The booming voice of Bryon Patt is perfect for radio. It's energetic, crystal clear, and instantly likable, with the hint of a smile around the edges. Patt's voice has so much decibel-power that it carries well enough without the help of a transmitter. But these days his voice can be heard all across Fort Lauderdale. It also reaches the entire state of Florida, all of the United States, Canada, Russia, China, South Africa, Latvia, and pretty much any country with a working connection to the Internet.
Patt is the voice of WIDR: World Internet Dance Radio. Located at www.widr.com, the site offers five different prerecorded music shows, each mixed by a different DJ. For the "Daily Show," Patt chooses a sampling of commercial and underground dance music that's updated six days a week. (Patt rests on Sunday.) The other channels, updated weekly, are the "House Mix," the "Alternamix," and a "Feature Mix" by a guest DJ. They vary from 40 to 120 minutes each, and past mixes are archived on the site. On any given day, WIDR has twelve or thirteen hours of music to choose from.
Visitors to the site can click on a channel and listen to the audio track while continuing to use their computers for other tasks. In that sense it's much like traditional radio, which listeners can put on in the background at work or at home. The difference is that WIDR's "signal" isn't limited to a city or two.
"It's cool," says Patt, "to know that, daily, I'm sitting here in this house broadcasting worldwide."
Patt's suburban home, in a quiet section of Lauderhill, has served as WIDR's studio and business office since it began in October 1996. In a corner of the living room stand two CD-players holding a total of 300 discs, a CD-burner, a double-deck cassette player, a large mixing board, a Pentium 233 MMX with a seven-gigabyte hard drive, a 56-kilobyte modem, and a cable connection to the Internet. In the wee hours of each weekday morning, Patt can be found sitting before his microphone, mixing CD tracks with a software program, puffing on a menthol cigarette, and sipping a cup of coffee from the eternally brewing pot in the kitchen. From these humble surroundings, Patt reaches as many as 30,000 people each month in all corners of the globe.
"I get 30 to 40 comments per day," says Patt. Those are e-mail comments, of course. Patt does almost all of his communication via e-mail. He has never met the fellow who designed the WIDR site, or the DJs who do the feature mixes (from London, New York, Canada, and elsewhere), or the people who created promo spots and station IDs for him. But he knows he's connecting with his listeners. "A lot of times, people tell me they're in these areas where there are no record stores for 100 miles," he notes, "or they say there are no stores with good dance-music selections."
WIDR's large and far-reaching audience is bigger than the circulation of some national magazines. Yet Patt finds it difficult to attract advertisers to his site. "Granted," he says, "15,000 to 30,000 people a month seems like a lot. But it's not when you compare that to Yahoo!, which gets like three million a week." With that level of traffic, Yahoo! can afford to charge thousands of dollars for ad space. For Patt, advertising accounts come in only occasionally, bringing perhaps a couple hundred dollars in revenue each month.
Netmix, an Internet radio station based in New York City, claims to receive one million hits per month. But even that kind of traffic isn't enough to draw the big accounts, according to Netmix's founder, Tony Zeoli. "It's always nice to get a check for a hundred here or two hundred there," Zeoli says from his office in Manhattan. "It helps pay a bill, like the phone bill or the ISP [Internet Service Provider] bill."
WIDR and Netmix are basically shoestring operations. Zeoli works days for Simon and Schuster's Website; Patt delivers flowers. Netmix, located in a city where much of the music industry is based, charges record labels for promoting their albums on the site; Patt is just thankful that record labels send him albums for free. Neither of their sites makes much of a profit.
"But I'm building this up in the hopes that someday it will pay off," says Patt. "And I think it will."
At the moment, WIDR functions somewhat like a pirate radio station. Not in terms of legality -- Patt pays all licensing fees and guards against illegal downloading -- but in terms of programming. Unlike the helpless DJs of today's rigidly formatted FM stations, Patt can pick his own tracks and put them in whatever order he likes. If he wants to take a chance on a brand-new single or an unknown artist, he can do it. "If you were a new artist and you have a CD, you'd be stupid not to give your music to me," says Patt. "I don't charge, and you get worldwide exposure."
