QUESTIONING TECHNOLOGY: Radio-on-Demand

With radio broadcasting now a mega business, the last vestiges of diversity, creativity and relevance have been squeezed out of commercial programming. Soon, however, these lowest common denominator broadcasters, who have so long used their government license to print easy money, may meet their waterloo. The threat is a new technology called audio-on-demand. Listeners can hear what they want, when they want it. For the first time programming power shifts away from the broadcaster to the listener.This is the year when traditional radio programmers should start thinking of retirement. Two audio-on-demand services -- one on the Internet and another on cable television -- are currently in testing. They represent only the tip of the iceberg of what's to come. Timecast, the new free Internet service (http://www.timecast.com) from Progressive Networks, Seattle, enables users to customize their own daily news broadcast with time-sensitive audio content and have it easily delivered back to them. Using the World Wide Web, Timecast is the first end-user service to deliver customized multimedia news and information.Timecast is based on Progressive Networks' RealAudio client-server software system, which enables Internet and online users equipped with conventional multimedia personal computers and voice-grade telephone lines to browse, select and play back audio or audio-based multimedia content on demand, in real time. The cornerstone of Timecast is the daily briefing feature which allows users to build a custom newscast with stories from a dozen well-known news and entertainment organizations such as ABC, c/net, Entertainment Tonight, CBS, Fortune, Web Review, ComputerWorld, Industry. Net, and TST-Taylor Subscription Talk. Individual user selections and preferences can be saved for repeat visits, so return users are just one click away from the daily audio news they want."Timecast tackles two compelling issues. Not only does it make time on the World Wide Web efficient by aggregating those [sites] that produce audio content, but it levels the playing field so that small entrepreneurs with innovative ideas can be listed alongside major media developers," said Allen Weiner, director and principal analyst, online strategies, Dataquest. Timecast ties RealAudio content to a single site, indexing a huge collection of audio content with an array of other "one click away" features. For example, a "Live Now" feature -- updated every ten minutes -- takes users immediately to live events, such as rock concerts, professional sports games, political speeches and talk-radio programs. The "Live Radio Stations" feature connects users to one of over 50 radio stations throughout the world that are currently broadcasting their radio programs using RealAudio technology. In addition to numerous U.S. stations, radio stations from Canada, Italy, France, Australia, Malaysia and Hong Kong are broadcasting their programs via the Internet using RealAudio.Timecast will also include a fully-categorized search facility where users can find programming by keyword, title or capsule description on a comprehensive database of third-party sites to offer programming with RealAudio technology. Timecast lists over 600 World Wide Web sites delivering audio content via the Web.Another aspiring challenger to the radio establishment is Audio Highway, a Cupertino, CA-based start-up (http://www.audiohwy.com) that begins testing a new on-demand audio subscription service in the Silicon Valley area this summer. Using computer storage technology and the high speed delivery capability of cable television, the new "pay-per-listen" service -- called the Listen Up Personal Audio System -- is the brainchild of Nathan Schulhof, a pioneering executive in the distribution of computer software on CD-ROM. The idea is for the listener to pick from a catalog of audio programming and have that programming delivered on-demand in a matter of seconds. Basic subscription service would cost about $10 a month plus a fee for each pay-per-listen selection. The Listen Up hardware would sell for about $500 or could be leased with the basic service for about $25 a month.The Listen Up audio receiving system consists of a docking unit that hooks to the cable television system and a detachable portable player that can used for audio playback at any location. The player, which features instant access to any of the downloaded audio segments, can hook to a home stereo, car sound system or be used as a self-contained portable "Walkman" with headphones.Currently, the prototype player uses a miniature hard drive for audio storage. Future plans call the use of flash memory when prices for that technology come down. "Right now we need about 170 megabytes of storage to hold 10 hours of FM-quality audio," said Cynthia West, Vice President of Strategic Alliances for Audio Highway.About 10 hours of audio can be downloaded to the hard drive in about 10 minutes. Such downloads can be scheduled on a daily basis -- say during the early morning hours -- or anytime a particular program is desired.Listen Up subscribers will have the choice of a wide range of audio content including books-on-tape, how-to and self-help programs, radio and TV shows, movie reviews, music of many genres, educational subjects, hobby and special interest topics, product information and more.Using a keypad on the Listen Up unit, the user punches in the codes for the catalog selections and then places the device in the docking station. The request is then transmitted automatically via cable upstream to the Listen Up headquarters. The programs are downloaded minutes later. As part of the basic service, each subscriber will also get a customized daily download based on predetermined preferences. For example, a Listen Up subscriber might ask for an early morning package of news, sports, certain stock information and a preview of new releases of mystery novels and self-help programs. The download could be scheduled for completion just before the subscriber's daily commute or morning exercise regimen.The copyright holders of the audio programs, who have stored their material on Audio Highway's server, receive a royalty payment for each time a subscriber listens to their program. At the end of 30 days, the software in the Listen Up system causes each audio selection to self-destruct and disappear from the storage unit.Currently, Audio Highway is assembling a huge catalog of programming for the user tests set to begin this summer. Among the programmers participating in the tests are the Associated Press, Harper Audio, KJAZ Satellite Radio, Newsweek, Cowles Business Media, and New Dimensions."For the test period we don't want to make assumptions about what kinds of programs people will want to listen to," said West. "We want to provide them with a very rich and deep library and let them select." However, West said, the company expects the results to be consistent with previous experience. "We suspect that in the end 20 percent of most of our content will be the most popular," she said. The best guess for hit material: audio versions of bestselling books and magazines.In the end, West said, Audio Highway is not wedded exclusively to cable television systems for delivery of the Listen Up service. Direct-to-home television satellite systems, ISDN telephone lines and even RealAudio technology over the Internet are possible delivery methods. If all goes as planned, Listen Up will launch its nationally by the middle of next year.

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