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Internet Radio Providers Balance Obstacles With Successes

Even though Tucson has roughly 40 terrestrial radio stations, for some, the variety offered isn't enough. As a result, some music-lovers have ventured into Internet radio, a limited but expanding outlet designed to fill what they feel is a void in the market.

There are positives and negatives to the technology. On the positive side, operating a niche-format Internet radio station can attract listeners worldwide. Sure, terrestrial stations stream on the Web as well, but if their formats basically mirror a local station, why not listen to what's closer?

On the negative side, current technology makes listening to Internet radio in the car tough to do--and the car obviously remains a major port for radio.

Carlos Zeta encountered another problem in his Internet radio venture: His Radio N format actually became too popular, and therefore became too expensive to maintain as it was then set up.

"When we first started, we only had 3,000 launches a month, but we started growing and had 60,000 launches a month. We were the No. 1 Latin station on Live365," said Zeta.

Live365.com hosts a variety of Internet radio stations, and ultimately makes its money on the success of specific signals. Zeta's format explosion was good news for Live365, but the expenses became too great, and he had to abandon the relationship.

"They have contacted us and tried to give us options, but for us to stay on the air, (they said) we had to pay them. I didn't think it was fair," Zeta said. "We were No. 1, but they were making a certain amount of money. We just don't want to go with them. We'll create our own server and go from there."

Zeta says the format's success had to do with filling a niche overlooked by Spanish-language radio in this and other markets.

"The main formats in Tucson are regional Mexican music. La Preciosa (KTZR FM 97.1) plays regional Mexican, but like oldies," said Zeta. "The format we play is very modern and very contemporary. It's for the Latinos who are born here, but they understand Spanish. We also programmed Latin pop and Top 40 that attracted audiences that didn't speak Spanish."

As popularity increased, Zeta said, he was landing interviews with significant Latin pop performers and even had financial backing from Casino del Sol. He hopes to be back online with an independent presence before the end of the year.

"We know there are a lot of people who want to listen to that format, and we proved it," Zeta said. "I don't think it will be a problem once we bring it back again. We're putting a lot of stuff together. We want to come back strong."

Meanwhile, Tony Frank hopes his Internet radio venture can help liven up jazz listening options.

"It's really important that we play real jazz, not this bubble-gum diet jazz you see at St. Philip's Plaza now," said Frank, a longtime contributor to the Tucson jazz scene. "I'm talking the real stuff. The record industry and radio industry are confusing the masses. People will say they love jazz, but won't go buy Miles Davis records. They won't listen to Sarah Vaughan. It overshadows what real jazz is and pushes it down to where it won't be listened to in 25 years. That's what this is all about: keeping that music alive, not just for the music, but for our community."

Frank's road to this point has been wrought with controversy. He's been ostracized from another local jazz outlet and even endured a court battle to reclaim tucsonjazzradio.org.

"I finally broke through from all that negativity and ambitiousness of other people trying to abscond the idea," Frank said. "What's been happening in the last year is we have a new Web site; we have contributors from places all over the country; we have listenership all over the world, because the music is what I let do the talking."

With KUAZ's format move to mostly talk, traditional jazz took a big hit in the market--Clear Channel has a smooth-jazz signal on little-accessed high-definition radio--so fans of jazz have to look beyond conventional listening options.

"It seems like there would be more interest, especially in this town, with all the multitude of musicians trying to make it," Frank said. "Now that we're breaking through the bullshit in our scene, we're finding that people are listening and listening from other places, like Prague. We have big listenership in North Carolina because of a show we do every Wednesday called Two4Jazz (hosts Gano and Beverly Evans broadcast the program from North Carolina). We just added a show called Hot Stuff with pianist Ray Templin. Joel G. does an outside-edge kind of show on Thursdays. It's progressed past a little fledgling thing."

Frank estimates that 50 percent of his radio audience hails from Arizona, but he has received meaningful correspondence from listeners beyond the Grand Canyon State, "like the gentleman named Bill who sends me e-mails from Japan saying he loves to listen to American jazz," Frank said.

He has even met fans in person. "A woman stood next to me while I was (performing) Miles, and she just nodded until the end of the song, touched my arm and said, 'I know it's not right to interrupt you while you're playing, but I wanted you to know I'm from Oklahoma, and I listen to your broadcast, and I knew that when I came to Tucson, I just had to come by and see you. It was worth every second.' She was like the coolest person I've ever met.

"This really works. That's where it really hit me: No matter what happens, you have to keep doing it."

Even though they've found some success through the Internet model, both Zeta and Frank would like to progress to the terrestrial realm if the opportunity arises.

"Internet radio is growing, but it would be great to have a terrestrial radio station," Zeta said.

Frank agreed. "The problem is Americans are bogged down with tradition, so they don't want to recognize the validity of radio unless it's actual terrestrial radio. I think that attitude is going to permeate for the next 10 to 20 years."

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