To visit Starstreams' website
by Sounds from the Ground
by Various Artists
Forest is the producer, programmer and host of MUSICAL STARSTREAMS, the USA's first (December, 1981) syndicated, electronica based weekly music program on commercial radio. The show has been heard on nearly 200 commercial stations including a majority of the Top Ten markets in the USA, every afternoon on channel 77 of XM satellite radio, numerous Internet sites and DCR - Digital Cable Radio (now Music Choice). In 1991, MUSICAL STARSTREAMS was nominated for a prestigious BILLBOARD magazine radio award for adult syndicated program of the year. That same year Forest received the coveted "Crystal Award" for broadcast media from the INAMC in Los Angeles. In July of 2002, while continuing to program and produce MUSICAL STARSTREAMS, Forest took a year off from hosting duties and brought in actress and voiceover talent Madison Cole as host. In July of 2003 he resumed hosting duties while Madison stayed on to host The Starstreams Channel version of the program heard online. Forest also recently became music director for the radioioAmbient channel at radioio.com where Starstreams program sets are also heard.
In December of 1993, along with the since retired Michael Barnett of the UK, Forest started WAVEFORM records. WAVEFORM specializes in "exotic electronica." National USA and Canada distribution is through Studio Distribution in New York and the publicly traded Navarre Corporation in Minneapolis. Besides full time attention to the program and label, Forest has written music reviews and news for Stereo Review, Billboard, The Monthly Aspectarian, The Arizona Light, New Frontier Magazine, New Age Retailer and trade publications like Radio & Records, Friday Morning Quarterback and the Mac Report. He also has served as a music consultant to NAIRD (now AFIM) and the DMX music service.
AV: When was it that "exotic electronica" as you lovingly call it on Musical Starstreams, made enough of an impression on you that you personally began to listen to this type of music? Who were some of the first artists to find their way into your own collection of electronic music?
Forest: Well the first program was broadcast back in Dec of 1981 and I still have the playlist from it and we have it posted on the Starstreams site. From then until the mid 90's it was more European electronic pioneers like Eno, Schulze, Jarre and Japan's Kitaro, along with the more new agey type titles from Windham Hill and people like Deuter with Celestial Harmonies. Later as things evolved Private Music came around with Patrick O'Hearn and others and then finally in the early 90's the program began to become primarily electronica artists from the UK and Europe like Banco de Gaia, the early laid back things from Moby from the USA and some of the UK's Beyond label artists. Ambient, spacemusic, dub, downtempo, trip hop, acid jazz...artists from all these categories. After taking a closer look at what we were playing then, the "exotic electronica" tag seemed to be pretty descriptive. And of course we were getting our Waveform label off the ground in late 93 as well.
AV: In the early days of electronic/ambient/new age music, when did it become apparent that enough of a demand existed to support a radio show like Starstreams? Were there any milestones that let perceptive people know that a new trend in music was being born?
Forest: From even before our first airing seeing the success that others were having we knew it would be well received. From the first program MANY people would call the station on the phone and say, "what IS that???!" "I've never heard any music like this before! I Love it." It was definitely touching people in a unique, evocative way. the issue then became how to translate that incredible interest into a career that could pay the bills.
AV: You've had quite an academic career as well as your career in radio, where did the change take place that you decided music was the path that you were going to follow instead of law, even after obtaining a degree?
Forest: (laughs) Well music was always there, the change took place when I was forced to make money when my love for music wasn't covering expenses! It always seemed that I would come back to music and actually passing the bar never really brought in any money or benefited me until I used it with my music endeavors. so the question might better be what motivated you to try something like law instead of music.
AV: Tell me about the beginnings of you and radio. What formats did you work with and was radio everything that you had hoped that it would be?
Forest: Well I first started in college radio and without blatantly advertising just how long I've been doing this, I will say that one of the scandals when I started was how long the Bob Dylan single "Like A Rolling Stone" was! Up until then all the songs were 2 or 3 minutes, then Dylan releases this nearly 7 minute song and radio was aghast! It was great to see that and the whole underground FM radio thing starting to bloom in San Francisco and back east. Generally I've always had a love hate relationship with radio.
Remember that other than college, my background has always been with commercial radio rather than public radio and I love that it's supported me and helped me to get the exposure that this music deserves but at the same time I've hated the conservative nature of it and how stagnant and bottom line oriented it has become.
I have a theory that now that digital satellite radio is taking off with its hundreds of channels available in our cars as well as everywhere else and with the Internet soon to follow in our cars and already in our cell phones, then commercial radio will be forced to reinvent itself to survive and hopefully get good again. We are already seeing it with the move to cutback on advertising and a push to get online by terrestrial commercial broadcasters.
AV: When was it that you first began experimenting with the concept of what would become Musical Starstreams?
Forest: A few months before the first program aired. In the fall of 1981.
AV: What kind of music pool did you have to choose songs from in those early days? In other words what was the state of electronic/ambient/new age at the time you conceived of Starstreams?
