Bluegrass goes international with help from the Internet

May 06, 2007|By Keith Lawrence | Keith Lawrence,Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer

OWENSBORO, Ky. -- The folks at Gerard Hilferty and Associates of Athens, Ohio, couldn't have envisioned anything like this.

When the company crafted the "interpretive master plan" for the International Bluegrass Music Museum in 1989, they recommended a "working radio studio/sound studio."

The plan called for a "restored 1950s radio station exhibit with capabilities of uplinking with local National Public Radio affiliates."

On May 1, the station - Radio Bluegrass International - finally signed on from the museum.

But it's a long way from a 1950s radio station.

RBI bills itself as the first international bluegrass radio station on the Internet.

"There are only three or four Internet bluegrass stations and none features music by foreign bands - unless it's a Canadian band," said Mike Lawing, the museum's assistant director and head of its radio project.

"We want a lot of international bluegrass," he said. "We'll be running archived bluegrass radio shows from Japan, the Czech Republic, Australia, Luxembourg, anywhere we can get them. People can submit old radio shows and we'll store them in our archives to use."

The shows won't be dubbed into English.

"We want people to hear them in their original language," Lawing said.

Eventually, the station will target its programming by time zones with programs aimed at Asia, Africa and Europe during hours when people there are most likely to be listening.

"We have station breaks and promos already in Gaelic, Ebo, Zulu, Chinese and Spanish," Lawing said. "We'll be adding more languages as soon as we can record them."

Rob Calhoun, RBI's program director and engineer, says Internet radio today is about where FM radio was in 1970 - before it exploded to dominate the airwaves.

The 1970s, which some fans remember as a golden age of FM radio, was a time when disc jockeys played what they wanted, including album cuts not released as singles and sometimes entire albums.

In 1978, FM became mainstream, surpassing AM in both numbers and audience.

"With cell phones having Internet access now, we're on the verge of breaking through to a mass audience," Calhoun said. "In five or six years, I think we'll be on par with terrestrial radio."

But for the time being, he said, "We're hoping to get onto office computers with people listening while they work."

A link to the station is posted on the museum's Web site - www.bluegrass-museum.org. The virtual grand opening is May 18.

Eventually, the station will go to a $3 monthly fee for listeners.

But Lawing said a $40 membership to the museum includes a free subscription to the Internet station.

It also includes free admission to the museum, a guest pass, a bumper sticker, a 10 percent discount on all museum purchases and a discount on three-day passes for the museum's annual River of Music Party.

"We'll be experimenting to find a way to make it affordable without losing money," Lawing said. "We can't sell advertising, but we can take corporate sponsorships like NPR does. It's a good deal for companies that want to do business outside the United States."

He's also looking for archived versions of American bluegrass radio shows like Memphis' "Shelby County Farm and Poultry Show."

"It's a great bluegrass show that's not on the Internet," Lawing said. "Nobody gets to hear it outside the Memphis area."

"We'll also have live performances from the museum as well as interviews with people touring the museum," he said.

Calhoun said the museum has already loaded between 2,000 and 3,000 bluegrass tunes into its digital files.

But that's just the start.

The museum's archives have between 7,000 and 10,000 albums - in the neighborhood of 100,000 tracks - from the 40-year collection of the late Bill Vernon, a bluegrass disc jockey who is a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Honor.

The archives also contain a tape of the first three-day bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Va., on Sept. 3-5, 1965.

"With a lot of this material, this will be the only place you can hear it," Lawing said. "Our music is not based on charts or playlists. We'll be playing historical recordings and live material from festivals. We have no competition and nobody to model ourselves after."

The station will have an advantage that broadcast radio doesn't.

"We'll be able to track exactly who's listening, how long they listen, where they're from and what times they listen," Lawing said. "We'll know exactly how many listeners we have."

The station will include links from every song that's played to a site where the CD can be bought - if it's available on CD.

Any band that joins the museum can have a link to its own Web site, so fans can buy the music directly, Lawing said. "Or we'll link to Amazon.com or sites like that."

If musicians are passing through Owensboro, he said, "We can interview them, play their CDs or let them pick in the studio."

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