The future of radio is digital, there’s no doubt about that, the question is one of distribution. JULIAN MITCHELL taps into the quiet revolution that is web radio and finds a wealth of content, new services and new technology to deliver it.
Radio is the great survivor. What other medium can infiltrate, inform, and educate to all corners of the earth and be received at low cost and, at times, with very low quality? Answer: the Internet. In fact, the more you follow the analogy the more similarities there are. Under-developed countries saw radio as a line of communication to the outside world, ditto the Internet. Governments wanted to regulate radio and control its message, ditto the Internet, especially in more ‘autocratic’ regions. Radio encouraged the individual to broadcast, through pirate stations, with cheap gear and popular content that ignored what the traditional broadcasters thought the public wanted. You can start your own Internet radio station today, you don’t need a license and you don’t need permission. The Internet is changing the rules of content management and providing what the big broadcasters want to control: choice.
Even if video didn’t quite kill the radio star, it didn’t do him any good, and radio has been looking for its slice of the digital distribution cake ever since. It’s true that if you sign up for digital TV you will get a number of radio stations included, so there you are sitting in your armchair looking at radio, not quite the solution radio warrants. Public service broadcasters, like the BBC, have championed digital radio as the answer: no hiss, no signal degradation of any kind, but much the same content and radios that can cost £500.
Now I’m a radio fan and have already admitted to taking my radio to bed at an early age and slowly tracking the dial from one end to the other – delighting in the stations that I found. I’m not saying that you should lug your PC under the sheets, but the same experience is available on-line, and the good news is there are now companies who are making web radios without the need for a computer.
Kerbango And Others
Kerbango are a Californian company with staff who hail from Apple and Power Computing. They foresaw this content revolution via the Internet and wanted to bring it to a wider public. Kerbango wanted to provide a standalone radio that had AM, FM and also IM, Internet Modulation, and they would match the radio up with their database of on-line radio content providers.
Having eulogised about the virtues of web radio it is a fact that there are some major obstacles in its way, like having to use a computer and having to pay a metered account for your time on-line. In the States the on-line deal is to pay an amount per month to your ISP and then be able to use the Internet unmetered after that, you pay more for broadband lines, like DSL. So Kerbango thought that if you are already paying the monthly fee you would soon be looking for content. Marc Auerbach from Kerbango explains his company’s vision: “People really love choice, even if they don’t exercise it that often. We have a phenomenon in the US that quite a large part of the population moves every year and there’s a tremendous desire to listen to a radio station from their home town and particularly from their college radio station, there’s something about not wanting to abandon those college years entirely. Of course, there are many ex-patriots who also want to listen to a radio station from their home country.”
Kerbango’s idea of a web radio ( pictured top left) might have remained a fascinating curio, apart from the fact that a couple of months ago the company was bought by 3Com. 3Com also have a vision but their leverage enables theirs to be achieved much quicker, and ultimately at lower cost to the consumer (Kerbango under 3Com have already announced their radio will be $300). 3Com wanted Kerbango to merge with their wireless network designs for households. At the moment the Kerbango radio has to be connected to a phone line or an Ethernet connection, but with 3Com’s technology the radio will become portable and more like what we are used to. It is hoped that the radio will also go into cars when 3Com roll out their Wap or third generation technology. This should take a couple of years and will be joined by on-line access systems already being paraded by car manufacturers. Ironically these mobile devices will be seen in Europe before the USA because of the European Union’s decision to go with one standard.
Kerbango’s research further shows that 32 percent of white-collar workers in the US have radios at work. They have also concluded that most will not listen to AM because of the bad reception and will have to put up with variable qualities of FM. From this they deduce, and also see, that radio listening peaks at drive times, 1pm and 1am. Using Internet radio, they say, could actually change listening patterns forever by increasing listening hours throughout the day. They are backed up in this assumption by companies like VH-1 who have just started the ‘VH-1 at work’ radio station, and there is actually an Internet station called Radio Office which streams a selection of ‘Radio2-like’ music.
Other hardware that is trying to free Internet radio from the PC come from companies like SonicBox and Akoo with their Kimer base unit and receiver. Unfortunately, both systems still rely heavily on having a PC connected to the Internet and then use RF systems to send a signal to a normal radio in your house — tune into a designated FM frequency and you hear the stream. The advantage for Kerbango is to have, what in effect is, a PowerPC with Linux OS running just the tuning software and nothing else, it has to be more efficient and more user friendly.
