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Bringing Local Radio Back

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Grant Morris, founder of It’s New Orleans! (itsneworleans.com), talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his groundbreaking web radio concept, why New Orleans inspires him and his plans to revive local radio around the globe.

Local radio has practically vanished from the airwaves, and Grant Morris is on a mission to revive it. “Almost everywhere I go—including New York and Los Angeles—people say ‘Radio sucks here.’ But what most people don’t know is that radio sucks everywhere because it doesn’t exist anymore,” Morris says. “When you call a business and get that breezy recording that says, ‘You said billing. I can help you with that,’ you know that’s a real person’s voice but you also know it’s not a real person. That’s exactly what radio is today. The DJ is recorded. He or she is not on the air, in the building, or often even in the same state.

Listeners don’t realize that but they know radio is not the vibrant, lively, interactive medium it used to be. At It’s New Orleans! we are trying to replace cookie-cutter radio with something lively, interactive and intelligent.”

Opportunist: Grant, please tell us about your concept for It’s New Orleans!

Grant: We call it web radio for locals, exiles and New Orleans lovers everywhere. It’s an attempt to create local radio for locals and people outside New Orleans who have an attachment to it. People are desperate for local radio; all of us miss something about being connected to local radio. We aren’t totally live—we are recorded—but we are local.

Opportunist: How does It’s New Orleans! go up against the conglomerates that have gobbled up the local radio stations and homogenized the markets?

Grant: I don’t think you can go up against [the conglomerates], but you can offer complementary programming that they are no longer interested in providing. We are trying to create a place online to replace local programming in an affordable way, which has been lost. We are obviously never going to do better financially but we are providing a product they don’t want to provide anymore. Hopefully, there’s a market in the community that still cares about intelligent, fun discourse and there’s a place for what used to be real radio and what can once again be real radio. It would be wonderful if the conglomerates started embracing local radio but there’s no sign of it right now.

Satellite radio was an alternative to what was on terrestrial radio, but launching a satellite into space is untenable and unable to be sustained. It can only have a temporary life, which is probably coming to an end sometime soon. Something must replace that.

Opportunist: Why is local radio disappearing?

Grant: Legislation enacted in 1996 changed the structure of the radio broadcasting world. Up until then a company was allowed to own up to four radio stations in any market. After 1996, you could own up to 40% of any one market. Conglomerates bought up everything; two companies own 80% of the market in your town, and they divided it up so they’ll own the pop, the country, the talk, the urban and the sports talk stations. There used to be cutthroat competition between radio stations. Now they don’t really care which one you listen to or if they have your loyalty because they are the competition. They no longer have to pay radio personalities a lot of money to retain them. Those people are no longer needed. It’s easier to let them go and replace them with a couple of recordings.

Opportunist: What are some of your shows?

Grant: We have a number of shows and podcasts about slices of New Orleans life. One of our shows, “Out to Lunch,” is about local businesses and entrepreneurs. We broadcast live during lunch from a restaurant called Commander’s Palace, with Tulane Finance Professor Peter Ricchiuti as the host. I started the “Happy Hour” show for myself. It showcases many of the varied and completely amazing characters who live in New Orleans. You can pluck them off the street, almost literally. Another show called “Mindset” is New Orleans’ take on mental health. Dr. Nick Pejic, a psychiatrist, talks with happy and successful New Orleanians about what made them happy and successful. It’s not Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura. It’s not a show about what’s wrong with you; it’s about what’s right with you. We also have “Trew To The Game,” with comedians Chris Trew and Tami Nelson. They do a sports comedy show, which is actually about sports but from an inane and insane point of view. People have come to me and said they’d like to do a show about something or they think we should start doing shows about something.

We are developing other shows. “Winn Nguyen” is a show about the Vietnamese community and hosted by a guy named Steve Winn and a woman named Kieu Nguyen.

Opportunist: What brought you all the way from your native New Zealand to New Orleans?

Grant: I moved to Los Angeles in 1985—to write screenplays—but then I discovered New Orleans and decided to move here in 1990. I came here with no real plans, and then I stumbled onto a new alternative radio station called The Zephyr and became their afternoon drive DJ.

Opportunist: Did you have a background in radio?

Grant: I always loved listening to live radio. Before I wrote for TV or the movies, I wrote radio dramas in New Zealand.

Opportunist: Tell us about The Zephyr.

Grant: The Zephyr was popular. It was around the time that Pearl Jam and Nirvana were just starting out, and we were the first true alternative rock station in New Orleans. I discovered I really enjoyed being a DJ. Then, in 1997, the station owner sold it and the format was changed to country music and we all got fired.

Opportunist: Were you recruited by another station?

Grant: No. The Zephyr’s former music director, Christian Unruh, and I started a webcasting company called Fastband GlobalCast. That was in the heady days when people were putting money into startups. We had an investor and we had this genius idea to put a studio in a glass storefront on Bourbon Street, where about nine million people a week would walk by and look in at the building and then go listen to us online. One of the great things about that station was that I encouraged our staff to welcome anybody into the studio and give them a mike and let them talk. We met an amazing array of people in all states of sobriety. [Laughs] It was a lot of fun.

