Friday, October 08, 2004

Innovation in radio, tomorrow and yesterday.

Looking forward: "All your content are belong to us."

Engulf & Devour Microsoft decides to add the future world of radio to its Empire, decreeing that while its intangible property can't be copied, it can duplicate everybody else's...

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Earlier this month Microsoft began charging users to listen to online clones of 978 U.S. and Canadian radio stations with '"fewer ads, no DJ chatter and less repetition." And no, Bill Gates didn't ask the stations for permission to copy their playlists.

The broadcasting industry, surprised by the debut of Microsoft's Radio Plus service, hasn't reached full freak-out mode yet. But no one is thrilled, either. Not least of their gripes is the fact that Microsoft is dipping into a database of radio station playlists without kicking back any of the $30 Radio Plus yearly access fee to broadcasters.

Microsoft's computers try to replicate the various station playlists by dipping into the company's vault of 500,000 licensed songs.... Microsoft hopes the online clones, available only to PC users for now, will sound a lot like original stations, just without contests, jingles, chit-chat or local commercials.

Is all this legal? Microsoft, after all, isn't just using station call letters. It promotes its clones by using station nicknames (i.e., Star 100.7 or K-Earth 101) and, in some cases, their slogans ("today's best rock hits," "lite rock, less talk")...

... station owners may decide to wait before launching any legal action. While it's rapidly growing, internet radio is still far from being a threat to terrestrial stations... (more at Wired)
Personally I enjoy the radio of the future without adding to Bill's wealth by listening to free Internet stations from outside the US, all around the world -- such as the blues as broadcast by Antarctica's ANET.

Looking back: "Free form FM" is 38 years old today.

In the early days of FM radio most FM stations were mere adjuncts to AM stations, simulcasting the same programming. But in 1966 the FCC decreed an end to that -- separate programming was mandated by January 1, 1967.

The result was the birth of "free form progressive rock FM" on WOR-FM in New York City, with a big cultural impact, at least as popular music goes, for a generation. The new programming aired on June 30, 1966 -- though without any disk jockeys at first because there was no standard industry contract for FM disc jockeys.

But that was worked out in time, and on October 8th the new programming really began. The station had recruited some of the top DJs from the city's fast-talking, gong-banging "Top 40" stations -- but in an unprecedented innovation, it let them talk like real people (no reverb or echo) and play the music they liked. Long versions, album cuts, songs nobody had heard before ... it was the antithesis of the Top 40 of the day. But timed perfectly as it was with the rise of the 60s "counterculture" music, it was a hit. A long-time engineer at the station recalls...

"A lot of radio history was made at WOR-FM. It was the first FM station to play rock-n-roll, and it was one of the first FM stations to make money. In reality, it put FM on the map ... The first anniversary party for WOR-FM was at a small theater in Greenwich Village, which later became the Fillmore East, and the headliner on the first anniversary show was Jim Morrison and the Doors..."
FM stations across the country soon were copying the "free form rock" format. But it didn't last long at WOR-FM itself. Barely a year later the station's owners programmed it back to a standard Top 40 format. Although its DJs had all come from Top 40 they'd been spoiled by their freedom and quit -- in one case dramatically on the air (as you can hear).

Luckily for them they didn't have far to go to find a new home. Just up the dial at WNEW-FM the response to the FCC's "separate programming" edict had been an experiment with all women disk jockeys playing big band music, and that format was producing results such as no other FM station wanted to copy. So WNEW-FM opened its doors to free form progressive rock, and there it stayed for 30 years.

Over that time the exciting new rock became "classic" rock, of course. The music that was new and adventurous and counterculturally revolutionary to my young generation is to today's youth what Tommy Dorsey was to us ... maybe what Irving Berlin was. But enough of that.

On a sad note, Scott Muni, one of the original WOR-FM disk jockeys, who was music director both there and at WNEW-FM and a legend in NYC radio, passed away this past week. That's his picture at WOR.

Audio of his very first show back on that October 8th is on the web (what isn't?). Most of the music has been cut, but you can hear about McNamara heading off on a trip to VietNam, military enlistments being extended, the Orioles beating the Dodgers in the third game of the Series, and a beautiful Indian Summer Saturday with it 80 degrees out. I have no doubt I was listening to that first show, I'd been waiting for it.

As to the music, it didn't last forever but it was great while it did.