Mayor’s Arts Awards: KEXP

When KEXP is handed a Mayor’s Arts Awards next week, it won’t be accepting the honor in the spirit of a job well done. It will be, as always, looking to the future.

“We see the Mayor’s Award as pure encouragement,” says KEXP executive director Tom Mara. “Not only for KEXP, our music discovery mission, the thousands of artists we champion, but for all of us as a city. The reason I say that is because music deserves stewardship and encouragement empowers stewardship.”

The not-for-profit station has been an unmatched steward of independent and alternative music in Seattle, filling every hour of the day with musical discoveries from around the world and its own backyard. But the station doesn’t just count on the great quantity of Seattle’s creative output for its content. The station also counts on the quality of that content for inspiration.

“Seattle is one of the most creative cities in the world,” says Mara. ”In some ways, that makes our work so much easier. At the same time it makes our work so much more demanding. Because it means that we need to do serious work.”

The bulk of that serious work consists of reviewing new records, 15,000 in the last year alone. The music that the station’s 45 curating DJs deem worthy of an audience is heard each week by 160,000 listeners at 90.3 on the FM dial and 130,000 online. This year that serious work has resulted in recognition from the Seattle Arts Commission for the station’s role as “an innovative, influential cultural force in the Seattle community and beyond that brings national attention to Seattle as a music city.”

KEXP started in 1972 as the University of Washington station KCMU, one of the early college radio stations permitted by order of the Federal Communications Commission to operate on the left side of the dial. Since then it has developed into one of the nation’s premiere radio stations with programming that highlights a diverse array of styles—from reggae to roots, world music to metal—as well as an unquestionable commitment to local music. Since 1985, the station made a commitment to fostering the local music scene and has done so by playing at least a little local music just about every hour since.

KEXP has bigger plans to connect the music lovers and the music makers in Seattle. At the end of this year, the station will begin a campaign to raise money for its next move; a planned relocation to a new home on the Seattle Center campus, yards away from the site of the Mayor’s Arts Awards ceremony. There, says Mara, the public will be able to attend each of the stations live in-studio recordings, 369 of which took place in the station’s current home on Dexter Avenue in the last year.

There is a lot of work to be done, Mara says, but as long as the music is there, so will be the inspiration.

“I can tell you from our vantage point that Seattle music has never been more voluminous, has never been more diverse, never been more enriching and never been more inspiring,” he says. “KEXP has never been as inspired by Seattle’s music as we are now.”

The Mayor’s Arts Awards will be held at Seattle Center at noon on Aug. 31.

Photo of KEXP host John Richards, executive director Tom Mara and senior director of programming Kevin Cole by Jennifer Richard