This month on Behind the Curtain, Ken Frye talks to Kevin Cole, KEXP’s Senior Director of Programming and host of the Afternoon Show, from 3-6PM weekdays.
Ken Frye: How did you get into radio?
Kevin Cole: I was always interested in music and it was one of my first loves and passions as a kid. I didn’t realize it until later but I was obsessed with radio from about second grade. I would win the contests on the radio stations because I would have like six of the numbers dialed in when I knew they were doing the contest. Of course, I would always be the first one in. I spent time in bands and also volunteered at the local college radio station. I didn’t think of it as a career but I did craft a radio and broadcasting degree that was more from an academic prospective than a technical one.
Ken Frye: I know because I have also been working in radio all my life but I didn’t get the radio degree. Because of my disability it was hard for me to attend classes. I had to learn the ropes of the industry by working around working radio professionals like yourself.
KC: Yeah, it was interesting because it was a liberal arts school and they allowed me through the speech and communications dept. to create a radio and broadcasting degree. But it was the music that was really driving my radio interests. I followed this interest after school when I did a radio internship at Georgetown University at a 100,000 watt radio station in Washington, D.C. We had a music director, Leo Motto, who told me this wonderful metaphor that I still use today. The airwaves are a blank canvas. So, just paint away. I use this metaphor a lot. The freedom that we felt there was a lot like the freedom that we have here at KEXP. The idea was that the DJ’s could play whatever they wanted to. You could make a show in real time and develop it through an immediate listener response. So, that was a huge eye opening experience for me to go from the college radio station were no one was listening to a good chunk of the eastern sea board. The phones would be ringing and you knew you were making a connection.
KF: How did this help create your aesthetic?
KC: I think the aesthetic that I developed was one in which the songs would just blend into each other. Another way of saying it, the audience wouldn’t know that the song necessarily changed. Doing this in a way that developed context for the music you were playing. So, you could see how music evolved over time and I think good programming includes this idea were the newer material is placed in context with the influences of the past. You can develop a story or historical narrative about how music evolves over time.
KF: Is your record collection as big as KEXP’s record collection?
KC: It’s bigger than KEXP. It’s crazy. I don’t even keep it at home. I have storage space for it.
KF: What do you have in that record collection?
KC: I still have a lot of vinyl. I probably have about 50,000 albums and about 20,000 7” singles. And then of course a ton of cd’s.
KF: What kind of music did you start collecting at the beginning?
KC: I didn’t really realize I was a record collector at first. The first single I bought was The Cyrkle, “Red Rubber Ball.” Did you know that Paul Simon wrote that song?
KF: I remember that from my memory bank.
KC: It was probably mid 60’s, right around The Beatles’ Revolver. The Cyrkle was a band that Paul Simon put under his wing that was very Beatlesque and not as folksy. It was the kind of thing were as a kid it was really catchy. I have distinct memories of walking down my street. Just singing, “Red Rubber Ball.” I was that kid who lived in a suburb of Minneapolis and drove downtown to the scary areas to the record stores and I would just buy a ton of records. Records that looked interesting. So, when I was in the E section, I would buy records like Brian Eno’s, Another Green World and I would say, wow that looks pretty cool because of its cover art but then I would also buy bands like the Eagles. I was mainly curious about new artists and their cover art and that lead to discoveries about their music. It wasn’t till later that I was like, you know what, I’m a record collector. I started going to record collector fairs and conventions. I quickly got out of that because I didn’t want to be identified as a record collector and the culture that went around that.
KF: Who influenced you to become a DJ?
KC: When I moved back to Minneapolis, I started going to this punk rock club called the Longhorn. There was a DJ there named Peter Jesperson and he played the greatest music. You would hear all the great punk rock music like the Buzzcocks but you would also hear the other end of the spectrum with singers like Donna Summer. What was inspiring about Peter was that he had great taste in music but he could mix it all up. He wasn’t typecasting himself as like a punk rock DJ or disco DJ. He expanded the boundaries of music listening as a true music lover would by mixing every kind of genre together. There is a way to assemble different songs together; different genres but there can remain a cohesive sound that is still very inspiring. I wanted to mention another influence and that is Jerry Bonham. He was a club DJ and he would mix music together. He would be playing a dance record but then you would also hear Kraftwerk at the wrong speed and he would allow these different musical components to interweave together for like 5 minutes.
KF: What is your role in producing the KEXP Documentaries?
KC: Well, I provide direction and guidance for Michele Meyers. She does all the work and she really creates all of those pieces. I usually just give her feedback and I’m responsible for making sure they get done on time and that they are ready to air but again she really puts her heart and soul into those shows.
KF: Who are some of the artists that you have admired that you got a chance to interview?
