Public Knowledge Interview with WFMU's Ken Freedman

John Bergmayer: This is the "Public Knowledge: In the Know" podcast. I'm John Bergmayer, and my guest is Ken Freedman.

Ken Freedman is the station manager of WFMU, an independent, listener-supported, free-form radio station in Jersey City. He also hosts a weekly music show on the station, and along with Andy Breckman, co-hosts "Seven Second Delay," a comedy and radio stunt program.

Ken, thanks for joining me today.

Ken Freedman: Thank you, John.
John: Obviously we want to touch on some policy issues, but I thought we'd give the listeners some background first. How is your station different than the typical public radio station?
Ken: WFMU doesn't really fit into any of the existing models. We're not an NPR station. We're known as a community radio station, which I guess maybe does describe us organizationally and perhaps financially, although we're much larger than most community radio stations.

Musically and programmatically, we don't really fit into the community radio model, either. We're certainly not a commercial station, and we're not a student station. I sometimes describe us an overgrown college radio station, but even that doesn't really get to it.

We're a free form radio station. We give our programmers full reign over their program. But it's also a radio station that's made up of musical and audio fanatics and connoisseurs.

John: WFMU used to be affiliated with a university, but is now independent. Can you tell me how that came to be?
Ken: Yeah. We went on the air in 1958 as the FM radio station of Upsala College, but Upsala College went bankrupt in 1994. That's when they sold us the FM license. We were the only department of the college to survive, actually. The college ended up selling us the FM license, ironically, to make the last payroll. They didn't really want to sell it to us.

We were trying to buy it just to prevent the station from getting auctioned off to the highest bidder. In the end, the college sold it to us so they could make one more payroll, and that was the last payroll they ever made. They sold us the license, and they went bankrupt, and they were liquidated a year later.

John: Wow. Now are there many other stations like WFMU out there in the country? For instance, a couple April Fool's Days ago, you switched signals with another station. Can you tell me about that other station or how common the WFMU approach to radio is?
Ken: It's not that common. There are a handful of other free-form radio stations out there in the country, and the station that we did the April Fool's Day prank with a couple of years ago was KFJC from Los Altos Hills, California, south of San Francisco.

Musically and programming-wise, that's probably the closest station to us, and we sometimes think of KFJC as our sister station. But they're still affiliated with a university. They're still located on a university campus.

Organizationally, there's another station in Connecticut that's somewhat similar to us, WPKN, which also used to be owned by a college and then went independent of the college very close to around the same time we did.

In fact, I helped PKN become independent of the University of Bridgeport, and then PKN returned the favor and helped me when we became independent of Upsala College.

Organizationally and license-wise, we're somewhat similar to PKN, although our music and our programming is very, very different from them.

John: How would you compare WFMU to some of the famous pirate radio stations of the UK?
Ken: I've only heard a handful of air checks from the famous North Sea and English Channel stations. I've read about them, but I haven't heard enough of their actual programming to really compare us to them.
John: Now WFMU is known as something of a technological trailblazer. When did FMU start streaming over the Net?
Ken: We didn't start streaming until 1997, but I have to say that we had experiments. We had proto-streaming experiments in the late '80s, actually, because we had a volunteer who worked for Bell Labs. He was a guy who helped develop the ill-fated videophone that never took off. But he made a ton of money doing that, and then they gave him free reign at Bell Labs.

One of the things that he set up in the late '80s was all these different WFMU telephone toys where you could program legal station identifications with a touch-tone telephone keypad, choosing from thousands of phonemes and sound bites to create words and parts of our legal ID.

We had a WFMU wake-up service, where you could call a phone and program the phone to call you anytime in the next 24 hours, and when the phone rang, it would be WFMU live.

Another thing he had, which we did not appreciate at the time, was an 800 number that you could call and just listen to WFMU. That ran for two years. We paid it hardly any attention when those services were up, but the day that Bellcore wised up and realized that they weren't getting anything out of these weird experiments, they pulled the plug.

I was flooded that day with phone calls from people complaining that they could no longer listen to WFMU at work on the boss's dime. That was when I realized that there was definitely an interest in people doing this type of thing, which I didn't realize at the time.

