Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Alt-music public radio forming Web network

Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff Photographer
John Timpane, Inquirer Staff Writer/Philly.com

"Strength in numbers," goes an old saw.

"Let's get together, yeah-yeah-yeah," sang Hayley Mills.

In that spirit, a fascinating announcement came last week from NonCommvention 2014, a gathering of noncommercial public-radio stations, hosted at World Cafe Live by WXPN of the University of Pennsylvania.

"People cheered in the room when this was announced," says Roger LaMay, WXPN general manager, "as in, 'It's about time.' It's a breakthrough in these stations' working together."

In the wake of a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant of $750,000, five major public-radio stations of the so-called AAA format - WXPN; the great KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif.; the equally great WFUV of Fordham University in New York City; KTBG in Kansas City; and KUTX in Austin, Texas - are banding together to start a Web network. It will launch by year's end, by which time as many as five more stations may hop aboard.

For now, the name is Music X. ("It's just a temporary name," LaMay says, "but we kind of like it. But we'll be determining a better name for the brand very soon.") Each station will contribute videos of local bands in performance.

Eric Langner is managing director of the Boulder, Colo., nonprofit Public Media Co., which developed the content-managing system for Music X and helped facilitate the grant. "The network," he says, "is divided into two parts. There will be a national Web and mobile site, curated, drawing videos from all the stations. But each station also will have its own locally branded and curated online Web and mobile platforms."

All will go into the same archive. Users are the focus, enjoying local bands on laptops and mobile devices. But member stations also will use one another's videos. "A station on the other coast might say, 'This band is coming here. Let's pull that video from Philly or from South by Southwest, and run it on our local site,' " says Langner. Other media can also license the videos. "Public TV may want to use some of these," LaMay says. "Say you want to do an hour show on the Philly music scene. . . . The TV station can click, license, and build a show right on the page." Licensing standards are being hashed out.

"It's very smart, a lot of upside, for these stations to work on something together," says Larry Rosin, president of Edison Research and a student of U.S. radio.

Didn't know there was such a thing as "AAA format stations"? Or that they had a conference called NonComm?

You may not know AAA, but you've probably heard AAA. The term emerged in the early 1990s to describe stations with an album-oriented approach, in which artists, especially locals, who wouldn't normally get top-40 airplay had a place to be heard. It's fair to say it grew out of the "underground" and "album-oriented" formats of the late 1960s through the 1970s. "It was always a catchall name, meaning everything and nothing," says Rosin, "but to the extent it described an audience, a kind of alternative, it's been useful."

AAA has had its impact. The rise of the catchall term Americana - embracing rootsy artists from Los Lobos to Rosanne Cash to the Carolina Chocolate Drops - has been squired by AAA, as has the "singer-songwriter movement," including such artists as Norah Jones, Tracy Chapman, Ray LaMontagne, Wesley Stace, Amos Lee, and so on.

As for NonComm, this was its 14th yearly bash, featuring live music (LaMay: "We had the traditional 30 bands"), a range of panels and events, and 50 to 60 very diverse stations, by LaMay's estimate: "It's the most fun conference in public radio."

How big is the AAA audience? "If you don't compare them to the giant top-40 stations," Rosin says, "it's sizable, if not huge. The percentage of people into that stuff is small, but even a small percentage of cities like L.A. or Philly, you're still talking about good numbers of people. And they absolutely love having a resource to learn about such things."

That absolute love leads to a hoped-for advantage. "Their audiences are known to be extremely loyal and very passionate and very active," says Rosin. "They have shown that they will show up at concerts and events, buy tickets, buy music products, consume on the basis of recommendations from these stations about these emerging artists."

That's what Music X seeks to brand, locally and nationally: these stations' roles as touters and organizers of new local artists, their music, and their activities. Music X "is very intentionally about finding music lovers and introducing them to bands," Langner says.

"No doubt it's good for the artists," LaMay says, "and the labels are very interested."

Why didn't this happen sooner? "Video's expensive," LaMay says, "and not all stations have the resources."

There's also a sense that, in its third decade, AAA has a legacy. "This is a bid to create a national brand - an acknowledgment of a shared sensibility, and people who love the music," LaMay says. "The only thing that held us back was this sense we were competing with each other, but that ship has sailed a long time ago."

Rosin sees it as a natural move: "When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967," he says, "it was to serve the public with things commercial broadcasters weren't doing. If playing local artists is too niche for major broadcasters, then this network is a good application."

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