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Preparing for the Internet Radio Broadcast Invasion
by Alex Cosper

published in the July 1997 issue of VirtuallyAlternative

Wanted: Cyberspace Superstar. No experience necessary. Say whatever you want between, over or during the songs you pick for yourself. If anyone else is listening that's amazing since they have the chance to do the same thing. You'll broadcast live on one of billions of webcasts throughout the world. There are 500 formats to choose from, each broken down into subcategories totaling over 40,000 tunes, including music that never charted. It's the end of commercial broadcasting even though every song you hear can be downloaded for digital credit.

Sound like the smartest music fan on earth by linking to an artist website and reading off the year by year chronology of the band. Compose your own music even if you don't know how. Click help topics. Become a new personality with every new televised chat room you enter. Package yourself as the extreme flipside of when you were a loser in high school. Click applause!

The computer screenplay writers of the nerd era tinckered with technology so that amateur broadcasters could rise in the event of pop culture's demassification. Underground music stations are popping up everywhere in cyberspace, while commercial music has also snuck on the web now that internet audio technology has become affordable. At this point, without FCC regulations, anybody can start their own "radio station" on the internet. But it's not quite the runaway train some pirate programmers might believe, since music licensing is still required to broadcast published music. Even so, the web is becoming so powerful that it would be a joke to ignore these alternatives to even Alternative Radio, especially since multimedia outlets potentially provide more instant gratification for the consumer.

Those who think radio has an untouchable edge in the car better realize that even if cellular phone technology never improves there are companies creating devices at this moment that will enable users to hear internet radio while driving. The revolution is in its infancy, so there's still time to plan a strategy that will integrate with multimedia technology.

Most of these underground operations are run by industry outsiders who are cynical about traditional programming. They want to create the image that they are in opposition of the industry hype machine that forcefeeds the unsuspecting public with disposable hits. So what do they do instead? They forcefeed a supposedly "more conscious" public with disposable underground stiffs. They don't understand the value of familiar music so they go out of their way to promote obscure unmelodic demos. How can this weak substance be a threat to commercial radio? As Marshall McLuhan said "the medium is the message."

We have entered an age of consumer control in which people enjoy multiple choices on demand. Digital push-button car radio, record store listening booths and internet radio all point in the direction of consumers being their own programmers. People have become conditioned to know what they want and to not settle for undesireable substitutes. As much as radio strives to deliver quality, the internet makes quantity seem attractive.

While radio could never get away with extensive playlists, an internet station can be multi-format. One of the more popular multi-format audio sites (due to strong content) is AudioNet which is basically a directory of international radio and internet audio links, giving users freedom to explore almost any type of music imaginable.

AudioNet and a handful of other sites offer libraries of popular music, but the majority of musical webcasters deal only with unsigned artists, either to create a regional base, or to elude licensing fees. Many of these commercial-free underground stations present live concerts of local bands for several hours. While much of the content sounds unmarketable, some of these stations have become regional success stories, attracting respectable followings of 1,000 to 10,000 listeners.

Of course, commercial radio would never target such a small audience, but when you start multiplying this figure by the number of internet stations signing online, the possibility of moving the available fringe audience from radio to the web starts to modify the numbers game. The fringe audience is the wildcard vote that makes ratings unpredictable. Programmers tend to write off this loud minority of people as irrelevant because they complain about repetition, but who else are they going to listen to?

At one time, radio was successful by trying to be all things to all people, but that was in the days of AM radio, with less competition. A ten share wasn't so incredible in those days. Fragmentation has clearly been a result of alternative media that offer a wider spectrum of choices. Now, radio has become niche-oriented, and so has the internet, except an internet station can be multi-niche-oriented. Click a style of music from the list of categories, then explore the archives. The linear thinking approach to radio programming may soon be challenged by the expansion of options offered on the web.

In a sense, record labels control the current climate of internet radio. They haven't yet resolved the legal issues surrounding internet "airplay," so if you want to start your own internet station, be prepared to face lots of confusion. According to Frank Creighton, VP and Associate Director of Anti-Piracy for the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) "It's not good enough to be licensed by BMI and ASCAP. You'll need a digital performance right as well."

Record label legal departments usually respond to these requests with rejection form letters that offer no explanation. Creighton adds, however, "if an individual were sent a promotion copy from the promotion department of a record label for internet use, that would be considered authorization." Purchasing promo copies at used record stores (however mysteriously they acquire the stock), on the other hand, doesn’t count as authorization.

As many webcasters will start to learn, using protected music without permission can be grounds for serious copyright infringement. On June 9th, the RIAA, representing 13 labels, filed civil actions against three internet music archive sites for not obtaining permission from copyright owners to broadcast full-length songs and allowing listeners to download the music. The maximum penalty for willfully pirating copyrighted music for profit can be up to $250, 000 in fines, 5 years imprisonment, or both.

At some point music industry executives will have to ask themselves, "Why are we fighting something that can dramatically increase our profits?" The internet audience is growing at a diabolical rate, now nearly 60 million worldwide. Apparently, labels are afraid that easy access to music and the capability of downloading music will cut into record sales.

But what about the encryption software available to prevent users from downloading music? "Encryption is going to be part of the answer," Creighton says, "but one of our fears of encryption is that it can be broken down. It can be hacked. We've been reaching out to (audio software) companies like RealAudio and working with them, technically. Since technology created this environment, we're saying to these companies, 'you're putting out software, we're putting out content. Let's work together.' " He agrees that once the technical issues are worked out so that artists aren’t damaged by pirating, and proper licensing is issued, internet radio will be more embraced by record labels.

Historically, new media, when integrated with existing technology, has helped expand audiences. Look at how the record industry reacted when radio became a public medium in the 20s. They thought, "who will buy records now that you can hear music at home for free?" Of course, radio eventually became the catalyst that sped up record sales when the two industries concluded they’d make better friends than enemies. Then in the 50s, panic struck Hollywood with the popularity of television, which turned out to be a new revenue stream for motion pictures. All of us remember the battle over home taping of movies in the 80s. Both industries still stand today. The one constant that reoccurs throughout the development of communications is that the successful industries are the ones that combine with newer, more efficient technologies.

Radio stations that are creative with their websites will probably survive the onslaught of new musical networks on the internet. Some stations, such as WNNX (99X) in Atlanta are even making additional money selling advertising on their website. According to 99X Marketing Director Amy Van Hook, the majority of the web clients have been new and separate from the radio side. "Newer businesses might be more inclined to use the internet, she says, pinpointing car dealerships and career recruitment businesses as important clients attracted to the new medium. "The internet is not our main focus because 99X is still a local radio station. But it’s quite a bonus that people listen to 99X around the world. This gives listeners a whole different way to interact with radio. My personal opinion is that it broadens the span of what radio is about. You can listen and watch concerts in your own hometown (via special webcasts)."

The site has been extremely popular, as Van Hook reveals: "May was our biggest month ever. We had a hit count of 789,000." The site can be accessed through AudioNet or at http://www.99x.com.

Treating the web as an extension of radio will allow radio to continue to be a force in the next century. But treating the web as a competitor and trying to counter-program it could be radio’s biggest mistake. The same can be said about record labels or any other business.

Internet radio is young and exciting, but it's still a couple of weeks away from mass acceptance and high sound quality. Many users still only have 14.4 modems, while quality audio software requires a 28.8 minimum. Audio, like graphics, eats up massive bandwidth on telephone lines. Not all service providers have the capacity to clearly deliver audio streams. Eventually, these technical bugs will be worked out. It's like space exploration. Imagination is the prelude to invention.

© 1997 VirtuallyAlternative. All rights reserved.






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