In the Stream of Internet Radio, Music Stations Hold Their Own

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SEATTLE — Internet radio was supposed to squash small FM music stations like KEXP. Someone forget to tell that to KEXP, the little station that has helped start the careers of big music acts like the Lumineers and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

Last week John Richards, the morning D.J. at KEXP, walked through the station’s gleaming new headquarters not far from the Space Needle. It is a $15 million project intended to further the station’s evolution into a brick-and-mortar music programmer for the Internet age.

As workers put the finishing touches on the soaring public performance space near the building’s entrance, Mr. Richards pointed to a corner that will eventually have a cafe and another that will house a record store. A large soundproof window provided an aquarium-like view into the booth that Mr. Richards and other D.J.s will begin broadcasting from next month.

“It’s like ‘Star Trek’ in here,” Mr. Richards said, inspecting the electronic consoles, microphones and computer displays inside the booth.

Music fans live in a time of plenty, when nearly every song for any musical taste can be listened to in an instant over the Internet, from Spotify, Pandora and dozens of other sources. Satellite and commercial radio crowd the airwaves with further options for discovering new music and listening to the old.

And yet a handful of nonprofit music stations like KEXP with roots in college radio have never been doing better. They are using the Internet to reach bigger audiences around the globe, adding to their video programming and seeking to become in-person destinations for fans.

Most of all, they are trying to stand out with their music programming, with genre-hopping mixes selected by D.J.s rather than software or dictated by program directors at commercial radio chains.

The abundance of music and methods of distribution has increased demand for human tour guides for all of it.

“There’s so much music out there, so many places to go,” said Roger LaMay, general manager of WXPN, a public music station in Philadelphia, and chairman of the board of National Public Radio. “But finding curation from a trusted source is a lifeline for most music lovers who don’t have the time or wherewithal to sift through it all on their own.”

KCRW, a public radio station in Southern California, is another tastemaker. At the end of next year, the station plans to move out of its basement studio beneath the cafeteria of Santa Monica College to a $48 million facility with a public performance space.

“The thing that has helped KEXP and KCRW is we’re not traditional radio,” said Jennifer Ferro, the president of KCRW. “We’re really building this tribe of people that are interested in music discovery and curious about the world.”

Even Apple has cottoned to this approach, introducing a human element into its Apple Music service with Beats 1, a live, Internet-only radio station anchored by Zane Lowe, a former BBC radio D.J., and other musical tastemakers.

KEXP has made thematic narratives for music junkies, rather than pop hits, one of its specialties. In July, it dedicated 12 hours to a meticulous deconstruction of “Paul’s Boutique,” the seminal Beastie Boys album, in which it played every track on the album along with the original songs that they sampled. Music fans raved on social media.

Next month, it plans to devote the same amount of time to playing all of the songs that borrow a famous drum riff from “Funky Drummer,” a classic James Brown song that features a commonly sampled solo by the percussionist Clyde Stubblefield. Breakdowns of the samples in classic De La Soul and Public Enemy albums are planned for next year, Mr. Richards said.

“They are a hybrid of a lot of different radio stations, but ultimately they’re their own thing,” said Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop Records, who was a D.J. at the station in the 1980s when it went by a different name, KCMU. “They still are fundamentally the renegade station they were when they started.”

The station’s D.J.s are walking Wikipedias of musical trivia, not commercial radio personalities who seem to have had one too many espressos. Mike McCready, the lead guitarist for the rock band Pearl Jam, singled out for praise a show in which Kevin Cole, a KEXP D.J., played songs from all of the bands that were inspired by being in the audience of an early show by the Sex Pistols, an influential punk rock band.

KEXP doesn’t have anything like the tens of millions of listeners of an Internet channel like Pandora, and probably never will. It reaches about 206,000 listeners a week, just over a quarter of whom stream the station over the Internet. That’s more than three times its audience 15 years ago. New York is the second-biggest source of online listeners, after the Seattle-Tacoma area.

As a nonprofit, it doesn’t have to chase ears like its commercial rivals. KEXP receives about half of its annual $6 million cash operating budget from listener pledges, while the rest comes from grants, corporate underwriting and other sources.

KEXP has significantly expanded its audience through its YouTube channel, which features sessions with musicians at its studios and at music festivals around the world. It posted more than 500 such videos last year and its channel has about 743,000 viewers a week.

Its most popular video, with nearly 30 million views, showed a kinetic Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, the Seattle hip-hop duo, performing “Can’t Hold Us” four years ago, when they were on the cusp of mainstream stardom. “That was a moment we knew something was special,” Mr. Richards said.

While its audience can’t compare in size to its digital rivals, the station is revered by many influential fans.

“I am listening to @kexp and @loserboy on @iHeartRadio and I am LOVING it!” Jimmy Fallon, the “Tonight Show” host, tweeted last month. (@loserboy is the Twitter handle of Mr. Richards, and iHeartRadio is an app from the radio conglomerate of the same name for listening to radio stations over the Internet).

Wesley Schultz, the guitarist and lead singer for the Lumineers, the Denver folk rock band, said Mr. Richards played his band’s song “Ho Hey” twice a day, back to back, for a week during his show in 2012.

“It started making waves for our band that we would never have anticipated,” Mr. Schultz said, adding that he listens to the station every morning. “All these people started finding our music through this station.”

For almost 10 years, KEXP has broadcast sessions with bands playing at a music festival in Reykjavík, Iceland (Mr. Cole was broadcasting from there last week). In 2010, KEXP filmed a video of a recently formed band, Of Monsters and Men, performing their song “Little Talks” in the living room of one of the band members. The song went on to be a quadruple platinum seller, said Heather Kolker, the band’s manager, who credited KEXP with raising their profile.

“It lifted them out of the mass of things going on that year,” she said.

In the cramped, rundown offices that KEXP currently occupies in Seattle, one bathroom is out of order and the station has bought a portable boat toilet in case the remaining one breaks down. The station’s small recording studio is decorated with cheap black curtains and Christmas lights.

Its new headquarters are palatial in comparison, with a laundry facility, showers and storage lockers to make the place more comfortable for touring bands. KEXP will record video of live sessions with bands in a new $500,000 performance space, which has a viewing area for about 75 people.

“We barely call ourselves a radio station,” said Mr. Richards. “We do so much more than that. We see ourselves as a media organization, a community organization.”

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