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Confessions of an (Internet) Radio Junkie

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
October 2007 Issue
September 16, 2007

Confessions of an (Internet) Radio Junkie

Video didn’t kill the radio star, even though MTV was launched with a video making that very claim. Radio changed, and so did MTV. One still plays music, the other promotes unrealistic reality shows. More importantly, I can now listen to more radio programs than ever before, even if my tastes are unusual… and they are.

There is a place where radio is king, and I don’t mean in the car when commuting to work. I know this place well, because it is where I listen to KCRW, KGO, KCBS, and hundreds of stations with no call letters. This is a place without the Federal Communications Commission, which means I hear songs uncensored. There are stations where disc jockeys still choose the music and introduce each track with a bit of background trivia.

I am an Internet radio junkie.

Terrestrial radio stations, those familiar AM and FM broadcasters, first moved to the Internet during the mid-1990s. Various stations claim to be the first of their kind on the Internet, which depends on how you define both broadcasting and online. Which station first decided to upload programming to a computer network doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that I have so many choices.

Changes in technology have also made it easier for stations to “stream” live audio onto the Internet. This means I can listen to live programming from stations all over the world, including traffic reports and weather that remind me why California is so great.

If you have Apple’s iTunes installed, you have one of the best Internet radio “tuners” available. Other alternative tuners include Yahoo’s Musicmatch Jukebox and Microsoft’s Windows Media Player. You’ll notice that every one of these media players is free, which makes Internet radio a lot cheaper than satellite radio! Okay, you do need a computer, speakers, and an Internet connection. But, satellite subscription radio isn’t cheap.

Using iTunes, you select “Radio” from the media library and a long list of categories appears where you normally see lists of songs. Select a station category and iTunes shows the stations playing the type of programming you have chosen. It’s fairly intuitive for a computer program and a lot of fun to explore.

In an era of massive media conglomerates, Internet radio allows relatively small stations, even those with no broadcast signal at all, access to a massive potential audience.

A station dedicated to modern jazz or Broadway show tunes would probably fail in the Central Valley. Seriously, such stations would probably fail in most cities. But online, I’m one of millions of jazz fans willing to tune in to KCSM, San Mateo. People from all over the world donate to this small Bay Area station, a station I wouldn’t have known about without Internet radio. To listen live, visit their Web page and KCSM will start the appropriate software for you (http://www.kcsm.org/jazz91/listen.php).

If you like to be on the cutting edge of music, there are few stations like The Current, a Minnesota Public Radio station (http://minnesota.publicradio.org/). The Current reminds me of “World Famous KROQ” during the 1980s, but with a lot more music per hour. Best of all, the DJs choose the music and know everything you might want to know about the tracks. Admittedly, the afternoon shows give more trivia than I care to hear, but other people are obviously interested in how the White Stripes ended up on the Charlie Rose show one night. I clicked to another Internet station before catching the details.

Several Central Valley stations are online, and I don’t mean to slight them, but it is difficult to hear new and unusual radio locally.

As I write this, I’m listening to a fusion jazz show. In an hour or two, I plan to switch Internet stations to something really different: old time radio. I used to listen to the CBS Mystery Theater on a Fresno station, and I remember tuning my little transistor radio to KNX, Los Angeles, as a teenager to hear classic shows like Burns and Allen or The Shadow.

On the Internet, there are dozens of “OTR” stations, some with specific themes. There is a mystery station sponsored by the American Council for the Blind. A comedy station broadcasts both classic and new performances, mixing Groucho Marx with George Carlin. I can spend hours listening to these stations before clicking to something else.

There is a reason I want others to learn about Internet radio: the broadcasters are under attack from the music industry. Traditional radio stations don’t pay music labels to play a song, but Internet stations have to pay a royalty for every track played that is “owned” by a record company. Even comedy routines are owned by record companies. The only Internet radio that is royalty-free is “news-talk.”

Consider how unfair this is. A local radio station can play anything, without paying a dime to the record companies. A small station has the same right play anything as a corporate station. But, the moment the small station decides to broadcast over the Internet, royalties have to be paid. Worse, the royalties are very high, up to several times what it costs to operate the necessary computer hardware. Even higher royalties, upheld by the Copyright Royalty Board, part of the Library of Congress, were approved March 2, 2007.

Higher costs could mean that the Internet radio I love so much could end up just like broadcast radio: commercialized and boring.

I can’t imagine being limited to only the stations broadcasting from within the Central Valley. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to live in any city and be limited to hearing only local radio stations. I want to know what is popular elsewhere, and even what isn’t that popular. There are wonderful surprised surprises all the time whenever I listen to Internet radio. I can’t remember the last time a broadcast-only station surprised me.

Explore Internet radio and find out how wonderful it is. Once you do, you might agree with me that Congress should extend to the same royalty-free existence to Internet radio that broadcast stations now enjoy.


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