When I was a teenager in Seattle, listening to KEXP felt like tapping into a world I didn't understand. The donor-funded independent radio station didn't play the same 17 songs in heavy rotation on "alternative" rock radio, which back then meant Puddle of Mudd, Jet, and (shudder) Staind. KEXP focused more on indie rock—the DJs were very into Arcade Fire early on—but also played bluegrass, rockabilly, world music, jazz, conscious hip-hop, and hardcore. Late nights and early mornings you could hear ambient music that didn't sound like music at all. It was all stuff I wasn't exposed to anywhere else, and when I heard something that I did like, it felt like a secret transmitted only to me. (I still have a soft spot for that era of Seattle pop-punk and garage, mostly forgotten bands like the Lights, the Pulses, and the Divorce.)
I haven't lived in Seattle since 2005, and when I go back now I am startled by how it has changed, how new tech money and city-wide gentrification has warped what in my memory is still a sleepy town. Wherever I am, though, streaming KEXP feels like a lifeline to the past, the best of the old Seattle. (KEXP used to be KCMU, the college rock station that was the first to play Nirvana's Bleach, which Kurt Cobain dropped off at the studio himself.) The DJs still occasionally have on-air flubs, audibly struggling to get a song queued up. The music is still eclectic enough to keep my attention, and I still learn about bands I end up falling in love with.
As the world has collapsed, I've started to rely on KEXP more and more. Not to discover new music, but just to hear the same old voices—John Richards in the morning, Cheryl Waters at midday, Kevin Cole in the afternoon. The songs they select seem to have changed just a bit too, with the programming angled more toward the classics like Bowie, the Pixies and Talking Heads. It's laden with more emotion too. Everyone who works at KEXP has been living inside a COVID-19 hot spot for weeks, and it's seeped into their work.
"The week of March 23, when Seattle was shutting down—our schools were closing, panic was setting in—those sets were not hopeful," Richards told me. "Those sets were more—not depressing songs but more like, I'm not going to rock out and play dance songs right now. This is not the time or the place. We are dealing with some scary shit."
At the beginning of the pandemic, the DJs still broadcasted out of the KEXP studio—normally a lively place, surrounded by a combination record store/coffee shop that had been emptied thanks to the stay-at-home order. Now they broadcast from home using a combination of newly purchased mixers and gear they've accumulated over the years. They're making the most of it: Richards even still does live sessions from his lawn, dangling a microphone out of his window to the artist. It's an improvised setup that sometimes picks up the birds chirping. During the first lawn session, with Michael Benjamin Lerner, a.k.a. Telekinesis, the trash collectors came by to pick up the garbage. "I leaned out the window and we all waved to thank them for their work and all of that was live on air and people loved it," Richards said.
If radio stations have personalities, KEXP is shambolic, friendly, and almost painfully earnest, the type of friend who bicycles over with homemade chicken soup if he hears you are having a bad day. The station believes that music can be a healing and helping force, and Richards has regular shows devoted to mental health and even death. His morning shows during the pandemic have included heartfelt thank-yous to workers, moments when he talks about how hard it is to suddenly homeschool your kids, and more than the usual number of requests.
Ordinarily, plenty of the requests Richards gets come from people who want to hear a song because they just got married, are marking an anniversary, just had a baby, or are remembering a friend who died. But now, he told me, the number of personal messages has spiked.
"Almost every request is not just, 'Hey, play this song.' It's, 'Play this song because I'm lonely, I'm isolated, I'm depressed. I don't know how I'm gonna get through this. I'm burned out as a homeschooler. I can't believe what's going on with our government,'" he said. There are so many of these messages, he added, that the Morning Show has had to bring in an extra person just to field them.
That may be what keeps me coming back to KEXP right now. Not that it always plays exactly what I want, but it so often plays songs that mean so much to the people who requested them. It's the sound of an entire community, both in Seattle and elsewhere, processing shock and grief and trying to move toward hope.
The other day there was a sequence of songs so fun I wrote it down. It started with the old jazzy Peanuts theme song, went to the Jazzy Jeff/Will Smith track "Summertime," and finished with George Michael's "Freedom 90." Three different kinds of corniness, three songs I'd probably never choose to put on myself. That's exactly what I needed to hear.
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Photo by Eli Brownell.