“These guys will be remembered in years to come because they knew how to write songs with HOOKS!”
“Hey! Can we be really cutting edge and be the first to stop overplaying this?”
You haven’t wandered into an internet chatroom for overly opinionated music fans, but you are getting a glimpse of the back-and-forth that happens between radio DJs over new releases.
Those notes, stuck to the cover of a vinyl copy of Nirvana’s 1991 mega-hit “Nevermind,” are just a taste of the musical history scrawled and preserved on thousands of albums and compact discs in the library at Seattle’s KEXP.
With a new home and renewed focus on living up to its mission of the being the world’s greatest music discovery resource, KEXP is taking on the challenge of digitizing its vast archive of music. Along the way, it wants to provide online access to unique material, such as those DJ notes, to further enrich the connection between the station, the music it has played for more than 40 years, and its listeners.
The 41,000 CDs and 12,000 albums have escaped the cramped quarters of KEXP’s previous home and are now showcased in an expanded library at KEXP’s Seattle Center site. But the station needs to archive and protect much of the music, while creating a more uniform system for storing data and giving DJs easier access to the huge collection.
“This is really significant in a lot of ways,” said Kevin Cole, longtime afternoon DJ and chief content officer at the station. “We aspire to be the greatest music discovery resource in the world. That’s what we want to be. … We used to say, ‘We want to be the greatest radio station.’ We’re much more than that. We’re a non-profit arts organization. The drive is to help people discover new music. We do it on air, we do it online, now we do it in the physical building itself.”
Cole said the digital library will help the tech-savvy station do that better than ever, as it continues to expand beyond audio recordings into other media, including video, photographs and podcasts.
Heading up the project is Dylan Flesch, a Library and Information Science graduate from the University of Washington who volunteered at KEXP before his class projects started solving real-world problems at the station. He was hired on at the station in 2013.
Standing amidst racks and racks of CDs and walls of vinyl, Flesch said the collection has been with the station since the KCMU days on the UW campus. The size of the collection makes the process of digitizing the music much more involved than simply ripping tracks from a CD onto your home computer.
Two Acronova Nimbie autoloaders, which the station refers to as “robots” named Huizenga and Ada, can handle 100 discs each. They run overnight, burning tracks into digital form.
“We’ve made a ton of progress in terms of the system, the architecture of how we’re going to store all of this media,” Flesch said. “And we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of the workflows around it. We have custom software and a mashup of different tools that we’re going to use. The plan is to feed the robots over the course of the next six to eight months.”
Those worried about a loss in audio quality are reassured by Flesch. “The transfer from CD is to a lossless audio format (FLAC) so even the audiophiles out there with the most extravagant system won’t experience any audio quality difference,” he said.
Flesch also said the majority of the vinyl is already represented in CD form. The process for transferring select vinyl albums is much more labor intensive and involves hooking up a digital recorder to a record player and playing each record.
But the station does plan to photograph and digitize the album art for the entire vinyl collection for the purpose of preserving the DJ notes.
Tool for creativity
Having quicker access to a digital library plays directly into how KEXP DJs select music, and how the station differs from commercial radio.
“Part of what makes KEXP really distinct from any of our other competitors is our DJs have the freedom and the responsibility to curate their own shows, and that’s really, really rare,” Cole said. “And they’re doing that in real time. So, they have this incredible freedom — there’s no pre-programmed playlists.”
Cole said the digital library will be an incredible tool for pure creativity. He often doesn’t know what he’s going to play next until he’s down to 30 seconds in the song that’s playing, and if he can easily find content to respond to a spontaneous thought or listener exchange, it makes for a more dynamic program.
“If I’m on the air and I’m playing an LCD Soundsystem song and a listener emails and says, ‘Oh my god, this is the bass line to that New Order song,’ I can be like, there it is, boom,” he said, making a typing gesture. “Instead of racing down the hall and it’s misfiled or we don’t have it.”
Music director Don Yates said the station, because of the type of music it plays, still receives a good amount of promotional CDs. And the new DJ booth is equipped to handle a broad range of musical formats. Cole said if he gets a 7-inch single that’s not in the system yet, he can play it. Or a cassette tape.
“I think we can do everything except 8-track,” Cole said.
“We’re working on it!” Flesch answered.
“We can’t do 78s either,” Yates said. “Or cylinder recordings.”
Music and technology intersect
The process only stands to reinforce the love of music and technology that has always powered KEXP.