Forest: Besides my own collection, the station I was working for had a fairly eclectic library so amazingly enough we actually had the early Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Tomita, Budd and Eno LPs in house! Everything was on vinyl or cassette! things were spacey, and thankfully new age had not yet become syrupy and redundant. the electronic scene then was definitely the pioneers like Jarre, Klaus Schulze, Kraftwerk and T Dream. Then a few years later new ownership came in and locked all of this incredible collection in the basement and the station became an "adult contemporary" drivel outlet!
AV: In your radio career leading up to Starstreams you held quite a few positions inside the industry, how did seeing all these aspects of how a station runs help you to understand what you wanted to do with Starstreams and how to go about doing it?
Forest: Well I understood that working for one commercial radio station could be very frustrating. it's a career that is unlike any other in that you can work your rear off for a station and STILL lose your job! All it takes is new ownership or a new format (like satellite country) and you could be shown the door. Understanding that was the case, I decided to syndicate and offer my program to MANY stations, that way when one went down I could still survive. And it took me out of the every day politics that are a part of all stations.
AV: When Starstreams was ready to go solo how did you market it to those original stations that gave the show a foothold to work with? How did most of the radio stations you approached view your efforts to program this instrumental music to a mainstream audience?
Forest: Originally I was so broke that I actually got a few stations to agree to share any revenue that the show brought in with me! That is, if the program attracted a LOCAL sponsor to the station that they didn't already have, they agreed to give me a percent of that additional new revenue! This was unheard of and only a few stations agreed, but I actually did get some money that way. Later it became all barter...they get the show free in exchange for airing any NATIONAL sponsors that I include in the show and then I keep all the national ad revenue (of course my ad agency and middlemen take their cuts). This is how it still works today. Some of the bigger syndicators actually PAY the stations to take their shows, because they can get more ad revenue if they are on all the big market stations. It's a really tough and competitive business.
Most of the stations were skeptical and rejected the program from the beginning and that's still the case more than ever today, but over the years we have been heard on nearly 200 commercial stations and most have been pleasantly surprised with the results and ratings. Some have had us on continually for over 16 years in major markets, so you can bet if the following wasn't there they would have dumped us long ago.
AV: So now that you have been with Musical Starstreams for over 20 years what is different about the markets that you currently work in as compared to the markets of 1981 where it all began? Is it easier to sell Starstreams in this market than what existed 20 years ago?
Forest: Well radio has gone through the evolution of tighter playlists, consolidated ownership, limited formatics. a general downward spiral. However as I've said previously this will eventually force terrestrial radio to get better as competition from satellite and Internet radio becomes more of a factor for them. clear channel just instituted their less is more advertising policy, cutting back on the number of ads you hear on commercial radio. That's just one small example. I have always been amazed how radio has continually buried its collective head in the sand and ignored the competition and state of the industry, even in the face steady of audience shrinkage. So the simple answer is no, it is not easier today. it is more difficult.
AV: I found Starstreams when I began to stream it on the Internet fighting upstream on a dial up account but I enjoyed the music so much that I put up with the rebuffering that happened every few minutes because my connection was so slow. Tell me about the impact that the Internet has had on spreading the Starstreams word and how has broadband affected how a lot of folks tune in to your program? (you might want to mention all of the outlets that folks can currently find your show)
Forest: I've said before that technology helped to save the program when radio became less receptive and we thankfully began to have the Internet as an alternative. I have three streaming channels linked from our site on the listen page at www.starstreams.com. they are hosted from live365.com so they can be accessed in the ambient, dub and electronic categories there and the current biggest audience online is my full time station at www.radioioAMBIENT.com . Of course my seven day a week 4-6pm eastern XM77 satellite radio broadcasts are a great place to listen and hold much promise, because it is the first time I've ever been available in drive time. I continue with around twenty affiliate stations as well - all of which are listed on the Starstreams site.
AV: What are your views on the satellite radio networks like XM or Sirius? Does your program get a lot of exposure via that medium yet and will that be a growing medium in the coming years?
Forest: We have talked to XM about programming a full time channel for them since before they went live, so the fact that it hasn't happened YET is frustrating. As I mentioned above, to be heard in afternoon drivetime seven days a week is huge step in the right direction on XM and their audioVisions channel 77. If their projected audiences of ten million listeners in the next few years are reached then this will indeed be an even bigger deal! Sirius has been more of a challenge but I continue to work on them as well.
AV: I want to talk about Waveform in a minute but I would like to know just how you manage to find all of the tracks that you play on any given Starstreams program. How difficult is it to sort through all of the submissions that you must get from all over the world and come up with just the right songs from each CD for the show? Do you ever get a little jaded after hearing so much material day in and day out?
Forest: I sort through new submissions and pull from a library of over 5000 cds. I have to say that the most gratifying part of a tremendously over burdened work week is when I can actually program the sets for each show. On the other hand it is also the most challenging in that a lot of earlier library material no longer fits and a lot of submissions are just no longer suited (the syrupy new age things come to mind). So finding material for each program can be a chore in that I want fresh things that I haven't played to death in the past and sometimes they are hard to find in my walls of cds. If only I could spend a few months in some European music stores!
