Tuning In To The Local Sound

By | September 17th, 2013 | Web Exclusive, web-featured

IC Students Create Local Music Discovery Website

With many of the nation’s most popular radio stations available online, including Ithaca College’s own WICB and VIC, it’s hard to ignore the radio industry’s shift toward online streaming. Today, more than 5,000 unique online radio stations are listed on the Internet radio network Live365.com, along with an additional 13,600 FM-format stations listed at Radio-Locator. Compared to the dozen or so “traditional” channels offered on the FM dial in any given location, there’s every reason to believe that the Internet will host a stream more in tune with your musical tastes.

However, while online streaming allows listeners to find a broader selection of stations, it still tends to leave one corner of the music scene underrepresented: local music. Despite the promise of customized stations, many online radio listeners wind up buried beneath mainstream-focused “personalized” playlists that attempt to please the greatest possible number of listeners. Since many of these programs aim to cater to a larger audience, they often lack the settings and features to properly individualize each station.

According to Professor Doug Turnbull, an Ithaca native and assistant professor of computer science for Ithaca College, most modern online radio services have two major oversights: the voices of the listeners and local music scenes.
“There’s a huge hole in these types of services and music recommendation systems,” Turnbull said. “I was involved in a start-up company and investors would tell me there’s no money in local, obscure music. They might be right in terms of a business model, but as a community-oriented project, this can stimulate both the local economy and arts scene.”

In response, Turnbull created the non-profit, personalized internet radio station “MegsRadio”, naming the project after his wife. The primary goal of the station is to increase customization options for the listening community with interactive features that highlight consumers’ interests, along with Ithaca’s local music scene, which has long been important to Turnbull.
Growing up in the area, Turnbull said he was an active participant in the Ithaca music scene throughout his high school years. Turnbull recalls attending shows four to five times a week, sometimes for gigs with his own band. He even admits to sneaking into 18-and-over shows at the age of 16 after befriending the bouncer at The Haunt.

“At these shows, I would just sit in the back in awe,” Turnbull said. “I was blown away by the local music scene. Even returning to Ithaca after fifteen years, the scene is strong as ever with things like Grassroots, Porchfest and more.”
Turnbull began envisioning such a system while completing undergraduate research at Princeton Sound Lab in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, the idea didn’t take shape until this year, when he and Cornell University professor Thorsten Joachims were awarded the National Science Foundation Information & Intelligent System grant to study music recommendation and automatic playlist creation.

The grant money, which will allot Ithaca College with $186,000 over the course of three years to support undergraduate research, has allowed Turnbull to recruit a team of six students, along with two faculty members: Brian Dorzoretz, Manager of Recording Services at the Whalen School of Music, and Professor Adam Peruta, of the Department of Strategic Communications. The group worked together over the summer to design, create and establish the algorithms that would become the foundations of MegsRadio, which launched earlier this month.

While MegsRadio operates on very similar practices and principles used by other recommendation systems like Pandora and Google, Turnbull and his staff believe their station will provide the Ithaca community with something never offered before: a personalized radio system that contextualizes popular artists and links them to local acts and events.

MegsRadio functions through a series of algorithms, in which specific artists and songs are “tagged” by information collected through social analysis. This usually requires a user to search the web for common themes or key words noted in articles about the artists or given song. These tags can include anything from the genre of music, like “rock”, to adjectives or emotions describing the artists. For instance, Miley Cyrus might be tagged with the word “twerking.”

However, traditional algorithms often ignore local artists, whose sounds may not be as publicized on the Internet. The MegsRadio team resolves this by completing a series of audio analyses, where they analyze digital tracks through a computer for common and related themes. Currently, MegsRadio offers more than 8,000 artists with more than 2,000 unique tags.
Kristofer Stensland, senior computer science major and user interface designer and backend developer for MegsRadio, said that this tagging system allows for more frequent and current overlap and discovery, linking local acts and more well-known artists.

“On sites like Pandora, if you type in ‘reggae music’, you might not necessarily get the smaller, local acts,” Stensland said. “The big part of MegsRadio is to incorporate music people are familiar with and local artists that are similar.”
MegsRadio allows consumers to not only discover local artists, but also the local scene. Paired with the music, Alex Wolf, a senior computer science and film double major responsible for designing the site, said MegsRadio offers interactive features to help engage the listener.

“You get the music side of MegsRadio, but there’s also an interactive side—the events part,” said Wolf. “It gives you a whole list of the bands that are coming and when. Our hope is to get people to not only discover the music, but also get involved and see these artists in the community.”

Looking forward, the MegsRadio team hopes to expand the message of the project into a number of formats and cities. The team is currently developing Android and iPhone applications for the station, along with a new portal that allows artists to directly upload and tag their music on the site. In addition, the team has looked into expanding the project into other regions and cities following a “Craigslist model”, where they expand to areas that demonstrate an interest in hosting unique MegsRadio channels of their own.

Regardless of the project’s expansion, Turnbull says one thing will always remain the same for MegsRadio and its branches: a focus on the community.

“The local angle is huge,” Turnbull said. “I’m a big believer in local food, local economy, small business. The whole works. Justin Bieber can come and sell out a stadium in Syracuse, but that’s really only helping the record company and not the local scene. This is not going to ever be a for-profit venture. This is meant to be a community venture.”


Marissa Framarini is a junior journalism major whose secret dream is to start an all-accordion Spice Girls cover band. Email her at mframar1[at]ithaca.edu.

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