But that really was streaming, because people were doing it at work. They were listening to WFMU on their desk, but they were listening to it through the hands-free utility on their telephone.

It was based on the success of that and the popularity of that silly little experiment that made me want to get our audio on the Internet as soon as I started reading about the Internet in the early '90s.

Then, in fact we got our Website up very early, even before there was a web. We had pages up on what was called Gopherspace. We had these Gopher pages up, and then as soon as the first web browsers came out, we converted it all to web pages and we immediately started getting permission from bands to put songs up.

So in late 1993 we actually had a Website up, and we were already serving little sound bites. We had something called the "Internet Jukebox," and we had gotten permission from about a dozen artists to put songs up there for download.

But we didn't start full-time streaming until 1997, because we were waiting to see which way the streaming market was going. We wanted to start streaming with a dominant technology, so we waited until RealAudio became the dominant technology when they had about 90 percent of the streaming market.

John: Wow, that's all so fascinating. Do you still get a lot of tech help from volunteers, like with the apps or anything like that?
Ken: Yeah, we do. During the dot com mania years, we were taken on as a pro bono client by a web design house in New York City called Oven.com. But Oven went under, as did many of those businesses, about a year later after they took us on as a pro bono client.

But most of the people who were helping us with Oven 10 years ago are still helping us. One of them is my lone full-time IT guy. But increasingly, as things get more and more complicated and more and more technical, we rely less on volunteers and more and more on consultants.

For example, our first iPhone app was done by a volunteer, but it was very simple and rudimentary. Then when we wanted to have a much more fleshed-out interactive iPhone app, he wasn't available to do that, so we hired a consultant to do that.

John: When you start streaming in 1997, did you run into many technological issues besides just picking RealAudio to start with? In the dial-up era, I imagine a lot of people wouldn't even be able to listen to really low-quality audio streams. Were there other bandwidth costs or issues that you faced back in those days?
Ken: We were actually lucky when we first started streaming, because at that time we had our signal on a national satellite in order to feed our signal to another FM station that's just a repeater station.

Because we had our signal available nationwide on a satellite service, AudioNet, which was the first company that started streaming us out of Texas. AudioNet later became broadcast.com, which was then bought by Yahoo. AudioNet just put in a dish and brought in our signal from the satellite. So, there were no bandwidth issues in getting our signal to the server.

I think that's where a lot of people fall apart when they start streaming, is that the first leg of their stream's journey from the encoder to the server is done over the Internet. And that's never a good idea. So, we inadvertently did something really smart. I didn't realize how smart it was, but we were feeding our server location through a satellite and that made a really big difference.

So, early on when we started streaming, we had a really reliable stream. And a lot of places were calling me up in 1997, saying, "How come your stream is so good? How come it's so reliable?" And of course, we were only serving the stream at 16k at that time, because almost everybody was on dial-up. But, it was 16k mono and because it was coming over a satellite system, and it was well compressed and well processed, it sounded really good.

John: Now, you brought up broadcast.com, which I believe is Mark Cuban's company?
Ken: Yeah.
John: Now, he still talks a lot about the economics of streaming versus broadcast and satellite, and his view is basically that Internet distribution is never going to be able to match what you can do on cable, which is a form of broadcasting because it's one to many. Do you have any thoughts about the economics of streaming today, and whether it's possible, for example, to stream the presidential inauguration live without it being glitchy?
Ken: Yeah. Well, I think he's absolutely right. The way the Internet is built right now, there's a catch 22, which is that the more people who use it, the less well it works. And that's just not the case with FM, or broadcast television, or cable. But, the Internet doesn't have to be like that, but I don't see much realistic hope for changing that. Because early on in the '90s, there was a great deal of talk about the mbone, what was it called? The multicast backbone.
John: Yeah.
Ken: And ways of resolving that issue, so that each person who's listening to a stream, for example, isn't getting the duplicate stream data sent the full length of the journey. And that the duplicate data is really only sent the last mile. But, the architecture of the Internet has never embraced the smartest engineering proposals for it, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

So, I think that Mark Cuban is correct, that the economics of streaming are just terrible, which is very frustrating to me because that's where all the market is going. And at this point now, my radio station WFMU has twice as many people listening online as we do over FM, whereas it was only two years ago that we had finally crossed that barrier, where we had more people listening on the Internet than we had listening over FM. Now, two years later it's twice as many.

