September 2015

Volume 30 Number 9

Upstart - Radio Free Internet

By Keith Boyd | September 2015

The year was 1994. Ace of Bass, Boyz II Men and Celine Dion ruled the airwaves—at least on commercial radio. But up in the college town of Bellingham, Wash. (population 50,000), a plucky little radio station called KUGS FM was playing less conventional fare. From Hawaiian music to Celtic, from Funk to Metal, KUGS showcased an eclectic mix of styles, anchored by straight-up college rock and roll. The only problem? A 100-watt transmitter that lacked power to reach the entirety of the college campus, much less the surrounding area. That tiny transmitter kept listenership low, but it did little to stifle our ambitions.

I was the program director back then—a paid staff position that coordinated our schedule and trained our volunteer deejays. We were early adopters of the Internet, posting our schedule online and cultivating a community of listeners before cultivating online communities was cool. We had another staff member that year—the intense and forward-thinking Gavin Shearer (now with Apple), who had the audacious idea that we could expand our coverage area by broadcasting over the Internet. Today, that statement probably seems mundane, given contemporary sensibilities and expectations for streaming anything and everything via smart devices. But in 1994 it was absolutely groundbreaking. It was years before streaming audio would become mainstream, and the company that popularized it (RealNetworks) had yet to debut its service.

Being young, hyper and a little crazy, we decided to go for it. We found a local ISP willing to provide bandwidth, cobbled together a “coalition of the willing” among university administrators to support the project, and then chose the technology that would make it all work: CU-SeeMe, a primitive teleconferencing client available only on the Mac. We placed a webcam in the studio, pointed it at a fishbowl with our logo superimposed on it, and flipped the switch.

That day we produced our triumphal press release. “KUGS becomes first radio station in the world to broadcast on the Internet.” We sent it out over the AP Wire and became the subject of multiple media inquiries, most of them of the confused variety. “What the hell is Internet broadcasting?” was the most common refrain. We smiled, answered politely, and soaked it in, knowing that we had achieved something momentous and meaningful. Even then, we knew that this would change everything.

Our moment in the sun was brief. Within 24 hours of our announcement, we found out that WXYC in North Carolina had beaten us to the punch—by a mere two weeks. It turns out we were the second radio station to broadcast on the Internet. And adding insult to injury, WXYC was also 89.3 FM. The jerks stole our frequency! Our bubble was burst, our egos deflated. But our collective sense that we had done something important and meaningful never waned. A new era had begun, and we were among the earliest pioneers. I still get shivers just thinking about it.

KUGS eventually stopped broadcasting via the Internet—the costs were too high, and the benefits eventually determined to be too low. Plus, who needs the Internet when the station transmitter now boasts 950 watts of pure, unadulterated power? Rumor has it that all the notorious dead spots of my earlier days in Bellingham are now covered, no Internet connection required.

I hadn’t thought about all this until recently, when I made a brief stop in Raleigh, N.C., last month. There among the booming tech economy and great BBQ joints were the signs to University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. For a brief moment I considered an Animal House-style raid where I would tee-pee the rival studio for its unforgivable sin of beating us to the punch by two weeks. Instead, I chose to salute my fellow pioneers from all those years ago.

For now, I simply ask you to remember the intrepid students of Western Washington University and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, each time you stream your favorite song on Spotify, or watch “House of Cards” on Netflix. It’s been 20 years since we launched the streaming revolution, and the echoes of those accomplishments still resonate today.

Keith Boyd formerly managed the developer documentation team in the Cloud and Enterprise (C&E) division at Microsoft. Prior to arriving in C&E in 2013, he held the same role in Windows. When he’s not at work, he’s reminiscing about the past while enjoying time with his family, including his wife, Leslie, and three sons, Aiden, Riley and Drew.