Orlando, Fla. You can go to the island of St. Somewhere. St. Anywhere. Just boot up your PC, make a drink, put on your headphones and close your eyes.
"There are no restrictions," says singer Jimmy Buffett. "No FCC. It's like the old pirate radio stations that sat offshore and played what they want." Yes, Radio Margaritaville (www.radiomargaritaville.com) is owned by Jimmy Buffett. But no, it's not just a jukebox that spits out its namesake tune and other Parrothead favorites.
"We hope we can take folks away," says program director Steve Huntington. "It's really a theater of the mind. You supply your own pictures."
In some ways, it's a throwback to the bygone days when AM ruled the airwaves and the clearer night air allowed signals to be heard halfway across the country. It's also like the early days of FM rock, when each on-air personality was free to mix an individual picture through music. Throw in the exotica of listening to short-wave broadcasts from abroad, and the picture is complete.
A music set on Radio Margaritaville might begin with Buffett's "Cuban Crime of Passion," then go to a selection from Ry Cooder's "Buena Vista Social Club" CD, which features an award-winning collection of Cuban musicians. The lazy tropical theme might continue with James Taylor's "Mexico," then something from island music master (and Buffett sideman) Ralph MacDonald, and from Putumayo's "Caribe! Caribe!" collection of artists from Martinique and other islands.
The idea for Radio Margaritaville began with a Jimmy Buffett trip to Australia about 20 years ago. The country had only about 13 FM stations scattered around the rim, and they had to program a wide variety of music for a diverse audience.
"You never had to change the station," Buffett says. "It was so well programmed for what the listeners were doing. I wound up taping a bunch of those shows and bringing them back."
Fast-forward to about five years ago, when Buffett began thinking about radio again while listening to a Key West station and to WOYS in Apalachicola, in the Florida Panhandle. Their programming was similar to what he had heard in Australia.
Buffett looked up his old radio friend Huntington. In 1998, Huntington agreed to leave his long career in "regular" radio, saying he was tired of consultant-driven, homogenized programming.
"When we first started talking about this, we didn't know the Internet would be the route," Huntington says. "We figured it would be done in syndication or something. But we started doing some shows on the main Margaritaville site in 1998 and the response was very good."
Radio Margaritaville is linked to Buffett's regular Margaritaville site (www.margaritaville.com), which promotes his mini-empire of restaurants and retail outlets. The site is one of the few places to hear the solo efforts of Buffett's Coral Reefer Bandmates such as Roger Guth and brothers Jim and Peter Mayer. It's also an outlet for the growing world music scene, featuring the Afro-Caribbean music distributed by Putumayo and other labels.
One thing the operation has in common with regular commercial radio is its surprisingly cramped quarters. In a back-lot building at Universal Orlando, Huntington and cohort Carson Cooper spin their magic from a single windowless room stuffed with digital broadcast equipment and a couple of desks. Only a businesslike "Radio Margaritaville" plate marks the door.
It's a small operation for now, but the short list of sponsors is growing, Huntington says. One is the Bahamian resort where Buffett's musical "Don't Stop the Carnival" is in production. Margaritaville Tequila and a Midwestern boat/outdoor outfit are also on the list.
"My next dream is to offer a separate channel with just Jimmy Buffett music," Huntington says. "But when he did his own show, he didn't play any of his own music. It was all Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and other people who have influenced him.
"The Web is the radio of the future. It'll open up with increasing wireless Internet access," Huntington says.
"Look what happened to TV with the cable and satellite. It's a whole new world out there."
Especially if you close your eyes and listen.