At present Kerbango’s radio station database includes about 5500 streams. About 2000 of these are traditional radio stations who are streaming their normal output. The rest are made up of Internet start-ups and on-demand services. Marc Auerbach sees this number growing exponentially in the next couple of years: “I can see by the end of 2001 that our database will have maybe 30,000 names on it. We have just had the experience of the first traditional radio station to change from RF to the Internet. The station in LA had to change because of FCC rules but instead of closing down they still have their staff and their programming. There are about 11,000 RF stations in the US and we only have about 2000 of them, so there is a big growth there.
“But these stations aren’t the only thing you can hear. Soon you will be able to hear different programming like guitar lessons for instance, or you could have a Shakespeare soliloquy channel. People buy nature sounds CDs, so why not just hang a microphone in the Amazon and stream it. If you remember that this spectrum is free you can start to speculate wildly. One of the versions of our radio has a USB connection and one of the things it can be used for is a microphone. So imagine you have an audio chat room on the internet, you could participate and join in the chat.”
You don’t even have to speculate wildly to see how this phenomenon could be attractive to the recording studio world. Studios could stream an output of the music that is being recorded there. This would interest the record companies who are looking to place their business, and also act as a branding exercise. The Ministry of Sound, once just a club in South London, is now a publisher of magazines and a radio station with streams of all kinds of different music. Billboard, still the music industry bible in the US, is now a radio station too, the same with Music Week in the UK who have dotmusic.com.
So if this new medium matures as we hope, the nature of radio programming will change drastically and will be seen as more of an audio-on-demand service. This is good news for smaller interest groups, like world music or modern classical. Listen to gaialive.com for chill music or mappings.com for experimental music, get a stream of just British pop bands or just computer business news. This stuff is out there now and much more besides.
Marc Auerbach from Kerbango admits that many streams in his company’s database are originated by what we can call ‘hobbyists’. These are people who are using programs from ShoutCAST to Live365 to MyCaster, which provide relatively easy ways to stream content. Most of these people are doing this as a hobby or are trying to find ways of initiating a revenue stream to go alongside their broadcast stream. Even for large radio networks the first impulse with their on-line stream was to get one and pay for it later. Now there is maybe a way for ‘streamers’ to receive revenue, not just from their locality but from international conglomerates that want global coverage.
In the USA there are a number of companies who are now offering advertisement insertion within your stream depending on the locale of the listener, meaning that even if you are a radio station in Ohio and you have listeners in Manchester, they will receive ads that are meaningful to them. Companies like Lightningcast and Hiwire use technology that pre-caches the ads to prevent the lags and buffering inherent in streaming. Hiwire use their own client software in the shape of a very good player, before you download this player you are asked some marketing research questions which will go towards what ads are then inserted in your listening stream, allowing the station to target listeners more than usual. The theory is that wherever you are listening in the world you get commercials that you can react to and will appeal to your demographic; the station gets revenue from the advertisers. Kerbango are also working on a similar kind of ad insertion technology but admits that it’s perhaps a couple of years away from reality.
But perhaps even more important, in terms of revenue, is proving just how many listeners you have. The Internet broadcasting world in the States is measured in a similar way to terrestrial broadcasters and by similar organisations to JICRAR in the UK. Arbitron are the company in the US whose job it is to measure listener figures and produce metrics accordingly. For on-line broadcasts they have introduced what they call an Infostream, which is basically a list of the top 50 radio stations and their figures. The latest figures are only from February and use a new metric called Aggregate Tuning Hours which is the sum total of all hours that listeners tune to a given channel during the month. Aggregate Tuning Hours captures the total volume of tuning to webcasts by combining the impact of both the culminate audience and the time they spent tuning over the course of the month.
Unfortunately, this ATH metric is not a recognised method. The industry standard is Average Quarter Hour (ATQ) audience which is a convoluted way of saying average audience, the number of people listening at the average moment. To convert ATH to ATQ you have to divide ATH by the number of hours in a month, the results are very damning to this new industry and come from RAIN (Radio and Internet Newsletter).
The winner of the February infostream was a station called NetRadio with 227,600 aggregate tuning hours. If you divide that by the number of hours in February, 6672, and you get a grand total of only 339 listeners per hour! Third on the list was the UK’s Virgin Radio with 186,200 ATH which works out at 277 listeners per hour. Number 50 was KMEO in Dallas with just 25 listeners per hour and these are the top 50, just imagine what the rest are like.
RAIN compares these figures to traditional radio and, as you can imagine, they don’t compare very favourably. For instance, KQRS’ normal audience is 38,400 while Internet radio listeners number 134. Stations are defending themselves by saying that an average may mean that at the busiest times their listenership may be much higher but just listen for much shorter times. They also say that without dedicated hardware, like the Kerbango radio, most Internet radio hours are in business hours so you shouldn’t divide by all the hours in the month.