Opportunist: Was your idea a hit?

Grant: What we didn’t realize was that those nine million people were looking for other intoxicated people. [Laughs] It got very wild every night. As a marketing idea, FastBand really didn’t pan out as well as we had initially thought. It was a little ahead of its time. We pioneered downloading music that we were playing, and the idea was to create a worldwide community of people who shared the same musical taste and philosophy. It was before broadband, though, so everyone had to have dialup Internet. Every time somebody listened to us it cost us more money for bandwidth. It was a hopeless startup [Laughs] but I learned a lot.

Opportunist: What career accomplishments are you most proud of?

Grant: I was very fond of Fastband because it was one of the very first Internet radio broadcasting stations in the world. That was a pretty amazing thing we pulled off. We came up with the idea of downloading digital music before iTunes was around. But I am more proud of It’s New Orleans! because it’s more about me. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way—it’s  just that I’ve got more of myself in it. I have found, organically, a whole lot of other people who want to work on this with me and so it’s taking up almost all my time. I discovered all the experiences I’ve had writing and creating and starting up and running FastBand have all come together in this package of skills I need to run this. It’s a lot of fun and I’m really loving it.

Opportunist: We understand you’re also a Grammy-nominated songwriter and screenwriter of the cult classics “Return of Swamp Thing” and “Dead Dog.”

Grant: I was lucky enough to be in the room when some people were writing songs. [Laughs] I’ve been lucky, and I had fun writing screenplays but that’s a tough business.

Opportunist: What is it about New Orleans that inspires you?

Grant: There’s something about New Orleans that makes you either love it or hate it. It’s hot, it’s dirty and it’s dysfunctional [Laughs] but there’s something special about attitudes and priorities here. People are welcoming and tolerating and open minded and fun, and there is amazing music everywhere. It feels like home.

Opportunist: How many people do you have on staff at It’s New Orleans!?

Grant: Our core staff consists of Tim Gold, who is our business development person, and Clif Brigden, who is our web guy, and me. I’m the founder and sort of the creative principal. We also have an extraordinarily dedicated group of people—maybe 15 altogether—who work on individual shows. We have our “Happy Hour” producers and a tech guy who records and edits, and we have another group of people who are producing and editing “Out To Lunch.” Our shows are unlike the film business, where it takes millions of dollars and hundreds of people for one production. And we are unlike real radio, which used to cost so much.

Opportunist: What’s involved in the production of your radio shows?

Grant: It’s so simple. We don’t even have a studio. Our entire “station” is four microphones, an Apple laptop and a soundboard with about six channels. But the technology is just as good as if we had a real radio station. Somebody said we’ve paid less to start this radio station than we paid for parking at FastBand, which is true. [Laughs] We had 35 people on staff and we had to buy parking for everybody. We bought all our equipment on Amazon and we bought the cheapest stuff. We pack it up and take it anywhere we want to record. Then we edit our recording and upload it to the Internet. We don’t want this to sound like just anybody’s web or audio blog. It’s not amateurish; professional people make it.

Opportunist: How do you make money?

Grant: We make great shows that people like to listen to and we sell advertising and sponsorship. As far as I'm concerned that is our business plan. We’re just starting to make money. We can deliver a very specific audience—at a specific hour—to our advertisers. That’s a different kind of person than someone who skips through the dial on a car radio. We have motivated and loyal listeners who typically listen to the whole show. They are people who make a decision to download our show onto their computer or handheld device because they want to hear it. They generally stick with the whole show and then come back for another. Each week the audience gets bigger and bigger.

Opportunist: Where is your audience?

Grant: Principally in New Orleans. We wanted to make it about locals for locals. It’s not a show about the tourist impression of New Orleans and Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street. It’s the New Orleans we know. It’s not talk radio talking over the back fence; it’s on a slightly more elevated and intelligent level than that. We have another audience that’s scattered all around the world who are from here or have a connection to it. We have regular listeners in Saudi Arabia, the Russian Federation, England, Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Japan...and those are just the ones off the top of my head. It’s stupendous to think we can reach someone in Italy who connects to it and cares enough to write us a note on Facebook or send us an email and thank us for connecting them to their home.

Opportunist: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Grant: Sitting on the beach, smoking a cigar. [Laughs] In five years I’m hoping that this business works and that we’ve got 24-hour programming—we almost have enough now. I hope this site becomes a living, breathing, alternative to radio programming and that it’s a choice people can make that’s widespread and easy. We have plans for spreading this model around the country and the world. We are starting up It’s Birmingham (Alabama) and It’s Little Rock (Arkansas) and It’s Samoa. We have holding pages for them all: itsbirmingham.com, itslittlerock.com and itssamoa.com, and we are launching them later this year.

www.itsneworleans.com

Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.

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