Making Waves

 
 
By eweek  |  Posted 2001-01-29
 
 
 

As manager at a radio station, Ken Freedman gets plenty of feedback from listeners. Last year, he got a smattering of comments from people who were clearly sick of Internet hype. This one was typical: "I wish your DJs would shut up about the Internet already."

Freedman, station manager at WFMU in Jersey City, N.J., takes feedback seriously because WFMU is supported entirely by a small but loyal band of listeners. But it would be difficult to get Freedman, who is also a disc jockey on the station, to shut up about the Internet.

In a letter to listeners in the stations program guide, Freedman explained that the Internet was important because it meant that the station was no longer at the mercy of Federal Communications Commission regulators.

"In short," he wrote, "Internet radio frees us from the FCC."

WFMUs noncommercial stance and anything-goes programming make it somewhat unique among radio stations in the U.S. But with its push into streaming audio through its Web site at www.wfmu.org, the station is facing the same problems and eyeing the same promise as thousands of other online broadcasters.

The station, which began life as the campus station of now-defunct Upsala College, has for more than 30 years practiced the art of "free-form radio," allowing its volunteer DJs to play whatever they like. This could mean forgotten country tunes, an hour of punk singles released in May 1979, new music from Iceland or field recordings of electric generators. WFMUs appeal is especially strong for musicians, music fanatics and music critics. For four consecutive years, Rolling Stone magazine called it the best station in the country.

WFMU reaches listeners in the area around New York City and the Hudson Valley, N.Y., from transmitters in West Orange, N.J., and Mount Hope, N.Y. That is, it attempts to reach them. The FCC limits the stations signal to 1,250 watts, puny compared with the 50,000-watt signals of some New York stations. And that signal is getting squeezed as the FCC allows other broadcasters to transmit at frequencies very close to those used by WFMU — 90.1 and 91.1 FM — despite the stations protests.

"They just drop in noncommercial stations on top of each other," Freedman says. "WFMUs coverage area has been cut in half. They just knocked out our coverage in western Jersey."

The weak signal means that even in New York City, WFMU can only be picked up in certain neighborhoods — on certain blocks, on certain floors, with the right antenna pointed in the right direction.

Freedman says his frustration with the FCC pushed him toward the Internet. In February 1997, the station started streaming its live broadcast online, vastly increasing its potential audience.

"The Internet creates a more level playing field for a station like WFMU," says Monica Lynch, a DJ at the station and a member of its board of directors. "Were always struggling to keep our head above water financially. This gives us a way to be heard locally and internationally without spending enormous amounts of money."

About 2,000 people per day listen to a live stream or archived programming, a number that represents about 10 percent of the stations audience, Freedman says. During a recent fund-raising drive, the station asked contributors how they listened to the station, and discovered that Manhattan and Brooklyn were the locales with the most online listeners. This local concentration is not unique to WFMU: A recent survey by Arbitron and Edison Media Research found that 56 percent of people listening to radio stations online preferred local stations. Many people listen through their computers at work, where they might have poor radio reception but great high-speed Internet access.

"Were all kind of amazed, after all these years of having this beleaguered little signal, that you can access it so easily now," says Laura Cantrell, who hosts the Radio Thrift Shop, a popular country music show that airs on Saturday afternoons.

Like many online broadcasters, WFMU has had to contend with the various audio formats competing for dominance of the streaming world. Its RealAudio and Windows Media streams are handled by Yahoo! Broadcast, which, for $500 per month, picks up a satellite transmission from WFMU and serves it as streaming audio data.

Freedman says the station had used the streaming services of Live365.com, but balked when the site moved to insert its own ads into the stream. "While we wanted to be part of a portal, that wasnt the portal for us," he says.

Thanks to Oven Digital Solutions, a Web design and consulting firm based in New York, WFMU now offers two feeds in streaming MP3 format: one for dial-up connections and the other for broadband users — 156 kilobits per second or better. The station sends one MP3 stream over the Internet to Oven Digital in Manhattan, which then pumps out multiple streams to listeners. WFMU pays for the hardware and connectivity, but Oven Digital does not charge the station for its services.

