Thursday, October 16, 2008

Do you remember rock'n'roll radio? Remembering Seattle's KCMU

KCMU was the University of Washington's radio station from 1972 through 2001. In 1971 UW undergraduates John Kean, Cliff Noonan, Tory Fiedler, and Brent Wilcox started talking starting talking about and planning a college radio station at the UW. The Communications Department agreed to host the station, the FCC was petitioned by the University for a broadcasting license, and in 1972 it began broadcasting at 90.5. The CMU in KCMU, as most current students or alums of the UW know, was the abbreviation for the Communications Building where the station broadcasted from. The station was student run and grew slowly throughout the '70s. In 1981 after a funding cut, KCMU started running on-the-air fundraisers and asking listeners to help support the station.

During the '80s, the station was able to boost it's signal (400 watts was a milestone they'd talk about during fundraisers constantly) and the station moved to 90.3. KCMU became one of the first radio stations to play hip hop music and it also dove heavily into alternative rock, featuring bands like Green River and Soundgarden long before the mainstream knew who they were. The station was called "one of the most influential commercial-free stations in the country" by Billboard Magazine, and this is long before it morphed into KEXP.

In 1992 there was a powergrab at KCMU that forever altered the station's future. Volunteer student and community DJs were fired and syndicated programs were run in their place. The DJs that were retained, got strict guidelines about what music they could play. Many of the remaining volunteers quit in protest and formed an organization called CURSE that put on a bunch of benefit shows, sued the station, and tried to raise awareness about what was happening to public radio in Seattle at the time. The lawsuit failed, but the station administration did listen and drop the syndicated programming, but they bitterly would not rehire the fired volunteers.

After a big donation from Paul Allen in 2001, the station moved off-campus down to Allen's Experience Music Project and adapted it's name, KEXP. It became almost a commercial station at that point with paid DJs, a less eclectic format, and was no longer run by the college students and University that birthed it and helped it grow. Don't get me wrong, I love KEXP, but it's sad that to get KEXP, Seattle, and the University of Washington in particular, had to loose KCMU.

For a great insider's history of KCMU, check out JC Coleman's account of attending the UW and becoming a volunteer during the mid-'90s. He talks of what working at the station was like and peppers his stories and information with all kinds of scans of old stickers, station artwork, playlists and more. For anyone into local music history, this guy's archive of KCMU is a goldmine for good info!


Anonymous said...

I wonder why the university hasn't started up another student run radio station?

Dan 10Things said...

The students did a few years ago actually, but they decided to go the cheaper an dmodern route and made it an online station called Rainy Dawg Radio:

Rainy Dawg iss fairly popular on the UW campus, but not in the rest of Seattle (which is actually a lot like how KCMU was in the early days). It actually has more hip hop and local music shows than KEXP. If I were to guess, the UW probably still own the license on KEXP and there probably is no more open frequencies left in the Seattle market.