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[whitespace] Laura Ellen
Photograph by George Sakkestad

KPIG station manager Laura Ellen keeps a hometown audience happy while she snares Internet listeners from around the world.

Stream Dream

How does a small radio station in Watsonville kick off the Internet broadcast revolution?

FRIDAY IS FREE-LUNCH day at KPIG (107.5-FM), the Salinas Valley's favorite adult alternative radio station. Laura Ellen, KPIG's station manager, is holed up in her office, opening a week's worth of mail. She sorts through a mass of cardboard CD mailers crowding her office.

"West Coast-dance-hip-hop combo?" she mutters, opening one manila envelope. "Someone didn't do their homework." Ellen tosses the CD into a bin that she will deliver to the Boy Scouts to sell at their swap meet. She rips open another CD mailer. "The new Faith Hill?" she says with a toss. "Those record companies--ever hopeful!"

Faith Hill is, of course, a staple on many radio stations, but not at KPIG, the quirky Watsonville-based station that plays roots rock, Americana, folk, country, blues and rock (and just got sold--see sidebar on page 8).

Indeed, with its eclectic playlist and dedicated DJs, KPIG, which is run out of three rooms on the top floor of a beat-up shack behind a Chinese restaurant in Watsonville, doesn't look all that different from the Depression-era station in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Except--the big exception--that anyone, anywhere in the world, with a computer, Internet access and some simple software, can listen to KPIG. The very first radio station to digitize its music and "stream" its signal over the Internet, KPIG is leading a potentially sweeping transformation of radio that includes both terrestrial stations with web presences and Internet-only radio sites.

For the last six years, since the station started broadcasting over the Internet, KPIG has hovered at the top of both Arbitron and Shoutcast ratings (Shoutcast tracks listenership numbers for online stations). The station also has one of the longest TSL (Time Spent Listening) quotients of any station currently monitored. And both numbers are bound to increase when wireless web and broadband technology put Internet radio into the car, the place where many Americans do most of their radio listening.

There's only one catch. Will Internet radio realize the "sound salvation" of Elvis Costello's dreams, a place where listeners can bond with the DJs, the music they love and other listeners, or will it succumb to the same advertiser-driven pressure that constricts the creativity of most radio stations?

KPIG Listener Nancy Weimer lives and works close enough to KPIG to get the signal "for real," but she loves the Internet site as well. "The other day I heard a great song--it was so great that I had to sit in my car until it was over," she says.

"I had stuff to do all morning, but when I got home, I could just turn on my computer, turn onto KPIG's song log, and see who did that song. Then I clicked over to CDNow.com to buy the record."

Nancy is visiting the station the same time I am, and someone asks, "And what song was it?"

"It was called 'Cold Missouri Waters,' and it's by Richard Shindell," she says.

Several other people know the song, at which point the rest of the room gets curious. "Robbin, can you put that song on next, so we can hear it?" asks Ellen, and with a click of the mouse, Robbin obliges, cuing up the track in question from the 6,000 or so digital songs in her computer bank.

Soon, we are all listening, rapt, to Shindell's telling of the vast Montana wildfire of 1949. The song is on an obscure compilation called Cry Cry Cry, and although it is a hit on KPIG, it's probably not heard much anywhere else.


A Pig's Life: New owners pledge to keep beloved station free to wallow in beloved ways.


Later I realized that listening to this song with a group of strangers in the DJ booth at KPIG was possibly the first time in more than a decade that I have had a meaningful radio experience, the kind that makes you actually think and talk about the music. This ethereal feeling of connection among listeners that KPIG has managed to harness with its rootsy playlist and down-home persona is exactly what could make Internet radio a force for the future.

In recent years, commercial radio has become formatted into near-oblivion. The vast corporate mergers and tight playlists that cater to certain narrowly defined demographics have made it into a sterile and unsatisfying medium, as far from an art form as possible. In the Bay Area alone, Texas-based Clear Channel Communications owns KABL 960 AM, KMEL 106.1 FM, Star 101.3 FM, Kiss 98.1 FM, KKSF 103.1 FM, Wild 94.9 FM, 92 KSJO FM, and 98.5 KFOX FM--and is gobbling up other stations by the mouthful.

Internet radio, on the other hand, is wide open, a whole new medium that could conceivably change the way people hear music.

That was what KPIG DJ Bill Goldsmith, known on the air as "Wild Bill," figured when it occurred to him, in 1995, that a radio signal could be streamed over the Internet.

