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Sometime on Monday, March 23rd WOXY’s front page splashed the sad news. “Due to current economic realities and the lack of ongoing funding for WOXY’s operations, we’ve been forced to suspend our live broadcasts as of March 23rd.” The initial shock was quickly tempered by remembering that WOXY has had its fair share of trouble over the last six years. Since 2004 the internet-only radio station has been sold three times, each sale followed by uncertainty and finally saved by private investors. WOXY, as a mid-sized media outlet struggling with the changing landscape of distribution, is just one of many companies constantly needing to reevaluate its model in order to sustain itself.
Founded in 1983 by Doug and Linda Balogh, 97.7FM benefited from a powerful signal (3,000 watts according to Programming Director Mike Taylor) and its proximity to college campuses in Cincinnati, Ohio. Around 1998, it began its slow journey into cyber space, streaming its programming as an experiment. Finally nearing retirement age, after years of refusing generous offers, Doug and Linda Balogh sold the broadcast license in 2004. The terms of the sale made sure to keep “97X,” the station’s vast musical library and its tagline “The Future of Rock ‘N Roll.” The mom and pop owners hinted at their hope of radio by keeping the brand and within a short time, WOXY was saved by an anonymous source, what business culture refers to as “angel investors.” The sale and new ownership prompted a move to Oxford, Ohio and with that, it became an internet only radio station with live DJ’s hand-picking the music and hosting the air shifts. Not only was this a radical move for an established institution, it was further cemented into the media history books by its success. With a considerably smaller budget than other, larger webcasts, 97X is considered on par with household names like KEXP and The Current. “KEXP and The Current have six times the budget that we do. We never had the equity, resources or access of stations like that but we are still equated with them,” says Taylor, who has been an employee of WOXY for 20 years.
Two years later in 2006, over objections from the staff, WOXY moved to a subscription based model, where listeners would pay in order to listen. This was an attempt to offset increasing budget deficits and operating costs, but the switch proved temporary. “The online audience was tremendous at first, and it peaked eight or nine months after the switch. Unfortunately, I saw a steady decline in listener numbers from then on,” says Taylor. He says the falling numbers only got worse, “Subscription drove away the majority of the listeners.” That happened in early 2006, by August the pay-to-stream idea had failed. Once again WOXY had to close its doors and its future was uncertain.
The late 2000’s not only saw the beginnings of an embrace of online media by historical outlets, but witnessed internet upstarts taking risks. Lala.com, a streaming music subscription service, itself just coming out of its invite-only beta testing, purchased WOXY in September 2006. It could have been seen as an early adopting strategy by an edgy company further moving the music industry in the right direction, however, the reality was not that great. “There was an attempt at starting a blog, but the efforts were not as strong as they should have been,” says Taylor. Meanwhile, the frontline DJ’s and programmers strove to integrate new media into their product, but their bosses were hesitant. “The problem was not the product, but the delivery. A solely online identity with live DJ’s – I don’t know if there’s an audience for that. Online listening to anything that is not Pandora, is skewed older, while cutting edge music skews younger. WOXY, which cuts that difference…there is a disconnect there.” Taylor, being a broadcast veteran continues, “There has to be a larger scope with additional content, a one-stop place, and DJ’s hand picking music for a stream, I’m not sure if there is an audience for that. “
Still, a brand with a loyal audience, strong name recognition and a deep library of music should be able to thrive. Joe Long, a DJ at WOXY for three and a half years, loves the idea of curating for his listeners and thinks WOXY’s live, subjective format takes a little longer to warm up to, but is rewarding. “With the growth of technology and blogs for example, music is readily available to the consumer and allows them many options. People can listen to almost anything they want, whenever and wherever they choose. Because of this, in order to stand, you have to gain peoples trust with your recommendations and with your voice. Once you do that, they will be back for more.” Ali McDonald, a club DJ and former WOXY listener, confirms that. “I listened to it during the day while I worked at my computer. The music was consistently good. At the time my other primary online music source was the WFMU stream but my interest in listening to WFMU would change depending on which show was on. I knew with WOXY, however, that I could listen at any time.” No longer able to listen at work, McDonald as found other ways to find new music. “These days, I learn about music primarily from blogs and recommendations from friends. I really like it when websites compile their new music into an embedded music player, like RCRD LBL and Pitchfork.” It’s this time gap, the amount of seconds it takes to click out of one window and on to the next to get to what you want, that all media is struggling to fight. It literally takes a couple of seconds, but that difference is what will make or break any new company. Currently, Pitchfork uses Lala.com as its embedded music player for all its album reviews.
