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Country Down the Wire: The Twangy Side of the Information Superhighway

By Brian Baker, March 2000

Thirty years ago, a revolution in radio found listeners moving in droves to the FM band, a migration that sparked one of the most fertile periods in modern radio programming. Rock and roll came of age in this critical period, and FM rock became a discernible sound that helped to shape and define the '70's.

Country music had the opportunity to follow rock to the FM band at that time, and while a number of visionaries made the move, most chose to remain on the AM side of the dial, missing a prime opportunity to legitimize the genre on a broad scale. It would be years before country music would move into the mainstream with the same respect and authority that rock had commanded.

Now that country music has managed to build itself into a respected form anda lucrative business as well, the genre once again stands at a technological threshold that may at the very least help to define itself and could very well recast the role of country music in the next century.

The threshold is the internet, and the new idea is webcasting.

Webcasting takes a couple of different forms. Many traditional country radio stations, already taking up the banner and offering web pages, are taking the extra step to feature an audio stream of their station's signal.

Such is the case with KWIQ in Moses Lake, Wash., a traditional country station playing new country that has been webcasting its signal for the past eight months.

KWIQ Operations Manager Darwin Sharrah sees a fairly symbiotic relationship between radio and the web and predicts a stable marriage in the future.

"I personally see no effect that will damage traditional radio. Rather, it should strengthen it by getting our product, the station, out to people and agencies that cannot reach us," says Sharrah. "It gives national advertising agencies an opportunity to listen to the vehicle that is selling their products, and it's also a great vehicle for people moving into the area that want to explore what the area has to offer as far as radio before the relocation."

There are several compelling viewpoints concerning the web mirroring of a traditional station's broadcast.

Curt Tiegen from KZZY/KQZZ in Devil's Lake, N.D., which began webcasting last August, notes that the globalizing of a station over the internet allows a greater flexibility in attracting not only national advertisers, but distinctly different listeners as well.

"If stations don't have streaming audio on the internet, they're missing out on a potentially huge audience," Tiegen says. "The key will be in marketing to and using this audience to generate advertising revenue."

The other type of webcasting is slightly more intriguing. Some entrepreneurs like Mike Hayes of Twangcast (www.twangcast.com) have turned to the web as the sole transmission device for their broadcast signal, eschewing the expense and endless red tape of acquiring or assembling a brick and mortar radio station for the more ephemeral nature of broadcasting directly over the internet. Hayes sees this form of transmission and expression as the way of the future and the direction of the medium.

"Wireless internet is in phones now," Hayes says. "Pretty soon, it will be boomboxes and then cars. They can't unleash it on the world just yet. But it's coming."

Obviously, since Hayes is presenting his webcast distinct from a parallel radio broadcast, he must be a little more creative in generating advertising revenue. The nature of his audience dictates that he proceed carefully in this regard.

"Net listeners are a little more sophisticated, and we felt that traditional commercials would be a distraction," Hayes says. "We decided to forego traditional commercials, since music was the most important thing, and listeners would appreciate it more. We've set up CD sales through CD Universe, we have an audio enhancing software package called IQ, and there are banner ads on the site. And 10-second NPR-style underwriter ads are starting in March."

Record labels are for the most part treating webcasters like any other radio station, supplying them with product for play and access to artists if they choose to air interviews or live performances.

Being that labels were among the first to see the value of the internet as a marketing tool (even if they're still a little frightened by its potential to take away their importance as music distributors), it's not unusual that they would support webcasting by mostly conventional means.

Stacey Earley from Chicago's Bloodshot Records notes that the insurgent country label makes no distinctions between traditional radio and web radio and services all broadcasters equally.

She does make an interesting point, not as the publicist for Bloodshot, but simply as an interested participant in the music industry and as a music listener in general, on the viability of the internet as a music provider.

"I've never owned or worked on a computer that was equipped for dealing with that stuff," she says. "Also, in my opinion, despite nerdy protestations to the contrary, the web is not democratic. Most people still can't afford computers, or their only access is at work, where they can't listen to webcasts. So, I don't really believe the hype, in other words."

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