Will RealAudio kill the radio star?

Commercial radio will have only itself to blame if the Internet ends up eating its pablum lunch.

Published May 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Like not a few people I know, I pretty much stopped listening to radio after I moved to New York. (Hereinafter "radio" excludes public radio, a genre which, in New York anyway, is largely a magazine for people with busy hands and eyeballs.) With a few exceptions, the 10-hits-all-the-time sameness of what this bumpkin had naively assumed would be a cooler radio market left me nostalgic even for the Detroit area's mediocre offerings.

I'm not saying there's no decent radio in New York, though its quality is inversely proportional to its receivability in my apartment (like free-form WFMU, which I have to catch online). And I freely admit I'm making gross generalizations. But gross generalization is what makes or breaks radio, by its passive nature: You turn on the radio to leave it on, so if you find a station -- or the entire radio palette -- disappointing in general, you're not going to turn it on at all.

And gross generalization, especially in a big market like New York's, is what radio programming is all about: With a high listener-to-bandwidth ratio, the market has a hard time sustaining anything not aimed at the broadest swaths of listeners. It may be doing right by those swaths, but my misanthropic little demographic of one is now getting its highly narrow-cast broadcasts online, trading solidarity with the Radioland masses for the chance to hear Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos instead of Backstreet Boys.

In addition to thousands of Netcasts of offline radio stations and numerous DIY amateurs, a number of new-media companies are jumping into online audio. Recently Lycos and Yahoo have claimed a piece of a field that includes Viacom's Imagine Radio, Spinner.com and Rolling Stone Radio, among others. (The latter just hooked David Bowie, the recidivist Net opportunist, to DJ an online channel.)

Commercial broadcasters discount their online competition, and if it principally appeals to already-lost causes like me, they may have a point. Compared with the single-application appliance for receiving broadcast radio -- a "radio" -- sound quality is still a problem over low-bandwidth connections. And although Internet audio can allow listeners to customize their own "stations" and can offer theoretically endless micro-categories -- drum 'n' bass, a zillion variations of "alternative" (ironically, probably the most common category) -- content is still a problem for some. Lycos, with its whopping five channels -- Adult Contemporary! Smooth Jazz! -- has yet to catch up with the daring programming offered by an airplane-seat armrest. And sites are still struggling for viable advertising; many use banner ads, which I suppose are effective on listeners used to staring blankly at their radios. (There's also the potential for channel branding, hinted at by Spinner's "Doritos Radio," a mild ranch-flavored blend of alt-rock staples. The first broadcaster to offer channels of Gap and Banana Republic commercial music will be sitting on a gold mine.)

But if online music servers do someday cut into traditional radio's audience, the irony is that they'll do so by employing every strategy broadcast companies have used to ruin radio -- only better and more efficiently.

Is having your music picked by algorithm and spun by computer heartless and sad? Given that that's more or less standard operating procedure in commercial radio -- as a fine "Marketplace" radio series just detailed -- it might as well be your algorithm and machine. Will millions mourn the companionable DJ's voice? They'll dance in the freaking streets! The great delight of most Internet radio, not including simulcasts of broadcast stations, is the near absence of speech. (This ignores some loquacious amateur Net-casters, but they're really competition for, if anyone, public radio -- they're far more public than it is.) Radio stations have for years acknowledged they've turned jocks into liabilities: hence "More Rock, Less Talk!"

Likewise, broadcasters might counter that they provide local flavor you can't get by surfing MacroRadio or choosing an out-of-town station. Except that the radio business long ago made locality irrelevant -- you can go to any city and hear your K-Rock or Z-Rock or Q-Rock, something called "The Edge" that still has the MTV Unplugged version of "About a Girl" in heavy rotation, a Hot 100 or 95 or 104, a classical station that plays a lot of Pachelbel. DJs, weathercasters, even traffic reporters are piped in. Even the commercials are site-generic: I recently heard an ad saying a "local doctor" was looking for subjects for a heartburn study and giving a toll-free number. Act now, citizen of Your City Here!

In other words, if radio stations can be easily improved on by button-pushing online, they have no one to bitch to: That's what they've turned themselves into. If I'm going to listen to a piped-in newscaster sitting in some bunker in Pennsylvania, I might as well hire my own. Radio sites already collect ZIP codes, the better to target ads; use that info to plug in local headlines here, weather, traffic and Lotto numbers there, and you've already got a station as local as most of what "local radio" offers.

A larger question is whether the resulting audience atomization -- All You, All the Time -- is antisocial, misanthropic, even. On the one hand, customized broadcasting allows for community building: Imagine Radio allows listeners to post their customized channels for public listening, as can the much more active DJs at Shoutcast, who create and share programming online. On the other hand, these are ever smaller communities. One of Imagine's slogans is: "It's what you want to hear!" It's an empowering declaration; it's a 3-year-old's tantrum. Could narrow-cast, interactive music be another ATM, another online catalog -- another friction-free convenience that spares wired individualists the messy, frustrating contact with the masses? Another electronic 10-foot pole that exacerbates our sense of entitlement, of impatience, of dissatisfaction with the ability of biological humans to service our desires perfectly?

Maybe. Maybe that's what I like about it, whatever that says about me. Lately I've been listening to Imagine, which boasts a listener-feedback feature. You can give any artist a frequency ranking on your customized station, from 0 (never again) to 5. Having this power animated a silent, constant critic in my head, a really harsh little son-of-a-bitch who judges immoderately and grows harder to please with every censorial ruling. I just offed Dishwalla, for instance. Pow! Over! Hooverphonic? Screw that! Soul Coughing? See you in hell!

I have begun employing this Godlike power liberally, and lately I have come to believe that -- unless laws forbidding the Net-casting of too many consecutive songs by the same artist intervene -- through various dyspeptic fiats I will ultimately arrive at my perfect radio station, which will play absolutely no artists at all. Leaving me, in the end, no worse off than I was with all of New York City radio at my disposal.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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