Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Psychographical Communities

By Marc Savlov

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  Four AM on a Friday night/Saturday morning and I'm still up, restless and more than a bit bored as the evening's plans fell through, leaving me stranded at home, car in the shop, chewing nails. Skittering over the Internet, I fasten on to the Hyperreal Streaming Page (http://www.hyperreal.org/~cyberia/streaming.html), something local InterneTV creator Rob Campanell had mentioned to me in passing weeks before. It's a streaming audio resource/listing of far-flung pirate radio stations broadcasting live over the Internet via RealAudio technology. Listening, I'm sucked into the hardcore world of underground radio on the Net, with gabber, house, and loads of new, unheard jungle jittering through my head. It's a minor revelation. At 10am, I wake up -- a crick in my neck. I've fallen asleep at my desk listening to Pirate Radio U.K. (http://www.pirate-radio.co.uk) and almost upended my half-full coffee mug onto my new keyboard. Yet another potential disaster narrowly avoided thanks to noisy neighbors. I should write them a thank-you note, but instead log back on and hit up Yahoo! for a listing of Internet radio stations, pirate or otherwise. This is getting interesting.

As anyone without a life will gladly tell you -- over and over again -- the Internet, contrary to what Prodigy might want you to think, isn't the greatest knowledge and learning resource in the history of the planet, it's the greatest fucking-off resource on the planet. Sometimes it's just hard to see the difference. What better timewaster than listening to Hungarian radio or India's AIIR (All Indian International Radio) while sorting laundry or such?

Thanks to RealAudio's upgraded RealPlayer (they're up to version 5.0 in just over a year), a free, downloadable audio and video player that allows access to audio and video sites across the world, the Internet is fast becoming what short-wave radio used to be in the Fifties and Sixties -- a simple and entertaining way to listen to what the rest of the world is up to. Just as e-mail circumvents the U.S. Postal Service, Internet radio allows listeners to "tune in" stations from virtually any physical location on the globe. As long as they're sending via the Net, and you're receiving via your home computer, homebound listeners can pick up everything from Miami's Jesus Fellowship transmissions to Korea's YTN news network to, well, Austin's KGSR, which began transmitting its signal over the Net just over a year ago.

"We've definitely received feedback," points out KGSR's Program Director, Jody Denberg. "We were kind of late in getting our website up, but it's up now, and we have a comments page on there, and I'd say that 10 or 15% of the letters I'm getting are from people listening in Omaha, California, Portland, Atlanta -- all over. It really blows my mind. And they're all interested in Austin. It's the Austin music that's drawing them to our website, though I don't know how they're finding it to begin with."

Finding Internet radio is the easy part; a Yahoo! search on "Internet Radio" turned up 390 sites, while a Lycos search turned up even more. Many of the sites that come up contain listings of other sites until you're choosing from thousands. Settling on one specific station is the hard part, though with a global community tuning in, you'd think some sort of impact on a station's listenership would be apparent. Unfortunately, no one seems to have developed a policy for tracking the number yet.

illustration by Jason Stout

"Certainly it's increased our listenership," offers Denberg. "Does that really help the station? I don't know. It doesn't help in terms of ratings or revenue, but if your goal is communicating and you've got something to express, then you're getting to express it to more people. Although we recently had a new tower built and our power increased, there's still people who will complain about reception and the like -- especially in big office buildings. Now people can just [tune in] on their computer while they're working and reception's not an issue anymore. So, it's helped us in that way, locally.

"At least for outside the city, having people listen in Portland or California or wherever, it's a good ego boost, but it doesn't count in the ratings per se, so it doesn't really affect us too much."

KGSR Promotions Director Jyl Hershman-Ross agrees: "Austinites who move out of town still listen to the station on the website. I know that when people have a hard time picking up our signal, if I'm on the air, I tell them they can listen to us on the Internet, and they're really happy about that."

So much for the locals. The real fun, as always, begins in the underground, and the underground frequently comes out of London. Pirate Radio U.K. has a long, vital history covered in extremis in Hari Kunzru's recent Wired feature (Dec. 1997); in a nutshell, it's the best of the techno/electronic scene broadcast live 24 hours every weekend. Everyone from local deejays to visiting American luminaries spin their heads off for a few hours, alternating shifts and giving vocal shout-outs to their crews around the world over the Net.

Exempt from the BBC's staunch guidelines regarding playlists and the like (as well as Britain's Performing Rights Society -- essentially their equivalent of BMI/ASCAP), the gang at Pirate Radio's InterFace offshoot are free to play whatever they damn well choose. (The site has split into two distinct camps recently, with the other going by "The Global Underground.") It's Marxist radio in action -- peace, love, and 160 BPM, the logical progression and final destination of the Clash's "gonna build us a punk rock radio station" ethos.

"It's still illegal to transmit music on the Net which is not your own," says InterFace webmaster DJ Eezee E. "That's mainly because we transmit music nonstop, without any commercials. The site is very popular and more so every day. For the moment, we have -- on the average -- a crowd of 5,000 people listening all the time, with up to 200,000-plus page hits a week. We've got people setting up mirror sites now in Los Angeles and Brussels, and the music should go 24-7 soon."

