It's a Thursday night in late October, and New York's CMJ Music Marathon is in full swing. The participating venues teem with undergrads, wide-eyed and still angling to make something of the music business, even as the slumping biz faces an uncertain future. At Williamsburg's enormous Brooklyn Bowl, New York's DFA Records is hosting a label showcase. Portland's YACHT are performing live, and James Murphy and Pat Mahoney of LCD Soundsystem are playing a DJ set as Special Disco Version.
To the immediate left of the wide doorway sits a long merch table. Behind it, two people on the right are screen-printing T-shirts by hand and hardening the ink with a hair dryer. To their left are a couple of volunteers for KEXP, setting out promotional buttons, show schedules for the station's web stream, and a clipboard with a mailing list for the curious to sign up for. There's a banner overhead, but otherwise the station's involvement is unobtrusive.
Paid for by Committee to Reelect Judge North, P.O. Box 27113, Seattle, WA 98165
KEXP's sponsorship of New York events isn't new. As far back as 2004, the Seattle station had its name on the Siren Music Festival, the daylong outdoor summer indie-rock soiree held at Coney Island. But when KEXP announced in February of 2008 that it would be partnering with WNYE (91.5 FM), "Radio New York"—a station owned by the city of New York—it indicated a deeper level of involvement with local events in that metropolis as well as its hometown, in addition to sharing content from 6:00 a.m. to noon EST. The question is, how much, if any, impact is the station having in NYC?
Judging from what I've seen since moving to Brooklyn in October, as well as from speaking to a sampling of colleagues and music-biz folks in New York, that impact has been muted. There are a few obvious reasons for this, the most important being size. Seattle's current population is estimated at 602,000; New York's is nearly 14 times that size, with all five boroughs housing more than 8.3 million.
Another is in the nature of each station's core of programming. KEXP is distinctive in that it's a community radio station (not public, but operated on the UW's airwave allotment) whose programming is comparable to a commercial station—a far from slick one, granted, but the station's DJs, whatever their individual personalities and drawing power, and their eclecticism of taste, tend to emphasize current and recent music. By comparison, outside of Michele Myers's and John Richards's morning slots, as well as Darek Mazzone's hour-long Mo'Glo, WNYC is a fairly standard public radio station, emphasizing public-affairs programs, BBC World Service, and globally oriented music shows such as Afropop Worldwide and World Cafe.
That's an important niche in a cosmopolitan city, without question, but in a competitive radio market like New York—which already has college radio via WNYU and a truly free-form station in the venerable, listener-supported WFMU—it makes the audience numbers quoted by KEXP's brass seem even starker: an estimated 120,000 terrestrial (nonsatellite or nonweb) listeners in Seattle, compared to 40,000 in New York. (The station estimates its total web listeners at between 40,000 and 50,000.)
Tom Mara, KEXP's executive director, is optimistic about those numbers. "We wanted to add another 40 to 50 percent to our audience," he says about the expansion. "We'll hopefully reach more people in the future. Unfortunately, the recession has been pesky and has prevented us from getting more of the word out. We're looking at more cost-effective ways of doing the core work. That's what the overall sense of the conversations are internally, primarily."
Indeed, KEXP recently let go of four part-time New York operations staff members—all of them based in Seattle. "We've had to respond to the economy, which has put a damper on how ambitious this project [is]," says Mara. "I think we can still provide the core of services we have been, and [we've been] asking people to do more work in order to accomplish it. The work has to get done somewhere."
KEXP's senior director of programming and afternoon DJ Kevin Cole says, "While we'd like to do more, with limited resources in 2009 we actually have been involved with more sponsored events than in any previous year." He mentions the station's involvement with All Points West, Central Park SummerStage, and the South Street Seaport Music Festival series, among others.
Some of the expansion's difficulties are due to the changing nature of radio itself. "I know plenty of people who listen to KEXP every morning," says Mike Conklin, the music editor of Brooklyn-based listings biweekly the L Magazine. "But I'm pretty sure a lot of those people listened to KEXP online every morning long before the station ever came to New York.
