Satellite and Internet radio are about to jump-start a medium that has lagged behind the information explosion.
By Marc Fisher
Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist, is a regular contributor to AJR.
ON THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, protesters pound on drums and chant their opposition to the corporate consolidation that has turned radio into an aural wasteland. But it is inside the Moscone Convention Center where the real revolution is happening. The men in suits arrive with every appearance of being wired to the max: They¹re on cell phones, they stand in line to check their e-mail, they nervously check their wireless links to the Web. But underneath their technosavvy exteriors, the chieftains of radio are in a panic. In the race to latch on to new technologies, they fear they have fallen too far behind, perhaps fatally so. The National Association of Broadcasters Radio Show is packed with seminars dedicated to probing whether radio is a relic: "New Media & Autos: Is the Free Ride Over?" and "Has the Internet Train Left Your Station?" and "Can Radio Survive the Broadband Revolution?"
"If you don't move, the consumer will move without you," warns futurist Barry Vercoe of the MIT Media Lab.
" 'Frightened' is the wrong word for what's happening in radio," says Jim Gable, a cofounder of Kerbango, a company that makes a new kind of radio that plays AM, FM and Internet stations. "I had one guy, a radio executive who saw what we're doing, took a deep breath and said, 'Oh, I thought I'd be retired before this.' "
Radio until very recently was the most immediate of media. If you didn't want to wait for the next morning's newspaper or the evening TV newscast, you switched on the radio to find out what was happening. But the advent of cable TV news channels, newspapers' ventures into phone, fax and Internet, and the instantaneous culture of the Web left radio as the missing link in the media chain. At the office one day this fall, I flipped between the BBC and ESPN Web sites to follow a breaking revolution in Yugoslavia and the baseball playoffs. At home, I would be able to pick up the coverage on any number of Web or TV outlets. But the drive from work to home was a dead zone, with no live coverage of either story.
That is about to change. In the extremely near future, what Americans do in their cars--the place where 115 million commuters spend ever more hours in a daily quest for media distraction--will undergo the most dramatic change since the advent of the car radio. By next spring, two generously funded companies with backing from nearly every major carmaker and radio manufacturer on the planet will start pumping 100 channels of sound each from orbiting satellites down into every new car in America, as well as a rapidly increasing number of existing vehicles. And a hefty portion of those audio channels will be filled with news and information. The two satellite radio companies, XM and Sirius, intend to transform radio just as cable revolutionized TV.
If researchers at XM and Sirius are correct, satellite radio will quickly reach a mass, nationwide audience, thanks to widespread installation in new cars and near-giveaways of units for older vehicles. Although both companies plan to charge a $9.95 monthly subscription fee, "anybody who pays for the service the first year is an idiot," says Lee Abrams, a legendary FM radio programmer who has gone over to the dark side as XM's senior vice president for programming. "You'll get it free if you test drive a Chevy." Both companies project breaking even by signing up four million subscribers within three years; a consulting firm called Carmel Group predicts satellite radio will have 25 million subscribers by 2006.
"With the exception of public radio and a few big AM stations, local radio has been dead for 30 years," Abrams declares. As radio stations nationwide have cut their news spending and broadcast time nearly to nil, "the average FM music station's only local content is an annual blood drive and legal station ID. We are national and proud of it."
Meanwhile, back at the home and office, Internet radio is swiftly moving from a fringy plaything of technogeeks to a real programming alternative, offering an infinite choice of music and a vastly improved selection of news. As the satellites go on line, Internet radio stations will be delivered to listeners not just through tinny speakers attached to your PC, but on handheld units not much larger than the transistor radios of your youth, and through the speakers of your home stereo, and through your bedside clock radio. (Internet TV is not too far behind, and some local TV stations are already putting their newscasts on the Web and offering archives of old shows as well. The picture is still grainy and tiny, but that will improve in years to come.)
And if that's not enough aural change, digital radio is only a couple of years away, a technological reinvention of existing broadcasting in which your hometown stations will be able to pump out two or three "side channels," supplementing their regular programming with news, traffic or more specialized music.