Yates, who started at KCMU in 1987, called being overtaken by the Communications & Computing department at UW at the end of 1999 “the best thing that ever happened” to the station.
“That’s why we have the technology bent that we have,” Yates said. “Before that, we had no technology bent. I tried to get us on the web for years and then C&C took us over from KUOW and within a couple of weeks we were streaming on the web in multiple formats including the first uncompressed stream.”
Fast forward through a name change, another wattage increase, some Paul Allen money, a home on Dexter Avenue and a Webby Award for best radio website, and KEXP is still proving its love of music. Tech forms the intersection necessary to being the discovery resource Cole talked about. And interacting with that technology, including social media, KEXP.org and the real-time playlist, are a huge part of being a DJ at the station now.
“There’s more engagement than there ever has been,” Cole said. “We say our DJs are the hardest working DJs in the world, and I believe that. They’re programming on the fly, they’re playing music in every conceivable format and they’re responding in real time to listeners via Facebook, Twitter, texting, Instagram, old-school email, or maybe even a phone call. And then also responding to the news as it’s happening in real time.”
Cole said digital archives give the station the ability to better react to breaking news events, such as the terror attacks in Paris last fall, or the death of a beloved artist like David Bowie or Prince.
“We feel like it would be insulting for our listeners to tune in and hear the kind of robo-programming like they hear everywhere else,” Cole said. “We feel like we have to be responding to events in real time.”
A unique musical archive
By extending beyond audio files to encompass physical artifacts, the digitization effort will create what Cole called “a richer experience for the user.”
Thumbing through various albums and reading the notes and dialogue left by DJs over the years provides a unique perspective on how new music was received as it started to gain traction in the station’s rotation.
“It really captures college radio, 80s era. The attitude and vibe. Or 90s era,” Cole said.
He read some DJ comments on a latter-day Replacements record: “‘Hmm, sounds like The Faces.’ … ‘Will cause others to gag.’ … ‘They must have stopped drinking beer.’ … ‘I resent this record a lot. It’s crap.'”
Cole said the dialogue probably ended three or four months after the release. But the station’s plan to ultimately put the album notes online could allow the conversation to continue, with new responses from DJs and listeners. “Because this record now is a lot better in retrospect than it was received at the time,” he said.
Video is also a key component of the station’s new era. In fact, the station has more people watching its videos on YouTube than it does listening to the radio, Yates said.
With a broadcast audience of 147,000 listeners per week and another 57,000 listening to the online stream, KEXP’s biggest growth has been seen in video. According to data provided by the station, 750,000 unique viewers check out its performance videos on YouTube each week, and KEXP boasts 2.1 million video views a week.
“The evolution of what’s sufficient and what people are expecting when it comes to interacting with music is constantly changing,” Cole said.
That thinking is what drove the desire to go beyond just recording audio of in-studio performances and start filming and live-streaming them — sometimes in dramatic fashion, such as when Mudhoney played at the top of the Space Needle for the Sub Pop Silver Jubilee in 2013.
“We capture 500 performances a year,” Flesch said. “Each one of those we have four different camera angles, we have the multi-track, the audio master, photographs. All of that content is somewhere like 25 to 30 gigabytes of media, just for one session. There’s a massive amount of content.”
Servers at the station store the content first, and the plan is to have backup servers at KEXP’s transmitter site on Capitol Hill mirror all of the content. Flesch also said that he’s identifying a lot of older content that needs to be preserved, and the station is teaming with other archives and libraries, including the UW, to accomplish some of that.
“While all of the content we’re creating now from live performances is born digital, we have a lot of content created over the years that exists on the masters, physical media,” Flesch said. “We have reel-to-reels, we have 1/4-inch tape, a lot of the first in-studios are stored on digital audio tape. We partnered with the Library of Congress through their American Archive of Public Broadcasting to start the process of digitizing that material, some of the more at-risk material especially.”
In the end, Cole said that digitizing the library will be a curatorial tool, but it won’t change the way KEXP programs.
“It’s really ultimately about curation,” Cole said. “Whoever is DJ’ing is curating that 4-hour experience. … The mission is to enrich lives, champion music and discovery. If we help somebody find their next new favorite band through a video or through somebody’s radio show or a podcast or a tweet, it doesn’t matter, we’ve done our job.”
And while Cole can fathom a future that might employ something like virtual reality technology during a live performance or in the DJ booth, Yates set his sights on a different breakthrough.
“I can’t wait until we can send out the Kevin Cole hologram to DJ at parties.”