KIXI 880 recreates ‘golden age’ of radio for Islanders

KIXI operations manager Dan Murphey watches as Islanders play a game in the station’s tent at Summer Celebration last year. - Contributed photo
KIXI operations manager Dan Murphey watches as Islanders play a game in the station’s tent at Summer Celebration last year.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Those Islanders who listen to AM radio are most-likely familiar with KIXI 880, “Music of Your Life,” either because their ears perk up when the name Mercer Island — the station’s licensed owner — is dropped every hour or because they are devoted listeners to KIXI’s nostalgic music of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Licensed to Mercer Island in the early 1980s, KIXI 880 has been filling Puget Sound homes with the voices of Dean Martin, Etta James, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and other big names of the period since 1961. It is the only station in the Seattle area to feature the radio dramas “Imagination Theatre” and “Twilight Zone,” and draws listeners young and old, according to operations manager Dan Murphey, who has worked at KIXI for 15 years.

Murphey estimates that KIXI has up to 150,000 listeners as far away as Victoria, British Columbia, and Olympia. And although the station’s studio and radio towers are in Bellevue, KIXI continues to honor its relationship with Mercer Island, offering internships for Mercer Island High School radio students and setting up tent at the annual Summer Celebration. In fact, Murphey says that Mercer Island is home to some of KIXI’s most loyal listeners. The DJ looks forward to meeting them, once again, at this weekend’s Summer Celebration.

KIXI specializes in the “golden age of music,” songs from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. With that generation growing older, how do you keep a steady listenership today? How are you keeping up with the changing demographic?

We are introducing a lot of newer songs. We certainly are playing the classics from what’s known as the “Great American Songbook,” which is music from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. You’re going to hear Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, but we also have a lot of today’s new artists who are taking this music and giving it their own spin — people like Diana Krall and Michael Buble. They’re taking the standards that a lot of us grew up with and giving them a nice, modern feel. A lot of the younger people know these standards.

Also, what we’re finding is a lot of people in their 30s are hearing this music and remembering it from when they were growing up because their parents were listening to it, so they’re kind of rediscovering it.

In 2006, KIXI dropped its local format and switched to the nationally syndicated “Music of Your Life” program from Jones Radio Networks. How did this change KIXI’s identity?

The decision was [made] to take advantage of the star power of some of the “Music of Your Life” personalities. One thing that sets this format apart from others is that these personalities have a direct connection to the entertainment industry. The most notable would be Deana Martin. She’s Dean Martin’s daughter, so you don’t get much closer to the Rat Pack than that. She and her husband, John Griffeth, do a show on the weekdays.

[“Music of Your Life”] is the same KIXI music. We were able to take advantage of a much larger music library. Instead of hearing the same five great songs from Nat King Cole, you now might be able to hear 15 songs from Nat King Cole. “Music of Your Life” is also actively brightening up the format and making it more appealing to the younger audience.

Did you lose any local personalities in making that switch? What was the reaction among your listenership?

We did lose our local personalities. Change is always difficult. There was some disappointment, to be sure, because one of the great things about radio, especially in this format where you’re talking to an older audience, is that they get to know the personalities. But it’s kind of like when you have a really neat neighbor that you’ve known for a few years that’s moved away. It’s sad, but then you have a new neighbor who moves in and you get to know them.

We love our local personalities that were there. We respect them. Virtually all of them were colleagues of mine. It was not an easy decision, but we feel it was the best decision.

You have some unique shows such as “The Twilight Zone” and the local “Imagination Theatre.” How popular are these classic radio plays?

The radio theater that we play on weekends — Saturdays and Sundays between 8 p.m. and midnight — is our highest rated part of the day and draws the most listenership. “Imagination Theatre” is a [series of] radio plays that include wonderful characters like Harry Nile, a fictional Seattle private eye. There are the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and other great characters that represent the finest in contemporary radio drama. “The Twilight Zone” radio dramas are the original scripts from Rod Serling, who did the TV show, but they’ve been updated with today’s stars.

We also have a show called “When Radio Was” with the original shows of Jack Benny, Bob Hope, “The Shadow” and “The Lone Ranger.” The neat thing about this is that it’s not just the mature, older audience that listens. We have a lot of younger audience members — and kids — who listen to “Imagination Theatre.” Radio theater, much like the music, is timeless. It continues to draw a new generation of people who enjoy it and want to get involved in it.

Mercer Island is part of the KIXI name — KIXI AM 880, Mercer Island. Although you are not broadcast from Mercer Island, KIXI is registered under the city. What sort of relationship do you have with the Island?

We love Mercer Island. Our parent company, Sandusky Radio, has had a lot of dealings with Mercer Island High School and its radio program. We’ve hosted the students at the station throughout the years and helped them with job shadowing.

Mercer Island Summer Celebration is the biggest event. We love shaking hands with our audience in Mercer Island, and they love us.

Although it sounds horribly immodest, it’s really true: When we’re at Mercer Island [Summer Celebration], it’s like every third person who comes up always saying things like, “Oh, KIXI — that’s my station” or “I listen 24 hours a day,” and I always tell them, “You need to get more sleep.” We really have a lot of people on Mercer Island who recognize KIXI instantly, and that’s very gratifying for us.

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