During his 31 years of leadership at KEXP, Tom Mara grew a volunteer-run college radio station into a global music institution that he says reaches 2 million people a week. Mara will retire as the station’s executive director on June 30, 2022, as the organization turns 50. He is known for helping KEXP grow, while focusing on finding artists who are worth listening to and connecting them with music lovers.
Mara says he’s been pondering the question, “should there be another chapter for me” for the past few years—he’s 57 and has worked in public radio throughout his career. Mara isn’t sure what her next chapter will be, but she says now is the right time to leave KEXP.
“It’s a great time to pass the baton because we’re in really good shape,” says Mara. He is helping to find his successor.
Megan Jasper, CEO of Sub Pop Records and member of the KEXP board, says donations to KEXP are at an all-time high. The organization has an annual budget of approximately $12 million. And Rhys Rollins, a longtime KEXP DJ, says its staff and programming are by far the most diverse and inclusive.
When Mara began volunteering at the station in 1987, it was still KCMU, the station at the University of Washington, which had only a 15-mile range. But in 2000, Mara says he received a $250,000 a year grant from the late Paul Allen (then the organization’s operating budget) for 10 years, and a 1-month lease on a new facility in South Lake Union. The following year, KCMU became KEXP, and the organization grew by leaps and bounds under Mara’s leadership.
In 2016, KEXP moved into its new home in Seattle Center, a community space with a record store, coffee shop and spaces where visitors could watch live sessions. Mara says she cried at the opening ceremony of Space. It was one of his most memorable moments during his time as Executive Director. The new home of KEXP was an important step in Mara’s goal of connecting music lovers with artists who are worth listening to.
Through the development of KEXP, Jasper maintains that Mara remained committed to the artists whose music filled the station’s schedules. In its early days, KEXP was an important stage for grunge bands like Nirvana. Later, KEXP aired music from sub pop-signed artists such as The Head and the Heart and Fleet Foxes when no one had heard of them.
Jasper says that KEXP is unique in how it champions the artists it believes in, even when artists are not finding commercial success. This makes artists feel connected to KEXP.
“KEXP is a station that understands the nurturing of artists and developing artists,” she says. “The station is being requested by artists. And it’s unusual.”
In addition to her role at KEXP, Mara is an advocate for Seattle’s music scene, says Jasper. She says Mara was instrumental in developing a paid internship program to help people enter the music business, and a high school music-business career day that included stars like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
She also says that Mara’s lead at the start of the pandemic – she needed to get DJs to work from home quickly to prevent any interruption in programming – left her connected to the world during an isolated time. Helped to feel.
And he and Rollins say they admire how Mara navigated the racial reckoning starting in 2020. Rollins says that Mara recognized the diversity issues in the station’s staff and its programming.
“KEXP doesn’t always serve the entirety of the community,” Rollins says. Programming was diverse, but “rocked in the rock”, and did not cater to all the diverse residents of the Seattle area.
Rollins says that, although Mara hasn’t led the changes to the station since then, he encourages them—what he says is a sign of “extraordinary leadership.”
The on-air staff shift has changed to broadcast a more diverse group of DJs, especially during the day. For example, Rollins, who has been hosting Night Show for years, now plays jazz, African music, and alternative hip-hop during the day.
“Especially after the changes over the past year, I am as proud of KEXP as I have ever been,” Rollins says.
Mara says that the future of KEXP is global. The station has been forging relationships with the local music scene from Reykjavik to Mexico City over the years to find the best artists from around the world.
But even with this expansion, Mara says that the organization will continue its mission of enriching lives by promoting music and discovery, with all of its music curated by its 45 DJs – something he says is available on radio. Rare in stations.
“It has been an honor to serve the KEXP community over the past three decades,” he said in a statement announcing his retirement. “I am also eternally grateful to the musicians who inspire and heal us – they are the connective tissue between our communities.”