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 The Business And Reality of Internet Radio

Interview With Gregor Markowitz, Founder of Hober.com (Thinking Radio)



The reality of Internet Radio is that audio is not the only quality. It has musically established what traditional radio cannot; which is an interactive link between the listener, and the 'playee'.

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In November 1998, Hober Thinking Radio began broadcasting... "I had been messing around with real audio since beta 1. My web company had a T1 that was mostly unused, and I talked my partners into letting me use up the extra bandwidth. I got our best graphic artist to donate some of his soul, and our administration to set up a server.

Six years later, I find that many dozens of people have worked on the project in one way or another. The broadcast has touched many hundreds of thousands of people all around the world.

"It actually started as an 'eclectic' mix of all kinds of music from rock to chanting monks. As we listened and learned, it became clear that we should somewhat focus the playlist, [and by doing this] were drawn into the more natural sounding recordings, probably because the sound coming from our little computer speakers was about as far from our techno-desktops as sound could get.

"But we didn't want to get typecast into a genre. Stations were popping up that did all bluegrass, or all "Celtic" or even all Sea Chanties. Good for an hour or two before you 'did it -done it'. So we mixed them all: Folk, Blues, Bluegrass, Klezmer, Sea Songs, Irish and Scottish. You name it - as long as it sounded more or less natural; sort of like making laps at a large folk festival with ten small stages. You might hear about anything, but it is going to be human, and have history behind it."

Hober calls their little meta-genre... "Unvarnished Music."

[Steven Digman] In 1993, Carl Malamud created the first Internet Only Radio Station. Since that promising beginning how do you feel the Art and Business of Internet Radio has changed over the years?

Gregor Markowitz First there was the art and then there was the business, and then the business failed and then there was art. Hober [Radio] has been lucky ... it never took venture money, so we were free exploring the new delivery medium and our take on doing Internet radio the way it should be done: just a bunch of people who were handy with computers messing around after hours.

What we do is to take into account the listener and their needs. We're not needy and don't ask for a lot of attention. You can bury the Hober player under stacks of other windows and we don't care, but if you become interested in something you hear, bring the player up and check it out.

[Steven Digman] What do you consider to be the primary listening advantages of Internet Only Radio as compared to that of Traditional Radio?

Gregor MarkowitzTraditional radio is limited to a little geographical circle of listening range. Time, Traffic, and Weather are the three mantras of AM and FM radio. Three concepts, which are absurd to an Internet station.

What the Internet offers is worldwide access, which leads to a 'bunching effect' of interest groups. So I can broadcast Folk music to enthusiastic listeners all week, but my station would be a dismal failure, as a [traditional] air-broadcast station. But the truth is, there are always a good number of people at any given moment who want to hear stringband music.

[Steven Digman] What basic computer ingredients (in 'lay readers' terms) are necessary to build and maintain an Internet Station?

Gregor MarkowitzYou can start an Internet station as simply as going to a service such as live365.com and downloading their little program and signing up for a free account. It's easy and fun to broadcast and I highly recommend it. To maintain the station, it must be your life and love.

[Steven Digman] Putting all these ingredients together (again in 'lay readers' terms) - how does it all work?

Gregor Markowitz What we use is a conventional broadcast automation system which feeds live encoders. The broadcast machine has three soundcards and a skis array. All of our music is in raw uncompressed form, and is encoded by the codec-of-the-day on the way to the listener. This allows us to send to any encoder without being married to one compression codec. The signal is processed by a good quality soundboard, along with a good mic, CD deck and Gentner phone patch. The mix is sent through a compressor, and on to two encoder machines with two soundcards each. After encoding, the stream is sent via private T1 to our rack in a huge data center where we can send 20 megabits if we want.

[Steven Digman] What is the thinking process of selecting material (songs) for the "Thinking Radio" program?

Gregor Markowitz We collect music from all over. A lot of the must-haves were found at the public library. We've retrieved recording from the Library of Congress and made a lot of field recordings. Many of the tunes on the station can only be heard here. I like to ask buskers what they are listening to. Nowadays, a lot of discs arrive in the mail.

What we do is put five discs in the house CD player and play them for a week. Sometimes there are songs that work on Hober.

[Steven Digman] Royalties: Are the Artists and Publishers you play...actually paid for their work?

Gregor Markowitz You've got me. ASCAP and SESAC don't ask us whom we play, but BMI does. I've heard from one musician that he once got a check of $1.10 from 'Internet airplay.' But I don't know if that came from our play specifically. We pay the bills that the rights agencies figure for us. It is up to the artist to find out from their agency if they are getting their fair share. But in perspective, Brittany [Spears] probably gets listened to as much in one day as all the songs on Hober in five years combined.

As for the performance rights payments that were in the news a couple of years ago, I doubt that much will ever reach the artists because it costs the organization more to cut their check than the payments themselves, and expenses come out of the artist's side. Some big bands will benefit, but not anyone on our playlist, I imagine.

[Steven Digman] Does "Thinking Radio" have Live Broadcasts or is it all On-demand stored files?

Gregor Markowitz Hober is not On-Demand. We use an artificial intelligence system that decides what to play real-time depending on rules set for different time blocks. That's why we call it 'Thinking Radio.' There is no way for the listener to choose which to hear or know what will be played in advance. There are no playlists and it would be odd for the same two songs to play next to each other twice ever. But it is not random play either.

I keep an on-air studio and turn on the mic every once in a while. I can see the next six songs in queue, so I often tweak the song queue in ways that leave the listener with the impression that it just couldn't possibly be automated.

We also have a special acoustic studio in the house for live broadcasts. We have performed over 60 live shows of two hours each, called 'Sound Unwound.' We've had some great nationally known players right here in the house for dinner and a show. It's been great, and meeting a lot of successful working artists has been a rich learning experience for my daughter.

[Steven Digman] Is there any particular software that a listener needs to install in order to tune in to "Thinking Radio" or any other Internet Radio Station?

Gregor Markowitz Right now you can only listen [to Hober] using RealPlayer or RealOne.

[Steven Digman] And finally, in the future of Internet (Only) Radio - What happens?

Gregor Markowitz Only time will tell. Hober is funded for at least two more years, which is the longest [that] we've ever known we were still going to be on for. The station will be 18 years old when I retire and could be quite large by then. I'm really looking forward to that.

As for Internet radio in general, it really depends on where people want to spend their attention time. In the future we will have multi-casting, which will allow much cheaper and larger broadcasts. But we're just slowly building, improving, and laying down a track record, because like in any other business, experience and reputation can mean a lot. And the more time that is put into it, the better it gets.


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