February 7, 1996

Radio Free Internet

By J.D. Tuccille
ZD Net Associate Editor

Some Internet software companies stand poised to give radio and TV broadcasting the first real shake-up they've had in a very long time. In the process a lot of money stands to be made and a few political applecarts may do a barrel roll.

In my office recently, I tuned in to ABC's radio news. Surrounded as I was by colleagues in near-identical Dilbert cubicles, I knocked the volume down to the limit of audibility and worked while serenaded by the cock-ups and catastrophes of the day.

Nothing remarkable about it, except that the broadcast came over the Internet. To tune in I'd clicked on a Web link.

The quality of the broadcast was good -- it was easy to pretend that I was listening to an AM station. But unlike a traditional broadcast the Internet "cybercast" was set up without a license, at minimal cost, with whatever content suited ABC. Radio broadcasting in the U.S. hasn't been so hassle-free since 1927.

Back in the '20s, radio entrepreneurs bet the farm on a new, anarchic medium and pumped out signals in search of an audience. With instincts we'd recognize in the '90s, seat warmers in Washington cast a jaundiced eye on a new technology that promised more headaches than newspapers could ever offer. Big operators feared losing market share to upstarts and looked to cut a deal with the politicians.

Faster than a speeding lobbyist, the U.S. Congress pounced on the new-found threat of unfriendly editorial voices and declared the electromagnetic spectrum to be public property to be used in the public interest (translation: "don't piss us off"). The Federal Radio Commission (now the FCC) was established in 1927 to set things right. For the first time ever, part of the U.S. press was subject to licensing requirements and excluded from the full protection of the First Amendment.

And Americans didn't have the worst of it. Some countries simply grabbed broadcasting as a state monopoly -- usually with results that effectively cured sleep disorders over large stretches of the planet's surface. Especially brazen among Western nations, Italy simply divided the broadcast media prize among the three largest political parties.

But Internet broadcasting is a whole new game. RealAudio is the most familiar cybercasting software and currently makes AM radio-quality broadcasts possible. The video technology isn't quite there, but VDOLive, StreamWorks, and Net Toob are just waiting for the bandwidth to give television a run for its money. Already, regular cybercasts are being offered by experienced broadcasters -- ABC radio news, NPR, talk radio hosts, and the like. But even a low-cost venture by an unknown can reach any spot in the world that has Internet access. This means that cybercasters can place greater emphasis on common interest than on geography, and operations that might never find a localized audience can seek it farther than a broadcast tower could reach -- Thailand Digital Music, for instance. Looking for the all-beer network? Or maybe even (are you ready?) Rush Limbaugh world-wide? In a year or two millions of dittoheads around the world could be cracking open a cold one while huddled around the PC. With such potential for targeted programming, the much-heralded era of 500 TV channels may finally arrive.

Internet-based broadcasting offers other advantages, too: Web pages can be used for programming schedules and background information, and broadcasts don't have to be live -- they can be archived at the Web site and played at a listener's convenience, expanding the potential audience for any given cybercast.

And unlike the Internet as a whole, cybercasting offers a comfortingly familiar model for advertisers and advertising agencies. Whether received by radio or by multimedia PC, broadcast advertising has been established for decades. Cybercasters who follow the traditional model should find a very receptive audience among the Madison Avenue types.

Of course, not every cybercaster will want to follow the traditional model. Many are already using RealAudio and VDOLive as multimedia elements on their Web sites -- HotWired, for instance, included a live (and refreshingly one-sided) cybercast of a protest rally in a story on the Internet censorship controversy. In the long-term I expect such mixed uses to predominate. But the short-term holds fascinating potential for those who go with the tried and true.

But hovering out there are the ghosts of the "reformers" who brought us the FCC and its ilk. So far, cybersex wars aside, the Western nations have applied the model of the print media with its strong hands-off tradition to the Internet. But as cybercasting attracts both experienced broadcasters and entrepreneurs, apparatchiks around the world are going to have to justify keeping radio and TV as protected turf, or else admit that they've been wrong for decades.

And short of the storming of the Bastille regulators never admit fault. There's a battle ahead, but it's a battle between old-fashioned national regulators and world-wide broadcasters. It's too early to be sure of the winners, but I'll place my bets on ABC, Rupert Murdoch, and some guy in Amsterdam with a multimedia PC, a video camera, and a twisted imagination. Hey, maybe information doesn't want to be free -- maybe it wants to bring us a word from its sponsor.

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Copyright (c) 1996 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and Iíll use your polished skull as a beer mug.