Current Online

Niche streamer
Bluegrass destination established on the Web

Originally published in Current, Oct. 21, 2002
By Mike Janssen

The delivery is high-tech, but the sounds are as traditional as can be on, an online music stream serving American high-lonesome harmonies to a worldwide audience.

fragment of artwork from BluegrassCountry siteWAMU-FM in Washington, D.C., launched BluegrassCountry in June 2001, at the same time it dropped 18 hours of bluegrass from its weekday air schedule to make room for more nationally produced news.

The new stream helped WAMU make the case that it was not abandoning its commitment to the music, which has aired on the station for 35 years. But the stream's creators say their main inspiration was a desire to innovate with the Web.

Some Washington-area folkies, stinging from the loss of their weekday bluegrass, found little solace in the online service. But that didn't stop it from catching on around the world. Listening rose sharply late last year when Windows Media named the stream an editor's pick and word-of-mouth spread among bluegrass fans.

Today, the stream ranks among the Web's most popular. Combined listening exceeded 80,000 hours over the week of Sept. 16-22, according to MeasureCast, placing BluegrassCountry 12th among all streams and fourth among web-only streams. Listeners from Japan, Germany and 48 states rank among the site's major donors.

The stream's unique standing among online music services might help to explain its popularity. MeasureCast's rankings demonstrate that genres with little representation on traditional radio-including jazz, new age, adult album alternative and contemporary Christian music-can find new success online. WFUV and WXPN, two triple-A pubcasters and streamers, also ranked among last month's top 25 webcasts.

When BluegrassCountry launched, it faced competition only from commercial streamers, according to WAMU spokeswoman Kate Hawken. Furthermore, staff members felt they could capitalize on their knowledgeable bluegrass hosts, who are friends with many bluegrass musicians and have written books about traditional music.

Today BluegrassCountry airs 31 hours of programming a week, repeating blocks at staggered times from day to day so that international listeners can catch them. About half the programming also airs on WAMU's FM broadcast and is automatically encoded as WAV files. An engineer edits out most references to times, dates and the Washington area and converts the files to MP3. WarpRadio, Live365 and IM Networks then stream the music to listeners using Winamp, Windows Media Player and other software.

Like most other streamers, WAMU's server costs grow along with its audience. But Michael Horn, creative director, says the dot-com bust offered some relief by lowering bandwidth costs.

Nonetheless, streaming and producing BluegrassCountry costs WAMU $150,000 a year, and the station is looking for ways to make the service pay for itself. It launched with a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts but now lacks foundation support.

Contributions from 850 donors have lightened the financial burden. Prompts for donations show up both on the stream's website and in the programming, and BluegrassCountry offers premiums such as recordings supplied by host Ray Davis and the Smithsonian Folkways label.

WAMU also is seeking corporate sponsors. It sent an account manager to this month's International Bluegrass Music Association trade show in Louisville, Ky.

WAMU acted on a dream when it created BluegrassCountry, says station General Manager Susan Clampitt, and she's confident the finances will catch up with the premise even as costs rise. "We're only in Chapter One or Two," she says. "It's a long book."

These days, transmitters have little or nothing to do with some things put out by public broadcasters. Current cites some sites:

New doors to old content: WNET's African American World and WGBH's Global Connections

Niche streamer: WAMU's

Campaigns a la carte: NewsHour Online's Vote 2002

Webumentary tryout: P.O.V.'s Borders

Toolmaker for station sites: Public Interactive.

Follow the reporters: Frontline's pre-broadcast diary.

To Current's home page
Earlier news: There's new hope that streaming audio on the Internet can be viable for public radio, says consultant Mark Fuerst.

Outside links: WAMU's bluegrass site, Also a Washington City Paper article in 2001 looks skeptically at WAMU's bluegrass plans.

Web page posted Nov. 5, 2002
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2002