Over the past three decades, cable television has freed the nation's viewers from the limited, often stale offerings of the three-network oligopoly.
Pioneering companies and individuals are similarly threatening the livelihoods of conventional radio broadcasters. Cable operators now fill their pipelines, which reach into almost every home in America, with an expansive selection of commercial-free, CD-quality music. Next year two companies, Sirius Satellite Radio, www.siriusradio.com, and XM Satellite Radio, www.xmradio.com, will each begin beaming 100 channels of digital music from satellites into specially equipped radio receivers being developed by Alpine, Clarion, and Pioneer, among others.
Another serious threat to traditional radio stations comes from the Internet. The Web allows any broadcaster to reach any connected listener, obliterating the regional markets created by the geographical limitations of over-the-air radio transmitters. Radio stations and Web-only broadcasters are reaching an ever-increasing, worldwide audience through the Internet and, in the process, are stealing listeners from traditional stations.
Several local radio stations have already recognized the potential of Internet broadcasting and the danger of holding too closely to traditional methods. At least 11 Cincinnati-area stations transmit live broadcasts over the Internet, including WLW, www.700wlw.com; WEBN, www.webn.com; and WGUC, www.wguc.org. Perhaps no station manager, however, has embraced Web broadcasting as wholeheartedly as WVXU's Dr. Jim King.
This station's initial entry onto the Internet was costly, relative to its public-radio budget, and disheartening. Created in 1995 by Washington, D.C.-based Web consultants, the first Web site had only 11 pages, no animated graphics, no live streaming audio, and no archive of recorded programs, yet cost the station more than $40,000. This experience led King to dive headfirst into designing a new Web site for the station.
"I decided to take this on as a personal project in February of last year," King says. "We were completely dissatisfied with farming out the site to outside vendors."
Calling consultants "excessively expensive for the results produced," King began learning Web-page development from scratch, reading books and industry magazines, experimenting with software, attending seminars and conferences, and even enrolling in a four-day camp to learn Net Objects Fusion 5.0, the software he eventually selected to design the site.
In February, 2000, after a year of this self-education, King embarked on the construction of the new site and set a seemingly unrealistic deadline of June 1, 2000. But, on June 15, 2000, just two weeks behind schedule, WVXU's new Web site, located at three addresses, -- www.wvxu.org, www.wvxu.com and www.xstarnet.com -- went live.
With high-fidelity streaming audio, hundreds of hours of archived programs and more than 350 pages, the site is a vast improvement over the station's initial set-up. And if, like a homeowner or weekend mechanic tackling repairs to save money, King ignores the value of his own labor, the site cost significantly less than the stripped-down version it replaced -- under $10,000 for computers, encoders and software.
WVXU is the flagship station for the X-Star Network, a group of seven public radio stations across Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. Each station broadcasts both local content and shared programming, with WVXU producing most of the latter. The new Web site's home page reflects this arrangement by providing links that will eventually serve as portals to each station's own site. Much of the Web site is now functional for only three of the seven stations -- WVXU, WVXA in Rogers City, MI, and WVXM in Manistee, MI.
The site offers a wealth of information on the history of WVXU and the other X-Star stations, as well as biographies of radio personalities, extensive program directories, links to the Web sites of nationally syndicated shows and, of course, the opportunity to support the stations with donations.
Like all good radio station Web sites, however, the most important feature of WVXU's is live streaming audio. Many Web radio stations sacrifice the sound quality of their broadcasts by transmitting audio at low rates, 16 kbps (kilobytes per second), for example. In order to transfer content at these rates, the digitized programming must be highly compressed, which distorts and muddles it. WVXU, on the other hand, broadcasts all streaming audio at rates in excess of 64 kbps, more than enough to produce near-CD quality sound. Another Cincinnati public radio station, WGUC, broadcasts over the Internet at even higher rates, generally around 96 kbps.
