Left of the dial: Independent radio in the digital age

"This room is, to a certain extent, a trophy room," Jason Bentley admits, his morning DJ voice rendered even smoother than usual following an in-studio set by local downtempo electro-soul group Rhye. The host of Morning Becomes Eclectic is seated slightly uncomfortably on a stepladder in KCRW's cramped music library, as staff members clear out electric candles from the performance space (the band and station arrived at the alternative lighting in order to maintain Rhye's relative anonymity, while still giving viewers of the video stream something to look at). The space is exactly what you'd want in a radio station library: high, cramped shelving units that are somehow impossibly messy and immaculately organized all at once. Between the CDs and vinyl stacked on shelves and tucked into hidden drawers, there's a vast catalog of music in this room, but it's clear in the five seconds it takes to walk from door to door that this space couldn't possibly house all the songs required to maintain a 24-hour schedule as diverse as KCRW's.

"We have moved to digital, mostly," the DJ / music director continues. "But this is really the spiritual center and the heart of the radio station." The setting is in stark contrast to Jersey City's WFMU, where the concept of a music library is still very much a living, breathing thing. In spite of the station's ties to the claustrophobia of the greater New York City metropolitan area, WFMU's set is far more spacious, housing more music than could ever be enjoyed in a single lifetime. At the beloved freeform station, physical media is still a primary tool of the DJ's arsenal, albeit one augmented by a 250,000-song digital music library. But for all the care devoted to its library, WFMU's charm lies within a structure seemingly held together by duct tape and love -- and walls decorated with glittered LP covers created by listeners at its annual record fair.

Video segment originally appeared in Engadget Show episode 43.

Despite all the cultural and technological contrast between the stations, there's far more that unites the two independent, not-for-profit entities. Both have managed to weather a storm of media consolidation and survived an internet revolution that has completely altered the way we consume entertainment over several decades -- particularly in recent years, as unique voices have disappeared almost entirely from the radio dial. Location has certainly played a role -- with the stations serving the two largest media markets in the country. And of course, there's much to be said for the quality and originality of programming both have consistently offered their respective bases. But in recent years, it may well be the stations' willingness to embrace technology that has allowed them to survive -- and, arguably, even thrive -- while so many of their peers have simply faded away.

"We specialize in playing hippy noise music that people hate," Ken Freedman says, not cracking a smile. In December, Freedman, WFMU's general manager, will celebrate his 30th year with the station. He arrived there a few years after gaining some notoriety for commemorating the election of Ronald Reagan with an 18-hour block of "It's My Party (And I'll Cry If I Want To)." There's a consistent reminder of Freedman's unique sensibilities in the form of the "Bob Dylan Death Tape," an old episode of his Seven Second Delay show, housed behind red metal and glass to be broken "In Case of Bob Dylan Death."


We're seated in the submarine, a darkened studio B utilized during WFMU's twice-yearly marathon pledge drives. The primary studio is currently occupied by Music Director Brian Turner, whose titular show is churning through a sound collage featuring a 44-minute-long collection of Woody Allen stammers at 4 o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon. It's the sort of thing that would likely lead to the immediate firing of any freewheeling commercial DJ.

But WFMU and KCRW alike are beholden to no such corporate overlords, answering to no one but the listeners themselves. It's crowdfunding born decades before Kickstarter threatened to upend the entertainment industry, and it's allowed for some fiercely independent programming, which in the case of WFMU means that comedy call-in juggernaut The Best Show is sandwiched between wax-cylinder clearinghouse Antique Phonograph Music Program and the jagged, post-punk of Solid Gold Hell. It also offers bandwidth for experimentation on a technological level, and while some of the aforementioned on-air talent shall forever be beholden to those cylindrical devices handcrafted by Thomas Edison himself, the station at large has eagerly spread its sounds to any platform that will have it.


