QUESTIONING TECHNOLOGY: GRIT Blends Radio's Past With Future
To call GRIT a radio station is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, it looks like a radio station; its state-of-the-art control room and studio resembles those in the best broadcast stations throughout the world. But then there's no transmitter or antenna tower. And, the programming...well, it's not just audio, there are pictures and data too.Though it's loosely called an "Internet radio station," GRIT is actually a new breed of broadcaster seeking to create an entirely new kind of programming. It starts with the traditional radio medium, but builds on it by adding visual and interactive elements of its own. And, for now at least, the station's programming is delivered to a global audience of individuals that sit in front of personal computers connected to the Internet.The creation of GRIT, built last summer in a mid-town loft near Penn Station in New York City, resulted from the unique collaboration a group of 20-something computer enthusiasts with no radio experience and a veteran broadcaster who knew little about computers.It all started in the spring of 1995 when Robert Gould, a young Wall Street lawyer, had a brief encounter with America Online and became instantly captivated by the possibilities of the Internet. Gould volunteered to help his synagogue create CD-ROMs and wound up making headlines later that year by producing the first live audio broadcast of a "CyberSeder" over the Internet."The cantor called my mother and said that with the exception of a meeting with the Pope he felt doing the first audio prayers over the Internet was the most important religious thing he'd done in his life," recalled Gould. "My mother told me 'you must do something with this.' I then realized I could have my own station and reach people all over the world."Gould quit his job and at the beginning of 1996 created WebSine, a company that would specialize in broadcasting multimedia over the Internet. In June, construction began on GRIT, the Net broadcasting facility whose call letters stand for Gould Resources and Internet Telecommunications.An obstacle was that Gould and his young staff knew nothing about radio broadcasting, much less how to build and program a station. They needed help and, through a friend's recommendation, found Bob Casey, a 25-year radio veteran who had worked for Armed Services Radio, NBC and several local stations.Fortunately, Casey, now an audio consultant in New York City, had three essential skills. He had been an on-air announcer, a programmer and an engineer. "The consummate combo man," he quipped. For Gould, Casey was the right man at the right time."They were going to just set up a little closet and put a microphone in it," Casey recalled. "I told them they needed much better quality than that if they were going to succeed. I ended up designing an FM stereo studio with all the complements of any other studio...everything but the transmitter."Gould credits "Audio Bob" with bringing focus to an otherwise unfocused venture. "We were going to broadcast two hours a day," Gould recalled. "Bob said 'no, you must go on 24 hours a day. Even if its tape or CD, you have to be on all the time with a signal. He was adamant about it."Casey recalled "it was like a bunch of college kids wanting to get together and go on radio. I suggested that they were going to be talking to a lot of people who are in the media and did what I could to help polish their on air...I mean on line...technique."The computer and broadcast cultures worked well together. The facility was built in 21 days. At the wrap party Casey presented his young clients with a 60s-era broadcast On-Air light that was re-lettered to say "On Line."Now, well into their first year of broadcasting experience, GRIT is building an audience and starting to draw advertisers. Listeners in 70 countries have "tuned in" the station at http://www.grit.com and audience members have begun to email and call in questions live to studio guests.One important listener boosted the staff's morale with unexpected praise. Doug Podell, program director of WRIF-FM in Detroit, called GRIT one of the best Internet radio stations now on the World Wide Web. "Exciting programming, good personalities and nice graphics on their web site," he said."I'm a web nut and a program director and I've seen them all," said Podell. "These guys are a struggling enterprise that are doing some very impressive things. I like what I see."GRIT's content is targeted to Web surfers. Net jock Robert Petrausch is the "Hitman," a cyber guide who takes his listeners to "all the sites that are fit to hit." Petrausch sits in front of a computer, asking listeners to follow him on their own PC as he surfs for new thrills in cyberspace. The technology allows the audience to continue listening to GRIT as they move around the Web to other sites.Other GRIT originals are "Disc, DAT, and The Other," a music review program, and "Mind, Body & Computing," a relaxation guide for computer users. There is also a daily line-up of studio guests and programs on such topics as free speech, politics, media, sports and new software bugs. "Unlike a regional radio station, our content is geographically boundless," said Gould. "Our content is for people sitting in front of their computers. We have a captive audience because we know the environment they are going to be in and we know we are offering information that will appeal to that group of people."In addition to the 24-hour live audio feed, GRIT's web site offers Reuters news and other audio programming on demand. It also features a search engine, a digital photograph gallery and links to recommended sites.Since GRIT determined its largest audience is made up of office workers during the lunch hour ("People have high speed access in their office, not at home," said Gould), it broadcasts live between noon and 2 p.m. eastern time each weekday. GRIT plans to gradually increase new programs throughout the year in a wheel format similar to all news stations.Live programs are recorded to digital audio cassettes and then transferred to compact discs, which are re-played in an automatic CD changer to the encoding computers. GRIT now encodes and feeds its programming over the RealAudio, Streamworks and NetShow media systems.Not including the cost of GRIT's high-speed T-1 data line to the Internet (these vary from market to market), Gould estimates a station like his can be built for about $80,000. For operation, GRIT has five fulltime staffers, four consultants and about "a dozen friends and believers."Until cost-effective multicasting is available on the Internet (Gould predicts that the ability to reach huge audiences simultaneously is about two years away), GRIT will support itself by creating programming and offering corporate clients custom web sites and broadcasting services."There are clients wanting to do their own live broadcast events," said Gould. "They pay us to produce a remote for them." And then there's the unexpected income. Without solicitation, listeners began calling in requests for tapes of GRIT programs. "All of a sudden I had another revenue stream," said Gould.Altec, the audio equipment manufacturer, became GRIT's first paying advertiser. A major bank has signed on for a series of original multimedia ads that feature a continuing dialogue between two people at an automatic teller machine. Several firms targeting computer users have also recently signed on. In most cases, GRIT is producing their ads."I don't know when we will be profitable," said Gould. "But I'm more enthusiastic than ever about the future of Internet broadcasting. There are new technologies that are developing fast that will soon bring our programming to many more listeners. Our plan is simply to develop good content and ride with the technology."