It's a radio station playing commercial-free Louisiana music around the clock, from Lee Dorsey to Li'l Queenie, from Papa Grows Funk to the Bonedaddys.
And it's not WWOZ.
In fact, you've probably never heard it, but it's as close as your computer. It's "Home of the Groove," an Internet-only "streamcast" produced by Dan Phillips, a retired insurance man and lifelong music lover in Lafayette. The songs streaming from Phillips' laptop are available to anyone with a computer, a set of speakers, and an Internet connection. It's totally free and commercial-free.
"Home of the Groove" is just one of dozens of Internet-only radio stations featuring indigenous Louisiana music. Musician Larry "Love" Hamilton programs "Soulpower," playing old-school Aaron Neville, Al Green and other R&B superstars. From Hollygrove comes rap-bounce station "365 Blaze," programmed by DJ Black & Mild, whose mission is "showcasing the talents of unheard and under-appreciated artists from down South and specifically the Louisiana region." And Steve Polatnick, host of "Mr. Poboy's Jambalaya Jam," describes his station as "anything that can stand in that Jazz Fest Zydeco Mardi Gras Cajun Funk Blues R&B Swamp Boogie Woogie Dixieland Second Line."
"Corporate radio," Phillips says, "is pretty moribund."
None of these "narrowcasters" poses any immediate threat to the ratings of commercial radio or even to a not-for-profit community station like WWOZ. Most measure their listeners in dozens rather than thousands. But with both terrestrial and satellite radio around the country largely uninterested in Louisiana music, these tiny Internet streams are some of the only outlets for fans of neglected musical genres such as zydeco, Dixieland and swamp pop as well as a sonic lifeline for those displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
At a time when Louisiana music is struggling to get any airplay at all, even on satellite radio, the fervent hobbyists and narrowcasters who created their own stations using their music collections are filling a niche. But, more than a decade after the first music started trickling out of a set of computer speakers, a combination of factors continues to keep that homegrown sound from reaching its intended audience around the world.
Skimming the dial of south Louisiana radio, listening for heritage music, can be dispiriting. Everyone knows WWOZ-FM, of course. Beyond that, there's "The Ragin' Cajun," broadcast from Larose and Golden Meadow, whose mix of swamp pop, Cajun/zydeco music and local talk can be heard at 100.3 FM and 1600 AM. Drive toward Lafayette and you'll pick up "Louisiana Proud" KBON at 101.1 FM. Beyond that, though, the New Orleans radio market is largely the same mix of rap, talk, rock and "lite hits" that you'd find in any metropolis a sonic landscape of Burger Kings and McDonalds with very few Galatoire's or Liuzza's; plenty of John Mayer, but no John Boutté.
Bob Walker, "King of the Oldies," hates it all. As his Web site (www.walkerpub.com) states: "Retired now from radio ... good riddance to it the way it is today!"
Walker was one of New Orleans' most recognizable voices in his 38 years as a New Orleans DJ, especially at the now-defunct WTIX-AM (now WIST-AM, which has adopted a talk-radio format). Today Walker can be found on the Internet, where he streams his own "New Orleans Jukebox Gold" show: heavy on Fats Domino, Tommy Ridgley and Ernie K-Doe.
"The Internet is going to be the death of corporate FM radio," Walker says. "They know it. And they're scared shitless."
Mark Glynn, the Web impresario who hosts Walker's show on Glynn's "Lagniappe Broadcast Network" (www.lagniappe.la), isn't quite so sure.
Glynn began broadcasting in 1997, only three years after the first Internet radio station made its debut. "I wanted to listen to my music without carrying CDs around, so I taught myself Web programming, which morphed into radio on the Web," he says. Today the Lagniappe Broadcast Network (streamed from servers in his Covington home) hosts a dozen stations dedicated to specific local genres of music, from traditional Cajun and doo-wop to Walker's jukebox-oldies show. He's counted listeners in 80 countries. But 11 years after he began the LBN, Glynn says he's still not making a living doing it.
"There's not a whole lot of profit in Internet radio," he says. "It's like a house a money pit."
Without the traditional advertising model of terrestrial stations or the subscription fees of satellite services like Sirius or XM Radio, Web broadcasters are in a financial bind. Some, like Phillips, try to scrape by with ads on their blogs or calls for donations, but most usually find themselves paying for their hobby doing it for the love of the music, like the struggling musicians whose work they play. Or, in Bob Walker's case, to put a gleeful thumb in what he sees as the overly manicured, focus-grouped pie of commercial broadcasting.
'Corporate radio won't touch Louisiana music with a 10-foot pole," Walker says. "If they have a choice between a new song or a song that their consultant tells them is No. 20 on the Billboard charts, what do you think they'll do?"
