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."
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.