The Seattle Sound
Some community stations have found that being alternative can be popular and lucrative, if alternative is packaged correctly. KRCL’s managers and directors look with envy at stations like WXPN 88.5 FM in Philadelphia, and KEXP 90.3 FM, in Seattle—once small college radio stations that have grown into music tastemakers for the country. KRCL’s program director visited several of the stations during the summer of 2006.
WXPN is credited with inventing an “alternative” format now recognized by the music industry as triple-A—Adult Album Alternative—or as the Philadelphia Weekly puts it, “semi-hip adult contemporary [giving] aging Deadheads something new to listen to every now and then.”
As another example of what is possible, Roberts points to KEXP, “my favorite station to listen to online.” The rock-based University of Washington station is now the No. 1 station in the Seattle market—commercial stations included—following a format change and a huge cash infusion from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Currently, KRCL keeps more or less to a traditional community radio format presenting music by genre—blues, reggae, folk—that critics contend leads listeners to switch the dial when the music they like is over. The new wave of community stations found success taking the same music and mashing it all together.
Tuning in to KRCL in the future, “you’ll likely hear the same types of music, but in a nonblock format,” Roberts says, “Some people call it triple-A. Essentially, it’s taking all the good music and things about KRCL and putting it in a format that’s a little bit easier to access and understand.”
The formula is not without controversy. Hipsters are beginning to complain the triple-A format is already getting dusty. Seattle’s KEXP has been criticized for its tightly controlled playlists that have virtually eliminated blues, dub, or electronica—anything but rock.
And KRCL managers aren’t the only public-radio executives who have noticed the success of such stations. KPCW 91.9 FM, Park City public radio, moved to a triple-A playlist in 2001. KUER 90.1, the University of Utah’s NPR station, just announced it was launching an alternative music station on one of two new digital signals. KUER is going to pipe in the sound from WXPN in Philadelphia.
Bill Frost, City Weekly’s associate editor and onetime KRCL volunteer, likes some of the new stations. The sound is what might come out of an iPod shuffle belonging to a music critic with varied taste, Frost says.
Of Seattle’s KEXP, Frost says, “if they [KRCL] can actually replicate that—great. If they can keep their focus on good modern music, there’s nothing wrong with that.
“My only question is, why are they doing something this drastic, instead of promoting the station? Handing out bumper stickers and putting up banners at the Farmers Market seems to be the extent of their advertising.”
Many KRCL fans are asking the same question. Until recently, KRCL used to broadcast shows from Gallivan Center summer concerts. An annual Day in the Park with KRCL brought thousands out to celebrate. No more.
“You don’t necessarily need consultants,” says KRCL volunteer Einerson. “I feel like you need to make sure you encompass feedback from our community.”