In basketball, it's the “sixth man.” In any competition, it's the “secret weapon.” And in the world of strategic warfare, it may be called the “steel sword.”
It's an intangible – something about your brand no one else has nor are they likely to acquire. When customers, clients, and competitors talk about you, they're likely to bring it up.
I'll save you the guesswork and the drama. I'm referring to a station's physical plant, its facility, its footprint in your community. While so much competition these days is virtual – Spotify, Netflix, a podcast network, or satellite radio, broadcast radio stations still have a building, a place that houses studios, staff, and technical equipment. And while they have changed a lot over the years – now often housing multiple stations under the same roof – radio buildings are often still magical, an amazing site where the technical meets the human factor to produce an over the air product that is often heard, but not seen.
If you work in an attractive radio facility now – or ever have – you can see it in the eyes of first-time visitors – of all ages. Whether they've listened to the radio for decades or honestly don't have a clue about what radio is, a station tour can light that spark that kindles a career..
I recall when I was inducted in the Radio Hall of Fame in 2018, one of my fellow honorees was the legendary Jim Kerr, famous New York morning radio legend, still waking up Gotham along with his able co-host Shelli Sonstein. When Jim looks back on a storied 50 years+ career on the radio airwaves, he easily tracks its origins to a tour of WWJ Radio here in Detroit when Jim was still in elementary school.
I expect those roots are shared by a number of you reading this blog who walked into an air studio one day, and were instantly hooked, smitten, sucked in – to a career on the air (or maybe selling it). As radio broadcasters know all too well, it's not hard to get seduced by those buildings that house radio stations, the equipment and the air studios, and of course, the collection of like-minded passionate people who work in the profession.
But much of this ambience has been lost in recent years. Yes, staff reductions are part of the story. But COVID's impact played a role as well, leaving some stations with few people inside cavernous work spaces. The next year or two should usher in a period of smaller physical spaces, even for companies operating a cluster of stations in a market. And along with that trend, building spaces that are less prominent physical parts of their communities.
Many owners have to be asking why spend the money on expensive station headquarters at a time when fewer staffers want to come into work. And where's the ROI in spending more dollars on prime real estate in hometown markets?
So, that's why I want to tell you about KNKX, a station clearly bucking the trend. Its backstory is fascinating. The station's former call letters were KPLU, named after its owner Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. Hybrid programmed with NPR and local news, KPLU featured Jazz and Blues programming the rest of the day.
But in 2016, the powers that be at the school decided to sell the station to KUOW, the NPR News station in town. When the news leaked, the reactions came fast and furious – from thousands of heartbroken station fans.
And then the miracle happened. The community saved the radio station – literally – by raising enough funds to buy the station from the university, forming Pacific Public Media, a community based non-profit.
The station changed its call letters to KNKX, and now operates as an independent public radio station. Its downtown Tacoma location is beautiful (pictured), located on the city's main drag, Broadway. It is emblematic of how KNKX approaches its mission, staying close to the community it serves.
We did some work with the station back in 2022, and got to know the staff well. They are a scrappy, resilient group, supported by a community that feels a strong sense of ownership – because in reality, they do own this radio station.
When we visited Seattle, and met the team, they unveiled their plan to expand their physical boundaries because in reality, they are a station providing regional news and music to a large swath of the Pacific Northwest.
The next step in their resurrection was building a second home next to Seattle's Pike Place Market. If you've visited there over the years, chances are you've spent some time checking out the famous Pike Place Fish Market, along with the very first Starbucks location just down the street.
And now, KNKX's new location connects the station to Seattle in a highly visible way. When Paul and I were there last year, the new location was still down to studs. It's now finished, and the station team is in the process of unveiling it to their excited and proud audience.
KNKX is led by general manager and “north star” Joey Cohn who's been with the station for 37 years. He believes the Pike Street Market space isn't just about new furniture and studio equipment – he knows it can be transformative:
“The most valuable stories are the ones that change hearts and minds. They're rare, but if you can do that, that's significant.”
After being “saved” by their community, KNKX staffers believe.
It isn't just that these new digs are in a perfect location for the market, it's also about the beautiful design and look of the station and its studios. Kurt Kerns, architect of the place works for V Three Studios and creates these incredible showplaces.
And to affirm just how impactful studios can be the press coverage by other Seattle media has been off the charts. Written by Paul de Barros, the Seattle Times ran a great story complete with striking photos of KNKX's new facility.
As Cohn explained, “The move here was really tied in with our mission” which is all about maintaining visibility and staying active with a vibrant community.”
KNKX uses “connects” as a statement of purpose, holding a series of events in the Market this past June. And over the weekend, they held their first Open House at the new facility open to anyone who wants to check out the new facility. NPR anchor Michelle Martin also was on hand at this event.
It is about giving the radio station a sense of place. In the proud Seattle area where the station is now located, neighbors showed up in droves for a preview of KNKX's new facility.
But coverage in the Times was just the hors d'oeuvre. Seattle's Fox 13 chipped in with a lengthy feature interview and Jazz performance. You can watch it here https://www.fox13seattle.com/video/1267220
And Seattle Refined's Maddison Newell wrote a great piece, “Listener support fuels KNKX Public Radio's renaissance in downtown Seattle.” It features more great photos, and a continuation of KNKX's great backstory and path forward in Seattle.
Its lead sentence tells you all you need to know:
“With local journalism struggling to survive, KNKX radio serves as a beacon of hope. Since its inception in 1966, the station has been a bridge connecting the region to NPR, Northwest News, jazz, and blues.”
Part of that reputation rests on performance, something KNKX has been dedicated to since the get-go. And their new home will encourage more of it.
In recent weeks, Seth Resler has talked about the value of community – but not one tied to physical boundaries. KNKX exudes that sense, on and off the air.
But none of this happens without connection, consistency, and commitment. A building alone could not live up to the mission. As KNKX's “6th man,” it facilitates the station's mission but doesn't create it.
To be a part of the communities you serve, you need these all-important qualities. But it also helps to have a visible, public-facing presence among the people you serve. And in the case of KNKX, their commitment to community has always been their cornerstone. It came as no surprise that in the station's time of great need seven years ago, Seattle, Tacoma, and the entire region stepped up to support and sustain this neighborhood jewel.
It's ironic that the dedication of KNKX's new facility comes at an ironic time for the world of business. These days, employees are working hard to not have to show up for work.
At KNKX, they've got two amazing spaces you'd like to think would encourage their employees to brave the traffic and elements to make regular appearances.
I'll take a little liberty on the “Field of Dreams” famous line, “If you build it, they will cover it” is something KNKX has just proved with its Pike Street Market location.
Hopefully, their employees will be motivated to create a new at-work culture. And that's the topic of tomorrow's post.