John Hesch’s LDS Internet radio station KZION intrigues me — not so much because I’m into LDS music (I’m not — in fact I don’t listen to much music of any sort), but because it is an example of something that we should see more of in Mormon arts — a cooperative effort of artists and consumers (with John as the keystone). Granted, it takes a lot of effort and resources on John’s part. But KZION wouldn’t exist in the form it does without artists and record labels who are willing to let him play their music. In addition, KZION’s listeners contribute to the functioning and content of the site.
John was kind enough to answer several questions about KZION — which, as he mentions below, debuts a newly-redesigned Web site on Aug. 1.
I’m intrigued by the KZION Internet radio station model which features active participation on the part of your subscribers as well as LDS artists and record labels. What has been the most surprising aspect of the growth of KZION?
The growth of the listener base has been a slow steady climb over the past four years. For the first year I rarely had over 20 simultaneous listeners and today I rarely find under 180 simultaneous listeners during the workweek and many times over 220. The problem with growth is it’s expensive. For every slot I have available for a listener it costs me $2/month. I currently have 225 slots available which comes to $450 per month for listener bandwidth only. Of course there are other expenses associated with running an Internet radio station.
I’m a little disappointed in the overall growth of the KZION listener base but at the same time grateful for the slow sustained growth that allows me to keep expenses manageable.
Probably the biggest surprise to me is the extent of the web site. Over the years the web site has grown into, as you mentioned, a place for listener interaction and participation. On Aug. 1 I will be releasing an all-new, ground level redesign of the web site. This will be one of the most highly developed, interactive Internet radio web sites on the net. It’s not going to rival some of the best web sites on the Internet but for an Internet radio station it will be among the best developed.
As someone who prefer songs with lyrics, I really like that if one of your listeners takes the time to type them up, you list the lyrics of the song that’s in current play. What prompted you to add that feature?
My limited time available and the dedication of many of the KZION listeners that I have witnessed over the years. Most KZION listeners are passionate about LDS music. I knew that I would get some participation if I made the process easy. I have been surprised at the level of participation. I have received some 200 lyrics from listeners.
Setting aside the subscriber requests you take, how do you decide the rotations of songs to play? Do you place newer songs in heavy rotation?
Rotation is decided by a very complicated set of rules and code that decides which song will play next. Many listeners think that I create a daily or weekly play list by deciding which songs will play and in what order. You can imagine the amount of time that would take and besides I’m not always a good judge of what people want to hear.
Basically the process works like this. Every song is assigned a weight. When a CD is first added it is given a fairly high weight unless I feel that it would not be of interest to the majority of listeners. Once I add the tracks and assign the initial weight the rest is left to the listeners.
When a song is played it is reduced in weight and when it is requested it is increased in weight. If a song is given a low ranking by voting members it loses weight, when it is given a high rating it is increased in weight. A request will increase the weight more than a rating of 4 but not as much as a rating of 5. It’s quite a complicated process and there are some variables that I don’t share so as not to invite those that wish to manipulate the process.
In essence, songs that are rated high and requested frequently are played more often than songs that are rated poorly and never requested. Over time a song will eventually land in the No Play category due to low ratings and no requests. However, the process also includes songs with lower weights to see if they will be revived by higher ratings and requests.
What feedback have you received from artists and record labels? Have any of them credited your play with increasing CD sales?
I have received quite a bit of feedback from artists that KZION sells albums. I don’t have much feedback from the labels but they don’t have any form of tracking in place to really tell.
My thoughts are that it’s really not rocket science to figure out that KZION sells albums. You’re probably like me, you walk into a Deseret Book, other LDS retailer, or an online store and you have no idea which CD to buy. You want to bring home some good quality music that shares your lifestyle and values but there are hundreds to choose from. You have never heard any of the CD’s because they’re not played on the radio.
With KZION streaming LDS music and the interactive web site a listener can hear a song they enjoy, request some of the other tracks to be sure they really like the music, click on the ‘buy CD’ link and purchase the CD over the Internet. Or they can click on the artist’s home page and become better acquainted with the artist and their music.
KZION listeners hear most of the latest releases thanks to the major labels and they hear many independents that are quite frankly, very good.
Have you had any complaints from artists (or artists’ fans) about the song rating feature?
I haven’t. The new web site to be released Aug. 1 will allow only one vote per person but that person may change their vote as often as they like but cannot add votes. It’s really a much more controlled environment then the old system.
The comments system has been a little bit of trouble. I have had trouble makers land on KZION and leave inappropriate comments. Even well meaning LDS can be pretty blunt in their comments. The new web site will hold everyone accountable for their comments. To make comments a listener must be logged in first and will have to use their username in their comments.
KZION has been very up front with its listeners about its costs. You carried the burden of those costs for awhile and then set up a membership package so that listeners could help out. Would you ever consider taking the next step and add advertising?
Yes, that is coming. I do run some advertising now for free to artists who are willing to create a professional sounding spot for new releases. I don’t feel good about selling advertising with just 200 listeners. But I’m hoping that the new web site will attract additional growth and at some future time I can sell advertising.
There is a concern with advertising and that is most people are used to advertising free Internet radio. But the bills have to be paid somehow and I believe that most people are understanding of that.
In your opinion, what genres/types of music are underrepresented in the LDS market? Or to put it another way, what advice would you give to an up and coming LDS musician who was looking to distinguish him or herself from the rest of the field?
Rock music is underrepresented. KZION has a show called the
Friday Night Edge where we play 2 hours of LDS rock and/or edgier type music. The show has been on hiatus lately because I can’t get my hands on enough LDS rock music.
Good contemporary music is hard to find. Dance music is hard to find. We should be giving stakes around the world an alternative to dance music that is not value based but there is none. Good LDS jazz music is hard to find.
The genre that is completely saturated is inspirational music. Obviously inspirational and sacred music is the foundation of LDS music. But so much of it sounds the same.
There are a few artists lately that have maintained the inspirational feel but have created a unique sound. Artists like Alex Boye, Jenny Phillips, Hayley Anderson, and Dustin Gledhill.
So often I receive albums from very anxious and talented LDS musicians who did absolutely no homework and created a CD filled with versions of “His Hands” or “Window to His Love.” I have 5 versions of “Window to His Love” on KZION. Great song but how many times do we need to record it with no substantial difference in arrangement?
I can’t think of a better way to do your homework than to listen to KZION, search through the song list and create something unique and different but keeping the spirit of LDS music.
Assuming the time, resources andtechnologies were available, what features or functionality would you liketo be able to add to KZION?
The biggest one would be to synchronize the radio station with the web site so that the web site refreshes when the listener hears a song change. Unfortunately that technology is not available to me so it’s hit and miss right now.
I would also love to get KZION on XM satellite radio so people could listen to KZION in their cars and in their homes without the aid of the Internet.