Oven Digitals usual clients are companies like AT&T and Tiffany & Co., but Henry Bar-Levav, the founder and chief executive of Oven Digital, says he wanted to help out WFMU because "its about the only thing I listen to." He says his employees were also enthusiastic about the project — and happy employees tend to be loyal ones. "There are a whole bunch of us who are alternative music heads," says Bar-Levav, who has been listening to the station since 1978.

Freedman says he was surprised to see the broadband MP3 stream quickly become the most popular of the four formats offered by the station after it went live in November. "So few people have broadband, but as soon as we put up that broadband stream, it just took off," he says. Most people would not be able to tell the difference in sound quality between the broadband stream and the over-the-air signal, even if their reception were perfect, he says.

The format war is one of Freedmans biggest headaches. "To be taken seriously as an online radio station, you have to be streaming in multiple bit rates and formats," he says. "I wish that would play itself out." The multiplicity of streams and servers also makes it difficult to get a comprehensive snapshot of the online listenership, Freedman says.

Over the past few months, the station has expanded its offerings of recorded shows in RealAudio through its Web site. DJs are encouraged, but not required, to post archives of their weekly shows, which run three hours or less. Cantrell says she and some other DJs had mixed feelings about archiving.

"For those of us who are sort of old-fashioned," Cantrell says, "the beauty of radio is that it goes out into the ether and never comes back." Posting recorded shows, glitches and all, "feels a little weird," she says.

Lynch notes that the archived programming might be a more radical change for the station than the live streaming. A robust archive can make the broadcast schedule irrelevant, because it is just as easy to pull up a show that originally aired at 2 a.m. as it is to hear an afternoon show.

Lynch, who left her job as president of Tommy Boy Records two years ago to devote more time to WFMU, is also excited about the stations new global reach. Many online listeners are old fans who have moved out of the stations broadcast area, but others have never heard the over-the-air signal. Lynch says she has received e-mail from people listening to her show in places like Ireland and Japan. E-mail from listeners "gets me very excited, whether theyre in Brooklyn or Bangkok," she says.

Streaming makes more sense for WFMU than it does for the typical top 40 or classic rock station because its programming is so distinctive, Lynch says.

"The bigger the station, the less youre going to find that the programming is unique," she says. "WFMU appeals to a small audience, but that audience is all over the world."

According to the Arbitron/Edison survey, the audio streams of traditional radio stations are more popular than those of Internet-only broadcasters, but their audience is not growing as quickly. The July survey found that 13 percent of Americans had listened to online-only audio streams, up from just 5 percent the year before. But despite the nightmare of FCC bureaucracy, Freedman says he cant imagine a day when WFMU might just shut off its FM signal.

"Even though our coverage isnt as good as we would like it to be, you still have some coverage of New York City, and you would have to be crazy to give that up," he says. Also, it is not at all clear that the audience for streaming audio will continue to grow at its current rate, given that there are already signs of a leveling-off in other measures of Internet growth, he says.

Apart from the streams, the station has other online offerings that appeal to both the online and over-the-air audiences, including a message board and a monthly e-mail newsletter. Many of its DJs maintain their own Web pages on the stations site, or just post lists of the songs they have played. The playlists have had an unexpected benefit: They turn up when Web surfers use search engines to find information about musicians, or when musicians look for mentions of their work. Some people become regular listeners after stumbling across WFMU this way.

Lynch says most of the DJs who post their playlists "have been contacted by people who say, Ive been looking for that song for 20 years, or You played me! "

Developing the Web site is one part of Freedmans plan to go beyond the minimal Internet efforts of most radio stations and build "an online community of listeners." He says he is learning how much time and effort this really takes.

"Having an active Web site and taking streaming seriously is almost like having another radio station," he says. "Youre doubling the work. The benefits are there, but the benefits are really long-term."

Meanwhile, Freedman accepts that many WFMU fans are not going to share his enthusiasm for the Internet. "Its still a very small percentage of people who are listening to us that way," he says. "Most people are left out of that. Its the digital divide. An overwhelming majority of our listeners have no idea what were talking about."

David Gallagher is a technology writer and editor based in New York.

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