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Sonic Surfers 

Web radio: Freedom of choice is just a keystroke away

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
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Broadcast.com is extensive, but not all-inclusive. In Los Angeles, for example, KIIS-FM streams its broadcast without Broadcast.com’s help (http://www. kiisfm.com). The Santa Monica–based National Public Radio station KCRW streams programming largely separate from its over-the-air broadcast (http://www.kcrw. org/online), though it does include lots of Morning Becomes Eclectic reruns.

Even Wharton concedes that "There are so many opportunities in this new field, you would be crazy not to be exploring that if you’re a broadcaster."

Conventional broadcasters, however, have done little with their online editions except mirror their over-the-air signals.

"Their first instinct is to repurpose their content," says Geiger. "The old radio industry has not leveraged this new opportunity yet. Spinner.com, Shoutcast, Broadcast.com — how many of them were owned by broadcasting companies? Zero!"

There is plenty of activity, but there’s a catch: No one is making any money yet. Even Broadcast.com still shows red on the balance sheet. So why are radio stations rushing onto the Internet?

"In terms of immediate revenue, I’m at a loss to come up with the answer to that," puzzles Wharton. "I think it’s more understanding the technology, being ahead of the curve. Not feeling like you’re out of the loop."

Even the legal obstacles that face the growing market for mp3 and other forms of music download ease up when the signal is streamed. Because streaming audio cannot be saved to a hard drive (at least not very easily), it is much more difficult to pirate.

"Any new way of offering people an opportunity to enjoy music is a positive thing, and Webcasting would certainly fit within that," says Steven Marks, senior vice president and director of business affairs for the Recording Industry Association of America.

The RIAA is the trade organization that no one ever heard of before it made headlines with its crusade to crush mp3. Yet when it comes to streaming audio, even the streaming mp3 audio that Shoutcast offers, the RIAA is downright laid-back. The association is currently negotiating with the recently formed Digital Music Association — which represents Spinner.com and other online broadcasters — to come up with licensing fees for Internet radio. Included in the final package, Marks says, will be a "hobbyist’s license" available for a "nominal fee" that will allow bedroom Shoutcasters to continue their avocation without maxing their credit cards on artist-royalty payments.

Even the RIAA realizes, apparently, that the Internet, as corporate as it has become, is still a medium that begins and ends with one person with a mouse and a monitor, searching for connections to a larger world.

"That’s why as a music fan I’ve always liked the Net," says Nullsoft’s Ian Rogers. "It brings you closer to people with similar interests who might not be next door to your house — but they’re out there, and you get to share with them. It’s tremendous."

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