Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music

The good news is that Web radio may not only free new music from its time-honored role as pacifier for a culture-minded audience fragment, but it may also provide both the Reich and the Ferneyhough fan with the opportunity to hear more of they want. This is because the Web can cater so easily to niche markets.

A recent New York Times article announced that the time has finally arrived for “specialized audio programming.” Sponsors are willing to support any program, no matter what the target audience, if they know with certainty that the listeners will buy their products. The Web can provide potential sponsors with crucial information about the consumer preferences of a particular audience. For instance, those of us who play new music might all indicate, when we log on to our favorite Web station, that we drink a fair amount of French Roast coffee. This might interest Starbucks in running an ad, it might interest the local coffee shop, as well, and even Krups might purchase an ad linking the listeners to their coffeepot site!

Sponsors are naturally interested in reaching the greatest number of people with their advertising dollar. This has, up until now, spelled problems for the new music community. Another big advantage of the Internet, however, is that it unites many tiny local markets. After all, it costs the same amount to broadcast to Tokyo as it does to Toledo. In the past, the new music aficionados in my home city of Rochester NY would have formed too small a group to merit the consideration of advertisers. Once we’re online, however, we can hook into a global market of moderate size.

There is evidence that the possibilities of marketing new music over the Internet are already whetting the appetites of some stations. David Srebnik, at public radio station WWNO in New Orleans, stated flat out that the first show they stream over the Web will feature new music. Srebnik admits that making such a show one of the “centerpieces of their web service” will benefit the station’s image, by involving WWNO in something “cutting edge.” Sound familiar? Bill Lueth, of commercial giant KDFC in San Francisco, used the same words in his description of how a new music “channel” on the station’s Website would positively affect their public image. KDFC, which boasts an exceedingly small playlist, is considering four or five such “channels” designed to reach “subset” listeners. The station currently streams only their conventionally-aired programming.

Given her conservative approach to programming, I was surprised to learn that Julia Figueras, at Rochester’s WXXI, is one of the most die-hard believers in the future of the internet. WXXI recently began streaming its on-air programming, and the response has been both voluminous and far-reaching. Office workers are listening on their computers already, she explained, and the station is receiving appreciative email from as far away as South Africa and Kuwait. While she expressed a strong distaste for conventionally broadcast niche programming, she agreed that it could be both appropriate and effective over the web.

Even two programming directors who expressed concern over the economic realities of Internet radio admitted to me that they saw potential in it for the kind of new music programming they tend to avoid. Mario Mazza, at commercial station WCRB in Boston, cited a recent Radio and Records article in which the author claimed that as few as 175 people a week are tuning in to Internet radio. In the next breath, however, Mazza told me that his station, much like KDFC, is considering adding an Internet-only channel that would include contemporary programming, vocal programming, and interviews with composers, conductors, and performers.

John Berky, at public radio station WPKT in Hartford, explained that his station can only afford to stream the programs they are currently broadcasting conventionally. According to Berky, if some tech-savvy college student can stream a new music program from his bedroom, it would be foolish for his station to spend (and potentially lose) thousands of dollars producing the same show. At the same time, he did not deny that separate Web programming was at least an option for WPKT, and that this would re-open the door to the kind of experimentation that characterized the early days of public radio.

I located three stations that are currently broadcasting new music programs over the Web, two based in the United States (WNYC’s New Sounds and the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar), and one from overseas (the Difficult Listening Hour). These programs are living proof that new music lovers of all stripes can already find at least some of what they want to hear right on their computer. It is interesting to note that all three of the stations still air the programs “the old fashioned way,” but have achieved a global presence through the addition of Web streaming.

The relationship between new music and the Web is still very young. It has only been in the past five years that the use of streaming became has become widespread. Prior to 1995, downloading a sound file meant a substantial commitment of time because you had to wait for your computer to decompress the entire file before it would begin to play. With streaming, however, the computer immediately plays whatever data it receives, and continues to translate additional data while it is playing. This cuts out the download time, and makes live radio possible.

The Web opens up new possibilities for the ways in which contemporary music can be broadcast. It is not out of the question that in the next few years, we will start to see the proliferation of new, Web-only new music programs unfettered by the economic needs of giant, old-fashioned stations. The natural extension of such programs would be Web-only stations that play nothing but contemporary music.

Ultimately, the quality and variety of new music available on the Web will depend on how many of us take the time to tune in online. For the time being, this means that the first time you listen, you will need to take twenty minutes to download a “player” on to your computer. In the near future, we should start to see more widespread use of player-independent MP3 files, which will eliminate this little nuisance. All three of the sites I discussed previously, however, require RealPlayer, which is available for free. In your search for new music sites, you may also need to download Microsoft MediaPlayer, or WinAmp.

The fidelity of Web radio still depends on a number of factors. These include the version of RealPlayer you choose to download, the quality of your speakers, and how “fat” a sound file the broadcaster is sending. WNYC makes it clear, for instance, that they are not yet sending out stereo sound, because they want to reach the greatest number of end users. This is fortunate for me, because the amount of data compressed into a CD-quality sound file would certainly put an antique computer like mine out of commission. In the near future, however, MP3 files, which are more compact than RealAudio files and their kin, will allow stations to transmit a wider spectrum of sound without overtaxing their end users’ machines. This means that tuning in to your Web station will become more like listening to a high-quality CD.

From Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music
by Jennifer Undercofler
© 2000 NewMusicBox