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Sites & sounds

Often they sound no better than an old AM radio, but Web radio stations attract about 31-million listeners daily.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 9, 1999


The strains of Beethoven soothe, then suddenly stop. It's not a radio commercial. It's Net congestion. The Grateful Dead's music died on deadradio.com, not because of a glitch, but because of legal issues.

It's all part of Web radio, which offers millions of computer users thousands of radio choices for their listening pleasure, from music to news to sports to talk to nostalgia to creating your own "station" if nothing else entertains.

An estimated 31-million people a day in the United States tune in to Web radio, according to a February study by media research company Arbitron (www.arbitron.com), about double from findings in September.

"Consumers are taking advantage of choices available to them over the Internet to find new kinds of stations," said Greg Verdino, vice president/general manager for Arbitron's Internet information services.

The audience is divided among thousands of sites. There are traditional radio stations offering programming on their own Web sites. There are portal sites such as Broadcast.com, which started with a single station in 1995 and now has links to more than 450 stations. And there are "stations" created for the Web only.

For Larry Magne, Web radio might be reggae from Jamaica or classical from Radio Beethoven in Santiago, Chile, or news from the BBC or CNN.

"This is evolving technology," said Magne, who edited the first edition of Passport to Web Radio, a book that describes stations available online. "When it's good, it's as good as FM. When it's not -- sometimes stations will just stop -- you need to be patient with it."

Magne, whose company, International Broadcasting Services Inc. (www.passband.com), started publishing Passport to World Band Radio in 1988, began tracking Web radio about three years ago.

At first, he recalls, it was plagued by crackling and breaking up and interrupted transmissions. It still can crackle: Slow connections can affect the quality, and Net traffic jams can cut off programs or make it difficult to connect to a favorite station. But it is better technically, he said, and choices have mushroomed to include international fare.

"It's enjoyable," Magne said. "If it's enjoyable, fun, people will do it, especially when it's free. Everyone has a PC and sound board. We're not talking about an extra investment. You've already bought the stuff."

Experts and surveys disagree about what people are listening to -- and when.

About 70 percent of people listen to the same local stations on their PCs as they do in their cars or on other radios, said Andy Collins, director of radio for Broadcast.com, a pioneer in Web radio. Most of them tune in at work (Collins says he hasn't heard of any complaints from bosses), since Web radio overcomes technical obstacles that block radio signals from getting into some buildings.

"People are finding a station they can live with during the business day" and don't station-hop, Collins said.

One possible reason: Changing stations on a PC is not like your car radio. Switching Web sites takes time, and then it takes a little longer waiting for the software to activate. That is good news for advertisers, who have more of a captive audience that won't tune out during ads.

Magne thinks relatively few Web listeners sample stations of the world because of the times we live in. Listenership is down for shortwave, too, he says, because Americans are focused on things at home. "We Americans are not concerned about things beyond domestic (issues)" now that the Cold War is over, Magne said.

Arbitron's surveys show a different pattern, according to Verdino, with more people checking out faraway stations.

"There's a lot of curiosity going on there," Verdino said, "because you can listen to radio anywhere. As you become a more experienced radio listener on the Web, you start coming back to local."

Users return to local stations for news and weather, community information and familiar on-air personalities. And, while he described daytime listenership as strong, Verdino said, "Our research has shown that there are more people listening at night and at home than during the day and at work."

Sports fans will stray far from home to follow a favorite team or tune in a big event. Broadcast.com was started by two Indiana University alumni in Texas who wanted to listen to Hoosier basketball games.

Another top genre for PC listeners: classical music. Many markets around the country don't have a classical station, Collins said, and the Net provides a wealth of choices. Alternative music sites are predictably popular considering that 91 percent of people ages 18 to 24 are online, Verdino said.

Those who don't like what radio stations offer can program their own music at sites such as ImagineRadio.com, which was bought by Viacom/MTV. There, users can choose categories ranging from country to classic rock or select individual artists to come up with playlists. Or they can tune in to about two dozen "professional" stations based on their musical tastes.

The Web-only stations, though, have to overcome some big obstacles: They don't have a built-in audience, the novelty can wear off quickly and some are amateurish in their presentations, Magne says. They have trouble attracting advertising, and some Net advertising attempts, such as banner ads, have lost their luster. Without ad support, even modest online overhead can add up.

"I haven't seen a whole heck of a lot that seems to be taking off," Magne said, adding that many of the stations start with lots of hype only to die months later.

The love of music can sometimes clash with copyright laws. For fans of the classic rock group Grateful Dead, clicking on the music icon at deadradio.com brings a message: "Due to licensing issues and restrictions, this content is no longer available." Other parts of the site remain active, including links to other Dead sites.

What started the boom in Web radio was a technology called streaming, which allows a computer to start showing (or playing) data before it is completely downloaded.

Computer users don't need much to listen. Magne recommends at least a 28.8k modem, though a 56k or faster provides more continuity. Some older computers might have trouble tuning into radio and performing other tasks at the same time. Users will need to download free software from RealNetworks (www.real.com), the Microsoft Media Player (www.microsoft.com) or Apple QuickTime 4 (www.apple.com/quicktime/) to listen to many sites.

A crowded and growing field doesn't faze Broadcast.com.

"Our organization is very aggressive that we stay on top of anything," Collins said. "The competition out there is good for us and good for Internet streaming in general."

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