Way Off the Dial

The vibe on Internet radio follows the pattern of a lot of discussion on Internet matters. The possibilities are endless–no need for $20 million broadcast licenses! Pretty soon kids’ll be programming great radio stations out of their dorm rooms! Yay!

Then comes reality, which is somewhat different, adjusted to conform to the realities of hardware and software. OK, big companies will still be owning the damn things, but there’ll still be a million of ’em. Whee!

And then another technological twist. Wait a minute–what’s this about digital satellite radio?

What claims to be the first Internet-only 24-hour radio station went on-line last November. (See all Net addresses at the end of this item.) Its potential is promising if not earth-shattering–working at your computer and choosing your radio station from an international smorgasbord. “This was science fiction last April,” says Scott Bourne, cofounder of the parent company, called Net.radio. “You couldn’t do what we’re doing today 11 months ago.”

Net.radio doesn’t sound good yet. Even over a fast modem the quality is roughly that of a clock radio. And the incessant downloading puts a strain on even the most powerful home computers. Net boosters dismiss such concerns as temporary, however, and they’re probably right. “We’re not far from CD-quality sound,” Bourne says. The next step–ISDN lines–will provide four times the bandwidth of a 28.8 modem. And a year or so after that cable modems will increase capacity 700-fold. Yes, 700-fold.

Bourne was in radio marketing when he hooked up with Minneapolis radio personality Scot Combs to put Net.radio together. Right now their programming is rudimentary. Three channels are offered: “vintage rock,” “indie,” and “maestro,” or classical. Indie is just a raft of low-level material–nothing outre. While it is somewhat miraculous that one can download a program in Netscape from one site and telnet into another, all the while listening to a Minneapolis guy play ZZ Top’s “Legs,” music fans will not really see this as a step forward.

Which brings us to our next question: How democratizing is the technology Internet radio uses? Could an enterprising student start his or her own radio station?

Nope. Or rather yes–for one or two people. The technological challenge to a Net radio station is handling hundreds or thousands of enormous data streams simultaneously. Bourne says that his software runs $10,000 per hundred listeners. Net.radio’s target is the small niche audience. “It’s all just marketing people trying to help clients sell stuff,” he says frankly. “It’s just like traditional radio.”

In other words the Net might not be that different. Those longing for surprising, aggressive, multiracial free-form radio will still be dependent on the kindness of strangers. But if the Net does one thing, it makes strangers more accessible. While I’ve only been able to connect to it in short bits, I’m happy about the prospect of Net surfing with KPIG, the legendary Santa Cruz Americana station; nonprofits and college stations across the country can make themselves accessible as well.

Of course, Internet radio can’t provide local news, weather, or traffic reports. “I don’t know if that’s really going to supplant radio as it is today,” says John Covell, a University of San Francisco student who’s studied the market. “That’s going to be the direct satellite broadcast of digital signals.” That technology will soon create powerful national radio stations that the broadcasting industry feels will threaten traditional local-station hegemony.

Net.radio is at http://www.netradio.net; KPIG is accessible at http://www.kpig.com. Different sound programs are required for each of these; instructions at the site will tell you how to download the free programs and direct you to other Net radio sites as well.


A couple of weeks ago I made a crack about the Smoking Popes’ recent Capitol CD being in the cutout bins. The band’s manager, Metro’s Joe Shanahan, called to complain, saying the record isn’t a cutout; I was using the term metaphorically, but on balance I think he has a point. I was trying to say that Capitol hadn’t promoted the band very well, but it came out as a slam at the Popes for not being successful, which I didn’t intend and is an irrelevant issue in any case….Elastica says its blatant lift of Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” riff on its hit “Connection” was an homage, not plagiarism. Fair enough–but then isn’t it more than a bit scuzzy of them to sell the thing to Budweiser for a commercial? I mean, besides deciding to shill for a beer company in the first place….Hitsville got a welcome surprise a couple of weeks back: Every two days or so, a check for $32.95 would be delivered to my house. The checks, from a Beverly Hills company called Phil Brownstein Productions, had my social security number on them. The company’s phone was unlisted. At last, I thought, I’m getting a taste of the long-rumored record-industry payoff scheme to loyal supporters. After a spate of detective work, I found myself talking to Phil Brownstein himself. “Aren’t you Bill Wyman from the Stones?” he asked. Uh, no. Turns out Brownstein’s company specializes in tracking down the recipients of residuals for TV reruns, particularly for Dick Clark Productions. The checks were Bill Wyman’s take for VH-1’s reshowing of a 20-year-old episode from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Brownstein’s busy these days–American Bandstand is being rerun too, and he and his staff are spending their time tracking down dancers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Melissa Cooperman.