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

26 July 2006

[Continued from Part I]

KYOU might be best understood as a radio/web hybrid; the criticism that the station does not stand on its own because it is squarely tied to its website is somewhat reminiscent of the argument put forth by those who said that BOB DYLAN was not a real poet because he set his words to music (with the implication that, somehow, that’s cheating). In the past decade, however, many more conventional radio stations have increasingly become tied to the web, and low-wattage community stations draw more traffic at their websites than at their frequencies. KYOU takes this experiment further by showing that radio’s increasing web dependency can work both ways, and serves a valuable negotiation between these two mediums that have been in competition with each other.

TOM WEBSTER of Edison Media Research claims that because KYOU is “not mainstream enough even for the average NPR listener and not on-demand enough to please those accustomed to downloading podcasts and listening to them how and when they want,” that it “suffers from the same basic ‘flaw’ that drove many of these podcasters from broadcast radio in the first place.” Yet, in ignoring the not-insubstantial “college radio” audience (which is significantly different from the mostly-talk programming of NPR or even Pacifica), Webster fails to realize that KYOU may, in fact, serve a need that is no longer being met by most radio stations as well as those who view podcasts as an end in themselves.

By assuming that “the inability to skip past unwanted songs” is what has lead many people to forsake the radio for the iPod, Webster ignores the needs of the audience who turned away from commercial (and even public) radio not so much because of a desire to control what they listen to, but rather because the programming was increasingly narrow and predictable, despite the much touted claims to the contrary. For such an audience, which generally has a greater tolerance and even eagerness for randomness, part of the thrill of listening to the radio is giving yourself up to the whims to the personality of the DJ. Such an audience doesn’t need the “on demand” aspect of podcasting as much as it needs the thrill of being able to discover a ‘different’ radio experience and the feeling of being part of a community.

Though I understand the urge to podcast as well as the urge to listen to today’s commercial specialty stations (which arose in the late 1970s with the fall of eclecticism that was once the bread and butter of both Top 40 AM and “Free Format” FM radio stations), both of these modes of disseminating music have their limits. KYOU, in its navigation of this middle ground, could be looked at skeptically, as Webster does, as falling through the cracks, but it also could be looked at as providing the best of both worlds—on one hand, the thrill of eclectic programming, and vivid personalities (with whom you can interact) more typically associated with web-only podcasts and public radio, and on the other hand, the feeling of being part of the sort of easily accessible (albeit backdoor) community that radio can still accommodate.

Even Webster is not blind to the advantages of KYOU’s experiment, as he acknowledges that KYOU’s fledgling format contains a good deal of compelling broadcasts that “could appeal to the public radio audience and perhaps lure back some of the listeners commercial radio has lost to public radio over the past decade.” I’d go even further to claim that KYOU may also help lure the iPod generation back to radio itself. The wisdom behind the KYOU experiment implies a different notion of the radio listener, one who has been too often ignored by commercial radio, especially during the past 25-30 years. If, as even Webster acknowledges, “podcasting provides a way for talent to once again become curators of culture, arbiters of taste, and credible, passionate, advocates for music that the WOLFMAN JACKs and COUSIN BRUCIEs of the world once were, I am all for it.” As someone who came up in college radio, KYOU’s STEPHEN PAGE understands the needs of these listeners more than many other radio business people.

Page recognizes that many listeners channel surf, or even switch back and forth between the radio and recorded music, and thus challenges the spurious assumption (that underlies most notions of demographic targeting) that most listeners glue themselves to one particular station. In this sense, KYOU doesn’t talk down its nose at the listener by attempting to level out differences. It’s a gamble to be sure, but because KYOU was an “underperforming” station before it began broadcasting podcasts, it frankly has little to lose.

If anything, its new format is even cheaper to run, since it no longer has to pay DJs, talk show hosts, or syndicated networks. As Page puts it, “KYOU’s new format incorporates economics and business practices that are commonplace in many larger broadcast facilities: small staff, syndicated content, and taped voice tracking instead of a live announcer. A side benefit of this for the time being is less advertising.” While one may say this is exploitative of the podcasters, it’s actually the standard model for syndicated content within the broadcast industry; podcasters supply the programming and in return for airplay have the right to sell sponsorships within their programs.

