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"Very few commercials, no in-your-face announcers, and lots of unheard of music and classic songs that you hadn’t heard in years. Jim goes out of his way to find new indie and national label artists. We never ever play a song just because a label is working that song at radio."

The Alternative Is on the Internet

by Tim McMahan

It was an outrage! After last month’s earth-shattering announcement that 101.9 would change its format from the alternative-based "The Edge" to the new, all-classic-rock "The Fox," Omaha’s "hip" music followers were ready to march with lit torches to the station’s downtown headquarters and demand the owner’s head delivered on a vinyl copy of the Eagles’ "Hotel California." Oh-my-god! Where would us poor, pathetic coffee-drinkin’ trend-setters now go on our FM dial to listen to the latest in cutting-edge alternative music?

What was bunk-o about the format change, however, and the bitter reaction by all these goth-clad/baggie-shorted youth was: a) The Edge was about as much of an alternative music station as Z-92 or KIOS; and 2) the whining masses wouldn’t know what "alternative music" was if it bit them on their NYDK-covered asses. What passes in the Midwest radio market (ie., Omaha) as cut-to-the-bone alternative music is nothing more than the same top-40 gunk that’s played in heavy rotation on MTV and a handful of local FM radio stations (whose sole objective seems to be one-upping each other’s circus-geek morning show team in the "we’ve-pissed-our-pants ain’t-we-funny?" category.) Case in point: Matchbox 20, Third Blind Eye and 311 are about as "alternative" as Led Zeppelin, Cream and Paul McCartney and Wings were in the ‘70s. The sad part about it is that the local listeners, those poor sods still in high school who beg to be rebels and shun "The Man," have been duped into believing that bands like Live, Dave Matthews or Marilyn Manson are as relevant and daring as Husker Du, Minute Men or The Pixies were in the ‘80s.

And then there’s the small cadre of music followers who have always had to live their difficult, but rarely rewarding lives searching for good "alternative" music by frequenting independent record stores, listening to word of mouth, and reading the alternative press. They (We) were like bone-weary miners, tunneling tirelessly in the dark in hopes that they (we) could uncover a diamond in the heart of a mountain of cow flop.

But don’t lose hope, for there is a true alternative music station available to everyone in the Omaha area. The hook: it doesn’t exist on your radio dial; it can be found only on the Internet.

Called "3WK Underground Radio," the station is available to anyone with a sound-card equipped computer that can access the internet at a minimum 28.8k baud rate (see the clever "How To" sidebar). The station’s Internet address is http://www.3wk.com.

Once you’re at the 3WK homepage and click the "Listen" button, you’ll be connected to a station that plays music by some of the latest and greatest alternative bands, including Buffalo Daughter, Creeper Lagoon, Versus, Tricky, Tortoise, Yo La Tengo, Modest Mouse, Spoon, Stanford Prison Experiment, Loud Family, Come, Jesus Lizard, Jesus and Mary Chain, Goldie, Girls Against Boys, Cornelius, Massive Attack, Caustic Resin and Neutral Milk Hotel. Mixed in with that are tracks by classics, such as Velvet Underground, Minute Men, Sonic Youth and King Crimson, along with a few more-mainstream artists, such as Tori Amos, Sean Lennon, Natalie Merchant and Harvey Danger.

It’s too good to be true. And while there are a number of Internet music stations out there, none that I’m aware of are actually hosted by on-air "cyber-announcers" and broadcast ‘round the clock. It’s like having a big-city college radio station just a couple computer clicks away.

The hows and whys are as interesting as the station itself. 3WK General Manager Wanda Atkinson said in an interview (conducted via the Internet, of course) that she and her husband, Program Director/Webmaster Jim Atkinson started the station last summer because it was the only way to put out music that they loved without having to compromise their tastes due to the almighty dollar.

"Deciding on the Internet wasn’t a hard decision," Atkinson said. "FM radio, because of the recent FCC ruling, is owned and operated by huge corporations now and there is no room for the little guy. A good FM signal is too expensive to buy, and even if we found a station, advertisers would never go for our mix of music. Listeners would love it, but there probably wouldn’t be enough listeners to get the ratings needed to generate a profit."

She says her husband wanted to program a station similar to the trail-blazing FM stations of the ‘70s, when radio was about the music and not about making money. "Very few commercials, no in-your-face announcers, and lots of unheard of music and classic songs that you hadn’t heard in years," she says. "Jim goes out of his way to find new indie and national label artists. We never ever play a song just because a label is working that song at radio. When a new CD comes out, Jim will play the best songs from the album if he thinks our listeners will like them."

But there is one downside to all this. Hardcore audiophiles will be disappointed that the station is broadcast in mono, not stereo. There’s a bunch of technical mumbo-jumbo that explains why, but Atkinson says a lot of people don’t realize that a stereo broadcast over a 28.8 modem has much less frequency response than what 3WK currently broadcasts. "We’ll be using a new version of RealAudio as soon as it’s available," she said. "RealNetworks (that owns RealAudio) says that even in mono, the new player will deliver better quality sound than FM radio when using a 56K or higher modem."

That’s all good and well, but with only about 4,000 people listening to the station per day from all over the world, how does 3WK make money? "Does anybody make money on the Internet?" Atkinson asked. "Certainly not from banners. 3WK will start a few, selective audio ads in the near future, but it’s much harder to sell Internet radio advertising because there are no rating points to sell to an advertiser."

Most of the reason behind why Jim and Wanda are doing 3WK is poor folks like us, stuck here in music purgatory with no recourse on our radio. "We love bucking the system. But more than anything else, we love to read e-mail from a guy who swears that he never knew music like this existed or from people in offices all over the world who can finally listen to a radio station all day without hearing the same songs over and over and over..."

God bless you, Jim and Wanda.


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Printed in The Reader June 3, 1998.

Copyright 1998 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved