Exploring the New Horizon
The Internet is graphically based. Radio has never before enjoyed the possibilities of visual elements. While access via a handheld device such as a PDA limits graphic display, even these interfaces allow a new level of interaction.
Because radio is audio entertainment, it lends itself to doing other things while listening. Offices are finding new listeners thanks to the omnipresent high-bandwidth connections. While most IT departments frown on the use of the bandwidth, Internet radio has given many stations a new path to the office desktop.
While most office listeners are not actively visiting the station's website during the day, the audio element alone creates an opportunity for stations. Other Internet listeners may be actively online conducting other business (or non-business) activity.
The online aspect of radio can change traditional listening habits by bringing the station forward from a background source. For this audience, there are many new technologies and services available to provide more information onscreen while listening. This information can be program-related information, such as artist and song information, or non-program-related, such as ads.
I won't even ask if your station has a website. The process of registering a domain and creating a basic Internet presence is so easy there is little excuse for not having something online. Before adding any of the enhancements mentioned above, there are some basic elements that every website should have.
Not everyone has a high-speed connection. DSL, cable modems and other high-speed connections are becoming more common, but there are those users that can only obtain a 28.8kb/s connection reliably. Typically, these users will also have a slower processor. Creating a website with hundreds of images and Flash animation can be visually stunning, but if it cannot be downloaded, it is all lost. If you have the resources to create these complex sites, you should be able to just as easily create a site that is friendly for slower connections and even PDAs. If your server cannot automatically detect what capability the user has, start with a splash page that lists the available site options.
The Web is already being used successfully as a distribution medium to the listener. Internet radio listening continues to increase, as does the number of Internet radio stations. Arbitron now routinely publishes Internet radio ratings. The Internet listening audience is different from the terrestrial listening audience. Stations that simulcast their air signal online can resell the same advertising time by using ad insertion technology. This allows a station to create an additional revenue stream. This idea can be taken one step further with targeted ad insertion.
I use the Web quite often for getting general information about a company or a product, and I am always amazed at the number of sites that do not make it easy for me to contact the company. An online form is handy, but complete contact information is essential. Most station sites have a page with contact information for the air talent. Be sure to include a page with contact information for the entire staff. If nothing else, provide the phone number for the front desk. Some of your site visitors may be interested in more than photos of the morning show.
Look at other sites, and see what other stations are doing. Because the Web is global, be sure to look outside your own market for ideas. Other items that can be considered for inclusion on your site are an events calendar, station information such as history and coverage area, the station's current playlist, local information such as weather and news, and information on current promotions and contests.
More than just air
Creating additional content for the Web can be a challenge. If you are streaming audio, consider airing additional material and not just recycling (or repurposing) the air signal. With voice tracking so common in most on-air playback systems, special features can be created with minimal effort.
Regardless of what you are doing online, update the site often. Nothing is worse than a stale website except a perpetual under construction page. If you post a link that says "coming soon," the anticipated feature should be waiting in the wings. If it's more than a day or so away, remove the link. Also, try to redesign the look of the site frequently. Regular content updates will help keep the site fresh, but changing some of the static elements will also keep it interesting.
Earlier I mentioned having content available for a variety of user connection rates. Creating three complete sites is not an efficient use of available resources. If possible, do not rely on static HTML for everything posted. Database-driven sites can reduce the workload and eliminate posting errors. By updating a database, information can be posted once and recalled many times without the need to list and update the same information repeatedly.
A new use for a station's website is posting parts of the station's Public File. The June 2000 issue of BE Radio covered the details of the changes in the FCC rules.
Maintaining a station's website can be a full-time job. It should be trusted to someone who understands the station's image and can carry it into the Web presence. It may not be practical for a station to maintain its own site completely. There are plenty of hosting services that can assist in keeping the site up-to-date. Most of these providers offer tiered service plans that can be tailored to your station's needs. If this route is chosen, be sure that any content rights are covered. If you decide to cancel the contract with the provider, don't be caught with the provider holding your site hostage pending any contractual settlements.
Direct station uses
The Web has many uses beyond directly serving the listening audience. Real-time Internet audio delivery is not the most reliable service, but there have been cases over the past year where a program provider has lost its main distribution means, and the Web has been pressed into service as a backup system. Since radio is an aural medium, some audio is certainly better then no audio at all.
Other station uses involve file sharing and distribution over the Web. Many larger groups have intranets set up to handle this, but not every group can justify this step. The Web is not a completely secure system, so any sensitive files should be kept clear of it. In most cases, there is enough security to transfer files between facilities through one of several methods. (To see how Clear Channel is doing it, see Managing Technology, September 2000.) E-mail and FTP servers can be used for many station needs. Even some of the Internet storage sites can be used in a pinch.
If building it yourself is not economical, services like those from AudioSonix, InterMax and SpotTaxi can make the file transfer load easier. These services provide one-to-one and one-to-many file distribution and other features. One advantage is that the upload/download process can be automated to occur at off-peak, or any other, times. In the case of commercial files, traffic data can also be attached to the packet.
Choices for listeners
The listening audience is presented with many different sources of entertainment. The Napster scenario opened the door to many legal debates, but the system itself has shown that the public has an interest in immediate audio delivery. Finding songs online and downloading them to a personal audio player has an appeal. Routinely creating song compilations keeps the selection fresh to the listener. Networks are designed for file storage and sharing, and the Internet is doing just that.
Having identified a potential service, companies like Echo.com and PCDJ.com have created an interface for the listener to find, download and sort the songs they want to hear. These services can be seen as a threat to conventional radio, since they provide an alternate means to obtain audio entertainment. However, an effort is still required to obtain or program the material. Radio stations could also use similar services to provide an on-demand radio product.
Internet audio appliances also provide a bright promise for Internet radio. Computers are good for many tasks, but are overkill when used as an audio receiver. Dedicated appliances take the function of a table-top radio or boom box, add an Internet connection and provide a simple way of receiving Internet radio broadcasts.
Regardless of the medium, creating, storing and transmitting audio content is a complex operation. Radio has provided a continuous audio stream since its inception. The Internet provides a new transmission medium that offers the opportunity to supplement the presentation. At the same time, the Web offers radio a chance to create new sources of revenue and new services for its listeners.