One Big Neighborhood: A Letter from KEXP’s Executive Director, Tom Mara

“People talk about Seattle being a small city. It’s not a small city. It’s a big neighborhood. You were never far removed from people who didn’t know it at the time but would go on to do great things. I don’t think any of us thought twenty years later we would be in the positions we were, not just in city culture but in world culture.” Riz Rollins at KEXP’s Gathering Space Memorial for Chris Cornell
// photo by Jim Bennett

By Tom Mara, KEXP Executive Director

There, on the North end of 10th and Broadway, was Orpheum Records, a long gone independent music store, a temple really, where Riz Rollins worked as a clerk. One day, while combing through the bins, KEXP’s Don Yates encouraged Riz to become a DJ. Riz, of course, went on to become a crucial part of both the station and Seattle’s music community.

Two weeks ago, on the day we lost Chris Cornell, I watched Riz speak to a packed Gathering Space at KEXP. I was in Philadelphia for NON-COMM, a gathering of non-commercial music radio stations from across the country, hosted by our peers at WXPN. For our community—one held together in part by Chris Cornell’s art, presence, and leadership—it felt as though a lynchpin had been pulled out. I felt I should have been in Seattle. I was in my hotel room watching a live stream of Riz speaking movingly about Seattle’s past and the importance of community. Suddenly, I was there, witnessing the many faces of grief and remembrance.

Though originally from Chicago, Riz embodies so much of what makes Seattle and its music scene so special. His iconoclastic spirit, generous nature, and tireless passion for music very much reflect this place. At a time when people are moving to our city at a historic rate, we should celebrate the rich artistic fabric of which Chris Cornell, Riz, and so many others are threads. At the same time, we need to ensure the accessibility of our resources to those across the entire economic spectrum so the next generation of creatives can find their voices.

Not all of us have the means to attend arts and cultural events. Here at KEXP, nearly all of our services are made available free of charge. However, we still have work to do to further our mission of music discovery and help it reach as many communities as possible. We must do this in ways that we haven’t before, using tools we may have yet to discover.

One tool that will appear on the ballot here in King County this August is Proposition 1, also known as Access for All. This measure will enable economically and geographically underserved populations to experience art, culture, science, and civic heritage, including free access to arts and culture programs for public school students. By applying the resources allocated by this King County ballot measure, we can make a real difference.

Another tool is the revitalization of the Northwest Rooms courtyard. The courtyard space has long been underutilized. With the likely Key Arena revitalization project on the horizon, we see an opportunity to leverage this project and partner with Seattle Center, the Vera Project, SIFF, and other Seattle Center arts organizations. We imagine creating a mini-epicenter for music, film, and civic engagement bringing the spirit of the Gathering Space outdoors.

KEXP’s New Home Grand Opening // photo by Amber Knecht

This is a period of rapid change in our city—a story that has played out countless times in this community and many others. In times like these, it’s especially important that we make statements and perform actions that align with our values. Why?

Music helps us care for each other.

Music helps us care for ourselves.

Music immerses us in diverse forms of expression.

When we sustain music we sustain ourselves.

With the rising cost of living and the influx of wealth from the booming technology sector, we see robust artistic communities struggling to find their place within new civic ecosystems. The flight of artists from the urban centers is an issue we ignore at our peril. Here in Seattle, the vibrant arts and music scenes have long been a huge part of our cultural imprint. However, this phenomenon is in no way unique to one location. When artists cannot afford to live in the same city as their audience, both sides of the equation lose.

We need to keep the hallmarks of old Seattle—creativity, collaboration, and mutual support—even as the city grows into the newest iteration of itself.

How do we do that?

Wherever we live, attend shows by local bands at neighborhood venues. Buy a vinyl album by an unfamiliar act. Bring yourself to a poetry reading or a gallery opening. Contribute to an artist directly. At the same time, let’s make sure the institutions that champion their work are sustained.

Those of us who don’t, say, play an instrument still have gifts to share with the music community. We come to the conversation with perceptive ears, personal taste, and enthusiasm for the soul-enriching importance of the arts. With our unique perspectives, we uphold and champion the artists who will, in turn, inspire us, challenge us, cause us to gain further understanding of our shared humanity through music. Whatever our level of aptitude, let’s play a vital role in the creative process, fostering the establishment of spaces and tools that artists can use to sustain their lives in our city and share their craft with the world. As my friend Riz put it so beautifully in his remarks:

We can decide to continue this neighborhood that we’ve cultivated. It didn’t just happen. We cultivated it. We practiced in each other’s spaces. We bought each other burgers. When the chips were down, we were there for each other. We held each other up.

Gathering Space Memorial for Chris Cornell // photo by Jim Bennett

This is how I like to see us: a community bonded, engaged in mutual action and collective good works. We’re not perfect, but we’ll only be able to strive for a better, more equitable tomorrow if we all do so together.

I’d love to hear your ideas about how KEXP can better play a role in championing our arts and music community. Please write me anytime at tom@kexp.org.

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