The Rise of Online Radio

Radio is thriving online, with new stations springing up everywhere and podcasting piggybacking on the MP3 player revolution. It seems strange that while the internet is hailed as the technology that will finally slay the TV Goliath, radio is perceived as successfully transferring to the new medium – despite the obvious fact that both audio and video will one day be delivered almost exclusively through the internet, and the extent to which we still call them TV or radio will depend wholly on how broadly you define the terms.

Sadly, the romance of pirate radio is probably in its end game. The analogue radio frequencies are being sold off at some point in the future and with broadband internet access ever more common there’s no good reason to risk the wrath of officialdom when you can switch to internet broadcasting and at least reduce the amount of legal harassment you are liable to encounter.

By the same token, niche interests can all be represented online without having to vie for space with phone-ins about Tupperware, ‘classic’ rock hours and, of course, the shipping forecast. Musical genres can coalesce around these online communities and use them as a forum to develop a sense of identity. In our interviews with various online radio stations (see tabs at the top) Matt Cheetham of Samurai FM sited as possibly the first instance of a genre (breaks) being highly influenced by an online radio station. DJ Whistla of SUBFM believes his station plays a similar role in the dubstep scene.

As always, the internet delivers a higher degree of accessibility. Once, if you wanted your music heard by others you’d need to struggle to land a DJing slot at an appropriate club night; now online radio offers another forum for up-and-coming talent to show off.

It’s not all plain sailing though, and if the digital frontier is a land of copyright infringement and inadequate legislation then nowhere is this more so than the online audio broadcast. Audio licensing is controlled by two bodies: MCPS-PRS and PPL. Despite a name which hints at the arcane complexity of the relevant legislation MCPS-PRS seems relatively kind to would-be online broadcasters, allowing them to pay a simply administrated flat fee for licensing (starting at £120).

PPL has a different story to tell. If you are a small online radio station then you can get a blanket “small webcaster” license, but if you are getting hundereds of listeners on a daily basis then you will have to pay per song per listener. Either way you could end up having to note down every track you pay, how many listeners you have and what countries they are in – and you’ll also have to pay to copy media onto your hard drive to broadcast it, because even if you bought the CD legally you don’t have the right to make copies. All of this is fairly onerous. Though costs start at £150 they rise rapidly if you exceed the limit of the small webcaster license. All this in addition to your MCPS-PRS license…

The rules change for ‘interactive’ broadcasts. This includes podcasting, putting tunes up for download or allowing users to fast forward or rewind through your show. If you want to offer that functionality then PPL simply won’t license you. To be legal you have to approach the owners of the rights to the music you play individually — which is really asking people to break the law, since that’s essentially impossible unless you’re a huge company.

It’s clear that the objective of these regulations is to stop people from recording music that has been broadcast live so they can keep it in their library. To this end it’s also been made illegal to play several songs off the same album in a row or publish a playlist before you broadcast it. Samurai FM have chosen to license abroad, while Ed Baxter of Resonance FM told TTI that these regulations have limited their ability to provide podcasts of their shows. SUBFM point out that most of the artists whose tunes they play are more than pleased just to get the exposure.

All this reduces the (legal) internet to offering the same service as analogue radio has since the 1920s. Surely podcasting and on-demand radio is what the net should be delivering?

As always with copyright in the digital era, when the law is completely out-of-touch it simply gets ignored, and that’s why there is such a variety of legal and not-so-legal material out there.

TTI… spoke to two online radio stations about their experiences — Samurai FM, a Japanese/English bilingual radio station and SUBFM, a radio station at the heart of the emergent dubstep scene. We also got in touch with Resonance FM, a London Bridge based arts/community radio station. Resonance has an FM license in addition to its online operations, but we’ve always wanted to speak to them, so this seemed like a great opportunity. We hope they give a flavour of broadcasting online and where it’s headed…

SUBFM won radio station of the year at last year’s Dubstep Awards. Because of the ease of online broadcasting many radio stations can focus at a very specific, genre-based audience. Obviously this means that people have more control over the music they listen to, but it also means that radio stations can provide coherence in nascent genres and allow people who are geographically isolated to participate, exactly as SUBFM has for Dubstep. We talked to DJ Whistla, the driving force behind the station.

Why was SUBFM started?
I started playing on pirate radio back in ’97 and I’ve helped set up and run various stations over the years. I’ve always wanted a station that I would “listen to all day”, rather than just tuning in for the odd show. By 2000 I’d had enough of running from the DTI and the internet was only just beginning to get going back then in terms of radio. To cut a long story short, I decided in 2004 that I would start SUBFM and see what happened, always asking myself “would I listen to this?” rather than just filling up slots.

Can you tell who your listeners are and how many people tune in?
We get a huge number of listeners and have “adaptive servers” that allow our bandwidth to increase when demand gets huge. We don’t run specific number tracking software at present, but the feedback in the chat room and via MySpace is enough to know we are doing things properly. Getting all caught up in figures is for people out to make a profit, we just want to play music to people that enjoy it.

