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WRITTEN BY JOHN ZEBROWSKI
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
In a matter of minutes, radios all over the city and thanks to the Internet, the world will begin playing what he's selected. Requests will roll in. The five clocks before him (they tell different times, but he knows which one is correct) tick toward the moment. Four hours lie ahead, 240 minutes in which he will influence a city whose music scene has influenced the world.
It's 5:59, and the time has come. He stands before the console, the microphone just inches from his face. The clock with the correct time now reads 6:00. He presses a button and the show begins. As it does every day, it begins with a song, written specifically for him.
"Mr. DJ," it pleads, "would you please play some songs for me?"
HE HAS NO schtick. Or, more precisely, not having a schtick is John in the Morning's schtick.
Next time you're at a cafe, take a good look at your server. If he has shaggy hair that appears soap-averse, wears too-small thrift-store clothes and looks like he could use a good meal, he's probably a Richards fan. Pass a young woman on the street with a Pageboy haircut, thick-framed glasses, tattoos and a pair of faded Converse All Stars, and you're likely in the presence of a KEXP aficionado.
Richards can launch a new band in this town. He is the entry point to a world of people who take pride in discovering the authentic gems missed by the profit-crazed music industry. Yet Richards himself is elusive. He's had stalkers, smitten young women who wait in front of the station in darkness for him to arrive, who call him at home on his unlisted number, who refuse to accept that four years ago he struck up a friendship with one listener and then married her. Richards rarely discusses his life on the air now. Take the music away and he disappears. He is only a voice on the radio and a list of top albums in your inbox.
JOHN RICHARDS is 29 and thin, with short-brown hair somewhere between hip and half-asleep. He seems to survive on coffee, bananas, peanut butter and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. When he stands before the mic to speak to his listeners, he rocks back and forth on his feet while his hands twitch, fingers jabbing at the back of his hips, drumming out a tune only he knows. "There's nothing I'd rather be doing," he says with the conviction of an evangelist. "I'm happiest when I'm right here." A moment later, he's on the air.
"You're listening to 90.3, KEXP where the music matters. My name is John, and this is the Morning Show." He launches into a review of the songs just played, updates the weather, makes a joke about stumbling on a band's name. His voice is slightly nasal, reminiscent of a teenage boy right about the age he discovers irony.
"From the outside, it just seemed like chaos," says Megan Jaspers, general manager of local record label Sub Pop. "I'd switch off feeling like my insides were getting shaken up."
The station's management set out to make KCMU more professional, which included the happy bonus of paying the DJs. Richards had been with KCMU a year, spinning discs during the Friday witching hours.
"I can't honestly recall what I thought about him at first or why I gave him that late-night show," says longtime program director Don Yates. "I wasn't listening very often from 1 to 6 on a Friday morning. Who was? Some of the DJs were, and they said he was really good."
At the time, the early slot had some of the lowest ratings at a low-rated station. Yates thought Richards, with his boundless energy, would be a perfect jolt to the sleepy mornings. Richards offers a different version.
For less than $7 an hour, John in the Morning was born.
EACH MORNING Richards sends out an e-mail of the songs he played that shift. The list started small two years ago as a way to deal with his fans, who were always asking who that was he played after the Stone Roses and before Modest Mouse or what that ethereal-sounding track was that came toward the top of the show but not at 6:30, more 7:15ish. The e-mails were simple at first, but anyone who knows him could've guessed they wouldn't stay that way. "He's always afraid he's not the best, so he tends to go overboard," says his older brother Eric.
Richards sent out lists of things he found funny and strange. Sometimes they were sad. Sometimes they were funny and strange and sad.
1. Let out a very loud laugh at the ironic situation.
2. Left the Eastern Washington University cafeteria (commonly known as the "PUB") and walked across the lovely campus (commonly known as "The Frozen Tundra") crying at the ironic situation.
3. Allowed my best friend to drive me home since the ironic situation left me unable to operate a motor vehicle.
4. Made a really good sandwich when I got home. The ironic situation left me hungry.
5. Decided that day to A. Throw a party. B. Move to Seattle. and C. Avoid any more ironic situations.
Many of the 5,000 around the world who receive the e-mails started making comments of their own. There were suggestions of creating a Morning Show dating service. There was a very lengthy discussion on the Chevy El Camino and its place in society. There was some serious clamoring for a listener appreciation party, which Richards agreed to set up. The event at Belltown's Crocodile Cafe would feature a number of fairly obscure bands. As could be predicted, fans, now calling themselves the Morning Faithful, responded to that, too.
"It was insane," said Frank Nieto, Crocodile promotions manager. "It was the fastest-selling show I've seen in two years. I had people calling me on the phone when we didn't release the tickets exactly when we were supposed to. They were yelling at me."
