How did the idea for a radio station targeting the Cannabis enthusiast come about?
Back in 1994 and 1995, we had bought some time on a suburban Chicago radio station (WCBR) to do overnight sports programming. We also had two hours from ten pm until midnight to fill, and as we were kicking around ideas of how to transition from their music to our stuff. One of our friends suggested we do a “free form rock” show, and even offered to recruit a couple of his buddies who used work with him at a “progressive” rock station in the early seventies. They brought in albums from their personal record collections, I purchased a couple of turntables, and added some of my favorites like David Bowie, Santana, and Frank Zappa to the mix. That was the original Acid Flashback radio. The audience loved it. The phones rang non stop with requests and compliments. And yes, a lot of weed was smoked before the show and during commercial breaks. Ray Manzarek of the Doors, Neil Innes of The Rutles and Bonzo Dog Band (he was also the minstrel in Monty Python’s Holy Grail), and Phil Proctor of Firesign Theatre all made appearances on our show. It was a great run, but the owner eventually sold his station, and we were out.
Fast forward to 2011, when I ran into an old friend from the WCBR days who was streaming his own rock stations. He was working with software from a programmer in New Zealand, that would allow you to program a 24/7 station. It is not easy to pick out music for a three-hour show, five days a week. Imagine that task of selecting a week’s worth of music. That’s 168 hours of programming, with an average of fourteen songs an hour. Not to get overly technical, but our music library is divided into song types A, B, C, Covers, Live Hits, and Soundtracks (long, ten plus minute songs or very obscure tunes that need to be heard in “off” hours.) So, using the software, we created an algorithm to mix up the music in a pre-arranged manner. Then I tweak the resulting playlist to my liking. We also sprinkle in pop culture sound bytes from movies, TV shows, and newsclips. I decided to use the same name from our old show – Acid Flashback. A benefit I had not counted on, was that iTunes Radio, the first entity to carry our feed, lists their stations alphabetically. Of the 240 stations in the “classic rock” sub-genre, we are the 11th in the list. iTunes is still our top source of traffic.
You have a slant of rock and covers of classics playing on the station. Where does this influence come from? What is the feedback from your listeners?
First of all, the listeners love it. That is the number one thing the listeners tell me. Unfortunately, most “traditional” stations don’t give the listeners enough credit. They’re so focused on playing the same 300 songs over and over again, they lack imagination. When I go to live concerts, I love it when bands play music in deference to other artists. Take for example the Rolling Stones. They have so many hits, yet they still will play music from the blues artists they covered when they first started as a group. There are two kinds of cover songs, faithful renditions, like Todd Rundgren’s version of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” or Devo’s outrageous presentation of “Satisfaction” by the Stones. So, I scour my resources for covers of popular rock songs. The jam bands like Phish, Umphreys McGee and Widespread Panic are well known for extended covers of Led Zeppelin, Traffic, and Talking Heads songs. Shazam is invaluable if I’m driving in the car, and hear something I like.
What makes your radio station Acid Flashback different from the others?
Two things mainly, we’re different than a traditional over-the-air FM station in that our music library is much, much larger than the average commercial station. A “classic hits” station might rotate a few hundred songs. That leads to a lot of repetition. My on-air library is more than 10,000 different songs by 2000 assorted artists and bands. No song will repeat more than once a week. Some tunes air as infrequently as once a month. Secondly, my station differs from many online stations in that we use the software program to make it sound like a traditional radio station. So if you’ll excuse a little radio jargon, we have “production elements” and a voiceover announcer, to go along with the music to give it a more professional sound. Some Internet stations plays their songs in a totally random order. There are even personalized greetings from some of the artists themselves.
Our programming software allows us to “daypart” the music. Thus, in the morning it’s “light and trippy” with the Cat Stevens, CSNY, Jackson Browne, Simon & Garfunkel, etc. Then it transitions to a “heavier” sound over the course of the afternoon and early evening with the Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Nirvana. During the late night and weekends, we include a lot more of the obscure music, the long ten and twenty-minute songs that no traditional station would dare play. “Echoes” by Pink Floyd is a 22-minute classic that takes up an entire side of the album “Meddle.” “Supper’s Ready” from “Foxtrot” by Genesis is another fabulous long song that no ordinary station would dare play. But we do. That’s also when we try out songs by unknown artists, and play our experimental, progressive rock, and jazz.
What is the profile of your average listener?
85% Male, baby boomers, aged 45+ However, there is a secondary peak of listeners, who are kids of boomers and grew up in households where classic rock was played frequently. Additionally, we have listeners from more than 130 different countries around the world, with slightly more than 50% from the US.
How do you currently promote the Cannabis themed station?
Our current marketing budget is rather small, so we target specific rock themed Facebook groups and a lot of “Now playing tweets” Word of mouth helps too. We are planning to be more aggressive going forward. In 2018 we developed the InternetFM app, that combines Acid Flashback and 24 other rock stations in one place. It’s easy to use and can be configured. That’s where our focus will be going forward. Also, we’re willing to let websites stream our station for free. The more listeners the better.
In the era of the internet there is a lot of online competition in the digital music space, you are competing against some big guns like Spotify and Apple. Why is your station different?
