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The Future of Internet Radio

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Editor's Note: This article appears in the October/November issue of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for your free subscription.

In 1922, 17 years after Jules Verne’s death, the oft-recognized "father of radio" Guglielmo Marconi eulogized the "father of science fiction" by saying, "Jules Verne made people see visions, wish they could do things, and stimulated them to do them."

Through Verne’s novels, readers were dazzled by prophesies. He introduced the beau ideal of technology that would enrich our lives, expanding our reach beyond our reality and the known world. Figments of the author’s imagination often led to grand innovations—for example, his concept of a worldwide communications network, better known today as the internet.

We often credit fiction for sparking advances deemed incredulous even by forward-thinking inventors such as Lord Kelvin, who, in the 1890s, famously declared, "Radio has no future." We may have scoffed, but as the medium creeps toward extinction, could there have been a grain of truth to this?

It was only a century ago, in 1907, that the first commercial transatlantic radio service was established. Here in Madison, Wis., which neighbors Streaming Media’s editorial base, the University of Wisconsin’s WHA station broadcast the first human speech to the public. Madisonians still tune in today. 1920 brought the first known radio news broadcast on station 8MK, and Pittsburgh’s KDKA received the first "limited commercial" broadcasting license.

The controversies surrounding the birth of radio are a striking parallel to internet radio’s current growing pains. History buffs will recall that in the nascent days of radio, record companies feared a profit loss, and rightly so. With this new, free music delivery medium, they argued, why would Duke Ellington fans spring for his latest LP? And what right did radio stations have to turn a profit from on-air ads while broadcasting free music? Others adopted an optimistic outlook, hoping radio would promote the very musicians whose intellectual property the music recording industry was vying to protect.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, where the battleground for artist remuneration is online. Webcasters (and now over-the-air stations too) sweat as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) tries to push through Congress its coup de grĂ¢ce: a hike in performance royalties that some speculate would finish internet radio as we know it.

Does internet radio have a future? Webcasters anxiously await Congress’ ruling on the royalty decision, arguably the most significant issue pertaining to internet radio’s future. The viability of pure internet radio plays such as Last.fm, Live365, Pandora, Slacker, and WOXY—to name a few—hinges on mobility and customizability. Tests for so-called terrestrial, or over-the-air, stations’ simulcasting include how they can remain relevant to their communities, whether they can push on-air listeners to their streams during nonpeak hours, how easy-to-use the streams are for the "Bob and Tom demographic," and, finally, the quality of the content. And we can’t forget the sat-caster Sirius/XM hybrid (can it come down from the clouds in time to ride the wave of success that internet radio hopes to enjoy?) or the all-important question of money. Which revenue models will prove successful? Will listeners tolerate advertising or will they pony up for paid subscriptions, and, if so, for how long?

This article will try to paint a picture of what the future holds for internet radio. There are no inventors or sci-fi authors weighing in with crystal-ball answers. But the general consensus from internet radio’s major players represented here is that radio—over-the-air, satellite, and internet radio pure plays—will find its destiny online, that tweens and Baby Boomers will join the more than 30 million Gen X and Gen Y internet radio listeners in the U.S. and the nearly 15 million listeners in the U.K., a death knell for terrestrial radio signals and extraterrestrial satellite signals alike.

Let’s Be Friends
2007 Streaming Media Reader’s Choice Awards winner Live365.com (www.live365.com/broadcast) is perhaps the most popular internet radio network for amateur webcasters with niche tastes to create their own Tift Merritt or Liam Finn stations. Fans of Fleet Foxes and other similar bands can tune in using a variety of media players, including the free Live365 Player, or connect via TiVo, Slim Devices’ Squeezebox, or other hardware devices. In this article, Jason Stoddard, director of broadcasting sales at Live365, shares his prognosis for internet radio.

Based in the U.K., Last.fm (www.last.fm) is the online destination for those seeking to expand their musical horizons. Once its Audioscrobbler technology sees that you like bands such as Girl Talk and SwitchFocus, it will recommend that you give DJ Danger Mouse a try, for example. The site can be accessed through myriad media players, and an application for the iPhone or iPod Touch is available for download. Last.fm PR manager Christian Ward tempers the RIAA conversation with a U.K. point of view and ponders internet radio’s future in this article.

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