Digital Music, , , , , — April 8, 2012 12:25 — 2 Comments

Mission control: how internet radio station SomaFM keeps it real

SomaFM; internet radio; San Francisco; Rusty Hodge;

Rusty Hodge, founder and programme director of internet radio station SomaFM

The San Francisco internet station pre-dates iTunes and has a global following. SomaFM founder Rusty Hodge cuts the inane DJ chatter and talks radio


Internet radio has come along way in the past 10 years. Before broadband and the advent of music sharing sites such as Pandora and Spotify, where people can now share their own playlists, online radio was your only choice if you wanted to listen to music on your desktop.

San Francisco’s SomaFM internet radio station, an eclectic network of 21 channels playing everything from underground electronica, chillout, ambient groove, indie rock, underground 80s, avant-garde jazz and lounge classics, has been on iTunes, before iTunes was even called iTunes.

Rusty Hodge, is its founder, programme director and general manager — and a one-man broadcasting institution.

“I’ve been doing stuff on the internet since 88 or 89, ” he shrugs, when I caught up with him at SomaFM’s nerve centre in downtown San Francisco. He worked for Real Audio who developed the first streaming technology in the mid 1990s and DJ’d on college radio before officially launching SomaFM in 2000, becoming one of the first internet radio stations.

As opposed to simply churning out music, SomaFM’ s playlists are carefully curated and handcrafted affairs. The music is streamed and segued 24/7 with no commercial breaks or inane DJ chatter.

“One of the things I always loved about college radio was that they don’t have any commercials. I thought it would be really good to have something like that, but whereas with college radio the programming drastically shifts after an hour, I thought we’d have multiple channels with fairly consistent programming on each channel,” says Hodge.

I have been invited into the nerve centre of SomaFM, a studio, come office suite, in a former warehouse in a hip part of downtown San Francisco off Mission.

It’s the sort of area where young geeks holding Styrofoam cups of coffee high-five you as you walk down the street. On an evening it’s a vibrant bar, club and restaurant scene catering for a young clientele all seemingly working by day, and night, on that next killer app.

It’s an apt location, as Hodge, now aged 49, but looking obscenely younger, was a young dotcommer during the first internet boom in the 90s; working as a programmer for startups when he first moved north to San Francisco from southern California.

Along with the help of eight part-time DJs SomaFM has pretty much maintained a continuous presence on air for 12 years. The station is still going strong and with over 5.8 million ‘listener hours’ a month is one of the larger internet-only broadcasters.

As we talk Hodge has four windows open on his Mac and is busy uploading and encoding playlists of up to 35,000 tunes at a time and exporting scripts to four different servers for the four channels he is updating.

In another window he is equalising the volume and bass levels on a live channel, and while all this is going on he is also reviewing music for another one of his stations on a CD sent in by a record label, as well as dealing with emails from listeners wanting to buy SomaFM merchandise.

I feel as if I am intruding in his workspace, but Hodge, with his long Robert Plant curls, goatee and chilled Californian style, makes me feel more than welcome, and is happy to well, talk radio. After all, it’s his life.

“They [DJs] all have normal jobs, they come in here, grab new music that is sent to the station on CDs from various labels, we trade music between each other and they playlist together from their laptops.

“We’re all running very virtual, the DJs connect their laptops to our playoff systems that run off a data centre downtown and they schedule all the music for the day, ” he explains.

SomaFM started, like all great startups in the Bay Area or Silicon Valley, as a hobby in the garage of his house.

One of his first DJ gigs was at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where he played his own setlist of chillout tunes on micro-powered transmitters at five in the morning as the ravers were coming down off their acid trips.

His tunes proved popular and Soma FM’s first station Drone Zone was born. Drone zone quickly established a sizeable fanbase and was followed by Groove Salad, the station’s most popular station playing a mix of ambient and chilled out beats that became a hit with techies, designers and artists who tuned in while they worked on their Macs.

“When we got going, people really started liking it, and I thought wow, there’s not much of this music out there. I already had a small ISP, soma.net, so we did some branding and a bunch of stuff came together and we registered the domain name in January 2000.”

somafm, internet radio station, san francisco, rusty hodge

The iconic SomaFM picture taken at a dotcom warehouse party in San Franciso

The iconic picture on SomaFM’s website was taken by Rusty’s wife and is from a dotcom party in a warehouse south of market district in San Francisco. The dotcom company has long since gone when the bubble burst in the early 2000s and the warehouse became a crack den for many years.

Somehow SomaFM has survived. It operates completely commercial free and relies totally on listener support, by way of donations.

During tough months, Hodge ups the fundraising ante with emergency appeals on its website or on Twitter and Facebook and loyal listeners usually rally to the cause. A third of SomaFM’s revenue comes from regular subscribers paying anything from $10 to $50 dollars a month.

“Internet radio advertising is horrible,” says Hodge. “They are all ads for dating sites, like bad banner ads, only in audio. I’m ethically opposed to doing that. I get complaints from music licensing companies saying SomaFM is not effectively monetizing the music we play. But we play the stuff no one else plays.”

SomaFM also raises money by selling mugs, t-shirts, and huddies, and has recently entered a couple of syndication deals, which are helping pay the bills.

Still, overheads are high, particularly paying for bandwidth and servers, royalties and office costs and some months the station struggles to wash its own face and goes into the red.

