Radio BDC: The new Westinghouse model?

This past Monday, four former WFNX deejays returned to the airwaves (so to speak), premiering Radio BDC: an online-only station created by and featured on the website Boston.com. For many WFNX fans, myself included, it was like a rebirth: our favorite deejays from the late and venerated Boston area alternative rock station were back on the air and playing the new and old indie rock we know and love so much. At noon Eastern Time (I heard it at 9am out here on the west coast), they counted down to go time and celebrated with Julie Kramer’s excited “Guess what…we’re on the air!”. Champagne was served, cheers were given, and the listeners rocked. The first song, “I Want My City Back” by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (chosen by listener poll and a very apt choice, given its lyrics) was prefaced by Dicky Barrett of the Bosstones giving the station his blessing.

It’s certainly exciting to hear Julie Kramer, Henry Santoro, Adam 12, and Paul Driscoll back on the air–I knew these four via WFNX for years, and the demise of that station hit me pretty hard. Sure, it’s just a radio station, and all radio stations come and go (and a lot go the way of buyout or sale, but that’s another post entirely), but I’d discovered that station my freshman year at Emerson College, and a goodly portion of my music collection was informed and influenced by what they played. The new station is, for all intents and purposes, the same as the old one; the same alternative rock is being played, old and new, and the deejays are well informed and lovers of the genre. They play this stuff because they’re obsessed with it, they love the fanbase, and they’re having a hell of a lot of fun. There’s no better reason for this station to exist than that. And as a fan, I’ve been listening for hours on end while working at home. I haven’t listened to a radio station, terrestrial or digital, for this long in quite some time.

It wasn’t until yesterday that it occured to me–this station is being hosted by a website originally created as the online presence for the Boston Globe newspaper. Though the Globe now has its own dedicated website, it still runs Boston.com as a regional free site for news, entertainment, and other Bay State information. Radio BDC is essentially a broadcast extension of the site. [CAVEAT: I haven’t done any serious homework on this, so I don’t know if Radio BDC is actually owned by Boston.com or if they’re merely hosting the station; that, and I’m not familiar with the current broadcasting rules for websites and/or companies owning stations. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t really matter; all I care about is that they got the permits and went live as quickly as they did.] So it occurs to me that this is just like the old radio stations of yore–I’m talking the birth of radio as we know it, close to a hundred years ago. Specifically, it made me think of those stations that were the broadcasting division of major manufacturing companies, such as Westinghouse. Unlike today, where stations are often owned by conglomerates and media companies (and are usually one of a number of same-genre stations in a collective), back in the day pretty much anyone with money, room for a broadcast tower, and a good business plan could start up a radio station. A number of businessmen actually came to the conclusion that having a broadcast arm of their business a great idea, especially if they were selling or manufacturing radios and radio parts. Pretty soon stations were popping up at hotels and department stores, where people could come to watch live broadcasts of orchestras, plays, and shows. This would be the norm for quite a few decades, with the addition of politicians and celebrities making the occasional visit to the station, and the birth of broadcast advertising. Even the advent of FM radio pretty much followed the same route, until it evolved and mutated into the radio field we know today.

So this got me thinking…will Radio BDC, and other online-only stations take the same route as the old Westinghouse stations? Well, probably not the exact same route, obviously. They share the same building as the Boston Globe out on Morrissey Boulevard, and they’ve had a few sports reporters popping in to talk about the Red Sox, but other than that, you wouldn’t know that this was a station connected to the Globe at all. In fact, the station is a broadcast extension of Boston.com, and that’s pretty much it. But I’ve been seeing this a lot over the past five to ten years…stations leaving terrestrial radio and going purely online. Part of it is the funding–running a radio station is expensive, and it’s not a high-revenue business. Considering that a majority of the revenue is from advertising, sometimes it’s easier and cheaper to go digital–this way your advertising can be visual pop-ups on the player and click-throughs on the website rather than intrusive thirty-second soundbites. You don’t need an expensive broadcast tower or an assigned frequency, either–you have routers and servers. There are even apps that listeners can download to their phones so they can listen in. As long as you follow the basic broadcasting rules, you’re golden. WBCN went digital-only because it was cheaper; WFNX was sold to Clear Channel for much the same reason. The stations as we once knew them are dead; their online footprint, often under new management and/or ownership, is now the norm. Le WFNX est mort, Vive le Radio BDC.

It makes me wonder if, sometime in the future, we’ll see more websites extending into the radio field like Westinghouse did so many years ago. I’m not talking about the streaming “stations”–the websites like Spotify which are generally just a giant mp3 server on a genre-defined shuffle–I’m talking about actual stations like Radio BDC…radio stations in the real sense of the term, with actual deejays, live events and the occasional commercial break. It also makes me think of regulation, but that’s another post entirely. For now, I’m curious to see if, how, and when these new versions of old radio stations might come into being via the websites that are hosting them.

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