Why humans still have a place in music discovery

In the age of algorithms, humans are still relevant as a source of music discovery. KEXP DJ John Richards explains why human-spun programming is key to his station’s ongoing success.

Why humans still have a place in music discovery | Ipsos | What the Future
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  • Matt Carmichael What the Future editor and head of the Ipsos Trends & Foresight Lab
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Forty years ago, video was supposed to kill the radio star. But radio is still thriving in some corners of the dial. KEXP, a listener-supported station in Seattle, has built a global community through its long-running streaming service and presence on today’s digital platforms. It only plays music, spun by humans. The station’s morning show is DJed by John Richards, who can weave a set that ranges from punk rock to hip hop and introduce you to your new favorite indie band along the way. It’s an art practiced by fewer in these algorithm-fueled days. Can KEXP’s success hint at an important truth? 

Matt Carmichael: What is the role of radio today in our world and what does the future look like?

John Richards: There is a real need for communities to have a place to go and then to feel welcomed and to feel safe and to feel like they belong to another human being. People have doubled down to find actual humans. For instance, when you had the recent school shooting, it was still the same music on the other stations. The news gave you the news without caring about your mental health and what it might be doing to you. KEXP had flipped our programming, to more songs of outrage but also mournful [ones] for the parents, teachers and everybody who was dealing with this.

Carmichael: It’s a tough time for radio. How’s KEXP doing?

Richards: During the pandemic, our listenership times and donations were through the roof because people protected what they believed in. So that tells me that what we’re doing is on the right road and we are building community. We’re not just a station; we have a worldwide audience.

Carmichael: Any time I wear a KEXP shirt, I get comments.

Richards: Our loyal listeners help us, just with telling other people. Every band that comes here tells us that when they’re playing a show, they see KEXP T-shirts and fans come up, saying they heard us first on KEXP. People go out of their way to talk to the band to tell them this fact.

Carmichael: KEXP isn’t just radio. You engage with your community on Instagram and Twitter. It’s a streaming service. The station’s building is also a cultural center. Where does radio fit into all the different ways we can discover music these days?

Richards: Everything’s a companion to the broadcast and what we play. From there it branches out to the bands we're going to have in to do live sessions and the podcast and events. What’s the future of terrestrial radio? We don’t know. It was supposed to have died a long time ago. We were one of the first stations out there streaming, and we've never rested. We’ve gone out to different cities and done remote broadcasts. We’re always building that up and building up our video audience and our social media audience. I think it's insane to just invest in terrestrial, but it's also insane to give up on it. I think stations did too quickly, and then they couldn't support the other things they wanted.

Carmichael: Where does that fit into a well-balanced musical diet?

Richards: There have always been many ways to find new music. Spotify, your local library — there's much more available. I think it's great that you have these different resources now that you didn't have before. But there’s a place to go when you want and trust somebody to mix music, when you don’t want to just sit there and feel a non-live cold stream.

Carmichael: KEXP’s focus on music’s role in mental health has been powerful to building your community.

Richards: Other stations have asked us about this programming, and they are shocked to learn that we do a whole show on grief and cancer, one on addiction and one on mental health. We’re all dealing with a lot right now. I think a lot of people are realizing it more now because of this pandemic. I had no idea how many people were going to trust me, trust the show.

Carmichael: Did something change with our relationship to music in the pandemic, or is it just a growing awareness of mental health?

Richards: A lot of people are looking back at the songs that meant something to them. Because it’s not just new music, it’s classic stuff, or protest songs or just meaningful songs. Music is going to, as always, fill in the words that you don't have for yourself. They’re going to sing the songs that are going to tell the story of you. You can’t come up with those words. You don’t even know how to start. And then you hear a song or a mood in a song and it's able to. It could be Mozart or TV on the Radio’s “Trouble” or the Mountain Goat’s “This Year.” Those songs will fill in that blank. You should be doubling down on your love for music and your need for music in troubled times as you get older. You go to music to get lost and fill in the blanks. At least the people who do. There are plenty who don’t, but those are sad people who lead boring lives.

Matt Carmichael is editor of What the Future. He and his family are longtime KEXP AMPlifiers.

The author(s)
  • Matt Carmichael What the Future editor and head of the Ipsos Trends & Foresight Lab