Local alternative-rock station Q101 kicked up some dust late last month when it allowed an afternoon DJ, Electra, to play the new White Stripes album, Icky Thump, in its entirety, well in advance of its June 19 release date. What she played wasn’t a promo; it was a leak that the station’s music director, Spike, had downloaded off the Internet. The broadcast immediately drew the ire of Jack White, who called Q101 two hours later–from Spain, no less–to chew out Electra. “I felt like I was going to throw up,” she later wrote on her personal blog. “Weirdest, most surreal conversation of my life.”

By the following day, the story of White’s phone call was being reported and dissected on music-news sites and blogs across the Internet. The issue at hand, it seemed, was whether White had a right to be pissed off or if he was just being a prima donna. But a bigger question was left practically untouched: why would a major commercial radio station resort to playing pirated MP3s in the first place?

“It’s hard to be the leader in new music,” says Spike. “Say a record leaks and kids are passing it around on the Internet for two weeks. [Record labels] still want me to talk about the world premiere broadcast I’m gonna do. And you wonder why people listening to the radio don’t think of us as a source of new music anymore. They’re getting it before we are.”

Listening habits have changed dramatically in recent years, due in part to the rise of on-demand media and the popularity of products like the iPod, which allow people to choose not only what they consume but when they consume it. Satellite radio networks XM and Sirius both offer upwards of 200 commercial-free channels, and there are countless Internet radio stations and podcasts catering to even the most esoteric niches. If none of those options suits you, and you don’t have any qualms about copyright infringement, downloading music illegally has never been easier.

The entire radio industry is struggling to adapt, but for stations like Q101, geared toward audiences between the ages of 18 and 34, it’s an even bigger challenge. “Alternative is under an immense amount of pressure at this point,” says Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media, a nationwide consulting firm that helped popularize the classic-rock format in the mid-80s and advises both Q101 and its sister station, the Loop 97.9. “The Gen-Y audience in particular has a tremendous amount of media and tech options available to them. When it comes to the use of FM radio as the primary medium for exposure to new music, those numbers are lower for alternative than for mainstream rock or classic rock. I mean, it’s still the number one source by a long shot, but a lot of other factors are coming into play: everything from social networking sites to iTunes to sites like Rhapsody.”

“Eighteen-to-34-year-olds smell bullshit,” Spike says. “They know when you’re being pushy. They don’t really respond very well anymore to the old-school type of marketing. It’s not about us telling them what to like anymore. It’s more about us finding out what they do. It’s finding out what they like and being a part of it. So rather than just being like a big brother, we’re a friend now.”

Spike says a fan from his on-air days in Philadelphia pointed him to a link for the Icky Thump leak on the file-hosting site YouSendIt. The decision to air it, he adds, was an easy one. “If it’s a win for our audience, we play it,” he says. “It’s the same factor that leads to any decision on anything we do on the air.” He e-mailed and called his contacts at Warner Brothers, the White Stripes’ label, and told them he intended to play the record all the way through once, then set it aside. The label “wasn’t happy,” he says, and later that afternoon filed a cease-and-desist order, but by then copies of Icky Thump labeled “Q101 Radio Rip” were already circulating online.

Although he downloaded a shared file of the album, Spike is adamant that he doesn’t believe in file sharing. “To download music instead of buying it irritates me,” he says, “because I care about bands and I’ve done this for a long time and that aspect of it is not something I support.” He also doesn’t believe the station’s broadcast will cut into Icky Thump sales. “No one who trades files would be caught dead with our radio-rip copy sitting on their computer somewhere. If you’re adept enough to download that, you’re adept enough to download a high-quality copy that I have nothing to do with.”

The penalties for a willful act of copyright infringement can be steep–up to $150,000 per act in statutory damages alone–but so far it doesn’t look like Warner Brothers has any intention of taking Q101 to court. (Calls to the label had not been returned at press time.) “Radio stations have long gotten away with stuff that would land a regular person in legal trouble,” said Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit specializing in legal issues surrounding new technology. “They get yelled at, maybe threatened, but rarely sued. Labels don’t want to sue radio stations, who have the ultimate punishment mechanism: not playing records.” As Fred Jacobs points out, leaks have been “happening for decades. On the one hand, record companies have historically complained about leaks, and yet I think at times they’re actually the source. There’s a sort of ‘don’t play it but thanks for exposing it’ double standard operating there.”

Spike claims he could probably point to 300 instances of commercial stations playing leaked material in the last six months. In that time Q101 has aired leaked tracks from Linkin Park, Marilyn Manson, and Nine Inch Nails, all with minimal fanfare, and Spike says they’ll continue the practice. “Tool songs leak on the Internet on a Friday and we’re told not to play them until Monday,” Spike says. “Why? It’s almost like they’re slowly trying to make us less significant in terms of new music. They’re asking us to lead but not giving us tools to do so. So if we’re not going to be given the tools, I have to go get them myself.”

Commercial radio stations may be victims of circumstance to some extent, but if fewer people are turning to them as a source for new music, they also have to take their share of the blame. Music programming has become notoriously homogenized over the last decade, and though Q101 does throw its audience the occasional curveball–local rapper Lupe Fiasco, for instance–an alternative play-list highlighting new music from groups like Linkin Park, Marilyn Manson, and Nine Inch Nails isn’t exactly trailblazing. “Radio has made mistakes over the years in any variety of ways to drive people away,” Fred Jacobs says. “It’s a tough balancing act. An alternative-formatted station especially needs to take risks and go out on things before it becomes obvious that those songs are hits. On the other hand, history has shown that if you live too far out on that edge you end up cratering your ratings.”

If anything, Spike thinks Q101 might be better off sticking to established artists. “I think alternative radio is either going to have to shape up or ship out,” he says, “because the stations have been dying. Our station was dying. And I can’t be part of that. If saving alternative radio means that we play things that more people like, I see no shame in that. I don’t know why people do see shame in that.”

Last week, Q101 DJ Ryan Manno played a slew of leaked tracks from The Mix-Up, a forthcoming instrumental record by the Beastie Boys. Like Icky Thump, it was something Spike got an e-mail about and found online. But this time, Spike says, the broadcast went over much more smoothly: “The head of promotion at Capitol thanked me for the airplay and said that they’d never tell me not to play any of their records.” And he never heard from the band.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Autumn de Wilde and Robert Drea.