Radio just isn’t what it used to be. When the vast wilderness of the FM bandwidth was thrown wide open in the late 1960s by a new rule from the FCC banning the practice of duplicating AM programming on FM stations, the space was quickly (and more important, inexpensively) filled by DJs who played long sets of music from multiple genres. It was a radio wonderland, where it was possible to sample a vast spectrum of what the airwaves had to offer in one sitting. You could hear folk, jazz, blues, rock, soul and R&B, all in one go. Any and all tracks were permissible, and the chances of hearing a new tune you hadn’t heard before were high (as were many of the listeners).
Now, of course, the broadcast landscape looks much different. The majority of music stations on the air are controlled by just a few giant conglomerates, like Clear Channel, Cumulus Media and Citadel Broadcasting. Stations are programmed to fit into narrow demographics, with short, singles-only playlists. Since much of the music being put out today is designed to fit firmly into these station’s narrow definitions, the broadcast behemoths have slowly and surely turned themselves into obsolete schlock-hawkers.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t bright spots in the darkness of the airwaves. Birmingham has played host to a few trend-bucking upstart stations that have dared to expand the scope of their playlists to include songs that (gasp!) people might not have heard before. There was the nationally recognized 107.7 The X, which distinguished itself with the Live in the X Lounge series of albums in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And, of course, the ill-fated Live 100.5 station, which was shut down last February by Citadel even though it had over 20,000 people join a Facebook group petitioning for its survival just before it was switched over to a talk-radio format.
Sounds bleak, doesn’t it? Well, hope is on the horizon. Quietly, a few local entrepreneurs have been working on filling the void of quality radio broadcasting here in Birmingham. The new station is called Mountain Radio, and it will be going live for your listening pleasure in the first week of December. The only thing is, this new radio station isn’t on the radio at all. It’s on the internet.
Mountain Radio is, at its core, three gentleman: Geno Pearson, Jeff Clanton and Jeremy Harper. I met them recently to discuss their recent endeavor, and from the get-go, it’s clear this is something they’ve been pondering for a long time.
“We talked about it before Live 100.5 even came on the air,” says Clanton, “but when they came on we wanted to support that. Then [they] went off the air and we sat and waited and waited. We thought somebody else would come up with the idea, but then we said ‘Let’s just do this.’ We felt like there was a hole in Birmingham for good indie rock and alternative music. [I’ve] worked in radio in sales for a long time, and I knew Geno was a genius at programming that kind of format, so I knew he was somebody i wanted to talk to about it, and we’d been friends for many years anyway. And Harper is prolific at web design.”
Pearson denies his genius status, but agrees he had a vision of a way to move forward. “I’ve been programming an internet radio station called gotradio.com for the past seven years,” he notes. “It’s jockless and it’s just music, we have 40 channels and I program seven of them—all of the alternative-related channels. It’s not trying to be local, but national and international. And [I thought], we could try to do it locally and get jocks on because I think this town would eat it up.”
One of the first things they did was to recruit Scott Register, host of popular Sunday morning radio show Reg’s Coffeehouse, and the last human voice heard on Live 100.5 before it was snuffed out. Register has spent the intervening months since that moment looking for the right opportunity to get his show back on the airwaves, and though opportunities presented themselves, none seemed the right one until Mountain Radio. “There’s a niche in this town that we were filling that was taken away, and it’s been long enough,” says Register. “It’s time to fill that niche again.”
Clanton concurs. “We thought the way that we could do it,” he says, “is really hearken back to the radio stations of old, like the 70s Album Oriented Rock (AOR). It’s locally driven, it’s community-driven, it’s a live radio station, and we’re live and local as much as possible. We want this show to be living and breathing too; to change, and to grow as the community grows with it.”
It can’t hurt that they’ve also brought on former Live 100.5 personalities Drew Cunningham and Chris Adler and picked up Reed and Will Lochamy, creators of the “Oh Brother” podcast, who will be expanding their locally-made podcast into a longer format.
“I’m excited about what [the Lochamy brothers] are going to do,” says Clanton. “It’s going to be a two hour-long show [on] Thursday nights and it’ll be more a call-in and guest kind of talk show, but with their own slant. Very similar to what they were doing, but more. I think they had a lot of ideas with the podcast that they couldn’t do.”
Having the internet as your broadcast medium can provide benefits that terrestrial radio doesn’t offer, especially in the area of social media. Scott Register has a clear perspective on the differences. “Back with 100.5,” he says, “I always felt our parent company never quite grasped the social media aspect of today’s culture like we did. So it wasn’t a big a surprise to me when they dismissed the 21,000 people on the Facebook page. They don’t get it. They don’t get what kind of a milestone it is to have that many people join a cause to save something on Facebook.”
“One of the first things we did [at Live 100.5] was implement the texting feature for anything where we were interacting with our listeners,” continues Register, “so they could have real-time conversations with us. I love seeing people’s reactions to songs as they’re playing, especially in the morning. It’s one of the things that made me able to get up at five every morning and be there at six. When you know you’re not alone, when you’re sitting there and it’s dark and cold, and you’ve got your cup of coffee in your hand, and you play a song and all of a sudden ten messages pop up with people saying, ‘Dude, you just saved my life. I needed this song this morning.’ It really makes it fun from our end as well. That’s one of the first things I do when I walk in, is log into my Facebook page and say, ‘Good morning. Here we go. Let’s do this.’ I think it will be a vital part of what we do.”
Geno Pearson is also gung-ho on the prospects of using social media to pioneer an internet radio station. “The social response has really caught me by surprise, says Pearson. “This town is so passionate about music. Bands that, for this size of a town, you wouldn’t think they would sell 50 tickets, but when they come here they’ll sell out Workplay, they’ll sell out Bottletree, they’ll sell out the Alabama Theatre. Other towns this size, [those bands] wouldn’t get half that. Obviously, even with no radio exposure, people are finding out about it and they’re going to the shows and buying the CDs.”
From the way reaction to the new station is shaping up, it seems like Mountain Radio may indeed have stumbled onto the new radio model. Their Facebook page has been up for a little under two weeks and already has 1500 fans, even though they aren’t on the air yet. Public reaction has also been positive.
“We did a kind of faux preview launch down at [Lakeview’s] Nightmare on 29th Street Celebration on Halloween, where we ran a faux version of the station with the sweepers and the music we would play, and the reaction was, ‘What is this!, You’re going to play Silversun Pickups, you’re going to play Band of Horses?’ All the music we were playing, everybody was like, “This is great, I can’t wait!”
Whatever the future of Mountain Radio holds, while it is on the air, Birmingham will once again be able to call itself the home of a radio station that plays music worth listening to, programmed by people who care about such things. In an age where the listening choices available to us have ballooned into an imposing mass thanks to online distribution, we need someone to filter out the signal from the noise. Or, as Reg puts it, “There’s so much going on in the world today and there aren’t enough good filters out there. We’ve proven ourselves time and time again to be that filter. So, as happy as I am to be able to broadcast again, I’m even happier for our listeners and the artists, because at the end of the day the whole reason I started Reg’s Coffeehouse all those years ago and the whole reason we started Live 100.5 was to connect these music lovers with these artists and give them a forum, and now we’re going to try it another way.”
Mountain Radio will go live the first week in December at www.bhammountainradio.com, but in the meantime you can get the skinny on what they are up to at their Facebook and Twitter pages, which you can reach from their main website.
Sam George is the Managing Editor of Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.