Open Source Radio

by Doc Searls
Open Source Radio

KPIG is an anomaly. It's a top-rated commercial radio station programmed entirely by its own DJs. It's a serious radio station with a terrific sense of humor. It's as much a fixture in its community as a statue in front of a courthouse—and a lot more fun.

The station's format has been described as “mutant cowboy rock and roll”, but it's hard to make any label stick on a station that is more real, more fun and more like-it-oughta-be than (by my conservative estimate) all the other commercial music stations in the country put together. Its roots go back to the legendary KFAT, and beyond that to the KRAB Nebula of loosely affiliated noncommercial stations out of which “community radio” and “free form radio” evolved in the sixties. It's a history that's as old and woolly as UNIX's. The resemblance doesn't end there, either.

The words free and open are taken seriously by KPIG and its faithful, who contribute code in the form of original voices, programming ideas and even musical selections. KPIG is fortuitously located in (no kidding) Freedom, California, and has one of the worst signals in the Salinas-Monterey-Santa Cruz market. If you're in the bowl of mountains that surround Monterey Bay, chances are you can get it. If you're not, your only choice is to punch up and choose among a wide selection of streams, including a 128Mb MP3 spigot that's one of the prettiest-sounding signals that ever poured out of your speakers.

KPIG was the first commercial radio station to broadcast on the Web, and it has blazed trails ever since. This last spring, when AFTRA decided its commercial talent should be paid as much as 300% extra for commercials going out over the Net, thousands of commercial stations shut down their streams. KPIG just hacked around it. When the national ads come on, webstream listeners get pleasant filler.

To the constant astonishment of everybody but the station and its listeners, KPIG consistently manages to sit near the top of the local Arbitron ratings, despite its second-rate signal. It is, by all measures, a success. It is also full of open-source technologies that are in a good position to burn down “broadcasting as usual if the right hackers and serious radio fanatics get their hands on it. That's the idea behind what you're reading right now.

KPIG's hacker in chief is ”Wild Bill“ Goldsmith, a KPIG veteran going back to KFAT. He's now living full-time in (no kidding) Paradise, California, where he has steadily improved his own solo effort, Radio Paradise, alongside KPIG. I decided to get in touch with Bill after I received e-mail raves about Radio Paradise almost simultaneously from friends in Seattle, New York and North Carolina. The sources were old radio pros who have since moved on to other professions but know the real thing when they hear it.

It was clear from a quick look at both KPIG and Radio Paradise that the stations were up to something more than radically good radio programming. Technically, both were easily customizable hacks built on open-source software and generic hardware. Specifically, Bill had put together what appeared to be a tightly integrated system that involved the music library, the web site, the whole audio chain, accounting, operations and scriptable tie-ins to potentially money-making partnerships with anybody who wanted to cross-promote anything, including stores, artists, labels or whatever—in a way that allowed as much live operation or automation as one saw fit.

This appeals to me. I'm a radio freak going back to my childhood, when I was a ham radio operator (even today the only code I know is Morse). My nickname, Doc, is the fossil remnant of the name I used on the air when I worked at WDBS, a KFAT-like station in North Carolina back in the seventies. Commercial radio today is a snatched body that bears only superficial resemblance to anything anybody loved in its golden age. Revitalizing radio is also a passion I share with Phil Hughes, Linux Journal's chief geek and publisher, an old radio hand who fondly recalls KRAB's golden days in Seattle.

When I wrote and asked Bill exactly what he was hacking together at the two stations, he wrote this back:

It's based on a set of software tools—for picking and scheduling music and doing voice tracks from anywhere over the Net, and for accepting and organizing listener feedback on my playlist. Everything I'm doing software-wise is 100% open source: Linux, PHP, Perl, Postgres and Icecast.

I am convinced that what you see at represents the future of radio, or of quality radio, anyway: very interactive, tightly controlled artistically (no random segues, everything happens for a reason), completely free from the influences of the radio/music industry hype machine (to the best of my ability, anyway) and supported primarily by voluntary contributions from listeners.

