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Arts + CultureMusicSeattle's storied KEXP tunes in to the Bay: here's...

Seattle’s storied KEXP tunes in to the Bay: here’s what to expect

Radio station's chief programming officer shares what's on their dial.

KEXP has a long and storied tradition of having its DJs curate their playlists. For the Seattle-based radio station and 501(c)3 nonprofit arts organization, that’s among the practices rooted in the non-commercial radio Bible. That tome also includes: champion artists who might get missed on commercial airwaves, increase your audience, and make sure, first and foremost, that the people playing your music actually know and respect the sound.

KEXP is so deep-cut-oriented that those wax freaks have a new podcast, “The Cobain 50,” that takes a weekly look at the titles featured on the handwritten list of Kurt Cobain’s top 50 albums, which he penned sometime in the early ’90s and was published posthumously in 2002 in the collection of his writings and drawings Journals.

That’s the type of programming, a dusty finger record excavation, that has nurtured a simpatico relationship with our local crate-diggers. Such low-key love language has been wooing the Bay Area from afar for a minute—in fact, we count as the Unite States’ fourth-largest market for radio.

Inside the café and broadcast area of KEXP’s Seattle station.

So late last year, KEXP decided to make a move on that love, one that would take it even closer to its Bay fans, and hopefully, turn a profit.

The station put in a bid to purchase KREV 92.7-FM Alameda/San Francisco during its bankruptcy auction last October, and KEXP was selected as the top bidder. They wound up paying $3.75 million. (Mind you, a few years back the station and its assets were going for $10 million.) At the beginning of this year, the FCC approved the sale and the reassignment of the license from a commercial station to a non-commercial station. The station’s call letters were reassigned from KREV to KEXC as of March 19, KEXP’s first date broadcasting from Karl The Fog’s home.

And let me tell you, I’ve received text messages, seen posts, and heard heavyweight music enthusiasts whom I deeply respect raving about how this station, starting on its first day. They say it is exactly what the Bay needed. It aligns perfectly with San Francisco’s community-oriented KPOO and KALW, UC Berkeley’s KALX, and the Mission’s local non-profit internet radio station BFF.fm, which stands for “Best Frequencies Ever”. (BFF.fm recently acquired the last remaining FM frequency at 104.9.)

KEXP’s chief programming officer Chris Kellogg, who has a personal connection to the Bay Area, spoke with us candidly and at great length about the station’s local acquisition and goals. Seattle and the Bay have many similarities, including a tech economy running roughshod against a city’s humanity, so KEXP’s vision for our metropolis and those who inhabit it could be the correct spark. People, not corporate entities, make San Francisco pop with life. As endearing and mindful as his answers were, nobody for a second believes KEXP bought KREV to lose money. Still, the station seems to be run and powered by humans, not bots. This feels like an all-around win. We are so thankful that he could speak with us.

48HILLS What led to the expansion of KEXP into San Francisco?

CHRIS KELLOGG This expansion represents an investment in KEXP’s brand of human-centered music curation and a belief that music has the power to transform lives and connect people across all boundaries. As a nonprofit, when an opportunity comes up to significantly expand the delivery of our mission, we feel that it is our responsibility to take it seriously. Last year, the opportunity arose for KEXP to purchase the broadcast license for 92.7 FM in the Bay Area—a region that represents our fourth-largest radio streaming market in the US, and perhaps more importantly, a region with a rich music scene, past and present. We jumped on that chance and thankfully were able to acquire the license, successfully apply for the FCC to change the designation for the station from commercial to non-commercial, and set in motion plans to bring KEXP to the Bay.

48HILLS Do you consider KCRW, a national public radio station that is still rooted in its core market, a direct rival? Is branching out in The Bay one method in terms of attracting more listeners away from them on a national scale?

CHRIS KELLOGG We do not. Like many other non-commercial stations, KCRW’s mission and programming are in many ways complementary to KEXP’s. We are grateful to exist in a space with other stations like KCRW doing great work introducing people to great music. We are certainly not trying to attract listeners away from any other independent radio stations, and are actively seeking partnerships and collaborations with other organizations that have alignment with our music discovery mission. We hope to be additive to the Bay Area radio and music scenes, rather than replacing any other service or organization.

48HILLS What is your personal history with the Bay Area and its music scene?

