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When alternative radio meant Seattle’s KJET

KJET: Jet Out of Bed

KJET: Jet Out of Bed Credit: Dan Halligan

Did I love KJET 1590 AM because it was one of the first commercial alternative radio stations in Seattle and the United States? Did I love KJET 1590 AM because it was the first place I ever heard bands such as REM, the Replacements, Robyn Hitchcock, Soundgarden, the Posies, Green Pajamas and countless other artists who went on to bigger and better things? Maybe. But I think the main reason I loved KJET was because I drove a 1974 Ford Pinto with an AM radio.

KJET’s been gone for more than 20 years now, and it’s never really gotten the credit it deserves for contributing to the fecund music scene (and just generally cool place) that was Seattle in the 1980s. There were certainly other stations on the fringes of that era with higher profiles, such as KZAM and KYYX, but they didn’t have the long (for radio) lifespan of KJET. For a suburban geek punk wannabe like me, KJET was a front-row ticket to the big city “alternative” scene (though nobody used the word “alternative” in those days — “new wave” was more common, though that phrase felt dated by about 1983). KJET’s meteoric career also paralleled my own struggles to come of age and figure out what the hell I was going to do with my own life. Let’s begin at the end (not The End; that comes later).

It was just before 3 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 23, 1988 &mdash 21 years ago today. I was at my parents’ house in Kirkland, ironing my three best Nordstrom Oxford shirts and getting ready to stuff them into a suitcase and fly cross-country that night to a new life on the East Coast (or, really, to chase after part of my old life). In addition to plugging in the old Kenmore iron, I also had the tape recorder and radio functions going simultaneously on my boom box (anybody remember those?). I was pressing shirts for the coming week, but I also intended to press into magnetic tape for eternity the dying gasps of my favorite radio station. The sad story had been in the previous day’s newspapers: KJET was going off the air.

It was fitting that I was leaving town the same day that KJET also departed. I was a few days shy of my 20th birthday, and the station had been the soundtrack for much of my teens and especially the past two years of an intense love affair that had recently ended badly. KJET contests and promotions had provided me with free concert tickets and LPs, and their special events had been waypoints on my journey to . . . well, nowhere in particular. Let’s look at some highlights:

Spring 1984: Redmond Value Village Grand Opening

In its heyday, the old V&B grocery store in Redmond had been a classic postwar supermarket, but by the early 1980s it had become kind of a dump. Though it was sad when the V&B closed down for good in 1982, word got out that it was to be replaced by a Value Village thrift store. I personally came late to the idea of buying and wearing used clothes (my European parents looked down on the practice — they’d been forced to wear used American clothing courtesy of the UN after WWII, and were horrified that their son would do so by choice), but my high school pals Ken and Bill had no trouble talking me into going to the grand opening of Value Village, since KJET was involved.

Ken even won the KJET contest arranged at the store by wunderkind program director (and promotions guy, producer, DJ and who knows what else) Jim Keller. Ken was given five minutes to run around the clothing racks and gather and then put on a complete outfit (shoes, pants, shirt, blazer, hat, sunglasses, overcoat) which he got to keep for free. Meanwhile, I bought my first-ever item of used clothing for three bucks: an old US Postal Service cardigan sweater.

August 1985: Mural Amphitheatre Concert Series

Mondays in August 1985 there was no better place to be than the Mural Amphitheatre at Seattle Center, as KJET presented a series of concerts with local bands. This was the pivotal summer that the Seattle scene was starting to be noticed elsewhere. Rolling Stone magazine listed tour dates of Seattle band The Young Fresh Fellows right around this time — marking the beginning of mainstream acknowledgment that something was musically up around these parts. For the first KJET concert that August, I came mainly to see the Rangehoods (descended, in part, from Seattle new wave sensation The Heats), but ended up being completely blown away by The Young Fresh Fellows.

Keller was there, of course, and he intro’d the bands (and had probably hung the KJET banners, arranged the backstage refreshments and set up the PA system; KJET was always a shoestring operation). I have 8-millimeter home movie film from the show, as well as a stereo recording made with my Deadhead brother-in-law’s portable Sony tape deck. There were other great KJET shows that August — Fastbacks, Eagertones, Moving Parts, Keller’s own band the Different Ones — but none as good or as memorable as the Fellows, and I still have the proof.

