US radio is a wasteland of automated commercial stations pushing a narrow selection of music dictated by major record labels. In a quest for short-term profit, these radio conglomerates have given up on serving music fans, participating in local matters, and operating in the public interest. The alternative has been non-commercial radio, comprised of chiefly of religious radio networks (equally enlightening as commercial radio), local affiliates of national public radio, and by saving grace, a smattering of community and college stations far and in between. While NPR does an outstanding job, it is unfortunate that outside of NPR affiliates, and a handful of Pacifica affiliates, there is a dearth of larger independent non-commercial syndicates that provide more voices, especially those of an increasingly multicultural society.
There are very few stations that integrate authorities from the independent music scene. Even scarcer, there are few broadcast/web platforms that have had momentum to sustain independent journalism. A core ethos of Common Frequency pertains to contemplating a path for sustainability for independent artists and journalists. Facebook and Google for news, and Spotify (and other music streaming services) for music, are corralling users that once bought magazines and local newspapers, and records, to the detriment of the content creators. The web technology startup regime aims to purposefully lose thousands to billions of dollars a year until that startup has put legitimate, once-profitable legacy companies out of business. At that point, all the consumers and ad dollars are concentrated to one place. Without government anti-trust policing, today companies either have to be huge or monopolize a niche -- otherwise it is a challenge for a business to be sustainable.
While Common Frequency has invested in bolstering community radio and Low Power FM, there is also the question of the changing nature of communications (e.g., attention span, modality, content consumption habits) -- specifically, how younger generations consume media. While citizen journalism initiatives in new media might have failed previously, the synergy between radio and independent new media has the potential for sustainability if judiciously executed.
Nevertheless, there is a demand for a new, well-organized non-profit media outlet that resonates with millennials. In other words, the question is no longer "how can we start a radio station?", "can we start a stream?", or "can we start a website for our content?" There is a search for new paradigms in community media where community radio is re-tooled to produce concise information -- from a local perspective -- to be piped to the masses within a social-media-like smartphone.news-feed. The specifics regarding "how media is packaged" (editing, curation, and aggregation), what "tube" it travels down (broadcast, web), "how do we get access to many peoples attentions", and "how do we pay for it" are now as important as "can we produce competent content?" Ascertaining communication consumption habits is essential for achieving sustainability for the content provider.
A pilot program service dubbed “California FM” (CA FM) is proposed as a FM radio stations within Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento-Stockton, with a corresponding app that is more than just a radio stream. CA FM is proposed to embody the enlightened nature of California, musically taking trailblazing cues from late 60’s-70s progressive rock and rock of the 80’s punk and new wave radio, with attempt to make a sustainable new journalism outlet.
Further Reading: Forward by California FM Program Director
At one time commercial radio took chances and promoted new sounds from pioneering artists, providing the basis for new trends in popular culture. Though it has not been like that for years, the promise of internet was supposed to level the music innovation playing field for wide audiences. However, most popular music is still ushered-in by major labels via commercial radio. It is sensed that true tastemakers, record collectors, and innovative artists need more organized platforms for wider exposure. While there are myriad exceptional sources on the internet already for this, most are shrouded or eclipsed by major “easy”, dumbed-down, or financially endowed sources that can afford promotions or are attached to broadcast media. For the typical music listener that does not intensely research music, sources like blogs, indie internet streams or college radio can be fragmented, inconsistent, confusingly curated, lack inertia or preeminence, intensively block-programmed within subgenres (which can be fatiguing), uncompellingly branded, or just purposely not created for widespread consumption by design. The goal of California FM is to attempt to break into the music tastemaking at the audience consumption level of a public media provider. The difference between the proposed project and NPR-aligned adult alternative stations is the project aims to coalesce real people involved with music into the curation equation. This is opposed to hiring an industry fiduciary to be that tastemaker, who is subservient to watering-down product for consumption. The project aims to assist this breakthrough through the use of localized terrestrial broadcast outlets in three California markets to distill distinction, name, and local listeners. Then, utilize non-trite novel branding to accrue listenership on an international level, marketing a clothing line. Then, project that acclaim to penetrate back into corporate-docile domestic market for U.S. listeners. The goal is to (1) be a definitive music discovery source to re-inject “realness” into new music consumption, and (2) be able to break new artists to (even at a minute level) re-steer the music industry.
