KUOW, KCMU and KEXP: a brief history of college(type) radio from University of Washington
March 28, 2012 1:10 PM   Subscribe

KEXP 90.3 FM is a Seattle, WA-based radio station, officially "a service of University of Washington," but it's more complex than that. The first University of Washington radio station started broadcasting in 1952. Five decades, a few station organizational shifts, plus three call letter and frequency changes later, KEXP was (re)born in 2001. Along the way, the station spread the sound of 1990s Seattle indie rock, started streaming "CD quality" MP3 audio of their broadcast in 2000, and they have an ever-growing collection of recordings of live in-station performances, including over 2,000 videos on YouTube.

The University of Washington's first radio station was KUOW, which started broadcasting at 90.5 FM. Six years later, Dorothy Bullitt Stimson moved KING FM to 98.1 FM, giving 94.9 to Edison Vocational School, the first public vocational school in the state of Washington. That year, KUOW started using Edison's transmitter, moving the station out of the non-commercial educational "reserved band" (88.1~91.9). In the 1960s, the station shifted from classical music, local news, school sports, and classroom lectures to include more news programming and student involvement. The station was one of 90 charter member stations of NPR in 1970.

Two years later, four undergrads built a new station from the ground up, with limited funding and space provided by the School of Communications. KCMU FM 90.5 started in 1972 as a 10-watt transmitter, boosted to 182 watts in 1975. The University faced budget cuts in the years to come, and in 1981 the university's broadcasting program was cut, along with much funding for KCMU. Listeners donated $28,000 to keep KCMU on the air. Later that year, KOUW assisted KCMU by providing an engineer and an accountant to help run the station.

The station bloomed in the 1980s, continuing to cover unsigned, local bands. In 1986, the station moved down the dial from 90.5 to 90.3, and increased to 404 watts, reaching out 15 miles. That same year, there was a week-long series of shows at the Rainbow Tavern to benefit KCMU, as recalled in Mudhoney's Green River Tourbook. Some of those shows were recorded and broadcast on local TV, and are now online: Feast at KCMU Benefit 6/7/86 (1:03), Soundgarden at The Rainbow Tavern (4:37), and Soundgarden at The Central (5:21). The list of KCMU volunteers in the late '80s (most of whom were students) reads like a who's who of the Seattle music industry in the '90s, including musicians, journalists, and label heads. A music director from the station, Faith Henschel, put together a tape of unsigned bands that she thought were over-looked, and sent them to labels small and large. Bands That Will Make Money got Soundgarden signed to A&M. (Another tangent: Kenny G attended UW in the 1970s, but he graduated with a B.A. in accounting).

The station shifted directions again in the 1990s, moving away from volunteer DJs and to syndicated programming, rising the ire of some DJs and listeners. The focus for many was World Cafe, a program produced by WXPN (a non-commercial station licensed to the University of Pennsylvania), and distributed by NPR. Listeners asked why local diversity was being replaced by adult-contemporary programming from Philadelphia. Up to 1992, KCMU was a "community radio station," and CURSE (Censorship Undermines Radio Station Ethics), an activist group comprised primarily of volunteers and listeners, wanted the station back to the way it was. A no-criticism policy was instated, and volunteers who voiced criticism on- or off-air were fired. CURSE had that policy struck down by the U.S. District Court, but there were more changes to come. The KCMU News Hour was cut from the station, moving all news programming to KUOW. The last volunteer DJs were fired from KCMU in 1997.

In 1999, the University's Computing & Communications (C&C) department (now UW Technology) took ownership of KCMU, allowing the station to be used to test new internet technologies for broadcasting, such as uncompressed audio streaming of the station's broadcast (Windows Media stream), which started in 2000 (Google Quickview; PDF), along with Real Media and MP3 streams. In 2001, the KCMU was recalled KEXP, as the station partnered with the Experience Music Project (Google Quickview; original PDF; EMP previously). That same year, Rainy Dawg Radio started up, an online-only student-run station, the closest thing University of Washington students have to the KCMU of old.

KEXP recorded and posted its live in-studio shows online from its beginning in April of 2001, and in 2005, the station started podcasting their in-studio shows (note: these recordings are currently available in Windows Media and Real Media only). The first was on July 21, 2005 with Boom Bap Project (Welcome to Seattle - NSFW lyrics- studio version of one of their live tracks). The station currently has five podcasted programs, along with a streaming archive of the last two weeks of shows. The newest addition to KEXP's online collection are its YouTube videos, including thousands of individual songs, and a handful of full, high definition sets, from James Mercer of The Shins, Grimes, Dr. Dog, Neon Indian, Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, Wooden Shjips, Gus Gus, Nosaj Thing, and Daedelus, to name a random few.
posted by filthy light thief (35 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. Holy cow! Thanks so much for posting this!!
posted by zarq at 1:17 PM on March 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wonderful post.

