With His Big KEXP Donation, Paul Allen Completes the Station’s Transformation

Fifteen years ago, the tech billionaire helped chart a new course for the college radio station. Now he’s helping to bring it home.

KEXP crossed the finish line last Thursday with a little help from an old friend. Fifteen years ago, it was Paul Allen who—through a partnership with his then-new Experience Music Project—liberated the station from much of its college-radio past, changing the call letters from the original KCMU, loading it with state-of-the-art technology, and moving the studios off campus to a rent-free space on Dexter Avenue. On Thursday, he helped put the finishing touches on the transformation, donating $500,000 to the campaign for an even newer home and putting the nonprofit station over its $15 million goal.

The tech billionaire is the most notable of the 8,000 listeners and donors who have pledged money to the station over the past three-and-a-half years as it mounted a Herculean effort to raise twice its nearly $7 million annual operating budget to move into a new Seattle Center location.

Those numbers would have been unthinkable for a station that, in 1999, had an operating budget of $250,000 and just two full-time staffers. That was the year that ownership of KCMU, established during the college-radio boom of the early ’70s and long since divorced from its student-run roots, was transferred from University Relations to UW’s Computing and Communications department. That change of ownership brought a new focus on technological development and soon the station was the first in the world to stream its programming at 128 kilobits of audio per second. The transformative relationship with Allen was a natural next step for the station, which last year received $24,000 in cash and $1.2 million in in-kind support from UW, much of it in the form of tech support.

One of the concerns back in 2001, however, was whether listeners would continue to support a station that had a billionaire backing it. This current capital campaign seems to have answered that question, but leaves a new one in its wake: Will a listenership that has shelled out $15 million for its favorite radio station continue to give?

“We had our first on-air campaign in the new home in the spring and we exceeded it by more than $60,000,” responds executive director Tom Mara. “The generosity we’ve been experiencing from the community is amazing.”

He adds that the new home will not mean a heavier financial lift for the community that supports the station. In planning its new studios, KEXP management focused not on adding new staff and programming, but on continuing to do what it already does with a more open public face. The result is a gathering space for listeners to relax and watch the DJ at work and a live room where fans can watch in-studio performances.

“We wanted to create a very welcoming, effective, inspiring place for people to discover new music, but not in such a way that would bring the organization to its knees,” Mara says. “That wouldn’t be good for anybody.”

While the capital campaign doesn’t end until June 30, KEXP staff and listeners have already been enjoying the new digs. In mid-April, the station threw open its doors and invited in 12,000 music fans for a Grand Opening celebration.

And very soon one of those doors—the one to the live room where listeners can watch bands play on-air sets—will bear the name of Paul Allen, in recognition of his many gifts.

mbaumgarten@seattleweekly.com

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