by Tom Webster, Vice President
When Sean Ross suggested I “sit in” on his First Listen series and spend some time with KYCY-AM (KYOU) San Francisco, I was a bit reluctant. This nascent “podcast broadcast” so completely throws out the rules of traditional broadcasting, that there is really no yardstick—no credible point of reference to compare to Infinity’s “open source” experiment. After all, even Jack and Bob play hits—but KYOU’s eclectic blend of user-submitted podcasts is really alternative. Like a public radio station, KYOU features a mix of music programs, fine arts, opinion pieces and even old-fashioned variety shows. The best of these can compete with anything public radio has to offer, while the worst of these are indescribable.
At its core, podcasting is only partially about the democratization of broadcasting
The station is tied squarely to its web site, where would-be broadcasters can sign up and submit their homebrew efforts for future airings. I had assumed that all submissions had to originate from the San Francisco area, but this did not end up to be the case—I heard shows from South Carolina and Canada in addition to the Bay Area. The site also features a broadcast schedule with a complete listing of podcasts and the ability to rate them and leave comments. The web site was problematic; at the time I sampled the station, the online schedule was actually inoperative. Even worse, the site’s player uses ActiveX controls that work great with Internet Explorer, but not with Firefox (or Mac OS X). Most podcasters are not big IE fans, and while IE is still the browser many of us use the most, Firefox is the reigning king at an increasing number of blogs and podcast sites.
It is clear there is some kind of rotation, as I heard several podcasts repeat during the past week, but there does not appear to be any kind of “clock” per se—as you can see from the three sample hours listed below, anything goes. Pieces are fairly short—with most ranging from five to twenty minutes—so the theory would suggest that if you don’t like what you are hearing, stick around because it will change in a few minutes. Production values vary wildly, as you might expect, though a surprising number of the podcasts appear to be of broadcast quality. It also sounds like many of the presenters may either be or have been jocks in real life—my college radio station colleagues certainly didn’t “hit the post” as frequently as some of the music shows on KYOU.
Production values “between the pods” are quite high—many of the sweepers feature talent from the podcasts themselves, and do a good job describing “open source radio” and its benefits (though all featured the same slightly grating goth/techno/industrial metal soundtrack, which probably did not resonate with folks waiting for the Hawaiian music show). What is lacking between the shows is any kind of on-air navigation—you literally have no idea what is coming up next, or when a certain podcast might be featured. Of course, one can always consult the schedule provided on the website, but this “anchors” the broadcast to the web and also misses an opportunity to crossplug particularly compelling broadcasts.
Yes, there are particularly compelling broadcasts. I heard one talk show on pop culture that featured two highly articulate and well-read women looking at current events in entertainment media and highlighting their broader significance in our culture. The hosts would not be out of place on NPR’s “The Delicious Dish” and indeed many of the talk and variety offerings on KYOU could appeal to the public radio audience and perhaps lure back some of the listeners commercial radio has lost to public radio over the last decade.
Also compelling was the broadcaster who calls himself “Podman,” who highlighted songs about space (to celebrate the release of Revenge of the Sith). This show was about as well programmed as anything I have heard on commercial radio, with lesser-known tracks spiked with more commercial material–“Benny and the Jets” actually became a welcome “Oh Wow” song in this context, instead of just another well-worn Elton John staple. The show reminded me a bit of crosstown triple-A KFOG’s “10 at 10” and is one I will certainly seek out again.
Not everything was listenable, of course. After “Podman” was a segment entitled “Cloudy Day Art” which was, ostensibly, a poetry show from Charleston, S.C. While the set-up seemed to promise a program highlighting some of today’s best poetry and the inspiration behind it (a subject which would be pretty left-of-center even on public radio), the actual broadcast consisted simply of the host reading one of his own poems, followed by a loosely organized discourse on what the poet was “feeling” when he wrote it. While I listened to the show, I found myself reaching for the non-existent “skip” button.
Here, then, lies the biggest strategic challenge for this fledgling format. The mainstream radio listener can generally count on their favorite station to please them most of the time, if not with this song, with the next one. Non-mainstream radio listeners are not so easily pleased. With RSS newsreaders pulling in only the blog posts they want to read, when they want to read them, and their TiVOs taping only the shows they want to watch, when they want to watch them, these tech-savvy individuals took matters into their own hands. In fact, some of these became so exercised about the lack of on-demand radio content that they developed—podcasting.
At its core, podcasting is only partially about the democratization of broadcasting—though that part, the “open source” part, is important. What makes podcasting different from, say, Internet broadcasting, is the on-demand component. Podcasting was developed so that programs and microbroadcasts could be downloaded and controlled by active users—truly the TiVO of radio. It is the inability to skip past unwanted songs that most frustrates iPod devotees, and KYOU’s eclectic nature guarantees that most people will encounter plenty of unwanted songs as they mine the playlist for nuggets of discovery. Programming is all about peaks and valleys—and while podcasters might rail against tight playlists, they do ensure that the drops into those valleys are not precipitous. And unlike the calculated “train wrecks” of the Jack/Bob format, when you hit one on KYOU it is a serious pileup—and help is not always on the way.
The challenge, then, is that the station is not mainstream enough even for the average NPR listener, and not on-demand enough to please those accustomed to downloading podcasts and listening to them how and when they want. Because the station’s web site does not allow listeners to download the podcasts to pick and choose the segments they most want to hear, KYOU suffers from the same basic “flaw” that drove many of these podcasters from broadcast radio in the first place.
Still, KYOU does showcase one very important element often lacking in broadcast radio—genuine enthusiasm and passion for the music being played. I am sure I have heard a hundred Grateful Dead hours on various stations over the years, but to hear one where the host plays a cassette tape he recorded off the radio in 1980 while he was a child living with his parents, and to hear him wax poetic about what the Dead has meant to him in the 25 years since he recorded that tape, was a kind of genuine magic. If podcasting provides a way for talent to once again become the curators of culture, arbiters of taste, and credible, passionate advocates for music that the Wolfman Jacks and Cousin Brucies of the world once were, I am all for it.
Sample hours from Thursday, May 26, from 5 to 8 am PST:
“NIMH” – “Noise inside my head” – an apt metaphor for much of the programming. Good mix of eclectic and pop alternative from the Spoons to Modest Mouse.
“In My Humble Opinion” – cynical editorial on reality TV from a bleeding edge blogger that, at its best and worst, channeled Andy Rooney.
Sweeper – Testimonials
Reggae song (unidentifiable)
SF Chronicle Podcast – business/technology E3 report (video games/technology) Interview with the voice of Jar Jar Binks
“Closet Deadhead” podcast #23 – The Dead do Reggae.
Another aggressive Goth Metal sweeper.
Homebrew rock instrumental
Another metal sweeper, followed by an “Open Source Radio” sweeper
Short Essay – “My Ideal Woman is a rocket scientist”—you can hear the speaker’s friends laughing in the background as he reads it.
KYOU Sweeper – more weird, aggressive speed-goth.
Sin Radio – Canadian podcast of a room full of guys arguing about what to play, then end up playing The Killers, Green Day’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Papa Roach‘s Last Resort. Lots of banter between the records–not really talking about the records, though. Mostly inside jokes about their personal lives—and I clearly didn’t feel part of the joke. Pretty safe music selection for a show called “Sin Radio!”
KYCY legal ID
Podman – pretty low-quality mic, started off doing the show outside with lots of traffic noise, but later cleared up. Today’s show theme was songs about Space–pretty long by KYOU standards, but pretty good. Major Tom, of course. Lasted about an hour.
Coldplay Interview (taped off air)