KEXP helped blow up Of Monsters and Men in the US.
posted by inigo2 at 1:22 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

First found the station in the mid '90s. The airwaves in Seattle are more diverse these days, but if you had a specific musical interest that amounted to more than the current top 10 or a preset of garbage relentlessly played over and over again, then that was the station to tune in. That station is also the reason for the breakout of more than a few bands, like Blue Scholars and Modest Mouse.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:23 PM on March 28, 2012

Thanks (and curses) go to zarq and cjorgensen for this.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:30 PM on March 28, 2012

I was a webcast DJ for the next UW radio--Rainy Dawg Radio. Broadcasting in my universities basement a few years ago as an undergrad were some of the best times of my life.

Good memories.
posted by jjmoney at 1:34 PM on March 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, they recently signed a lease to relocate into a well-deserved fancy new studio at Seattle Center, in the shadow of the Space Needle. They should be there sometime in 2013. What they've proposed:
Station officials envision transforming the Center meeting rooms with glass walls to give people outside a clear view of DJs and artists performing there, and better connect the area to Lower Queen Anne (The rooms are at First Avenue North and North Republican Street).

A gallery would offer space to watch in-studio performances, and free concerts would take place each year on an adjacent outdoor stage.

"We were arguing over whether I was allowed to say that they are the coolest music radio station in the universe," [Seattle's Mayor] McGinn said. "I'm not allowed to say that, but they are very, very cool."
I for one am pretty excited; it sounds like it's going to be an awesome space and combined with the new SIFF Film Center is going to make Seattle Center a cultural hub of the city.
posted by lantius at 1:41 PM on March 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

My fave online radio station! I avail myself of their free Song of the Day downloads all the time. Free music is yummy.
posted by cross_impact at 1:42 PM on March 28, 2012

Great post, great radio station.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:49 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

From the late 80's on this station has been my introduction to so many wonderful artists, I don't know how I could've survived without it.
posted by calamari kid at 1:51 PM on March 28, 2012

filthy light thief: "Thanks (and curses) go to zarq and cjorgensen for this."

Apologies, but still, thank you so much for putting this together. Incredible work. :)
posted by zarq at 1:53 PM on March 28, 2012

Thanks for this - wonderful post. A favourite of mine from their collection is a Colin Meloy show - June Hymn from that appearance.
posted by jimmythefish at 2:16 PM on March 28, 2012

This post: best of the web on so many levels. Thanks!
posted by not_on_display at 2:26 PM on March 28, 2012

Great post! I used to listen when I lived in Vancouver in the 90s and then rediscovered it as an Internet station later.
posted by sfred at 2:47 PM on March 28, 2012

If you'd like to peruse the live video collection from the newest back, look through the live-video category on the KEXP blog. You'll get a bit more description and details on the live sets, plus you can see all the tracks from a single session, when they aren't available in the oh-so-handy single video for a full set.

Found via the AM & Shawn Lee blog post. So good!
posted by filthy light thief at 3:02 PM on March 28, 2012

And hat tip to obscurator for pointing me to the YT videos, by way of the stellar Nosaj Thing set. Seriously, if you watch none other, check out these 9 minutes of blissed out electronics.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:04 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Their Shabazz Palaces set is excellent, and being released on vinyl for Record Store Day
posted by motorcycles are jets at 3:40 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was a freshman in college I sent an e-mail to John Richards comparing him to a high school friend I left behind in Oklahoma who would always introduce me to new music. I've since seen him four times at shows in three different states. I think that is by far the most interaction I've had with a 'media personality.'

Also I won free Arcade Fire tickets from when they played at Neumo's during their big post Funeral tour from KEXP.

Whenever I'm making real money I'll probably become a supporting member again.
posted by midmarch snowman at 3:54 PM on March 28, 2012

KEXP's Song of the Day and Live Performances are two of my must-listen podcasts. Great post.
posted by immlass at 4:16 PM on March 28, 2012

90.3 is always present number 1 on any car my husband and I drive in Seattle. ALWAYS.
posted by KathrynT at 4:20 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

ARGH. preset.
posted by KathrynT at 4:20 PM on March 28, 2012

Not to hijack an amazing megapost, but if you're into this kind of thing - especially if you're in Seattle - you should really check out Hollow Earth Radio. They're an all volunteer internet station focusing on local Seattle music.