This isn't a game plan that's going to make anyone rich. But it can make it possible for anyone with talent to make a very comfortable living without compromising their integrity in any way—and that's all I for one have ever wanted.

I suggested an interview and he agreed. We talked in late October, right after he finished putting up the latest KPIG web site.

Doc Hey, I like the new site. The Webcast links and the current song list are right up front. And I like the webloggy thing going on in the center of the page too. Makes it all very live. Very radio.

Bill It should be more webloggy-looking very soon, after the staff at the station takes it over.

Doc I've thought for a long time that the Linux and open-source development community could do something fun to blow commercial radio out of the water. Now it looks to me like you're doing the pioneering work here. Are your tracks in the snow the ones we should follow?

Bill I really think so. What I'm doing with the stations I'm working with is gradually evolving toward a complete open-source package for programming, managing and scheduling a radio station, with an integrated web site to go along with it. Basically everything that makes it possible to do what you see on the screen there at is all done with open-source stuff. There is not one lick of proprietary software in there anywhere.

Doc Give me a rundown of what I'm looking at when I visit the KPIG site. How is the content organized and served up here?

Bill Basically what builds the page is Apache running on a Linux box. It pulls a lot of stuff dynamically out of an SQL database in Postgres. And it also pulls in a lot of bits and pieces—little snippets of HTML that are built by scripts. An example of that is the Now Playing box. What you see there is a snippet of code that actually is written by the automation system that the DJs are using to choose and play back the music, which is another Linux server running the same kind of software. The DJ is looking at a private web page, by which they control what goes out on the stream.

Doc In other words, the disc jockey has an internal web page that works as a control console. It's interactive in some way.

Bill Yes. They use that to pick and schedule the music. The screen looks like any other radio station automation system. It doesn't even look like a web page. Most of them don't even know that they're looking at a web page. I run it in full-screen mode. They use this screen to control the server that does the audio playback, which they can program in advance. They can preview what all the segues are going to sound like, right down to the nth degree. And then they can walk away. You could—though we never would—run a completely automated station this way. The capabilities are there. I use it that way for Radio Paradise and for Smooth Jazz (

Doc Smooth Jazz is yours too?

Bill The technology of it or the back end: the automation and the piece that builds the web site.

Doc So this back end is writing scripts all over the place?

Bill Okay, when the DJ hits the button to start something, or the system starts something on its own because it's been programmed to do that by the DJ, it not only starts the music playback but also writes a new little Now Playing page. That song in the Now Playing slot moves down to the top of the next three. A total of four songs are listed: the song now playing and the most recent three. Each has its own page. The system also writes the page that you see when you click on Playlist, which is a history of what's been playing for the last six hours. Those actually are done on a separate machine and then FTPed over to the web server and included in the main page.

Doc Does all the music have to be on a hard drive somewhere?

Bill No. Most of it will be, but there are exceptions. At KPIG if the jock wants to play something not in the database, he can type in the title so the system will display it.

Doc And everything you're hearing on KPIG is MP3?

Bill They're high band rate MP3s. Mostly 256Kb. Some are 192. All are played out of a Linux box using a $90 sound card. The whole hardware cost for one of these operations is about $600. It's really cheap, which is why a business can be built around it. But it would be a specialized business: serious next-generation radio.

Doc I've been amazed at how little the public and noncommercial stations use MP3 as an encoding and transmission system on the Web. Most of them use Real and a few use Windows Media Player. Yet that seems like it would be more expensive to me. Is it just because they don't know better?

Bill Yeah.

Doc It's just branding.

Bill It's probably 80-90% branding. Setting up a free Real server is easy for somebody to do if they're not interested in serving more than 20 people at a time. But there's nothing serious going on there. Okay, say 95% branding. And inertia. A lot of people started with Real back when it was the best choice and have stuck with it because they've had no real reason to switch. But man, if I was paying for a server license for a Real server, I'd drop that for MP3 or QuickTime or something else that was free. It's nearly impossible to recoup even the bandwidth costs downstream.