April 1986: Violent Femmes at the Paramount

I won free tickets and a copy of the Femme’s “Blind Leading the Naked” LP from KJET for this concert at the Paramount (part of Keller’s brilliantly titled “Put Me On The Guest List Scam” ongoing promotion), which also featured trumpeter Richard Peterson as the opening act. The free tickets were the final push I needed to ask out a girl I’d had a crush on for months. Remember the love affair that ended badly? We hit it off immediately and were inseparable for most of the next few years, KJET often playing in the background each time we fled the suburbs for Seattle.

July 1986: KJET Birthday Party at Belle Lanes

I haven’t been to Bellevue lately, and I know it sounds unlikely, but I swear there used to be, right next to the old John Danz Theatre, a bowling alley called Belle Lanes that eventually turned into a Barnes & Noble. Anyhow, since KJET and Belle Lanes were both owned by Bellevue-based Sterling Recreation Organization, the bowling alley was the perfect place to hold KJET’s fifth birthday party. The party featured discount bowling and a concert with Green Pajamas and the ubiquitous Young Fresh Fellows. Highlight of the evening was the Fellows’ Scott McCaughey (nowadays touring as a guitarist with REM) performing a solo version of The Replacements’ “If Only You Were Lonely.” I recall boisterously singing along. I was giddy and in love. I’d like to apologize now to anyone who was standing near me.

April 1987: KJET Fakes Its Own Death

It was no secret that KJET was struggling financially throughout its life, and that it was propped up by revenue from its FM sister station, the much more commercially viable rock-oriented KZOK. So, when on-air announcements were made on April 1 that KJET was shutting down, I took it seriously and was bummed out. I was also one of a trio radio geeks who showed up late that night at the KJET building on Lower Queen Anne Hill (driving the Pinto, natch) to see for myself.

It would be the first time that I met Jim Keller, who came outside around 10 pm to greet us and politely suggest that we go home. The next day, when the “joke” was revealed as a stunt that had been designed to call attention to KJET’s fairly precarious state, Jim was kind enough to thank me by name on-air.

September 1988: KJET Really Dies

As the steam and starch swirled around my head and the early autumn afternoon light streamed in the window, I heard the final notes of They Might Be Giants’ “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” and then the last KJET station ID. Next up was the sickly familiar pounding ivories of Little Richard, then local oldies authority Danny Holiday enthusiastically welcoming listeners to the new “Cool Gold” over the opening chords. KJET had breathed its last, and I had its death rattle on tape.

I’d already sold the Pinto. Good Golly, Miss Molly, indeed. So I flew away that night, off to a new city. Actually, truth be told, I flew off to the same city where my lost love had gone, but I came back to Seattle to stay at the end of 1990.

I think it’s important here to say a few technical things about KJET. It was locally owned, which can be a good thing. It made for more organic playlists that reflected local tastes and local bands, and more organic promotions like getting a whole outfit for free at Value Village or having a birthday party at a bowling alley. KJET was also mostly automated, which is a bad thing. Other than its weekday morning show, KJET mostly ran off a big mechanical jukebox-like device that switched and played various cartridges that held recordings of music, commercials, and local (though prefab) DJ banter. This could sometimes go horribly awry — with a song introduction preceding a commercial; laughingly incorrect identification of songs; or, my personal favorite, one Saturday circa 1987 when the Depeche Mode version of “Route 66” played roughly 10 times per hour (every second or third song) while I listened in at work. Keller and KJET never pretended or tried to hide the automation; they even mounted a grassroots campaign to get their machine (which they dubbed “Otto Pilot”) named best DJ in one of the local polls.

In between the demise of KJET and the rise of grunge, public radio station KCMU (as KEXP was then known) became the station of record for alternative music in Seattle and certainly did an admirable job contributing to the scene (even playing a song by my old band the Pink Slips once). Commercial powerhouse KNDD 107.7 The End came on the air in August 1991, in a perfectly timed move just weeks before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would change music history and the Seattle scene forever.

I like to think that if only KJET had hung on for three more years, it would have made it well into the ‘90s and perhaps beyond. As it turned out, KJET personnel including Keller and Bill Reid, would go on to work for KNDD. But KNDD wasn’t locally owned then and isn’t now. Much-lamented changes in FCC rules have allowed a handful of radio consolidators to own the bulk of commercial stations in America, and offer homogenized programming and promotions from a central office (in KNDD’s case, that alternative-music hotbed of Bala Cynwyd, Penn.).

Chances are nowadays that a young and ambitious jack-of-all-trades like Jim Keller would never get the opportunity he did to so thoroughly and comprehensively invent and define a commercial radio station in a market like Seattle. And our bowling alleys, our thrift stores and most of all our Pintos are the worse for it.

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