Behind the Curtain with Ken Frye: Meet Tom Mara

This month on Behind the Curtain, Ken Frye talks to Tom Mara, the Executive Director of KEXP.

Ken Frye: How did you find KEXP?

Tom Mara: I was attending the University of Washington’s journalism program. I thought that my future would be in television news, believe it or not. This was pretty common for students coming out of the program. I got married when I was in college and, after graduating, my wife and I quickly got into this little Toyota pickup and we travelled around the northwest — all the way to Billings, Montana, northern California, Idaho, and all points in between. I spent three weeks talking to as many news directors who would let me in the door and listen to me. Almost nabbed a reporter position in Twin Falls, Idaho! On the way back home I began feeling it simply wasn’t going to be a good fit.

At that time I already had been volunteering at the station. As a matter of fact, the first time I tried to volunteer at the station was within a month of moving to Seattle in February of 1986 — 22 years ago. I grew up in Germany and my older brother Mike, my music shaman, had already moved out here and he told me about this station he thought I would appreciate. I had been a club DJ in Munich and thought working at KCMU would be pretty cool. (KCMU was KEXP’s former set of call letters.)

I called the station and whoever answered the phone told me that there was going to be a monthly volunteer meeting coming up in a week or so. At the meeting, I signed up to stuff envelopes.

Never got a call back.

Fate didn’t give up. And so the next year I was taking journalism courses, and at that time the UW School of Communications had a newscast on KCMU everyday at about 10 o’clock in morning. Frankly, we were really bad and it was probably a disservice to our listeners but it was a good experience for kids going through the program.

I crossed paths with the station manager at the time, Chris Knab, and he encouraged me to volunteer at the station. What Chris did — which I think was absolutely transformative to me — was take me under his wing. With growing up in Germany until I was 20 years old I really didn’t know all that much about radio in the United States. He mentored me. He taught me about the institution of public radio and college music radio. He instilled mission. That did the trick.

A little while later, a positioned opened. It was a 20 hour-a-week job that paid $8.50 an hour. I took that job and became the new KCMU development director. So, at that point I made the decision that the interest in television news — or even news for that matter — was going to the wayside. Actually, it was the conversations with Chris and that first year at the station that enabled me to confirm that non-comm radio was where I just had to be. So, that half-time job turned into a full-time job about a year later. I became the second full time employee for the station.

As I wrote in this letter that we sent out to our donors not too long ago, there weren’t many resources at all. I’d run to the Ave near the UW and ask businesses to donate reams of paper, pens, etc.

KF: Even toner for the copier?

TM: Oh, we didn’t even have a copier. We had to borrow KUOW’s down the hall. We weren’t even rich enough to have our own copier machine. We did have a fax. No wait, actually, we didn’t even have a fax machine.

KF: Take us through a day in your life.

TM: Well, I get here just before 8 in the morning. Usually, the first thing I do is check my calendar again — at KEXP we have an open calendar system. Each of our calendars is open to each other and so in order to schedule time you just book it online. I usually spend the bulk of my day in meetings.

On any given day, I could be spending time with our programming folks, our business and finance people, our fund raisers, our donors, our board and advisory council members, our underwriters, our partners at the UW and EMP, our partners at NPR, our partners at the City of New York, members of the press, events & shows, school groups… I tell third graders that I’m a professional meeter. They’re not very impressed with that.

KF: Do you find yourself having to be a psychologist at work?

TM: In some ways, yes. It’s really about understanding the issues your colleagues are facing and the needs and interests they have. We have the obligation to the community to create results — you can’t sit on your hands or coast and then claim you’re still pursuing your mission. Sometimes that means being very encouraging — sometimes that means being very honest and explicit about bringing a problem to the surface — and, frankly, sometimes that means knowing when to bite your tongue, and sometimes that means reminding your colleagues, and thus myself, why we’re here. But ultimately, I feel, it’s about engendering trust and sharing the vision.

I have come to learn that my particular style is not to simply tell people what to do — it’s more about sharing a vision for where we need to go and pointing out how I think we can get there. The control freak within me doesn’t see much daylight.