Doc Is there an advantage to Real at any of the different speeds?

Bill Real's latest codecs are much more optimized for low bit rates than MP3 is. They do have a quality advantage at bit rates below about 32k. That's the 5%. But the difference isn't that extreme.

Doc Is your system in tight enough shape for you to productize it?

Bill I would like to get this out there. I don't want to sell it as a product. I want it to be the nucleus of an open-source project. I don't want to be the Linus of the system, rather I want to use the system. That's why I built it in the first place. I'm not a programmer by trade. I've learned enough to build this—it's a lot of stuff, and I'm happy I know it—but it's a little too big for me to handle alone. Others need to come in and run with it.

Doc Have you looked into putting this up on SourceForge?

Bill I'm looking at a number of options. Right now I'd like somebody to come in from the outside and check out what we've got here. It's a really big project. It encompasses all these different activities involved in running a broadcast operation. It's not a tool for somebody who wants to do radio as a hobby. It's a tool for people who are serious about doing high-quality radio by using 21st-century tools.

Doc How many people know what high-quality radio is?

Bill In the industry, hardly anybody. All the people who would be open to doing what I'm talking about here have long since been driven out of the industry. KPIG is the exception. If I weren't hooked up with KPIG, I wouldn't have anything to do with commercial radio. I'd be off doing my own thing.

Doc KPIG breaks the mold in a lot of ways.

Bill Our staff is huge by medium-market radio standards. We have live DJs 24 hours a day. Nobody has that. Even in San Francisco you don't see that. Not anymore.

Doc You stream a wide selection, but you're basically about MP3s. Is that because just about everybody with a computer and a love of music has an MP3 player of some kind?

Bill The penetration isn't quite as high as for Real or Windows Media Player. But Real does a fine job of playing MP3 streams, too. In any case, the number of people out there who have Real, or Winamp or iTunes is pretty high.

Doc We're reviewing Apple's OS X here, which sits on Darwin, a form of BSD. And the default MP3 player shipping with it is iTunes, which comes with a tuner that demonstrates how hard it is to categorize stations. It's also fed by something called the Kerbango database. (Kerbango is the late embedded Linux radio company that was absorbed by 3Com and killed off early this year.)

Bill Apple hired a friend of mine who was a former Kerbango employee to maintain the iTunes database as a part-time project. He has KPIG under ”Americana“ and Radio Paradise under ”Alt/Modern Rock“. It used to be under ”Americana“, but I told him to change it.

Doc Who is going to be doing serious radio and is there a business in it?

Bill I think this is a nice small-scale business for one person who has a wide-ranging skill set—or for a small group of people. If it's done right, an on-line radio station at this point in time could probably support a staff of two or three people working full-time.

Doc What's the revenue model?

Bill At this point the major revenue source for all the successful operations I know about is listener donations.

Doc The public radio model.

Bill Yes. And it's much more applicable to this situation than the commercial radio model, which any number of people have tried to come in and make work on-line and failed at. As long as there is commercial-free competition, there is no reason anyone will want to listen to something that has advertising in it, unless it was spectacularly better than the alternative. And nobody's coming in and doing things that are spectacularly better.

Doc Seems to me the best on-line stations, like the best over-the-air stations—few as there are—sound like somebody who knows their stuff, playing their record collection for you.

Bill Which is the old underground FM radio system.

Doc Not many people have observed that the fundamental flaw with commercial radio is that its customers and consumers are different populations. That's a disadvantage noncommercial broadcasting does not have. The listeners are the customers. And on the Net it's easy to put out a pay jar so people can compensate the broadcaster for the service. Can't do that with a car radio.

Bill That payment system seems to work remarkably well at Radio Paradise.

Doc How?