CHRIS KELLOGG This is going to be a long answer! I’ve had family in the Bay Area my entire life, and I’ve always loved spending time in the region. I never really reflected on my musical journey as it relates to the Bay Area, and it turns out the influence is massive. It started care of my parent’s generation, being exposed at an early age to bands like Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone. In the later years of my adolescence, I started exploring the Grateful Dead, which led to other psychedelic artists like Quicksilver Messenger Service and Blue Cheer. While I was experiencing some of those artists for the first time in the ’90s, I was also listening to a ton of hip hop out of the Bay Area. One of my favorites of all time to this day is E-40! The Click’s Game Related was in heavy rotation. Rappin’ 4-Tay, Spice 1, Too Short, and so many artists played a formative role in my love of hip hop. I was big on the Anticon Collective in the 2000s; Subtle, 13 & God, Why?, Themselves—I was consuming everything they’d put out. Then there’s all the punk, garage, etc. I know I first heard NOFX on a Seattle alternative station, and that’s what really opened my ears to punk. Fat Wreck Chords put out some of my favorite punk albums of all time. I think my life changed forever when I first heard Osees and have been a huge fan of John Dwyer’s ever since, and it was through his Castle Face label that I first heard Ty Segall. And in the last couple of months, I first heard of The Umbrellas, who have a new record in rotation at KEXP.

48HILLS How does KEXP itself fit into SF’s current market—and its musical history?

CHRIS KELLOGG San Francisco has had a rich history of both serving as a powerhouse market for music as well as developing forward-thinking artists that have changed music globally. Clearly, I’ve felt that firsthand! We are eager to do our part in capturing this evolution, sharing it broadly, as well as curating diverse music from around the world for all of the music lovers in the area. We also can’t wait to build on the audience of Bay Area listeners that we’ve grown over the years and evolve the broadcast at 92.7 FM to become a part of the community in more and more meaningful ways over time.

KEXP host on the air.

48HILLS Of course, we love Live on KEXP. Will there be an SF-oriented version?

CHRIS KELLOGG We are excited to debut more localized programming following this month’s launch, and we’re thinking hard about how our Live on KEXP programming can benefit from our new Bay Area connection. For any Bay Area music lovers not familiar, we encourage you to check out the Live on KEXP YouTube channel and other social media for real-time updates and to learn more about KEXP’s community.

48HILLS What are some exciting plans for the debut? What can we expect that will showcase KEXP’s style?

CHRIS KELLOGG KEXP 92.7 FM in the Bay Area will launch as a simulcast of KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle—and then it will evolve, beginning with a new all-Bay Area music show in summer of 2024. Localized features will include local sponsor messages, community nonprofit spotlights, and live show promotions. We expect that more will be added over the coming months and years, but first, we have to build relationships and connections with the local music scene that will help define the evolution of the Bay Area station.

48HILLS What are some artists and bands from the Bay Area that you see as potential foundational seedlings for your SF station, in the same way Nirvana and Soundgarden gave KEXP its ’80s roots?

CHRIS KELLOGG One of the things that makes KEXP so unique is the fact that we have 47 DJs who are all able to bring their knowledge, passion, and lived experience to the broadcast, and they all get to select the music they play. So while I gave my long list of artists who have played pivotal roles in my musical journey, I think this answer will be informed by our hosts, including the hosts we hire in the coming months who will develop and launch a Bay Area music show.

48HILLS San Francisco has been so inundated with the doom loop narrative—it’s great news that a thriving organization like KEXP is coming in. Did you have any hesitations about branching out here?

CHRIS KELLOGG Absolutely not. Seattle is a city that has been dealing with many of the same narratives for years. The Bay Area is a globally recognized metropolitan area with countless amazing communities, neighborhoods, and cultural scenes. We have no hesitation in coming to town and we can’t wait to learn more about how we can play a small role in helping San Francisco thrive.

Musical archives from over 50 years of making radio at Seattle’s KEXP

48HILLS With so many radio stations going through turmoil lately, what is the environment like for nonprofit radio stations right now, in your view? Does KEXP have an advantage by being a nonprofit station?

CHRIS KELLOGG KEXP would not be the station or the organization we are without listener power. Our business model is built on the idea that people will support the things they care about, and if the past 50 years of KEXP’s history are any indication, people who care about music and are willing to support it with their donations. While trends in philanthropy go up and down just like for-profit trends do, we have been on a path to ever-broader impact and ever-stronger donor support for decades, and we don’t expect that to stop anytime soon.

48HILLS Some of the most played artists of 2023 on KEXP were Little Dragon, Arlo Parks, Everything But the Girl, and the Black Pumas. Who do you foresee for 2024?

CHRIS KELLOGG It’s almost impossible to answer! Between our 47 DJs, and the fact that we have more or less 180 full-length albums in rotation at any given time, it’s really hard to say. I checked with our music director, Chris Sanley, and so far our top 10 most played new albums this year are from Sprints, IDLES, Sleater-Kinney, Brittany Davis, Brittany Howard, Middle Kids, Future Islands, Say She She, Khruangbin, and Torres. That’s a great list, and yet we are only 2.5 months into the year. One of the things I love about KEXP is that we never know what the answer to that question will be until the year is over!

Learn more about KEXP Bay Area here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

John-Paul Shiver
John-Paul Shiverhttps://www.clippings.me/channelsubtext
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to 48 Hills since 2019. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in the Wire, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK, and Drowned In Sound.

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