Nada Mucho

Part II: KEXP’s John Richards – The Second Greatest DJ Ever (Named John)

Posted by April 22nd, 2007 No Comments »

j_richards5Part II of Nada Mucho’s interview with John Richards , host of the wildly popular Morning Show on Seattle’s KEXP radio.

Nada Mucho: Are there any other ways KEXP is different than commercial radio stations, other than more freedom for the employees, no corporate backing, and no commercials?

John Richards: Oh my god, everything is different. The main thing is the DJs program their own music, which is very different from commercial radio. The DJs at commercial radio stations don’t program their own music. They just don’t. That’s a fact. None of them do.

NM: So you’ve never had any record company tell the station you have to play a certain band or song or try to give you money to do that?

JR: No. I’d quit. Or I’d leave. Or I’d be asked to leave if I did that, I would hope. I’m not saying that everything commercial radio plays is paid for. Nobody should say that. They choose their demographic from doing research, from calling people on the phone to doing focus groups, and that’s how they come up with what they think the public wants…

j_richards5Part II of Nada Mucho’s interview with John Richards , host of the wildly popular Morning Show on Seattle’s KEXP radio.

Nada Mucho: Are there any other ways KEXP is different than commercial radio stations, other than more freedom for the employees, no corporate backing, and no commercials?

John Richards: Oh my god, everything is different. The main thing is the DJs program their own music, which is very different from commercial radio. The DJs at commercial radio stations don’t program their own music. They just don’t. That’s a fact. None of them do.

NM: So you’ve never had any record company tell the station you have to play a certain band or song or try to give you money to do that?

JR: No. I’d quit. Or I’d leave. Or I’d be asked to leave if I did that, I would hope. I’m not saying that everything commercial radio plays is paid for. Nobody should say that. They choose their demographic from doing research, from calling people on the phone to doing focus groups, and that’s how they come up with what they think the public wants. They want a certain portion of the public. If you look at it, they own a certain number of stations; they’ll own an alternative station for the 18 to 24 group, then a yuppie rock station for the 24 up to 32 or maybe 40, then they’re going to own a classic rock station for older than that. Then they’ll own a sports radio station. What they don’t want is one person from another demographic going to another station. They want this demographic here and this demographic here so that they’re never competing against each other. If you don’t compete against each other, what is the point of having quality? So in a market like Seattle where we have KEXP and it’s a fact that we a have public radio audience here in Seattle that causes there to be competition, and it causes the dial to be a little bit better. Radio is better here than in some other cities because we exist, because KUOW exists, because KPLU exists, and because C89 exists. What else separates us? We don’t just have one type of music. That’s the other thing that blows me away. You can have this jackass Jack FM that plays only top 40 hits.

NM: I was just about to ask you what you think about Jack FM.

JR: It’s bullshit! It’s the worst thing to happen to radio in a long time! It’s worse than what they had on before. There are no DJs. It’s a computer that’s spitting out Top 40 hits between commercials. It’s something I could program into my iPod in five minutes, and I actually have more songs in my iPod than they do in their whole catalog because they play 1,200 songs and that’s what they brag about.

NM: Wow. That’s all?

JR: 1,200 could be considered a lot. Another commercial station will probably have a catalog of about 300 to 400 songs. We have 40,000 songs on CD. We have 20,000 songs on vinyl that we still play, and we have tons of new stuff coming in every day, plus personal libraries and stuff. So we have upwards of sixty to seventy thousand records. They have 1,200 songs. We just do everything different. And we play hip-hop in our mix. I find it very odd; the funny thing is that the hip-hop mix in the daytime can be alienating for some of our audience too.

NM: I’ve never been big on hip-hop. Maybe I’m too old.

JR: Well, you’re missing out, ’cause there’s some great hip-hop. I don’t think anyone should sign off on hip-hop. You can sign off on young country and you can probably sign off on some jazz, but you shouldn’t sign off on hip-hop. There’s people like Sage Francis, who’s incredible, and there’s The New Perceptionist, which is probably the most politically relevant music record of the year. It’s just a tirade about what’s going on in the Bush administration and the war. That’s one of the only groups that are speaking their minds when it comes to that. And you know, we play it and some people get pissed and other people get very excited. Some people just aren’t ready to hear criticism of our government, so when we play a band that does, we don’t do it [to criticize the government specifically]. It just happens to be that music is the voice of protest from Dylan all the way up to Public Enemy, and if we had a good pro-Republican song, I’d probably play it. I have yet to hear it, cause it’s usually shitty young country, but if we had a good one, we’d play it.

NM: Another thing I wanted to ask  this came up when I made a request to Cheryl Waters show and she emailed back that she couldn’t play it because it had swearing  there any way you can have a radio show where you can say profanity unless it’s pirate radio?

JR: No, except between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. you can do what you want. That’s not really a well-known fact. You could throw out f-bombs or whatever. There are a few things that are out of line. Our DJs shouldn’t be swearing. We don’t tell them to, but songs [are ok]. But then there are sexual acts with swear words you can’t play. We are ALL are at the mercy of the FCC.

NM: Being independent doesn’t matter?