Both WVXU and WGUC pay a premium to provide such high fidelity to listeners. Web-site connection charges are based on the volume of data packets flowing through a connection, which is determined by both the number of users accessing the streaming audio and the rate at which the station transmits it. Many radio stations cut costs not only by streaming audio at low rates, but also by limiting the number of listeners who can tune in at one time.
According to King, many public radio stations accommodate only 10 to 12 simultaneous Web listeners. WVXU has purchased enough bandwidth to handle 50.
But, as with any company that adopts cutting-edge technology, WVXU has experienced problems with streaming audio. A residential customer of Cincinnati Bell's Zoomtown since the high speed DSL service debuted, King quickly signed the company on to provide the high-speed connection between the radio station and the downtown building where the Web site's two servers, one holding visual content, the other dedicated to live and archived audio, are located.
Zoomtown, however, was designed primarily as a residential service, not a dedicated, always-on, commercial connection.
"Zoomtown, by design, disconnects the user from time-to-time as bandwidth needs require," King says.
For residential users, such service interruptions happen infrequently and are merely a minor inconvenience. For WVXU, however, every interruption translates into the Web audience losing the broadcast. Furthermore, if Zoomtown disconnects for more than 30 seconds, which King says happens frequently, WVXU personnel must reset equipment at the station in order to reestablish the broadcast. But station employees may be unaware of the disconnection and, consequently, may not immediately reset the equipment.
This resulted in extended service outages that, if not remedied, would have frustrate audiences and driven them to more reliable sources of programming.
King has solved this problem by contracting with Broadslate, www.broadslate.com, a DSL provider new to Cincinnati, to provide WVXU's high-speed connection. Broadslate promises 99.9 percent connection time and is dedicated to providing services to commercial Internet users.
Another disruption in WVXU's live audio streaming is not so easily remedied. Licensing agreements with vendors who provide the station's popular old-time radio shows, broadcast over the air from 11 a.m. to noon each weekday, prohibit WVXU from transmitting these shows over the Internet. Similar contracts also prevent WVXU from broadcasting the late night news show "BBC Overnight" on the web.
But most X-Star Network programming now reaches Internet listeners around the world a few seconds after it reaches those who live within the signal range of an X-Star station. And, according to King, people are tuning in.
"I'm seeing huge increases in listenership almost daily," he says, referring to online listeners. "We're averaging several thousand hits each day compared to about 100 a month prior to the June 15 debut of the new site. I'm getting all kinds of e-mail response from listeners all over the world."
To garner a larger audience, King has listed the station's Web site on major radio station web directories, a vital step for any web broadcaster. Last month's Digital Wire mentioned two such listings, Radio-Locator, http://wmbr.mit.edu/stations/list.html; and Live Radio on the Internet, www.live-radio.net.
King also plans to increase the site's exposure by advertising heavily in national Internet publications, establishing reciprocal links with major Web sites and listing the site with all of the popular search engines.
And, even as he implements these marketing strategies, King continues constructing the Web site. Estimating it is only 60 percent complete, he anticipates adding more audio archives, more station history and, soon, video streaming.
"By the beginning of 2001, it should be possible for our Web visitors to actually watch our announcers producing programs as they're happening on the air," King says.
But even with a growing audience and an innovative Web site, the economic advantages of Web radio are still uncertain. As with many Web-based business concepts, Internet radio generates more promise than revenue.
Although King would like the site to eventually produce income through advertising, merchandise sales and increased donations, his main reason for establishing a Web presence is to establish continuity in an industry undergoing dramatic changes. With a varied and seemingly endless selection of radio programming coursing through the Internet and beaming from satellites to every corner of the earth, the limitations of traditional radio broadcasting may bring about its demise.
"I don't see a whole lot of future for traditional radio or television," says King, an industry veteran who has served as WVXU's manager since 1976. "Public and commercial broadcasters need to take a cold, hard look at the emerging competitors and join their ranks or risk becoming extinct."
If King is right, he has positioned WVXU well for the next generation of radio.
CONTACT PETE SHULER: firstname.lastname@example.org