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Photo By Laura Roberts
Fender: A Face For Internet Radio

FENDER: A FACE FOR INTERNET RADIO

(Or: One Sunday Evening in the Den of Sin)

By Tim Roberts

T-Minus-30

Fender's Den of Sin: Sunday - He's whiphandle slender, a narrow beard and moustache outlining his oval face. On his head is a leather baseball cap. He lopes quickly back and forth across the makeshift combination recording studio/internet television-and-radio station in the finished basement of his house in Okolona, checking cable connections, stopping to talk with one of the many guests he has crowded into the studio. He then sits before one of three computer monitors lined across his DJ booth. Mouse clicks bring up one blank window, then another with a pair of colored bars that leap into a red tint, then fall back into a vibrant green. Mounted to the ceiling over the booth and bank of monitors is an old radio station 'On Air' light in a white metal box. From a speaker close by, a voice in a thick German accent begins to sing "Down on the Corner" to a karaoke backing track. The singer misses more notes than he hits, the same kind of sound you'd get from a music box that was found in the remnants of a house fire. It works. Just barely.

Pressed against the wall next to the booth is a wide, 24-channel mixing board. A 12-channel board is mounted on the wall over it. Five colored thongs dangle from a curtain rod over both of them. Directly across from the boards and thongs on the opposite wall, a handheld camcorder is mounted to a tripod and pointed toward the back of the room, the stage area, where the band Two Pump Chump had just finished a short rehearsal and sound check. While they had played, the center monitor on the DJ booth displayed the audio program Cool Edit Pro. The mix of their sound from the board was pumped into the computer connected to the monitor. The program displayed the music as a tight ridge of oscillation as digits of a timecode flicker-ticked minutes and seconds and milliseconds in a box at the bottom of the screen.

The air in the room has a thin mask of men's cologne and cigarette smoke. A cat in tuxedo markings peeks wide-eyed from around the corner of a doorway, pauses, scouts out the scene, then darts up the stairs to safety.

Fender's Den of Sin

The slender man in the leather ball cap comes up to me and reminds me in a deep, raspy voice that where we are is called Fender's Den of Sin. He's the one called Fender and the name of the show is hard to forget, since it's carved in yellow letters into a shellacked square of wood hanging on the wall next to an RC clock. But for a den of sin, its appearance is pretty tame. Instead of whips and fur-covered handcuffs, microphone and extension cords are coiled and hanging from a pegboard. Instead of candles, pictures of him and his wife and daughter are placed on every table and shelf. Instead of smooth-chested gigolos shining with sweat and oil, guys in t-shirts and shorts sit and rest to get ready for the upcoming show. Among them, Torrey LaFrance, sound engineer from LP Productions, Scott Longo, drummer for The Shinerunners (the band where Fender plays bass) functioning as the main cameraman, Louie the Local Guy from 93.1 The Fox, co-hosting the Den of Sin that evening and Chuck Burke, founder and Chief Technical Officer of LouisvilleMojo.com.

They're ready to produce and witness a live video stream on Aiiradio.net during one of Fender's regular shifts on that Internet radio site, where he streamcasts Louisville music, sometimes with video, sometimes without, sending it out to Aiiradio's global audience. This evening, he'll have a live performance by the hard rock bar-band Two Pump Chump, plus special appearances by LouisvilleMojo's Burke. And me.

Tim Roberts, left, interviewed by Fender, right

"Be prepared for anything," Fender had told me the day before with the same kind of smile you get from someone trying to lure you into their multi-level marketing plan. So in a little more than half an hour, it was going to be my turn in Fender's booth, my face and voice being streamed over the Internet onto hundreds of desktops or laptops around the world. There's live chat during every Aiiradio DJ's shift. I'm suddenly nervous that a viewer on the other side of the planet (somewhere in Russia, maybe, one of those lonely women who always seem to find my e-mail address and want to know if I want to see her picture) will ask me to take off my shirt and do the Snoopy dance and follow up with the typed comment "UR so se y. LOL!"

He also told me there's a ritual at the Den of Sin. During the streamcast, whenever anyone calls out, "Where's the party at," there's a response that everyone yells back.

From the speaker, the German karaoke guy begins to sing a countried-up version of "I Want You to Want Me."

I soak in the surreality of it all

T-Minus-15 Hours

Original Highlands Art and Music Festival: Saturday - Dressed in a t-shirt, jeans and a straw cowboy hat covered with scrawls of autographs, Fender sits under a tent in front of Wick's Pizza on Baxter Avenue. A flat-panel monitor in front of him rests on a black trunk. A deep blue network cable runs from behind the box, up a tent pole, then across the sidewalk and over the row of red umbrellas covering tables in front of the restaurant and disappears into an upper corner of the restaurant's door. On the other side of the tent, a camcorder on a tripod sits atop another equipment cabinet, pointed toward a stage where Peter Searcy and band are performing.

On this overcast, humid day Baxter Avenue is blocked from Highland Avenue to the south and at Christy, near Broadway, to the north, for the Original Highlands Art and Music Festival, where there's more food and beer than art and music. Not surprising, since nearly every building on that stretch of the street is either a bar or restaurant, or both.

