KEXP getting tame?

August 4, 2006

An angry DJ fired from KEXP, Seattle’s most-nearly-independent radio station, goes off about the station’s lack of playlist diversity. And starts a petition to get the FCC and University of Washington to reconsider the station’s charter.

OK, looks like sour grapes from the outside.

The thing is, I have had the same conversation with three people in the last month. It’s kind of intangible, but we used to listen to KEXP and its predecessor, KCMU, to discover new music. Not anymore. Now, it seems like some of the DJs play nothing but their favorite songs from back when they were in college in 1992, plus some new stuff they read about on Pitchfork and a dozen or so heavily hyped local bands. A lot of the specialty shows are still fantastic, and some DJs are still very eclectic and unafraid to play unusual music, but there’s so much three-chord indie-pop and garage rock, it’s become boring. I don’t want to hear stuff that any 14-year-old kid with a guitar can think up and play, I want to hear music that pushes the envelope. And they seem to broadcast from New York City once very two months—how local and indie is that?

I’d sure love to see a local station that

  1. Offers more support for local artists. Instead of picking a half-dozen local darlings–usually signed to major local labels like SubPop or Barsuk playing white-boy indie rock or alt-country–and driving them into the ground, play a broader range of unsigned musicians from a broad range of genres…free jazz, noise, pop, rock, punk, ska, reggae, electronic, whatever. Seattle’s an incredibly talented and diverse music city, so the local community-supported radio station should reflect that. And more sponsorships for more local shows—not just the big clubs and block parties. New music Monday at the Rendezvous. Jazz Sundays at the Blue Moon. Etc.
  2. Takes more risks. Dissonance! Experimentation! Feedback, distortion, odd instrumentation. Maybe, God forbid, play a song with the vocals buried a bit back in the mix! (Would early REM ever have been played on today’s KEXP? Not according to this DJ’s guidelines.)
  3. Gives the twang a rest. Three of KEXP’s 6 to 9 evening specialty shows during the week are devoted to very similar types of music—Americana, twang/country, and rockabilly. Sure, some of this is great music, but three times a week during the evening commute? Where are we, Tennessee?

All that said, KEXP is still miles better than any other radio station in Seattle, and most radio stations in the US. But…it’s like when your favorite restaurant starts cutting corners and dumbing down their old menu to cater to the out-of-town tourists. Only this time there ain’t a new place opening up down the street.

Maybe the answer is to start a true free-form experimental station like WFMU in New Jersey or KFJC in the Bay Area (three versions of “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” in a row? Sweet…). But it’d take millions, and FCC licenses are hard to come by.

One thought: start an Internet radio station first, combine it with some other useful resources for local musicians—a place to advertise gigs, advertise for fellow musicians, post song samples, and so on. Kind of like MySpace but without all the randomness, focused on music only. Incorporate as a charity. Do some political outreach—like lobbying the Seattle mayor and City Council against idiotic nanny-state anti-musician proposals. Eventually, perhaps, something like this could build enough interest and momentum to get the FCC to give up the next piece of airspace that becomes free.