Kevin Cole: ‘Seattle is different. So KEXP is different.’
A planned new home at Seattle Center and a new vision have the local institution on the city’s new wavelength.
Seattle Times columnist
You think it will be a simple thing, to talk about music and Seattle and the future of KEXP as the radio station prepares to break ground this week on its new home at Seattle Center.
But these things are hardly simple for Kevin Cole.
As the “chief architect of the KEXP experience,” Cole can’t make neat sound bites of his relationship to music, or the station’s connection to the city, or the possibilities the new home brings to mind.
This is heady stuff. Emotions and memories, faces and places. KEXP’s new home is where music — discovered, remembered, performed live and held as close as a family member — will be getting the proper palace it deserves.
Everyone will be welcome.
And Cole, well, he’ll be the grinning, mid-fifties guy with a neat, salt-and-pepper ponytail, holding the door open.
“A great radio station is the Town Square for the city, where people come to see what’s going on in the music world,” Cole, senior director of programming, said one recent morning. “Who’s playing, who the bands are.
“We are aggressively involved in local music,” he continued. “We’re the filter. We’re the trusted resource. But we really view ourselves as the friend of the listener.
“And the new home will make that better and easier.”
We were sitting in a conference room at the station’s current home, a low-slung building next to a dental clinic on Seattle’s Dexter Avenue. It’s cramped but lively, like the house on your block where there were eight kids and one bathroom. Somehow, the madness worked — and you wanted to be a part of it.
At Seattle Center, you will be.
The station has secured a 30-year lease to renovate and take over the Northwest Rooms, designed by the late architect Paul Thiry as a temporary space for the 1962 World’s Fair.
People will be able to see the deejay booth from the outside, and be invited in for tours, or just to gather. Bands will play for live audiences of schoolkids, out-of-towners and fans. The playlist will scroll around the top of the building.
“You see the inner-workings, the creative process as it unfolds,” Cole said.
The concept makes him a little giddy: Instead of just being on the airwaves and the Internet through live-streaming, KEXP will have a physical identity that listeners can become a part of. They’ll be able to walk in and watch, or meet, or dance. Or just bask in the place they’ve only seen online.
In the last four years, more than 500 artists a year have performed in KEXP’s white-light covered studio. And the station’s YouTube channel recently surpassed 300 million views of the videos of those performances.
“People really get a sense of what Seattle is like,” Cole said of its faraway listeners. “We are the soundtrack for the city, but we also reflect the city.”
Bringing people and music together has been Cole’s life’s work.
He grew up in Minneapolis, the son of a salesman and a full-time mom. One of his earliest music memories is seeing The Beatles play “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“I just remember how exciting it was and my parents not liking it,” he said, “which made it even more exciting.”
The call letters of the radio stations he listened to as a kid became as familiar as his Social Security number.
He played guitar in grade school, and in sixth grade, started a lighting company for bands that played the teen centers in his hometown. When one band asked him to go on tour with them, he turned them down with, “I’m 12.”
A college internship at a radio station in Washington, D.C., “opened my eyes to the power of radio and music.”
He moved back to Minneapolis, where he helped a disco club called Uncle Sam’s to transition to something new. Cole played Network, the Talking Heads and Elvis Costello in one room, and mixed the sound for live bands like R.E.M., The Replacements and Husker Du when they played in another.
Cole also got to know a small, shy musician who barely spoke above a whisper backstage — but under the lights, stripped down to nearly nothing, set the place on fire and called himself Prince.
“The club was successful because it was eclectic,” Cole said. “It didn’t tie itself to a trend.”
In 1987, he went back to radio, becoming the music director at KJ-104 and then starting REV-105, or “Revolution Radio,” which Cole expanded into 14 specialty shows, some of which went into syndication.
After 15 years, Cole took six months off “to do some Jedi Warrior Training” — his definition of a personal retreat — and took a job at WOXY, a station out of the Miami University in Ohio. All the while, though, he was talking with a new Seattle company called Amazon about launching a music site.
“It was a bookstore then,” he said. “I didn’t know what it would be. But they had such a commitment and wanted people to discover and find music.”
He became senior music editor and creative marketing manager, working long hours that both exhausted and energized him. fter a year or so, he volunteered to host a three-hour variety show on Sundays at what was then KCMU.
“We were creating something new at Amazon,” he recalled. “I was all in. But it was a step removed from music itself. There was an immediacy I craved.”
He straddled both places until 2004, when he left his lucrative job at Amazon. A few years before, Paul Allen’s EMP Museum committed several years of operating support, and the station changed its handle to KEXP.
“Everybody who works here could be doing something else,” Cole said of his co-workers like station director Tom Mara and longtime deejays John Richards and Cheryl Waters. “But they believe in the mission and are deeply passionate about music. And they don’t want to be doing anything else.”
There’s comfort in that commitment, especially with all the changes in Seattle — the newcomers, the cranes, the sense that the ground the city was built on is being dug up and hauled out by the hour.
“There’s a little bit of fear of Seattle losing its soul,” Cole said. “But we help reflect the soul of Seattle. KEXP also helps make Seattle more diverse and culturally rich. We’re different. Seattle is different. So KEXP is different.”
The station was the first to play a number of bands that became household names. Nirvana, for starters. The Head and the Heart. The Lumineers. Arcade Fire. Macklemore.
“That’s not the goal, in and of itself,” Cole said. “We love being able to connect them with audiences. It’s a privilege.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published January 25, 2015, was corrected January 26, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year of the Seattle World’s Fair.
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