It was a sunny August afternoon in Seattle’s University District when I first found the radio station. I had walked across campus and climbed 3 flights of stairs up to the gray, institutional door. I was a little out-of-breath.
Peeking through the door’s window, I could see a room with white walls full of records, a yellow couch, a couple of office desks.
KCMU Seattle was similar to the radio station I’d started DJing at during college.
KALX in Berkeley was, like this one, college rock and eclectic music, run by a university but had DJs who were from the community, public radio where the disc jockey-hosts could play what they wanted from any style of music.
There were few parameters at these stations. You had to behave (no wall-punching or name-calling), show up on time, and make sure to play a number of songs from the bin of new music.
I had loved my time as radio host and producer at U.C. Berkeley and had called the Seattle public station KUOW to see who was similar to KALX in this area. The receptionist at KUOW suggested KCMU and here I was. The latch clicked.
I stepped into an empty room. This is normal in radio, the DJ probably looked to see who it was, unlocked the door, and had to go back to check the music.
Walking toward the booth my spirits soared. There they were! The whole right side of the room housed hundreds of vinyl records to look through and share.
A solid collection would include the legendary faces of those I loved, those who raised me and who kept me going: Aretha Franklin, Tom Waits, Howlin’ Wolf and the many others.
During radio shows I loved to take the vinyl out and sit them around the studio. Now, more than two decades later, I use strobe lights during my dance party shows. Funny, there was always a visual element for me.
The music in KCMU, some kind of jazzy indie rock, was coming from the right. I stepped into a hallway made partially of bookshelves full of CDs. Leaned in toward the door frame and there was a DJ, an older woman with a short haircut. “I’m Pop Tart,” she said. “You didn’t look dangerous so I buzzed you in.”
Pop Tart very subtly danced over to the desk and sat me down with an application. I had both hosting and production (making creative recorded segments out of sound effects, words and music) experience.
I would become a part of this station. For a year I volunteered as a producer and was allowed to DJ once a week at night. Then when KCMU changed to paying their DJs I was hired to do three nights a week, 1-6am, and did those shifts for 2 years, working on the side as a party and club DJ.
I also took side gigs that allowed me to be at the station. Over the years I had jobs as a bookkeeper, nanny, a landscaper and an art and music activities teacher. All to support what I jokingly called “my radio habit.” KCMU would eventually hire me as a producer and voice artist.
KCMU wasn’t very big in 1995 when I got there. The vinyl and CD libraries, desks and one desktop computer (!) sat in an average-sized classroom on the University of Washington campus. A small, sticker-covered hallway led to two closet-sized rooms. One was the production studio and the the other, the DJ booth.
Favorite moments in that booth were:
Interviewing my friend Liza’s band. I had to sit on the counter so we could fit the bass player in with the singer and guitarist. The drummer had to play in the hall outside the open door.
Meeting Quilty 3000 on a Saturday. I was scheduled after her and came in around 2pm. When I walked into the booth she seemed to be reaching for something behind the turntables, but then I noticed she wasn’t moving much. She looks up and says “Will you please put that next song on for me?” “Number six!” It was only after we’d correctly cued the song and it was playing that she let me help her get her arm unstuck from behind the console. She’d been reaching for a fallen record. Over the years I think Q and I still flash on this moment and when we see each other. Hilarious!
Searching through the CD stacks during the night shift, I’d pick a random record, try a new style (electronic music was labeled “experimental” with a black label) or go through alphabetically (at one point tried this in the rock/variety library, only got partway through “B”).
Meeting some of the best music people of my life. The staff at KCMU were all much more understated than the Berkeley crew, but all about the music. A well-traveled DJ who had been with the station since its start in 1972, Jon Kertzer, the African music show host was a mentor.
He had seen me walk out of the library with a Sun Ra disc and asked quizzically, “Are you really going to play that?” Genuinely impressed that I was, and that I knew that Sun Ra thought himself divine, Jon advised to seek out the greats in the styles I loved. That they are greats for a reason.
Some of the other DJs from this era are still with the station: John Richards, Riz, Quilty, Leon Berman, Larry Rose, Stevie Zoom and Darek Mazzone.
KCMU became not just a hobby for me, but a passion. DJing and sharing the songs became something I needed to do. Being on the air and creating a positive energy was amazing.
In the year 2000, we left our homey, college-vibe studios and were moved to the basement of Kane Hall. It wasn’t a great fit for us and in 2001 we got the Dexter Studios, right across from Denny Park in downtown Seattle.
At the time the studios seemed huge. It was a real radio station! Well, a real converted station, a local country outfit had changed it over from a jewelry store.
In 2001 we also changed our call letters to KEXP. Listeners were a little worried that the station would become different, but the principles and music format (based on college rock) stayed the same. We still had the freedom to choose our own music, as long as we played a certain number from the bin of new stuff and at least one local track every hour.
After a long time at that section of Dexter, which on the streets of Seattle is known as a “ho stro” (you can figure that out), our halls were packed. We seemed to use every square inch to make the station work.
It wasn’t until 2005 (10 years in) that I earned my Friday night dance party shift on KEXP from 9pm-12. It was also this year that I landed my dream job as producer/creator of KEXP Documentaries.
This is when I changed from bringing vinyl into the studio to look at. Instead I use strobe lights and turn the lights down a little. I can still see, but it puts me in the zone for a real party.
On December 9, 2015, not long ago, we moved again. Dexter had become home, and comfortable. The new studios are under the Space Needle at Seattle Center. The door faces one of the Emerald City’s friendliest, prettiest neighborhoods, Queen Anne.
The new space, when we first got there, looked almost like an airplane hanger. Our first shows as DJs in the new studio were with all new equipment (unusual in my public radio career) in an all new configuration.
There’s a window to the gathering space, perfect to see all the people hanging out and dancing during my show. Last week some of the cafe workers were there and it just felt right to have that connection.
This week artist Aramis Hamer is finishing her mural outside the building. New signs that say KEXP are hung on the front door on 1st Avenue and above the vinyl library in the windows to the street corner.
Local artists came in to create a sticker wall for our bike-hanging station. Painter Wakuda has finished his speaker-inspired murals on the walls and gathering space floor. We have a line into the DJ booth, an open cafe and two stages!
Here’s what it looked like last Friday night.
Our grand opening at KEXP’s new studios is this Saturday. It’s kind of unbelievable in the best way. Our little closet-sized space is now community-sized. Now that I think of it, it always was.
Michele’s produced over 200 radio episodes for KEXP Documentaries. Her book “50 Tips for Artists in the Music Business” has gotten rave reviews from readers. Find Michele’s other writing at The Smithsonian Institute, Experience Music Project, The University of Washington and NPR.