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 ..."
"... or who don't get played on the radio," adds Jim. "That's what comes first."
This philosophy has resulted in Rolling Stone magazine last month describing 3WK as "the FM radio of your dreams ... a sneak preview of what the Rhino compilation That's a Pretty Nice Haircut: Alternarock Hits of the 90's will sound like." Such publicity is not uncommon for the station owners, who say they're interviewed by some sort of media outlet about once a week. This, in turn, has drawn the attention of fanatics all over the world. "We had a guy in Louisville who listened," says Jim, "and people who worked in his office came into his office -- he was the only one with an audio connection, and he ended up putting sound cards and speakers on every one else's computer, and then they were all listening, too."
Adds Wanda: "There are companies who pipe us through their speakers all day."
Listening to 3WK, it's obvious that the station is being programmed by ex-commercial radio people. Although the playlist is much more diverse than FM stations (excluding, of course, college and community radio stations), it's programmed in a similar fashion: They pick songs and artists to emphasize -- to put into heavy rotation, medium rotation and light rotation -- and then design a daily playlist. It's not uncommon to hear the same song by, say, Medeski, Martin and Wood three or four times in the same day. If the Atkinsons like a band, they'll play them constantly (they love Sebadoh, Front Line Assembly and Built to Spill). And although there is a certain whimsy to the station, there's little freeform spontaneity. You'll never hear Guided by Voices followed by the Beatles followed by the Velvet Underground followed by the Pastels. The station is rooted firmly in a fairly strict format, a sort of "alternative to alternative rock."
But as a way of gaining and retaining a large listenership, creating a "product," in Jim Atkinson's words, perhaps their method is best. They do know radio, as opposed to many other online-station operators who arrive from the other side of the technology. "Most of the people come to it from the Internet side," says Jim. "They understand the technology, but they don't understand the music. Or you find people who can do it from the radio side, but most people who are in radio are used to working with consultants -- they don't necessarily know how to program anymore."
3WK tiptoes on the line between the two kinds of rock stations online: On one side are the corporate Internet stations like Rolling Stone radio (www.rollingstone.com) that cater to major-label artists and attitudes ("You turn on their modern-rock station and it sounds just like any FM station," opines Jim); on the other side are narrowly niched stations such as www.88hiphop.com or www.punkradio. com. The Atkinsons take exception to these stations, too: "Saying that there's 30 different kinds of rock is kind of silly," says Jim. "I'm sure there's a few, but when you get so segmented like that, you get a station that's like a jukebox. You turn on the Goth rock station and every song sounds just like the one before it. Or turn on their electronica channel and every song sounds the same after you've listened for 20 minutes."
Plans are in place, however, for 3WK to diversify and grow more stations. Like many of the larger Internet radio sites who offer more than one musical style from which to choose -- once a station has the hardware and the knowhow, it's relatively simple to program an alternative-rock station, an electronica station, a garage-rock station, etc. -- the company soon hopes to offer more options. Says Wanda, "We can do three, four, five stations on our own as 3WK and still turn around and do other stuff, too."
"We'll probably end up with five," clarifies Jim, then adds a thought that illustrates how drastically online broadcasting is changing, considering the two send their signal from a South City home: "We don't want to have 150. I don't see the point in that.