Local Radio Spotlight: KAOS 89.3 FM


When you talk about independent radio stations that have championed Northwest music, you’d be remiss to leave out Olympia’s KAOS 89.3 FM. A hybrid of community radio and college radio with nearby Evergreen State College, KAOS has been a massive force in spotlighting artists outside of the mainstream since it started transmitting in 1973. While it’s history spans over four decades, most might recognize the station as a being integral in the movement of punk and indie artists in the ’80s and ’90s, with volunteers like Beat Happening/K Records Calvin Johnson coming through to use the station as a rallying point for artists. We chatted with Jon Hamilton — a KEXP volunteer and KAOS DJ under the moniker DJ Johnny H — with some help from general manager Ruth Brownstein to dig into its legacy, their commitment to independent artists, and what the station is up to now.

KAOS has such a unique and special place in Northwest music history. What do you think helped KAOS become such a powerful force in Olympia’s music scene and how do you carry that legacy on today?

There are a few things that I think converge in Olympia that makes it a special place. But most importantly, the size and location can not be overstated.  It’s relatively small, only about 50,000 people live here now, but it sits in a perfect touring stop between Portland and Seattle.  The Evergreen State College being here along with the fact that it’s the state capitol means that there has long been plenty of bars and restaurants and clubs around despite the size of the population.

Being in the center of politics for Washington state also imbibes a sense of community responsibility of many of the people here and that really helps nurture a sense of community throughout the region.  I talk to people in Olympia and Lacey almost every day who mention that they listen to KAOS.


Part of KAOSs legacy is your mission to have 80% of the music played on the station come from independent labels and distributors. What makes this so important to KAOS and how do you ensure that you’re sticking to this goal?

I think that one of the main goals of community radio is, or at least should be, to help amplify voices that may not be heard in the greater spectrum of the main stream.  That’s really what I think we are trying to get it with our 80/20 policy.  It can be difficult if you’re programming a show on the fly and you’re not really paying attention to the labels, but if you plan out a show in advance then I don’t think it’s too difficult to maintain.

The online playlist that KAOS DJs use requires the record label as an input field.  This way we can run reports, and easily pull that data.

You also have a strong commitment to giving representation on air to under-represented voices as well as a massive variety genres of music. What efforts does KAOS take to make sure these voices have space on the radio? What are some of the shows you’re excited about on the air today? 

KAOS is one of the very first radio stations to ever carry Democracy Now With Amy Goodman.  That’s an identity that we carry as a station. There are lots of KAOS members who mostly know us from Democracy Now. There’s an Amy Goodman quote that I think about a lot whenever we’re discussing everything from new shows to community outreach, “Independent media can go to where the silence is and break the sound barrier, doing what the corporate networks refuse to do.”  I think we try to operate that way in all aspects of the station.

On Sunday afternoon at 4 PM, we have a Native issues and music show called Make No Bones About It with Raven Redbone. I love his show because I feel that I always learn something.  Each and every week.

Every Wednesday at 6 PM, DJ Nobody explores the art of the mixtape on Mixtape Club which is an idea for a show that I am so very jealous that I didn’t come up with first.

One of our newer shows is called Resilient with Miss Emma. On this show, Miss Emma focuses on music from marginalized peoples and voices.

We also have a Hip-Hop Block Party Sun-Thurs at 10 PM and the Wednesday edition hosted by DJ Roxy is Ladies First where she only plays women musicians.  It’s a great show every week, and it’s a really fun show for me to fill in for every now and then.


Are there any favorite stories that have been passed down in the station over the years? Any infamous in-studio moments or changes of direction in the station that was pivotal to what it is today?

Nirvana has played here several times.  Some of those sessions are in the KAOS library.  On one of them, Kurt says he has a new song that he’s going to play. He mentions that he wrote it on a napkin on the drive over with his foot on the wheel.

I’m a bit of a record nerd. Earlier this year I came across a Beck live bootleg and the tracks were taken from a session live at KAOS. Macklemore was a student here and made his first radio appearance on air at KAOS.

Being associated with Evergreen, how much do you feel the station varies from academic year to academic year? How much independence does the station have from the university?

It definitely varies from year to year and has over the years. That’s just a reality of the university tides. The budget has also been a factor at times in that we went from almost 10 paid student positions to half of that in recent years.  We have been able to increase student involvement with work study positions. However, at times there can be tension between both students and community members as they sometimes have differing views for the future of the station.  That being said, having a mix of community members as well as students helps us to further diversify our offerings and personnel.

What is the vision of the station as it is today and where do you hope KAOS goes in the future?

A lot of college stations go entirely with 100% college students running them and we’ve fought hard to make it continue to be both for our greater community as well as on campus.  We are making inroads in getting more community engagement.  We also need to continue to work alongside the college and work alongside academics and faculty members to try to help get their content on air.  We also try to get more and more student positions in our day to day operations to try to further ensconce ourselves within the college.  We hope that in the future we’ll be able to continue to exist and hope that we can continue to further our reach into the community and train the DJs and radio operators of tomorrow.


KEXP is celebrating National Radio Day all week long both online and on the air; click here to see all our coverage on the KEXP Blog.

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