AV: What does the future hold for Starstreams? Where do you see the program going in the coming years? Are you going to continue to host or might you turn it over to someone else like you did for awhile not so long ago?
Forest: It's been a lot of years, a lot of cheers and more than a few tears along the way but I want to continue for as long as it makes sense. Maybe it's my ego but I feel that I have a gift in finding and presenting music to people that they say makes a difference in their lives. Just a few days ago I got an email from a radioioAMBIENT listener asking if I placed some kind of subliminal tones or soundwaves into my sets because he often felt mesmerized or hypnotized while he was listening. This is very gratifying to me, because I believe what sets apart my programming from a typically programmed chill channel at a big Internet portal, which is usually a jukebox of randomly selected tricky, Portishead, Massive Attack and Zero 7 cuts is the EVOCATIVE quality of the sets I program. I want music to create a mood and touch the listener. You can be new and hip but are you ALSO evocative? that's the key for me!
AV: Waveform. A great label that puts out great music. I would venture to say that every release that I have every heard from Waveform has been a wonderful CD. I can't say that about a lot of labels that I have listened to over the years but I certainly can say that about Waveform. Tell me the thinking behind forming Waveform records in the first place. Was this something that you always planned on or did it evolve from the Starstreams show?
Forest: Well as I've told the story before in the past, in the early 90's right after the change in direction music was taking with the success of the first enigma cd, I was really enjoying the ambient dub and chill out music coming from the UK and was incorporating as much of it into the program as I could. I eventually made contact with Mike Barnett who started his beyond record label from Birmingham, just to try and get more of the music for my program and after some communication he said he had bigger ideas and came all the way to Sedona to visit me. within a few minutes of talking it was clear we both wanted to spread the music over here and having a label to do so (as well as the program) just made sense. we settled on the Waveform name after we found out the beyond name was already being used by a label in NY at the time. I also saw it as a chance to get my hands on more of this style of music from the UK and Europe so I was excited at the prospects for both our new label and my radio program content.
AV: How is it that you find/found the talent that ended up on Waveform? Is there something in particular that you look for in the artists that you sign that says this is a Waveform artist?
Forest: Things are sent to me, or I shake the branches until something falls to the ground. It's really my personal taste and what I hope will do well in the unpredictable marketplace. In the beginning we started off like gangbusters but for many reasons it's still more a labor of love now. I don't bring out many releases but I am staunchly proud of everything on the label which at this writing is up to 36 total releases over the past eleven years, 35 of which are still currently in the catalog. Coming from a radio background has helped too I think because I have always been keen on offering the consumer an album with more than just one or two good tracks (of course it's all subjective). maybe a better way to put it is that I've always tried to offer releases where every track is good from my perspective and taste.
AV: Tell me about your relationship with Waveform. What role does Forest play in the operation of the label and do you have others that work with you in the day to day operation of Waveform?
Forest: I pretty much do it all. I have two graphic artists that I work with for the label artwork and I bring promotional people on board to work radio, the press or retail where appropriate. my distributors also help a with new titles.
AV: I know that you have a limited release schedule is that because you like to make each release a memorable one at just the right time with just the right artist or is it more of an economic choice to release only a few titles per year?
Forest: It's mostly because of time constraints. If someone reading this wants to join me as an investor or partner up in that way I would be open to discussing it. For example, I could bring out six very good titles this year but because of the time requirements of the radio show, Internet, satellite and music programming in general, it will probably be more like three. I will say that if I won the lotto for example, I would first hire the absolute BEST people to team up with to carry the vision of the label and radio program to the next level - to make Starstreams and Waveform household words, worldwide. It's exciting to think of how I could make a difference in the world with music if the money was there to help facilitate it!
AV: To finish this interview off I just wanted to ask your opinion of how electronica as a genre will fare in the coming years. Do you see it as a growing sub culture or just holding its own?
Forest: It's hard to predict. If my radio audiences continue to grow on the Internet and with satellite and maybe even terrestrial radio, then it can't help but boost awareness for my vision of "exotic electronica," ambient and chill music and hopefully that translates into sales for the artists I expose both on my label and on the hundreds of other labels I pick from. generally I think positively and feel that the best days are yet to come. I just hope I'm still able to function when they finally get here! (laughs)
AV: Any final thoughts you'd like to share with your listeners and with our readers?
Forest: Thanks for the support over the last 24 years of the radio program and 11 years of the label. I wouldn't still be doing this if I didn't feel it was making an impact in the world. Music really does touch people's lives and I am humble and proud to help be part of that process. Please think of me as a sound painter and my pallet is all this wonderful music. I am here in my studio mixing together sets for the radio and Internet programming and picking the tracks and artists for the label - of music that hopefully touches you within or at the very least clues you in to something you didn't already know about. It's different but you like it. If I can accomplish that then we all get some satisfaction out of the process. Enjoy!
AV: Forest thanks for taking the time to talk to me and even though this chat has been a long time in the making I am glad that we were finally able to get it finished. I'll be one of those people out here listening to the material that you put out on Waveform and on your Starstreams radio show as well. Keep up the good work.