When radio takes the pledge
When it comes to public radio and the music you hear, it's give and take — and give. And it's worth it.
Seattle Times staff columnist
I used to connect the term "public radio" not with talk or music, but with ringing phones.
Banks of volunteers drinking stale coffee. Desperate deejays begging for dollars and repeating the pledge number until you're reciting it in your sleep.
Then I moved to Seattle, where public radio isn't crying poor, or crying wolf.
The phones still ring in the background, but the volunteers are eating boutique cupcakes and washing them down with fresh-roasted brew. The deejays aren't begging so much as reminding.
So pointing out that this is Public Radio Music Month seems a bit anti-climactic. We know what we've got up and down the dial here — jazz, bluegrass, classical, blues — and we support it, because public radio makes us better listeners.
It's a give and take — and give. And it's worth it.
Take a spin around the dial and KPLU-FM is playing Nina Simone, who I only hear at home; KEXP-FM is playing The Young Evils, who aren't even signed. You listen, you learn, you remember.
By not being held hostage by gutter cleaners and mattress stores, public stations are open to suggestions and programming, which only helps us as listeners.
Consider: In "Something in the Water," Ward Serrill's 2011 documentary about Seattle's music scene, KEXP deejay Kevin Cole told of how, pre-Nirvana, frontman Kurt Cobain dropped a CD at the back door of the station, then called an hour later to ask: "Why haven't you played my song yet?"
Cole did. And eventually, so did the rest of the world.
It was the same with Fleet Foxes, who dropped off a four-song CD at KEXP in 2006. They were nominated for a Grammy this year.
The list goes on. The Head and the Heart. THEESatisfaction. Macklemore. Blue Scholars. Shabazz Palaces' original recording was a session at KEXP.
"Public radio does what it does for the same reason we put out records," said Chris Jacobs, general manager of Sub Pop! Records, which has signed many Seattle bands who were first played by KEXP.
"They are just playing music that they like and care about and think is important," Jacobs said.
Commercial radio, on the other hand, makes its decisions "based on other factors," he said.
Those "other factors" are what drove classical music station KING-FM to go from being a commercial to a public station last May.
Before the switch, General Manager Jennifer Ridewood went around the country to learn best practices. She learned how to build a development team rather than a sales team, and she found that classical-music listeners were happy for the change. Seems you just can't go from a soothing symphony to a commercial for ... well, which was the worst offender?
"There's a singsong one, with children," Ridewood said. "It was the number-one complaint that we had. We could turn down an ad, but then you don't have the revenue to pay the bills."
The commercial was in heavy rotation just as the station was making the transition, Ridewood said, which made people more than happy to donate.
It's sort of like giving up sugar. You miss it, but then you start to feel better, cleaner. You find you're better without it.
"Now, with our mission to support classical music and the arts, our focus has turned around," Ridewood said. "We have more live broadcasts, our staff is having more fun. They love classical music, so they don't want to be about selling, they want to be about that."
On April 27, KING-FM will celebrate the month — and its one-year anniversary — with a performance and interview with cellist Joshua Roman.
"The station is important to the artists, as well," Rideout said.
Said Jacobs: "Any time you're doing something that comes from a genuine place and it's about real enthusiasm and discovery, people will identify with you."
And the phones will ring.
Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
She loves to Shake the Shack.
About Nicole Brodeur
My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
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