"We were the first station to be streaming on the iPhone," says WFMU General Manager Liz Berg. "We're this little, non-profit station in New Jersey. Why were we the first radio station in the world to do that?" Such a move would indeed seem a coup for a station of WFMU's size, but it's just one in a long line of such successes in a music industry that's been notoriously slow when it comes to adopting new media.

"We were on the web before there even was a web," Freedman explains, with the slightest hint of nostalgia. "We started doing these weird experiments with Bell Corp. We allowed people to call into a number and listen on the boss's dime. We were doing this in the mid-'80s. That was the warning flag we had that the internet was going to take off. We started that thing as kind of a joke, and then we realized that there were people all over the country that were calling to listen to us at their desk."


KCRW, too, can claim such successes. "We were one of the first radio stations to ever stream digitally," says Betsy Moyer, the Santa Monica station's director of digital content strategy. In more recent years, such forward thinking has allowed the station to launch MALCOLM, a digital submission service aimed at helping struggling indie bands get their blood-, sweat- and tear-drenched works into the hands of leading Southern California tastemakers like Morning Becomes Eclectic host Bentley. And, of course, there's the library. "We've digitized the entire library, vinyl included," he says. "That was a number of years in the works."

For WFMU, such digitization began with somewhat more ominous overtones, as a defense for a forward-thinking broadcaster against a record industry that likes to sue what it doesn't understand.

"[We] decided that it would be really great if WFMU had this great archive of music that we really like, in case things go wrong in negotiations with the copyright office," says Berg. The station launched the Free Music Archive in 2006 with money from a New York State grant, culling together royalty-free music, should the still legally murky world of online streaming come under attack from labels that once considered radio their primary method for promoting artists. With the smoke cleared somewhat, the Free Music Archive has transformed into an incredible online resource for free music.


With many of the initial kinks ironed out, the internet has proven to be a platform far more powerful than any broadcasting tower, extending the influence of KCRW, WFMU and their brethren far beyond their home markets, to any corner of the world with a reliable internet connection, be it through streaming or time-shifted podcasts.

"We have far more listeners on the internet," says Freedman. "I think because we embraced it so early and we're willing to experiment and fail -- and we're willing to learn from our failures and move on." In opening up the listenership to a global audience, the stations simultaneously expanded their pool of funding internationally.


However, with an exponential increase in potential ears comes the question of whether one needs to adjust content. After all, community-tailored content has long been a selling point of public television and radio, and certainly a walk around the plush, celebrity photo-decked halls of KCRW or the held-together-by-duct-tape atmosphere of WFMU betrays stations that are unique to their respective home markets. Both stations maintain that they'll continue to focus on their terrestrial listenership, but as they continue to add and experiment with platforms, the role of the DJ must adapt to something broader and more abstract.

"We have to think in terms of being a great broadcaster on any platform," explains Bentley, whose smooth delivery could easily land him a gig on some national TV show. "It's no longer about radio; it's that we're a broadcaster on any platform that will take us."


That human element, ultimately, is at the core of what WFMU, KCRW and their ilk do -- and it's precisely what makes those representatives of the commercial-free, left-of-the-dial landscape so important. Corporate music stations have largely made banter the realm of pre-recorded voices with no say in programming, while Spotify, Pandora and the rest have turned much of their curating over to algorithmic selection. But as the internet further democratizes disruption, it becomes ever more important to find a voice to cut through the noise -- and sometimes it's equally important that the voice be a human one. "The essence of KCRW is about being great tastemakers, and there's a legacy of sifting through the noise," Moyer says.


And really, what good is delivering that hippy noise music without someone to help you along the way? "We're still practicing live, spontaneous, human radio," explains Freedman. "With all the curation that happens online and all the zillions of options you have, I think one thing that's gone missing is the human element. You have an intelligent, humorous human to take you through the curation process. That disappeared from radio a long time ago. Nothing online has come up to replace that. There's all sorts of great curation happening online, but FMU and stations like it are still one of the only places where people can tune in and experience a human being."