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

By Brian Baker, March 2000

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Earley's comments are valid observations, especially when looking at some ofthe listenership numbers of various webcasts. They range from several thousand to tens of thousands, but without knowing exactly how that information is gathered means that comparisons are almost impossible.

For instance, if a webcast counts each hit on its web site as a listener, that could skew the numbers higher than its actual listenership if the same listeners are hitting the page multiple times during the day. The same is true of legitimate stations that make assumptions about its web audience based on Arbitron numbers. Although the tracking of these kinds of numbers is becoming easier, close accounting and analysis of the numbers is still difficult.

While the trend in country music actually appearing on the web is heartening, it's still a long way from pervasive. Hundreds of country stations around the nation have a web presence via a home page, but only a small percentage offer a mirror webcast.

Another interesting facet of this whole milieu is the delineation between traditional country programming and Americana/alternative country formatting. At present, the tendency is toward mirror webcasts to be generated by straight country stations and original internet programming to be reflected by a more eclectic and inclusive playlist.

Hayes uses the Gavin Americana Reporter for a guideline on some of his playlist, but does a lot of good old fashioned seat of the pants programming for the remainder.

"There's a whole lot of folks who send us their CDs or call to ask if they can send it," Hayes says. "If it's good music, we play it. Doesn't matter if it's on a label or being promoted, we'll play it. Radio knows that we're knocking at the door. They're playing lowest common denominator, and we're playing real music."

Perhaps the best model for the necessity of blending the two presently distinct worlds of country radio and country webcasting is KPIG in Watsonville, CA.

Wild Bill Goldschmidt notes with pride that the station has been broadcasting an audio stream of radio content since 1995, the first radio station on the web. When asked what delineates KPIG from the country broadcasters on either side of this argument, Goldschmidt's answer is refreshingly direct.

"We don't suck," he says in all sincerity. "That's not a flippant response - well, not really. We hear that or a variation thereof from lots of web listeners. Most web-only "stations" are just a random collection of songs from a particular genre, played one after another. We're a real radio station. As for other radio stations that are webcasting, see above."

While everyone agrees that webcasting is certainly looking like the train to ride in the next century, Goldschmidt wisely sounds a cautionary note to anyone looking to get in the game.

"It will become very hard to break out of the mass of, eventually, hundreds of thousands of other choices that people will have," he notes. "Right now - it's also difficult to use, requires the use of a computer, and often sounds like crap. All that is changing, however. Internet radio "components" (i.e. www.kerbango.com, www.sonicbox.com ) are on the way, and the bandwidth required for hi-fi sound is becoming more readily available. If you have access to a cable modem or DSL connection, take a listen to KPIG's hi-fi stream that's linked on our site. That's what the future sounds like."

Another unique web experience can be found at Billy Block's Western Beat Roots Revival (www.westernbeat.com), a weekly live extravaganza video/audiocast from the stage of Nashville's Exit/In every Tuesday night. (Western Beat also webcasts an audio version on Sundays through Hayes' Twangcast.) Block isn't content to stand pat with one of the more original uses of the webcasting medium and has plans to branch out into a number of new areas as well.

"We are going to launch a new TV series on CMT in June and drive television viewers to our site for a new 24/7 Western Beat Radio on the web," says Block. "We are developing relationships with brick and mortar retailers and web e-tailers to create a successful sales model for this music on all fronts."

Block also sees a brewing showdown between the two mediums. "Traditional radio is about selling advertising, while web radio is about music," Block notes. "It will be interesting to see which one changes. Will net radio become the new ad medium? Perhaps. It is now being marketed as hundreds of uninterrupted niche formats. Time will tell. Traditional radio is slow to change."

The expanding and beefing up of playlists may ultimately be the healthiest trend to emerge from the radio signal vs. original content webcasting debate. As more and more listeners establish a link to the internet and experience webcasts in their myriad forms, they may well drive traditional radio to become slightly more inventive in its approach to programming in an effort to gain and hold new listeners.

Conversely, the more eclectic but less sponsored broadcasts over the web may attract listeners who have tired of consultant directed radio, but they will need to find a way to package and sell that concept to advertisers if they are to survive along with their less technological but more established brethren.

Either way, the diversification of country radio is clearly just around the virtual corner. Both modes of musical transmission will have to find acceptable compromises in the 21st century version of the age old clash between art and commerce.

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