If you're going to fight the man, there's no sense in doing it halfway. You've got to go all in, bare-knuckled, willing to get knocked down and lose everything.
For Boyd Stough and Brad Cooper, that fight was about radio — internet radio, to be exact. Stough and Cooper are the duo behind Kinetic HiFi, a local, full-capacity internet radio station that broadcasts live out of space rented from the 827 on Savannah Highway and runs shows hosted by locals of all stripes, from conspiracy theorists to club DJs.
The two College of Charleston grads are the type of friends who finish each other's sentences and constantly, good-naturedly interrupt each other. They could talk about Kinetic HiFi and radio in general for hours. They're equally matched as far as passion and dedication go, but Stough appears to have the cooler head — something, no doubt, that he either learned or perfected during his Air Force years. Cooper, who is the younger of the two, has more of the firebrand about him — at the City Paper interview, he wears a T-shirt that appropriately says "Pirate Radio - Detroit." During the two years since they started the station they've become ardent believers in fighting back against the corporate radio model, led by conglomerates like Cumulus and Clear Channel, that's been bulldozing local stations for the past 15 years. Among the conglomerates' hallmarks are automated playlists, the eradication of DJs, and enslavement to the almighty record company. It's basically what you'll hear on 90, maybe even 95 percent of regular radio stations nowadays.
As anyone who listened to radio from the 1950s through the late '90s will tell you, it didn't used to be that way. The quick and dirty version of recent radio history goes something like this. In 1996, Congress passed the infamous Telecommunications Act, which reformed media laws to allow corporations to own way more radio stations than they ever could before. Clear Channel, for instance, owns more than 1,200 stations throughout the nation across all formats, from classic rock and top 40 to religious, sports, and talk. As these big media companies started gobbling up more and more local stations, the focus drifted farther away from serving the communities they were in and more toward reducing the bottom line. Hence the slow death of the radio DJ and the shift toward digital, automated playlists that follow strict programming rules. One of those rules, Cooper says, is to never play two songs by female artists in a row (unless there are multiple mitigating factors, all of which are also laid out in the rules). It's this model that Stough and Cooper want to see die.
"We feel that there's this biological need to feel connected, really connected," Stough says. "What makes local radio great, local anything great — quite frankly a lot of people pay lip service to local, and there's a reason for it — is because there's an actual legitimate connection that you can't fake. Ultimately, that's our objective. That's it, to provide people with a real connection."
"We're communal animals," Cooper adds. "That's almost — not being destroyed, but there's a gap being created there, by this homogenization and corporatization."
They didn't always care this much. The two started Kinetic HiFi back in 2011, pretty much on a whim. Stough was in the gym and ran into Rocky D, the local right-wing talk radio personality, formerly of the local AM station WTMA (he's now on WQSC). Rocky D had been fired by WTMA and was off the airwaves. "He was just bitching and moaning to me about how he couldn't get a job anywhere and how the industry had changed," Stough says. "I didn't know anything about radio at all at the time. Finally I looked at him and I was like, 'Dude — we'll create an internet radio station and we'll get you back on the air.' I had no reason at all to say that and I just did. Then I called up Brad and said, 'We're doing internet radio.' He was like, 'Well, OK.' "
And that's when, as they say, shit got real. Stough and Cooper weren't the type to half-ass anything, so they threw everything they had into developing the station — including all of Stough's substantial savings. "We started off as, if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right," Stough says. "The whole objective was to be a legitimate radio station. At no point did we fool around with just playing a playlist —"
"Or mess around in a basement or anything," Cooper finishes. "I guess the first place we actually broadcast was my dad's apartment somewhere. We figured it out all based on my laptop. We didn't use any of the third-party stuff, we just figured out how to do it ourselves, and then we moved into [our first location] on Wappoo Road. I lived on a couch, and he slept on the floor for the first three months. And we ate a lot of trail mix, broccoli, and apples. There was a solid week there where it was just trail mix," Cooper says.
"Yeah, the Dollar Store sold trail mix for a dollar a bag so we'd go in there and just buy like all of their trail mix," Stough adds, laughing. When Cooper turned 21, he and Stough went to a gas station after a long day's work to buy him his first legal beer. Then they went back home to keep fiddling with Kinetic HiFi. It was a difficult time period, but they're thankful they went through it. "It was so worth it," Cooper says. "To go through something like that has changed me immensely as a person — it was just a great experience."
They got the station up and running on June 11, 2011 with Rocky D as their first host, but the talk show veteran proved to be a fickle friend. Within a few months he was gone, having taken a job at a terrestrial (or traditional) station, leaving Kinetic HiFi without so much as a "see ya later."
So Cooper and Stough turned to the same place you go when you need free moving boxes, a roommate, or a tennis partner. "We put an ad on Craigslist. I mean, that was it — 'If you want to be a radio show host,'" Stough says, trailing off.
"We got a surprising number of people," Cooper says. "At the beginning — I wouldn't call it a mistake, but we gave people who probably shouldn't have had shows, shows. But that's OK because it's community radio, you know? It's a chance for anybody to have a show, a chance for anybody to have their voice heard. There were times when we'd cringe, but then some shows that came out of Craigslist have been phenomenal, hugely successful."
