Internet radio islands floating in the stream

by Joel Dames

In a study released earlier this year, Arbitron/Edison Media Research dubbed people who listen to radio over the Internet “streamies.” Bored with local programming, streamies tune in to radio stations streaming over the World Wide Web.

For an overview, see Real.com and Yahoo’s Broadcast.com, where lists of stations are categorized by location and genre to help streamies track down their favorite listening material. At Broadcast.com, visitors can search for stations in 77 countries broadcasting in 40 languages, while Real.com’s Web site offers 20 genres, including police scanners.

Though the process of downloading and listening is straightforward, the Arbitron/Edison study, titled “The Buying Power of ‘Streamies,”‘ found that 20 percent of people surveyed were unable to access radio or TV streams. Nearly one in three said trying to listen to or watch Webcasts was difficult.

The process involves downloading a Real Player from Real.com or a Microsoft Media Player from Microsoft’s Web site. Both of these free downloads serve as virtual radio/tape players.

Real.com established a Japanese Web site in 1996. According to Kimihiko Shindo, vice president of consumer e-commerce for RealNetworks Japan, Japan is one of the world’s fastest growing Internet markets. Real.com had 400,000 users in Japan in 1997; today they have approximately 8 million. Shindo says by the end of this year more people in Japan will be accessing the Internet via broadband offered by cable TV companies, satellite services and high-speed Internet connection service providers.

If you are the one of the one in three who found downloading difficult, a new stand-alone Internet radio, due for release in the U.S. later this spring, may be what you need. Made by Kerbango, a company in Cupertino, Calif., it acts like a typical AM/FM clock radio, but also streams radio from the Internet.

Before 1999, advertisers were wary about the profitability of streamed radio. A recent Arbitron/Edison Media Research study showed, however, that advertising on streamed shows pays. In their interviews, they found that, compared to ordinary Internet users, streamies were more likely to click on Web ads and make online purchases. Spurred by this study, some of the advertisers who had been waiting on the sidelines jumped in with production funds. Now more than 4,000 stations stream online.

Still, one of the largest of these stations, National Public Radio, is financed through public donations and is virtually commercial-free. A membership organization of 608 public radio stations, NPR started streaming online in March 1999. Two of the station’s most popular talk shows, “Talk of the Nation,” based in Washington, D.C., and “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross in Philadelphia, Pa., offer programming on virtually every conceivable topic.

“Talk of the Nation” listeners call in from all over the world to join discussions on everything from same-sex unions to gun control. Over the past 25 years Gross has conducted more than 5,000 interviews with authors, artists and famous people from all walks of life. After the programs have aired they can be accessed from an archived database.