John: Wow.
Ken: So, it gets more and more expensive. It gets more and more expensive for us to broadcast to the same number of people as they migrate from FM to the web all the time.
John: Now, how much does bandwidth cost as opposed to keeping your different FM transmitters going?
Ken: Oh, there's no comparison. It's so much more expensive to pay for bandwidth than, you know... The costs of operating an FM transmitter are minute compared to everything we spend for streaming, and we buy bandwidth in bulk. Now, we just buy huge, huge contracts of bandwidth. So, we're only paying, I don't know, we're paying $5 or $10 a meg of throughput because we buy so much of it.
John: Well then, since we're talking about broadcast versus FM, I do have a few questions on what you think the future of broadcasting is in the Internet environment. I mean, I know a lot of tech geeks. A lot of my friends just essentially see broadcasting as a totally obsolete technology. And in fact, the other day I sort of slagged off FM as being a sort of outdated technology in one of my blog posts, and got heat from some of my friends who work in community radio and similar projects. So, I was wondering if you just had any general thoughts. I mean, do people still want to listen to broadcast?
Ken: Old people do. Young people don't. I think it is an obsolete technology, but it's hard to make predictions as to what's going to happen since the future of media, nobody's ever been able to really accurately predict it. When television came out, everybody predicted the end of radio and that didn't happen. Radio just kind of reinvented itself. And when FM took off, people predicted the end of AM, and AM ended up reinventing itself as a talk format.

So, it's hard to predict, but I do see FM and AM and the radio model in general as being incredibly archaic and out of date now. It's hard to imagine how it's going to reinvent itself. The experience that I can get listening to a radio station on an iPhone or an Android with all the interactive features, it's not just a return to transistor radio. It's way beyond that.

So, I was on vacation in Mexico a couple of months ago and on my last day there I had about 50 megs left on my data plan that I had bought. And I was able to just walk along the beach in Mexico listening to my radio station live, and while I'm listening to it, I'm able to interact with other listeners live through a chat. I'm able to see all sorts of other information about the station. So, it's so far beyond the radio experience, and radio unfortunately, the technology doesn't have the ability to bring those extra features into play.

John: Well, to a certain extent that sort of works against what we were talking about earlier, about the economics of streaming. Or do you think that the Internet is going to sustain the streaming model? Or people are going to move more towards podcasting or music on demand? Like, for example, if you have a Spotify, it's inevitable that you're going to have duplicated streams anyway, because everybody is listening to something different. Or if you have Pandora, everyone is listening to something different. So, do you think that there's a future for just live streaming radio on the net?
Ken: Yeah, I think there is. I don't think that... It's just going to be one of many approaches. It's not going to be the dominant approach, but I do think there's a future for it, for programmers and stations and Websites that are able to carve out a niche for themselves. There's definitely a future. WFMU has more listeners now than we had 10 years ago because of streaming.

So, we've been able to carve out a niche for ourselves and we have a personality. We have an organic personality, not a market research personality. So, that kind of thing works very well on the Internet. But, that's not to say that our approach is the only approach, or that it's even going to be the dominant approach. It looks like it's not going to be the dominant approach and currently services like Last.fm and Pandora and Spotify and MOG, and all sorts of other services like that have far greater numbers than the standard radio model.

John: So, you think that WFMU, would it be able to survive purely online without an FM presence?
Ken: I think we could, yeah. In fact, I've been joking about it internally at FMU for years, about why don't we just go all online? And I used to say that like two or three years ago and people would be horrified at me. Their mouths would drop when I would propose jokingly that we sell our FM equipment and our FM license and plow all of our money into our online presence. And in just in the last couple of months, now when I joke about it, people take me seriously and say, "We really should explore that. We really should examine doing that."
John: Wow. Well, I mean there's an extent to which you have a fan base, and a lot of that fan base was built up in the FM years, so to say. I mean, do you think at a new WFMU, something that's as large and collaborative and volunteer oriented, could that rise up online?
Ken: I think it could. It has but then the economics always take those stations down. I guess the comparable thing to what we built up at FMU in the pre-Internet era would be blogs. You look at a blog like Boing Boing or a group blog like MetaFilter. That's a real community, and they're putting out a stream of information and, in some cases, audio and video 24 hours a day, all year round. So, in many ways, that's what's taking the place of what we were able to build up on the air.

