It is a typical Tuesday night at Radio Bean, and the cozy Burlington coffeehouse is bustling. There is a pleasant hum of idle chatter, broken occasionally by the sharp clink of glassware behind the bar. Onstage, local country crooner Brett Hughes leads his rotating cast of honky-tonk heroes through a rousing Merle Haggard tune.
During a break in the music, and seeing that my drink is almost finished, my girlfriend asks if she can get me another. She gets up from the couch, nimbly dodges a dog sleeping on the floor and disappears. She returns a few moments later, glasses in hand.
“Nice pajamas, baby,” she says, putting a glass of red wine in front of me. The dog grunts as Hughes reels off the opening lick to a Patsy Cline song.
“Thanks, darlin’,” I reply in my best Southern drawl. “Say, could you turn it up a bit?”
OK, confession time: My girlfriend and I are not actually at Radio Bean. Not physically, at least. In a bout of wintry laziness, we are nestled snugly in our living room drinking cheap wine a mere three blocks from the café. It is, in a word, luxurious. Perfect entertainment for a cold January night.
We are connected to Radio Bean thanks to a live streaming webcast on online radio station FreeVermontRadio.org. The site is a relatively new addition to the state’s cyberspace community, created and operated by Kirby resident and fifth-generation Vermonter Dennis Steele. His domain name could be read in more ways than one: Steele is currently campaigning for governor on a platform of Vermont secession from the U.S. But, whatever the success of that endeavor, he’s already liberating plenty of Vermonters from corporate sounds.
While we sit at home, Steele, 42, huddles at his laptop in a corner of a local nightclub, as he does several nights per week, beaming the evening’s proceedings all over the world (the station counts regular listeners in more than 30 countries). Tonight he happens to be at Radio Bean. In two nights, he’ll be at Parker Pie in West Glover for a split bill with Myra Flynn and Justin Levinson. After that, it’ll be an undisclosed location somewhere in rural Vermont for a jam session he describes as a “barn burner” — the session, known as “The Back Shed,” is broadcast from a barn every Friday. And so it goes, night after night, week after week.
When he’s not piping live local music into homes and offices around the globe, Steele’s station functions like any number of online radio outlets, playing a continuous stream of recorded music. Except that FVR plays Vermont-made music almost exclusively.
While a number of online stations operate in the state, and plenty of terrestrial stations simulcast on the web, none match FVR’s localvore numbers. Steele estimates the station plays 99 percent locally made music. The other 1 percent consists of artists touring in Vermont or “music with a message relevant to Vermont,” says Steele, who refers to that sliver of the pie as his “creative license.”
Since the station’s birth on June 6, 2009, the Free Vermont Radio library has grown from a handful of albums, most of them made by Steele’s Northeast Kingdom pals — the first tracks played on the air were from NEK outfit Electric Sorcery — to more than 4500 songs total, representing nearly 300 artists of widely varying styles across the state. Instead of seeking out music, Steele now receives it unsolicited, sometimes at a rate of more than 10 albums per day. And, since Internet radio is not bound by the same FCC restrictions as terrestrial radio, he plays almost everything he receives.
“It’s Free Vermont Radio,” Steele says, grinning. “Artists can say whatever they want. Sometimes a song just needs to have swears.”
Free Vermont Radio has benefited significantly from social networking sites. Its Facebook group has more than 1900 fans; by comparison, University of Vermont radio station WRUV 90.1 FM has about 350. Alternative rock station 99.9 FM the Buzz has 400.
Steele’s media savvy is unsurprising. In 2003, the California Polytechnic grad and avid chess player launched ChessManiac.com. The website was an overnight success and, according to Steele, now claims more than 200,000 regular players worldwide, having survived market incursions from much larger and better-funded sites. Chess Maniac is Steele’s primary source of income. Like everyone else in the music industry, he has yet to figure out how to make a profit on Internet radio.
Social networking features like those used on Facebook and MySpace contributed to the success of Chess Maniac and feature prominently on Free Vermont Radio. Though Steele concedes that “you can’t really do it any better than Facebook,” he has seen an active community begin to develop on his site.
Besides having personal profiles and live chat capability, users can blog directly to the website and export their musings to their own microblogs, such as Twitter, MySpace or Facebook. They can also request music from the library, which, judging from recent site activity, has become an increasingly popular feature.
If Steele has his way, Vermonters will one day have access to dozens of local shows daily from the comfort of their own living rooms. He envisions FVR becoming an aggregator, streaming live feeds from venues around the state. At some point, he may even move the “studio” from a corner of his children’s playroom to a rental house on his property.
“Eventually I’d like to make it more like a real studio, with DJs and live performances,” he says.
Of course, all these plans assume he isn’t elected governor first.
Steele is the gubernatorial candidate for the Second Vermont Republic, a grassroots political party he joined in 2007 and whose primary goal is the state’s secession from the Union. Though it’s tough to draw a straight line between the SVR platform and any ideology implicit in the radio station, there is a degree of synergy beyond the campaign banner ad that graces the Free Vermont Radio site.
“When you start to listen to the … music, you start to notice that there is a lot of anti-empire, antigovernment sentiment that’s really interesting,” Steele says. “It’s inspirational.”
In a fiery speech he delivered earlier this month at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Montpelier to announce his candidacy, Steele drew heavily from lyrics he absorbed listening to FVR every day. In fact, in the printed version of the speech on his campaign website, he credits local songwriters Drew Landry, Kate Boverman, Ethan Miller and Tracey Forest as inspirations.
“Independent music and independent Vermont just kind of go hand in hand,” Steele says. “They just kind of fit.”
We all know Vermont's media landscape is changing, but explaining how is a challenge. It's hard to cover a subject in which you are directly involved. Plus, the media's main mission is to tell other people's stories - not its own. Seven Days aims to change that with our annual Vermont Media Issue, which uncovers the conflicts - and characters - behind the headlines. Are Vermonters getting less news than they used to? Can community newspapers compete with Twitter? You'll find the answers inside, and it's not all bad news.