There is no dance music radio station on Earth that has been actively transmitting as long as C89.5, KNHC, all the while existing on the cutting edge of electronic music over its incredible 50-year-legacy.
The Seattle-based broadcaster’s influence as a cultural institution has touched the lives of Northwest radio audiences across generations. But how does one plucky radio station in the Pacific Northwest outlast and outshine literally every other dance music radio competitor in the world?
That is what we’re here to discuss. The mythology of C89 is legendary, yet its foundations are perfectly terrestrial – a harmony of community service, musical passion, technical enthusiasm, and personal grit.
And like all good origin stories, it begins with a humble goal.
Larry Adams was an electronics teacher at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle’s Meadowbrook neighborhood. His teaching objective was to give students “hands-on, practical work in electronics,” C89.5 General Manager June Fox tells Dance Music Northwest. “In 1969, that meant radio.”
KNHC went on the air as a low-power AM station in December 1969, broadcasting at 100 milliwatts on the 1210 kHz frequency. This unassuming start kicked off a process of continuous expansion of the technical underpinnings of the station.
“Over the years, any opportunity we had to raise the power level or signal, we took,” says Drew Bailey, c89.5 Operations Manager and host of The Morning Drive.
After this brief stint as a cottage AM station, C89.5 was ready to step into the big time – FM radio.
After spending 1970 securing construction permits and overhauling the station’s broadcasting equipment, C89.5’s first FM broadcast was transmitted on Jan 25, 1971.
Adams and Greg Neilson, c89’s General Manager at the time, continued to push the station’s technical capabilities and infrastructure forward throughout the FM transition. In the arms race of regional radio, they weren’t just expanding the power and reach of the new station, they were positioning it strategically to survive.
Radio stations in the United States are classified by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) using two metrics: the effective power of the broadcasting system, and the broadcast antenna’s height above terrain. These metrics determine a station’s class.
“If Larry and Greg didn’t continue upgrading the station, we would not be the class of station that we are today,” says JB McDaniel, c89.5 Program Director. “We could easily get knocked off the air by a bigger class of station. That’s absolutely Greg Neilson’s legacy, he just kept upgrading as he could.”
Without those upgrades, the station would have been in constant danger of being usurped on the dial by larger, more powerful broadcasters.
Instead, today C89.5 is one of the few stations responsible for reporting its play data to Broadcast Data Systems (BDS), which audits key radio broadcasters across the country and sends the data to Billboard and other major outlets (like MediaBase) for charting.
C89 was one of the first non-commercial stations to be monitored by BDS, another way the forward-thinking mindset of the station’s leadership set the stage for their future explosion.
When McDaniel took the reins as Program Director in 1990, “we were the station for Depeche Mode, New Order, The Cure, all that stuff — it wasn’t on pop radio at the time.” Then in the early 1990s, the station shifted to a rave format as “that was the underground format taking off at the time.”
This was yet another major future-looking change to the station’s format.
And of course, the shift to dance music went off without a hitch. Right?
“It proved to be disastrous,” says McDaniel. “We had to take a few steps back and make it more approachable to different people. We threw in old disco records and dance records from different genres, broadened it out a bit, and made it more accessible.”
By the late-90s, mammoth artists we know today like Armin van Buuren and Tiësto were regulars on the station, even if they were somewhat unknown to listeners at the time. Meanwhile, C89 was playing dance remixes of hits from other genres too, ranging from Whitney Houston’s It’s Not Right But It’s Okay to Things Just Ain’t The Same from Deborah Cox.
The station discovered a knack for breaking new dance music in the United States. In one particularly incredible story, C89 began spinning Blue (Da Ba Dee) by Eiffel 65 before even their label knew it was playing stateside.
“A record label executive that I used to send, or fax, our charts to saw it [Blue (Da Ba Dee)],” says McDaniel. “He looked and said, ‘Oh, that’s actually our record.’ Then he brought it over and it became what it became.”
The station also broke iconic dance-pop hits in the United States like Do You Know by Robyn, Barbie Girl by Aqua, and I Want You Back from NSYNC.
Despite broader dance music taking a back seat in the mainstream during the late 1990s, thanks in part to the explosions of grunge and hip-hop, the groundwork was laid for C89 to lead the field in the oncoming EDM boom of the 21st century.
The late-2000’s EDM boom and today
Skrillex. Martin Garrix. deadmau5. The heavy hitters who put electronic music on the mainstream map throughout the 2000s and 2010s. They all found a perfect radio home on C89.5 amid their American explosions, well before pop radio was ready to embrace the futuristic sounds of genres like dubstep and electro house.
The early hand in dance music ushered by C89’s relentless drive to innovate gave the station major influence when EDM took off.
“There aren’t a lot of places for dance music on the dial,” says Bailey. “We are the one big stop for a lot of these big artists, and we’re lucky we do get stuff from them. It’s great to have that relationship.”
