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Radio Paradise


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
May 12, 2008

When I was growing up in suburban New Jersey, I had a handful of "cool" friends. In retrospect, they weren't really cool (which is why cool is in quote marks), but they were what passed for cool in a place separated from the Big Apple (or "Fun City" as it called itself back then) by bridges and tunnels. The main thing that distinguished my cool friends from my other friends was the music they played.

My cool friends would place a stack of records on the record changer to serve as background for the evening's proceedings. Cool friends with wealthy parents would play reel-to-reel tapes instead of records. (Ironically, while in the current age of CDs and MP3s, vinyl is considered the high-quality alternative; when vinyl ruled the earth, quarter-inch tape was the medium of choice among the discerning.)

Only rarely do I talk to my cool friends anymore; instead, I have Bill Goldsmith, who doesn't even know me. Bill and his wife Rebecca run Radio Paradise (RP), the giant of Internet radio. I discovered RP because it was difficult not to discover it. My twin Rokus automatically provide a menu of the most popular Internet radio stations, and RP is always at the top of their list. After watching Garden State and purchasing all three Shins CDs, I developed a taste for the softer side of new alternative music. None of the XM stations appeared to play that kind of music on a regular basis, but RP did.

What really got me hooked on RP was its audio quality. RP has several streaming feeds that employ various encoding schemes at various bitrates. Two of them, however, are higher quality than the usual Internet radio fare: a 128 kbps AAC+ feed and a 192 kbps MP3 feed. While a standard 128 kbps feed is roughly on a par with an FM radio station under good conditions, RP's high-end feeds are far better than any FM radio that I have ever heard and comparable to many mass-market CD players. To frustrate those who would create those own music libraries using Streamripper and such, the metadata for each song (while enable the typical media player to display a song's title and artist) is offset several seconds from when it begins. I have the impression that if metadata were completely in synch with the music that the RIAA would have Bill's head.

What I like most about RP is that it is more like a cool friend than present-day terrestrial radio stations are. While Bill Goldsmith is open to feedback through his web site, he ultimately plays what he likes. The playlist is vast and eclectic and has a core that might be described as the softer aide of alternative rock. Probably because Paradise Radio is located in Paradise, California there is a definite mellow tilt to the music and British "shoegazing" music suffuses the playlist. When I tried to describe the station to a friend, he interrupted me after two sentences and said, "Wilco." Yes, there is Wilco galore on RP as well as anything remotely related to Wilco.

Despite the strong California influence, RP does make an effort to play the "best" music from a broad range of genres dating well into the past. Classic rock (Beatles, Stones, Zep, Floyd, etc.) is well-represented; hoever, the coverage of classical music and jazz leaves much to be desired and the C&W and R&B offerings are pitiful. The plentiful world music has a Latin bias, but some more exotic stuff sneaks in from time to time, like the spooky Icelandic group Sigur Rs. While Bill is cool, he lacks East Coast sophistication, so do not expect to hear Edith Piaf on Radio Paradise.

It is a good thing, however, that RP does not try to be everything to everyone. The Clear Channel and Viacom FM radio stations have homogenized themselves to death by having a computers along with a presumably legal form of payola determine their playlists. And the last thing that any of the media giants would want is for a DJ to spin music of his or her own liking. Radio Paradise very effectively breaks the Clear Channel mold, and Bill Goldsmith gets massive grief whenever he plays groups like Coldplay that are hot on the terrestrial giants. Bill also has a penchant for Tom Petty that most listeners (including me) find hard to fathom. (Of course, I am listening to RP as I write this and "Saving Grace" by Tom Petty is playing right now.)

Bill Goldsmith is himself a crossover from terrestrial radio and applies some of its tricks to Radio Paradise. While I doubt that Bill ever plays the same song twice in one day, there are several songs that are "heavy rotation" on the station and appear to get played a few times a week. Between those songs and the rock classics, it is easy for the station to grow on one. Much like visiting a cool friend, there is weird stuff that Bill plays that over time one can begin to understand why Bill likes it and begin to like it oneself.

The economics of Radio Paradise are simple: It is a for-profit enterprise that gathers revenue from donations and click-through sales of music. The RP web site is set up to make it easy to purchase RP music from Amazon and the iTunes Store. My music purchases have soared since I got the RP habit at the beginning of the year and I always make the effort to connect to Amazon through RP. Radio Paradise has no commercials and Bill and Rebecca interrupt the music infrequent to recap the last few songs or plug the station. RP pays royalties on the music it plays and the station leads a precarious existence under the constant threat that a change in the way royalties are assessed would put it out of business.

There are thousands of Internet radio stations, but RP provides a unique combination of intelligent music selection and great sound quality. As a result of prolonged listening to Radio Paradise, I find XM radio (especially in my car) to be a painful experience. Indeed, XM's closest thing to Radio Paradise, Fine Tuning Channel 76, is soulless and not even in purgatory. It would be wonderful to have dozens of Internet stations like Radio Paradise that provide great sound and distinctive playlists, each with a different focus. I am not holding my breath.

Next month's commentary begins another summer threesome. This year's focus is on directors of teen movies. (I'll explain why in the initial installment.) My first subject is Hal Ashby and his teen movie of note is the cult classic Harold and Maude. Of course, music is a must for a teen movie (Harold and Maude showcased the music of Cat Stevens), and so I will not be abandoning music entirely. John Hughes, the acknowledged master of teen movies, is coming in July and then Cameron Crowe in August. Come fall, I will turn to more serious topics.

Copyright 2008 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to