ALL OF WHICH MEANS that radio--which, except for National Public Radio and a handful of all-news stations in big cities, had largely gotten out of the news business over the past couple of generations--is headed back into journalism in a big way. At XM, News Director Irina Lallemand, fresh from New York City's WCBS-AM, is starting up a newsroom in Washington, D.C., that will include more than 40 reporters and editors, instantly making it one of the top five radio news employers in the country.
"We're not going to be just sitting here repackaging and repurposing," says Dave Logan, XM's vice president for programming operations. "News virtually doesn't exist at an average music station; everybody's jobbing out to Metro or Shadow," the two big suppliers of headlines, traffic and weather information. "XM is going to be a place for journalism fanatics to come and express themselves. We have a commitment to going out and reporting," with a news staff that will be located at the Washington headquarters, which has four news studios, as well as studios in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville.
XM's reporters will produce news and documentary packages for the satellite service's 50 music channels, enabling them to flesh out their narrowly focused music formats--doo-wop, blues, classic jazz, chamber music, etc.--with information tailored to the interests of those listeners. For example, Logan says, "if Mick Jagger dies, obviously we go onto our rock channel with live coverage and obituary material. We'll have news for truckers on our trucking channel and news for teenagers on our Teen Talk. It'll be a series of niches."
And both XM and New York-based Sirius will include in their regular program offerings channels from big existing news organizations now branching into audio. XM's USA Today channel will transmit 24 hours a day of news and talk compiled by both XM's own news crew and the print staff of the Gannett flagship paper.
XM will also feature programming from the AP, the BBC, CNBC and CNN, which already has a radio headline service of its own, but will now provide XM with three channels of sound, including radio versions of CNNfn, CNN/SI sports and CNN en Español services. Bloomberg News, which already has a local radio station in New York City, will produce a new nationwide radio service for Sirius. Similarly, C-SPAN, which launched a local radio station in Washington a couple of years ago, will take that service national with a channel on Sirius.
And NPR, risking the wrath of its member stations, will provide two 24-hour channels of programming on Sirius--public radio without the maddening fundraising beg-a-thons. NPR2, the network's new satellite programming division, will have a staff of 17 to produce the two channels: NPR Now will be a news channel featuring both standard NPR fare such as "Car Talk" and "Morning Edition," and a new, faster-paced morning show, "The Way In."
The other satellite channel, NPR Talk, will also carry "The Way In," and will feature call-in programs such as NPR's "Talk of the Nation," as well as shows culled from member stations around the country, such as Washington's Diane Rehm program.
NPR had to leap over considerable hurdles to get to this point. Public stations large and small were initially appalled at the idea that NPR, which exists on their annual fees, would give public radio's trademark shows to a competitor. There remains plenty of skepticism about the plan, but NPR managed to mollify some critics by devising the talk channel and stocking it with programs produced by member stations.
"In two years, some voices never before heard nationally will become national phenomena," says NPR President Kevin Klose. He concedes there is still some concern about satellite siphoning listeners away from local public stations, but adds, "This is a new platform and we're going there, with NPR values. Sirius will not cut into the power of the local station with the authenticity of their voices."
Still, "if I were WAMU [a Washington public FM station], I'd be very worried," says Jim Farley, vice president, news and programming of WTOP, the Washington all-news station that competes with public stations for the capital's news audience. The programming NPR is providing to the satellite service "is direct competition with their affiliates."
IF NPR STATIONS ARE UPSET about the satellite plans, it's just the latest incursion into their monopoly on in-depth radio news. NPR has been streaming its programming over the Internet for a couple of years, causing some grumbling among stations, but providing thousands of Web listeners with "All Things Considered" on demand.
News has a perverse edge over music in this early stage of Internet radio. Exactly because sound quality is poor, listeners are more likely to accept spoken voice programming, where CD quality is not essential, than music, which sounds distinctly low-grade when pumped through a slow home modem.
