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By Joseph Hess
Bleary-eyed commuters needing their daily dose of off-color humor are bracing themselves for December 16. That's the last day Howard Stern's long-running radio raunchfest will be broadcast on the Point (105.7 FM), since the shock jock received a fat, $100 million-a-year incentive to leave the FM airwaves for Sirius Satellite Radio (which, according to a recent Washington Post report, has more than 2 million subscribers).
Stern's departure underscores the dramatic shift in the way people listen to the radio both where and how theBy get their fix of the airwaves. And that's where the River (101.1 FM)'s production director, Ken Williams, comes in: He's the program director of iChannel (www.iChannelmusic.com), a new, Internet-based radio station that launched last week.
Backed by funding from the Bonneville St. Louis radio group (of which the River is a part), the 24/7 station features high-quality streams of songs by unsigned, independent bands from across the nation, with a special focus on St. Louis artists. Just don't call them "local bands." "'Local' for me is a very dirty word," Williams says. "I don't like that word at all. It sounds too B-band sounding. There's a connotation when you hear 'local artist' that it's not as good as your traditional signed artist. Bands that aren't signed to a label deserve, in my opinion, as much respect as the signed bands."
To that end, Williams who also hosts the Sunday-night "River Homegrown" radio show on the River waded through 110 submissions to cobble together a diverse, 80-band playlist to launch the site.
"The thing about iChannel, it's not genre-based," Williams explains. "We listen to all music and say, 'Can this work on iChannel, yes or no?' There's music that has hip-hop leanings, a little Southern rock, folk, acoustic. Female artists that are incredible. It just leans everywhere."
A recent hour of music certainly sounded like an iPod shuffling through someone's diverse CD collection. Starting with the breezy, playing-hooky-from-school acoustic-rock of Fundamental Elements, the playlist included, among others, Tobi Kai and the Strays (steel-toed-boot femme stomps), the Follow (early-Radiohead-esque rock from Columbia), One Lone Car (jaunty Illinois indie-popsters inspired by Ben Folds and the Police), Grant Essig (folktronica) and Just Add Water (rough-hewn power-pop).
The site's interface is refreshingly uncomplicated. There are high- and low-bandwidth links to audio streams (in the form of either Windows Media or MP3 formats playable on standard software such as iTunes, Windows Media Player and Winamp), and the most recent ten songs on the playlist are easily accessible. Click on a band name, and biographies, photos and on-demand song samples appear. Even better, both types of streams were remarkably stable and clear on a DSL hookup a rarity in oft-spotty Internet-radio land.
Williams and iChannel director of operations Matt Willenbrink had been kicking around the idea for the station since the late 1990s (back when free Napster was all the rage and MP3s were still rather novel). So when Bonneville St. Louis radio general manager John Kijowski rang Williams on his cell phone in May and proposed a similar idea, Williams was game.
And with substantial financial backing, iChannel's future they hope to bring the station to the physical FM airwaves someday looks solid.
"We have a very generous budget compared to most Internet radio stations in existence," Willenbrink says. "[But] it's a fraction of the cost of starting up a traditional radio station and operating a traditional radio station.
"Anyone can start up a radio station in their bedroom. One of the reasons Bonneville is funding this and using this as an R&D [research and development] tool is to compete with people who broadcast out of their bedrooms. We have to come up with a product to compete with those people."
Still, the beauty of the Internet is that its sheer size allows for niche radio stations that complement rather than compete with bigger endeavors. In fact, although its budget pales in comparison, the St. Louis-artist-based station L.O.U. (Local Original Underground) Radio has the same goals and philosophies as iChannel.
"There's a lot of bands here in St. Louis that need to be heard and aren't," says L.O.U. Radio founder Pat Mason, a cover-band veteran. "Also, I think people are getting tired of the predictability of FM radio; I wanted to give them something new to listen to. The pioneering is gone in radio. People go out to shows and something like that, but there's no forum for the recorded music itself, besides people picking up the music at the shows."
Accessing L.O.U. Radio is just as easy as listening to iChannel: Surf over to live365.com (more specifically, www.live365.com/stations/pat_mason), click on the yellow "play" button and crank the computer speakers. But the L.O.U.'s focus is decidedly edgier and more rock-oriented than iChannel; a recent sequence of songs included buzz-sawing ditties by the Sham and the Electric, followed by dreamy, Death Cab for Cutie-esque rockers the Polar Bear Project and pop-punks the Offseason.
Mason himself stocked the station's 1,500 MP3s (covering 500 bands), which are programmed in a three-and-a-half-hour rotation and he waxes ecstatic about how invaluable MySpace.com has been in helping him find bands and obtain music (those wanting spins on the station can find Mason at www.myspace.com/theloustlouis or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org). Yet Mason's do-it-yourself station is just as kickass as iChannel which just goes to show that quality music, no matter how it's presented, trumps all. Contact the author email@example.com