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Anonymous donor leaves $10 million to Seattle radio station KEXP

DJ Cheryl Waters, left, and DJ John Richards during their first broadcasts inside the new KEXP studios at Seattle Center in 2015. (Erika Schultz / Seattle Times)
DJ Cheryl Waters, left, and DJ John Richards during their first broadcasts inside the new KEXP studios at Seattle Center in 2015. (Erika Schultz / Seattle Times)

Here’s all we know: Her name was Suzanne. She was generous with her money. She wanted to remain anonymous. And she loved music.

So much so, that before she died, Suzanne made the largest-ever philanthropic gift — just under $10 million — to Seattle radio station 90.3 KEXP FM.

It is believed to be among the largest bequests to an individual station in public-radio history, save for a $200 million donation made to National Public Radio by Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. (That donation included $5 million to her local NPR station in San Diego.)

“It’s pretty intense,” said Betsy Troutman, KEXP director of development, who was called to Suzanne’s attorney’s office and told the news.

“I was shocked and started crying,” Troutman said. “The thought that she would do this is mind-blowing to me. (Suzanne) had shared with me once or twice, kind of casually, that she had made plans for KEXP in her estate.

“But she was young and I said, ‘Oh, that’s amazing. Thank you very much.’ I didn’t think that it would come when I was here.”

Troutman called the gift “transformational. It changes our whole landscape. I still get goose bumps every time I think about it.”

The bulk of the money will be placed in a longtime reserve and provide seed money for education programs “aimed at inspiring younger audiences to engage their curiosity around music; services and programming for emerging artists; media-creation experiences for aspiring DJs and music journalists, and outreach activities aimed at deepening KEXP’s connections to local communities,” the station said in a release.

The money will also go toward the station’s digital-content strategy, and improvements to radio programming.

Executive Director Tom Mara said the money gives the station some financial room to breathe, and an ability to fund innovation.

“Once you feel the stun from this, then you begin to realize that Suzanne is going to be here for decades to come,” Mara said. “But that gets married with a higher level of seriousness.

“These dollars have to be stewarded well and managed in the most effective way to make an impact,” he continued. “We’re trying to honor her spirit by applying those funds to directly supporting artists as well.”

The gift has inspired the station to create a new giving club called “The Reverb Society,” which will allow KEXP donors to include the station in their estate plans.

Suzanne had some family ties to Seattle but did not live here, Troutman said. She had given to the station on and off since 2010.

“She had a personal stake in the radio station,” Troutman said, all the way back to when it was KCMU.

KEXP will celebrate Suzanne’s “life, generosity and love of music” at 3 p.m. today on The Afternoon Show, when DJ and KEXP Chief Content Officer Kevin Cole will play a special set of programming dedicated to her memory.

(Can we make a couple of requests? Lou Reed’s “I Love You, Suzanne” and, obviously, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”)

Cole plans to focus on “a positive, life-affirming mix that embodies her personality and eclectic music interests.”

That means Motown. Old-school and neo soul. Local and Icelandic music. And, since Suzanne was an early donor to the station’s New Home campaign, Cole will play a couple of songs from the grand-opening celebration: Grace Love singing “Hallelujah” and a performance by the late Sharon Jones and her band, The Dap Kings.

While Suzanne requested to remain anonymous, she was well-known to the station.

Mara remembered showing Suzanne around the station’s new home while it was still under construction. He offered her a Sharpie and encouraged her to sign her name on the back of a panel of drywall.

“She said ‘No,’ but gracefully,” Mara said.

He insisted, and so she finally signed.

“And now we get to walk around with her name, literally, in the building.”