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Why KEXP Is Still Seattle's Indie Radio Station

Fifty years after its inception, this public radio station can afford to stay weird.

By Sophie Grossman Illustrations by Jordan Kay March 7, 2022 Published in the Spring 2022 issue of Seattle Met

Shelves brim with vinyl, and the windows darken with passersby pressing against the glass, hoping to glimpse a DJ running a finger along the crinkled spines before wriggling a chosen album free. KEXP’s current headquarters, which opened at Seattle Center in 2016, is a major glow-up from the cramped cinder-block room in the University of Washington’s Communications building where the modest 10-watt station first flickered to life in 1972

Today a chorus of voices sings a common refrain: KEXP is special. The station champions public media in a digital age, with listeners around the world and an impact that springs from its firm and enduring local commitments. “There’s a reason KEXP is in Seattle,” says executive director Tom Mara, who is retiring at the end of June after 31 years at the station.

Four UW students are why KEXP—back then known as KCMU—exists at all. Ripples of the radical, anti-establishment sentiment of the 1960s set the tone for 90.3 in the early ’70s; UW’s airwaves grew thick with strains of the station’s eclectic, intellectually demanding programming, its institutional backing insulating it from commercial demands. But rocked by Reaganomics, the university cut funding in 1981. The next year marked the station’s first on-air fundraiser, signaling a shift from experimental student enclave to “listener powered” community radio.

The station faced its share of distinctly Seattle growing pains. A push for more accessible content in the ’80s and ’90s drew accusations of selling out from purists who preferred the subversive programming of the station’s early years. Mara had a major hand in 90.3’s evolution during this time, helping to mold it into a financially sustainable operation. A $3 million donation from Paul Allen in 2001 transitioned the station to its current KEXP identity and ensured it would remain independent, even as public radio began to buckle and warp under commercial pressures. 

Ironically, the station’s backing from a tech billionaire is what has allowed it to remain a vital counterpoint to for-profit streaming platforms. “They play stuff because they like it, not because it’s cool,” says Ryan Devlin of local rock band Smokey Brights. Chief programming officer Chris Kellogg puts it like this: An algorithm’s objective is to give you more of what the AI thinks you want to hear; KEXP gives you what it thinks you should hear. Its success in preserving and modernizing a human-curated live listening experience is owed to its ability to walk a tightrope between competing interests. 

Even in the streaming era, people still drop off CDs at the front desk, says Alaia D’Alessandro, a station video producer and member of punk outfit Tres Leches. “We are a music town,” she adds, though it can be hard to remember at times in the face of glimmering new condos that no self-respecting indie rocker could afford. This delicate union of seemingly divergent interests—progress and nostalgia, alternative and mainstream, analog and digital, commerce and artistic integrity—is at the heart of what makes 90.3, and the city that birthed it half a decade ago, so special. KEXP has, perhaps, mastered the art of selling in. 

That Tracks

Powerhouse 1972 releases and recordings with Pacific Northwest ties.

  • “Red House” (Hendrix in the West) by Jimi Hendrix
    Rolling Stone called the posthumous release “a masterpiece of a performance.” Consider it a 13-minute blues show-case of the Seattle-born musician’s guitar brilliance.
  • “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon” (Live at the Paramountby the Guess Who 
    Catchy riffs aside, this Canadian rock anthem never gained traction in the Lower 48, despite being recorded at the Paramount. Pearl Jam later shared the hometown love, covering the song on a Saskatoon tour stop.
  • Live Fanz Only by the Sonics
    A brief reunion of this now-iconic ’60s garage punk band led to a rollicking live show in Seattle. The short set was released as an EP from Etiquette Records more than a decade later.
  • “The Streetbeater” (Sanford and Son) by Quincy Jones
    Hit sitcom Sanford and Son debuted in 1972 with the Garfield High grad’s legendary composition skills powering the sax-heavy theme song.
  • Grateful Dead Download Series Volume 10 by Grateful Dead
    During a July 21, 1972, concert in town, the band revered by generations of stoners played for some 230 minutes over the course of 31 songs.

Seattle Met Composite image: SEARICK1, MR TACT HILL, DOUG RAPHAEL /

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