Meet The Man Who Discovered All Your Favorite ’90s Music

In August 1991, 26-year-old radio DJ Marco Collins arrived in Seattle from San Diego. The charismatic new music director strolled confidently into the studio of the freshly re-branded station 107.7 The End, (call letters KNDD), and introduced his on-air stint by promising his audience: “I’m here to announce the end of bad radio on this frequency.” He paused – and you could almost hear a mischievous grin as he remarked, “No more Michael Bolton, no more Wilson Phillips, no more Gloria Estefan.”

Unlike some of the bands he discovered, Marco Collins may not be an international household name, but those who experienced the ’90s in Seattle recognize the infectious, genuine enthusiasm in his voice, which fanned the flames of the burgeoning grunge and alternative rock genres. And no one can deny his prolific influence. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was the first radio personality to play Weezer, Beck (“Loser” was sent to him by a friend in Los Angeles), Harvey Danger, Prodigy, and the Presidents of the United States of America on the airwaves. He was also a driving force behind the success of Garbage, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Hole, Supersuckers, and Foo Fighters.

Collins launched the careers of many artists of that era with a simple, yet remarkable knack for recognizing a potentially explosive song or band. “Something just happens in my head,” he told Uproxx. “I don’t care what the politics are. It’s not relevant to me when I listen to music. If it makes me feel good, I like to get involved.”

At The End, where Collins worked until 1998, he took listener requests seriously; featured live performances and recording sessions; and conducted offbeat, playful interviews. He also hosted an experimental Sunday night show, “The Young and the Restless.”

In the early days of his career – the late ’80s – Collins says he was inspired by the now-deceased Los Angeles radio DJ Deirdre O’Donoghue: “She was so laid-back and chill, and knew her shit inside and out. I listened to her religiously. She just talked to [the artists] like they were her friends. She just loved music, and she would sit around and shoot the shit.” Collins followed her example: When it came to the artists on his show, he says, “I just wanted them to be happy and confident. I just worked really hard to make sure they felt good about stuff. I catered my show to my audience. I knew what they cared about. I knew how to captivate them.”

Twenty-four years after his debut at The End, Collins’ revolutionary story is thoroughly explored and exposed in the new independent documentary, The Glamour & the Squalor, by San Diego-based Marq Evans in his feature directorial debut. As its title suggests, The Glamour & The Squalor reveals dichotomies of Collins’ personal and professional life, delving into the (perhaps unavoidable) ups and downs of being a prominent figure in the ever-changing music industry. In it, Collins, now 50, recalls the days of pre-Internet radio and speaks candidly of his successes and struggles. He’s presented as a compelling, complex character with an addictive personality, fueled by a deeply sincere passion for music and a desire to share it with the world.

In an industry that frequently spurs fierce competition and snobbery, Collins welcomed and supported newcomers and gave them a platform to succeed. A man of the people who also happened to party with rock stars, he wasn’t afraid to rebel against major record labels. (For example, he leaked two Pearl Jam albums from start to finish after instructing his staff to keep the station on lockdown, knowing that Epic Records’ employees would likely show up to physically confiscate it. His hunch was correct: In the film, it’s revealed that an assistant working for the label tried, unsuccessfully, to karate-chop the door open.) He also occasionally resorted to untraditional methods to get artists on air. Aphex Twin, he notes, rarely does interviews, but Collins says his colleague Brian Beck ran into him at a bookstore and convinced him to appear on the show in exchange for weed. In the film, Collins poses the rhetorical question, “Why does commercial radio have to suck? Why can’t you have college radio idealism and the commercial radio pull?”

The film also focuses on some painful subject matter. Collins, who is gay, endured some bullying and the ubiquitous teenage feeling of not fitting in; a strained relationship with his father, who wanted him to be a jock; and an ongoing battle to stay sober. In one particularly heart-wrenching scene, he recalls getting arrested after spiraling out of control on a cocaine bender in California. He was so strung-out and sleep-deprived, he hallucinated that Weezer was performing in the jail.

Describing the film to Uproxx as a true “labor of love,” Evans presents an entertaining story that highlights Collins’ upbringing in California; his punk-rock teen years in the late ’70s and ’80s with animated sequences and reenactments; and his radio career, which began in high school (one of his frequent callers was a young Eddie Vedder, who called him to put his pre-Pearl Jam band, Bad Radio, on air). Included, too, is plenty of raw footage from the ‘90s, an old interview with Collins’ friend Kurt Cobain, and present-day interviews with a range of prominent musicians. Subjects include Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia), Shirley Manson (Garbage), Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), and Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), as well as a roster of music industry executives; and family members. Pearl Jam’s McCready composed the original score.

“I wanted it to be dark and solemn at times [and] hopeful and celebratory other times,” McCready told Uproxx, adding, “I think the movie got it pretty right in terms of how adventurous Marco was when Seattle bands were getting big. I appreciate how independent he was back then… People waited to hear what he said on the radio, and his influence was definitely felt.”