For starters, Apple and Spotify are streaming services. You choose what artists you want to listen to, and build a personal library, or create playlists. They will often make suggestions based on your music tastes. It’s active listening. On the other hand, streaming online stations are more like SiriusXM. They have hundreds of channels, with specific formats. Grateful Dead, Deep Tracks, Classic Vinyl, Jazz, New Wave, and more. We combine elements of many formats in a single station. Plus, if you don’t like what I’m playing, you have 24 other stations to choose from in our app. All for the low, low price of free! It’s like cable. 500 channels, of which most people watch fewer than a dozen different stations. Why pay for what you don’t use? It’s the same thing with TuneIn. 17,000 stations. Who’s going to listen to all that? At some point it just becomes a lot of clutter. So instead, we cherry pick the best the Internet has to offer.
You mention your radio station is ad free, this is great right but ads make money. Where is the money angle on this?
We have listeners scattered all over the planet. I can’t do much for the local pizza parlor, when 99% of my audience is outside the immediate area. Home Depot and GEICO don’t care about the non-US audience. Although there are companies that aggregate a lot of smaller stations like mine, I do not want to give them four to eight minutes of inventory each hour. We know that typical listener behavior is to switch stations when they hear commercials. Plus, as a listener myself, I hate the annoying pop up ads on the mobile phones. So we’re playing the long game. Except for music royalties, the remaining operating costs are fairly low. Some of the listeners donate to help defray expenses, and eventually we will offer a paid version of the app, with a ton of cool features. The growth of Netflix and Spotify has proven that people will pay for ad free content. We will just charge a nominal amount, such as $1.99 or $2.99. Not a bad deal, a month’s worth of music for the price of a fancy coffee.
Who chooses the music for your station and how do you identify from your listener base if the music is “sticky” with your audience?
At this point in time, I’m judge, jury, and arbiter. When we started, I “borrowed” about 9000 digitized songs from the person who help me get started. Many were items I already had on CD or vinyl, so I didn’t have to rip them a second time. I literally spent six months, a few hours a day, going through every song to chose what I wanted to keep, and what I wanted to leave out. He had a bunch of cheesy stuff from the eighties that I didn’t feel would fit the format. On the other hand some bands in the list I might have overlooked, such as 10cc, Blur, Hary Nilssion, Horslips. Then, I went back and filled in the gaps. For instance, I added all the Jimi Hendrix studio material, every Rolling Stones album through Tattoo You, and a lot more David Bowie. I also purposely went out looking for interesting covers of rock songs to include. At present, we have more than 700 songs in that genre. But, the addition and subtraction of music never stops. Music labels and publicists send me press releases on new bands every week. I make an effort to screen as much as I can, and add ones that fit the format. Occasionally, I get tired of hearing a particular song, so I put it in a “hold” file to give the listeners a break. The bottom line is that what you hear on the station is mostly a reflection of my taste in music, which runs the gamut from the great blues artists like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, to classic rock of the sixties and seventies, along with new wave from the eighties, Rush, AC/DC, a little Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins from the nineties into current artists like Radiohead, Tame Impala, My Morning Jacket and more. I also like great jazz, so there’s a little Miles Davis and John Coltrane, mostly in the late night slots. If my audience could handle it, I’d toss in some selected rap and hip-hop, but they aren’t quite ready.
With conventional radio stations, the audience is a bit different from the average Cannabis enthusiast. What are the major differences in your audience?
You mean apart from the commercials, which are a complete buzzkill? You’re just going to hear a lot of stuff that doesn’t air on conventional stations, as you so correctly state. Unfortunately, if you are in Houston, Atlanta, Detroit, Phoenix, or Seattle, you’re going to hear virtually the same playlists on classic rock radio in those markets. There’s zero originality. When I grew up, disk jockeys had a lot more control over what they played, and each and every station had a unique personality. A lot of this music, especially the material from the sixties and seventies was created under the influence, and was intended to be heard that way. We’re just trying to bring that vibe back. Go catch a big buzz, and listen to my station, or Handcrafted, or Planet Radio on the InternetFM app. You’ll see what I mean.
From what I can tell, a lot of the listening takes place during the day. So the natural assumption is that people are listening at work. With the addition of the mobile app, we want to make the experience portable. In the car, plugged into the audio system at home, on headphones, or outdoors with a blue tooth speaker.
5 year plan for InternetFM?
We want to growth the audience for both the station and the app. Add more stations, lots more features. We’d like to enable listeners to give better feedback. Most services have a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” button to rate a song. In our opinion, that feature needs more options. What if you like the artist, but don’t care for a particular song? What if you want to hear more artists in that genre? What if you want to ask the DJ or station owner a quick question? So those are all things on the drawing board. That, plus a few others I can’t discuss. When we have a large enough audience, we will split the app into a no-frills free version, and a paid option with all the bells and whistles. Our plan to charge a nominal amount, as mentioned above. For the price of a Starbucks coffee, you will get 40, 50, or 60 hand-selected stations and a super cool player. Even the free version will be ad-free, it just won’t be very customizable. Ideally, stations would be begging us to ad them to the app. Sort like a very exclusive radio club.
What are your top 10 songs that you tend to lean towards?
That’s a tough question for someone with 10,000 songs in the radio library and another 20,000 in my personal collection. I’d rather give you a list of my favorite artists – Pink Floyd, Genesis (Peter Gabriel era), Grateful Dead, Miles Davis, Jefferson Airplane, U2, Rolling Stones, AC/DC, David Bowie, Talking Heads. A new artist that I really like is King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard from Australia. Very talented group, very prolific.