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Raised on Radio
|Stephen Croes (right) and a student DJ in the BIRN studios|
I've been drawn to radio since early childhood, and I credit radio directly for inspiring my pursuit of a musical career. So when I arrived here seven years ago and learned that Berklee had never had a radio station, I became excited about the prospect of starting one. Then-President Lee Eliot Berk and Executive Vice President Gary Burton gave me a green light to explore the possibility of launching an Internet radio station. Vice President for External Affairs Tom Riley became my chief ally in the process. Upon the arrival of President Roger Brown, he quickly saw the potential of the effort and backed it as well.
Fast-forward a few years, and we have the Berklee Internet Radio Network (BIRN), a station capable of broadcasting five distinct channels of rich programming around the world. Our facilities have evolved dramatically. After starting out in a tiny room in the 270 Commonwealth Avenue dorm, we now have a four-room complex above the college's superb performance venue, the Red Room at Cafe 939. These facilities include a spacious broadcast studio, live room, production studio, and a combo edit studio and administrative office. This has had a major impact on our ability to capture and broadcast a slice of the musical life of the college and much more.
For me, overseeing the BIRN has been deeply rewarding and connected me to students from every area of the college. The goal I've set for the station has been very simple: to recruit and organize students to play and talk about the music they listen to and make. The overarching objective has been to open a window for the world to glimpse the energetic and productive daily life around Berklee and the dazzling accomplishments of its alumni.
The number of students involved with the station has grown steadily. In 2003, we started with six and by this spring had 120. Over the years, the organization has evolved and become very professional and productive. We've assembled a management team that organizes training, scheduling, and rules for conduct and interaction. We've developed real-world business skills, creating opportunities and administrating responsibilities. But our overall approach reflects a life of musicianship: practice, perform, review, improve, repeat. BIRN shows are diverse and entertaining with titles such as Senseless Violins, Accordions Can Smell Fear, The Eclexic Dyslectics, and II-V-!.
An exciting extension of the BIRN's broadcast capacity is the ability to air events from the Berklee Performance Center (BPC). The Music Technology Division recently completed construction on a dedicated studio for the BPC and through some technical wizardry, it's now possible to route any program to the BIRN studios for live worldwide broadcast as well. This year saw the first-ever public broadcasts of the spring Singers' Showcase concert, the Jazz Revelation Records concert, and the International Folk Music Festival. The exposure for these performances helps to build awareness and support, particularly among new potential students.
The BIRN has also recorded and podcasted numerous clinics, performances, and interviews with James and Livingston Taylor, Daniel Lanois and Brian Blade, Alessandro Cortini, Christopher Guest, Marcus Miller, Stanley Crouch, Jimmy Haslip, John "J.R." Robinson, Annie and the Beekeepers, Carrie Rodriguez, Berklee's own Folk Arts Quartet, and many more.
We're happy to note the recent addition of BIRN 5 to our network. It's a stream from the Berklee International Network schools called BIN on the BIRN. The BIN partners from 15 countries around the world now present music and events on this channel. In June the BIN Faculty Development Week included a live broadcast from Cafe 939 featuring five educators sharing their experiences and observations.
A significant new possibility for the college lies in the BIRN studio's connection to the Red Room at Cafe 939 (visit www.cafe939.com). The college wisely hired Jackie Indrisano, a Boston music-scene veteran, to serve as the room's events manager and she's brought a series of diverse and amazingly talented but as-yet-unknown touring bands to the stage. Of course, Berklee bands are often the openers and gain significant exposure.
I had been involved in some aspects of the audio and technical design of the Red Room. We installed a feed from the microphone box on the stage so that any performance is hardwired to the BIRN production studio, allowing us to record, mix, and route it to any BIRN channel. I realized that we could leverage this connection so the BIRN could help promote this college venue, create compelling programming, and enable student DJs to be among the first to interact with these ascending acts.
As everyone knows, Boston has a rich history as a great music city and has hosted many significant bands' earliest appearances in America. The Police, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, and Aerosmith are but a short list of groups that performed critical early shows in the clubs of Kenmore Square and Cambridge.
It's possible to imagine Berklee supporting and documenting early performances of the next generation of supertalents via the BIRN. For bands, managers, and labels hoping for breakout success, a Boston show offers access to the enormous local youth population and the possibility of getting a buzz started. We're getting the word out that if rising acts choose Cafe 939, they'll have a receptive and informed Berklee audience, the chance to be interviewed by musically literate DJs, and have their show broadcast worldwide if they want. They can alert their MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter crowds in advance to listen in live as it all goes down.
We can mix the recorded performance and, thanks to red-hot Topspin distribution software, put it online for sale to the band's fans at a modest cost (topspinmedia.com). We'll share the proceeds to support these bands, offering some extra revenue and exposure. With our part, we might eventually fund a scholarship program at the college or send our DJs to significant music events we want to cover. In short, we've started a new-era record company, BIRN Presents.
The BIRN offers other potential benefits too. Some students might graduate with real experience collaboratively planning, producing, recording, and mixing live performances and interviews, and perhaps notching numerous actual releases on their résumés. Students will be in direct contact with touring bands, learning about their experiences firsthand. The college may earn the reputation for taking an activist role in promoting great songwriting, performances, and so on.
While we are excited about the possibilities, there is still much to do to make it all work. But the focus and effort on real-world accomplishments within the college setting has always been the best part of the BIRN. In a recent conversation I had with the management of a terrific new band I saw at Cafe 939, I was relieved to see that they were as excited about this as I am. We may actually have something new here: a leading college focused on contemporary music with an organized and productive group of students devoted to musician radio, a venue that sounds and looks fantastic, and the capacity to easily broadcast great performances with students at the helm.
To me, the BIRN offers a new way to keep contemporary musical thought in our intake and output, a new avenue for student accomplishments, and a chance to help define the role of Internet radio and technology in breaking new artists. If you love fresh radio as much as I do, please stay tuned to thebirn.com.
Stephen Croes is Dean of Berklee's Music Technology Division