The internet has pretty much taken over popular culture since the '90s, defining all corners of entertainment. It stands to reason that radio would be similarly impacted, and it has. But there are factors that complicated the growth of online radio when compared with the rapid rise of streaming music and TV/movie services, online newspapers and magazines, etc.
It's well known that people often (not exclusively but often) listen to the radio in the car. That's why the morning rush hour spot is so in-demand. And here in Los Angeles, where many of us spend hours each week sitting in traffic, the radio can be a sanity saver. So online radio really had to wait for mobile technology to catch up, which it finally has. The combination of Bluetooth in cars and smartphones allows online radio to blast us into some semblance of contentment while dealing with stand-still traffic jams.
Another significant issue has been the means of presentation. Everybody knows how terrestrial radio works. A series of DJs and hosts rattle through a playlist and entertain us in between. But in the modern world, where people can find any song in seconds, finding a place for that "appointment radio" online wasn't without its challenges.
"In the Spotify era, appointment radio doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but then vinyl records don't make a whole lot of sense in the digital download era either," says Jose Maldonado, program director at The Independent FM. "Here we are with people going after the vinyl records for that retro style. What we're doing at The Independent FM is trying to keep that retro on-air DJ, personal approach."
The Independent FM, focusing on indie music, was born out of traditional FM radio station Indie 103.1 which went off the air almost exactly 10 years ago.
"When Indie 103.1 was on the air, the frequency 103.1 FM had very poor reception in most of Los Angeles," Maldonado says. "So a lot of people were taking to listening to the stream that the station was using. When they went off the air in FM, the idea was that we have enough of a listenership that listens via streaming ,so why don't we see what happens if we just keep it going. And so they did."
While some existing stations were gradually making the switch from terrestrial airwaves to a streaming platform, others were watching from the sidelines and making the leap to the online radio world without prior broadcasting experience. That lack of instant brand recognition might have proved to be a stumbling block, but the strong survived. One of those was and is LuxuriaMusic.
"It was launched back in 2000 by a consortium of music nerds who were interested in seeing what a digital platform could become," says Kat Griffin, LuxuriaMusic's program director. "They rallied a bunch of their friends. They just wanted to feature music that was widely ignored but celebration-worthy. That's why they went on for an instrumental, pop music kind of thing in the wake of the lounge revival."
Clear Channel purchased LuxuriaMusic but, soon afterward, it was allowed to slip out of existence. Then in 2005, current owner Cliff Chase found that the domain name had become available again and purchased it. Luxuria was back and it has thrived since, boasting names as revered as Howie Pyro and Kristian Hoffman in the ranks.
"There's been growth and there's also been transformation, a morphing into another kind of an entity," Griffin says. "In 2006, people would listen on their computer. What's changed is the way our audience uses media. We reach our audience through our live stream. We also have a podcast page, so we archive our live shows."
Similarly (kinda), idobi Radio launched in 1999 when founder Tom Cheney was working on internet radio for MTV. The network abandoned the project but Cheney kept at it and idobi (the lowercase is intentional) was born. That was incredibly early in the birth of online radio, and idobi has led a lot of the subsequent growth.
"We've really helped to mold and create the industry," says Sherin Nicole, idobi's chief creative office. "This is pre-Pandora, pre-Spotify, this is before all of that. The growth of idobi over that time has been very similar to the growth of streaming. It's been exponential. What started as a project in Tom's basement, more or less, has become a thriving business."
Idobi was born on the East Coast but has had an L.A. office for about five years, and it recently moved into a larger North Hollywood space just this year as it continues to expand. For idobi, the specificity of the content has been key to its success.
"I think what's great about us is we're really grounded in the pop-punk scene, and we've grown into an alternative-rock network," Nicole says. "So that audience knows that we are with them. We're fans of the music like they are, and we get excited about the music just like they do."
Online radio is obviously available to anyone, anywhere, who has a connection, a fact that redefines what it means to be a local radio station when broadcasting exclusively on the web. That means thinking hard about your approach.
"What I do with The Independent FM is I still try to keep it live," Maldonado says. "I still try to keep it where there is a physical human being answering the phones. So if somebody is making a request, whether it be via the 888 number or Twitter, they can still get that instant contact that we used to get back in the old FM days."
For Griffin, Los Angeles is where Luxuria belongs.
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"We were born in L.A., the people that built Luxuria were a part of the communities here," she says. "Grow where you're planted. There are a lot of people here who want to work and do things. Once you come to L.A., a lot of people don't stay. They go back to where they came from. But no one ever talks about the people who come here, look around and say, 'Oh my God, I'm home. I'm never leaving this place.' That's what we did."
Of course, The Independent FM, Luxuria and idobi are not the only online radio stations in town. There are the rich histories of KChung, Dublab, NTS, KPJK, KNAC and others to consider, and we had finite space here. But it all points to a healthy future for online radio in L.A. moving forward.
Disclosure: The author works with idobi Radio and culture editor Lina Lecaro works with LuxuriaMusic.