Video may have killed the radio star, but it's become a key audience-building tactic for KEXP, the influential public radio station based in Seattle.
The community-supported station has 200,000 weekly global listeners via terrestrial radio and online. Yet its YouTube channel, filled with taped performances of local and touring bands, boasts more than 1.7 million views a week, with three-fourths of those watching from outside the U.S.
"We're clearly extending worldwide," said KEXP general manager Scott Bell. "The American and worldwide consumer is migrating away from the typical terrestrial radio signal and more toward the electronic and online properties, so we need to be a part of that movement."
Those YouTube numbers are likely to rise. On Tuesday, Feb. 18, the radio station will launch a new live video streaming technology with an in-studio performance by pioneering alternative rock band the Pixies. KEXP's technology, powered by state-of-the-art equipment that's come down enough in price to fit the station's budget, has been tweaked for nearly a year, according to video producer Scott Holpainen.
"We've been definitely piecing together equipment that's probably never really been used in this way, in this combination," Holpainen said. "There's been a lot of testing, a lot of trial and error, but we're really pleased with the way that it's all come together."
Live video streaming in HD-quality resolution is the latest chapter in KEXP's story of tech innovation in the radio industry. The station says it was the first to offer CD-quality audio streaming on the internet, and was among the first to offer live performance videos.
"It's just part of the legacy of what KEXP has done, which is innovate and provide listeners with experiences that are very rich."
Holpainen and some work colleagues found the switching equipment and cameras during a visit to the 2013 National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. Even though the cameras don't feature the new 4K resolution standard that was the talk of the recent Consumer Electronics Show, the switcher will support it, "so it's been kind of future-proofed for us."
Holpainen acknowledges that a handful of other radio stations are doing streaming live performances, "but it's more of a broadcast look. We're really trying to replicate what we've been doing for a long time, which is giving things more of a cinematic look. That's been tricky with our limited budget, and we've had to manipulate cameras. But it's fun. It's kind of a puzzle that we're putting together, and having tested it, I think people are going to be pleased with what they see."
Live video is part of KEXP's mission to champion music discovery by taking advantage of digital platforms. Bell added that there's also an opportunity to add to the public radio station's bottom line, but it has to be part of a delicate balancing act.
"One of the jobs we've got here on the business side is how to maximize our revenue, but we're always careful, though, to maintain the curatorial excellence associated with that content," Bell said. "We're reluctant to make it look too commercial. We want to maintain the sensibility of a public radio station."
Holpainen remembers a time when bands weren't very receptive to videos.
"They didn't really understand why we were doing that, and now the bands come in and it's a major priority for them."
The Pixies will perform live in-studio at KEXP at 9:30 a.m. PT Tuesday, Feb. 18th. Go to www.kexp.org to watch.