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Is There a More Influential Seattle DJ Than John Richards?

The KEXP vet reflects on nearly two decades of music discovery—and gears up for the station’s new studio.

By Matthew Halverson December 3, 2015 Published in the December 2015 issue of Seattle Met

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John Richards photographed at the old KEXP studio on Dexter on October 9, 2015.

Image: Oliver Ludlow

John Richards leaves the house at four thirty every morning to go to work. It’s a cool job—for more than 15 years he’s hosted The Morning Show at KEXP—but still, that alarm goes off really early. Richards has sacrificed a lot for that gig, like going to clubs to see up-and-coming bands and playing outside with his kids on long summer nights. But in exchange he’s had the chance to shape and influence the musical tastes of a generation of Seattle radio listeners. And this December, after KEXP moves into its brand new, souped-up studio in Seattle Center, Richards will have even more tools for turning us on to the latest thing, including a massive space for live shows. Just don’t expect to see him there after eight. Dude’s got to sleep. —Matthew Halverson

My friends used to say, “Are you ever going to get promoted
and be on in the afternoon?” But morning is where you want to be as a DJ. You’re not background. You’re foreground. It’s a big responsibility. Because you’re with them when they wake up, you’re with them with the kids, you’re with them when they go to school, you’re with them when they go to their job. 

It’d be one thing if I was getting up this early and digging ditches, right?

I’ll never forget the minute I put in the Pixies. It was everything that I wanted music to be. It was different and weird and it didn’t make sense, and I’d never heard anything like it. And nobody, in my mind, in Spokane, where I lived, probably was listening to the Pixies the minute I was. There was something very attractive about that.

To discover the biggest bands, the biggest songs, whatever, it’s better than any drug you’ll take. It’s euphoria, it’s love, it’s passion, all wrapped up into one. 

I’m not bummed if somebody else hears new music before me. I just want to be the first to champion it. I want to be the first, in some cases, to play it on the radio. You’re taking a chance and telling people that this is going to be a huge band before their record comes out.

The day my father died I was supposed to be on air. We were estranged, and he’d been dying for years, really, but I had to watch him die in his living room. It was the first time I got on the air and was superhonest. I’ve always been honest, but I was like, “Hey, I don’t know what else to say here, but my dad’s dead. So I’m not going to be playing upbeat music. I hope you can deal with that.” The response I got was unbelievable. Just a lot of people saying they’d never heard anything like that on the radio, which really fried my brain. Because what does someone else do? I guess they take time off and come back? I don’t know.

If I give you a mixtape and you don’t know who I am, you won’t listen to it or care. If you know who I am and you know what I’ve been through or what I’m going through and I hand you a tape, you’re more likely to think, “I’m going through the same thing, so I’m going to listen to this guy.” 

When you really judge a band is their third record. Think about it. Bands have years to make a debut. Their entire life’s blood goes into it. Second record, you accept: “Eh, they signed, they had to make a record.” But you get to the third record—if they can make that great, they’re going to be around a long time.

I ran into this guy at the zoo. And he goes, “How do I know you?” I’m like, “Well, I do a radio show.” And he looks at me, and he goes, “You do?” “Yeah.” And he stops, and I think he’s going to say, “Oh, The Morning Show.” But he goes, “I went to high school with you.” That’ll humble you really quick.

Once in a while I’ll hear, “Boy, you’re lucky to have that job.” I don’t take well to that comment. I know they mean well, but you have to be prepared for luck. I was ready to commit all of my free time to work two jobs and live off student loans and fail miserably at college just to pursue this—and then stick with it for many, many years and travel many bumpy roads along the way. I was prepared for the lucky moments, and I earned it by working my ass off.

For some local bands, it can be hard when they don’t get airplay here. They feel a little betrayed by KEXP. They want to hear themselves on the radio, which I totally get. But they should want people to love them and want to go see them. And the only way that can happen is if they have a good enough sound to get on the air.

I’ll miss this spot right here. This is where I’ve been for over a decade. That will be very difficult. And both of my kids have grown up here. Like, my 11-year-old set off the emergency alert system here when he was little. And my two-year-old has pulled out all of these jazz CDs and destroyed half of them; apparently he hates jazz. So having those memories here, it’s like moving out of your house.

Seattle saved my life. I dealt with depression and still do. I dropped out of high school for a bit and put myself back in and became an honor roll student. But I had some really tough times. It’s weird. It’s like Seattle is a person to me. It’s like somebody who took me under their wing and raised me. So I feel a very big debt to Seattle that I still don’t feel like I’ve paid off.

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