization, a community organization.”