It wasn't always that way. At "TIX, Walker was instrumental in giving first radio play to a number of New Orleans classics, including the Meters' "Hey Pocky Way" and "They All Ask'd for You," as well as King Floyd's "Groove Me" (which got picked up by Atlantic Records after becoming a local radio hit, eventually reaching the national Top 10).
"Back then, stations were run by local people," Walker sasys, "mostly people who grew up around here, and they had a feel for the city and what it wanted. We used to meet with record promotion men once a week, and occasionally they would have some Louisiana stuff, a band that wasn't signed by a major label. And if we liked it, dammit, we played it."
Walker started broadcasting on the Lagniappe Broadcast Network in 2001, around the time he retired from terrestrial radio. With no promotion other than his Web site, he says he gets more than 1,000 listeners per month. On commercial airwaves, a station manager would be scrambling to bring up those numbers. On the Internet, however, it's significant but not to what Walker calls "the damn consultants," who think in terms of double-platinum albums and tightly measured demographics.
As Phillips says, "We're like the plankton in the ocean compared to the giant whales and sharks of commercial radio."
But whales survive on plankton, and last year, the sharks were circling big-time.
At the 2007 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, an airplane flew over the Fair Grounds trailing a banner. It wasn't advertising sunscreen or daiquiris. The message was exactly three words: SAVE NET RADIO.
The banner was a joint effort by Save Net Radio, a Washington D.C.-based lobbying group, and WWOZ-FM General Manager David Freedman. At issue: new government regulations about the fees paid to performers whose music is played on the Internet and according to some streamcasters the future of Internet radio itself.
In 2007, Congress amended Internet radio regulations with new royalty laws that many streamcasters consider unfair. According to Jake Ward, spokesman for Save Net Radio, the most controversial (and confusing) part of the new legislation is a stipulation that royalties be charged not only per song, but also per listener.
Airplay on commercial radio has always fallen under the banner of promotional exposure, paying royalties to composers and publishers, but not the artists themselves. But under Congress' new plan, Internet broadcasters are required to pay the artists while terrestrial broadcasters are not. "I've been asked hundreds of times to explain how that's possible, and I just can't," Ward says.
The upshot: while Maroon 5 and the Morning 40 Federation alike earn no performance fees when their songs are played on an FM radio station that reaches tens of thousands of ears, an Internet broadcaster even one with three or four listeners pays a fee.
Polatnick, who's been streamcasting "Mr. Poboy's Jambalaya Jam" from his home since 2000, has seen his listenership fall with the new royalty rate structure. At one point, he had eight radio stations, all hosted on Live365.com, a California-based Web site that provides server space and pays out royalties for thousands of Internet broadcasters. Today Polatnick has cut down to four stations and is about to slim down to two.
"The whole thing is collapsing," Polatnick says, admitting that the evolving fee structures confuse him. "I think it'll only go up $50 a year for my particular package I think but I can only have 20 listeners who listen [at a time]. It's not really worth it to me to reach 20 people at a time when I'm actually paying more and not making anything off it."
"It's a big boondoggle, and it's one of the reasons I don't make big plans for the future," Glynn says. "Based on the way the law is written, it's very unfavorable to Internet radio operators, and legislators don't have the balls to pass an act that would make it fair for everyone."
SoundExchange, the group designated to collect and distribute these new royalties, maintains that performers are entitled to compensation regardless of platform. In a press release last week, John Simson, SoundExchange's executive director, insisted that the new royalty rates weren't hurting Internet broadcasters, saying, "While there still are a few who are loudly predicting the demise of Internet radio a la the boy who cried wolf, the on-the-ground reality is saying something quite different. There is a lot of money to be made in Internet radio, and royalty rates are not a barrier to developing strong, workable business models."
Even simulcasters terrestrial radio stations that stream their programming over the Internet are feeling the pinch. Last month, Chuck Taggart, a New Orleans music historian living in Southern California and the host of the roots-music show "Down Home" on public-radio station KSCN-FM for 10 years, lost listeners when KSCN management discontinued its Internet stream. A statement on the station's Web site says, "Due to the uncertainty over newly increased performance royalty structures and mandated reporting guidelines that have been established for all Internet music streaming, we have made the difficult decision to suspend our music stream at this time."
Could it happen here? According to Freedman, WWOZ, which simulcasts its programming for listeners around the world, was also hit hard by the new performance fees. He sees the new structure as an attempt for the record industry to maintain control in the age of downloads and iPods. "The big four record companies have owned 75 percent of the recorded music in the world, and they've enjoyed the ability to control the market," he says. "Their model has been totally disrupted by the Internet. And they are desperate to maintain their hegemony."
