Some of today’s most successful non-commercial radio stations owe much of their success to making good use of internet platforms to reach new audiences and provide ever-improving service to their own listeners. Younger listeners tend not to differentiate between a terrestrial broadcast signal and an online one, while plugged-in listeners of all ages increasingly want to listen to their favorite programs and DJs at their convenience, not at the mercy of a rigid program schedule.
Yet, if launching a successful internet broadcast venture were so simple and inexpensive more stations would be doing it. Radio Free America aims to be the platform that helps launch college and community radio station online with reliable live streams and on-demand archives. The crucial difference is that RFA intends to do this at no cost to the stations. The brainchild of CEO Kenneth Pushkin, Radio Free America is running an Indiegogo campaign to raise $20,000 needed to get off the ground.
I talked with Pushkin and communications director Bryon Taylor last week to learn more about this ambitious project. Pushkin said the goal is to create “a cross-channel platform, mobile and online, for college and independent stations and program hosts.” According to Taylor “we noticed that there really aren’t ways for a lot of new stations to compete with the conglomerates. The tools we’re trying to put together are to answer some of those issues, provide resources they wouldn’t have (otherwise).”
Pushkin is no stranger to college radio. Beginning in 1981 Radio Free America was originally a weekly syndicated college radio show counting down the CMJ top 10 charts. The show was produced for 2 and a half years, ending because, according to Pushkin, underwriters didn’t understand the college radio market and the lack of formal ratings. 20 years later he got a call from Al Franken looking to buy the name for the liberal talk radio network that would become Air America. That sparked Pushkin to secure the Radio Free America domain name and trademark and start working in college radio again.
RFA will be a central portal hosting streams, archives and interactive tools that will also assist listeners in finding programs and stations that fit their interests. Pushkin said the platform will provide “a standardized archive set up for stations, (because) most of them don’t have that.” Everything will be cloud-based, so that station’s do not have to host their own servers and storage.
Pushkin explained, “If you like Reggae and you go to RFA, you’ll get our recommendations. Our site celebrates the DJ. You’re not forced to listen in real-time.” In compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the platform will provide on-demand archives of a station’s live stream in 5-hour blocks, available for up to 2 weeks.
For the audience, Pushkin said “we’ll have a robust search and recommendation engine. Listeners can dial in whatever kind of genre of music or talk that they like and get directed to DJs and hosts who create that content.”
“One of the main things we’re looking to do is to give DJs a way to connect with their audience,” Taylor said. “They will have a community forum where they can connect with (listeners) live, and see analytics about who is listening to the show.”
Consistent with that focus on the DJ, Pushkin said “there will be DJ profile pages,” for hosts and producers who are associated with a RFA station, and stations will have profile pages, too. “Bands and listeners will be able to contribute their material to be seen by DJs,” he added, “so there’s a big pool of fresh new material. It’s good for bands and contributors who can get seen by DJs.”
Free stream hosting will certainly get the attention of many stations. Taylor explained that when a stations hosts its own stream “you have to deal with your local constraints. If it’s not hosted on a (external) managed server, maybe only 50 listeners is your limit.” At RFA “we can put a lot of servers together, so stations can share that resource.” By providing a central portal for finding station streams he said “We can increase the number of people that stations get out to,” adding that the listeners “know they’re getting noncommercial radio.”
While everyone loves to get something for free, we also know that free to me doesn’t mean that somebody isn’t footing the bill. Pushkin said “our business model is based on advertising revenue,” although “we will not introduce ads for the first year of free service.” He said they want to “gracefully introduce advertising,” with a focus on “cause-related advertising, where (the advertiser) is a kindred spirit to college radio.” He also suggested that “we may introduce freemium subscription models, with enhanced versions of what we’re offering.” Pushkin also noted there might be “other streams of revenue, like content licensing, publishing and merchandise.”
Taylor said “the idea is to be able to share revenue with the stations, possibly allowing them to fundraise” using RFA. “Advertising is often a dirty word,” he acknowledged, “so we’re not talking about banner advertisements, or big brand names. We’re looking to find ways to align ourselves with the right kind of brands, advertisers like record labels and people within the college radio industry, in ways that are not abrasive.”
Retaining control over their operations and programming is a critical value for college and community stations. This issue of control and integrity is often why stations have not made bigger pushes online, and why many have not chosen to partner with platforms like Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio which has conducted specific outreach to sign up college stations. So I asked Pushkin and Taylor how they intend to address such station concerns.
Taylor reported that, “What we’ve heard from the stations we work with is that they’re not excited to work with Clear Channel, we’re looking to give them a viable alternative.” So, he said “we’ll make sure that stations themselves always have control over their programs. We don’t want to replace their (existing) streams.” With RFA they’ll retain control and gain a better understanding of their audience. He explained that when stations log in to the RFA platform “one of the first things they’ll see is the analytics, the state of the station. (They’ll see) who’s listening and where they are.”
RFA will also help stations keep accurate playlists alongside live and archived program streams. Taylor observed that “one of the things we noticed is that (song) metadata is inconsistent at times. It takes a lot of resources to make sure its tagged correctly. That’s where listener crowd-sourced metadata comes in. A listener can add more information, add tags, and dive a little bit deeper to pull out information that might get glossed over.”
Some noncommercial stations already use playlisting services like Spinitron, so I asked if RFA is trying to replace those services. Taylor answered that they’re not trying to create a replacement. Rather, he said “the plan for right now is to take that existing metadata from Spinitron or whatever service a station is using, keep it untouched, and then add the crowdsourced metadata.” At the same time, the stations that stream with RFA but don’t already have a playlisting service would be able to use RFA’s.
Pushkin and Taylor met while working at the Denver-based Blue Modus digital design firm, which is also building the RFA platform. They’re working with Legwork Studio on the user interface so that RFA is, as Pushkin put it, “best in class and next generation.”
He said that RFA plans a spring 2014 launch, starting with a slate of 10 or 20 “early adopter stations.” They chose an Indiegogo crowd-fundraiser because “this is a great way to get the message out and build our beta team.”
The Radio Free America fundraiser runs through January 25, 2014.