The most recent purchase of WOXY by Future Sounds Inc, was intentional in its attempt at bringing a throw-back distribution model like live, human-curated radio to younger audiences. Lala.com, while saving 97X from evaporating, did not force any changes or help WOXY succeed. Link exchanges to purchase music heard on the station directly seemed to be the only tangible difference, and in early 2009, Future Sounds, Inc . purchased the company. However, this transaction was done with the intent on making huge relocation and repositioning changes. Based in Los Angeles, Future Sounds manages bands and promotes events. John Mascarenhas is currently in charge of handling business between FSI and WOXY. “Future Sounds is a media company whose prime focus is giving small and unsigned acts mass distribution. We had a radio show [on WOXY] that focused on those acts.” The established partnership and vision to expand WOXY’s audience made making changes an easy decision. “The goal was to move WOXY to a stronger market where they could have more access to touring artists, the ability to sponsor/present more shows, create more original content (lounge acts) that could then be syndicated across the web. Austin was a perfect fit because the local music scene is dominated by ‘indie’ music and you have two major festivals (SxSW and ACL) annually that bring great artists directly to our doorstep….not to mention a robust local music scene that does not get the coverage it deserves.”
A move from Ohio to Texas was ambitious, but Joe Long thinks it’s still a good idea. “When we moved to Austin the city really embraced us. We moved into a great space in a great location and had our sights set on taking everything up a notch. Nothing changed about what we did, except we had two more competent full timers to help make it happen. The intentions were excellent but in the end it was the lack of funding that held us back.”
Despite the setbacks of starting over three times and facing flash changes in the music industry, WOXY and radio still have their devoted followers. Zachary Hersche is 23 years old and made a mini-documentary about WOXY in 2007 (video embedded at the end of the article). “There is a whole lot to like about WOXY. The DJs love what they are doing and I have been turned onto band’s I have never heard before because WOXY played it. I think radio still matters to a lot of people. Radio stations are realizing they need to take advantage of technology and are finding new ways to advertise besides audio commercials. Radio, newspapers, magazines, and TV stations all do it. WOXY is different though. They do their job because they love it. They are playing the music they love, unlike corporate radio that only cares about money, not the music they play.”
The latest bout of dead air could be just another one of the company’s temporary closures. The staff I spoke to all allude to current negotiations being made and they all have a hopeful attitude. Mike Taylor, despite being exhausted by all the changes, wants to see something happen. “I would never count this place out. In my opinion, the structure of what we do needs to change. The brand is strong, admired and loved but can’t continue to exist the way we’ve been doing business. The recent owners had good ideas but didn’t have the plan or the resources to enact that plan.” In our conversation, Taylor inquires about CHIRP, and when I confirm we are all volunteers, he seems validated. “I wouldn’t do this without getting paid and my colleagues wouldn’t. I’m compensated for a well crafted, well done product, and it’s our owner’s responsibility to get it out there.” Macscarenhas from Future Sounds, Inc., confirms this, “WOXY will be back on the air soon…there are too many people that love the station whom are already working on our behalf to make that a reality.”
In the meantime, a cursory search on Twitter.com for #woxy finds many results, from people lamenting its current state to those promoting their own streaming broadcast. What you won’t see is a public that will settle for inconvenience. An all encompassing, one-stop place for music and information has yet to bubble to the top, but we are trying. When looking for music to spin, Ali McDonald, aka DJ Reaganomix, isn’t going to wait. “One of my favorite things about internet based radio stations as opposed to traditional radio stations that stream online is that DJs don’t talk as much, and so it’s less talk more rock.” If the audience won’t wait, then the eventual king of its distribution shouldn’t either. Here’s to counting the seconds.
WOXY DOC from Zachary Herche on Vimeo.
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