Ariana Hall, WWOZ's Web site manager, estimates that half the station's listeners (and its membership) are outside the area of its broadcast signal and get their "OZ fix via the Net. "There's a lot of people who depend on the stream people who left New Orleans before or during the storm and haven't come back. It's their main way of staying connected to New Orleans. We have a lot of nearly religious users."
With terrestrial and satellite radio both ignoring new Louisiana music, Internet radio would seem to be a platform ripe for promoting homegrown sounds and exposing the world to new artists. According to Ward, Internet radio plays four times the number of independent artists as traditional radio. "Jazz is America's music, and yet you can't get jazz played on the majority of America's radio stations," he points out. So far, though, the use of Internet radio as a promotional vehicle seems to be tepid, even as musicians have learned to make use of MySpace and personal Web sites.
"I don't know much of anything about Internet radio," says Wilson Savoy of the Pine Leaf Boys, a young Cajun band from Lafayette. Savoy is Web-savvy he administers the Boys' site and their MySpace page but he says, "I don't listen to much radio, except in my car."
"I don't check them out [Internet broadcasters] much," says Mark Samuels of Basin Street Records, the label that represents musicians like Kermit Ruffins, Dr. Michael White, Los Hombres Calientes, and Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. "But if a [Internet] broadcaster got in touch and wanted a CD, we'd probably honor the request. We want people promoting our products, as long as they can't burn it and steal it."
"That kind of surprises me," says Phillips, who plays new releases as well as old 45s. "But there's no way he can quantify how many records he sells off Internet radio. I'm sure it's easier for him to see some results from other areas."
"Internet radio is the only promotional avenue besides MySpace for independent artists," Glynn argues. "But if a guy listens to my station, then buys a CD two days later, there's no direct link to him having heard it on my station. And if you can't directly link sales to airplay, they dismiss you."
"There isn't any big, grand strategy to record promotion any more," explains Ted Fox, the longtime manager of Buckwheat Zydeco. "The value of Internet radio is hard to quantify, but it's hard to quantify anything these days. There are no giant Mississippi Rivers for promotion out there any more, but there are all these streams and rivulets and tributaries, and Internet radio is one of them." Neither he nor Samuels can remember the last request they had from an Internet broadcaster.
Polatnick says he used to contact record labels in an attempt to get their new releases, only to find his letters and emails ignored. In his eight years of netcasting New Orleans music, he says, he's been contacted exactly once by an artist eager to supply him with CDs and that person was from Austin, Texas, not Louisiana. "Whatever happened to the good old days, when record companies used to pay DJs under the table to play their music?" he jokes.
Walker thinks that promoters and musicians alike are missing out on an opportunity. "Go back and ask them when was the last time they had one of their records played on local radio," he scoffs.
Phillips agrees that bands and labels alike are missing out on the chance to reach a small but highly receptive audience. "These new startup bands they get a following by getting a couple of people excited and spreading the word. And doing Internet radio, you're totally biased; you're not this unopinionated DJ. We want the people we like to succeed."
Meanwhile, Home of the Groove keeps on streamcasting rarities like Rockie Charles and Lee Diamond to 10,000 listeners a month. Walker is proud to keep "pecking away at corporate radio's listenership." And Freedman concentrates on keeping WWOZ on the Internet air, despite the new royalty regulations.
"There's a small fraction of people in the world who have what I call this New Orleans gene," he says. "The minute they hear Professor Longhair, they're tuned in, whether they've ever been to Louisiana or not. It's probably less than one out of a hundred people. But one out of a hundred doesn't make it on the radio, and the Internet still offers the best hope for people to get access to Louisiana music."
He pauses. "Having said that, the jury's still out on how it's all gonna work."
Listening to Internet radio is as easy as navigating to a Web page. If you have iTunes or Windows Media Player, you already have a pre-selected list of stations available. In iTunes, click the "Radio" button in the left sidebar. In Windows Media Player, click Media Guide. Stations are organized by genre.
To discover more stations, go to Live365 (www.live365.com), which offers 10,000 stations searchable by genre and artist, or for the Louisiana sound, try Mark Glynn's Lagniappe Broadcast Network (www.neworleansradio.com). Also check out Pandora (www.pandora.com), a free automated service that builds personalized "stations" based on the music you tell it that you like.
Can't find what you're looking for? Google the phrase "Internet radio" and the kind of music you want to hear; with an estimated 25,000 stations on the Web, chances are someone is playing it right now.
- Retired after almost four decades as a radio DJ, Bob Walker, "King og the Oldies,' now streams his own "New Orleans Jukebox Gold" show over the internet. The program is heavy on New Orleans musicians such as Fats Domino, Tommy Ridgley and Ernie K. Doe.