When Kurt B. Reighley woke up last Thursday morning, he was not expecting to go into work until late in the day. He was drinking his first cup of coffee, recovering from a late shift at KEXP, where he DJs under the handle El Toro, when he read the news: Prince was dead.
Reighley, like so many other music fans, was shocked to hear of the passing of the 57-year-old pop icon.
“It had never quite occurred to me that Prince was mortal,” Reighley recalled in an interview with Seattle Weekly that afternoon.
By 12:30 Reighley was in the booth at the new KEXP headquarters at Seattle Center, helping midday DJ Cheryl Waters through the early hours of a wake for the Purple One. An hour earlier, general manager Ethan Raup had sent a brief and somber e-mail to listeners. “Cheryl Waters and Troy Nelson will be honoring Prince’s music on the air ’til 6:00 PM PT,” it read. “We invite those in the community to join us in the Gathering Space of KEXP’s New Home, to listen to his songs, celebrate his art and music, and share our memories.”
The community responded.
“The e-mails today were nonstop in the booth,” Reighley said. “It was really inspiring to see the variety of messages that were coming in and the recurring theme of people expressing gratitude that they had someplace to turn to.”
By 1:56 p.m., as Waters cued up “Purple Rain,” the nonprofit radio station was seeing a 50 percent spike in traffic for its online stream, the tribute building on the 4,000 listeners who access the live feed on an average weekday. At points the stream was overloaded to the point that some listeners were greeted with a message that the site could not handle their request. Within an hour, the station’s third-party provider expanded capacity and all streaming commenced, undeterred.
KEXP is a natural destination at times of collective celebration for music fans. Yet, while they are celebrating milestones, these fans are also more and more grappling with the mortality of their heroes.
David Bowie’s death this past January, said Reighley, was a tipping point, the first time he felt KEXP was truly a destination for mourners. The roots of the station’s memorial culture, though, can be traced back a couple more years.
“At the risk of sounding crass, Lou Reed was in many regards a dress rehearsal for the untimely passing of David Bowie and now Prince,” Reighley said, recalling the artist’s late-2013 death. “We have gotten better at sort of connecting the dots and sort of tapping into this hive mind of the KEXP community.”
The Prince tribute marks a further evolution of the station’s capacity for community building. As noted in Raup’s e-mail, Prince’s death prompted an invitation for fans to come together at the station’s Gathering Space. It was the first time the space, an open area that includes a coffee shop, some couches, and windows looking into the DJ booth, has been used for a gathering, aside from its grand opening the weekend prior.
For many who heeded the call, Prince’s death brought a flood of memories.
“The ideas I heard in his songs were different than what I heard in pop music,” listener Brian Carman said. “It was the first time I heard a man sing so ambiguously about sexuality, identity, religion, and things like that.”
Seated nearby, another listener, who declined to give her name, explained that “Prince was the story of my life. When I found out this morning, it wasn’t just about Prince. It was about everything in my life at that moment. High school, early college, lost loves.”