The documentary took root four years ago during a trip to Hood Canal, Washington, an hour and a half northwest of Seattle, when Marq Evans fortuitously flipped on the radio. A testament to the station’s reach beyond the city limits, The End was “the only station I could get a signal on,” he recalls. “They were broadcasting a 20-year anniversary special – counting down the top 107 songs in the station’s history and having all the DJs from the past come on to tell their best stories.”

Collins’ name kept coming up “over and over again. Every time it was his turn to speak, he just totally jumped out of the microphone. That piqued my interest, and at first, I thought this could possibly be a scripted feature with the DJs from this station as the main characters.” After reading a Seattle Weekly article by its former music editor Chris Kornelis, Evans realized “not only was Marco integral in music history, but he had a real story, with arcs. That’s when I decided to try to make a documentary about his life. About six months later, he agreed and we were off and running.”

When the filmmaking team approached Collins, the radio personality wasn’t convinced it would become a reality. “My reaction was, ‘Yeah, sure.’ There are a lot of people with really big ideas. I thought, I’ll take a meeting with [producer] Andy Mininger, and I liked a lot of what he had to say. Then Marq flew up… I didn’t believe initially that it was real… Then they’re coming at me with contracts and lawyers.” Collins’ drug addiction had negatively impacted his career at that point – for a while, he was a music director at VH1, but he has also been to rehab more than a few times, which had compromised a number of jobs. “I’ve messed up so many jobs that I figured, ‘Why not give this a shot?’” he says.

Evans and Collins admit they butted heads during the production process, though what they have in common is their determination to bring their respective art forms to the masses – occasionally with somewhat unconventional, DIY methods. (Evans raised a lot of the funding through crowd-sourcing, but he also operates a pop-up restaurant called Cow by Bear in San Diego to support his endeavor.)

“We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, which is pretty common for filmmaker and subject,” says Evans. “We’re in a really good place with each other now, but it took a while to get to this point. I think we probably both made it more difficult on each other along the way than we needed to.”

Collins thought the film would be more about the musical landscape of the ‘90s and less about his personal stories. But “film people are different than music people,” he notes. “They think differently, and the movie evolved… it became a story about an individual. This is my ego speaking, but that freaked me out. I felt really vulnerable… People come up to me at the screenings and they’re like, ‘I just want to give you a hug!’ I don’t want [the film] to make me look more desperate than I am.”

Collins doesn’t sound desperate. When I spoke with him the first time, he was preparing to fly out of Reno, Nevada, the closest airport to where he had been staying while dealing with the death of his father, who passed away just a few days after being diagnosed with cancer. “This is gonna sound so weird and cheesy,” he says of going to the hospital to see his father, “But [my dad] put his hand on my face and he was looking at me like I was a saint. I’m just grateful he didn’t have to suffer.”

Despite his recent loss, his voice was full of the same youthful exuberance as it was 20 years ago, as if he’s just discovered the next great thing and can’t wait to share it. His energy is contagious, and he maintains the same approachable demeanor that rendered him so well-liked and trusted in his earlier years.

Though proud of the way he steered the music scene in the ’90s, he’s not dwelling in the past. He still works at various jobs in the music industry, hosting and emceeing shows in Seattle, producing remixed albums for MusiCares, promoting festivals and continuing to champion artists who might otherwise remain underdogs. He isn’t working much on the radio these days, aside from an occasional guest slot or interview, but says he would jump at the chance to work at a station like Sirius. “When the mic goes on, I feel alive,” he says. His current favorites range from local garage bands like Hobosexual to mainstream acts like Ariana Grande and The Weeknd. He works at merch tables at tiny venues and takes to social media to share his latest musical finds and occasionally his political opinions. In fact, he was a powerful advocate in getting Referendum 74 passed in Washington in 2012 – the bill that legalized same-sex marriage, thanks to his leadership with the Music for Marriage Equality organization where he worked alongside Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, as their anthem “Same Love” picked up and contributed to the momentum.

In many ways, his work with the civil rights organization mirrored his earlier work in the music industry — infusing a cause with extreme passion and fighting for it to become a reality.

Evans, who co-wrote the movie with editor Jeff Gilbert, says the crew told a good story, and so far, people seem to agree: It has won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Outfest in Los Angeles, Best Documentary at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, and it was the runner-up for Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival. “It’s powerful and inspirational, and we did our best to do it justice,” he concludes. “It took a while to get there. I’m really proud of what we ended up with. Every screening, people come up to me, thank me and tell me how much they connected with Marco and his story, and how much they needed to hear his story.”

Upcoming screenings include the Aruba International Film Festival. It will also be shown in New York, Edmonton, Minneapolis, San Diego and Sacramento before the end of the year. Evans is still negotiating distribution, but says it should be available on familiar platforms early next year.