The Promise of Radio Paradise: An Open-Source Challenge to Commercial Radio

by Doc Searls

Remember when “commercial broadcasting” didn't ridicule the archaic concept that broadcast bands were a public space where stations and their owners operated by the grace of public trust?

That idea started falling out the window somewhere in the Nixon administration. By the Reagan administration it was hanging by its toes. The Clinton administration gave it the heave-ho by deregulating station ownership to the extent that one company, Clear Channel Communications, owns large hunks of the radio dial in nearly all the major markets, including 5 FMs in New York, 5 FMs and 2 AMs in San Francisco, and 5FMs and 3 AMs in Los Angeles, to name a few. In Santa Barbara, the small city where I live, Clear Channel owns 4 FMs and 3 AMs. The total number of local stations isn't much more than that.

As Brad Kava of the San Jose Mercury News points out in his current column, the company's influence extends much farther:

To comply with the legal limit of eight stations in any market, the company sold off three signals in the San Francisco market: KXJO-FM to Spanish Broadcasting, and KCNL-FM and KFJO-FM to Chase Radio Properties, both minority-owned broadcasters. But Clear Channel continues to program the stations. For a sale to be legal, the new owner must program at least 85 percent of the station's content, according to federal regulations. Clear Channel is simulcasting all of KSJO's content on KFJO and KXJO.

No wonder the commercial radio dial is wall-to-wall generica. Nobody protests, for two big reasons: 1) If the last administration didn't care much, the current one cares even less. This administration clearly loves Big Business, as its toothless proposed settlement with Microsoft amply demonstrates, and Clear Channel is bent on becoming the Microsoft of radio. 2) Clear Channel controls much of the local cross-promotional entertainment advertising flow as well. Here's Brad again:

Clear Channel is also the country's largest promoter of concerts and theater events. Locally, it owns Shoreline Amphitheater and books the biggest shows into San Jose's and Oakland's arenas and Saratoga's Mountain Winery. It advertises these events heavily on its competitors and works deals with those stations so they can sponsor events at its facilities.

The competitors can't afford to risk losing those ad dollars.

Not that anybody is up for a fight with the company that Eric Boehlert calls Radio's Big Bully and a Tough Company on Nor is anybody raising a stink about the role played by the record companies in all of this, which Eric wrote about in his article, “Pay for Play”: “Listeners may not realize it, but radio today is largely bought by the record companies. Most rock and Top 40 stations get paid to play the songs they spin by the companies that manufacture the records.”

Back when I was a kid, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, “payola” made front-page headlines when it was learned that disc jockeys took money and favors for playing certain songs. In those days radio mattered. So did the concept of public trust. Today it's a rare jock that gets to choose his or her own music. That's essentially a corporate decision.

It gets worse, but we've explored the darkness far enough. Rather, let's look at the alternatives.

On the Demand side, there's music sharing, which Napster pioneered and for which it got destroyed by the music industry. In the open-source world their work survives in the form of Limewire and other systems that take advantage of the Gnutella network protocol.

Whatever else one might call music sharing over the Net, it serves as the listeners' workaround of the commercial radio's failure to care. In the old days, radio was a system whereby professional connoisseurs shared their music collections with listeners. Yes, there was commercial involvement but not of the massive and cynical industrial sort we see today, where radio acts as a sampler tray for goods pumped from Production to Consumption through thoroughly integrated manufacturing, promotion, distribution and retailing pipes, whose unseen powers bear a creepy resemblance to those of The Matrix.

On the Supply side, we have on-line radio stations created and run by the same kind of connoisseurs that once thrived on commercial radio (and persist on some noncommercial stations). You'll find a few of these on Yahoo's and's radio listings, which are dominated by licensed commercial and noncommercial stations that employ those companies' server software. You'll find a lot more on places like Live365, which lists on-line stations streaming MP3 audio. Apple's iTunes tuner also lists hundreds of streaming MP3 stations (maintained, I am told, by a Kerbango veteran). Ogg Vorbis is out there too.

Taking the lead at making on-line radio an actual business is “Wild” Bill Goldsmith, who is responsible for the lovably anachronistic KPIG, a highly successful commercial FM station that serves the Santa Cruz-Salinas-Monterey Bay area of California over the air on 107-oink-5 (from, no kidding, the town of Freedom), and the rest of the world over a sparkling 128Kb MP3 stream (plus others of lower fi). Bill's other labor of love is Radio Paradise, which he runs out of his place in (no kidding) Paradise, CA.

Bill has built both KPIG's and Radio Paradise's on-line broadcast systems on Linux and other open-source hacks, which he is eager to share with the rest of the world. There's even money in it, Bill says.

I'm bringing this up today because Bill will join us on “The Linux Show” this evening, and because I've written about Bill twice already for Linux Journal, and the links are still fresh. Here they are: 1) the January 2002 “Linux For Suits” editorial , and 2) the November 1, 2001 SuitWatch newsletter.

And yes, I have an ax to grind. I love good radio, and I miss hearing more of it on the air. I believe Open Source Radio is the best hope—not only for on-line broadcasting but for over-the-air commercial broadcasting as well, mostly because it not only saves money but gives commercial broadcasters a cornucopia of connoisseurs that might well serve as sources for over-the-air “content”.

For that we'll need the Open Source community to start pushing the ball Bill started rolling.

Are we up for it? I'd like to hear what you think.

Doc Searls ( is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.

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