August 3, 2008

Logged on, Tuned in Is Web Radio’s Demise at Hand?

By Ernest A. Jasmin, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.

Aug. 3--Gone are the days when music consumers are content to listen to the radio on -- well -- radios. Increasingly, they're going online to discover new bands through a mix of online radio broadcasts, cyber jukeboxes and other music sites.

"With radio, when you hear a song and you're driving in your car or whatever, it's hard to find out the title of that song," said Dru Miller, 17, of Lynnwood, a fan of Pure Volume ( "They don't always say it at the end or the beginning. But on the Internet, you can type up a key word in that song. That really helps a lot."

Ryan Bruce, 23, of Oak Harbor still listens to terrestrial radio stations, but more and more he finds himself tuning in online.

"It comes in clearer," he said. "It's always super clear. I can do it while I do my homework and not actually have to have a radio in the room; just pull it up on a window in the background and keep writin' reports or whatever I've gotta do for that day."

Bruce is a fan of Seattle stations KNDD-FM (The End, 107.7) and KISW-FM (99.9). But he thinks sites like Pandora's ( are a better way to discover lesser-known musicians. Pandora isn't radio, per se. But the site allows users to create custom playlists that are similar to radio broadcasts.

"I go onto Pandora to look for new bands," Bruce said. "I get new bands from the radio, too. But that's one of the main ways I find new people."

But even as cyberspace has threatened terrestrial broadcasters with more competition, it has also created new and bigger markets for many in recent years. Today, most commercial stations in the Seattle-Tacoma market stream programming on the Internet. And online "radio" has to some degree evened the playing field for smaller broadcasters who can now reach the masses, often without having to buy transmitters and other cost-prohibitive equipment.

Low-powered stations, such as the University of Puget Sound's 100-watt KUPS-FM (90.1), can reach much wider audiences than previously possible. And terrestrial stations that may not even be the highest-rated stops on the dial in their own markets find themselves becoming national tastemakers and, in some cases, building a following around the globe.

Just take Seattle's KEXP-FM (90.3). South Sound fans were forced to listen online at after KEXP abandoned its simulcast on KXOT-FM (91.7) for financial reasons in 2006. But the station's Web site is also an example of attracting listeners with added content they can't get on the radio dial: live playlists with links to where to find songs; years of show and studio performance archives.

Such dynamic content has helped KEXP to build cult followings in other markets, notably New York, well before that station began its simulcast on New York's WNYE-FM (91.5) in March.

"It breaks down the barrier, right. You can listen to KEXP wherever you're at -- on your mobile phone, on your computer," said Aaron Starkey, the station's manager of online services.

"I think it's the content," he said. "It's the curatorial influence of our DJs. We champion the artists. Regardless of the medium, that's what carries the day."

Similarly, Pacific Lutheran University's KPLU-FM (88.5) has built a following among jazz fans worldwide in the decade the station has been online. And in the first couple of years, the station got a big boost from the Microsoft Media Player.

"Early on Microsoft started to feature us. And I know because of that we would get a spike in listeners," said Joey Cohn, KPLU's assistant general manager and content producer for the affiliated Web site Jazz24 (

KPLU has 72,000 online listeners per month, Cohn said, 87 percent of which don't live in the Puget Sound area. The station has thousands of online listeners in Canada (70,000 visits a month, says Cohn), Japan (19,000), the United Kingdom (8,000), Taiwan (7,600) and other countries, he said.

"We really needed to program a jazz stream that was speaking to an international audience," Cohn said, explaining what led KPLU to launch Jazz24 in May, with programming tailored to a broader audience. "You have a lot of people around the world who are jazz fans, but there is no local jazz outlet for them."

As the name suggests, Jazz24 is dedicated entirely to jazz. So listeners won't hear John Kessler's popular weekend blues show, All Blues, for example, or NPR-affiliated content, like Fresh Air. And the style of jazz featured on the Web site will differ subtly from what's broadcast on the terrestrial station.

"It's pretty close. We've discovered actually that our online audience is a little older than our local audience, which may be surprising," Cohn said.

"The jazz fan, generally speaking, is an older person," he said. "So the jazz on Jazz24 is a little different sound in that an older jazz listener has a strong desire to hear more jazz that's melodic, and a younger jazz listener ... is also attracted to jazz that's more improvisational and more rhythmic."

Here are a few regional broadcasts that are either available online only or that complement their terrestrial radio counterparts with unique content.



Format: Eclectic jazz and blues, from bebop to fusion

Broadcasting from: Tacoma, Seattle

The skinny: In May, KPLU-FM (88.5) launched this site with programming that appeals to the following it has built up nationwide and abroad over the Internet. You know, since listeners in Tokyo don't need an I-5 traffic report. What they still get is programming by popular DJs like Abe Beeson and studio sessions with the likes of Dr. Lonnie Smith and jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan.

