Online audience within radio's range
By CRAYTON HARRISON / The Dallas Morning News 06/10/2003
Computer-savvy listeners offer stations their long-distance dedication

NEW YORK Kellie Rogers searched the radio dial in vain for a station that consistently plays music she likes.

The Brooklyn resident couldn't stand the New York airwaves, loaded with commercials and rarely straying from a small list of songs in regular rotation.

She finally found a station that played the eclectic mix of music she was looking for broadcasting more than 2,000 miles away in Seattle.

Driven by a thirst for music she can't find on local radio, Ms. Rogers is part of a small but growing number of listeners nationwide using broadband Internet connections to loyally listen to stations outside their own towns. Small, independent and public radio stations from Dallas to Los Angeles are finding passionate online audiences, even in the nation's media capital.

New York is home to millions of people with millions of different tastes, but its radio stations water their music down by trying to please everyone, said Ms. Rogers, 34.

"Because it's such a big market, no one will go off the mainstream," she said.

Like many Americans, Ms. Rogers has a broadband Internet connection at work where she can listen to the radio online. One-third of U.S. home Internet connections now use cable or digital subscriber line modems, making it easier for them to meet the bandwidth requirements of Internet audio.

As of January, about 43 percent of Americans older than 12 had tried online audio or video, up from 35 percent the year before, according to market research firm Arbitron Inc. Twelve percent had listened to an online radio station in the last month indicating that more people are regularly listening on the Internet, Arbitron said.

What's more, Internet radio listeners are increasingly choosing stations that are based out of town. About 40 percent of Web radio listeners said they regularly tuned to an out-of-town station, compared with 34 percent in 2001, the Arbitron study said.

As their audiences have grown, stations with successful online broadcasts have used e-mail, Web sites and good old-fashioned promotional work to make listeners feel they're essential to the station, evangelists for good music.

"For a lot of people, it's the first time they've found a station that they can really be a part of," said John Richards, DJ at KEXP-FM, Ms. Rogers' long-distance favorite. "When people take ownership of the station and start to spread the word, it's pretty cool."

Wider pledge base

Online broadcasts can be expensive, but they're giving stations a new source of badly needed funds. In Dallas, community radio station KNON-FM (89.3) has seen donation pledges from Florida and even Africa during its funding drives. The pledges apparently came from online listeners tuning into KNON's diverse roster of shows, including blocks devoted to reggae and underground Latin hip-hop.

"Dallas has a population that shifts around a lot. There's a lot of people moving in and out of the city, and they check back with us online," station manager Dave Chaos said.

In Seattle, 19 percent of KEXP's pledges from its last two drives came from outside the state of Washington.

Thirteen percent of those out-of-state donors were from New York, so Mr. Richards traveled there in April to visit fans. He broadcast live from the Museum of Television and Radio during the week and hosted a party at the trendy Beauty Bar one night. He invited local artists most of whom don't get airplay on New York stations to play in the studio during the week.

"We really want to build a family," Mr. Richards said. "We want to build a group of people who are loyal to this station."

KEXP probably couldn't have recruited its fan base with savvy promotional work alone. Smaller stations have ironically been aided, in part, by consolidation in the radio industry, which has left some listeners disenchanted with the radio dial.

The stations also made deals with record labels that let them stay on the Internet without incurring massive royalty fees.

Many radio fans have been forced to look outside their markets on the Web because their favorite local stations don't have an online stream, said Bill Rose, vice president and general manager of Arbitron's Internet broadcast services.

"If the station that they listen to most isn't there, trust me, they're going to go online and find something there that makes them happier," Mr. Rose said.

Many radio stations had an online stream in the early days of the Internet. But last year hundreds of stations shut down their Web broadcasts after record labels won a decision by a copyright appeals board.

The board approved a royalty rate for Internet play of seven-hundredths of a cent per song per listener, retroactive to 1998.

Stations affiliated with National Public Radio, including KEXP, were luckier, because the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had its own negotiations with the major music labels.

"The public radio stations have been handed a huge gift," said Jason Georges, Webmaster for KCRW-FM, a popular public station in Los Angeles. Other independent stations, including WFMU-FM of New Jersey, have negotiated separately with record labels.

Commercial radio stations, meanwhile, decided to shut down Internet broadcasting rather than pay royalties, so audiences grew for the Internet broadcasts that survived.

Hard habit to break

And the listeners that switched to out-of-town stations may be there permanently because radio listeners are known for their loyalty. "It's hard to switch a customer back to you once you've lost them," Mr. Rose said. Some radio stations lost listeners long ago. Congress decided in 1996 to lift some media ownership restrictions, giving conglomerates the right to own several stations in a single market. Critics have said the weakened ownership restrictions watered down previously innovative stations and are threatening the remaining independent ones.

Dan Mollen, an Annapolis, Md., freelance writer, turned to KEXP on the Internet after growing frustrated with his local radio dial. "D.C. had a terrific radio station," said Mr. Mollen, 35. "Now it's the same alternative music station that's in every town."

The radio industry has argued that media consolidation has made radio airwaves more diverse.

"If you look at what the reality of what the market is, hip-hop stations, religious stations and news talk stations have been exploding in the last five years. Part of that is because of deregulation," said Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. "Companies can experiment more with programming formats" because their size gives them better scale.

Over-the-air radio stations profit by appealing to the widest berth of listeners, and that sometimes leaves out more specific tastes, said Mr. Rose of Arbitron.

"They can't play everything for everybody. They're trying to fill the biggest holes," he said. "When you're on the Internet, you can play many other musical styles for smaller audiences, styles of programming that can't fit within the eight to 12 buckets radio fills today."

That advantage has also worked for Internet broadcasters who don't even have an over-the-airwaves station. Richard Kaufman, a Garland resident who owns a subscription-only service at 60sRadio.com, calls it "super-serving a niche audience."

"You have to find something that normal radio doesn't do or can't do," said Mr. Kaufman, who plays a wider variety of 1960s music and vintage commercials on his Internet broadcast.

He also tries to re-create the old-style radio DJ banter, a feature many listeners miss in modern radio, he said.

Brand loyalty

Over-the-air stations with successful Web presences believe there's something uniquely "radio" that draws listeners in. They're trying to create a sense of loyalty, charm and community they feel is absent from many radio markets. Listeners want stations that are "put together by music lovers and programmed by music lovers," said Ken Freedman, station manager at WFMU.

KCRW, for instance, points listeners to its Web site to read playlists, get DJs' recommendations of new records and see when DJs are spinning at local clubs. WFMU has a monthly newsletter, encourages listeners to donate old records and points to individual DJs' Web sites.

KEXP has perhaps taken interaction with its online listeners the furthest. Listeners are encouraged to e-mail the DJ while he or she is on the air. Some DJs, including Mr. Richards, send an e-mail to listeners every weekday that includes the day's playlist.

Mr. Richards' newsletter includes e-mail from readers, record recommendations and a daily request to tell others about the station. Many of his listeners have become almost cultish in their devotion to the show, establishing a fan site and discussion board, proposing new bumper sticker slogans and volunteering for early-morning pledge drives.

"It's cool to be part of a community again," said Mr. Mollen, who has a regular feature in Mr. Richards' daily e-mail called "Dan's Song He Hates Of The Day."

The music may be good, but the camaraderie makes listeners loyal, said Bindhu Gopalan, a New York KEXP listener. The station gives listeners a way to be with people who share their tastes, she said.

"All we do is go listen to music," Ms. Gopalan said, pointing to her friend, Ms. Rogers. "And the site makes the music more accessible."

E-mail charrison@dallasnews.com