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Modern Community Radio


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It’s moving day for World Music Radio, the Hillcrest-based Internet-only station devoted to everything from Peruvian dance music to Hindu chants. Station founder Oram Miller and three volunteers are dismantling the homemade consoles and packing up the old turntables and CD players and the hand-me-down mixing board with duct tape on the slides and lugging it all across the hall. After less than a year in three small rooms with faded wood paneling and stained carpeting, the operation is moving to six small rooms with newer carpeting and space for an actual studio, so bands won’t have to sit on desks when they play live.

Just days earlier, the station’s board of directors had voted to switch the station from nonprofit to for-profit, a major step both spiritually and financially. Miller conceived the station as a modern version of

a community radio station, a place where eclectic music was more important than ratings. The switch to corporate status is acknowledgment that he and his crew of volunteers might have created something more tangible than a cool Web site for the local folk-music scene.

“Rather than be a San Diego–based community station, we are now on the leading edge of this wave that is catapulting the whole broadcast industry,” says Miller, a gangly 47-year-old with a graying ponytail. A doctor of osteopathy and a Bruce Cockburn fan, Miller now finds himself poring over business plans and actively seeking investors, attempting to figure out how World Music Radio fits into the global Internet scene.

At the National Association of Broadcasters convention in April, Miller was barraged with content-hungry companies interested in the station. A deal is already in the works that will add World Music to a playlist of stations available through AltaVista, the big portal. Separate negotiations should result in the station being delivered via satellite services to millions of homes in Europe and Asia.

No longer simply content to pass out flyers at local street fairs, the all-volunteer staff is contemplating how to attract advertisers and venture capitalists in the Internet marketplace, while still devoting hours of programming to rare folk music. The goal is to use a “commercial model” for financial matters “and still retain our noncommercial soul,” says Michael-Leonard Creditor, the station’s programming coordinator and host of a regular show called Balkans Fever.

At this point, the site (www.worldmusicradio.com) generates “several hundred unique listeners each day,” which is to say the audience is small. But such is the reality of the World Wide Web that the station has unlimited reach. With no advertising, it attracts listeners from all over the world who find the station largely through word of mouth from chat rooms and music message boards. Show hosts regularly receive e-mail from places like Saudi Arabia and Australia. Only about 14 percent of the listeners are in San Diego, according to a station marketing study, which found strong pockets of listeners in cities such as Chicago.

When Miller began pursuing the idea of starting a radio station, he had no intention of becoming an Internet pioneer. He describes himself as a lifelong lover of everything about radio, fondly recalling long drives through the Midwest listening to his tinny car stereo. He naively asked industry professionals about the possibility of acquiring a traditional broadcast station, a notion that drew hearty chuckles. Radio frequencies rarely become available, and when they do they are quickly gobbled up by the big corporations who dominate modern radio. The Internet simply became a way to get to create a station without millions of dollars, Washington lobbying groups and a stack of FCC regulations.

In world music, Miller found a growing movement practically ignored by commercial radio, which seeks broad niches, an oxymoron that describes broadcasters’ never-ending quest to attract large demographic groups. What was once called “ethnic” or “international” is now called world music, a recognition that it is a format knowing no real boundaries. It can be heard on public broadcasting shows such as AfroPop and World Cafe and on college stations around the country, but it is a million miles removed from the world of commercial radio.
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