Hodge says his biggest crisis came when the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed in 1998. When it came into force in 2002 internet radio stations such as SomaFM were looking at suddenly paying a whopping $1,000 a day in royalties.

Hodge took the station off air for six months and was a leading voice in corralling small webcasters to fight the bill, pushing for an amendment that meant if a station was earning less than $1.25m revenue a year it pays between 10–12% of its earnings.

He testified to the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2002 that the industry association was being too burdensome.

At the time, he told the San Francisco Chronicle:  “the small guy now had the means to reach the world but couldn’t afford to pay for it.”

The new deal was based on a percentage of revenue as opposed to a multiple of revenue, Hodge explains, while flipping on another review CD. The deal was higher than they had hoped but it was affordable and SomaFM managed to scrape together enough cash to pay backdated royalties and were soon back in business. The station has not been off air since.

The deal was revised in 2008, with limitations set to 5m listener hours a month, which works out at an average of 7,800 people listening to your radio station at any given time, says Hodge. “Once you go above that you do not qualify for the small webcasters’ act.

So presumably stations such as SomaFM will have to pay top dollar to play music legally? Hodge nods, but a quirk of the bill means it only relates to listeners in the United States, and a large percentage of the station’s audience are global.

“I’m respectful of copyright, but I think copyright law needs to be completely rewritten. We pay music royalties, I think we pay too much, and I’m also opposed to paying royalists that are not distributed to the right people,” he says.

These days, he is keeping a close eye on the Sopa bill, which he describes as ”scary,” because it’s too easy to be abused.

“In the final version they had toned it down. In the original anyone could have come after us, saying we don’t have permission to play their music and seize our domain, and we would have no recourse.”

A fan in Florida worked at a big porn site in 2001 with 2GB optical connections. The porn site used it at night and people, listened to SomaFM during the day at work, this was before broadband, so he set me up with a server and streaming service. It must have saved us at least $10,000 a month

Despite the proliferation of internet channels and competition from other formats such as the growing music blog scene, Hodge reckons it is now easier to start up a station, and radio per se continues to boom.

“When we started out, renting space and data centres was hard to pull off. Because I worked at a dotcom, I had access to resources that allowed me to use equipment or bandwidth. Nowadays it’s not that hard at all, problem is getting the attention from listeners because there are so many stations. When SomaFM started, pre iTunes, there were 40 internet electronica streams, now there are over 400 on the iTunes list, and a lot of them are not very good or consistent.”

Hodge acknowledges that it would be very hard for SomaFM to take off today without a large advertising budget to get the station heard.

“A fan in Florida worked at a big porn site in 2001 with 2GB optical connections. The porn site used it at night and people, listened to SomaFM during the day at work, this was before broadband, so he set me up with a server and streaming service. It must have saved us at least $10,000 a month,” he smiles.

Will SomaFM ever go mainstream or will it stay true to its roots? After all, the station came up from the underground, launching in San Francisco during the internet boom. Its radical programming of obscure killer tunes provided a soundtrack for the young geeks zoned in on their desktops – and also the ravers out partying in the desert.

He tells me with certain glee in his voice that he is tinkering with a new station that incorporates chillout music mixed with an audio feed from the SFPD scanner.

Although he is a little sketchy on the legality of broadcasting police reports over the air, “as long as we don’t use the tactical stuff when they are busting a drug deal we should be fine,” he says, with a glint in his eye.

The idea comes from another of his successful channels, Mission Control when he broadcast the live feed from NASA on the last two shuttle missions, over trippy tunes.

One time Hodge actually hung a couple of mics outside his studio window and recorded the sounds outside adding it live into a mix, delighting listeners in faraway places with the sounds of the streets of San Francisco.

Along with other media bosses, Hodge sees the future in mobile devices. SomaFM already has a desktop and iPhone app, which he is busy upgrading, making it more social media friendly and readying it 4G networks.

“In the future, the whole experience for digital radio has to be in the car, you get in, turn on the radio and it’s playing, you don’t want to have to fiddle with bunch of things,” he says “An important development would be to have your 3G/4G account available on any device. I want my radio in my car to be hooked up without going through my phone, it should be added on so the car radio gets to use my 4G plan.”

SomaFM is already a fixture on many desktops, laptops and mobile devices, its listeners may be relatively small in number compared to a Top 40 station, but they are loyal, discernible and at the cutting edge of digital technology.

It’s late in the afternoon and I should be going, Hodge will stay at his desk pulling another 12-hour day keeping SomaFM on air. His wife is a graphic designer and shares his passion, which is just as well. The last holiday Rusty says he had was to New York last year – for an internet radio convention.

How does he sleep at night? By listening to the Drone Zone, of course.

“I look back 10 years ago and where we’re at right now and I’m very excited for the future. The goal is for SomaFM to be totally tuneinable in everybody’s car, he says.

Rusty himself has no plans for stopping; he sees 30 channels as a maximum limit for SomaFM, for both what he, and also his listeners, can handle.

Just don’t tell the San Francisco Police Department about his latest.

• This article is a longer version of Internet radio pioneer SomaFM still leading the way published by the Guardian Media Network

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About the author

Tony Myers has written 865 articles for Smart Movie Making

Fooling around with the iPhone since 2010. Taking it to the next web by writing about new media, new technology, new wave cinema and the digital revolution.

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