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Open Source Radio: The New Weird America? [Part I]

17 July 2006

GREIL MARCUS writes that Top 40 AM radio, in 1965, was a “a true forum, more open to anyone… than any other cultural medium.” Today, such openness on AM music radio is rare as finding a bar with live music, or even a ma-and-pa shop, on what used to be called “Funky Broadway.” If anything, the trend that made AM music radio an endangered species has more recently has driven a sizeable listening audience away from FM commercial music radio, and even from the college and other community supported stations left of the (FM) dial. One may scoff at the so-called iPod revolution, but even a casual look at MySpace, for instance, makes it clear that a substantial number of teens and twenty-somethings today are more passionate about file sharing and podcasting than they are about commercial, or even college, radio.

One of the great advantages of iPods, for a listener and/or consumer of music, is a feeling of increased autonomy, the much touted American virtue of “freedom of choice.” One can hear what one wants when wants to hear it, and it’s either all available on the web or soon to be. Furthermore, just as in the 1980s, when the move from vinyl to the CD had at least as profound an impact on the music business, (by doing away with cheaper single, after a brief flirtation with the “cassingle”) as video killing the radio star did, today the newer iPod technology often appeals to the consumer’s urge for an individual song rather than an entire album.

For all the potential advantages of digital downloading services and podcasts, they do require a dependence on the computer that the airwaves and records do not. My skepticism to such dependence is more economic than it is ideological. When a radio or cassette/vinyl/CD player breaks, it usually costs in the neighborhood of $100-$200 to replace it; when a computer crashes, we’re talking usually upwards of $1000 to replace it (and this cycle comes roughly every four years or so at that!). [Chris, prices have gone way down! You can get a basic portable CD player for $25 or a new computer for under $500. -ed.] As both a consumer and practicing musician, it sometimes feels that this iPod ‘revolution’ is just a way to create yet another layer of middlemen techies and venture capitalists who profit off people’s wants or needs to buy and sell music, and just as the increased use of bottled water and cell-phones have lead to the decreased availability of public water fountains and phone-booths, so has the privatization of music through iPod technology, whether intentionally or not, contributed to the decline of college radio as a vital part of a grassroots community.

It’s not clear, however, whether the rise of the iPod lead to the decline of college radio or the iPod’s popularity stems from a sense that college radio has not been meeting the needs its listeners (and that this would have happened regardless of the introduction of the iPod). We’re left with a chicken-egg question if not exactly an either/or choice between these two mediums. Given the fact that the college and ‘independent’ means of getting airplay and checking out new bands have become more centralized and increasingly less open to the very Do-It-Yourself ethos that made many of these venues so vital in the first place, the “iPod revolution” may light a long overdue fire under the butt of increasingly complacent ‘independent’ radio program directors.

For all its ‘cutting edge’ claims, college radio has generally been reluctant to form alliances with podcasters, especially as quite a few podcasters are disenfranchised radio people themselves. Yet nature (and the entertainment industry) abhors a vacuum, and just as the ‘cutting edge’ small independent label Vanguard Records rejected BOB DYLAN in the early 1960s (only to regret the decision once Columbia Records’ JOHN HAMMOND discovered him), today the success of CBS-owned KYOU radio (1550), in both discovering new talent and winning over listeners, may force the college radio programmers to rethink their competition.

For over a year, KYOU radio has been broadcasting podcasts submitted by individuals (though some are higher up on the corporate food chain) and the result is an eclectic mix of programming that challenges conventional commercial radio wisdom, with its reliance on focus groups that ‘target’ specific demographics, as well as some of the by now habitual assumptions of many college and community radio stations. While some may consider this a desperate ploy by a large network to co-opt the grassroots podcasting phenomenon for its own dubious ends, I find no inherent reason to be more skeptical of these motives than I am of those of any college radio program director. The proof is in the pudding; if anything, KYOU shows that visionaries can be found where you least expect them.

KYOU was born when two men, STEPHEN PAGE and DAVID GOODMAN, decided to join forces. Page had been a college DJ during the heyday of college radio before moving on to work in various capacities for a number of commercial stations. In the mid-1990s, he left radio for a dot-com opportunity, yet even though there was more money in this field, Page’s heart was always with radio, and eventually he found his way back into it. As Page puts it, “It was during my dot-com days that I saw the possibilities digital technology presented and I quickly shifted my focus back to radio with an emphasis on evangelizing the new technologies to radio.”

Evangelizing is an apt word, for it is hard not to get swept up in Page’s crusading fervor about the possibilities of AM music radio, in an era when many see it as damaged goods, or a dead end. Even the most brilliant and charismatic street preachers, however, usually benefit when they have a church from which to spread their gospel, and by late 2004, he found one, with the help of David Goodman, president of marketing for CBS radio.

According to Page, “toward the end of 2004, Goodman had become aware of podcasting and in early 2005 he started to look around for a radio station that he might be able to convert to this format.” The station he eventually found was KYCY, a small, underperforming 10, 000 watt talk station in San Francisco. San Francisco was chosen by Goodman because of its reputation as a hotbed of “new technology, free speech and the dot-com mentality,” three aspects central to Page’s philosophy for KYOU. In other words, if Page’s idea can’t make it here, it can’t make it anywhere, and if it makes it in the Bay area, it’s possible CBS (or other networks) will try it out in other markets. According to Page, “the whole purpose of this station is to showcase as many types of podcasts as [we] can,” a philosophy which surely accounts for KYOU’s patchwork of styles and types of shows.

I am an avid listener of college radio, pirate radio (Pirate Cat Radio 87.9) and community stations (such as KPOO), but I hadn’t yet listened to podcasts before stumbling onto KYOU. For me, it was the freshness, and even the weirdness, of the sounds that initially attracted me. I hadn’t been this excited by radio in a long time. Only after a few listens did I begin to get curious about the concept of “open source radio.” It wasn’t long before it became clear that the medium is at least as important as the message, and that the format of podcasting is as important, if not more, as the programming.

Such a format may not for everyone, at least not all the time. In a May 27, 2005 analysis of KYOU, TOM WEBSTER of Edison Media Research writes that one of the pitfalls of this podcasting format is that the station lacks “any kind of on-air navigation between the shows—you literally have no idea what’s coming up next, or when a certain podcast might be featured. Of course, one can always consult the schedule provided on the website, but this ‘anchors’ the broadcast to the web and also misses an opportunity to cross-plug particularly compelling broadcasts.” While some listeners may share Webster’s frustration, in my experience, listening to KYOU offers a modicum of on-air navigation, though with less intrusive filler than most commercial radio stations. Any radio station demands time to listen to it, and the seeming anarchy of KYOU has become less so with repeated listening.

[Part II to follow]