So I think if somebody tried to build up a radio station now the way FMU was built up in the pre-Internet era, I think it would be a waste of time. I think that the way to do that now is by using the Internet and streaming all sorts of things, not just streaming audio but streaming text and stories and journalism and video and photographs and everything. Radio broadcasters I think need to think of themselves no longer as audio providers but as stream providers and try to determine what types of stream they can put out to augment an audio stream. Because I think putting out just a single audio stream is no longer enough.

John: I guess I should put my cards on the table. If I could wave a magic wand, I would keep FM around but I just wish it used a more efficient technology and was more interactive. And you could fit a lot more voices on that same spectrum if you used the technology similar to what the satellite radio guys use.
Ken: The pure technology of FM is fantastic. It's way better than the Internet. The fidelity is fair superior. The fidelity of FM is better than anything available out there. The pure technology of it is better than anything. It works better. It's simpler. If FM had never existed and all we had was the Internet and all of a sudden they invented FM, people's minds would be blown.

So FM is a better technology, but it's been ruined in this country just through policy. And I don't think there's any way of turning that back. The decent stations on the non-commercial end of the dial are packed in so tightly together that they come in really badly. They don't have good enough coverage. And the commercial band, you've eliminated almost all the independent stations through the Telecom Reform Act. It's not the technology. It's the policy that's been ruining the technology.

John: So I take it you're not a fan of the JACK FM's of the world.
Ken: Well, I'm not although I think that automation can do a much, much better job than that. I'm not against automation actually. We've been playing around a lot with automation. But JACK FM is just a terrible application of automation. So, yeah, I'm not a fan of JACK FM. But automation I think actually has a lot more creative possibilities than JACK FM. We started up a vintage rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, vintage soul stream on WFMU called Ichiban Rock and Soul, and it's an automated stream. But it's fairly interesting. It's really, really popular. But we also do incorporate human beings into it.
John: Wow. Well, given that FM is around to stay, the band is going to be there. It's going to be an analog technology. It's unfortunately going to have a lot of concentration with JACK FM type stations dominating a lot of the choicest parts of the spectrum. Have you worked at all or are you familiar with the low-power FM people, Prometheus Radio and that whole movement?
Ken: Yeah, I am. I'm not a fan of low-power FM. Again, it's a policy problem. I feel like low-power FM was just a really lame giveaway that the FCC delivered in the wake of the Telecom Reform Act when all of a sudden they realized that the whole FM spectrum was filled. And almost all the mom and pop radio station owners were getting gobbled up by giant corporations, and what else could they do? So LPFM was a pathetic little toy that they threw out there.

And most LPFM stations reach so few people that they're more or less irrelevant. I hate to say it. I have lots of friends who work in community radio and in low-power FM. But if you just look at the numbers, anybody with a Tumblr blog is going to have a bigger audience, a much, much bigger audience, than your typical LPFM station.

John: Wow. When we're speaking of the sort of politics and policy of the low end of the dial, a few years ago, WFMU had a bit of a legal conflict about its license renewal I believe. And it was with a few local public radio stations. Can you tell me the background about that?
Ken: Yeah, we were ganged up by four other non-commercial FM stations who discovered an elevation error on our license application dating back to 1962. They discovered this 27 years later. And rather than bringing it to our attention, they tried to capitalize on it. What they tried to do is have our power slashed in half so that they could all get large power increases themselves.

And, again, the bottom line of that is that it's due to bad policy because the lower end of FM dial, the way the FCC tries to cram more FM stations in, they're not as protected. Non-commercial FM stations are not as protected from one another as commercial stations are. Non-commercial FM stations have the contour overlap method so that their contours can actually butt right up against each other. Whereas on the commercial band, contours have to be separated. They're not allowed to collide with each other like they are below 92 FM. So that was really the bottom line. Because the contour overlap method on the non-commercial band is so ridiculous and it just creates such a bad product that this 27 year old geographic error that actually originated in government maps from the early 1960s created this opportunity for these four other non-commercial FM stations to try to ram through power increases at our expense.

