News

Radio Ga-Ga

With Paul Allen's Money at Its Disposal, Does KCMU—Wait a Minute—KEXP Really Need Any More of Your Money?

  • comments
  • Print
+ Enlarge this Image
Annie Marie Musselman
+ Enlarge this Image
Annie Marie Musselman
+ Enlarge this Image
Annie Marie Musselman

"Not too long ago, KCMU launched a fundraising campaign to get money from individuals to move into their current new studio, which they are now moving from," writes KCMU-supporter Kim B in an e-mail message sent to The Stranger. "I was wondering whether all the loyal supporters of KCMU were to have their money back for all their generosity to [buy] a 'new home' that [KCMU used for] a year or so?"

The "new home" Kim B refers to is KCMU's current Kane Hall location on the University of Washington campus. When KCMU sister station KUOW moved into cushy facilities on University Way, KCMU took over--and renovated--KUOW's old digs. "I was hoping someone could shed light on what 'public radio' actually means," Kim B writes. "Who decided that deals are made like this?"

The deal Kim B is referring to, of course, is the recent partnership between the University of Washington (which owns KCMU) and Paul Allen's Experience Music Project (EMP), which has put the station up in fancy, rent-free digs, bought the station all-new, state-of-the-art equipment, changed the call letters to KEXP, and promised the UW $600,000 over the course of four years to support the school's music programs. Kim B is asking questions that are on a lot of people's minds, reflecting the concern swirling around KCMU/KEXP: What is the station? And is it still worthy of our financial support? With a billionaire on board, does KCMU/KEXP even need our support?

What Seattle's alternative radio fans are most concerned about is losing a truly great radio station. It's the concern of a person who tunes the car radio to 90.3 FM for what is, and always has been, a smart, diverse station--one whose programming routinely reflects and challenges the tastes of an engaged and open-minded listenership. People wonder if, with the financial backing that KCMU has just been handed, and the threat of EMP's curatorial intrusion into programming ("EXP" stands for "Experience," not "Experimental"), the station will lose essential elements of its personality and character.

But like it or not, change is inevitable. Even before this partnership was announced, KCMU was not the station it was in 1972. Or 1992. Ultimately, whether EMP's involvement in KEXP will prove a detriment to the station's vision remains to be seen. In the meantime, the public, particularly listeners who supported the station in the past, feels betrayed. But the real question is, should we buy into what all involved parties are telling us--and they're all telling us this move is going to be good for KCMU's fans--and continue to lend KEXP our financial support?

For the sake of clarity, I asked Mike McCormick, host of KCMU's news program Mind Over Matters, to define a few terms that have been used to describe the old KCMU. "Public radio is radio that is owned and controlled by the public to serve that same public," says McCormick. Given the fact that none of KEXP's listenership (or even its staff) was consulted before the partnership was finalized, the term "public" doesn't seem to apply. College radio, according to McCormick, "is pretty much the same thing as public radio, only it's run and managed by members of the college to serve that college populace." Again, though the license for KEXP is owned by the UW's Computing and Communications (C&C) department, college radio is not a term one could use to define the station. Lastly, McCormick defined "community radio" as "the same thing, only you're using 'community' instead of 'public.' I could see community radio being supported by local businesses, though certainly it would be primarily listener-supported."

Which was the most appropriate term for KCMU? And which is the most appropriate term for KEXP?

"We'll just call us 'non-commercial radio' for now," says Don Yates, KEXP's program director. "We've always been kind of a weird hybrid. I mean there's some things we share with college stations [university ownership], and some things we share with public stations [listener support], but, just plain old 'non-commercial' would probably do it."

The station has a rocky history. Originally chartered in 1972, KCMU functioned as a volunteer-run, student-serving entity--what one commonly perceives college radio to be. Back then, there was a broadcasting program at the university, which got the ax in 1981, at which point the UW lost interest in running the station. The school cut funding, and KCMU sought listener support to close the gap.

Around the fall of 1992, the station began to make questionable programming decisions. The World Cafe, piped in from Philadelphia's WXPN, was trotted out, and regular KCMU listeners were put off by the Sting/Natalie Merchant/adult-contemporary stuff featured on that program. The syndicated programming also included Christian Science Monitor news updates, every hour on the hour.

Then came CURSE (Censorship Undermines Radio Station Ethics), an activist group comprised primarily of volunteers and listeners, calling for a reinstatement of the democratic governing structure at KCMU. "KCMU was referred to as a 'community radio station' for 10 years, up until 1992," says Jack Thompson, a former volunteer who was involved with CURSE. "This implies community participation." At a meeting in '92, Chris Knab, former station manager, and Tom Mara, KEXP's executive director, angrily informed KCMU staffers that KCMU was not a community radio station. "Yet Tom Mara was wearing a T-shirt with 'Listener-powered KCMU--celebrating 10 years of community radio' written on it," recalls the former volunteer.

