Internet Radio On
By Robert O'Malley
On the surface, it looks like a typical radio station. There's an announcer in a booth and a stack of CDs waiting to be spun.
But that's about as far as the comparison goes. Instead of playing the music typically heard on commercial rock stations from coast to coast, RadioBoston.com is playing the music of New England-area bands and regularly streaming live shows in both audio and video from Boston-area clubs.
While the RadioBoston.com playlist may not suit the tastes of all radio listeners, the station's decision to focus on unique content and live streaming is stretching the limits of radio and offering listeners more choices and greater control over their listening.
In cities across America, Internet radio stations are changing the way we think about radio and offering music programming that challenges the stranglehold commercial radio has on our ears.
"Here's the interesting thing," says RadioBoston.com founder Robert Swalley. "Being Internet radio, our listenership isn't necessarily that big in Boston. This is part of why the concept of regional music or local music on the radio has never happened. Up till now, a traditional FM station could never survive doing 24/7 of the music of Boston. There just isn't a big enough pool of people that are interested."
"But when you open it up to the entire world suddenly there is more than enough people interested in what's going on in Boston," he says. "At any given time we've got listeners from all over the world."
Swalley believes that unique content is what distinguishes Internet radio from traditional radio. Turn on a typical rock station anywhere in the country and you'll likely hear the same mind-numbing songs repeated ad infinitum.
"Traditional radio is interesting," says Swalley. "Some of them are frantically trying to get on the Internet. Because they're like, 'The Internet, oh my God, I got to do something. I got to get on the Internet. Everyone's on the Internet. What do I do?'"
"The problem is their advertising is all regional and their listener ship is all regional; yet they're playing music that is being played on FM radio stations all across the country."
Swalley believes RadioBoston's decision to have a live EJ (electronic jock) streaming music distinguishes it from other Internet radio stations. Many Internet sites follow a jukebox format in which listeners are allowed to select from a collection of available songs, he says.
While Swalley's BostonRadio.com offers content that would ordinarily not be available without the Internet, traditional radio is anxiously trying to respond to the changes by building a presence on the Web. Turn on your FM station in many major cities and you'll likely hear a DJ reminding you to listen to the stationıs signal streaming on the Internet.
Radio on the web is also taking on other forms. There are now large portals such as Broadcast America.com that connect listeners to a diverse group of stations across the country and around the world. There are also sites such as MyPlay.com that allow users to create there own unique formats.
All of the stations require users to download players such as the Real Player or Windows Media Player in order to listen to music. Even users with slow modem connections can generally listen to the music on many of these sites, though those with slower connections may experience breaks in the stream.
Web Radio Offers Choices
Why this sudden surge in Web radio? Improved streaming technology as well as the Internet's tendency to challenge established forms of communication are two of the factors driving the trend.
Jeremy Swartz, a senior analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass, says the number of people listening to Internet radio has perhaps doubled over the last year.
Swartz believes that consumers are drawn to Internet radio because it allows them to customize their radio experience. "Consumers are interested in getting access to content that they can listen to any time they want," says Swartz. They can also gain access to content that ordinarily wouldn't be available on their local FM radio stations.
"Let's say you move from California to New York," says Swartz. "You're a Dodgers fan and you want to keep up on the home team, which you obviously can't do in the same way from across the country. Internet radio allows you to hear sporting event s and other kinds of events that are actually somewhat local in nature. But because they're being broadcast over the Internet you can hear them anywhere."
Swartz believes the global nature of the Internet "also gives radio stations the ability to reach audiences and markets that they might not have reached otherwise."
"For example, there are very few classical stations across the country," he says. "There are big areas of the country where there are no classical stations that broadcast, but a classical station that uses the Internet can reach a market outside of its local market."
It's precisely this kind of demand that stations such as BroadcastAmerica.com are trying to satisfy, suggests Stephen Moulton, Broadcast.America's senior vice-president of design and new media.
While RadioBoston.com focuses on a specialized audience that's interested in the local Boston music scene, BroadcastAmerica.com offers users the chance to select from a broad range of traditional radio content collected from around the country and the world.
Visitors to the BroadcastAmerica site can click on Radio Jamaica or listen to a Bible station in the Deep South. "Hundreds of Jamaican Americans will tune in to listen to Jamaican radio," says Moulton. "We already know that to be a fact. We know for a fact that German Americans want to listen to German radio and German news."
"We also have under contract the Air Force TV News which is actually played as video at the television news link of Broadcast America," he says. "Here you've got thousands upon thousands of people that are in the Air Force and their families who want to know what's going on in the Air Force. They can go and watch this half-hour program from anywhere in the world."
Internet radio, says Moulton, makes it possible for people from around the world to gain access to music and cultures that would ordinarily be closed to them. For example, WJBQ in Portland, Maine, now receives requests from listeners in Pakistan and Australia, he says. "Somebody from Pakistan has got stuck on that because you can imagine they're not necessarily hearing the latest and greatest of top rock in Pakistan."
Moulton says BroadcastAmerica.com streams radio stations on the Internet for free in return for promo spots on radio stations. "We're already the largest and we want to be bigger than that," says Moulton. "We're launching in the next couple of weeks Broadcast Asia.com. We've got an office in Hong Kong with sales people lining up radio stations and television shows throughout Asia."
Moulton says the Broadcast America .com business model is based on advertising. The company, he says, is also developing technology that will make it possible to replace local ads with ones aimed at a global audience.
"We're working on our own proprietary ad stripping technology that enables us to know when a radio station is playing an ad at their station and to stop their signal and play our advertising," says Moulton. "Their ads are regional ads. We could say, 'Now we're going to replace all those regional ads with a Nike ad or a Wells Fargo ad and we'll give you a percentage for that.'"
The Future of Radio
As Internet radio grows, it's almost certain to have a significant effect on the way traditional radio stations conduct their businesses. Swalley believes Internet radio will become the norm in the future, especially as more people get DSL or cable connections. "That's really where it's heading," he says. .
"What you're going to see is FM radio go more towards the truly local content," he says. "It's going to be talking about the traffic, the local town mayoral race. Internet radio will definitely be very much the norm as Internet appliances come along."
Swartz says there is now a tabletop tuner on the market that connects to both traditional radio and the Internet. "It sells for under $300," he says. "You just plug it into your cable modem and you're ready to go."
"I think that the traditional radio stations have quite a long way to go before they start truly utilizing the Internet;" adds Swartz. "There are a lot of business opportunities, revenue opportunities that they're not taking advantage of from a commerce point of view."
"There's a certain amount of subscription revenues that can be derived from news and a sort of ad-free radio that aren't being taken advantage of," he says. "And certainly the ability to connect commerce opportunities to purchase music being heard on the radio is very underutilized."
"Most of the radio stations we talked about were not really taking advantage of the Internet like they could," says Swartz, who adds that many traditional stations don't see Internet radio as "a big threat " until it gets into people's cars and homes. "That will inevitably happen as net radio devices start to proliferate a couple of years from now."
"There's a lot of initiatives right now to provide radios that, for example, pick up satellite radio," he says. "That's already underway, and that will give you nationwide coverage of radio. As far as Internet radio, I would say five years from now a significant proportion, probably over 50 percent of automobiles, will have Internet radios in them."
"Even within a couple of years you'll start to see radios - from Motorola for example - that will receive not specifically Internet broadcasts but subscription-based kind of broadcast services from companies ... that will deliver personalized content to these radios."