Bill Here's my experience. For about a year or so people would occasionally write me and say ”Hey, I'd like to pay for this. Do you accept donations?“ And I'd always write back and say, ”No, no. Keep your money.“ Until one day my wife and I were sitting around trying to figure how the hell we're going to pay for all this. And we said, ”Y'know, people have been offering to give us money. Wonder what would happen if we made that possible?“ So we put up the link and did a very, very low-key promotion—maybe once or twice a day on the stream—and a little blurb in the news section of the web site and a little link down at the bottom of the page. In the first month we got about $2,000 in donations. Which is about $2,000 more than we made the month before. Now we've got a target of $3,000, and we get about $3,000-$3,500 every month, plus another $300-$400 in affiliate program stuff, like with CDNOW.

Doc Since when?

Bill May.

Doc And that covers you?

Bill That's enough so I can drop a number of consulting projects I had been doing.

Doc Not bad for being this early in the game.

Bill Yeah. The station is more or less playing for itself.

Doc Will your expenses go up?

Bill We've got a free bandwidth deal going right now. After that ends the expenses will probably double, but I think the revenue will double as well. The audience is growing.

Doc Do you collect data on listeners?

Bill We're starting at KPIG. It's all voluntary for the listeners. The sense is that about 80% or better are at work. A lot of them are home workers with cable or DSL accounts. At work is also where people are looking for some music in the background and they've got a computer sitting there. They're also mostly in the US, about 80% or so. Quite a few in Europe. Age range is all over the place, but mostly in the 30s and 40s.

Doc What do you make of Live365, which hosts about 35,000 MP3 streams? It's like this vast mutant thing that manages to crash for me on three different platforms.

Bill They require that you use this little pop-up player of theirs. A little JavaScript thing.

Doc But do they demonstrate a business in brokering individual MP3 streams?

Bill I think there is definitely a market in doing infrastructure for on-line radio. That's basically what Live365 does. I question their revenue model, which is advertising. They seem to do almost random in-stream ad insertions. Their original model, like everyone else's, was to get rich selling banner ads on their web site once it had a gazillion visitors. We all know how well that worked.

Doc We all could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble if we read the MUTE buttons on our remote controls.

Bill [Laughter.] Live365 does have new people paying to stream through the service. But they also have thousands and thousands grandfathered in for free. Radio Paradise sneaked in under the wire. We're on there too. We probably grab another 200 listeners at a time that way.

Doc How many simultaneous streams do you run?

Bill It tops out at about 800-900. KPIG does about the same. Maybe slightly higher.

Doc At what bit rate are most people listening?

Bill On Radio Paradise, about 600 out of 800 will be listening at 128k.

Doc Due mostly to cable and DSL, I would guess.

Bill Yes. 128k streams work just great on cable and DSL.

Doc Isn't there a fundamental inefficiency involved as that number goes up?

Bill Yes, it's incredibly inefficient, but I don't think that's going to change. And we're at the point where bandwidth and hardware are so cheap, or headed that way, that there just isn't that much of a return on reinventing the whole infrastructure of the Internet to make it more efficient.

Doc Are you worried about what Disney and RIAA and these other creeps are trying to do with legislation right now?

Bill Yeah. If they get their way, they will drive people like me out of business. There would be no way to cost-effectively do what I want to do here.

Doc It would be endless digital rights management everywhere.

Bill I can't believe that's going to work—that they are going to shoehorn that thing through. There is just too much standing up against it. The biggest is reluctance on the part of consumers. They've had too much of a taste of how it oughta be, with the free exchange of MP3 files, for them to trade that for anything else.

Doc Yet when Napster died, not that many people cried. They just kind of moved on.

Bill Well, there are any number of alternatives. There's Gnutella, which has a good Linux client. Mac too. True, none of them are as good as Napster was at its peak.

Doc So you're not worried.

Bill No, I'm really optimistic.


Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal and coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto.

Load Disqus comments

Inmotion Web Hosting