Rare On Air: St. Louis' own RiverfrontRadio.com is changing the way Web radio is done


If you're an Internet junkie in St. Louis, chances are good that you've heard of RiverfrontRadio.com. Located in an inconspicuous strip mall on Hampton Avenue in south city, the Web-based radio station is creating quite a buzz and has made some impressive strides since its creation in 2005.

Oddly enough, the company started off as an indie record label, Riverfront Records, which released the album Escaped: Off the Chains from the label's only signed artist, Ruka Puff.

"That's what launched me into the music industry," explains RiverfrontRadio.com's owner, Jon Hearst. "My journey with Ruka introduced me to the politics of trying to get somebody on the radio."

But Hearst's experiences with Riverfront Records also gave him exposure to the underground talent pool in St. Louis — and the difficulties these artists face gaining exposure. This ultimately led to his decision to create an alternative media outlet, and RiverfrontRadio.com launched as an Internet radio station in 2005. At the beginning, it was a bare-bones operation; the DJ-less format lacked the multimedia and community elements it features today.

"Basically we would just run playlists," Hearst says. "The biggest hurdle we've faced in getting to where we are now is just getting people's attention."

Much of the credit for RR's growth and potential goes to program director and personality DJ Mahf. In the spring of 2006, he landed an on-air gig at RiverfrontRadio, and made the leap to program director about six months later. Mahf currently hosts a weekly hip-hop show called "The Balls" with cohost (and fellow Earthworms member) Mathias on Thursday nights. In addition to putting together new shows and training the staff, he is also involved in promotional work and oversees daily operations.

His dedication is starting to pay off. "Last fall we did a tour sponsored by Scion and RiverfrontRadio, where we would take a remote [radio] station around to different cities, and broadcast from other Internet sites," Mahf says. "We encouraged the local artists to come out and get their music heard, and we got some really good turnouts, especially in Kansas City. When we came back, we noticed a lot of the people we met on the road had started profiles on our site."

Hearst says the station is "aiming for the teenage-to-25 audience, but we have plenty of listeners in their thirties and forties." This wide age range reflects the station's desire for variety in its programming. RiverfrontRadio now features thirteen different shows, which cover a broad spectrum of musical genres, from underground hip-hop to indie rock and much more. "Faded Sessions" on Saturday nights provides five hours of drum 'n' bass and other electronic music, while "La Gozadera" on Tuesdays covers Latin-style music featuring reggaeton and meringue. The station also features news, along with the occasional comedy bit.

"People tune in from all over the country and across the world," Mahf says. "We get hits from Brazil, Japan, Iraq — everywhere!" He attributes the station's global appeal to the online content not offered by terrestrial or satellite radio: Riverfront-Radio offers exclusive videos and interviews, as well as a social networking feature in the vein of Facebook or MySpace, which allows users to create a profile and communicate with other artists and fans.

The station's solid working relationships with many of the country's top artists and record labels, such as Jive Records, Rap-A-Lot records and Derrty Entertainment has helped it secure interviews with national recording artists like Mike Jones and Daryl "DMC" McDaniels (whom Mahf interviewed personally). These endorsements give credibility to the station and put them in a position to continue building their following.

Plus, the Web site itself is nicely laid out and fairly easy to navigate. The homepage has a featured video playing in the center, with other video selections scrolling to the right. The player is substantially larger than YouTube's default player, and the resolution is much clearer. Featured artists are displayed on the bottom, and the top navigation bar provides links to the Web site's various pages such as login, photos and blogs. (Hats off to the stations sole webmaster, N8 — who's also RR's executive vice president — for giving an attractive and cohesive feel to the site.)

The site is also currently accessible on devices such as cell phones and PDAs, and the station's crew is constantly tweaking the Web site and rolling out fresh ideas. For instance, it recently launched a promotion where local and national indie artists give songs to RiverfrontRadio.com's vault. Songs can then be downloaded for free by obtaining "Music Club Cards," which will be distributed at concert venues and clubs across the country. It's also planning to start an online music store of sorts.

"We're getting into the distribution side of it," Mahf says. "Pretty soon our members will be able to sell their music off the site. The artist can choose what material at what price, and they keep 100 percent of their earnings." This gives RR a considerable edge over digital-music sites like iTunes, which keeps a sizable commission of the artist's proceeds.

While the station sees around 80,000 hits a day, Web traffic does not automatically translate into revenue. And RiverfrontRadio.com doesn't use traditional means of earning revenue: Aside from ads for the station's programs, flashing banner ads and pop-ups are conspicuously absent. While pleasant for the viewers and listeners, it means no income for the company.

Hearst currently provides funding the station. As former part owner of the Quality Furniture and Appliance chain, he used a portion of the money he made when the company was sold off to start RiverfrontRadio. He's also actively seeking national advertising.

"We've set this company up to have national appeal, so we're trying to get national advertisers," Hearst says. "We've turned down lots of local offers. [National] companies are a lot harder to get, because there's more paperwork and numbers involved, but we finally are close to landing deals with some national advertisers."

DJ Mahf is also excited about all the expansion that he's seen, and he continues to look forward. "We plan to build home bases in other major cities like Chicago and Atlanta," he says, describing it as "a network." As far as his career goes, Mahf says, "I really love my job. I'd like to stay on board here for a long time."

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