"I guess from the minute I realized that it was possible to digitize a station's signal," he recalls, "I went, 'Whoa! This is what I've been waiting for my whole life!' "

Goldsmith, a web designer, was originally a DJ at KFAT, the free-form station that preceded KPIG in the hearts and minds of Salinas Valley listeners.

KFAT went belly-up in 1982; Goldsmith, Ellen and others went on to begin KPIG in 1987. The early days of the station saw moderate success; but in 1995, Goldsmith became aware of IP-based (Internet Protocol) voice technology for the web. He realized that "if you can stream voice, you could bump up the byte rate and stream music."

Goldsmith found a company--XING technology, now out of business--that was working on the technology. He got a copy of their software and configured a server that would work it. Then he found an Internet company that KPIG could hook up to.

"We had a big roof antenna in the room because we had no roof access," he recalls with a laugh. "It was barely good enough to get the station in mono. It was very low-fi, very difficult to hear. But it was still like the crystal radio of the Internet.

"That first couple of days, we got emails from Finland and South Africa, and there was no going back."

With the exception of a few power outages, KPIG has been on the Internet continuously since that date, Aug. 4, 1995.

Six years later, there are more than 5,000 stations on the Internet--with more added every week. Perhaps more importantly, according to a recent study done by Arbitron, 52 percent of Internet users have already tried streaming media; 34 percent of Americans 12 or older are "streamies"; and the number of Internet radio listeners has more than doubled since January.

Show Them the Money

INTERNET RADIO STATIONS fall into two camps. There are those--like KPIG--which are on-air (or "terrestrial") stations that also happen to broadcast through the Internet, and then there are Internet-only stations.

At the moment, the latter are on the rise, ratings-wise, in part because they have fewer restrictions as to language and type of music,
and generally aren't confined by the type of rigid (and boring) formats that we all know so well.

According to Doug Wyllie, the business reporter at Gavin Report, a radio tipsheet, the main reason Internet-only sites and smaller regular stations with Internet sites flourish, however, is that some of the biggest terrestrial stations in the country are owned by corporations that have decided not to go into the streaming audio business.

"If KROQ, which is the most listened-to station in the country, went online, it would blow KPIG out of the water. If WROQ in New York, Howard Stern's flagship station, was online . . . they'd be king of all streaming media."

The reason that corporations like Clear Channel, ABC and Infinity aren't interested in Internet broadcast, he says, is that there's no "ROI," or "return on investment." And this being America, Wyllie points out, they've made a concerted effort to see that there won't be any time soon.

Internet stations feel the sting of some laws implemented specifically to keep the medium from growing. The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), for example, forbids webcasters revealing what song is cued up next. They aren't allowed to play more than four songs by a specific artist within three hours, and they can't play more than three songs from any one album--no more than two consecutively--within a three-hour block.

Of course, these laws are ostensibly designed to prevent listeners from recording the broadcasts and violating copyright laws, but the irony is that on-air stations are allowed to do all these things--"Rock Blocks" are quite common.

The result has been the decimation of many streaming stations, which were forced to delete commercials from their broadcasts.

How much advertising and from where is a sticky problem that Internet radio still needs to work out. "I think everyone agrees, Internet radio needs to be advertiser-supported," says Sven Haarhoff of the Portland-based company MeasureCast, which tracks web radio statistics.

"Some companies have dipped their toes into it--Anheuser-Busch, Beefeater Gin, Guinness beer, Dell Computers--but there needs to be more. And there will be. After all, the ads are intrusive--which advertisers like. And our studies have found it's a really good way of branding a product; it's a 'good' association."

According to BRS Media, an E-commerce company targeting radio and the Internet, 80 to 100 more stations are streaming each month, with listenership growing equally fast. And yet, the Internet audience isn't really that huge--"about the equivalent of upper-somewhere, Alaska," jokes MeasureCast's Haarhoff.

At any given moment, KPIG may have 500 Internet listeners online--only about 10 to 20 percent of its total audience. And even the most-listened-to Internet station, MEDIAmazing.com, only charts about 39,000 listeners per week.

These numbers are not, by advertising standards, tremendous, but they are coveted, since the Internet audience has some special attributes.

"The audience for streaming audio is the most upscale, most attractive audience [to advertisers] you can possibly imagine," says Pierre Bourard of Arbitron. "It's the dream audience for building brands and images."

Keeping the Passion

THAT STATEMENT would appall--but not surprise--Bill Goldsmith, who has a different philosophy entirely--one shaped by the days of free-form FM radio of the late '60s and '70s, when radio wasn't one long sales pitch aimed at the hearts and minds of 14-year-olds, but an actual art, lovingly crafted by DJs who played close attention to segues and sonics, and who had an encyclopedic knowledge of different types of rock & roll.

