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Oft-ignored fact: Internet radio is a DIFFERENT medium

Posted on: 12/17/2007

Here’s the lead from a recent product review in PC World magazine:

  • Picture this: You’ve moved from your hometown, in say, California, all the way to the east coast, leaving your favorite radio station and disc jockey behind. There’s no local station that can quite live up to it. Your only solace is that your [California] station does broadcast over the Net. Now, thanks to Tangent’s Quattro Internet Radio…”

There’s a failure of imagination in that sentence that is being repeated not only regularly by journalists, but also throughout the world of broadcast radio executives as well.

Let me try writing an analagous fake lead for an article on the new medium of TV-series-on-DVD and see if I can illustrate my point:

  • Imagine this: It’s Thursday night at 7pm CT and you’re ready to sit down with a pizza and a beer and watch “Seinfeld.” Unfortunately, something goes wrong — perhaps your cable box is on the fritz, or NBC has decided to pre-empt the show for a Christmas special, or whatever. But now, when 7pm arrives, cued up on your new ‘DVD’ player, you can have a replacement episode standing by. Just wait ‘til 7pm, hit ‘Play,’ and voila! Your 30-minute Thursday Seinfeld experience is back on track! (And on the following Thursday at 7pm, you can do it again!)”

See my point? Sure, one can use TV-series-on-DVD in the same way as broadcast TV — restrict yourself to one episode, play it at a pre-arranged time, etc. But the medium itself doesn’t have those restrictions! You can watch any time you want, as many episodes as you want, and even listen to alternate audio tracks (e.g., directors’ commentaries)!

Similarly, webcasters can do Internet radio exactly like broadcast radio — an unchangeable-by-the-consumer string of 12 to 16 songs per hour, interspersed with commentary by a “disc jockey,” funded by a couple of commercial breaks per hour of three to eight local advertisers per break, and aimed at a local audience (as limited by the reach of the transmitter).

But the medium doesn’t require those restrictions!

When you’re delivering radio programming to consumers using the Internet as your delivery mechanism rather than AM or FM transmitters or even satellites, you have more flexibility and more options.

  • You can play different songs to different listeners, allowing the listener to pause or skip songs, and even letting the consumer influence which songs he or she hears.
  • You don’t have to serve only a local audience, since your “transmission mechanism” has no geographic constraints.
  • You can use different funding approaches (national advertisers, a mix of banners and video gateways rather than just audio; subscriptions and/or donations).
  • You can even eliminate the DJ from the mix if you want to, since most of the functions the DJ serves on broadcast radio (identifying which songs are being played, insuring call-letter recall on the part of ratings diary-keepers, adding a human element) are not needed in this medium.*

I am not saying there’s not some value for some webcasters in using the broadcast radio model for Internet radio. (RadioParadise.com, for example, uses many elements of that model — an personable DJ offering a fixed string of songs, with commentary interspersed — very well.)

But I believe that’s going to be the exception rather than the rule — just as my plans to watch one hour of season five of “24” at precisely 8pm tonight are an exception to the usual DVD rule.

Webcasters who take advantage of the characteristics of the new medium — e.g., LAUNCHcast, Pandora, etc. — are, I believe, going to be the ones that see the greatest success in this medium. And right now, the Internet efforts of traditional radio broadcasters (AM/FM broadcast groups, satellite radio companies, etc.) are not playing in that game.


Asterisk: Songs can be identified with “Now playing” text on the player; listenership is measured precisely via server logs; listeners who want a human connection can have a chat room open in another browser window (and get two-way communication rather than radio’s one-way version.)

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