Because it’s an AM station, even its relatively low wattage (about which some fans of the Oakland Athletics in Martinez complain) has one advantage over college radio—the station is easier to pick up on a portable radio than most community stations on the FM dial. Though it may seem to be a paradox that a radio format consisting of the most high fidelity cutting edge reproduction technology finds its home on the more ‘low fidelity’ AM frequency (rather like watching liquid television on a black and white TV), this paradox is part of the point, and thrill, of KYOU. There’s something very attractive (even if it takes a little getting used to) in hearing such music through the AM radio waves.

The fact that any listener can conceivably submit a podcast may be qualified by the amount of work and knowledge (of both music and technology) that a podcaster must have to create a program of high sonic quality and entertainment value that would meet Page’s standards. Yet, judging from what I hear on KYOU, Page’s tastes in podcasts stress an openness to the idiosyncratic. He seems, however, to remain somewhat reluctant about establishing more specific criteria for which podcasts he chooses to play or exclude. One could assume that when presented with two podcasts of equal sonic quality, Page would generally choose the road less traveled in terms of content, yet when asked about the left-leaning aspects of most of the talk-shows (with the possible exception of the ‘more grounded’ money management programs, which are paid advertisements), Page can still claim that every podcast submission (say, nuns playing Muzak) will get a fair shake.

At this early stage in KYOU’s development, Page doesn’t yet have to take responsibility for excluding anything. The fact that hip-hop, for instance, is currently under-represented probably indicates that there is not a large enough pool of such podcasters either aware of, or willing to submit their shows to, KYOU rather than any executive decision based on aesthetic or demographic criteria. But if the station continues to succeed (and Page assures us that as long as the CBS Digital Group feels it’s important to use some Research and Development funds to support KYOU, it will exist), it’s clear that Page will have to make some tougher decisions in order to maintain the ‘open source’ format.

Perhaps the biggest difference between KYOU and college or community supported stations is that very few of the podcasts originate locally. The local radio listener can hear more podcasts originating from the U.K. than it can from the Bay Area. While there are definite educational and aesthetic benefits for the listener (and much needed exposure for artists and entertainers) in this, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see it lost, it also lends a ‘virtual classroom’ feel to KYOU, which could benefit from cultivating more local podcasts.

Insofar as this is a weakness (and it might not be), it is not the station’s fault, but rather a challenge, and opportunity, for the local podcaster and musician to flood KYOU with potential programming. If you don’t like what you hear on most stations, the request line isn’t going to do you much good. If you don’t like what you hear on KYOU, however, you can either wait 15 minutes for the next show, or you can submit your own. There is nothing intrinsic to KYOU’s philosophy that would be adverse to a high-quality, entertaining, local music & arts show. Furthermore, because most of the podcasters direct you to their websites and email addresses, you have much more of a chance of making an impact on the future of this station if you want to.

Because many podcasters have to get permission from the musician or ‘spoken-word’ artists they use, it generally ensures that KYOU’s podcasts are closer to the raw than the refined, or at least closer to the bottom of the pyramid than the weeded-out top. Though this could lead to some “train wrecks,” if a listener has become skeptical of the criteria employed by most music radio to distinguish the “crème” from the “crud,” then it is definitely worth braving the lows that KYOU reaches in order to savor the heights it reaches at its best.

Sure, some musical (and talk) acts that fail the conventional litmus tests deserve to be weeded out, but far more do not. While I don’t need to go so far as to say that KYOU is revolutionizing podcasting as much as it is revolutionizing radio, the appearances of podcasts on the AM radio dial has woken me up to some of the aesthetic and marketing possibilities of podcasting that I previously either dismissed or simply hadn’t been familiar with. Since I still consider the radio a more public place than the web, I can now say with conviction (that I wouldn’t have had only a month ago) that with the success of KYOU, music podcasting has finally arrived and AM music radio is back.