On Radio Del Ray the other day, deejay Michael Del Colliano came out of a Doors tune to note that "incidentally, Jim Morrison went to high school right down the street from Studio B here." A few minutes later came a plug for St. Elmo's Coffee Pub, a neighbor of the Alexandria radio station and host to its regular concerts featuring local musicians.
There's not a lot of neighborhood on the radio these days, not with a handful of huge conglomerates owning thousands of stations, not when your favorite deejays turn out to be sitting in a studio in Dallas, recording "local" announcements for stations all over the continent. That guy telling you it's rough out there on the Beltway may well be in Denver, and he may well have recorded that days ago.
But on the Internet for the past few years, people who missed the community that radio once provided -- and people who crave the kinds of music radio has banished -- have found something new and fresh.
In the Del Ray section of Alexandria, in Takoma Park, in the same basements and garages where bands are born, it has become possible to play radio, to do it your way, just as radio's pioneers did in the 1920s.
But the sounds of freedom dimmed last week, when the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, decreed a fee scale that's likely to silence most Internet stations.
Billington approved a structure that lets traditional broadcast stations pay royalties only to the writers and publishers of songs they play, while Web stations must pay those fees plus extra royalties to the record companies and performers of the music. Billington accepted the recording industry argument that traditional radio could keep its exemption from those fees because airplay promotes record sales.
Suddenly, basement Web operations are switching off the music. "We're looking at a deep hole, and we might have to shut down," says Randy Allen, general manager of Radio Del Ray, radiodelray.com, where about 20 neighbors volunteer to produce shows of local rock, blues, jazz and other sounds rarely heard on broadcast radio. "The only other option is to go to a format of entirely local artists who have no recording contracts, so we wouldn't have to pay fees to record companies."
Within a few hours of last week's decision, Internet stations were going dark. Stephen "Tags" Loomis shut down his www.tagstrance.com with a notice thanking the recording industry lobbyists "who helped destroy my dream." In Georgetown, Andrew Leyden, whose Penguin Radio aims to be the Yahoo of Internet radio, providing a portal to 5,000 stations, said most of those outlets "are so delicate and fragile that this might kill them."
Through Leyden's site, penguinradio.com, listeners who can't find techno or chamber music, bluegrass or bebop on the radio get not only the music they want, but the surprises and adventure that broadcast radio once offered. (You can even hear the D.C. fire department scanner on Penguin.) The big companies that produce most recordings and program much of radio fear seeing their audience splinter into such tiny pieces that advertisers would no longer see value in paying for airtime.
This is the same kind of strategy that last week led Circuit City to wipe videotapes off its shelves. Never mind that virtually all Americans have VCRs and only 30 percent have DVD players. We have offended our corporate overlords by taping too many movies, and we must be punished by being forced to adopt a technology that offers Hollywood more control over how we use their product.
Similarly, the fraying of radio ratings and the decline in music CD sales turns any alternative -- no matter how tiny -- into a threat. Thus, the incipient demise of Internet radio, even though only about 20 percent of Americans have listened to it.
The amateurs who run Web stations haven't a prayer of making a living at it. Theirs is a labor of love and dreams. Even the biggest Web operations, such as classical Beethoven.com, had only five-figure revenue last year, but now face six-figure royalty fees.
Radio Del Ray, whose handful of sponsors pay just $50 a month for commercial time, cannot pay the extra royalties. (They've always paid royalties to music publishers, and have no objection to being treated just as big radio stations are.) Allen concludes: "We haven't even had the chance to lay the golden eggs yet, and they want to kill the goose."