James Vize, a.k.a. Aiiradio DJ Fender, is streamcasting the festival's music to a worldwide audience over the Internet. Literally.

"Local stations are cool," he said, "but we've been heard in Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, all over the UK. Go figure."

Based in Germany and founded by an American IT expert called Andy (known by his DJ handle RnR jUnKiE), Aiiradio (or Artists International Independent Radio, for long) has a team of DJs based in cities around the globe including Germany, southern California (home of DJ Mountainman), Canada (from where shows by Masterwlliam and Mrmuddman63 originate), Florida (where former Louisvillian Kali runs her shifts), New Jersey (Aiir Sicko) and here in Louisville with Fender and Joker 77.

The concept is simple: each DJ has a shift he or she fills, playing recorded music, streaming live video of bands or interviews with musicians, or, in the case of Raketmensch in Germany, performing live karaoke. Listeners and viewers offer their comments and innuendoes and obscene animated .gif files through a chat room during a DJ's shift. It operates just like any other radio station. The only difference is that the reach is global, the feedback is instantaneous and the music isn't pre-programmed by someone sitting in a cubicle in a suburban office park.

Fender's energy and dedication to Aiiradio, specifically in getting Louisville bands played during his shifts, makes it seem as if he has been part of the operation for as long as it has had space on a server. Actually, he hasn't been doing it all that long and the opportunity to snag a shift came unexpectedly.

"I was brought in by one of the DJs, Jean Strawberry," Fender said. "She noticed our band, The Shinerunners. She brought my band into Aiiradio. I came into the chat rooms a lot. I was in there so much, they were like, 'Man, you ought to be a DJ.' I thought sure, what the heck. What a way to promote music. I was tickled that a station like this was worldwide and people could hear our music."

Proof of that outreach came when Fender's band received an e-mailed picture from a young man in Korea after he saw a Shinerunners performance on Aiiradio. He was dressed in a cowboy hat and boots. He asked for a CD. The band sent it to him.

"We're reaching out to people like you would not believe."

T-Minus-15

Fender's Den of Sin: Sunday - From Germany, DJ Raketmensch moans through a karaoke version of "You've Got a Friend." Fender is seated on the left side of the booth, typing text into a chat room field. Lines of text trickle up the screen.

Unlike the sporadic broadcasts from underground radio stations from years ago, something is always streaming at Aiiradio. And not only to the DJs have regular shifts, there's a pecking order for what gets played when.

Fender explained. "Normally, when you're sitting at home doing a show, it's a two-hour slot, then the next DJ takes over, if there's one available. There's always some kind of live music on Aiiradio. If there's no live DJ, there's an autoplay where we run previously-recorded live music shows.

"A live DJ has precedence over autoplay, a live band has precedence over a live DJ. If there's a live show going on, they have all rights to be on air instead of a DJ."

Bands who find themselves streamed through the connection during one of Fender's shifts, either in the Den of Sin or in a club or at an outdoor festival, not only get worldwide exposure that some bands can only dream of, but they also score a number of other goodies as well.

"When they come and play [at the Den of Sin]," Fender said, "one of the benefits I can give them is a DVD of their show. It's a way to give back to them, to say we respect them for playing on Aiiradio." They also get a well-mixed mp3 of the performance, with a sound quality better than what gets output in the streamcast. Fender suggests the acts can use the recordings for their own web sites as streaming audio or video, or even use them as self-critique tools. It's also a useful preview service for anyone who has heard of a certain band, but doesn't want to hand over a roll of bills for a cover charge at a nightspot only to find the music isn't what they expected.

"If you want to make plans and hear some of the local bands you've never heard of and you don't want to pay the money for ones you might not like, you can hear the music here."

Bringing in an audience is easy, too. Fender types a broadcast message on LouisvilleMojo.com, his sponsor, providing a link to whatever show he's streaming. If it's a live show, the message sometimes brings more people into the club to see it. If he's streaming from the Den of Sin, a single click on a link opens a window that plays the streaming show.

If this technology had been available more 40 years ago, Beatlemainia would have happened within a matter of hours. A few years later, maybe some people would have missed the brown acid at Woodstock. And at least got to shower every day.

T-Minus-5

Raketmensch prattles on about alien robots in a movie he saw. He chuckles. He's either tired or is just having buckets full of fun crooning out-of-tune karaoke hits. He reminds the listeners that Fender's Den of Sin from Louisville is coming up next. The members of Two Pump Chump station themselves in the stage area. Fender sits on the left side of the booth. Louie the Local Guy sits at the right. LaFrance hovers over the massive sound board. A calm-before-the-storm vibe turns voices into whispers.

How To Make a Home Internet Broadcasting Studio in Your Basement. . .Fender Style

First, own a home in a quiet suburban neighborhood where most of the basement is already finished with a drop ceiling and firm carpet. That'll drink up most of the loudness from whatever band you have visit. The carpet will also drink up any beer they spill.

Second, have a bar. It will be an excellent makeshift DJ booth.