It's already possible to tune into thousands of radio stations that stream their audio over the Internet; 37 percent of U.S. radio stations now offer their sound via computer. It's possible to sit at your computer and tune in to local news stations from virtually every major city in the world. And an Arbitron study released this fall concluded that the number of Americans who have listened to radio online has more than tripled in the past two years, from 6 percent to 20 percent. For a radio station, the start-up costs of going onto the Web are minimal, about $10,000. Though futurist Titus Levi of the University of Southern California says it will be at least two years before mass adoption of streaming as a way to listen to news and music, early adopters are out in force, and mostly they are wandering around the Net, searching, largely in vain, for something different.
So far, most stations that put their signals on the Web do little more than simulcast, but that will soon change. "There is a lack of unique programming," says Levi, who compares this time of rapid change to the 1940s and '50s, when FM radio launched, but had little new programming to offer listeners. Instead, FM stations simulcasted their AM partners' sound, leading many consumers to wonder why they were supposed to invest in a new radio. To avoid the slow start that plagued FM until the advent of album rock and other new formats, Levi tells broadcasters they need to create ever-narrower niches.
The example he and others repeatedly return to is a venture created last year by WTOP, the Washington, D.C., all-news station. WTOP2 cannot be heard over the radio; it is a Web-only station, but it is being touted as a model both for how stations can best use the Internet and for how radio can take advantage of the coming digital revolution in over-the-air broadcasting.
"I'd love to tell you this was part of a brilliant master plan," says Jim Farley, "but it was really the result of people calling us to say 'I can't hear you in my downtown office building' " because WTOP's signal can't make it past the steel girders. So WTOP moved to put its programming on the Web. Next, the station realized that it had some advertisers who loved buying time around WTOP's "Federal Line" reports of news of special interest to Washington's many federal workers. Was there a way to beef up federal programming without boring the rest of the audience to tears? Well, Farley knew that 40 percent of the e-mail WTOP received was from addresses ending in .gov or .mil--government workers with computers at their offices.
Bingo: New station, Web only. WTOP2 is heavy on news about federal benefits and changes in the bureaucracy, plus live coverage of hearings on Capitol Hill and briefings at the Defense and State departments. The station fills the rest of its time with AP Network News, which AP provides without a fee in exchange for a share of the station's revenue.
Launched early in 2000 with four advertisers, WTOP2 quickly acquired a local audience, with about 35,000 hits a month. Now, the station is pushing for a national profile, redubbing itself Federal News Radio. The Web station's revenue--WTOP2 breaks even, Farley says--supports a news director, a reporter and a producer, who were added to WTOP's Web site staff of three full-time and two part-time employees.
The extra staff adds heft to WTOP's old-media news operation, since all the stations' reporters file for both radio and the Web. Radio reporters' stories have "got to be 30 to 35 seconds and it's frustrating for them, so what many of them do is write a longer version for the Web site, and some of them really enjoy that," Farley says.
WTOP is already planning several more side-channels, including one for military personnel and retirees, one emphasizing news of interest to blacks and one focusing on high school sports. The latter channel is a proposed coventure with WUSA-TV, the CBS affiliate in Washington, a cross-media collaboration that is increasingly common as old media race to add audio to their list of delivery options.
ONLY A HANDFUL OF TV STATIONS have added audio services, but newspapers are diving into radio in a big way, both through programming deals with existing stations and through Web experiments. "Newspapers are coming after radio with knives in their teeth and cunning in their hearts," was how the trade journal Radio Ink put it this fall. ###
What has radio executives worried is technology that permits newspapers to bring their top personalities--columnists and prominent beat reporters--to life by putting their voices into the cars of readers too hurried to sit down with the paper. One company, Everstream, specializes in adding music channels to newspaper Web sites; go to the Providence Journal site (projo.com), for example, and you'll see something called projoradio, offering 58 formats of music to listen to while you work. Another company, American Autocast, lets drivers pick the stories they want to hear from the morning paper and then listen to a reading of them over a wireless unit like a cell phone. The Autocast model is still largely in the talking phase, but the company says it has signed a deal with one big, unnamed paper.
If newspapers can provide radio at their sites, radio stations are gearing up to provide text at theirs. Existing radio stations are about one year away from joining the fray with digital radio, a technology that will permit any station to pack into its signal several other streams of programming. You will tune your digital radio to your favorite music or news station and find not only the usual programming, but sub-channels offering text services such as traffic updates, news, sports scores and information about the song you're listening to--all appearing on a small screen on your car or tabletop radio that displays perhaps 20 words at a time.
