Reality check

January 1, 2001

On the PC side, new codec upgrades for streaming media players will improve audio quality at lower bit-rates.

Any demarcation point in time makes us think about taking inventory, so what better occasion than a millennial break to evaluate the hot topics in radio? They are listed below, in no particular order, along with some projections on what's likely to happen for each in 2001 and beyond:

A baker's dozen

S-DARS: Sirius Satellite Radio will inaugurate its service, and XM Satellite Radio will launch its birds. The DBS radio era finally begins.

IBOC: Uncertainty will continue, with some on-air testing likely, but not much other progress.

International DAB: Eureka 147 receivers will finally hit the store shelves, but their high prices will keep most of them there.

LPFM: Splash this one. By this time next year, we'll have trouble remembering what it stood for.

Streaming media: Growth of broadband access will stimulate on-line media providers to begin offering higher bit-rate services. The use of edge-servers for distribution of this content will grow to meet the new demand. Meanwhile, more on-line audio appliances with funny names will debut. Their use of broadband access will make their on-line reception nearly indistinguishable from (if not better than) their off-air performance. On the PC side, new codec upgrades for streaming media players will improve audio quality at lower bit-rates.

Wireless: Auctions for 3G service will open the U.S. broadband wireless age in earnest. By year's end, the first handheld streaming media devices may be appearing on holiday wish-lists.

FCC: The new administration will impose substantial change on the Commission, so Congress doesn't keep having to.

Advertising revenues: Profits from traditional on-air terrestrial radio service may hit their historical peak this year, as advertising opportunities in new media begin to siphon funds at noticeable levels. Growth in the overall advertising market may also suffer as the U.S. economy plateaus.

Consolidation: Activity here has already peaked. A few more station groups may merge, and several more stations may be acquired or traded, but the consolidation feeding frenzy is largely over. There may be some surprise shifts of control/ownership among the largest groups, however, as major media companies adjust their portfolios.

Copyright issues: The recent move by the U.S. Copyright Office to levy performance royalty fees on radio broadcasters' on-line services will kick off a series of legal maneuvers that ultimately causes dramatic change in the traditionally placid world of radio content acquisition and compensation.

LEOsats: Notwithstanding the Iridium debacle, speculative development of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite systems will continue, but now aimed at providing broadband service. This could extend the impact of broadband streaming media to rural areas of the U.S., and to international markets, within the next two to three years—significantly faster than terrestrial broadband might be deployed to these areas.

Music downloads and Software radio: Younger listeners will move away from traditional radio in increasing numbers, drawn by the personalization capabilities of music download sites and customizable streaming audio services.

Automation: PC-based systems in radio will continue to grow in sophistication, as their usage grows in both the content creation and technical distribution sides of the business. It's more of the same good luck/bad luck with this 13th issue: Operations staff will suffer, while computer-savvy tech support will benefit.

Cosmic significance

Arthur C. Clarke fans in our industry will find mild irony in the fact that geostationary satellites (which Clarke first proposed) will become cosmically significant for radio in the year 2001 (the title and period of Clarke's best known sci-fi work).

That development, along with the others noted here (and, no doubt, a few that aren't), will shape a pivotal year for the radio industry — and for the media world in general. But that's the way any decent new millennium should start, not with a whimper but a bang. Best of luck, and buckle up.

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