But they were not successful in doing that. It's a legal battle that went on for four years. Cost us about half a million dollars to fight it. And then, in the end, everybody went on their merry way.

John: Well, that sounds productive.
Ken: Yeah.
John: I started thinking about these issues a few days ago because of a deal which has been cut behind the RIAA and the NAB about performance royalties. I just wrote a blog post. I should talk about what the deal is. Basically, those two industry groups, the one representing recording artists and the other representing commercial broadcasters, have been at odds with each other for years over the payment of performance royalties to recording artists for playing their music over the air. Now, in the copyright law right now, there is no provision where you have to pay recording artists anything in exchange for playing their music on the air. And the broadcasters have traditionally justified this as being a promotional measure for record artists.

The problem, from my perspective, is that they decided to reconcile their disagreement by agreeing to burden a third party, by mutually agreeing to back a new law that would require FM receivers to be built into cell phones. Do you think this sort of requirement would help broadcasters or is a good idea?

Ken: No, I don't think it's a good idea. I think it's a joke, the idea of building FM receivers into cell phones when your typical app phone or PDA or whatever you want to call it can achieve so much more than simply listening to FM. A good radio station app is going to deliver so much more to the consumer than an FM chip, than simply being able to listen to a radio station over FM.

I use my iPhone all the time, and I can listen to stations all over the world, and I can listen to police scanners all over the world. The amount of audio and things I can do with audio; I can record songs. I can multi-track songs on my phone. I can do so much with music and audio on my phone, that the notion that I'm going to care at all about listening to live FM on my phone is just absurd.

I think that the reason why the broadcast industry is so scared of performance royalties is because -- I don't think that they would mind if they could be assured that the performance royalties would be reasonable. I don't think that anybody would care about spending another couple of thousand dollars a year. They already have to pay ASCAP and BMI and SESAC.

But the problem is that the RIAA and SoundExchange behaved so irrationally with the webcasting royalty issue that broadcasters have reason to be concerned that the terrestrial royalty is not going to be reasonable, and in fact, is not even intended to really get music royalties into the hands of artists.

Rather, it's going to be another attempt to control the sphere, to control this new form of media, because that's exactly what they tried to do with webcasting. They're just trying to control the webcasting space. They're not really trying to get money into the hands of artists, although I acknowledge that they do get some money into the hands of artists.

But they're using that issue, I think, as cover for just trying to control a new form of media. If they hadn't gone so far with the webcasting performance royalty issue, then I don't think broadcasters would be anywhere near so paranoid about what they're trying to do with terrestrial royalties.

John: This puts me as a copyright lawyer in a pickle, because on the one hand, it doesn't really make any sense from a legal perspective why recording artists have performance rights for digital audio transmissions but not terrestrial transmissions, and why sound recordings are treated differently than other forms of copyrighted works under the law.

Just looking at it from a fairness, equity, and in the interests of having a clean and logical copyright law, it would make sense for recording artists to have performance rights. But at the same time, I definitely don't think that they have behaved that well with webcasters, like you said.

Do you mind going into a little more detail on the difficulties you may have faced with SoundExchange and with the payment that you currently make for performance royalties for your streams?

Ken: The main problem with the way the SoundExchange performance royalties are structured is that there's no upper end to it. There's no top end. It's per song per listener.

I haven't researched this. I'm talking off the top of my head now, but I just can't imagine that there's any kind of usage royalty law anywhere in industry where there's no top end, where the more you're using a renewable resource...

We're not talking about using something that's non-renewable, because by playing a song, I'm not preventing somebody else from playing this song. I'm not preventing anything else from happening with that song by playing a song on the radio, yet the royalty structure is such that you have to pay per song per listener with no upper end.

That really impedes success. It actually punishes success. It gets to the point where as soon as you start developing any kind of reasonable audience at all or anything that we'd be accustomed to considering a reasonable audience from the history of broadcasting, it becomes unaffordable to do that.

