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Clear Channel Starts Radio Subscriptions

As Internet radio companies continue to falter, Clear Channel Radio (www.clearchannel.com) , one of the largest terrestrial radio broadcasters in the U.S. with 1,170 stations, is charging users to listen to syndicated radio talk shows like Art Bell and Dr. Laura. On October 15, Premiere Radio Networks, the syndication arm of Clear Channel Radio, quietly turned off its free live streams and began a subscription service for five of its most popular shows.

The syndicated shows are separately being sold for $6.95 a month, with access to live streams, and 30-day archives as well as other extra features. The shows that have switched to online subscription are The Phil Hendrie Show, The Bob and Tom Show, The Jim Rome Show, Coast to Coast with Art Bell, and Dr. Laura. Rush Limbaugh has had his own streaming subscription service since last August, which extends to an entire members' only Web site.

Brian Glicklich, VP of interactive services at Premiere Radio, said that the subscription service was in development for about two to three months. Essentially, he said that Premiere had no choice but to charge for streams, because it was losing money. "There's no sustainable [advertising] revenue model for streaming," Glicklich said. "It was one of those things: either continue free, have a pay site or not [stream] at all."

When asked why Premiere or Clear Channel didn't make an announcement of the new service, a company representative said that the talk show hosts have been promoting it on the air. "They've done a tremendous job of promoting it," said Glicklich. "[But] if you don't listen to Art Bell, for example, it's irrelevant to your life."

Secure Streams?

The service, dubbed StreamLink, was created in-house, by Premiere's technical programming team. The delivery and authentication of streams is handled by Akamai. To tune in, listeners must log into a Web page, where you receive a cookie that identifies you and passes a metafile to Akamai. If you don't have a cookie on your computer, you must log in again to get the cookie. Most likely, users will already have a cookie after the first log in, so listening means just clicking on your choice of Windows Media or Real streams.

Part of the Akamai security mechanism is to prevent theft. "Akamai does the authentication token, so people can't copy streaming links and give it away to all their friends," said Glicklich.

But despite the contentions of Premiere, streamingmedia.com found ways around the security. After subscribing to the Jim Rome show, we could freely pass Jim Rome's RealAudio URL to others around the office. That may have been a temporary glitch, since subsequent attempts to pass around links failed to work.

Yet another way to get around paying the $6.95 a month fee is to tune into a radio station that doesn't block out the syndicated feeds. Usually, participating local Clear Channel radio stations block out the streams when one of the shows is on the air. But streamingmedia.com found one station, XTRAsports690.com in San Diego, that doesn't block the Jim Rome Show. The show isn't live — it's delayed a few hours — but still a way to circumvent subscribing if you're a Jim Rome fan. Calls to XTRA were not returned by press time.

Tough Times for Internet Radio

Despite the potential troubles with the new service, Clear Channel and Premiere are blazing a trail into uncharted territory; no other radio group has attempted such a service. In fact, one of the largest radio groups, Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting, isn't streaming any of its 180 radio stations, claiming there's no way to make money from it.

Those claims are being proven correct, as a slew of streaming companies that targeted terrestrial radio stations have slowly gone out of business. So far, Global Media, Broadcast America, Radiowave, WebRadio.com and others have shuttered their doors. Just about the only providers left, are Yahoo! Broadcast, RealNetworks' RBN, Coollink Broadcast, SurferNetwork and StreamAudio, which was acquired yesterday by ChainCast. (See ChainCast story)

Ryan Jones, an analyst with the Yankee Group's Media & Entertainment Strategies research and consulting practice, said that Internet radio is being attacked on a number of fronts. "The dark side of the story is potentially devastating costs from two fronts: rights fees as commanded by the RIAA, and the continued high cost of streaming," Jones added.

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