Bob Belling from mp3player.com does see some light at the end of the tunnel: “The numbers are probably higher than the providers server logs indicate. Many, maybe even most, ISPs now practice stream emulation, the audio equivalent of caching web pages. In other words, once they get more than one request for the same audio stream, they’ll just duplicate it and resend it, rather than pay for the bandwidth to go to the net and retrieve it multiple times. The provider only gets one request for the stream but could conceivably have more than the one person logged on to it.”
Whatever way you look at it, the listener figures are low compared to traditional broadcasters. There are calls to split Internet-only stations and stations who just stream their normal output, to see if the situation is clearer but you can’t really make a silk purse out of this particular sow’s ear. The resulting fall-out may mean a lessening of some funding for Internet streams, but most people see the arrival of new hardware and more awareness as a positive thing.
There are also companies taking advantage of this growth who not only supply hardware for start-ups but also the know-how to tackle dense telecommunications problems, of which there are many — companies like Chryon Internet Services, for example Chyron have already released a media encoder product called Clari•net (see Audio Media, June 2000) which will encode your stream into Real Audio or Windows Media format for broadcast. But their announcement of a new division shows a timely commitment to a burgeoning market, their Marketing Manager Philip O’Ferrall explains: “The new division wants to supply turnkey solutions. We are positioning ourselves towards anyone who has media that they want to be posted on a website, and that really goes from print publishers who want to media cast, to the radio and TV broadcast arenas. Radio is the big growth area now because people can get a very good quality stream, especially if it has gone through some sort of equalisation and processing, which is where products like the Clari•net come in. We’ve seen lots of interest coming from the gaming industry, one of our first clients was William Hill and they wanted to add some kind of interactivity to their on-line activity. Streaming audio was the first step for them.
“Internet-only radio station start-ups have approached us, initially about the encoding product but more recently about gaining the knowledge base about broadcasting and also buying a turnkey solution, so they can concentrate on their business while we handle the technical side.
“At the moment we can go on-site and install basic studio equipment and provide the connection to the hosting, which we do through a number of partners. We then do the basic engineering work, hosting, monitoring, and streaming. If a physical studio was requested we would do that, but through a partner.
“A basic set-up for say a print publisher who wanted to offer some kind of streaming would be something like a small room with a couple of microphones, a very basic mixer, and headphones. This is basically for interviews. You would then have an encoder and an optional product that we are calling the Journalist’s workstation. That will automate the process, it’s basically a Windows-based control screen which allows you to type in the name of the story or interview and all the other elements are automated, such as the encoding and the upload to the website. The price for that kind of system is variable depending on the hosting, and how many people you want to experience the stream. The biggest problem people have is to under estimate the required capability. If you set your system up and presume you will get 1000 people and you get a massive increase, the servers can’t deal with it. Our process includes looking at all the ISPs and making sure of quality of service.”
A company like Chryon has about 30 years of broadcast experience and are well set to reap the benefits of streaming media. Apart from the set-up of encoding and streaming, they also offer asset management to keep tabs on who owns what.
Another company with many years of broadcasting experience that is also championing Internet radio is Broadcast Electronics. Their encoding product is called eStream, which is basically a PCI card with processing on board for encoding to real audio, Windows media, or MP3 files. The card comes with several audio processing software applications from Waves in Israel, and streaming bandwidth management tools. If you want to stream more than one channel you just buy more cards — up to eight for a PC with the available slots.
The processing includes an automatic loudness control; voice intelligibility enhancement; noise reduction; EQ, and digital filtering; peak limiting and dynamic range control and stereo, 3-D and bass enhancement.
There are some who think that the recent broadcast of Big Brother, both here and in the US, is the watershed for streaming media. If you didn’t know, both shows used continuous streaming of both audio and video and went a long way to demystify the industry. There are some who view the Napster technology as the most exciting Internet revolution with around 20 millions users. For those who don’t know, Napster is a way to swap MP3 files over the Internet, thereby producing a free-for-all digital-copying bonanza. It is true that Napster has put the wind up the music industry more than Internet Radio, and there is already talk of the music industry changing it’s business models – one idea is to make CDs free but heavily sponsored by an advertiser.
But for pure choice you cannot beat Internet Radio, once 3Com start licensing the technology you will see companies Sony and Thomson quickly taking it up. Then the rollercoaster will really start and hopefully will propel this new entertainment medium into the mainstream.