That's not the way other comparable royalties are structured. That's not the way ASCAP or BMI or SESAC or the songwriter and composer royalties are structured. With those, it's either a flat rat or it's a usage rate with an upper end cut-off so that it doesn't punish your success.

On the non-commercial side, SoundExchange has what would appear initially to be a fairly reasonable rate, but when you examine it you see that it's only reasonable as long as you have an insignificant audience. As soon as you start developing a significant audience, it becomes completely unaffordable.

John: As a non-commercial station, are you treated any differently?
Ken: Yeah, the rates are different for non-commercial stations as for commercial stations, but they're not that different. They're not different enough to satisfy me. The last time I was really up on it I think it was like a $15,000 difference.

Basically, non-commercial stations get the first $15,000 worth of royalties for $500. Commercial stations have to start paying per song per listener right away, whereas non-commercial stations are given the first 230 simultaneous streams for a flat rate of $500.

John: How do you actually determine what songs are played? Do you have to sample? How do they know what your numbers are?
Ken: We have to report four times a year. That's probably going to become year-round, which is another issue because most non-commercial and public stations are having a very, very hard time complying with that. We didn't have as hard of a time complying with it because we already had a good database driving our Website.

But four times a year we have to submit our server log files as well as a record of every song that's getting played on the air with the beginning time and the end time of every song, not just that that we played this Radiohead song on this day, but we played this Radiohead song, and it started at 3:02 PM and it ended at 3:06 PM.

We have to submit a full two weeks' worth of data of every song, artist, record label, and one other piece of data too which I'm not recalling, plus our log files for the same two week period. We have to submit that to SoundExchange.

John: One of the things which has been really bad about this performance royalty issue is that it seems that the amount you pay is inversely proportional to your political influence.

The over-the-air broadcasters just pay nothing because the NAB is absurdly powerful in Washington. I'm not sure if there's a difference between what satellite and what webcasters pay, but it seems like if you can't lobby, you pay more.

Ken: Yeah. But even the broadcasters were screwed by the race to Washington and the fact that the record industry got their lobbyists to Washington to get the DMCA in place before anybody knew what was going on.

If you look at the webcasting provisions of the DMCA, they're ridiculous. They're a joke in terms of making it against federal law to do something as simple as introducing a song in the way any broadcaster would introduce songs: "Now here's a song from the new Radiohead album." That's actually against the law to say that.

John: Really?
Ken: Yeah, according to the DMCA. It breaks their pre-publication law of complement. You're not allowed to say ahead of time what you're about to play. But then, ironically, once it's playing, it's against the law to not display the name of it on the web.

They make these ridiculous provisions that didn't take reality into account at all. It didn't seem like they consulted with any broadcasters or even musicians in terms of what musicians might be accustomed to or expecting from radio stations or webcasters.

Again, I don't think that the DMCA and the whole royalty structure that the RIAA and SoundExchange are working on is less an effort to get money into the hands of artists as it is to just completely control the space.

John: I guess the theory is if you announce you're going to play the song, I'm going to rush off and get my DAT tape and record it because now I know. I guess we'll have to see what happens with the performance royalties. It looks like it's coming to a head in the next couple of months.
Ken: Up until this compromise regarding the FM chip going into cell phones, I think everybody expected that a performance royalty was going to take effect sooner or later, and that it was going to probably at least start off at a reasonable rate.

In fact, I found that interesting, because if the performance royalty for terrestrial radio is set at a reasonable rate, then it's going to throw the whole royalty structure for webcasting into question. Why should an FM station get away with just a few thousand dollars a year in performance royalties, when a webcaster who's reaching a fraction of the audience that the FM station is paying, why should they have to pay $100,000 a year or more for the same thing?

John: It could be an instance where webcasters benefit indirectly from the NAB. Who knows?
Ken: Yeah, that's what I was hoping.
John: Back to less technical notes, I suppose, kids today, basically, not only do they not buy CDs -- this is just thoughts on the general future of the music industry -- but on-demand services like Spotify and Rdio seem to be displacing even downloads for some people.

Do you think that the music industry can survive a shift away from the notion of buying copies of things in any form?

Ken: Well, they're not surviving it so far. Whether they are able to turn that around, I don't know. They're certainly not going to be able to shift from a purchase model to a rental model. That's seriously downsizing, and the downsizing is already well underway.

