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Going Mobile With Web Radio

If you think you've read bits of today's column on Web radio, before, you have. Here's the list of ingredients, as they appeared in my blog:


* Interactive Web-radio services do a really good job of exposing people to new music. (Notice how many of the comments start with a variation of "I listen to Web radio at work.")

* Commercial FM does not.

* Car stereos now offer a variety of ways to connect digital-music devices.

* Webcasters say they're starting to see a lot of listenership on mobile devices.

All that was enough to convince me to take along a smartphone on a Memorial Day trip. And the performance of Web radio on that trek -- in an area where I wasn't sure I'd have cell service at all, much less enough bandwidth to stream music off the Internet -- convinced me there could be a column in this.

And for once, I didn't have to write yet another screed about how unreasonable demands for performance royalties will kill off Web radio. The conversations I've had with Webcasters over the past couple of weeks have convinced me that there's been a change in mindset in the music business; the performance-royalties organization SoundExchange is no longer trying to squeeze Webcasters for every last penny.

It is, however, still trying to charge them more than cable or satellite broadcasters -- not to mention FM and AM broadcasters, which don't have to pay performance royalties at all. The simple and fair solution would be to charge everybody the same, much as everybody pays the same royalty rates to the composers of songs. Radio Paradise director Bill Goldsmith put it best in his e-mail to me:

My hope is that a single affordable royalty standard -- something similar to the 3%-4% of revenue that all stations pay to ASCAP & BMI -- will be applied to all broadcasters: FM/AM, satellite, cable, and Internet.

But even under the current, unbalanced scheme, Webcasters like Goldsmith now say they can get by. Pandora, for its part, is even predicting a profit next year.

Project these trends into the reasonable future, and Web radio's prospects can seem brighter than those of commercial FM -- especially the large, clumsy, debt-burdened conglomerates that currently dominate the dial. Things don't look good for another debt-burdened radio conglomerate, Sirius XM, though at least satellite radio offers nationwide coverage and some of the Internet's variety (just not as much as it once did).

It's also fair to ask what near-ubiquitous Web radio could do to music-subscription services like RealNetworks' Rhapsody and Microsoft's Zune Pass. True, those services let you pick the songs you want, then listen to them offline as long as you keep paying. But with a good DJ, human or electronic, you don't even need to go to the effort of choosing songs and can instead be pleasantly surprised by what comes up next in the playlist. And if you can listen to Web radio everywhere from the banks of the Shenandoah River to the subway platform at Metro Center, just how many places can you consider "offline" these days?

Where does Web radio fit into your own listening pattern, and where do you figure it will be two years from now? What role will FM and other music services play? Let's talk about that in my Web chat, starting at noon today--and in the comments, starting right now.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 29, 2009; 10:15 AM ET
Categories:  Music  
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I listen to pandora on the laptop, love the mix they serve up to me. It's so cool, it makes me wonder if I should wear a tin foil hat to protect my brain from them stealing my thoughts.....

Posted by: tbva | May 29, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Pandora's nice, but ultimately relaxed into a tired replay of a few songs, where the new ones added overlapped with what I liked through just one characteristic at a time (year, genre, etc). Still haven't found a good replacement for friends' recommendations when it comes to finding good, new music. (And I do wonder how much of liking music is context-driven. If it's playing while I'm doing something I like (driving around, watching a movie, etc), do I really care so much about the music (which is all about the same level of pop, right?), or the context where I hear it?

OTA radio still rules in the car, and I hope that continues. Too many ways to DRM digital decoding. At home, I've started listening to streaming talk when a show I like (Dan Patrick, eg) gets pulled off of the local stations.

You know, coincidentally, I was just looking at getting an AM transmitter for the home [sic], then broadcasting streams from my computer to the radios in the house. You can't and won't beat the boot time of my clock radio.

Posted by: WorstSeat | May 29, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I prefer Slacker over Pandora too. It's more satellite radio-like in that I can choose a well-programmed genre. Having said that, I went from streaming it over my iPhone during my crap commute BACK to satellite radio. It was just easier and more reliable.

Posted by: davezatz | May 30, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

I listen to webcasts much of the day, and night. Almost always classical music. WQXR and WGBH are old reliables but occasionally others such as WRTI (Temple University) Philadelphia. Not yet into making it mobile though.
Dave Jewell, Philadelphia

Posted by: dajewell | June 1, 2009 9:47 AM | Report abuse

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