It's hardly news that there are radio stations on the Internet. College stations started hooking up as early as 1994, partly because the schools had the equipment, partly to increase a paltry dorm-room listenership, but mostly just because it seemed like a really cool thing to do. Commercial stations soon followed suit, partly because it seemed cool, but mostly because they figured there must be some money in it.
If radio is in fact a sound salvation, if it has the power to move people, to spellbind them, to inspire them, then why is so much if it utter crap? Are they, as Elvis Costello suggested, trying to anesthetize the way that you feel? No, they're just trying to make a quick buck. The numbness is just a bonus.
Corporations are not universally known and beloved for their artistry. But with a few noble exceptions, it's corporations who control the medium of radio. They're in it to make money, and since the advent of TV, radio's marketing strategy has hung on a single conundrum:
Play a song repeatedly if it's popular.
A song is popular if it gets played repeatedly.
A lucky few get catapulted into this vicious cycle, hence the Ricky Martins and Harvey Dangers of the world. Meanwhile, established bands like Sebadoh, Sleater-Kinney, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion can put out fantastic albums this year and no one who doesn't live on a college campus will ever hear them on the air.
All Internet radio means to corporations is that you have a choice between listening to your local "Lite" music station on your radio or the "Lite" music station from Des Moines online.
Nothing too exciting there. But without the financial burdens of a transmitter and an FCC license, and with the Internet having a lot more space than the FM dial, it's fairly cheap and easy to start a web-only radio station. So, last year, that's exactly what I did.
Armed with only my beat-up Mac Performa, some audio equipment, some free software, and a sizable record collection, I started broadcasting as InvisibleRadio.com. Having already launched a college station, I knew how not to sound like crap on the air, and how to get record labels to send me new releases. And being a graphic designer by trade, I knew how to put together a decent-looking web page.
Much has been said about radio's potential as an art form. Most of it has been said either by wide-eyed avant-gardists making tape collages in their attics, or by kitsch-loving yard sale record shoppers who get a charge every time they hear Captain Kirk butcher "Mr. Tambourine Man."
My winning concept was a simple one: find the middle ground between commercial radio's unlistenable 10-song format of MTV smash hits and college radio's unlistenable anything-goes format. In other words, play good bands that people know and like, that sound good on the radio, but aren't big enough to get played on the "Radio."
Little by little, people started to listen. I recruited more DJs, and soon had a new show every weekday. More people started to listen. Our audience is now big enough that I'm starting to look for advertisers in the hopes that someday I can do this full time.
What I soon came to realize is that the Internet is so big that you can play just about anything and get someone out there to listen. As more people realize this same thing, radio's going to see an unprecedented change: Stations will spring up (and already have) in every conceivable format. Unbound by the physical realities of the radio dial, there's enough room for a billion stations online, and while plenty will be owned by media conglomerates, more will be started up by people who just want to play good music. Maybe it will still anesthetize the masses, but maybe the Internet is media communism: The means of production in the hands of the workers. One of them is bound to play something worth hearing.