A breath of fresh A.I.R.

Online, everyone can be a DJ. That's great news for alternative music fans.

The creators of the World Wide Web a decade ago dreamed of a new way for humankind to connect with itself. Check out the Web today and the first thing you encounter is a battleground of multinational brand names, all attempting to turn the new medium into a bad imitation of the old ones they already own.

But every once in a while a Web site turns up that actually fulfills the promise the founding generation dreamed of; which opens perceptual and psychological doors, while turning the very limitations of the Web to advantage; which even borrows megacorp

Antenna Internet Radio

http://www.antennaradio.com

concepts like "branding" and "portal" to beat a trail 'round their toll gates.

Such an entity is Antenna Internet Radio, now entering upon its eighth month of full-scale operation. Like most successful Web enterprises, it came about to fulfill a need—not some vague need on the part of the consumer identified by somebody's bogus marketing survey, but the immediate, burning, personal need of its creator: in this case, new-music fan and self-taught Web master Phil Parodayco.

Growing up here and there in the urban dribble along Connecticut's Long Island Sound, Parodayco hated the music he heard on the radio. He discovered the kind of music he did like thanks to the occasional college FM station specializing in "alternative music." But he was only temporarily satisfied. Alternative music stations weren't alternative enough to play much of the music Parodayco liked best: the kind of jazz that cuts loose from the life ring of pre-set tunes and chord changes to swim free in the choppy waters of totally free improvisation.

Three years of life in the real world after graduating from the University of Connecticut in 1990 convinced Parodayco that whatever he was looking for wasn't to be found in New England, or even on the East Coast. After lighting in Seattle in 1993, it looked for a while like it might not be found on the West Coast, either. True, the town was a lot friendlier to "new music" than Boston, but the only really edgy radio station around, the University of Washington's KCMU, had just hired a new-music guru, while the programmers at Bellevue Community College's jazz-oriented KBCS didn't cotton to his ideas at all.

Parodayco by now knew that he wanted to devote himself to promoting the cause of alternative music. The problem was finding an outlet alternative enough for his tastes. Thanks to a day job with a small local software start-up, he learned HTML, the lingua franca of the World Wide Web, and realized that these days, with a little money and ingenuity, an alternative of one can make itself heard.

And getting heard is the key. New-music fans may be thin on the ground, but these days the ground is the globe, and even a tiny percentage of 6 billion people adds up to a market worth paying attention to. Parodayco's site already gets hits (and fan mail) from all over the world. The next step is assembling a group of affiliate sites catering to independent surfers with related interests—to become, in short, an alternative "portal" to the Web for people who don't care to be just another data item in the demographic sea of Yahoo, SportsZone, or MSN.

No one person can do justice to the immense range of off-track music now available out there, and today Antenna Internet Radio (A.I.R. for short) draws on the expertise (and collections) of seven specialists, each of whom "hosts" a weekly one-hour "show": Parodayco continues to preside over improv jazz on The Intoxication Hour, while associate Christie Triplett samples "world music" on Radio Transport, and Herb Levy covers the frontiers of what we used to call "classical music."

A.I.R. shatters at a stroke the wall between creative musicians and adventurous listeners: a wall created in part by simple economics and in part by the vampire nature of the music business. Thanks to new recording technologies and the compact disc, there has never been such a variety of music available to so many millions of listeners. Indeed, that's a large part of the problem: No one can conceivably listen to everything on the off-chance of finding something memorable. We need filters.

The music biz is only too willing to provide them. And since it costs just as much per unit customer to promote sanitized mass-consumption product like Hanson or Yo-Yo Ma or Rent as it does the electronic fantasies of a Carl Stone or a Tibetan ritual opera or a 7-inch single by the Dirtbombs, who do you think's going to get the lion's share of the ad budget?

A.I.R.'s show jocks also serve as filters; but they're not selling anything to anyone: They're sharing things they love. Parodayco's own show led off a few weeks ago with an intriguing fantasia for MIDI-manipulated trombone by German avangardista Konrad Bauer. For me, the high point was my first encounter with Dead Man Blues, originally recorded back in September 1926 by a dead man named Jelly Roll Morton.

The only thing more astonishing than the variety of cuts you can hear on A.I.R. is the degree of overlap between its ostensibly divergent-themed shows. As each genre of music—"classical," rock, world beat, ambient—pushes its own envelope, it enters sonic territory once the exclusive property of its neighbors. In such musical company, Ken Wisconsin's audio mosh pit Dirtnap Radio reveals something you'd never suspect: just how much imagination and musicianship lurks within the flailing rake of the best of punk.

The quality of the music makes A.I.R. worth a visit, but what will keep you coming back is the near-perfection of its design as a Web site. Once you've tapped the button that helps you download the requisite helper software for your Web browser (Real Networks' Realplayer) you're on the A.I.R., able to switch channels, check out the week's program lineups (last week's program is just one more click away), read the DJs' idiosyncratic program notes (and e-mail them with your own input), sample a cut here and there (skipping what doesn't appeal, replaying what does), and note artists or label names for your next online shopping trip (or, if you're traditionally minded, your next visit to Tower or the Wherehouse).

One word of warning: It may take a little tweaking to get your computer to handle RealAudio's software "player," which delivers A.I.R.'s "signal" to your machine. Keep things simple: Don't use the "upgrade" version RealAudio keeps plugging: It's designed primarily for video, and is lots more complicated than you'll ever want to deal with just to listen to music. Even once the player is operating smoothly, there are times (when the Web's particularly congested, etc.) that the signal breaks up so badly that it's not fit to listen to. In such cases, just tune out and try again later; persistence don't make electrons behave no better.

A.I.R's principal built-in technical limitation—its monaural 16K bandwidth—is also the main reason it continues to exist. Higher-fidelity sound quality would monopolize the CPUs of most computers, either making any other work impossible or interrupting the sound transmission. And if sound were that much better (and the playback were recordable) even the little-known record labels that provide most of the "product" wouldn't tolerate the use of their material.

As it is, they can only benefit from the exposure to uncounted thousands of audio browsers, tuning in at all hours from the comfort of their homes, any one of whom may decide that what they've just heard must share their life from this moment on. Let whomever may want to scream for Hanson, so long as I've got Mr. Jelly Roll's Dead Man Blues (RCA/Bluebird 6588-2-RB) to keep me warm.

 
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