A top-three rated, triple-A formatted, noncommercial station in a top 15 Nielsen PPM market, with an average quarter hour share this close to a 6.0, is a rare sighting indeed. That was the story of Seattle's KEXP in April 2021. The station's still-impressive fourth-ranked 4.7 share in May doesn't detract from its unique place in the market, especially with a weekly cume that increased over the course of the pandemic – also unusual for triple-A.
“Lower cume correlates to what’s happened to radio listenership overall during the pandemic,” KEXP’s Senior Programming Advisor and afternoon host Kevin Cole says in a story for Spark News on Medium.com. “[KEXP’s] increased share and cume means collectively we’re providing more value and public service impact in the lives of listeners.”
Not only did KEXP's listener cume hit 175,000 in April, the station's YouTube subscribers were up 20% during COVID to a current 2.5 million, while total Instagram followers gained 31% to 377,000 in May 2021. Weekly users of KEXP's mobile app were up 18% on IOS and 12% on Android, and the number of texted requests to that station's “DJ booth” average close to 300 daily.
So, how does KEXP do all this, with music mostly unfamiliar to a larger audience, spanning eras and genres, and in America's 12th largest radio market, where over 40 stations – including seven viable non-commercial outlets, the most for any U.S. city – compete for listeners' attention? “We are certainly a child of Seattle, and we are awfully proud of our city’s vibrant music scene, the insatiable appetite for music, and generosity,” says Executive Director of station owners Friends of KEXP and former station manager Tom Mara, who has been with KEXP since he was a University of Washington student in 1988, when the school owned the station with then-calls KCMU, and a young Kurt Cobain brought his band Nirvana's early recordings to the station. “Our mission compels us to enrich your life by championing music and discovery.”
KEXP's commitment to, and interaction with, its audience has been key to its success since the pandemic. “People need music, connection and community more than ever right now,” Cole says. “One of the things that differentiates us from others is that KEXP DJs have the freedom and responsibility to curate their own shows, [which] strengthens our emotional connection to listeners and has been key during the pandemic. DJs being able to connect with listeners through all this turmoil and uncertainty, in a very real and authentic way, has helped listeners feel less isolated, less alone, knowing we’re all experiencing this strange time together.”
Public Radio Program Directors Association President and Executive Director Abby Goldstein, noting KEXP's unusual success, has seen music stations redefine themselves in recent years given changing technology, audience needs and the pandemic. “It’s no longer good enough to be a radio jukebox anymore,” she says. “Music is everywhere and we can curate it ourselves, that is no longer a unique value. Stations have to stand for something more than the music itself. Perhaps that is the most important variable, how stations such as KEXP walk the walk and not just talk the talk.”