The goal is to create emergent-sound radio service that culls from underground music, but is skillfully presented and organized to appeal to the average public radio alternative music listener. However, unlike a public radio service, the music direction curated by DJs, collectors, artists within the urban California music scenes. This sounds like a service that might be currently available, but there are major differences (expanded upon in next section). The service is not college radio, not piecemeal subgenre DJ blocks, or unemotionally presented like public radio. It attempts to provide a playlist knowledge to the caliber of WFMU, but a consistent emphasis on 30-45% current artists within each hour, presented as organized as KEXP, but in the style of the late commercial LA station Indie 103.1. Sustainability is premised upon simple tenants:
- Distinctive branding, rooted in its legitimate music scene identity (keywords: California, noncorporate, analog artwork, house shows/clubs, focus on creativity).
- Focus on emergent artists that have their own peculiar sound or songwriting ability, like new artists and sound radio once broke up to the early 1980s -- but also delve into tracks of historical significance.
- Clear and undistracted playlist app / website that focuses on coherence and ease of use.
- Competent. The DJ is perspicuous to detail on back-wraps. The playlist is clean and provides immediate knowledge of what is playing, with ways to bookmark favorite tracks to go back to for purchase (playlist links to Bandcamp, Reverb, Discogs, record stores).
- Consistency. Consistency -- not as in boring -- but as in any time of day a listener tunes in, they are going to receive the same experience.
- Human, not a playlist algorithm.
- Interactive via a social media app interface.
- DJ is not fake. The DJ is laid back and real, and can delve into bizarreness, but avoid ten-minute garrulous tangents.
- Will provide the music knowledge and freshness of a veteran college radio DJ within the competence of public radio. Few services combine the best of each to create something that is exactly what radio should be.
- Promote cultural entities, clubs, music, art, blog, DJs, etc entities with a collective notion, supporting the entire scene.
Impetus for New Service / Market Analysis
Why create a new curated music service? Aren’t there myriad broadcast stations and even more audio streams online?
There is a perceived demand for a tastemaker service executed in a way few are done. At least in the United States, there has been a major disconnect in the way that innovative new artists, or new music scenes, never precipitate to wider listener consumption. After years of the public being relegated to corporate music movements, “good music” seems almost arbitrary -- anyone can self-proclaim they are a tastemaker while listening to watered down selections. With the advent of internet distribution and Garageband, anyone can casually start a bedroom band to emulate their favorite pop punk artist in their spare time. The way that “the world famous KROQ” can inveterately program virtually the same constrictive playlist of artists as fifteen years ago, still be called “alternative” today, and maintain a sizable listenership almost seems like an immense hoax. Besides the obvious “scarcity of FM channels” theory (the corralling of listeners to a very limited amount of FM channels) there is ample to glean regarding audio media presentation. The following chart delineates the grouped venues for music discovery.
We can derive some conclusions from the above, applicable to our proposes:
- Most authoritative sources for new music are hidden within DJ-specific sets within block programmed music-fanatic stations, shrouded a disorganized college radio format, or found within under-promoted blogs/podcasts. Regular listeners do not have the patience to sort through, persevere inconsistency, or wade through two hours of a subgenre to get to the next show to learn about different music.
- Within commercial radio, there is no tastemaker reference point to what is considered “good” anymore. Appearing cool, dominant among peer or celebrity preference, or just being the loudest or ubiquitous in availability is significant to accruing listenership. Strategic marketing is paramount.
- It is difficult to learn the quintessential new/hip, or rare historical, artists within a genre you know nothing about. A specific iHeartRadio or Sirius XM channel gives your the depth and overview of your dad doing a Google search.