JR: Actually being independent has a lot to do with it, because we have to be more careful. We would be wiped out by an FCC fine. A commercial station would just go to the corporate office. Like if it was Howard Stern, they would pay it. But if you did that to us, that’s half our budget. Right now the fine is $500,000.

NM: Oh my god. Just for saying "fuck" on the air?

JR: Yeah, if you’re shown to do it deliberately. There are people actively listening to a station like ours, mostly from people who want to support religious broadcasting, hoping we’ll go by the wayside so they can have our spot on the dial. You don’t really have the FCC listening in. You have these other people listening in, waiting for you. I mean, I could play something with "fuck" in it at 5:55, but not at six in the morning. It makes no sense to me

NM: KEXP’s website is very impressive. Did that come from the funding from Paul Allen?

JR: No. That, like our programming, comes mostly from the listeners’ money. And the time and energy that went into, that cool creativity, comes from listeners who tell us what they want. But the actual creation is through the UW and through our Webmaster Jason Davidson, who’s incredible. And we have some support staff here at the station who help, so they do all the design and we outsource a little of it. But as far as the back-up to it, all the technology is through the computer and communications department at the UW. It’s been our partnership with that department and the head of that department Ron Johnson, who’s an incredible dude. He’s responsible for all of this. He sees the station; he understands the station; he understands how technology can aid a radio station like this, like the uncompressed stream and the cell phone stream we’re about to launch. So all this comes from the UW. Not a lot of people know it’s the UW, and I wish more people did because they do such a good job they should get credit. So our association is more with the UW than EMP. EMP is a loose association, but this one [with UW] is an active, constant one. Like when we want to do the Podcast, so we need servers, they [the UW] hook us up with that. If we had to pay for all this on our own, the knowledge behind it, and the brainpower, we’d be toast.

NM: You’re in that position where you can be a jumping-off point for bands. What advice would you give to bands just starting out?

JR: Tour, tour, tour. Tour like there’s no tomorrow. Quit your jobs if you can and tour. Get your music out there. Don’t be reliant on Seattle, or any city, whatever city you’re in. It doesn’t work anymore. You have to get out on the road and establish yourself in other cities. You have to tour. Even the biggest bands in this city had to tour. Death Cab For Cutie, it took them 10 years, but they toured, toured, toured. You should tour because as a musician it makes you a better musician. And I think seeing the country and seeing life as a musician tells you: a) if you want to do this for a living, b) I think it helps you write songs, and c) it opens up other avenues with other artists. You meet more bands. You meet more people in the music business regardless of if you’re making money at it or not. It is hard for people to tour. It’s hard to quit your job or to get away from work. But it’s my number one piece of advice. And obvious things like worry about songwriting. Worry about songs before you worry about process, before you worry about marketing. I know a band who is more worried about their pictures or what producer they may use.

NM: So, if people send you a press packet?

JR: One sheet is great. One sheet. I have a thing up on my Web site, it’s all about how you submit music to a radio station, because no one has ever done that, and it’s so hard for bands ’cause they just don’t understand. I got that from seeing packages come in and thinking, "God, they wasted their time. This could’ve been so much easier for them." Don’t send me a picture. I’m talking about radio. You just shouldn’t. Not with my station. I care about what you sound like. I care about your songs. Send a one sheet, but make it easy. Don’t tell me who you’re compared to. Don’t tell me you sound like Radiohead, because you don’t. Be honest with yourself and just send the music. I just want to make sure it gets heard, and I don’t care if you’re good-looking or not.

NM: To wrap up the interview: Crazy scandals? Perverted stories? Anything shocking from working at KEXP?

JR: When I started, if a DJ didn’t show up, they would turn off the station. So I’d be driving around and I’d hear the station off, so I’d drive up there and I’d call the engineer. And the last thing that guy wants is to hear from a DJ calling at 1 a.m. to tell him to turn the station back on. Because he’d have to get up and go out to the transmitter on First Hill, because that’s the only way to turn it back on. So I’d turn it back on and I’d do a show, and it’d be amazing. It’d be great! As soon as I’d get on the air, I’d ask people to call and they’d call. So we had some of my best shows when I’d just show up and turn on the station and do a show. In a way, it was a romantic time in radio when people just didn’t care, but we only could’ve survived so long like that. It was frustrating in a way too, because I had to fill in for a lot for people who didn’t show. I came in once and one woman had just been hired, and she decided to sing along with songs on the air. And when I woke up at five, she was singing along with James. So I hopped in my car, didn’t shower or anything, and drove down to the station. I didn’t have any authority back then, but I drove down as fast as I could and was all, "Get off the air! This is the worst radio I’ve ever heard!" 

NM: Did she realize her mic was on?

JR: Oh yeah. She thought it was OK. She thought it was really good radio. It’d be one thing if she had a good voice. I asked her, "How long you been doing this?" and she said, "Oh, most of the night. I’m getting tired." And I said, "I bet you are! Has any one called you?" "Oh, not really." That’s ’cause there’s nobody listening! Yeah. There are some interesting people out there.

Read part one of Julia’s interview with John Richards.


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