KEXP is a phenomenal resource for Seattle, the country, and the world. This radio station continues to provide new and innovative music to listeners by way of albums, in-studio shows, and external concerts. Anna and I recently got the opportunity to visit the special library within the radio station and here is what we found.
Dylan Flesch, our guide and friend, is both a regular volunteer for the radio station and an MLIS student going through our program. We were fortunate enough to have Dylan give us a quick tour through the radio station as a whole. The labyrinthine qualities (due to the current building’s limited space) were fun and exciting, though they will soon be replaced with greater structure and efficiency as the radio station moves to a new space (more on how that relates to the library in a bit!).
So yes. Dylan gave us a tour of the radio station and showed us where the on-air magic happens, where all the offices within the building are, and gave us all the top secrets. I’ll forego providing all the nuances of the tour and skip right to the library, which was the reason for our visiting.
When you enter the library, which is in the center of the building (and is definitely the biggest room), you’re confronted with so many resources so compacted (by static and sliding shelves) that you get a bit overwhelmed. The vinyl records (see above), which are no longer expanding within the collection (due to lack of use) are completely overshadowed by the CD collection.
You might be asking yourself, “In year 2013, just how many DJs are actually using CDs?” We asked this very question and Dylan told us that a ton of music is still played on CD. The CD format is still the format widely used by distributors, record labels, and individual musicians/bands (though digital downloads are available too). The music director at KEXP gets music in via mail and literally goes through the CDs on his own, finding the albums most needed to be put into rotation. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of curation, and I’m not quite sure how collection development works (how do CDs that were in heavy rotation go into the collection, and do any non-rotation CDs make it into the library?), but it does go on.
The “classification system” being used by KEXP is a combination of colored labels (see above) and alphabetical notation (see below). As you can most likely tell, the color coding is very confusing because stickers are being used in combination to best represent genres. Obviously the genres are limited as well due to the lack of sticker diversity. I would definitely argue that, in the age of iTunes and metadata galore for music, major genres aren’t doing much in the way of explanation and description; however, with the curse of the physical format still plaguing the radio world, I don’t think there’s much that can be done. A full digitization project would be needed.
CDs not only take up a ton of space, but they are extremely unreliable in terms of archiving, and can be easily damaged (either the CD itself or the case). We all remember our old CD-loving days. In fact, I still have a binder of software CDs hanging out in the darkest recesses of my closet. I asked Dylan what happens if a CD gets damaged. Does it get replaced? Dylan said in most cases they do not get replaced. So where is the sense of permanence within the collection? I got the sense that the collection is constantly in flux.
Additionally, many of the DJs play their music via their iTunes. The iTunes offers the benefit of personal collections as well as automation, something that isn’t available by CD (in fact, Dylan and other volunteers often assist DJs with going to the library to get CDs, and managing the CDs that will be used for each show). The problem appears to be systematic: the culture of the radio requires physical copies; however, the individual still wants to be using the digital, and thus rip the CDs to their computers as fast as possible. This appears to be less about ownership and more about maneuverability through the collection. And the collection’s newest additions, those hot albums that just came out, are only really accessible via the physical CD. The physical CD, even though it can be misplaced or lost or stolen, also is the physical resource that binds the DJs together. When you have an album that is in heavy rotation, it is physically on the heavy rotation shelf in the on-air booth so that every DJ has access to it. While I envision countless automation tools that would digitally be able to do the same thing, the conversion to such a system seems like it would require a lot of work (especially if somebody has to rip every CD that needs to go into the system).
The library at this point is completely physical and completely used. The radio station has a very large hard drive (many terabytes in size) that could be used to house the collection, but digitization would require a very firm and consistent process. I’m hoping that Dylan can step in and assist in the workflow, that he can turn that need, which would do so much for everyone involved in the sharing of the music information. I imagine having the entire collection digitized could also be amazing for listeners, who could access at least the metadata of the collection online and see what’s available to all the DJs, and what was played at any given time.
The entire station is moving into a new space over by the Space Needle quite soon, and that move will determine the fate of the library. The space will be bigger and much improved, but what will happen to the library and the internal systems? I see it as a potential reset button for the radio station, but then again, it all depends on the work and commitment of the entire team at the station to make that switch. On a final note, I wanted to share the instructional sheet for the library, which is taped (from what seems like years ago) to one of the sliding shelving units: