RADIO PARADISE, the Internet radio station run by Bill and Rebecca Goldsmith from their home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, could seem like a dinosaur -- a throwback to FM radio's golden days of the 1970s, when the playlists were controlled by a select few disc jockeys, not corporate flunkies, and the audience had no choice but to trust the DJ.
Yet the idea behind the station couldn't be more current: It's the logical extension of the filtering mania that drives the Web. After all, presenting the world through a unique set of eyes has proven quite lucrative for everything from politics (Drudge Report) to celebrity gossip (Perez Hilton). Why should music be any different? Bill Goldsmith, Radio Paradise's one and only DJ, is militantly against the idea, common in the Web community, that music should be controlled by the people. On his site he plays only what he wants to play. As he tells listeners, "It's not a democracy."
Starting at 7 a.m. most days, Bill Goldsmith is at work in his second-floor office/on-air studio, creating 24 hours' worth of the playlists for which he's become revered by his listeners. Though his voice appears occasionally between songs to provide small transitions, Radio Paradise (www.radioparadise.com) is mostly an uninterrupted stream of music reflecting Goldsmith's broad tastes. He doesn't shy away from the big hits or big artists, but he's as likely to play an unsigned obscurity as he is to pick something by rock gods such as Led Zeppelin or the Who. And he doesn't stop at rock -- jazz, reggae, classical, electronica, country and world music all find their way into the mix.
For many listeners, it's a game to figure out the themes between songs. On Dec. 8, for instance, Goldsmith paid tribute to John Lennon's death by intermixing his favorite Lennon songs with Beatles covers and songs about the death of loved ones, such as "Revelry" by the band Sea Ray. Sometimes it's just a kick to hear such disparate sounds interwoven, loud and soft, old and new. Several listeners point out the time he followed Bjork with Beethoven, then played AC/DC.
Goldsmith remembers FM's golden days well -- he started on the radio in 1971 and spent nearly 30 years playing songs at stations throughout California and Hawaii. As he watched corporations wreak havoc with the freedom radio once enjoyed, he conceived Radio Paradise as his ideal station -- one where he played only music he liked and without commercials cluttering up the mix. When he moved with his wife to Paradise, Calif., in 1999, he decided to act on his dream, launching the Internet-only station in February 2000.
While Bill Goldsmith creates the playlists and maintains the website, Rebecca handles the business affairs and sifts through the hundreds of songs submitted by listeners and record labels, passing on to Bill only the music she really likes (usually about 1%).
Taking control of the music out of the hands of the listeners in an age of ever-increasing interactivity, when people have come to expect everything on-demand, and to do it all without commercials, is not a business plan the typical Silicon Valley venture capitalist would jump at, but the Goldsmiths are not typical Web entrepreneurs. As Bill Goldsmith puts it, "We're not noncommercial, we're anti-commercial."
The couple is approached almost daily, they said, by companies interested in advertising on the site or on the air. They've turned down every offer. In their view, commercials ruin the listening experience and aren't that effective anyway.
As a society "we've gotten pretty numb to advertising," Rebecca Goldsmith says. "Most of it is insulting anyway."
Radio Paradise, however, is not a pirate radio station, and royalties must be paid. To keep the songs playing, the Goldsmiths have made the site 100% listener-supported, and listeners are invited to contribute however much they feel is appropriate to keep the operation going. Though money contributions are solicited on-air, listeners are never given a hard sell. It's like public radio without the intensive pledge drives. The Goldsmiths admit they probably won't ever get rich running the station, but it's a labor of love.
Due to additional royalty fees imposed on digital broadcasts under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Radio Paradise must pay an estimated three or four times what a typical FM station pays to the recording industry, but, Bill Goldsmith says, "enough people enjoy the station that we can make a living."
Currently, that audience stands at around 10,000 registered users and 20,000 to 30,000 additional unregistered listeners in a given week, with between 12,000 and 15,000 listening at once during peak times. Listeners hail from places as disparate as South Africa and China. It's an audience that's grown steadily and has been achieved entirely through word of mouth. The Goldsmiths do not pay for advertising.
Because of the personal nature of the station's ownership and the listeners' financial investment, the segment of the audience that's become active in the site's message boards is close-knit and extremely watchful of the station's fortunes.
"We're all very protective of Bill and Rebecca," said John Coyle, a Radio Paradise supporter and technologist from Denver, Colo., who has never met the couple in person. "This is a very special place we've discovered. We all know it could end one day, but while it's here, we're going to cling to it."
Like most Web-based subcultures, the Radio Paradise audience is made up of people from disparate backgrounds who have forged tight friendships across continents and, on occasion, gotten hitched. But many say it's the only Web community they participate in, one that feels more adult than the MySpaces of the world.
The typical Radio Paradise listener tends to be older. For many, they'd fallen out of touch with contemporary music as they grew out of radio's target demographic.
"I was in a musical wasteland," said Susan Elftman, a Florida-based architect who listens in her home office.
She heard about the station from an acquaintance and responded immediately to what she heard. "You can hear Gorillaz or Poe and then Led Zep or something from 20 years ago."
"The charts in R&R; and Billboard are charts of what are being pushed the hardest by the labels," Bill Goldsmith said. "That doesn't influence what we play on the station."
For now, Radio Paradise is hampered only by technology. To listen, you need to be connected to the Internet, and for most people, that means sitting at a computer. Mobile entertainment is currently dominated by big business, with companies like Verizon offering pre-selected music choices on their phones. But Goldsmith sees a time just a couple of years from now when the right mobile device will come along.
"I don't think [the Verizon] approach will work," Goldsmith said. "What customers want is access to anything. All these private, pre-selected selections of content will go away."
And finally access to Radio Paradise, if not its playlists, will be in the hands of the people.