In those days, DJs thought of themselves as providing a unique and even sensitive background soundtrack for people to live their lives by. But those days, sadly, are long gone.

"Outside the KPIG building, no one in the entire United States thinks that radio is an art form," says Goldsmith sadly. "Ask anyone in radio the purpose of radio, and they'll say, 'To make money, of course.' But the stations that I see that are successful on the Internet are the ones that still have passion and aren't in it for money, like the ones that are run by successful club DJs . . . they've taken the art they make in clubs, and put it on the net."

Is there a chance that this type of programming will have an effect on the rigid playlists--and mind-set--of terrestrial radio? "There is a possibility for that type of sea change, but thus far, we have seen nothing of the kind," Wyllie says with a shrug.

"What I see is, if the licensing and fees issues get resolved, then some of these terrestrial stations can create some side channels on the net, delving further into certain artists or types of music and further delineating their audience, but I don't see that happening on-air--that's not how business is run."

Wyllie suggests another reason Internet stations won't overtake terrestrial ones anytime soon: "When I'm in the car, I listen to the traffic report, the ballgame, the news station. When I want to hear music, I put on a CD."

KPIG, for example, does a huge amount of local community service; it caters very specifically to listeners in the greater Watsonville area, posting service announcements that range from blood drives in Salinas to a lost wallet found in downtown Freedom. The music it plays is tailored to a listener whose profile--50-year-old fat guy with a pickup, a pot plant, and possibly a German shepherd--is quite specific to the Salinas Valley.

This, Wyllie points out, is a weakness of Internet radio: with the exception of a handful of expats who listen to their home stations online, Internet radio can't build up a local following in quite the same way terrestrial radio can.

"When you're in a car," he says, "you don't want to hear some anonymous person voice-tracking from a studio in New York--you want to feel hooked in. So I think there's a future in [Internet radio], but you have to look at it as if it's Sun Microsystems or something: it's a long-view purchase, it's not a short one. Sure, consumer adoption is rising like gangbusters, but there's no money in it. The fact is some evil genius is going to come up with a plan, but if someone tells you they'll be making money in Internet radio in the next year, they're smoking crack."

Porcine Anomaly

GOLDSMITH, TOO, has severe reservations about Internet radio's earning potential. "A lot of the new Internet-only radio stations are following the old rules of radio, and I don't see anyone being successful doing that," he says. "Nor do I think they'll succeed by cloning huge batches of stations in various formats. Even with broadband getting easier and cheaper, for some time to come it'll always be easier for people to turn on their FM dial than to do it via computer."

The only way to counteract the ease of this, he says, is to provide listeners with something they don't get elsewhere--which is exactly what KPIG does--in both its forms.

"So much of what we play is not duplicated anywhere else, and that makes it worth the trouble to go online to listen to us," Goldsmith explains.

Wyllie agrees: "KPIG is an anomaly," he says. "There aren't [many] stations like that, either online or on-air."

And therein lies the secret to its success. KPIG is successful because it's unique; Internet radio is, thus far, not that successful, because it has striven not to be unique.

Goldsmith figures that Internet radio won't become successful until it manages to provide a product that's entirely different from the one currently available over the air. And he has proof, in the shape of his other radio station, radioparadise.com.

Radioparadise.com, with a core audience of 700-800 people, has a playlist similar to KPIG's, only more eclectic. In addition to KPIG's rootsy-folksy element, radioparadise plays tracks by more modern artists, like Radiohead and Grant Lee Phillips; also old tracks by Pink Floyd and Genesis.

"When I put it on the air," Goldsmith says, "my game plan was to get an audience and then get advertising. I didn't see any other way. I wanted to keep the ads off the stream and on the website, but even a year and a half ago it was clear that wasn't going to fly and now, well, it's a ludicrous business plan.

"But periodically, people online would pop up and say they really liked the station and could they give me a donation. So about three or four months ago, I thought, 'Why not?' I set up a low-key little link for people to click on if they wanted to donate, and I was flabbergasted at the response: the station's three-quarters of the way to being self-supporting."

No Pledge Drives

GOLDMSITH REMAINS an optimist, even in the fact of advertising pressures that are threatening to corral and domesticate the new medium. He believes that the model for Internet broadcasting will be closer to that of public radio, "only without those annoying pledge drives."

He goes on to say, "To me, the future of Internet radio looks more like my radio station than like any of these commercial projects. That may just be wishful thinking, but I think that as long as the quality keeps up, I'll keep my audience. I gather no information, and I pledge not to use it for a targeted market, and that's got to be worth something."

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From the October 3-10, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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