They actually have a nice physical location and office. I believe they are entirely commercial free and rely on donations, a yearly live music festival fundraiser called Magmafest and maybe some art grants for support. Super nice folks. An amazing array of new music.

posted by loquacious at 4:21 PM on March 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

I for one am pretty excited; it sounds like it's going to be an awesome space and combined with the new SIFF Film Center is going to make Seattle Center a cultural hub of the city.

It is spoken in the prophecies that this will not come to be until the zombie hessian clowns from the soon to be evicted Funhouse smash all the pretty glass at the Chihuly museum and resurrect the Fun Forest as a carnival of blood and pain.
posted by loquacious at 4:29 PM on March 28, 2012

Awesome- great post, thanks for putting this together. Back in the Dick Dale thread, it was hoped someone of filthy light thief's caliber could tackle this much needed post! So thanks for coming through, flt!
posted by hincandenza at 4:56 PM on March 28, 2012

This is an amazing post! Thank you SO MUCH for putting this together. KEXP is one of the very best things about living in Seattle, and I'm looking forward to diving into all the meaty links here.
posted by palomar at 5:24 PM on March 28, 2012

We've been listening for so long in our office we still call it KCMU by mistake. Well done post thanks.

Remember Amanda Wild's show? Although I liked that there was a show that eclectic it was the only show that was sometimes turned off for being unlistenable. Interestingly, she now hosts "Swing Years and Beyond" on KUOW.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 6:26 PM on March 28, 2012

I was going to mention KEXP's New York City experiment but it looks like it's over.

90.3 is always present number 1 on any car my husband and I drive in Seattle. ALWAYS.

It's always a preset on any car I ever drive, and I don't even own a car. Whenever I rent one, I set one of the stations to 90.3, although most of the time someone has already done so.
posted by grouse at 6:29 PM on March 28, 2012

I've come across awesome kexp performances from bands i don't really like, such as Casiokids or Florence + the machine, or Smoosh (but i actually like them :P).

I've made half-hearted attempts to go through all of the stuff they posted before but never got around to doing it properly, and didn't know they had a blog, which i have now subscribed. So awesome, thanks!
posted by palbo at 8:28 PM on March 28, 2012

My awful grammer might or might not be due to excitement.
posted by palbo at 8:29 PM on March 28, 2012

Amazing post. Kexp is a national treasure and we are so blessed to have them on our local airways. Most every music event of note here in Seattle, outside of classical music and corporate rock, has kexp's hand involved, including jazz, world music, hip hop, even children's music (Caspar Babypants, their legendary Halloween dance parties). KEXP is the reason real estate agents here know who Fleet Foxes are, and the reason I get to hear Sleigh Bells and The Old 97s while I'm getting my teeth cleaned at the dentist's office. Their DJs are some of the most respected local .celebrities. It is hard to overstate the impact KEXp has had on this city and its incredible how an FM radio station has managed to stay so relevant. And with no ads to boot. We are proud members and as our income has increased over the years, so has our annual contribution.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 12:10 AM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had a hard time reading this post, because I was seriously expecting it to end with "Last year UW decided to sell all three stations to a local NPR affiliate, shifting their programming from local music to non-threatening classical, light jazz, and A Prairie Home Companion."

Man, I miss KTRU. (sniff)
posted by erniepan at 12:40 AM on March 29, 2012

erniepan: "I was seriously expecting it to end with "Last year UW decided to sell all three stations to a local NPR affiliate, shifting their programming from local music to non-threatening classical, light jazz, and A Prairie Home Companion.""

Yeah, as soon as I saw the post I was sad because I though they were throwing in the towel. Then I read the post and wasn't sad anymore.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:27 AM on March 29, 2012

Positive Vibrations is my favorite three hours of every week. Saturday mornings make the rest of the week worth it for me. I listen to KEXP nearly 24/7, support them as an amplifying member, and champion everything they do. It's particularly awesome because I haven't been to Seattle in years, never lived there, and have been in Southern California for over a decade. I love KEXP!
posted by Bohemia Mountain at 9:49 AM on March 29, 2012

I would say it was deborn in 2001, when they let go the best daytime DJ they ever had. And it's gotten progressively more hairless ever since.
posted by Twang at 5:48 PM on March 29, 2012

Twang: Check out Hollow Earth Radio. It's positively fur-bearing.
posted by loquacious at 9:09 AM on March 30, 2012

It might not be as historically important (other than its connections to Op Magazine, the Green Line Policy, and SubPop), but I have to point out that Olympia's KAOS has the best call letters ever.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:21 PM on April 1, 2012

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