“The music finds us now, where we used to have and go and find the music,” says McDaniel. “We’re on all the lists of the different dance labels where we would have dreamed to have been 15 years before. It’s easier to have access to it, but harder to get through because it’s so easily accessible.”
And so, throughout the boom and into today, C89’s discovery process has transformed from painstakingly scouring the deep corners of the internet for new music to letting the artist community speak for itself.
C89 receives so much music and outreach from artists around the globe that curating the experience for listeners – and providing this incredible opportunity to students – is priority #1.
The day-to-day greatness of C89
A few quick facts: C89.5 is owned by Seattle Public Schools. The station is operated by staff and students of Nathan Hale High School’s electronic media department. The station is almost entirely self-funded.
The unique C89.5 media program represents an unbelievable opportunity for young students to get real-world experience in production, programming, on-air presentation, fundraising, and the music industry at large.
“There’s a certain percentage of students that come in thinking, ‘Well, I’m just going to get the credit and go,'” says Fox. “Then they fall in love. They don’t realize what they’re getting into until they’re here. Then it’s like, ‘Wow. I love this.'”
Students receive real-world training that easily translates to the broader media landscape, making media careers a realistic outcome for Nathan Hale students in the C89 program.
Additionally, the self-confidence gained, technical skills learned, and time spent in a professional broadcast environment apply to professions across disciplines.
“Students may not go into radio, per se,” Fox notes. “Maybe they go into public relations. Maybe they go into social media because they got that bug. There are all of these other pieces.”
While regular upgrades in tech and a cutting-edge pedigree are powerful tools for success, there are new problems facing C89 and radio as a whole.
“There is a huge dearth of engineers,” says Fox. “If there are no engineers, this entire industry [radio] is dead in the water. How do you get a student interested in engineering if they are never exposed to engineering?”
Enter C89.5’s modern day program.
Today’s FCC requirements for students to get on-air are far less rigorous than in the past, creating a chilling effect to learning.
Under past FCC guidelines, “before the student had even been behind a mic, they had to know the basics of engineering, a little about how microphones worked, how the transmitter worked, and more,” says Fox.
“Currently, without those tests being part of the process, people stopped getting to know the basics of engineering,” she clarifies.
Students at C89.5 receive technical training that is significantly more advanced than what media programs commonly offer, and are more aligned with the needs of the broadcast industry today.
From a funding perspective, as the station is over 80% self-financed through donations and local business support, many opportunities are available to learn valuable skills in sales, marketing, and fundraising.
For instance, when the station needed a new tower, C89 had to develop a fundraising campaign on the fly.
“The transmitter wasn’t even 10 years old and it kept falling off the air, so the chief engineer had to keep going up the mountain four to five times a day to get us back on the air,” says Fox.
The whole thing needed to be replaced. The station was forced to go on-air once an hour and make a plea for their listeners to pitch in and raise the $75,000 it would take to replace the transmitter.
Students and staff worked the campaign hard, and to everyone’s surprise raised enough money in just three days.
“There were donors whom the station had never heard about writing checks for $5,000,” says Fox. “It just shows the impact the station has on people.”
The next 50 years
Everyone at C89, from daily staff up to the Board of Directors, has their eyes on a future where the station continues to make major impacts in the community and the lives of Nathan Hale students. That philosophy got them to where they are today.
Building on a legacy of success that spans half of a century is no easy task. Then again, neither was relentlessly upgrading the station’s technology, transitioning to dance music and rave culture before it was cool, or doing the necessary fundraising over the years to keep the station up and running.
Put it all together and you see an organization where innovation and community orientation are at the core of everything they do. Simply put, that is how C89.5 became the longest actively-transmitting dance music radio station on the planet.
“Dance music has a unique home at C89,” says KOMO-TV Command Operator and C89.5 Board of Directors member Dan Magden. “The future of the program has a good course. Story-telling, podcasting, and high-quality audio production are keys to the educational side of C89. These are unique lessons not found in the standard school day.”
So, what exactly is next for the station after half a century? There’s no shortage of directions to move in, but ultimately, the foundational elements of C89.5 will continue to inform its future, as it looks to expand into other mediums as well.
“The future of C89.5 is clearly finding ways to expand into podcasting,” says Myron Partman, a member of c89.5’s board of directors and an Emmy-winning videographer. “C89 has the unique ability to teach podcasting and vodcasting to students and guide them to a pro level.”
More than anything, the station will continue fostering a positive, long-lasting home for dance music in Seattle and across the globe.
“I see the future of C89 the same as its past; provide a uniquely safe place to help young people find their voice,” says Jim McKenna, a member of C89.5’s board of directors and the Executive Producer of Bill Nye The Science Guy. “And, from that, maybe their future place in this world.”
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