“Old-school radio in Phoenix is currently deader than dead. Draw a chalk-body outline around it.”
Veteran broadcaster Dave Pratt was never one to mince words in the 35 years he occupied Valley airwaves on radio stations including KUPD, KZON and KMLE. Now that he has his own Internet radio empire, Star Worldwide Networks, he’s free to downright hack and chop them.
Terrestrial radio stations, Pratt says, are “burdened by clunky transmitters, big steel towers sitting on expensive property, licenses, ratings fees, music fees and, most of all, massive debt to banks or lenders due to overpaying for technology.” And the on-air personalities aren’t “top performers,” but “lesser talent who are simply willing to copy those before them for lower pay.”
The alternative: cyberspace, and its proliferation of Internet radio stations. According to StreamingRadioGuide.com, there are nearly 12,600 radio stations streaming in the U.S. alone, and almost half of America is listening. A survey conducted by Edison Research and Triton Digital in 2015 showed 47 percent of Americans age 12 and older listened to online radio – including streaming services like Spotify – in the previous month, while 36 percent listened within the previous week. A recent report by digital consulting company BIA/Kelsey projects a little over $4 billion in total ad revenue for Internet radio stations in 2017 – far less than the $17.4 billion amassed by terrestrial radio in 2015 but a remarkable 700 percent leap since 2006, if projections hold. More than a few Phoenix-based Internet stations have gotten in on the gold rush (see sidebar).
Pratt says Internet radio has every advantage over old dial frequencies: better audio quality, wider distribution, targeted audiences, less expenses, higher profit margins, less regulations and “more freedom.”
Andy Olson, who founded the Radio Free Phoenix network online in 2004, after more than two decades at local FM stations including KSLX and KOOL, also cites creative freedom as a benefit. “Radio Free Phoenix is a throwback to the free-form rock stations that first hit the airwaves in the early days of FM radio [being widely adopted in the late 1960s],” Olson says. “Every deejay had their choice to pick and play what they wanted. They stood for something, and they really did make a difference, because they connected with the listeners. And that’s the kind of radio we move forward in.”
Streaming music on the Internet requires paying SoundExchange, a nonprofit organization that collects and distributes digital royalties to artists. Olson says sponsorships, merchandise sales and listener support has sustained Radio Free Phoenix and allowed it to remain commercial-free. There are no music stations in Pratt’s network, but tons of talk shows on topics including business, sports, home improvement, politics and dating. They do run commercials – from a slew of well-known advertisers like Chrysler, the NBA and MLB, Purina, Harkins Theatres and Sleep Number.
Pratt hosts his own Dave Pratt Live show daily and says Internet radio has been far more profitable for him than owning a terrestrial station. Selling production packages to people who want to host their own shows on Star Worldwide Networks, established in 2009, hasn’t hurt, either. The package for a weekly show, which includes logo design, professional production by a studio director, routed listener calls, promotions and distribution, costs $1,500 a week.
But don’t shut the coffin on terrestrial radio just yet, says Arizona radio veteran Larry Mac, who has worked on-air in Phoenix at KUPD and KUKQ, and currently deejays for KLPX in Tucson. “Terrestrial radio is still viable because we have one major advantage: We are live and local, and you don’t have to jump through hoops to hear us,” Mac says. “I have been hearing about the demise of radio forever, and we are still here. We have had to adapt by adding HD subchannels and podcasts... True, we have way more competition now than ever before, but we can localize – we put on festivals, promote local music and talk about local topics. It’s not dead – it’s just adapting!”
Olson says the propagation of technology helped Radio Free Phoenix reach a wider audience. “Regular terrestrial stations never woke up to stand-alone Internet radio stations and what they have to offer. It makes a difference,” he says. “You can pick it up now in your car, in a WiFi-enabled stereo system, through your phone, through your tablet, through Bluetooth. There are all sorts of ways to pick it up now that just weren’t available when we went on the air.” Ubiquitous WiFi means radio is rarely “out of range,” and the range keeps expanding.
“Seven years ago, few gave our network much of a chance,” Pratt says. “I remember telling non-believers and skeptics, ‘This Internet thing is kind of a big deal.’ They would shake their head in disbelief, and I would say, ‘So what is that in your hand? A cell phone? Amazing! You already have our receiver in your hand! You are already carrying our network wherever you go. We have already won.’”
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