KC: Patti Smith did a KEXP interview about 3 years ago. I have always admired her art. With other musicians it’s not always art but with her it is her art and music. She has been revolutionary. She is an amazing poet and incredible performer and very much has something to say to share with the world. That was one of those incidences where I was completely freaked out to have her on my show because I had admired her so much. But I pulled it off and it ended up being a really great interview and I felt we connected. Before she came to the station we didn’t know if she was going to play or how long she would stay but we actually did an entire hour of interviewing.
I also had a chance to meet Prince and to DJ Prince’s private parties in Minneapolis from the second album until Under the Cherry Moon. What happened was that I was working at this club in Minneapolis that he would go to -- the place they filmed Purple Rain. So, he would come in and listen to me DJ and then he started asking me to do these private parties. They were super fun. At these parties he would play for awhile and then I would DJ for everyone until the sun came up. Prince and I had very limited conversation. At the time he was very introverted, but I was honored just to be a part of that world and know that he wanted me to personally play the records for his shows. I watched Prince evolve over time from when he would converse through his music to later when he became more conversational. If you see him on Ellen now, he is funny as all get out.
KF: Who would you interview again if you had the chance?
KC: Mike Scott of the Waterboys because he is an artist who is extremely honest and he is on a spiritual quest to understand his place in the world. For me that makes for a very interesting person and artist. Oh, I would also like to interview Black Francis again. He’s really funny and always has interesting things to say.
KF: What was it like working with REM?
KC: I didn’t really work with them but I had the opportunity to mix their sound each time they played the First Ave. I had a record store and their manager Jefferson Holt came in with a box of 7 inch singles of “Radio Free Europe” and asked if we could take it in on consignment. Of course that version is a little different then what came later on the IRS album but the fact that their manager asked if we could take their single on consignment was in retrospect incredible. I had already heard the buzz about them through other local DJ’s. I once I had a chance to mix their sound and watch them, I know they were really special. Michael Stipe was at the time super animated and just really an exciting performer.
KF: Unlike Prince who was reserved and subdued.
KC: I didn’t get to talk to Michael. So, I didn’t know what he was like off stage and I couldn’t see if he made that crazy transition from shy guy to energetic performer on stage like Prince.
KF: Some of their music is very high energy.
KC: The first couple of shows I saw they didn’t really do many ballads. It was all jangly and high energy indie rock and Michael had a this kind of salmon move bouncing around on stage. It was super fun to watch.
KF: What is your role with the New York KEXP collaboration?
KC: Overall, I’m responsible for the programming component of our New York initiative which we see as part of our mission to bring music into as many people’s lives as possible. So, the opportunity to reach a New York audience is appealing and gives a chance to export all of the Pacific Northwest bands and give them airplay in that market while being able to create a programming mix that is consistent with our programming aesthetic. So, we produce 39 hours of programming in New York. One of the shows is called MoGlow, which is like world pop. It’s a one hour mix of modern global music. We have 19 DJ’s from around the world that help produce content for this show. Darek Mazzone oversees that and we simulcast John’s show and we also create a local show for New York which is like a local version of Audioasis. John brings a lot of local artists, musicians and guests to this show. We also program a custom morning show Monday thru Friday from 6 in morning New York time to 9 and that is the KEXP variety mix for the New York audience. Currently, Michele and I host the show but we have other KEXP DJ’s like Troy who help us. So, it’s really about getting more exposure to music for our audience and more time for broadcasting to our DJ’s.
KF: How did you get started with the New York station? Did they come to you or did you go to them?
KC: So, I was at a public radio convention in LA in 2005 and I was speaking on the panel. A couple of associates from the New York station were there and at that convention we started talking about what they were doing and about various possibilities of how to collaborate. We started doing a two-hour show for about a year and then that transition into a full blown partnership as it now stands.
KF: What do you see in the future for KEXP or at least the next 5 years?
KC: To insure that our mission is achieved and that the programming aesthetic is intact. To reach as many people as possible with our programming and to be open to the ways in which people want to experience music. Which could be the radio broadcasts, but it could also could include podcasts, the blog, streaming video and online. So, for me I want to make sure that we are always relevant and important to people. We will always be on the cutting edge participating in the ways in which people evolve the musical experience. An example of this is that we were the first station to have a real time play list. We were the first station in the country to do full song podcast because listeners asked for that.
KF: Is there a particular medium or music experience that people are gravitating to more than others? Like are there more people going to streaming or the blog?
KC: We see more increased traffic to the blog and podcast. We are working towards making the user experience better. The playlist page is one of our most trafficked pages. We know that users value that so were always updating these pages through our incredible online team. An example would be if we played a Decemberists song we could link this song to other references like in-studio performances or photographs, videos and other connections.
KF: Thank you for your time, Kevin.
KC: Thank you for having me.