DJs were growing increasingly critical of the station, but a gag rule stated that no one at KCMU was allowed to voice critical opinions of the station, either on-air or off. Then came the firings of over 20 people. A very public protest took place--over 50 volunteers went on strike, and the station brought in new employees to replace them, some of whom are still employed at KEXP today. A lawsuit was filed, but some volunteers returned to the station. CURSE eventually disbanded. When KCMU got rid of its news hour in 1996, listeners were outraged, and more protests were organized. In 1997, KCMU fired the last of its remaining volunteer DJs.

In December of 1999, the ownership of the station changed hands, from the University Relations department to C&C. Vice President of Computing and Communications Ron Johnson has been using the station as a test lab for Internet technologies in broadcasting since then, and, because the school holds the license, C&C has the ultimate right to make all decisions regarding station programming. Apparently, C&C has been seeking the sort of financial backing it is now receiving from EMP since the day it took over the station.

The University of Washington currently gives between $40,000 and $50,000 per month to the station, according to Tom Mara. That's a lot of money--even in radio, and especially in college radio. Given that the station receives such a hefty subsidy from the university and now stands to rake in money from the Allen Foundation and EMP, there remains some question as to whether listener support is, in fact, necessary to the station any longer. Thanks to Paul Allen, the station now has a rent-free facility with state-of-the-art broadcasting equipment. Should listeners, like Kim B, continue to shell out money to a station with such wealthy backers? It would appear that KEXP believes they should. According to KEXP's Tom Mara, the station intends to continue asking its listeners to make pledges.

Where Are the Students?

"We're the only school in the state that doesn't have a station with heavy student involvement," says UW student Alex Bolton. As head of the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW) Radio Station Task Force, Bolton is pushing the UW to establish a new campus-based, student-run radio station. "Students should have the opportunity to have their own shows," says Bolton, "and [there should be] a forum for campus debates." What Bolton wants, essentially, is KCMU, circa 1972.

Ron Johnson of Computing and Communications seems irritated when questioned about student DJs. "To me, this issue about students is irrelevant," says Johnson. "The broadcasting programs are gone, and students haven't been involved in the station for some time. What we're trying to do [with KEXP] is involve different kinds of students, graduate students and upper-division students in computer sciences and electrical engineering, who can work on and do useful work in things like large-scale multimedia repositories in software agents in all these new digital convergence technologies."

As Johnson sees it, Computing and Communications has no responsibility to the undergraduates at the UW. Many students disagree, citing the subsidy KEXP gets from the university. "What gets me is that we all pay tuition here, and our money is going to pay for all of these 'professionals' off-campus," says UW student Seth Wenchel. "We're funding a station that started off for students and really should be there for us."

At a minimum, the ASUW Radio Station Task Force wants financial support from the university to start up a new, Internet-based station, with the hope that it will eventually morph into full-fledged radio when funds become available. The task force has been asking the UW to help fund a new station for two years, and so far there's been no movement, and KEXP remains essentially a lab for the UW. "What the hell is the university here for?" asks Bolton. "Is it just for the researchers? Or is it here for the students?"

Paul Allen

Whether Paul Allen has been a die-hard fan of KCMU over the years--as all involved in the partnership want us to believe--it's obvious where his interest lies: the technology. KEXP has just been handed the resources to transform Seattle's tiny, beloved non-commercial radio station into an international player in Internet broadcasting. Make no mistake: radio is a dying art; the Internet is the future; and whether KEXP continues to serve Seattle's local music community or not, it will soon be international in terms of listenership.

"As far as our national or international impact is concerned," Don Yates tells me, "going out on the Internet is one way in which we've been growing already. We already have an international audience to some extent, and I don't think that's a bad thing." Meanwhile, Yates' commitment to local music, he assures me, is firm. "Ultimately, our goal is to bring music that we think matters to the people. We're not necessarily shooting for the biggest stars out there."

There is a room full of equipment in the new Dexter Avenue space, set aside for the C&C staff to work on projects related to the development of applications in digital transmissions technologies. The technology will, according to Tom Mara, who gave me a tour of the room, enable the station to "send music out to folks in different ways. Let's say PJ Harvey comes in and does a live performance," he offers. "We can take that material, cut it up, and either stream it live, stream it for later broadcast, or we could package it, and maybe put it in smaller pieces for 'on demand,' so people can listen to a piece here and there." Exciting stuff.

Like it or not, KEXP is already a different station. And programming will inevitably change. And with that may come staffing changes. "Just look at it as if it were like the Seahawks," Mind Over Matters' Mike McCormick suggests. "Eventually they're going to bring in the great players, the star quarterbacks, and we're going to be out of there. But the problem is, we're not going to be traded; we're just going to get cut. This just epitomizes what's happening with so many of these public/private partnerships.... It's really disturbing."

Confidential to Kim B: Keep listening, but, if I were you, I would consider making my contributions elsewhere--perhaps KBCS 91.3, out of Bellevue Community College. Or, better yet, if you have it in your heart, check out the website of the UW students' Radio Station Task Force (at http://depts.washington.edu/asuwrdio). They could sure use the backing.

 

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Most Commented in News