One of our board members passed on a pearl of wisdom to me a few years ago, “Tom, at any time, you deserve the team you have.” That can get you thinking pretty deeply. So, in essence, it really starts with the people we’re able to bring into the organization and the people we currently have. I have the obligation to bring talented people into the organization, which actually means I have the obligation to bring talented people into the organization that can then bring talented people into the organization. To me, when meeting with folks who have an interest in working at KEXP, I look for experience, skills, track record, creativity and good judgment, of course. But I actually am more keenly interested in assessing their spirit, their energy, their attitude. If a manager can figure that out, I think you’re more than halfway there. So, thinking back to that pearl of wisdom, and this is going to be awfully close to bragging — I gotta say that KEXP staff — and our volunteers — are amazing and inspiring. After twenty years, it still thrills me to witness them.

KF: Where is KEXP now and where do you see it going in the next 5 to 10 years?

TM: For me, this may sound unusual, the way I think about the far future is not envisioning what things we would be doing. At least, not so much as you might think. Actually, I think about love.

When I think about the future I find myself thinking about how to get that kid in Ballard or Indianapolis to fall in love with the station and develop a deeper relationship with music. If that “station love” emerges, then the music will flow right into his or her life. That’s the pursuit of our mission: to enrich people’s lives by bringing music into their lives.

And, to do that, we make sure that the role of the DJ is upheld and supported and positioned as closely to the listener as possible. He or she is given the direct responsibility of selecting the music you’re experiencing. The voice you’re hearing selected the music you’re hearing.

And, boy, that’s pretty hard to do. I give a lot of tours of the station, and my favorite part as we enter the control room is claiming to our guests that we’ve got the hardest working DJs in the country. During a show, they’re operating the CD players, turntables & the audio board, they’re pushing music info to the real-time playlist at, managing the master log, taking phone calls and emails — and then responding to them, running back and forth between the control room and library, teaming up with volunteers and interns — and on top of all that, he or she has to think. He or she has to figure out how the songs and artists ought to connect to each other. It’s like tapping your head and rubbing your tummy physically, intellectually and emotionally non-stop for two to four hours.

We’ve got a lot of smart, creative people here who will continue to figure out how to keep KEXP as a radio station people can fall in love with. No doubt. I’ve got a lot of confidence in them. Organizations become and remain vibrant from the inside out.

KF: I like public radio because it turned me on to progressive music and I started listening to the specialty shows. It was nice to start volunteering because I got a lot of knowledge under my feet and I was able to make better decisions about where I wanted to go into public radio. It took me awhile to understand just how important pledge drives where for public radio because they had just become the financial center of gravity for most public radio stations. But without them there wouldn’t be any public radio stations. The listeners really have to help fund the programming.

TM: That’s right. And a station becomes more significant because of that direct funding relationship with the listener. What a compelling way to become beholden, God forbid, to your listeners.

The support we receive helps us uphold the tradition of the DJ. And what that really means is that we’re upholding artistic diversity on the airwaves. We hire DJs to play curatorial roles — to seek out music from every corner of the globe, assess it for artistic significance and then put it together in ways that inspire and stimulate the imaginations of KEXP’s listeners.

This isn’t a new concept, by the way.. From what I understand about radio in the 60s and 70s in the US, the DJ was the center of the universe. They built their shows themselves, they expressed a voice, and they applied a music authority. And nowadays, increasingly and overwhelmingly, the music radio station doesn’t do that. I’m proud that we’re really here to help both listeners and artists when we ask our DJs to curate their shows.

If I wanted to double our audience in six months I think we could do that easily by figuring out what 500-800 songs out of the 700,000 or so we have in our collection to simply play over and over again in a week. Our audience would double if we just played the indie “hits” over and over again. But that’s not why we are here. The reason we are here is to get people to connect to the music. One comment I hear from our listeners and donors time and time again is, “One of the reasons I like KEXP is that you play things that I don’t like but I’m glad I had the chance to consider it.” In other words, they thank us for helping them with that tough part about discovering music — not knowing what you don’t know.

As a public service organization, we do have an obligation to grow our audience and serve as many people as we can, but our mission, first and foremost, is to enrich people’s lives and bring into their lives as much music as we can. There’s a tension between those two notions. And that’s where we do our finest work.

KF: This is a nice studio for bands. Does the sound leak out of the space and into the rest of the station?

TM: We get reminded that it’s not sound proof when bands like the Catheters perform. When we first moved here I thought this would be a bit of a problem for artists but we really do get good comments about this space. We’re fortunate — a lot of radio stations don’t have a studio dedicated to live performance, and KEXP listeners tell us that they really love hearing our broadcasts of live performances, it’s something they don’t really get anywhere else.

KF: I really like what you do and it’s been an honor working with you.

TM: Thank you, Ken! Thank you for all the work, energy and support these past many, many years.

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