THE LATE 1980s in Spokane, a name Richards always speaks with theatrical bitterness, were a dark time. There was little for a teenager to do. The radio was ruled by English synthesizer acts and heavy-metal hair bands. Richards, whose parents divorced in 1983, was falling apart.
Richards had always loved radio. Eric remembers him as a big Michael Jackson fan with a penchant for call-in shows winning records, T-shirts, even concert tickets. "He was always the 10th caller," he says. When Eric moved to Phoenix in the late '80s, he sent back tapes he made off KUKQ, a tiny station that played New Order, Nirvana and, most important, the Pixies.
The Boston quartet played Seattle's Moore Theater in November 1989. Richards and three friends were there. The scene changed something inside him. "We were crammed in the first-floor balcony and they played nonstop. . . Seattle opened up for me that night. It was a recognition that there were other people out there who looked at the world same as I did. I wanted to dye my hair, but I worked at Albertson's as a courtesy clerk, so I couldn't."
Later, Richards enrolled at Eastern Washington University and continued driving to Seattle for shows until his girlfriend of four years dumped him. He took off for Seattle the next morning to see a concert and listened to KCMU the whole weekend. There he was in the fall of 1995, standing in the station's dingy lobby offering his services.
"Volunteer to do what?" Richards was asked.
"When can you start?"
JOHN RICHARDS is a mini music empire. Besides the weekday morning show, he hosts a Saturday show that focuses only on local music. There's a second local program, called the Young and the Restless, for Seattle commercial station KNDD. And there's a small label, Loveless Records, that he, his brother, a few friends (including Nordstrom full-line store president Pete Nordstrom) and an intern named Dave operate out of apartments and an old van.
To measure the impact of all these ventures, spend a few minutes with Matt Vaughn, who owns Easy Street Records in West Seattle and on lower Queen Anne. Vaughn has been selling records in the city for 15 years and spends most of his time reading obscure magazines looking for the next breakthrough artist. Lately, Vaughn has begun paying attention to the weekly KEXP playlist. This summer, Vaughn went so far as to put a sticker on the debut album of North Carolina singer Tift Merritt. "As heard on KEXP," it said.
Sub Pop's Jaspers is definitely a member of the Morning Faithful. "What we do is obscure, when you look at the big picture," she says. "With our bands, whether it's the Shins or Ugly Casanova, it all starts on the local level. If KEXP likes a band and plays it a lot, their listeners buy it. Then they tell their friends about it and they buy it. They tell friends in other cities, who buy it. Then it gets on other stations like KEXP and it grows. It never happens everywhere at once. And it often begins with John and KEXP."
The turnaround can't be attributed only to Richards. Other shows at KEXP earn higher ratings. But morning slots are the most high-profile in radio. Richards has become the face of KEXP.
Last summer local musician Jason Trachtenberg attacked Richards, in an article in the alternative newspaper The Stranger, calling him a corporate sellout, a pawn of EMP and a tyrant. Although fans came to Richards' defense, the outburst clearly wounded him. "I don't have time for negativity like that," he says at the Elysium brewpub on Pike Street, where the Loveless "executive board" is meeting. He starts opening the pile of Loveless mail, withdrawing from the conversation.
Nordstrom and Michael Hukin, a former writer for defunct rock magazine The Rocket, have heard it before how Richards secretly pushes the label's bands, how they all got rich when their biggest band, Vendetta Red, signed with Epic Records.
"A lot of it's really foolish," Nordstrom says.
Richards keeps working through the mail. "I'm generally a nice person," he says, finally. "I'm happy, I'm good to wake up to. Radio is so bad right now. You find a little place where there's good music and it's not stupid and mean. What's wrong with that?"
IT'S A SATURDAY evening and Aveo, a local band that plays sweet, sensitive pop, is live in KEXP's comfy new studio. Aveo lead singer William Wilson appears nervous, partly because of the role Richards and KEXP have played in getting the band known around town. "Before he started playing us," Wilson says, "we could hardly get a gig."
Wilson slides away, leaving a couple of young fans wondering what to do next. Kari Doan and Corrynn Omdahl, both 17, sit on couches flipping through magazines. Doan is a familiar site at the station. She volunteers for pledge drives and has an active e-mail correspondence with Richards, whom she insists is not hot just cute like her 11-year-old brother. "He always plays my requests and he always e-mails me back, no matter how stupid," she says. "But he's too old for me to have a crush on."
"Sounds like a crush," Omdahl challenges.
Richards is standing alone in a nearby booth, his head bobbing slightly to the music. The song he's playing comes to an end. A button is pushed. After a nearly silent breath, a familiar voice speaks into the microphone. Across the city, people tune in to hear what he has to say.
John Zebrowski is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Taste||Now & Then|