Record companies are just shrinking in size week after week, so no, I don't think that they can survive. They're not surviving now. Pre-Internet, the record industries had built up a cultural empire. That empire's long since crumbled, and it's continuing to shrink.

John: One of the reasons I like to use the phrase "the music industry" as opposed to "the record industry" is because I think it's probably pretty certain that the record industry is going to tank.

But musicians themselves are part of the music industry, and since a lot of musicians come through WFMU, do a lot of indie musicians and so forth have the Lars Ulrich view that you should lock up these crazy downloaders? Is there a general sense or a consensus as to what indie musicians are going to do to make a living going forward?

Ken: They seem to be focusing on touring and merchandising much more than ever, but I think that's true across the board. Most indie musicians, and even I think a lot of major label musicians, recognize now that offering a few free downloads is actually a good idea and is actually necessary for promotion of their works on the Internet.

I think free downloads are becoming more and more common all the time, free legal downloads, that is, anyway. But the typical way of doing that is by a record label taking one or two songs from an album and making those one or two songs available for free download for a limited time only. You find that all the time, but that's different than saying that we're just going to give everything away for free forever.

John: One of the interesting things about WFMU to me is that in addition to being this technological innovator, at the same time, with "Seven Second Delay," you're doing the live show at UCB Theatre a lot, and WFMU has a legendarily giant vinyl library.

It's like you're moving into the digital age very fast, but you have this big connection with old media and old ways of doing things. Do you think that those are in conflict, or is there a complementary relationship between them?

Ken: Yeah, I do think that there's a complementary relationship. I love the fact that one of our most popular podcasts on WFMU is the cylinder show. We have this show called the "Antique Phonograph Music Hour," where the programmer, MAC, is a collector and connoisseur of recordings from the acoustic era of recording, pre-1920, when records were made without the benefit of electricity.

The recording machines actually had to be hand-cranked in real-time, and the musicians crowded around these giant gramophone horns. That was the microphone.

MAC plays these things back in real-time without the benefit of electricity. He actually hand-cranks these 78s and these Edison cylinders in real-time on perfect machinery, and it sounds amazing. The show, at the initial stage of just getting the recordings to play, it's done without electricity.

Then this program has become one of the most popular podcasts that we have. We're able to podcast the music because it's almost all in the public domain, so we have no copyright issues with that.

Because it's such a niche interest, pre-1920 recordings, that's the kind of thing that takes off really well on the Internet. So we have this perfect complement between ancient technology, or pre-1920s technology, and digital technology.

John: I've actually listened to that show a couple times, and I had no idea that it was hand-cranked. That just would not even occur to me. That's incredible.
Ken: The music was recorded, hand-cranked, and now in 2010 it's getting played back hand-cranked as well.
John: And then you, with "Seven Second Delay," have been doing your show before a live studio audience in the past maybe year and a half is when you started doing it?
Ken: Yeah, about that.
John: How's that treating you?
Ken: That's great. We do it once a month. We're doing this comedy show from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, a great comedy theater in New York City. We started doing that just because Andy Breckman and I have been doing that show for about 20 years, and we just needed to try something new.

We decided to just start incorporating studio audiences by inviting them into the studio, and that turned out to be unwieldy. Then we actually started doing them at people's apartments and in people's offices, and then we started doing them at clubs until we finally landed at an actual comedy theater, which is really the best place to do it.

It brings something new to the show that you just can't get from doing it in the studio. But we still to do experiments, like little comedy stunt things. We love to try to do things that nobody's done before, and by doing it in front of a live audience in a theater, we're able to come up with new experiments, which are sometimes disastrous and sometimes very successful.

John: I can recommend to our seven listeners of this podcast to check out the "Seven Second Delay" and other WFMU endeavors also.

Also, I have to say the interview that you did a while ago with Colin Marshall on the "Marketplace of Ideas" podcast was excellent, and you cover a lot of ground that I wouldn't be able to intelligently ask you questions about. I recommend that people check that out too.

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview.

Ken: Thank you, John.
John: All right. Thanks. Bye-bye.
Ken: OK. Bye-bye.


Transcription by CastingWords