The DJ Experience: from College Radio Station KCMU to Listener-Powered KEXP

kcmu

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.

The KEXP DJ booth at Dexter studio.

The KEXP DJ booth at Dexter studio.

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.

KEXP's new home taken this week from DJ booth. Pic by Michele Myers.

KEXP’s new home taken this week from DJ booth. Pic by Michele Myers.

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.

Tune in to DJ Michele Myers Friday nights at 9pm on KEXP Seattle. A live DJ for select events, she’s performed at Seattle Space Needle New Year’s EveBumbershoot and Doe Bay Festival.

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 InstituteExperience Music ProjectThe University of Washington and NPR

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What Aretha Franklin Means to Me…

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It all started with that stack of records that dad left behind in the garage.

It wasn’t easy to live at my house when I was a kid. Seemed like there was either chaos or no one at all. The times when I couldn’t find something outside to do I’d hide in my room or the basement, reading books and listening to music.

I was only 10 years-old when I found my first Aretha Franklin record in the garage. The song was “Natural Woman.”

Michele as kid

It was just one one of hundreds of dusty 45s that my dad had left behind after the divorce. The small, black discs were all I really had of my dad. Even on the occasional visits when I stayed with him in California, it was hard to connect.

I pictured my dad, Jay,  a handsome young man, listening to these records, singing along. The funny thing was these old-fashioned songs were almost all really good.

Dusting the vinyl off with my t-shirt, I sat down on the rug next to the pink record player.

I put the record carefully on the turntable and shrugged on the huge sweater that I kept in “my studio.” It was freezing in the basement.

Sliding the black disc from the sleeve, fitting it to the turntable, carefully placing the needle. Each act, each song was a new piece of my father. Something we now shared

Pressing the “record” button of the ancient garage sale reel-to-reel machine, I leaned toward the microphone (a small, patterned square), straightened the words so I could see them on the record label and read.

natural 45

“Here’s Aretha Franklin with “A Natural Woman.”

There was always a long pause after the song-reading part where I needed to find the right part of the record.

The drop of the needle, then the sound of the vinyl itself (warm, crackly)…

The acoustic piano kicks in with a single note, then four regal chords. Aretha’s quietly powerful voice blossomed in the darkness.  The speakers came alive.

Aretha Franklin is my favorite singer of all time.

In all of the music I play there is some influence of African roots, some feel of soul. Even in the punk or rock sets. That element of the singer really laying out their story is what I look for. The personal elements: vulnerability and the natural uniqueness of honesty are irreplaceable in music, and, in my opinion, its most powerful tools.

Ray Charles said: “There are singers, then there is Aretha. She towers above the rest. Others are good, but Aretha is great. She’s my only sure-enough sister.”

My favorite Aretha song “Baby I Love You” was released on her first album Aretha Arrives. 

Her first single to hit both the R&B and the pop charts in 1967. “Baby…” would pave the way for other soul musicians.

Aretha would become what the industry called a “crossover artist,” meaning she appealed to audiences of all shapes, sizes and colors.

In this vintage vid, young Ree’s also rocking one of the coolest pairs of pink-striped pants you’ll ever see!

The first song I  remember seeing Aretha Franklin perform was in the “Blues Brothers” movie.

I was 15 years-old and had never, ever seen a woman that sassy laying down the line. The older women in my life seemed to have a profound lack of boundaries.

Now here was a woman I could look up to.

Her voice was incredible and the song was equal parts: gospel, jazz and soul.

Dressed like a waitress, she sang like a queen.

So many years later, now I’m now a grown woman with my own radio show on one of the world’s finest stations. Every Friday night the first song of my dance party sets is the Krivitz remix of Aretha’s “Rock Steady.” And every week her voice inspires me all over again. What it is…

The Queen of Soul is 73 years-old today. On KEXP tonight, I’ll shine the spotlight on the best of her music. Happy birthday, Aretha!

Tune in to DJ Michele Myers Friday nights at 9pm on KEXP Seattle. A live DJ for select events, she’s performed at Seattle Space Needle New Year’s EveBumbershoot and Doe Bay Festival.

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 InstituteExperience Music ProjectThe University of Washington and NPR

  

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Book: “50 Tips for Artists In The Music Business”

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Hundreds of songs come in every year from musicians who want a chance on the radio.

Since I ended up giving the same advice over and over, I wrote this book!

You can find advice here on how to write strong song hooks, submit your music for radio or find the right professionals who can take your sound to the next level.

Want to improve, not just your music, but the look and substance of your band? This short e-book cuts right to the chase, and presents information in the form of steps you can take to positively effect your career. As a radio DJ and musician, I feel I have a unique view that includes both sides of the industry.

Five-star reviews from readers!

“A must-read for musicians! This book is an excellent guide for any musician starting out or for those returning to the business. It also provides several reminders to keep one’s ego in check when dealing with people. I rated this book 5 stars because it tells you straight up what you need to know.”

“Absolutely great advice! I’ve been listening to MM for years on KEXP and her advice here is every bit as good as her musical taste, which is impeccable. Do yourself a favor and read this book.”

“Five stars. Loved the practical suggestions for the bands/artists from a DJ that knows the music field well.”

Available on Kindle and Kindle IPhone apps here.

Michele Myers is a radio DJ and producer Friday nights at 9pm on KEXP in Seattle. She’s also spun on WNYE in New York City and KALX at University of California, Berkeley. Michele pumps out a bold mix of music: rock, soul, EDM and more.
 

 

A party music DJ, Michele’s performed at: Seattle Space Needle on New Year’s Eve, Experience Music Project, Seattle Art Museum, Bumbershoot, Chihuly Garden and Glass, Olympic Sculpture Park, Doe Bay Festival, multiple other venues and select private events.
 
 
Michele’s audio creations at KEXP were the subject of a documentary on CWTV. As a music expert she’s been interviewed for The New York Times and Rolling Stone Magazine. With a team of incredibly invested volunteers, Michele was line producer, voice, writer and programmer for over 200 radio stories on musical subjects for KEXP Documentaries.
 
You can find Michele’s radio stories featured by The University of Washington, The Smithsonian Institute, The Frye Museum, Experience Music Project and National Public Radio.
 

 

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DJ Michele’s Summer BBQ Playlist: Beats, Rock & Soul

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My Summer BBQ Playlist has upbeat songs from: Smoove & Turrell, Stevie Wonder, Until The Ribbon Breaks, Dag, Mayer Hawthorne, Leon Bridges, Jill Scott with Jazzanova, Fatboy Slim, Chemical Brothers, Ramones, Sleater-Kinney, Beach Day, Odesza, DJ Shadow, Major Laser & Deltron 3030.

Tune in to DJ Michele Myers Friday nights at 9pm on KEXP Seattle. A live DJ for select events, she’s performed at Seattle Space Needle New Year’s EveBumbershoot and Doe Bay Festival.

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 InstituteExperience Music ProjectThe University of Washington and NPR

Categories: alternative rock, dance, electronic dance, new bands, soul | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment