FOLKALLEY.COM, FIVE YEARS AND COUNTING
Friday August 8, 2008
Five years ago, in Kent, Ohio, public radio station WKSU turned its attention toward the Internet to see what wonders could be found in folk music on the World Wide Web. When the answer came back, "Not much," WKSU General Manager Al Bartholet put together a team and rectified the situation with FolkAlley.com, a streaming music service and website devoted to all things folk. Using the playlists from WKSU’s weekly folk broadcasts with DJ Jim Blum, the site originally offered the 24-hour music stream, along with a news blog and lists of links to artists' web pages. The music mix would be one Blum had honed during his 20 years of on-air hosting, a carefully assembled blend of traditional folk, singer/songwriters, bluegrass, Celtic, Americana, world and acoustic instrumentals.
Bartholet saw a need and when non-profit, listener-supported FolkAlley.com went live to the world on Sept. 8, 2003, the staff discovered that there were others wandering the Internet wilderness searching for their favorite music. The response was swift as a structured viral marketing campaign carried word of Folk Alley around the globe. The stream was featured by Windows Media and thousands more found the music through sites such as iTunes, RealPlayer and Live 365. An E-newsletter – the Alley Chat – made its first appearance that November as FolkAlley.com added registration to the site, sending another Folk Alley "voice" to listeners. Folk Alley began to take advantage of artists who performed in Northeast Ohio by conducting exclusive interviews for the Folk Alley Extras web area.
And the E-mails (and sometimes, even letters) came rolling in. Listeners sent stories about their love for the Internet folk radio station that could. A teacher in England who played music for his grade school class during study time. A student in Brazil discovering well-loved music that was fresh to him. Worker bees in high-rise offices listening on their office PCs, grateful for access to music that lacked to gloss of the mass-produced Top-40 machine. Hometown boys and girls and expats on every continent wrote in to say "thanks" while offering their own suggestions for the next wave of features.
Once Folk Alley had established its E-foothold, it was time to make the future now by expanding web features and hiring full-time staff. Director of Programming and Marketing Linda Fahey was snatched in April 2005 from the fertile folk ground of the Twin Cities, closely followed by Director of Production and Operations Chris Boros, a homegrown talent who had worked with Blum during his college days. FolkAlley.com itself was rehauled, adding a floating playlist, realtime CD purchasing, and new user-friendly navigation. New hosts Elena See (now music director for XM Classics), Barb Heller (from North Country Public Radio in Upstate New York) and Jeff St. Clair (also from WKSU) joined Blum in the stream. And, that was only the beginning.
As listeners asked, Folk Alley delivered. Now, Live from Folk Alley puts live concerts in the stream and on-demand. Fresh Cuts assembles songs from the latest releases in one easy-to-use sidestream. The AlleyCast podcast makes Folk Alley content portable in a Web 2.0 format. FolkSpokes highlight those in the community who go out of their way to promote and protect folk music. Partnerships with Sing Out!, XPoNential Radio and NPR have added content to FolkAlley.com and exposed a larger audience to Folk Alley's playlist. Gene Shay, the popular folk DJ from Philadelphia's WXPN, began contributing to the stream. Discussion boards and online classifieds are the latest community-driven additions to the site, which no longer requires registration to listen to the main stream.
After the music stream, the most active area of FolkAlley.com is Open Mic. Envisioned as a Web-based coffee house without the coffee, Open Mic presents amateur and beginning professional musicians with a platform to connect with Folk Alley's established community of folk fans. Music lovers in turn have a constantly renewing collection of new songs to sample. Nearly 4,500 songs by more than 850 artists have already found their way to the Open Mic listening room. Each month, another musician is pulled to the front of the site and highlighted in the AlleyCast as a Spotlight Artist.
For all of the innovative and engaging content provided by Folk Alley, it would be worth far less without the financial backing that covers multiple streaming formats, including 56k and 128k MP3 streams. From the very beginning, FolkAlley.com has gone to its listening community to help pay the very real costs involved with Internet broadcasting. Unlike a terrestrial radio station, which costs the same whether one or one hundred is utilizing the service, there is no economy of scale for Web radio. Listeners were asked to step up – and they did, responding well to in-stream pledge drives inspired by fundraisers that are a cornerstone of public broadcasting’s support. In 2006, Folk Alley went one step further by adding membership levels and benefits such as exclusive new music downloads, discounts from folk music labels, downloads of Extras and Live from Folk Alley concerts. This year saw the arrival of the most ingenious member benefit ever conceived: a link that allows those giving at a membership level access to the music streams sans pitch breaks.
What about year six for Folk Alley and what about year 26? Bartholet says, "To quote Bob Dylan, the times they are a changin'. More people than ever are streaming music on their computers – and even on cell phones. There's a new generation of folk fans hungry for as much music as they can wrap their ears around, and we plan on being there for them."
Fahey adds, "Folk music is music with heart and soul. So many of these songs have real history; they tell stories of people as they lived and as they are living today. Folk is a vital genre because there is something for everyone to connect with, and Folk Alley’s high quality standards mean that once a listener hears the stream, they're likely to return. FolkAlley.com offers an online community – a Web hang-out – that serves the folk addicted as well as the merely folk curious."
The award-winning FolkAlley.com is a member-supported Internet venture produced by 89.7 WKSU, a service of Kent State University. WKSU was the first public radio station to stream over the Web and has produced folk music programming for more than four decades. The station currently produces the Kent State Folk Festival. With nearly 90,000 registered users on every continent in more than 130 countries, FolkAlley.com offers streaming music, the Open Mic area for new music, exclusive artist interviews, live concerts, folk news, community discussion boards and more.
PR08.03 ### 8/08/08
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