Most of our listeners are from the UK, followed by the USA then spread pretty evenly throughout Europe, with more and more Asian and Australian listeners coming every week.

You won best radio station at the Dubstep Awards, what sort of role would you say you play in that genre?

Yeah! We are so happy about the award! Best Dubstep Radio Station 2007! I can honestly tell you that when I started SUB FM I would never have thought we would ever get an award.

I think you would probably get a different answer from every DJ as to the role the station plays in dubstep. As the owner / manager, and having seen the growth of the scene from within, I would say SUB FM has given an outlet to the producers and DJs that were, for one reason or another, not getting heard. We have also allowed people from anywhere in the world to become involved in a community — without radio they would only have been able to publish downloadable recorded sets (if they were lucky enough to get recorded in the first place). We have helped to bring dubstep into the “prime time” of radio broadcasts – other stations used to put dubstep very late in their timetable, we however, have had dubstep in prime time from the word go.

When we started in 2004 the scene wasn’t a unified genre and I like to think we have pulled all the different camps out there together under one banner and helped people to understand the scene a bit better.

Have you ever had any involvement with the legalities of broadcasting other people’s music?

You would be surprised how many people ask this. No we haven’t, the vast majority of people want to get their tunes heard and radio airplay is one of the best ways to make that happen. If a label or artist had a problem with us playing their tunes then I’m sure they would contact me.

Where do you see the station going, are you going to be changing the services you offer? Or are you just focusing on growing listener numbers?
The service will remain the same, I feel that if you keep concentrating on one thing you can make it excellent rather than spreading your talents thinly over various projects — we are a radio station, not an mp3 store, for example.

The main focus for us at the moment is to move into becoming live 24 hours a day, it’s a long mission but that is where I want to take it. I’d also like to do some station club nights Promoters – get in touch!

What have you done to promote the station? Are you just sufficiently ingrained in the scene to have grown by word of mouth, or have you used some other technique to let people know bout what you are up to?

I guess we are pretty ingrained in the scene now. We do the usual forum posts, advertising through various websites, flyering… A lot of listeners do promotion in their own areas in their own ways which we fully encourage.

If anyone has got, say, a tattoo of SUBFM or has seen graffiti of SUBFM etc please get in touch! We love to hear about stuff like that and see the pictures!

Samurai FM has been promoting cutting edge music since 2003. It plays host to various shows focusing on new music, as well as sharing culture between its two native homes – Tokyo and London. We spoke to Matt Cheetham, Samurai’s main man in London.

Can you tell us what Samurai FM is all about?
It all started in Japan, by myself and my business partner, Hash. There was no broadcast media at the time in Japan really focusing on forward thinking music and pushing its respective genres. Our tag line is: “New Music Radio”.

Has the lack of genre specific definition made it harder to promote the station?
Actually I think that has made it easier. We’ve been going for about 5 years now and we’ve spent less than £2000 advertising, promotion and events. Everybody who contributes shows does their own publicity and that’s worked very well so far.

Is it a commercial enterprise?
We’d like it to be! It’s still a fairly new industry and the advertising revenues haven’t started to transfer from traditional media. We get a few million page views every month but it’s still pretty hard to generate advertising revenue. We’ve just signed a deal where Channel 4 represents us to UK advertisers, but finding advertisers who will pay for coverage worldwide is very difficult.

Who are your listeners?

We’ve got listeners all over the world, mainly in the 24-35 age range. Japan is our biggest user base, but the UK and USA follow closely, Germany too.

How important is the ‘live’ aspect of radio shows on the net?

Our live stream randomly selects a programme for you to listen to, people mainly just come onto the site and select a programme to listen to when they’ve got a spare half hour. I think that’s where all media is going — everything will be highly tailored to the
listener, look at if you need an example.

How do you get people to make radio shows for you?

We have always focused on quality and fortunately now people mainly approach us. We started in Japan and that made it easy for us to get interest because a lot of labels and artists want exposure in Japan and we’re the only place really doing that for the kind of music we work with.

Where are you going next?

Well the record industry obviously has a lot of problems right now, there’s just not enough cash to support the old music business that sits between the artist and the consumers. We offer a facility for artists and small labels to address their audience directly and keep some more cash for themselves. We simply want to extend that facility as far as possible, for example we might consider making an online retail space.

What about licensing?

Online licensing is a very thorny subject, current licensing laws simply don’t suit digital technologies. The licences that are
currently being proposed in the UK are about ten times as expensive per listener per track as compared with the FM rate. On demand broadcast shows would cost 0.32p per track per listener, which is obviously very expensive. Fortunately the licensing situation in Japan where the station was established and where our largest listener base is works out their royalties on % of revenue.

