KEXP has eye on Center as place to 'champion music'

KEXP's proposal, competing with one advanced by Dale Chihuly and the Space Needle, wouldn't offer a lot of immediate revenue to Seattle Center. The focus for the station would be spreading music into people's lives.
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Seattle Center: enduring icons of 1962

KEXP's proposal, competing with one advanced by Dale Chihuly and the Space Needle, wouldn't offer a lot of immediate revenue to Seattle Center. The focus for the station would be spreading music into people's lives.
If renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly ever adds "rock musician" to his long resume, you just might hear his band's latest release on Seattle radio station and online powerhouse KEXP.

At least that's what KEXP general manager Tom Mara says, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. "We would love to play Dale Chihuly's music if one of our DJs decides that it has merit."

KEXP and Chihuly are among nine local concerns who recently submitted formal proposals to create new attractions at the Seattle Center in what's now the Fun Forest, which is scheduled to shut down permanently after Labor Day.

The process of replacing the beleaguered amusement park at Seattle Center was hastily opened up to all comers earlier this year. Public outcry over details that emerged about what was perceived as a backroom deal between Center management and the owners of the Space Needle necessitated a do-over, this time with a more deliberately transparent process. Space Needle LLC, the private company that owns and operates the Needle, has partnered with Chihuly to propose a ticketed, revenue-generating attraction based on the art glass he has come to personify.

Less a traditional attraction than Chihuly glass and more a musical mecca of sorts, KEXP has proposed a $8 to $14 million dollar relocation of station operations and broadcast studios to the old Fun Forest arcade building.

Live performances and live broadcasts from the proposed KEXP facility would be free and open to the public, with indoor seating as well as 'ꀜpicture windows'ꀝ for casual passersby. The proposal also includes increased programming of free live performances at the adjacent Mural Amphitheatre (KEXP already partners with Seattle Center on a summer concert series there).

What KEXP has in mind is not unlike early radio facilities of the 1920s and 1930s, when nearly all radio music was played live, and many sophisticated stations broadcast from department stores with a live audience on hand (including Seattle's KFOA, which broadcast from the old Rhodes Department Store at Second and Union).

Mara says KEXP's current digs are cramped, and that the station has been planning a move from its Dexter Avenue building for some time. 'ꀜWe have people working in the halls," he says. Mara also says KEXP had already been in conversation with officials about other possible locations at Seattle Center when the Fun Forest option opened up.

With roots on the UW campus as student-run KCMU, the station began to add paid staff in the late 1980s, including Mara, who began as a fundraiser (after volunteering for several years). In the past decade, after changing call letters and moving off campus to the old KMPS studios at Dexter and Denny (while remaining tied to the UW, since they still hold the broadcast license issued by the FCC), KEXP has become an increasingly ambitious global media force and main progenitor of that part of the "Seattle brand" that includes love of indie and other eclectic music. The not-for-profit station's annual operating budget is now about $4 million.

A move to a very public place like the old Fun Forest, according to Mara, would be consistent with KEXP's mission to spread the gospel of new music as far and wide as possible. Mara sees the proposed facility as a "musical Venus flytrap."

"The essence of the vision orbits around this discovery-based mission ... to champion music and to champion discovery. Our job is to get music into people's lives," Mara says.

KEXP was one of the first radio stations in the country to make its radio signal also available online, and nowadays, according to Mara, 30 percent of KEXP's 13,500 donors listen online from outside the area.

With the addition of podcasts, videos of many of the hundreds of live in-studio performances that take place each year, week-long excursions highlighting musical scenes in cities around the U.S. (and, last year, in Reykjavik, Iceland) and a joint-programming deal with New York City station WNYE that puts KEXP morning host John Richards on the air in Seattle and the Big Apple, there's little that KEXP hasn'ꀙt explored in its efforts to expose a potentially worldwide audience to new music.

Mara says that through these various channels, the station has a weekly audience (or "cume," in radio industry jargon) of 200,000, with only about half of that listening occurring via the "terrestrial" or traditional radio signal in the Puget Sound area.

Music-focused radio (and now online) programs have served to attract live audiences and promote the cities where the programs originate for decades, from Nashville's Grand Ole Opry (originating at commercial station WSM since the 1920s) to Charleston, West Virginia'ꀙs Mountain Stage (produced by the not-for-profit West Virginia Public Broadcasting since the 1980s).

Officials associated with both of these programs who were contacted by Crosscut shared anecdotal evidence that the respective live broadcasts generate serious economic impact for the neighborhoods surrounding each venue, and help portray a positive image to millions of listeners nationwide.

Perhaps a better example of what KEXP is proposing is WXPN in Philadelphia (where KEXP's Mara briefly worked in the 1980s) and its syndicated eclectic live music program World Café.

World Café began first as a radio program 20 years ago, and is now heard on some 200 stations around the US. But WXPN saw potential in making it more, and a little over five years ago, the station partnered with for-profit production company Real Entertainment Group to create a live music venue called World Café Live.

WXPN and Real built a new shared facility that houses the radio station and the club. Ticketed performances are held at World Café Live nearly every day, with sales of food and beverages and related merchandise rounding out a robust commercial operation that generates revenue for Real and for WXPN.

While grateful for the revenue, WXPN general manager Roger LaMay also sees the non-virtual experience of actually being at a live performance as part of a spectrum of ways to experience music: "One of the "platforms' is in person. The operative phrase is 'clubhouse for listeners.' World Café Live creates another place for the artists to play."

And creating another venue, LaMay says, meant that WXPN initially got pushback from club owners (many of whom are WXPN donors) over World Café Live and a perceived threat to existing clubs'ꀙ business. "One of our early issues which we've definitely gotten by is that there were other people feeling like we were going into competition with our underwriters," he says.

But LaMay says that most of these concerns are gone, thanks to WXPN's efforts to remain collaborative with local venues. He also says the City of Philadelphia will issue a whitepaper later this year extolling the virtues of the partnership between WXPN and Real Entertainment Group that resulted in World Café Live.

"World Café Live is fantastic for Philly," says Gary Steuer, chief cultural officer for the City of Philadelphia (who commissioned the whitepaper). Steuer says the partnership between not-for-profit WXPN and the for-profit Hal Real "exemplifies the kind of innovation" that more not-for-profits should pursue, and that World Café Life is "the best music club" in the city.

Steuer also says that World Café Live has an impact beyond Philadelphia. "There now is a 'there' there that goes with the syndicated radio program. Listeners are inspired to come to Philly," he says.

Among KEXP's Seattle club owner constituency, Mara says there hasn't been pushback over the station's Fun Forest proposal, but he does report what he calls "some nervousness because it's a new thing."

Mara also says the station doesn't "have an ambition right now to produce a program like World Café ... not to say we won't produce special concerts several times a year." And Mara also won't rule out a World Café-like program produced by KEXP in the future.

Without a dedicated revenue-generating activity, it's easy to predict how the KEXP proposal will measure up against the Chihuly proposal (and Space Needle LLC'ꀙs 48-year track record of managing a profitable attraction). It'ꀙs less easy to quantify and compare the intangible community benefits of any of the nine Fun Forest proposals, and how each may or may not help attracts visitors to Seattle and to the Seattle Center, and contribute to the health of the city'ꀙs cultural landscape.

The proposals are being reviewed by Center officials, with some kind of decision expected before the end of the month.

Disclosure: Feliks Banel's wife is a principal of Pyramid Communications, where other Pyramid staff are currently assisting KEXP with their efforts to relocate to Seattle Center. Crosscut's publisher, David Brewster, is part of a group pushing another of the nine proposals.


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