By Drew Ailes
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It doesn't really matter that Internet radio station 3WK (www.3wk.com) broadcasts out of South City. Its signal could originate anywhere -- Wood River, Buenos Aires, Istanbul; listeners would receive the signal just as clearly. With the proper software, which is free, a decent modem and some desktop speakers, you could be buried in a Y2K bunker in Montana and still receive 3WK's signal as if you were inside the station's home off Chippewa.
But that's old news to anyone wired. The novelty of equal access, of faceless basement Web designers constructing sites that look as fancy as Microsoft's, has worn off.
The shock comes when a visitor enters 3WK's nerve center, where the decisions are made, the music is stored, and the owners and operators, Jim and Wanda Atkinson, casually sit and talk from their desks as the station plays in the background. The nerve center doesn't seem like much of a "center": It occupies the front two rooms of a house, and neither Jim nor Wanda is manning a sound board, hustling to pop a CD into a player or speaking headphoned into a microphone. No partitioned sound room to be seen, no massive wall of computers or impressive mechanical infrastructure. No hipster DJs or white-collar consultants. Just two desks, each holding your basic PC, and a half-wall of compact discs. It looks like a home office -- no more, no less. But most obviously, it doesn't look like a radio station that broadcasts a wonderful array of new rock, electronic, industrial and pop music 24 hours a day to a half-million people all over the world per month.
Welcome to one vision of the future of radio, located in a single-family dwelling in a calm neighborhood of South St. Louis.
"You go from AM to FM, you go from FM to the Internet," says Wanda Atkinson. Continues husband Jim (they often finish each other's sentences): "That's just part of the natural evolution." This evolution, although still in its primordial stage, is slowly taking shape and has nothing to do with frequencies, transmitter strength or antenna location. It's simpler than that, and promises (or threatens, depending on whether or not you work in old-school commercial radio) to level the playing field between the radio haves and have-nots.
Already, thousands of radio stations, either Internet-only startups like 3WK, www.spinner.com and www.broadcast.com (recently purchased by Internet powerhouse Yahoo) or regular broadcast stations who convert the radio waves to digital codes and transmit the signal online, are on the Web. Specialized stations bring listeners everything from police-scanner broadcasts to indie hip-hop, and considering the simplicity of the technology (you pop a CD into your RAM drive, record songs onto your hard drive, convert the file into a different format, transfer it to your server, and repeat the previous steps for each song you want played), thousands more will arrive as the medium matures, as the sound quality of the signal, which is still comparable to a nice-sounding AM station, improves. But 3WK is on the cusp of this revolution; the station has emerged as one of the independent front-runners in the new industry.
Jim Atkinson understands radio. He spent two decades on the FM dial in St. Louis as a DJ for stations such as KADI (in the late '70s, during the last gasp of freeform FM rock stations), KWK and, most recently, the curiously adventuresome -- at least in the context of its competition -- rock station 93X. He's seen the FM dial transformed from its original niche as the "alternative" to AM radio into a corporate cash cow that plays to bottom-line numbers and is designed to appeal to as many listeners as possible with little regard to pushing musical boundaries.
As witnesses to this transformation, the Atkinsons decided in 1997 to take a chance on the Internet, their main reason being the sad state of rock radio; faced with a decision on whether to buy a medium-sized FM station or venture online, they chose the latter. After making the choice, they no longer minded the dearth of adventure on commercial radio. "It's good for us," he says, "because that's why people are going to the Internet these days, to find stations like ours."
"Stations like ours" are stations that expand the musical palette of rock radio, filling a niche for rock fans who don't want to hear the same dozen songs played over and over. Last week's 3WK playlist included music by the Underworld, the Delgados, Buffalo Daughter, the Beta Band, Ani DiFranco, Tom Waits, Mogwai, Roni Size and Joan of Arc, among dozens of others. Says Jim Atkinson: "We've approached it very differently. Sure, we want to make money -- everybody does -- but we didn't approach it from a let's-make-money standpoint. We approached it from a let's-create-this-product standpoint, get the listeners. Now we're at a half-million listens per month. But we want to keep it at that mark and add other stations that have that, whatever, underground feel."
"Breaking new artists," continues Wanda, "or playing older artists that no one's ever heard of ..."