You Play, They Pay

How much should it cost Internet radio operators like Jim and Wanda Atkinson to satisfy your cravings for streaming rock & roll?

3WK's homepage is a garish sight, with blinking marquee ads screaming "Winner! Winner! Winner!" or shilling Skechers, Scions or Beneath the flashing lights, though, it's a streamlined affair. Buttons send visitors to the station's charts (at this writing, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead holds the top spot), giveaways, free MP3 downloads, and to the station's streaming audio feeds.

Click one and you'll hear indie rock, click the other and it's all classic rock, all the time.

Wanda Atkinson, matriarch of 3WK, on the division of labor 
with husband Jim: “He programs the music and I do 
everything else.”
Jennifer Silverberg
Wanda Atkinson, matriarch of 3WK, on the division of labor with husband Jim: “He programs the music and I do everything else.”
In the early days of 3WK, the stream often disappeared entirely, re-buffered, then vanished again.
In the early days of 3WK, the stream often disappeared entirely, re-buffered, then vanished again.

Like the Web site, the station's offices are pretty bare-bones, plastered with rock posters and furnished with secondhand desks.

Despite recent technological advancements that have transformed the way people interact with music and media, 3WK's business model is baldly old-fashioned. The Atkinsons offer audio content and sell ad space to surround it, in the form of audio spots or banner ads. Aside from a few bells and whistles, it's the same deal as buying a spot on WSM in Nashville during the Grand Ole Opry in 1949.

Jim's and Wanda's desks are side by side: Wanda on the left, Jim on the right, desktop speakers aimed at his head. Monday and Tuesday are "add days," when Jim rotates into the 225-song playlist several dozen new titles, which debut throughout the week as software shuffles the music according to parameters he sets.

Now Atkinson pops in the critically acclaimed new Mastodon album, Blood Mountain. Jim and Wanda look at each other as guitar wrath fills the office. "What is this, 1980?" asks Wanda, baffled at Mastodon's allure. A dual guitar solo rings. "It sounds like Triumph, except for the singing."

Jim skips ahead to the next track to see if it's more in tune with his aesthetic, then grabs a cigarette and steps outside.

He smokes a lot on music days.

And he's not impressed with Mastodon: "Pitchfork gave this a 9.2? This is awful."

Along he goes, one song after another, until he finds one that's acceptable. "We've got to play something from this," he concedes. "It's probably going to be number one in CMJ or something." Although he founded 3WK to be free of constraints, Atkinson must play to his audience.

3WK is a cottage industry, but the station draws a coveted demographic, which they describe on their Web site in the form of a rhetorical question:

"What happens when you have a loyal, 18-54, tech savvy, upper income, mostly male audience? You sell products — lots of them."

"We sell packages," explains Steve Wolf, founder of long-running Nashville-based Internet station WolfFM ("The Hottest Mix of '70s, '80s and Today's Hits!"), who, like Atkinson, learned radio on the FM dial, where he toiled as an engineer. "We were running a special for a couple of months, 99 plays for 99 dollars — run your spot basically over a two-week period."

The Atkinsons started 3WK nine years ago, investing a half-million dollars over the first five years. They weren't the only ones. Radio veterans across the nation have been sniffing around ever since Tracy Barnes left a nationally syndicated radio network to launch, which bills itself as "The World's First .com Internet-only radio station," in 1995. ("We figured: Hey, the Internet is going to happen," Barnes says today. "[And] the barriers to entry were really low.")

Drawing upon Jim's FM experience, the Atkinsons called labels and pitched potential advertisers. In December of 1997, at the stroke of midnight (neither remembers the exact date), 3WK went live with Nine Inch Nails' "Ruiner," delivered via a mono stream in RealAudio. (The Atkinsons started out with a single stream of new rock, mostly indie. In 2003 they added a classic-rock stream, a throwback to Jim's FM days.)

The sound quality was awful — worse than AM radio. It faded in and out, and at peak hours the stream would cut out entirely, re-buffer, then return to Beck, Pavement and Sonic Youth, only to vanish again.

Greg "Iceberg" Berg had recently been fired from alternative rock station the Point, in part for playing unapproved song selections (like "Weird Al" Yankovic at 3 a.m.), when he got an out-of-the-blue phone call from Jim Atkinson. Berg, who grew up in St. Louis, remembered Atkinson's name from KWK. Soon the former Point jock was over at the house cutting between-song banter for the station at the rate of $50 a day.

"I don't think I knew there were viable Internet radio stations at that point," Berg says. "It was definitely new territory."

Because it was virgin terrain, he and Atkinson even debated how to present voice-overs. "Jim was torn between making the station a traditional-sounding station, like a terrestrial station, versus trying something different," says Berg, who now lives in San Diego. After experimenting with eight-hour shifts and on-air personalities, they opted for a rotating, free-floating cast of announcers who created between-song "liners" that identified the station and the songs.

"It was cool," Berg recalls. "They were doing it in their living room and moved their real living room to the back of the house. Twenty-four hours a day, year round, they got out of bed, walked downstairs and went to work. You'd come by their house — and there was the station!"

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