One of those is "The Bob Charles Show," a five-times-weekly hour-long program that brings on guests from the fields of paranormal studies, science, history, and health. The host, Bob Charles, is a former credit repairman from New Jersey who now lives in Charleston and started out on Kinetic HiFi talking about financial services and credit repair. That wasn't nearly as interesting as what he's doing on his current show, which just recently hosted a guest who talked about the extraterrestrials that walk among us and about being taken up on a spaceship with other human refugees. It's a huge change, but it happened without much fanfare. "Boyd was producing his show one time, and he started talking about, what was it, his first car?" Cooper asks.
"His old Gran Torino," Stough answers. "And then everything shifted. He started telling a story and started describing what it was like to be in the Bronx in the morning and what it smelled like — 30 or 45 minutes went by, and I was just lost. I was wrapped up in Bob Charles. After the show I was like, dude, I don't know what you should be doing, but it's definitely not credit repair radio. Then he had a pet psychic in the next time and after that it was over."
Now Charles is getting the very same guests as the internationally syndicated "Coast to Coast," the country's leading alien abduction, paranormal occurrences, and conspiracy radio show, which airs overnight on AM stations.
But Cooper and Stough are quick to point out that Charles is an outlier for Kinetic HiFi. "He found a niche, and he ran with it. Most of our hosts are people from the community who are just trying to make their shows successful in this community specifically, because that's what we're about," Stough says.
There's "The Cardinal James Show," for instance, hosted by Steven Cardinal and Charlie James. The show is a mix of local happenings, music, and humor. James has been in radio for 25 years, so he's seen the changes to the industry firsthand. "It used to be that we [radio stations] were there to serve the community we were in," James says. "That's not the case anymore with terrestrial radio." He became frustrated with the big business model and has enjoyed the no-limits realm of internet radio. "Internet radio is definitely part of the future," he says. "We'll start seeing a big shift toward local — I mean with us, we don't take you just to the city, we take you right down to the street corner. If people weren't unsatisfied with what they were hearing [on terrestrial radio] they wouldn't be leaving. The more choices you give people the better."
That's becoming even more important now, as Stough, Cooper, and others in the radio business foresee even more power being put in the hands of large corporations as they overtake the internet airwaves — which Clear Channel is trying to do with its IHeartRadio app — in addition to the terrestrial ones. The trick here is that internet radio is not a big moneymaker. It's actually not a moneymaker at all. Pandora, which was founded in 2000, still hasn't turned a profit, nor has Spotify, despite their huge popularity. But Clear Channel's playing both sides of the field, which gives its internet radio efforts a safety net. "It's my prediction and a lot of other people's prediction that Clear Channel's going to come out on top and really crush everybody else. What they have that nobody else has is the terrestrial side of things — the other advertising stuff they engage in, which buoys what is typically lost by operating internet radio," Stough says.
James agrees. "I think they're going to relax [the regulations even more]," he says. "I don't see it stopping. Just look at TV. TV used to be all local. Now it's all network."
And just like TV is now migrating to the internet via websites like Hulu, so is radio. Despite the seemingly all-powerful nature of the radio conglomerates, the model that they're built on is collapsing. Listenership is down, which means advertising revenue is down. Kinetic HiFi, however, continues to grow its listener base and has a small cadre of supportive local sponsors who advertise on the site and on the air. Internet radio in general is becoming more popular and more accessible. "You're seeing internet radio in cars and seeing it built into stereos in your home," Cooper says. "Soon internet is going to be everywhere. It's the future. Once that catches up, if you have true roots in the community, you're going to be hugely successful."
Since Kinetic HiFi doesn't have to answer to anyone except its listeners, they can explore anything and everything that people want and that their hosts can offer, from comedy to dance music to a typical morning show. That's what they really want to do: give people something they want to listen to. "People listen to radio now because it's just noise, but they used to listen to it because it was actually something cool that they liked," Cooper says. And with internet radio, Stough says, "You can identify the demographics no matter how small they are and how nuanced they are and you can cater to them. Simply the fact that you can cater to them is reason enough to do so."
Kinetic HiFi's hosts are happy, too. "These old radio guys, Mike Bills, Mike Tech, Joe Girard — they've come to us and done shows, and all of them are pretty great. They come in, and you can just feel the passion. They've all told us, 'This is awesome, this is what I'm passionate about.' I think internet radio has given them a chance to come back. It's bringing back the old DJ," Cooper says.
And even though Kinetic HiFi will never make either Stough or Cooper into millionaires, they're wedded to this station for better or worse, in sickness and in health, and — as they've already proven — for richer or poorer. "My dad likes to say know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, you know that song? But once we got into it, we're honest-to-god obsessed with the idea that, OK, there's going to be a vacuum. What's going to fill the gap?" Stough says. "Terrestrial radio is indeed dying, the business model is dying. What's going to fill that gap? Are honest people going to come along and create an honest business model that offers the most to the local community? I don't have faith that that will be the case. I think you're going to have people who have money that come in and squash any other attempts. So it's our responsibility right now to get ahead of that. I don't think we're going to stop it, but I think we can get ahead of it."
Keep on fightin', Kinetic HiFi.
Listen to Kinetic HiFi live, check out their archives, and find their show schedule at kinetichifi.com.