"While you listen to classical music, WETA could broadcast the Washington Post or the text of a book to your electronic tablet or Palm Pilot," says Patrick Walsh of iBiquity, the Maryland-based company that is developing the digital radio technology and licensing it to stations for use beginning in 2002. Unlike satellite radio, digital radio will be free. But it will require the purchase of new, digitally equipped radios.
"Satellite radio is scaring broadcasters into going into digital radio faster than they had planned," Walsh says. But, as with the other new technologies, the core question remains: What will the content be?
IBiquity has signed a deal with the AP to use digital radio to send headlines and stories to in-car and at-home radios, as well as to smart phones and personal digital assistants.
But even as news organizations from every medium explore the frontiers of sound, the plain fact remains that it is going to be a while before the masses think of the Internet as a radio.
Several companies that are trying to make that day come a bit faster are just out on the market with cool-looking devices that seek to bridge the psychological gap between radio waves and cyberaudio. With names like Kerbango and Sonicbox, they produce units that look like old-fashioned transistor radios but allow consumers to pull in Internet radio on their bedside table. "We're trying to take the crapshoot out of Internet radio, because now, maybe it works, maybe it doesn't," says David Frerichs, founder of Sonicbox Inc., which produces a unit that plugs into your PC and transmits the sounds of Web radio stations to a cute plastic "radio" a bit smaller than a box of Kleenex.
Kerbango is another newfangled radio, one that doesn't connect to your PC but instead plugs directly into the wire that brings broadband service into your house. It's a $300 clock radio that plays AM, FM and Internet programming. Click on national news and you get a choice of, among many others, CNN, C-SPAN, AP Network News, WABC in New York, WOL in Washington and the New York Times--which turns out to be an audio reading of that day's paper. Jim Gable, founder of the company, says it's a way to make Internet radio accessible not only to young people who've grown up with computers but also to an older generation to whom a radio should look like a radio.
Will all these new toys create new forms of journalism? Will the nation's appetite for serious coverage be stretched? Or will all the innovation lead inexorably to a new version of the Big Three networks, an oligarchy of companies continuing to dominate the flow of news?
The big question for any journalists who want to reach people via sound--and that can mean anything from broadcast, satellite or Internet radio to books on tape or nascent technologies such as automated reading services and talking newspapers--will be how to break through the clutter, how to provide content that is distinctive and valuable.
"With all the new technologies, the reality of what we do has not changed," argues Walter Sabo, a consultant to many of the FM talk stations that feature heavy doses of sex, relationship and rowdy chatter. "It is one listener listening to one sliver of sound, one minute at a time. They like their station; they like their show."
Sabo argues that however news is delivered, it must adapt to the daily lives of listeners, who neither know nor care where Eritrea is, who the Pope is, or what Tom DeLay means. "They're not stupid, they're busy," he says. He believes the future of radio is as the mass medium it has always been, speaking to well-defined audiences about what they share--frustrations over their relationships, a desire for entertainment, eternal questions about money, work and family.
Most of the entrepreneurs behind the new technologies counter that mass media are dinosaurs, that the Internet has liberated people to follow their interests, no matter how arcane. "With the Internet as the source, even a small bedside radio can tap into an infinite selection of information and entertainment," says Kerbango's Gable.
The eventual winner in this winnowing process will not likely be chosen by journalists, but may first emerge from the world of music, where the court and political battles for power are already well underway. Can radio survive in the face of MP3 and Napster, technologies that let every listener create a custom radio station? It's not yet clear, but it is certain that the corporate forces of the old media will not go down without a fight.
The question that the music industry is already trying to answer will hit journalism soon enough: No matter how the news is delivered, will the ability to personalize each individual's news menu create a world of niche news, in which we divide into tiny communities of like-minded consumers? Is the notion of a mass audience destined to die? Or will we spurn the new technology and cling to the broader community that mass media make possible? The answers will be delivered by satellite, broadband and good old-fashioned airwaves.