Third, have broadband Internet access.

Fourth, have lots of connections with people who can help you with equipment. Specifically, have Phil Longo (drummer for The Shinerunners and Fender's de-facto cameraman) help you turn the bar around and convert it ("I was sitting on the other side, facing out and always having my back to the band," Fender said. "That drove me crazy. So we just got a wild hair and turned it into a DJ booth."). Have Torrey LaFrance bring over and a soundboard or two, ask LaFrance's employer, LP Productions, to contribute amplifiers and invite the band Two Pump Chump to donate cords.

Fifth, find a sponsor that appreciates the immediacy of the Internet as much as you do. Specifically, Chuck Burke of LouisvilleMojo, who can provide you an instant promotional vehicle for your shows. One post, one click and you have an audience.

Finally, have understanding neighbors who allow your guests to park on the edge of the street in front of their houses.

"It couldn't be done without all the people involved," Fender said.

Zero Hour

The On Air light over the booth glows white.

"We're live," Fender says into the microphone. Above him, a TV monitor shows the On Air light. "Well, I think we're live."

Then he looks over his shoulder at the rest of us behind him.

"Where's the party at?" he brays off-mic.

We all yell back the required response to the question:

"AT THE CRIB, MUTHAF*****S!"

The Den of Sin is open and blasting out to the world.

Fender runs audio from a performance by Ghostfinger, recorded the night before at the Highlands Festival. Then it's back to the studio and a 20-minute live set by Two Pump Chump. Two songs into their set, Fender gets up and sneaks under the camcorder to grab a handheld camera in front of the booth. Viewers are treated to extreme close ups and shaky camera shots of the band as they play.

I look over the shoulder of Louie the Local Guy. He's responding to chat messages that are scrolling up his monitor. Gaps between lines of text are filled by animated gifs the viewers are posting with their comments: women in bikinis thrusting their hips, Stewie, the genius enfant terrible from Family Guy wiggling his ass, a flaming hand holding up the "sign-of-the-beast" first and pinky fingers and more. Some are tame. Some are lame. Most are obscene.

Near the close of their set, the band kicks into a speed-metal power rhythm. Lead singer Scott Cook calls out, "Where's the party at?"

We give the response. We do it several times, in tempo with the band.

T-Plus-25

The band finishes. Fender goes to music he recorded at the Highlands Festival. The camera and tripod are moved from the wall to a spot directly in front of the booth. Fender waves me over. I take the seat Louie was in. I look at the monitor. The chat room is silent. No sign of anyone from Russia. But that still doesn't mean I'll be asked to take my shirt off and dance like Snoopy.

I'm feeling a spark of flop-sweat nervousness. I haven't been behind a microphone and spoken to a broad audience of people since my last on-air stint at a university public radio station when I was struggling to finish coursework for my graduate degree. I was never even sure of how many people I reached when I was working at a station that covered only one region of the state. Now I'm about ready to be seen, not just heard, on a streamcast that is going global.

But it happens quickly. Fender opens his mic and says, "I'm gonna continue to blow ya'lls minds here on Aiiradio-dot-net. Before your very eyes, to my right, possibly your left, is Tim Roberts. . ."

It was as if the last 23 years had accordion-pressed itself into a single day. The wisecracks and silliness started. "That depends on whether or not you're one of these people who likes to watch their monitors in the mirror," I said. "Wouldn't that be weird? Kinda like the way those old barbershop mirrors were?"

"Yeah," Fender said, with a blank look.

There were a couple heartbeats of pause. Then I said, "You know, you're gonna watch your chat room traffic just die off completely."

We continued, talking about the paper, about my wife's work as the cover photographer, about plans for future issues. I traded wise-assed comments with Two Pump Chump lead singer Scott Cook about how difficult it is to get into one of their shows because of the bouncer they personally hire, a neckless Greek named Nikos, who taunts the desperate who want to get in by making them dance like Hurdy-Gurdy monkeys for him. Or pick up quarters with their cheeks.

I also got to do the Den of Sin Call-and-Response. Twice.

Where's the party at?!

It's here. It's live. And it's going all over the globe.

With only a high-speed Internet connection, a camcorder, a mixing board, a CD or DVD player and a PC, Fender has a music promotion machine that cuts through the ossified layers of How the Business Used to Run. These are tools in the hands of amateurs and they're making them work for the musicians whose only chance to have their music heard beyond their home city's limits would have been to pile into a van an drive a few hundred miles to another city.

This time, it reaches the world. But Fender is quite humble about what he and the other Aiiradio DJs do.

"I'm just trying to do my part in life to make the wheels turn."

Fender is making the wheels turn this month during the annual Aiirtober Fest, October 4 through 7. Shows will alternate between Uncle Pleasants and the Den of Sin, all streamcast live over Aiiradio.net. Several Aiiradio DJs will make their way down for the shows and Fender himself will coordinate the entire festival, with help from his usual gang of supporters ("I got eight hours sleep last year," he stated. "This year I'm shooting for nine."). Check www.aiiradio.net or www.louisvillemojo.com for band lineup and additional information.