This relative freedom to operate outside of governmental edicts is anathema to commercial stations (like KGSR), who follow stringent FCC guidelines, as well as artist royalty strictures set by BMI and ASCAP. However, because there's so few U.S. pirate Internet stations going -- most of them are in England, Europe, and Australia -- the FCC has yet to enact any hardcore guidelines on the subject. Like any emerging technology, Internet radio is caught in a flurry of government confusion, with the general attitude being "wait and see."

FCC Counsel on New Technology Kevin Werbach: "At this time, we have no rules specifically governing online radio broadcasts. As a general matter, traditional radio broadcasters need to get FCC approval (and are subject to public interest obligations), because the FCC gives them licenses to uses slices of spectrum. Broadcasting over the Internet, by contrast, does not require use of public spectrum, so no license is required. There are some requirements that would apply in areas such as copyright; online broadcasters still need to pay royalties to performers, or otherwise have the rights to the material they are broadcasting. These are general legal requirements, however, not something embodied in FCC regulations."

Werbach also notes that there's some confusion over whether or not Net radio stations would even be considered "broadcasters" at all under the framework of the FCC's Communications Act.

"There are a number of FCC rules designed to assure competition in the broadcasting industry," explains Werbach, "and some of them might be applied to an Internet radio station if it met the legal requirements of 'broadcasting,' and there were sound policy reasons for extending the rule.

"To this point, the commission has not formally looked at this question, due to the limited scope of Internet streaming audio transmissions compared to conventional radio. We have generally hesitated to impose traditional rules on new technologies such as the Internet, especially when those technologies are in the early stages of development and the market appears to be competitive. Consequently, none of the broadcast rules apply to Internet radio stations at this time."

One U.S. site that does conform to FCC/BMI/ASCAP regulations is the NetRadio network (http://www.netradio.com), a huge conglomerate of 150 channels of not only music (everything from alternative to classical), but also news and infotainment. Personally, this giant site always manages to crash my version of MS Explorer, but when I do make it on, there's more to listen to here than almost anywhere else. NetRadio was the first company to broadcast multiple audio channels over the Internet, and has, according to themselves, "become the largest provider of Internet audio programming on the Web." Topping that, they scored a coup recently when the newest version of RealAudio bundled the site as one of its five "presets." This means that anyone who downloads the free player now has the site at their fingertips instead of having to scour the Web and chance upon it at random.

NetRadio's Marketing Manager, JP LaMere, looks at his site as being the exact opposite of pirate stations like InterFace. Nor, he notes, are they out to draw listeners away from traditional commercial radio outlets.

"We do not plan on putting traditional radio out of business," says LaMere, "just putting a bit of a dent in their audience as a couple of trends take place: namely the development of the home entertainment device as existing technologies like TV, computer, VCR, CD, DVD, etc. combine into one multimedia device. This device, which will be connected at a very high bandwidth, will be much more conducive to an interactive listening format like what NetRadio offers. Imagine not being at the mercy of the one or three radio stations in Austin, but being able to select from hundreds of channels of alternative, modern rock, reggae, ska, jazz, classical -- whatever you're into."

NetRadio's Manager of Content Mark Bauer concurs: "[Internet radio and AM/FM radio] are two different animals because they both speak to different communities. Good AM/FM radio is very local and topically relevant to its community. Internet radio's community isn't so much geographical as it is psychographical. They tend to create the community rather than reflect it.

"Living in Austin makes you part of that community whether you like it or not. An Internet site attracts like-minded individuals based on the content it offers. You chose to belong to that community. If you want an Austin perspective, you'll get it from your local station. The local station will reflect the tastes of that community.

"What will impact AM/FM radio the most is the deregulation of ownership. Less than 10 years ago, any one ownership could only operate seven AM, seven FM, and seven TV stations, and no more than one of each in a given market. Now, there are no limits as to the number of stations that can be owned except within a given market (something like no more than 60% of the total signals in the market). Fewer people will own more stations. That will impact them more than the Internet. Whether it is good or bad is anyone's guess."

NetRadio's plans for global domination have far more in common with traditional AM/FM radio than, say, InterFace or any of the streaming sites found on the Hyperreal listing. Still, they're similar in more ways than not; both the pirates and their more commercial brethren are there to get the music out to the largest amount of listeners possible. No longer constrained by the simple accessibility of radio bandwidth and hindered by distance, Internet radio stations have the world as their listeners, though not everything out there is worth listening to.

As neighborhood AM/FM stations hungrily jump aboard the bandwagon, setting up their websites with streaming audio (and the occasional video), boundaries are being obliterated in ways that haven't been seen since the advent of radio itself well over a century ago.

Jody Denberg: "I don't feel like we were on the cutting edge of this -- I think we were a little bit behind the eightball compared to some of our peers in the triple A world, you know? Great radio stations like the Mountain in Seattle, XRT in Chicago, and KFOG in San Francisco have had really good websites for a while now, with RealAudio streaming. But, hey, we're there now."

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