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KEXP groundbreaking the beginning of a radio metamorphosis

Bass Drum of Death plays at the groundbreaking for KEXP's new Seattle Center home. Credit: Photo: KEXP/ Facebook

Prolific and world-famous, Pearl Jam lead guitarist Mike McCready has flipped his fair amount of amplifier switches: from Fenders to Dr. Z’s. But Wednesday he flipped the switch on an amp that may mean as much to Seattle music fans as any he’s touched. Wednesday, McCready turned on the amp from which the inaugural power chord and guitar lick were played, commemorating the groundbreaking of KEXP 90.3’s new Seattle Center home.

The sound and feel of the music, brief as it might have been, will be lasting in the minds of the onlookers and listeners there for the KEXP party. “It’s the coming together of artists, elected officials, donors, partners, listeners,” said Tom Mara, KEXP’s Executive Director. “It’s an extraordinary moment to step back and look at who made it work. You know that saying, ‘It takes a village’? Well in this case it took much more than that!”

The journey leading to the new-to-KEXP 27,500 square-foot, L-shaped building in Seattle Center’s historic Northwest Rooms was long and painstakingly detailed. The station left its original home at the University of Washington campus in 2001 for its home on Dexter Avenue. But KEXP’s increasing staff, needs and musical visitors have made that space feel like it's been shrinking by the day.

Its new location, nestled next to the all-ages venue, the Vera Project, just north of Key Arena, was originally designed by Paul Thiry for the World's Fair in 1962. KEXP plans to remodel the space into a new home that will dwarf its current residence.

“We’ve been growing,” said Mara. “When we started we had a quarter-million dollar organization. We’re now a $7 million a year organization. However, what’s really driving the new home is much more than money — it’s to use the new facility as a way to get music lovers to connect with artists that deserve to be heard and to connect these artists to their next fans. We want to champion discovery.”

Mara explained that the vision for the new facility became clear in 2010/2011. But KEXP, which boasts over 200,000 listeners and 1.7 million video viewers a week, fought the urge to start designing and instead began a series of detailed conversations with musicians. “These conversations directly drove the design,” noted Mara. The outcome? Brilliance, cutting edge, cozy.

Among other amenities, the new location will have washers and dryers for bands, as well as showering facilities. One room will be designed exclusively to secure musical equipment so artists can feel safe leaving their tour buses and cars. There will also be a curated record store, live rooms where upwards of 75 people can watch performances (compared to 4 or 5 stuffed in a control room in their current location) and a café.

According to Mara, KEXP has signed a lease that could last “as long as 30 years". The independent radio station will be transitioning into the new location in a “couple of phases,” moving staff in and switching the broadcast from Dexter to the Northwest Rooms on their targeted date of Dec. 2nd this year. The rest of the move should take a few more months. KEXP plans to open its doors officially to the public on National Record Store Day in April 2016.

While much has been done already to move the $15 million project along, Mara said there is still plenty to do. “We just crossed $8.1 million and we will be continuing to fundraise over this year and into the next to complete the project. The good news is we’re on track.”

What will the new KEXP location look like 10 years from now? “It will change in the years to come,” Mara said. “But I think we’ve become anchored in what the facility ought to be. It’s less square footage and more our responsibility to make changes that serve the artists and the music lovers and the Seattle music ecosystem. We’ll be constantly and relentlessly pursuing that.” 

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