- Public alternative stations excel at exposing music in an organized, listener-retaining forum, but don’t expose those countless seminal tracks that crate-diggers do. Their presentation is clinical, and often pretentious. There is just something un-moving / un-rock’n’roll about public alternative radio -- it’s devoid of emotion.
- People consume popular music choices because it is easy. Listeners gravitate to the most uncomplicated, consistent option. This is why terrestrial radio is still most popular. Listeners don’t want to think hard or research when taking a break to listen to music -- although they may want discovery, they are chiefy listening to be entertained.
- Algorithms, automated discover modes, and subgenre streams are as only diverse as what is perceived the listener already likes, or what the hired streaming service music directors know. It does not approach the quality or breadth of human curators.
- There appears a lack of music discovery stream geared towards people who want emergent music presented across genres (e.g., combining garage punk, soul, electronic, indie, hip hop, etc) compiled from non-hype authentic scene experts.
- Successful content is flexible, taking into consideration how people digest media. People unfortunately have short attention spans and now access media within small blocks of time (eg., waiting at the bus stop or doctor’s office, lunch break, waking up in the morning, etc).
There does appear a need for more services that takes the music authorities that you would see at the college radio and collector level, injecting that into a competently curated service.
“The one thing that I can tell you is a MUST when it comes to podcasting is consistency you absolutely must be CONSISTENT… The minute you fall off you lose your audience as I did.”
- Popular Podcaster Kevin Ross,
Pennies from Kevin
The objective is create an audio stream that has artistic integrity, but is structured and marketed toward a large audience. The questions are (1) where is the perceived market demand, (2) what method is there to accrue listenership without much startup money, (3) what similar successful services could be emulated, and (4) what is, the total strategy.
Market Validation: The data (from last section) would seem to suggest:
- There is a division between popular wide-consumption platforms (easy-to-use, well-publicized, but one-dimensional / not tastemaker-driven) and niche services (diehard music fans, musicians, and subcultural following). While there is no survey data validating the assessment, this proposal is not a for-profit venture demanding such degree of market affirmation.
- This division is a result of (from greatest factor to least) (1) market access and peer preference (2) publicity and budget, (3) organization and type of content (4) cogence in presentation (media and app-wise) and (5) product marketing.
- “The middle” (between popular/mainstream and niche/fanatic music outlets) is an undersupplied service.
Listener Accruement: The strategy concerning amassing listenership is perhaps is the largest challenge to new media organization. Major media organizations either have broadcast divisions that by scarcity of channels corrals an audience (or cross platform promotion) or are replete with millions in venture capital if a web-only operation (with indeterminate business plan or net profit mechanism) to float a publicity (advertising) expenditure.
Broadcast organizations use their broadcast sides for heavy promotion to galvanize their web counterpart (e.g., iHeartMedia is the number one streamer). Broadcast is still a dominant player: Sirius-XM purchased Pandora. Apple is looking into investing in iHeartMedia. iHeartMedia is buying Stuff Media (podcasting company). CBS owns Last.fm. An entry point into a successful web platform is establishing a broadcast side. The proposal is for CA FM to anchor to a few FM non-commercial radio channels in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento vicinities (with expansion possibility). The utilization of radio in 2018 is primarily for three discrete purposes:
- Marketing Distinction: Audience perception is that there is some type of preeminence associated with broadcasters, which creates a product distinction that “not just anyone can pursue” due to FM spectrum scarcity. Additionally, from the same perspective, a business’ perception of announcements on the radio is different that paying for streaming announcements. A known monetization base still exists with radio (e.g., an adult alternative station like KEXP has approximately a 10 million dollar budget)
- Psychological Distinction: A very select few entities can claim to hold broadcast licenses. The marketing connected to a licensed radio frequency asserts a psychological distinction of organizational credibility against thousands of other web streamers. Even people not in the locality of the station tend towards seeing a public broadcast entity as a credible organization.
- Vehicle listenership: Even if someone hears a radio station while driving in their car once, or on the five- to thirty-minute ride to work, the affinity towards listenership is subconsciously inculcated. It is the utmost form of advertising that leads to streaming in the home, and pursuit of your app.