In early December, Seattle's highly regarded noncommercial radio station, KEXP (90.3 FM), got an unusual hit of bad press. In a long article full of previously unseen documents and candid quotes from current and former KEXP staffers, the Seattle Weekly explored the quiet turmoil that has arisen at KEXP over a costly and now aborted effort to extend the reach of the station's broadcast signal southward into the Tacoma area.
But it was one particular number in the article that kept tongues wagging in the local music community for much of this month.
KEXP's star DJ, John Richards, a soft-spoken indie-music tastemaker known to loyal listeners as "John in the Morning," made $120,000 last year, according to the Weekly. It's an amount that many found surprising, given the station's noncommercial status and its reported financial troubles. Richards, who was not quoted in the Weekly article, recently agreed to an e-mail interview with The Stranger about the sum, the station, and seeing his salary in print.
The Weekly reported that you "made $120,000 last year." Is that true?
My salary is $90,000 a year. What was mentioned in the Weekly was that, plus the retroactive part of my salary, and a bonus. But my base salary is $90,000. It isn't based on a percentage of pledge drives. It's based on hard work, results, commitment to the station over the last decade, and market value. I believe that I was given the raise [to $90,000] at the end of 2003, and it was retroactive to the beginning of 2003, and then paid out over 2004. [The Weekly] based its $120,000 figure on what was paid out over last year. They didn't know the complexity of my salary at all, they just had a number and they printed it.
Some people have suggested you're paid too much. How do you feel about that?
I feel I'm paid what the station feels I deserve, and what is fair market value. The station has always determined my income—it did when I was a volunteer, it did when I was making $7 an hour, and it does now. I've been offered other jobs before for more money then KEXP could pay me. I've turned those down to be at KEXP because I believe in its mission. The station has made sure that I'm paid a fair amount of money, and I'm proud of that at the end of the day.
With its recent financial troubles, is your $90,000-a-year salary hurting KEXP?
I would never be a part of anything I thought hurt the station. Of course not. If I were hurting the station, I would leave tomorrow. I love KEXP...
My boss (Tom Mara) and the Governing Board determine what the station can or cannot afford. With any business, public or not, there are going to be some salaries that are higher than others and some job descriptions that are way more involved than others, even in the world of public radio.
(John suggested we ask his boss about the salary issue. The Stranger did, and Mara replied: "John regularly gets targeted by other radio and television organizations. He has always turned them down. In my mind, that's a stand-up thing to do... He more than earns every penny.")
What was it like seeing your salary in print?
I'm not going to lie to you, it was strange to see my salary in an article. I think anyone would be a bit thrown off no matter what they made. I'm not upset about it, though. I know it's attractive to print someone's salary. I just wish it would have been in the context of what it is I do here in its entirety. Saying I'm just the popular morning DJ doesn't really explain why they might be paying me what they do.
How do you feel about the economic distance between you and many of the people—college students, baristas, local musicians—who pledge their money to keep KEXP afloat?
We have members from 1-year-olds to senior citizens. We have members who are students or are unemployed to people who are worth millions of dollars—not just "keeping the station afloat," but making sure we are able to do all the amazing things we've done over the years. They allow us to compete in a world dominated by commercial radio. I'm not sure how me asking for their support of the station, no matter what I make, is relevant. I hope everyone who listens to KEXP supports it... I have no trouble asking for their firstname.lastname@example.org