Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Broadcast Time Bomb

Watch your backs, AM and FM radio moguls.

By Frank Beacham

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  THIS YEAR MAY well be remembered as the time when the new medium of Web radio got its act together.

Once again, it was the deep pockets of Microsoft that provided the momentum. Last summer, the computer giant announced a licensing agreement and minority investment in RealNetworks, the inventors of the RealAudio and RealVideo streaming media technologies. Next came word that Microsoft would purchase VXtreme, another key multimedia player on the Internet. Then a flurry of other dominos began to fall.

The Internet could soon have a single, universal broadcast multimedia standard. Eventually, all a user will have to do is flip the computer "dial" to the program of choice. The days of fumbling with various proprietary players and plug-ins will soon be over.

"We believe the Internet will become the next broadcast network," says Jim Durkin, product manager of Microsoft's NetShow streaming technology.

But webcasting is so new and primitive that no one--including the largest media corporations--really know yet how to use it. For the moment, at least, broadcasting over the Internet is a level playing field where anyone with the right stuff can still be a successful participant.

Ironically, webcasters from the largest companies, in off-the-record conversations, express the most frustration in creating successful online media. One major executive complains that having to deal with many egos promoting personal agendas on the web site is the most difficult challenge in her organization.

"The lesson I learn over and over again: No matter how smart we think we are, we're not. We are constantly surprised at what's popular and what's not," says Patrick Seaman, chief technology officer of AudioNet, a major webcaster that now re-transmits the feeds of over 250 radio and television stations.

One of the things that surprises Seaman is the success of PoliceScanner.com, an AudioNet web spinoff that combines live police scanner feeds from New York City, Los Angeles and Dallas with online chat sessions. Coming soon: Web audio feeds from airport and fire department scanners.

Many web sites offered by media companies fail because they are unfocused, unclear and vague, several new media executives say.

"If you are going to take your web site out to a dinner party, how would you introduce it?" asks Tom Regan, supervising online editor for the Christian Science Monitor. "If you can't summarize for someone what your web site is really about in 25 words or less, then I don't think you know what your site is about."

One successful new web enterprise combines radio drama (RealAudio), visuals and the traditional text of a novel to create a new form of interactive entertainment. Called "Digital Dramas," the series of multimedia stories about witchcraft is from Lifetime Television (www.lifetimetv.com).

"Before we started Digital Dramas we were averaging two million hits a month. In two weeks, it went up to seven million hits," says Brian Donlan, vice-president of new media at Lifetime Television. "The audience had to know it was getting something extra, different, better."

Cable TV staple Comedy Central (www.comedycentral.com), has found success by offering "absolutely nothing of practical use" to its audience. "We know every single one of our (nine million) customers," says Larry Lieberman, vice-president of strategic planning for the cable channel. "They're goofing off. They're at home avoiding chores or they're at work getting paid while they goof off. We give them what they want."

To keep users on the site, Comedy Central uses a "breadcrumb" approach to lure net surfers. "For every piece of content we have a teaser to get you to the next piece of content," Lieberman says. "That's why we average about 12 minutes per viewing session."

On the technology front, AudioNet's Seaman predicts that multicast--the ability to reach large numbers of listeners simultaneously--will become a very important factor within six months to a year. "Things are changing very, very fast," he says. "We're negotiating (multicast) agreements now. By the end of this quarter, we expect to able to reach 250,000 simultaneous listeners. By the end of the year, we'll reach at least 500,000 listeners via multicast."

Another fast-emerging technology for Internet broadcasting is wireless transmission, Seaman says. "This is a tremendous growth area because so much bandwidth has been freed up," he adds, noting that AudioNet is already in discussions with several companies about offering such a service.

"I'm looking forward to the day when I can replace my car radio and listen to AudioNet while driving," he says. "I don't think that day is that far away."

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