New Internet Radio Station Modeled on Heyday of FM Radio

03/20/2015 08:19 am ET | Updated May 20, 2015

DJs choose songs, program to hyper-local market

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- In the birthplace of Rock and Roll, a radio station has signed on the air with an unusual format that aims to take radio forward and backward at the same time.

The internet-based station, oWOW, which started programming in February, was conceived as a throwback to the halcyon days of FM radio, when DJs cued up recordings based not on a playlist dictated by a national company, as is often the case today, but on their personal tastes and instincts.

In the 1970s, when migration from the AM band to the FM band was new, FM DJs experimented with wide ranging genres and song lengths that the tight AM radio formats would not allow. Country, rock, progressive rock, soul, Americana, R&B, jazz and pop would often end up spinning on the same turn-tables during a single DJ's show, exposing listeners to diverse set of styles and tastes.

Some broadcast professionals are not optimistic about post-broadcast radio and they bemoan the lower standards for songs needed to fill the many niche stations on internet and satellite radio. When asked to comment, Bobbi Horvath of WAKR AM in Akron offered a question. "Have you heard Sirius Radio?"

But oWOW radio, conceived by radio veterans, John Gorman and Jim Marchyshyn, aims to re-capture this historical moment and it's freewheeling, wild-west sense of possibility and combine it with the cutting edge of today's digital culture: online radio.

Where most online radio outlets, like Pandora or Spotify, use complex computer algorithms to program to the listener's established preferences and feed him or her more of what they already know and like -- oWOW takes the opposite approach and encourages input from its DJs, based on their own idiosyncratic preferences and personal discoveries.

Beyond giving DJs the freedom to suggest artists and musical genres, both the programming and the advertising on the new station will focus on hyper-local interests and tastes.

Unlike most radio stations delivered via airwaves, which are programmed and sponsored primarily by national advertisers, the station's founders say that oWow will feature local artists and bands with strong Cleveland or Northeast Ohio connections, and the advertising will be largely local as well.

Gorman pointed out that this, too, is more like radio's past, when stations were generally owned and operated by members of their local communities rather than large corporations.

In addition to seeking local advertisers to make the content more compelling for listeners, the station will sell far fewer spots, Marchyshyn said, "so that listeners never have to put up with long runs of commercials on the air." With the overhead costs significantly lower than terrestrial radio, the economics allow for this less cluttered format.

"Instead of 15 to 20 minutes of commercials per hour, like most stations sell, we'll have half as many interruptions -- maybe 5 to 6 minutes total," Gorman said. "That means a much better listening experience and a far greater probability station clients will get their message heard."

Among the DJs on the schedule so far is Ravenna Miceli, a well-known radio personality who had been on WMJI, one of Cleveland's highest rated stations.

The station will also feature popular regional DJs, Charlotte DiFranco and Steve Pappas. Susie Frazier, a local artist well-known fixture in the Cleveland arts scene DJs a Sunday show called Naked Brunch, which focuses on acoustic music to help listeners ease into their days.

Gorman says he has confidence in the new station's business model, which centers on selling advertising inventory to local companies and organizations, because the timing and the targeting are right.

Tommy Bruno, the General Manager of FM 104.1 The Summit Radio, a listener supported terrestrial station also in Northeast Ohio, acknowledges that a new era of radio is here.

"The surge of on-demand podcasting, streaming media along with the aging of baby boomers are rapidly changing the future of radio. It's not a matter of how; it's a matter of when the internet will be in every car," he said. "The Summit began looking beyond terrestrial radio nearly a decade ago and we developed KIDJAM! Radio, Rock & Recovery and Summit Flashbacks, which are streaming online."

As internet equipped cars replace the radio-equipped cars still on the road, many industry analysts agree that terrestrial radio will give way to the era of web-based radio. "So our delivery system is right and our hyper-local content is perfect for Northeast Ohio listeners," Gorman said.

Marchyshyn added that "the 17 counties that make up the region known as Northeast Ohio constitute media market that is the 18 largest in the nation. That's a nice sized market."

Could oWOW's format of hyper-local internet radio be the format of the future nationally? Radio entrepreneurs from around the country may be looking to see how this model succeeds. Something could be in the air -- or in the fiber-optic cables and cell signals.