The coolest local site I've found so far is PopFreeRadio.com. It's comparable to KRBZ 96.5 (the Buzz) but fresher. Site founder Chronic the Hedgehog (real name: Justin Bale) of Overland Park prides himself on breaking songs — and bands — before the Buzz. He claims that Pop Free did that with recent tracks by TV On the Radio and Nine Inch Nails. The site introduced me to Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin.
An early disciple of Buzz jock Lazlo, Chronic complained on that station's message board last year about 96.5's increasingly Top 40-tinged playlist, and he even sent in a pilot he made for a program that he hoped might restore the Buzz's indie cred. Ignored by the station, that pilot became the prototype for Pop Free, which launched last Halloween.
True to its influence, Pop Free comes off endearingly belligerent and stoned. Chronic's own afternoon show, The Session, kicks off at 4:20 p.m. Eastern time (so he can celebrate the magic time with potheads nationwide). It's a three-and-a-half-hour hit of punk, hipster rock and KC bands such as the Architects, Shudder and the Republic Tigers.
Although the 14 Pop Free DJs pull from a library of 20,000 songs, repetition seems to dilute the stream, especially if you find yourself tuning in at the same time every day. But save for sacred '90s acts such as Sublime and Nirvana, Pop Free's playlist remains fairly uncorrupted by stuff you've heard a million times on Top 40 radio. Chronic pulls tracks out of rotation as soon as Top 40 stations co-opt them. "Anything that could have been played on Mix 93 [KMXV 93.3], we stay away from," he explains. Amen.
The three 20-something punks behind KCCast.com also see themselves as champions of the underground. Ian Jennings, Miles Ramsay and Bobby Karr play music by very young musicians and bands that very young people are into. The playlists can be hard to get through if you're accustomed to good production and tight musicianship. A KC Cast is about the only place you're likely to hear a song by little Austin John of Wathena, Kansas. Talk about pop-free.
The KC Casters have released one or more "episodes" of local music, music-related banter and band interviews every week since February. The podcasts themselves sound professional, despite sophomoric inside jokes, and are available for streaming or download from MySpace and iTunes.
Like Pop Free, KCOnlineRadio.com streams 24 hours a day. It's been around for about a year and highlights station manager Troy Schell's concept of bluesy "Kansas City rock." One act he believes defines that: Puddle of Mudd.
Fortunately, Schell doesn't play major-label bands. Most of what I hear on KC Online is straight-up blues, some of it from Texas and very good. That is, if you're into the blues.
KC Online's playlist is all independent by necessity. Recent federal rulings threaten Internet radio stations that don't stick to all-indie playlists. Soon, they could be forced to pay royalties in serious excess of their profits (assuming they make any).
None of the webcasters I talked to pay any royalties now. Pop Free is the only site among them that's at risk of getting busted. About one-third of its playlist comes from major labels. But even with 100,000 connections since October 31, Chronic doesn't think his site is big enough to be on any ASCAP lawyer's radar yet.
He's also confident that, if webcasters hold out, future federal rulings will favor them. After all, the Internet holds the future of the music industry, even if major labels aren't ready to admit it. One day, we'll all have Web radios in our iPods, cell phones and cars.
Until then, I'll just keep trying to find a reason to blow these external computer speakers.