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Internet Killed the Radio Star

Customizable listening may expand audiences but could be a double-edged sword for radio stations and content owners 12/10/2000 07:00:00 PM Eastern

The first video aired on MTV was the Buggles' classic "Video Killed the Radio Star." The Internet has resisted such grandiose and dramatic pronouncements. But in another couple years, the Buggles may want to record a new version called "Internet Killed the Radio Station."

Forrester Research calls it the "self-serve audio evolution." Until now, those who wanted to store audio files on their computers and create online music libraries to share and access was pretty much limited to desktop computers. But a number of portable audio devices capable of storing literally hundreds of hours of audio files are on the way. Once the equipment is more affordable, it will usher in the ultimate evolution: the arrival of Internet "anytime, anywhere." The arrival date for that era, according to Forrester, is circa 2005.

"Certainly, Internet radio has been growing in popularity," says Jeremy Schwartz, Internet consultant and former analyst at Forrester Reasearch. "More important, the way consumers think about audio experiences is changing with the ability to hear what you want when you want it." And in-dash Internet radios will only further make the case for Internet anytime, anywhere. But 2005 is another four years away. During that time, Forrester says stage two of the evolution will take place. That stage, called the "device era," will see streaming and downloadable media move out of the PC and into devices with the ease-of-use akin to home electronics. Some of those devices are already available, but they tend to be costly-in the neighborhood of $300 to $400-well above the impulse-buy price range.

"We're still in the early days," adds Schwartz. "MP3-type players are pricey in relation to the cost of the amount of storage. As the technology gets cheaper and easier to use, this kind of listening will become more pervasive."

While the technology may still be in the early stages, companies have crafted business plans to travel down this road to the future. One such company is Audible.com, a Web-based service for spoken-word programming. Audible.com has already forged innovative relationships with traditional media, including radio, newspapers and book publishers. Audible.com offers listeners "choice and control" over content and so extends and expands audiences for content providers. Newspaper "readers" can access articles while at the wheel. Moreover, radio listeners are freed from the constraints of the broadcast schedule.

John Barth, senior director of original programming, came to Audible.com after four years as general manager of news, politics and reference for America Online. Barth is convinced that self-serve audio is the wave of the future.

"People's schedules change all the time, and concepts like 'prime time' and 'drive time' are dissolving," he explains. "They used to be predictable 15 years ago. So the question is how do we accommodate this?"

The way Audible.com works is akin to programming a VCR to record a show you'd otherwise miss. The user downloads compressed audio files to a computer and transfers them to a portable digital player. While the majority of their offerings are digital versions of books-on-tape, commuters can also download time-sensitive content. An audio version of TheNew York Times, Washington Post
and Wall Street Journal
are available each morning for the daily drive. Likewise, many of the best-known public-radio programs are also available.

So where does radio programming fit in? Barth says partnering with public-radio producers is a natural fit, because public radio's audience has a high level of Web access, education and income.

"Public-radio listeners are online," he says. "It's a dream demographic. So we've marshaled the crown jewels of the programs from National Public Radio and Public Radio International. This has created a sizable audience in a short time, faster than we thought it would."

Another advantage is that radio listeners are a different audience than the books-on-tape crowd, allowing for cross-selling of content. "There's always going to be a book audience, people hooked on that kind of listening," Barth adds. "Radio brings in a new audience you can expose to this, and vice-versa." But there is a potential problem for radio stations. If NPR listeners turn to Audible.com for their content, they won't be listening to NPR on local station affiliates.

Jon McTaggart, senior vice president for new media at Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), doesn't see that as a major issue. MPR produces many programs, including Marketplace
and Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion,
that are available through Audible.com and other new-media outlets.

McTaggart says that affiliates increasingly recognize the importance of such online support for programming.

"Take National Public Radio," he says. "The listeners have an expectation that if they miss a story, they can get it later on the NPR site. Most local stations realize that shows have to be supported appropriately to meet such expectations."

In fact, stations that know how to promote themselves properly can actually use this to increase traffic on their own Web sites. "This is not a new-media issue. It's a branding issue for local stations," he says.

Offering online access can also create value for back catalogs of programming that would otherwise sit in storage. "In 1998, we produced a 10-part series on infertility called The Fertility Race. After it aired, we offered tapes and transcripts. By continuing to promote this series in use-Net groups and Internet search engines, we have a steady stream of listeners interested in the subject coming to visit this site," McTaggart points out.

Increasing the availability of such information is also in keeping with public broadcasting's mission. "MPR is committed to accessibility. We want to give access to this programming in any way that makes sense for our audiences and ourselves. Our daily discipline is, is this really an opportunity to provide public service? Does it enhance our mission?

"We may have created the content first for radio," he continues, "but, as we offer these programs through other platforms, our audiences are telling us it's a tremendous value to them. More and more want to listen on portable devices, so why not support that?"

For McTaggart, these initial explorations are the groundwork for creating a new public-service media model. "People understand what public service is in radio and television. What's undefined is what it means to provide public service through multiple platforms."

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