Inside the sound room at Hollow Earth Radio, Sasha Morgan (DJ Mama Molasses) uses an Internet provider tracking site to see who’s listening to her final selection of the day, an eight-minute avante-disco piece by Arthur Russell that probably wouldn’t get airtime anywhere else. Hollow Earth’s free-form approach to radio is part of its mission, says co-founder Amber Kai Morgan. “DJs here play whatever they want. They’re not limited by playlists.” Since 2007, the Seattle-based station has amassed a small but loyal following whose donations have helped fund a new studio space in the Central District and a recently released audio documentary on the Northwest’s independent music legacy called The Sea-Port Beat.
The same way the Internet absorbed our beloved newspapers (R.I.P., Seattle P-I) and handheld e-readers ate our books (hello, Kindle), radio is morphing into a digital-friendly version of itself. Hollow Earth is one of a growing number of local broadcasters who have bypassed traditional frequencies in favor of accessible and affordable streaming audio and podcasts. A scan of the imaginary online dial shows evidence of a changing broadcast landscape, including free downloadable podcasts by sexpert Dan Savage (Savage Love); foodie writers Molly Wizenberg and Matthew Amster-Burton (Spilled Milk); humorists Ben Parsons and Aaron Mason (Grapes of Rad); nerdsters Matt Hammond and Shannon Flowers (Seattle Geekly), and disaffected anti-talk from Luke Burbank (Too Beautiful to Live). Five years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find such a broad range of indie and established local voices online.
After the cancellation of his critically acclaimed but short-lived KIRO-FM show in September 2009, Burbank led an army of iPod-slinging listeners to his TBTL site, which is updated daily with podcasts recorded in his Mount Baker home. The show’s downloads jumped from 300,000 to 600,000 in the first month, reaching a staggering 2 million this past February. “It’s sort of a crappy radio show that made a really good podcast,” jokes Burbank, who estimates that the usual 21st-century suspects—new technology and increased demand for specialized content—were behind TBTL’s growth spurt. “People aren’t not listening to the radio, they just have more choices now,” says Burbank. “It’s like, once you have a DVR, you’re less likely to watch a [bad] TV show just ’cause it’s on.”
Observant mediaphiles will be quick to point out that the grande dames of local radio, KUOW and KEXP, have been using streaming audio and archiving podcasts for years. What’s different about the new wave is the growing diversity of content and the quality of people who are riding it.
Case in point: Spilled Milk, the pet project of local food writers Amster-Burton and Wizenberg. Mourning the loss of his primary writing gig at Gourmet magazine last year, Amster-Burton created the weekly podcast to bring a nostalgic and humorous spin to food talk. “It’s just like blogging,” says Amster-Burton. “If you have something to say, you can turn on an internal mike on your laptop.” And as with blogging, anyone can post a piece online and expect to become an Internet sensation. Both Amster-Burton and Wizenberg have learned the hard way that funny isn’t always easy. They’ve thrown out entire episodes that weren’t funny, invested in new recording equipment and realized the value in having realistic expectations for the show. “We started out trying to cook on the show—we wanted to have sounds of things in the kitchen,” says Wizenberg, creator of the popular food blog Orangette. The result was a whole lot of unusable audio of “really loud sizzling.” “It just didn’t work,” says Wizenberg.
It didn’t hurt that Wizenberg, creator of the popular food blog Orangette, and Amster-Burton share a collective Twitter base of 10,000 followers. The experience has taught both hosts a lot about themselves and their fans, says Wizenberg, who admits she initially embarked on the project thinking that “podcasts seemed very 2006.” Instead she has learned to value podcasting as a new narrative tool. “It’s a different way of telling a story—it’s a collaborative way.”
Though affordable equipment and user-friendly technology have made it easier than ever to start a podcast, sustaining a project is a different story. Finding advertisers and generating enough revenue to make a living from a show can be challenging. And, other than a handful of examples (Burbank’s podcasts are sponsored and Spilled Milk had a brief flirtation with sponsorship early on). many hosts are still chipping away at finding a critical mass of traffic that would attract advertisers to their shows.
Even for established radio personalities, reaching audiences through podcasting has its hurdles. When radio veteran Marty Riemer (of KMTT-FM “The Mountain”) launched his own podcast in 2010, some listeners struggled to adapt to the podcast technology. “People were e-mailing us, asking how they can listen to the show,” says Yaz Muraki, the producer of Riemer’s online show. “They weren’t used to [online] radio. Some of our listeners don’t even have iPods.” For those who do get past the technical difficulties, online radio and podcasts have the added benefit of minimal commercial interruptions and a regulation-free existence—the FCC doesn’t oversee podcasting—that makes edgier content possible and, arguably, offers the opportunity for more creative freedom, Muraki points out.
But this hardly augurs the death of traditional radio. On its website, Hollow Earth—a longtime proponent of community-run, noncommercial radio stations known as low-power FM (LPFM)—makes no bones about its goal: “Hollow Earth Radio is a live streaming Internet station only. We wish you could find us on the radio dial.” Meanwhile, Burbank, who joined Dave Ross on KIRO-FM last September, and Riemer, who returned to KMTT-FM this year after being fired in 2009, are back on the airwaves. But both are also continuing to post unique content for listeners to download, cementing their places in the new media landscape and, arguably, upping the ante for future competitors.
Links to local podcasts
Seattle Geekly, seattle-geekly.com
Spilled Milk, spilledmilkpodcast.com
The Marty Riemer Show, martyriemer.com
Too Beautiful To Live, tbtl.com
Hollow Earth Radio, hollowearthradio.com
Savage Love, thestranger.com/seattle/SavageLovePodcast/page
Grapes of Rad, grapesofrad.com