KEXP 50: Revisiting the Early Days of KCMU for the Station's 50th Birthday

KEXP 50, Sound and Vision
Owen Murphy
all photos courtesy of Brent Wilcox
Interview by Owen Murphy for Sound & Vision


What you're hearing in the Soundcloud link above is an early broadcast at what was then KCMU and now exists as KEXP. The station was started by four students at the University of Washington and officially launched 50 years ago today on May 10, 1972. Cliff Noonan was the station’s first program director. 

"My first thought was the university needed something for the students," Noonan tells me. "The students needed a voice. You have to remember, the era we were in was war, protest. All kinds of things were happening on campus. That information, those types of presentations weren't available at the time. And so my goal was to give the students an opportunity not only to get practical application, but also to have a voice on campus."

Noonan hailed from California and came to the university already with radio experience behind his belt. He wanted to help champion underground artists on Seattle’s new student radio station. 

 I had met people in my genre of San Francisco that if they didn't get on underground, they didn't get played. I mean, it just didn't happen," Noonan says. "And so I was looking to say, let's get an avenue here where some of these people that the companies are trying to get out there, let's get them out there. And at the same time, that will give us a library that we can draw from with all kinds of different music in it and that would just broaden the base for the station." 

Students had the freedom to play what they wanted. A spirit that continues with KEXP today.

"What we tried to do was to allow the students to create a format for their show. If they were into acid rock, or at that time it was ‘alternative music’. If we had the albums, they could put them on. It gave them a chance for creativity" Noonan says.

But that first year as a radio station was not without its hiccups. 

"The first year was absolute chaos," Noonan recalls. "Things sometimes worked, sometimes didn't. But it was not a question of, well, ‘call the repair man’. No, no, no. Get in there. Get it done. Are we going to have anybody here tonight to run the 7 to 8 shift? No. Okay. Guess who's sitting in? [It was] chaotic. Where it is now? Outstanding. I mean, the reach that the station has acquired through the Internet, through streaming [is] far beyond. . . .  It's just phenomenal the strides in technology that allow the station to do what it does today."

Brent Wilcox was an engineer at the station when it started 50 years ago. He never expected the station to grow into what it has become:

"We never expected anything back from the station," Wilcox says. "It was it was a labor of love. And I think we probably all wondered, well, how long will it last? How long will it be around until people lose interest? Well, people didn't lose interest because the interest in new music and new expressions of music has just gone through the roof, of course, and that's what keeps the station going."

It’s been 50 years and people haven’t lost interest. Happy birthday KEXP, here’s to another half-century.

Revisit more photos from KCMU's early days below, graciously provided by Brent Wilcox.


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