Recent playlist:

"Linus & Lucy," Vince Guaraldi Trio

"Splashin'," Maceo Parker

"Come On-A My House," Rosemary Clooney

"I Love You Porgy," Chick Corea, Gary Burton

"Battle Hymn of the Republic," Gene Harris



Format: The focus is on hipster-approved rock, pop and hip-hop. But specialty shows also cover blues, world music, rockabilly and other genres.

Broadcasting from: Seattle

The skinny: Local fans were bummed when KXOT-FM (91.7) -- KEXP's Tacoma simulcast -- went bye-bye in 2006. But they can still listen in thanks to the station's innovative Web site. Among the coolest features on the KEXP site are the live playlist, studio performance archives and links to where to buy the music. Want to hear last week's Street Sounds show, download the Music that Matters podcast or listen to clips recorded at My Morning Jacket's show at the Moore Theatre last year? All are just clicks away.

Recent playlist:

"You Could Have Both," The Long Blondes

"Need Some Air," Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

"Lights Out," Santogold

"Daft Punk Is Playing At My House," LCD Soundsystem

"Organ Donor (Extended Overhaul)," DJ Shadow



Format: College radio station

Broadcasting from: Tacoma

The skinny: This student-run station at the University of Puget Sound has been around for 40 years. Like KEXP, KUPS champions the indie sound. But as the university's learning station, it's not quite so slick. Unfortunately, it transmits at a paltry 100 watts, meaning you best live within walking distance of the University of Puget Sound campus if you want to get it on your terrestrial radio. But that's where the webcast, which has been going since 2002, comes in.

Recent playlist:

"The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth," PJ Harvey

"Gotta Keep Movin'," Willy Mason

"The Corner," Common with the Last Poets

"Drop the Needle," Make-Up



Format: Forget all that whimpy hipster crap. Crank up that Godsmack, yo!

Broadcasting from: Tacoma

The skinny: Listen to the South Sound's meatiest rock station live or pull up archives of the Northwest music show, Garage Monkey. Or better yet, amateur Christopher Nolan, you can see yourself on the Monkey Tube, which is dedicated to listener created promo spots. Huh huh, huh huh. That guy who whacked that other guy with the chair was in his underwear.

Recent playlist:

"Come Original," 311

"Woman," Wolfmother

"Rise Above This," Seether

"Black Hole Sun," Soundgarden

"Soldier," Drowning Pool



Format: "All grunge, all the time."

Broadcasting from: Seattle

The skinny: Step one: Grow your hair back out. Step two: Dig that old flannel out of the back of your closet. Step three: Surf on over to this grungiest of grungy webcats. Now you're ready to party like it's 1993. This Internet-only station -- affiliated with the Big R Radio network -- has enough to satisfy casual alt-rock fans and diehard grungeheads alike, with a playlist that mixes cuts from acts that brought the sound to the masses (i.e., Nirvana, Alice in Chains) with trailblazers and cult favorites, like Love Battery and the Wipers.

Recent playlist:

"Jesus Online," Bush

"Return of the Rat," The Wipers

"Lounge Act," Nirvana

"One Day Blue," Molly McGuire

"Angelhead," Love Battery

Ernest A. Jasmin: 253-310-5326

Are webcasters an endangered species?

As Web radio's audience continues to grow, fans fear that many online broadcasters and music service providers may soon be put out of business. That's because of a May 2007 decision by federal judges with the Copyright Royalty Board to nix a provision that allowed smaller webcasters to pay a percentage of their revenue toward royalties instead of flat per song fees.

Judges proposed that the new rate be enforced retroactively to 2006, and that it gradually increase to 19 cents per listener per song by 2010. And while that might not seem like much before doing the math, broadcasters that reach large audiences would be asked to pay millions of dollars in royalties under the new plan.

Critics of the plan say that SoundExchange -- the Washington, D.C., nonprofit that distributes royalties to copyright holders -- has showed a double standard that is beneficial to Web radio's main competition.

SaveNetRadio -- a coalition of artists, labels, listeners and webcasters who oppose the Copyright Royalty Board's decision -- recently posted this response on its Web site: "In the last 12 months, deals have been cut between SoundExchange and Internet radio's closest competitors -- satellite and cable radio -- that set their royalty rates at less than half of what webcasters pay. Being asked to pay an irrationally and unjustifiably higher royalty rate than its competition puts Net radio at a significant competitive disadvantage, but these deals do seem to have established the 'price of music' for nontraditional radio providers, a price we are more than happy to pay."

Enforcement of the new rates has been delayed by appeals as Congress considers the Internet Radio Equality Act (H.R. 206), which would nullify the Copyright Royalty Board's 2007 decision.

News Tribune wire services contributed to this report.

Ernest A. Jasmin, The News Tribune


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