They're listening to Auckland's new Cool Blue radio station, 96.1FM, all around the world over the internet, writes JENNIFER LITTLE.
When you tell the uninitiated about Auckland-based Cool Blue radio (96.1 FM), they can't quite believe what they're hearing.
As you explain that, really, truly, it does play a mix of jazz, blues, latin, soul, world, Motown and a bit of rock and country, by the heavyweights and lesser-known artists - with no ads in between - they look cynical, even disbelieving.
"No ads," you repeat, or news, or weather, or sports results. Not even an on-air DJ hyperventilating and haranguing you over the mike. Surely such a concept could exist only in a heavenly hereafter?
"With you, not at you," goes the slightly evangelical refrain that repeats every hour and sums up, for fans, all that's wrong with mainstream music radio stations.
"It's about the music, it's not about anything else," says Real Groovy records music buyer Grant McAllum, who provides about 75 per cent of the music, for which the store gets on-air acknowledgement. "That's why we've stuck to the initial idea - not to have an on-air DJ, not to bombard people with inane bull. All you're gonna get is the music that hopefully people will like."
The founders, McAllum and two former commercial radio managers, Terry Hancox and Brian Barclay, can't quite believe the response to their six-month-old enterprise. They have been besieged with e-mails - up to 50 a day - and phone calls from listeners.
While the 24-hour on-air broadcasts reach only from Cool Blue's inner-city Radio Network base as far north as Albany and as far south as the fringes of the Coromandel Peninsula, people all over the country and around the world are listening to it over the internet.
Listeners in Wellington and Christchurch want Cool Blue on air in their cities. American audiences can't believe the music is being beamed out of New Zealand. Many have e-mailed the station's website saying there's nothing as good in the land where, surely, everything is bigger and better.
Messages of thanks and praise have poured in from as far away as Canada, India, Poland, South America - Australia, too. A Rarotongan restaurant owner is thrilled by the music, which he plays to his customers as they dine.
Before they launched Cool Blue, Hancox says he had long had a hunch that there was a place in the local market for a music station with "a bit more intelligence".
Hancox and Barclay, who spend all day working out the following day's programme, auditioning CDs for new tracks and responding to e-mails and phone calls, are struck by the diversity of listeners. Plumbers, carpet-layers, advertising agencies, people who've heard it in a cafe or restaurant either want to know more about a track or just contact them to say keep it up, says Hancox.
According to Hitwise, an independent company that monitors website traffic, Cool Blue's website is the third most-viewed in the country.
Audience adulation has certainly confirmed the market research Hancox did before going to air, indicating a potential market for unashamedly non-commercial playlists that include all the jazz and blues greats - Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong - right through to the likes of Aretha Franklin, Tom Waits, Marvin Gaye, Buena Vista Social Club, Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Lucinda Williams, Eva Cassidy and more.
New Zealand artists get a good look-in, with the Topp Twins, Caitlin Smith and the Fondue Set, the Jews Brothers, Jacqui Fitzgerald and others played regularly.
But only those with an encyclopaedic knowledge of music would recognise the bulk of Cool Blue's content, which does not comprise nostalgic, retro mush, or easy-listening pap. Rather, it's music that makes you sit up and listen, or sing along, dance and laugh - whether you recognise the track or not. Where else would you come across actor Robert Mitchum's hilariously un-PC gem of a track, from his 1959 Calypso album, From a logical point of view, always marry a woman uglier than you?
Hancox reckons Cool Blue has hit the right chord with listeners because it has - more or less - the right mix and flow of tracks. There is no blocking music into genres, which is the usual way. Instead of having a jazz hour, followed by a blues hour, there will be something by Peggy Lee, followed by a latin instrumental, then a world-weary blues ballad.
That way, explains McAllum, people won't switch off just because they don't like one song. If they don't like this song, they're almost sure to like the next one. He says he told Hancox he would go into it with the attitude that, "if I was driving the backroads of Arizona, this is the kind of music I'd like to be listening to in the car". Make that Auckland's traffic jams or the Desert Rd. Or standing over the kitchen sink.
McCallum defines Cool Blue's musical identity as anything with American roots, ranging from early last century to the latest recordings. While your average commercial station draws from a playlist of between 100 and 200 songs, Cool Blue has 1800 tracks on rotation. "Managing the beast" as Hancox puts it, is the interesting and tricky part. What to play - and when ?
"We haven't perfected it yet," he says. "Ideally we'd like to have more pace early in the day, slower by evening and smoky by three in the morning."
Barclay is developing a highly technical method of getting the right mix. A computer system awards points to a given track to identify it, not on merit, but on the basis of tempo, feel and style. It then shuffles tracks while ensuring no tunes with the same points allocation get played side by side.
The wide range of music has sparked considerable interest, says McAllum. Real Groovy averages 20 calls a day from listeners wanting to know what this or that track was, who the artist is, what CD it's on, and can they buy it? He agrees that it's been great for business.
Cool Blue's dilemma is that while listeners appreciate the lack of intrusion by a DJ, it can be frustrating if they hear a track they really like and want to identify. While those with computers can look up the website playlists, listeners without an internet link should note the exact time the track was played and call either the station or Real Groovy for more information.
What Hancox has gleaned from the e-mails and phone calls is that Cool Blue has attracted listeners who had permanently turned off their radios in disgust. Typical Cool Blue listeners are middle-class urbanites in their 30s or 40s, but teenagers and senior citizens are also tuning into this station that started on the internet and grew through word-of-mouth.
They have to be able to stand repetition, though. Hardly a day goes by when you don't hear Diana Krall singing Peel Me a Grape or I've Got You Under My Skin, or Blossom Dearie's I Won't Dance or Cleo Laine's On a Clear Day. But heck, who's complaining? For those who love this music, the repetitions are a blessing rather than an irritation.