"Obviously, 'John in the Morning' caters to obsessive, extremely knowledgeable music fans, and it's been on the radar of those people for a really long time," he continues. "But we're coming up on 2010 here, so I also know an awful lot of people who couldn't be bothered to listen to a radio station when it's so easy to sample whatever you want, whenever you want, without having to deal with a filter, even if the filter in question has impeccable taste. And the reception in New York is never going to be what it's been in Seattle, and not because New York is such hot shit or anything like that. It's just that by the time KEXP came here, listening to the radio at all, let alone to learn about new things, seemed like an outdated premise to a lot of people."
However, one prominent Big Apple citizen is a fan: New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean. She wrote on her Twitter feed: "KEXP is in Seattle but it broadcasts (sometimes) in NYC at 91.5 and streams online. I LOVE great radio—and there's not enough of it."
Diana Turner, a former Seattleite (and clerk at Easy Street Records in Queen Anne) who moved to New York in mid-decade, recalls attending a "John at Night" CMJ event, hosted by John Richards, the station's popular morning DJ (6:00 to 10:00 a.m. PST), a few years ago. "The number of people hanging around hoping they could have a word or two with John was weird," she says. "KEXP must have been laying the groundwork for this for years." Yet, she says, the station's follow-through has been disappointing. "There are tons of willing volunteers to support their events here, but they have such a scattered, small presence here. For a station that is listener-powered, they don't seem to be harnessing that power here."
The station, predictably, sees it differently. "We've been more involved [in sponsoring New York events] this year than any other previous year," says Mara, pointing to CMJ as an example: The station had a presence at 40 events at the yearly college-radio showcase. "For several years prior, we'd go out to New York for a week, about twice a year, and sponsor events," says Mara. "We saw [the partnership with WNYE] as a continuation of the events we'd been doing."
The L's Conklin, who worked with KEXP on the Northside Festival in Williamsburg, concurs: "KEXP was always at the top of our list of people to work with. We did work with them, and they were a pleasure through and through."
Despite problems that have ensued from KEXP's eastward expansion, Cole does see benefits. "We're able to record in-studio performances from bands that won't be in Seattle any time in the near future. We've also enjoyed bringing Pacific Northwest bands to the New York airwaves, introducing them to a whole new group of fans they might not have made a connection with before. In those ways, we feel like we've been meeting our goals."
According to Mara, the WNYE hookup began about three years ago, when the New York station approached Cole about a partnership. "They were intrigued by the nature of our programming," says Mara. "This is not a simple syndication project or a satellite feed for whoever wanted to take it."
One persistent accusation KEXP's Seattle-to-New-York listeners have voiced is that the station's partnership came about in order to appease Richards, who divides his time between Seattle and New York. According to Mara, Richards's relocation came about independently of the WNYE partnership. "John had a personal interest in moving—family reasons," he says. "When we considered that, we thought, whether or not we moved forward [with WNYE], this would enable us to have someone on the ground in New York that we wouldn't have in Seattle. If he'd wanted to move to Indianapolis, we wouldn't have been as interested—no offense to those fine folks over there. But then this WNYE opportunity came over the horizon. They're two discrete activities. Whether or not [the hookup with] WNYE continues into the future—and I hope it does—it's a compelling reason to have John or whomever in New York." Mara says that Richards "works with a team of volunteers and interns on the show. Having a presence in venues, that sort of thing, a lot of that is directed by John." (Richards, reached via e-mail, declined to speak to The Stranger for this story.)
Expecting the partnership to continue is one thing; that Mara wonders aloud about its future says something about its tentativeness. "I think it comes from a general sense [that] this is a sort of new thing," he says. "The question is, should we continue with this? And my answer is yes. I have no plans to drop this initiative. That being said, I can't guarantee how long this will continue in the future. I think the trick is in the communication and collaboration that exists between the two organizations. Both are quite interested in making it work. If you don't have that, you don't have much at all."