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Now and Then: To the Radiomax

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Ron Kovacs sleeps and breathes music.

That’s because the Flemington, N.J., resident’s basement bedroom doubles as a music studio for the online station Radiomaxmusic.

When his Classic Countdown is not airing 6 p.m. on Thursdays, he is station administrator, compiling reports for DJs, advertisers and recording companies, as well as planning the lineup for his next show and monitoring other shows.

That, for Kovacs, entails a lot of listening. Over the years, he says he has developed an ear for what will play well with listeners and what goes in the delete can. Some unknown artists only have a minute to make the cut – or get cut. And established artists are not spared. “Norah Jones – she sounds good, but I’m not going to play it. People are just going to tune out.”

Kovacs says the Internet gives him more leeway than commercial FM stations with their often limited and repetitive lineups.

“Shocking Blue is a band from the 70s, and I just found out they’re still together so I’m going to take a listen and if it fits, what my ear likes, then I add them.”

“We just did a 50th anniversary of Abbey Road show. What was good about it is these are all different cuts of The Beatles’ music. We played all three CDs back to back. Chicago put out an album a couple of years ago. We played a lot of that.”

“This I would add,” Kovas says as a Sheryl Crow track plays. “That sounds pretty good.” A while back, Kovacs made Chubby Checker a feature artist. “As I was researching him I found he put out a bunch of albums in the 2000s.” Who knew?

“We used to play current music, but it’s gotten to sound all the same, very robotic. I can’t even tell artists apart anymore. I just wasn’t getting many listeners.”

Those listeners sometimes determine who stays and who goes. Kovacs can pinpoint how many listeners a DJ has on any given day. Scanning the numbers, Kovacs says of one DJ, “If he starts to go lower, then maybe I gotta replace him.”

People tune in from all over the world, in often surprising places. The day I was in studio, Russia had the most listeners followed by the U.S., Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Romania, Thailand and India.

Kovacs says Germans are the most loyal listeners, meaning they stay online longer than other nationalities. “I had an e-mail from kid in Germany wanting a T-shirt and hat. I’m going to send it to him because he collects stuff from radio stations.”

Kovacs, who was a shop manager at Port Newark in New Jersey for 35 years before retiring last year, always loved music growing up but was also fascinated by computers, starting a weekly magazine, Atari Max, in the early 1980s for computer fans, which later became an online magazine. After a stint developing websites, Kovacs still wanted to find a way to marry his two passions: music and computers.

A friend at WCBS radio in New York had a website devoted to oldies music. “He had a site, and I had mine so we just stared putting out updates about music news together.” The pair hired interns to travel the road with 1990s megastars like the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC. DJs submitted columns to the site, Maxmusic.

“Then we started playing with mp3s, creating our own stuff. We said why don’t we make our own shows?” Those shows would typically last an hour. But so many shows were added to the mix that managers started breaking them up into channels. “It just got to be so big so quickly, Kovacs recalls. “In 1999, we said let’s make a station. We just added radio to maxmusic. That’s how we came up with Radiomax.”

“I’ve been doing this for like 20 years now. It’s gotten easier over time. Now anyone can put up a station. It’s not that difficult, but if you don’t know music, it’s hard to keep listeners.”

“We’ve been through 50 different DJs. It’s hard work, but it’s a lot of fun. You have to like music,” he insists before donning his headset and sampling some more tracks.


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