We’ve been registered in the USA and the UK before, but no one has ever asked for a track listing from us, which made us wonder where the money is going. Paying the artists is not something that we are trying to avoid, it’s just needs to be affordable and appropriate.

Have you ever had any legal hassle?

Never, less than 1% of people we deal with every even mention the licensing of their music. Licensing law tends to favour large, rich companies, which is a shame because the internet is the perfect media for smaller projects to promote themselves. It’s just going to kill the new media. For example, if an artist who is registered with PRS asks us to give away a track for free on our website, we still have to pay PRS 6p per download.

Despite all of the legal issues, is it a good way to earn a living?
Not yet, revenues just about cover the stations running costs, but there’s still a fair amount of “hustle” involved to keep ourselves afloat!

Resonance FM is a community radio station that broadcasts locally around the London Bridge area. It is funded in part by the Arts Council and has its roots in avant-garde music, having been set up by the London Musicians Collective (LMC) — a body committed to promoting new music — although now its focus is on the community around London Bridge. However, times are a-changing, and Resonance FM is to continue broadcasting, while the LMC has recently had its funding withdrawn and faces an uncertain future.

How did Resonance get its broadcasting license?

We did a month long Restricted Service License broadcast, which is a sort of festive radio station. You do it round a special event — we set up the radio station for the duration of John Peel’s Meltdown festival on the Southbank. Then we did nothing for two years. In 2001 the Radio Authority asked us propose an idea for a community radio station, I wrote a letter explaining what we’d like to do, and they said yes!

Who would you say your audience are?

We didn’t want to broadcast 24 hours a day avant-garde noise. Although I wouldn’t mind that myself I think it might put a lot of people off. However, our audience does have a very general interest in arts and a slight disillusionment with conventional media. Our shows are hosted by people between the ages of 16-78. The pensioners show is listened to by a lot of students who find it hilarious. It’s a very broad mix. We think we have a core audience of 100,000.

But it’s only available in quite a restricted area around London Bridge?
The community license we have allows us to broadcast in a 5km radius.

Is it helpful to have a small geographic area, so that you know your audience is from?

We try and reflect the local population, so we don’t broadcast exclusively in English, and we do broadcast about local issues. Being such a densely populated area it doesn’t affect us a great deal though.

What do you see happening during the switchover to digital?
I think we might end up in a very advantageous position, in that I hope we might end up with a digital and analogue license. The Radio Authority has a structural problem having granted about 140 community licenses in the last two years. It can’t really expect them all to switch to digital, so there will have to be some continuity there, and the ethos of community radio is very much suited to the analogue medium. We are hoping to get a digital license too.

Were you the for runner for these community radio stations then?
Yes, we were one of the first 12, and now there 140.

With all your public funding is there a lot of box ticking?

We do have to write a lot of reports and so on, but it’s not onerous. We have almost total freedom in terms of the content of the shows, which is what’s important.

So can you be overtly political?

Under Ofcom rules we have to give balance. So when we gave coverage to an arms fair in the Docklands we had to give the positive as well as the negative.

The LMC has had withdrawn its funding withdrawn, will that affect Resonance?

It does leave us in a strange position because the LMC is our licensor, but there is no threat to Resonance. The Arts Council dumped the LMC because it was a soft target: it’s a reactionary warning shot. The new music community has been a wounded animal for as long as anyone can remember, it’s not an established thing like museums or opera. Funding bodies aren’t quite sure how to “manage” the new music community, they like organisations covered in layers of managerial goo…

What do you mean by new music, is it sound art?
Well yes, that sort of thing. Music that doesn’t make money. Why fund a jazz festival featuring Jamie Cullum? It doesn’t need the cash.

What’s your take on the rights issue surrounding radio?

The main body which has been a problem is PPL, it’s a confused area and they seem very old fashioned. For example, they don’t want any one to stream three songs by one artist in a row. The law in this country has yet to coincide with the reality of the internet. I suspects it will come to a head in some showcase trial, we just hope it doesn’t involve us. It needs to be someone big like Virgin to take the issue on.

It’s a complicated area that makes lots of money for lawyers, but small record companies don’t really stand to make much money.

Could Resonance ever have a commercial basis?
Money is always a problem, so we would never say no, but it’s really a question of our skills — we don’t have a background in raising money that way. There are also limits to the amount of money we can raise commercially under our community license. But I think that the audio pollution of adverts is part of the problem we’re trying to solve! Commercial radio is getting ossified and boring.

You’re funded by the arts council, which is a type of public funding. Some people might feel that the BBC ought to be providing the community radio service that you do, being the national institution with a remit for public broadcasting.

Yes we do get a grant from the Arts Council, strangely from the visual arts department, however we are the only broadcaster to get money from the Arts Council. The BBC is under a lot of pressure and I don’t think it could provide the kind of broadcasting we do.

Feature by Jimmy Tidey

Comments are closed.