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Radio InfoWeb History – Version 1.0: The Inception

Hey kids! For a long time your Uncle Rex has been wanting to tell the story of how Radio InfoWeb began. Today I couldn’t think of anything else to do but work, so I decided to take a few minutes and start the process. In my challenged and tortured method of writing, a start can be the beginning of endless attempts to finish. We’ll see how it goes… let’s go back to sometime around 1995, give or take a year or two.

Our story takes place long before Gus Mason, Dr. Octopus, Tyrone, and Riff Raff arrived. I was in the midst of a string of cool day jobs that spanned many years. I was also involved in a few start-ups during that epoch.

Desperation is the Mother of Implementation

In a small office room, packed with papers and computers, and paneled with cheap dark fake wood paneling, Radio InfoWeb was hatched. It didn’t have a name yet. The room was next door to where the first studio, 1A, would later be built on the 438th floor of the building that would later be named “InfoWeb Broadcast Center”.

I was hunched over a Sun Sparcstation. I forget what model it was, but it had a huge screen and high-res graphics. It was something like 1995. My Siamese cat “Chaiya” had died, and I was between jobs. Life was good, and life was bad all at the same time. Mixed with grief at the loss of my dear friend, the world had seemed to gel and become still and silent. I wish I could better describe how it felt, but in this moment of writing, I can only say that it affected everything: my body: tense, my mood: distant, my perception: narrowed.

I couldn’t concentrate on any of the tasks before me. I thought “I really need to think of something nice, something that will break me out of this”. I tired hard, but failed. My mind started drifting back to my early radio days, before college, out on Long Island, where I had held forth on a pirate FM radio station using a homebrew, but fantastic mixing console, and an odd collection of vintage equipment. The console was patterned after Gates and RCA mixing boards we’d seen, and we’d incorporated the best features of each. It was the best radio mixing board I’ve ever used!

None of us at the pirate station, using badly chosen call letters “WTTW”, had practical experience with real broadcasting.  We were, however,  pumping out a pretty good, if self-admittedly experimental freeform radio sound. I had gone onto college in 1971, and completely made over the college radio station there, taking it from carrier-current AM into the Stereo FM world, and regaling the college audience with my budding freeform radio skills, learned from listening to the creators of that format in the New York radio market, and practiced on the pirate station.

I had started getting jobs at the commercial radio stations in the college town, helping with the technical chores and DJing and generally making myself as useful as possible, all the while learning. I got a great gig at WEAV, an AM/FM that was just in the process of moving from historic studios in the center of town, where the FM tower was located, to a larger stand-alone building out by the AM transmitter and its three towers (that appeared to reach the sky as in the Fourth Tower of Inverness…). The FM side of the station was automated using a combination of tape cartridges and 14″ reel-to-reel monsters controlled by primitive electronics of the time. It was dead and dull sounding. The AM station was lively, but played Country-Western. I deviously mixed in as much Allman Brothers and the like as possible: listeners approved. I dreamed as wisps of herbal smoke wrapped around my head. Dreamed of a radio station playing crafted freeform sets. The DJ’s would put extra energy into the construction of the music sets, add in their freeform raps and rants, to achieve a higher level of quality than possible with live on-air. Then, hand that produced material over to an automation system. Live programming could be intermixed, and the result could be, as I imagined it, a spectacular FreeForm sound!

I snapped back to the “present”, hunched over the Sun workstation. I ached with grief. But, I thought, the workstation had the ability to play clips of low-quality audio. Not really listenable, but that was all technology could provide at the time. Even though I knew I would only be producing a demonstration, or prototype of what I’d been dreaming of for years, I started writing code.

I wrote code for several days straight, locking myself away from my wife and the world. My test “library” of music and test content: ID’s, jingles, and so forth, was very limited, but enough to get the code working. The ID’s I made myself, although the station really had no name yet. The jingles were bits of music I’d vacuumed up on the ‘net. Soon my malcreation was doing station breaks, back-fills, and even net-joins to the clock (the latter features were never even used in future versions of the software). At the completion of my crash coding binge, my prototype was simulating a radio station with a tight, to-the-clock format. And it could run forever, incorporating up-to-the minute news and content fetched from the Internet. There was just one problem: the audio quality was mono, and terrible, due to the limitations of the technology and the Sun workstation. Another limitation was disk space. Although I’d maxxed out the Sun over several disk volumes (limited to 4GB at the time), there was limited space left after the operating system and other stuff I needed for work that paid the bills. The prototype sounded repetitive due to the lack of material, and as it had been running non-stop over tinny low-fi speakers for several days, my wife was ready to kill me (on a later date, she would be successful; but for different reasons).  My miscreation was version 1.0 of what would later become Radio InfoWeb, but I had to put it aside for a short while, and get my life going again.

My wife screamed “shut it off!”. And I did.

Footnote: I believe this original implementation of Radio InfoWeb automation still exists somewhere, and perhaps some day will be trotted out for your perusal.