In January 1997 Roy Kamen created MRK Records in Manhattan in order to release singles by his wife, a dance-pop singer named Marina. An audio engineer by trade, Kamen knew nothing about the business side of the record industry, and he went to the Internet to learn. "What occurred over the next few months was me getting linked to all these dance sites," says Kamen. "And then I got in touch with Bryon at WIDR, and he started playing Marina almost daily. And I would e-mail everyone his [Web address] when he covered her. And from the Internet, we ended up getting coverage from the traditional media. Street Sound magazine picked us up, then Dance Music Authority, and then Billboard."
In gratitude Marina did some promotional spots for WIDR. Patt acknowledges, "We really pushed her. And I can't say that I did it all, but she recently got into the Billboard Top 50. I like to think I was one of the key players."
Patt, age 35, has been a speaker at the Winter Music Conference, perhaps the world's largest dance-music conference, for the past three years. He's actually a rather unlikely candidate for an Internet music pioneer, given his history. In 1989, he began volunteering for a Broward-based AIDS group called Center One but felt he could put together a more productive organization. He did so and titled it AIDS, Inc. Its mission was unique: All profits were distributed evenly among other local AIDS groups. In 1992 Patt planned a gala event in Fort Lauderdale called the Pink Ball and spent thousands of dollars on musical guests, hotel rooms, and plane fares. Unfortunately the night of the event happened to coincide with the onslaught of Hurricane Andrew. The Pink Ball became, quite literally, a disaster. Suddenly Patt found himself owing some $10,000 to various booking agents and artists.
"I told everyone, 'It will take me years to pay you back, but I will pay you.'" Patt regularly sent checks as small as $5 or $10 to his creditors until one booking agent called him with an idea. The agent suggested that Patt do some booking work around South Florida that would garner a decent commission and help pay his debts. Patt was in no position to decline. By the mid '90s, he had become well-known as a booking agent on the local music scene. Around the same time, he began looking at computers and the Internet as a way to promote the artists he worked with. The site that is now WIDR was originally intended to promote one of Patt's products: a floppy-disc "business card" that contained sound files, publicity photos, and press kits for musicians.
"I just wanted to get the pages busier," says Patt, explaining how he came up with the idea for WIDR. "I never wanted to be a DJ, I just didn't have no money to pay nobody! So I figured I'd fill in. Now, two years later, I'm still doing it, and I don't want to give it up."
Though Patt may not have been the first Internet radio operator, he certainly got in on the ground floor. Today the Internet is rife with music sites such as The Box, SonicNet, Beta Lounge, and Miami's own, the Womb.
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Zeoli, of Netmix, points out, "You can surf the Web to your heart's content and find every single genre known to man, rather than the limited bandwidth that radio offers in your local market. You only have a certain number of stations that can occupy that bandwidth. You want to listen to radio that the corporate companies have bought up and programmed so you have to hear Madonna fifteen times a day? Or are you going to go to work and punch up WIDR or Netmix while you're on the computer?"
It sounds attractive, but advertisers remain unconvinced. Kamen, whose MRK Records benefited greatly from the Internet, thinks that will change. "I could never have hoped to hit as many people as we have in such a short amount of time in any other way," he insists. "I could say, 'Well, we sold 5000 records over the Internet,' but the fact of the matter is that 25,000 people have seen what we're doing in the last month. And for buzz -- as they say in the industry -- you can't beat that. The cost per impression is virtually nothing."
If Internet radio ever replaces traditional radio, it won't be for some time. Internet radio can't be switched on in the car or taken to the beach (unless you have a laptop with a modem), and it lacks the "live" element of traditional radio. It costs almost nothing to maintain, however, and it reaches a global audience. Listeners don't have to wait for their favorite song or sit through a song they hate: They can fast-forward and rewind through the programs. In a society that spends more and more time sitting in front of computers, Websites such as WIDR might well be the radio stations of the future.
Patt certainly hopes so. "And now it brings me to that time of the day," he recently told his listeners, wrapping up a day of programming, "and you know what it is. It's time for the last track at WIDR. As always, we want to thank you for tuning in and allowing us to be part of your computer day.