TRUER THAN EVER - NO STATIC AT ALL.
Whether it comes through the dashboard speaker, a laptop computer, your Palm Pilot or even the kitchen toaster, radio will never go away.
But it is changing - rapidly.
Thanks to megamergers, corporate consolidation and an ever-shrinking number of format choices, resentment at the grass-roots level has set the stage for the fast growth of Web radio. On the Internet, where thousands of broadcasters are redefining the concept of what constitutes a radio station, even the idea of a dial seems like an antiquated notion.
The lingo has changed, too. Those in the know refer to two types of broadcasting: terrestrial (or traditional radio) and cyber. But sexy as the Net may be, the landlocked stations are still the proven moneymakers since they sell commercials by delivering listeners to advertisers.
In a multibillion-dollar industry that runs on fractions of ratings points with analysts pinpointing listeners according to what model car they drive, terrestrial radio works by identifying a broad target audience and aiming straight at its core, within the limited geographic range of the station's signal.
The Internet, on the other hand, can bring together like-minded listeners from around the world. It provides niche stations online that would never succeed on traditional radio because they are either too arcane or, in the case of rap and some types of rock and talk formats, the content too offensive to pass broadcast standards.
But traditional radio will never go away, says Randy Michaels, chief executive of Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio conglomerate, adding that regardless of the system of delivery, listeners will always seek out compelling talent.
``It's the talent and product you have on the air that make the difference,'' he said. ``You cannot stop change; it's coming whether you like it or not.''
Essential to Internet radio's spread is the component that allows listeners instant access to all sorts of programming and purchasing information. This interactive element allows communities of listeners to form and engage in e-mail give-and-take with each other and the Web programmers.
And then there's sound quality, generally far superior on the Web to terrestrial FM, particularly when broadband delivery services are in play.
But most importantly, there's infinite choice on your home computer. Take a look at the countless stations listed at iM Networks, the Internet Radio List or Web Radio, where powerful search engines pull up multiple radio sites in whatever format you might be interested in sampling.
Even in major cities, traditional radio offers little variety. Channels are limited and playlists increasingly narrow. If you live in the Valley, for example, and prefer swing and big band to Eminem and Aaron Carter, your best and potentially only bet is Chuck Southcott's 24-hour ``Music of Your Life'' stream on the Web.
``The beauty of the Net is I can reach the world where commercial radio cannot,'' said Kathy Cappetta, co-producer of ``Music Spotlight,'' a weekly program focusing on new music carried locally on KCLA-FM (99.3), Adelphia Cable and the Net. ``We've got John Q. Public listening in Finland, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Australia - anywhere in the world where folks have an Internet connection. We have people listening in China every week. Commercial radio has only this limited area the radio wave will cover. The Internet doesn't have that. There are no barriers.''
AM and FM have become two sides to the same overly researched, commercial-choked coin. Which is clearly the reason for the revolution brewing online.
``It had to happen,'' said Rob Jones, founder and general manager of heavy-metal flagship KNAC, the first terrestrial station to end its over- the-air broadcasts and cast its fate to the Web. ``It's like flowers bursting through concrete. There had to be a way to give people what they want. And if terrestrial radio isn't interested or (is) too worried about appealing to the broadest possible demographic, thank goodness for computers.''
The growth of Internet broadcasting mirrors the history of land radio, where AM's longtime domination of the dial was superseded in the late '60s by all-powerful FM, which was technically preferable for music programmers and listeners. But as FM became increasingly formatted and consumed by advertising, it left niche programmers no choice but to move toward the next frontier: the World Wide Web.
``We have the ability to let people chat with the show,'' said Jody Sherman, a founder of the burgeoning Comedy World Network, which syndicates 24-hour comedy programming, such as a daily talk show hosted by Frank Zappa's son, Ahmet, to 50 markets and over the Net. ``Although we're also programming traditional radio stations, the Internet allows us to instantly gauge reaction.''
Originally, streaming live radio over the Net was a dream come true for ambitious programmers of Web-only outlets as well as traditional radio stations hoping to develop online audiences all over the world for local shows and personalities.
Lately, though, those rivers have begun drying up as major radio companies, including giants Clear Channel and Emmis, have halted simulcast transmission of their terrestrial stations due to issues of fees owed from the online broadcast of union-produced commercials.
Local talker KFI-AM (640), for example, recently disabled its live Webcast. The dilemma could be resolved with the implementation of ad-insertion technology that allows stations to mask union-produced spots with other material.
But that's only a problem for land radio. Cybercasters are looking at farther horizons.
``Digital radio will eventually move off the PC and into wireless technologies,'' said Zack Zalon, general manager of Radio Free Virgin, which offers 40 music channels to nearly 2 million listeners online. ``It will take over where commercial radio left off. People are sick and tired of commercial radio. There's so much advertising that it just isn't compelling anymore. Radio needs to return to where it's an adventure in creativity. That's what radio did so well in the early days of FM.''
First, however, more people need better wiring. According to a recent study of online users, broadband access is crucial in the widespread acceptance of streaming media like Internet radio.
Currently, just 7 percent of U.S. homes have broadband access, although that figure is expected to double by the end of the year, the Arbitron/Edison Media Research study revealed.
Streaming media has a long way to go before it's considered a mass medium. Only 3.4 percent of Internet users surveyed aged 12 and above said they listened to online radio in the past week. That figure extrapolated represents 8 million people, minuscule in relation to TV and traditional radio syndication audiences.
Among the most successful Web stations are KNAC, album alternative World Class Rock, and dance/techno Groove Radio. All three, owned and funded by broadcast giant Clear Channel, started life as terrestrial outlets in Los Angeles before setting sail on the World Wide Web.
``Cutting-edge underground dance music doesn't work full-time on advertiser-driven ground radio - yet,'' said Egil Aalvik (Swedish Egil), the ex-KROQ-FM (106.7) DJ and present Groove Radio head, referring to now-defunct local dance/techno station MARS-FM. ``But we've got 300,000 streams (listeners) a month. I know this music is popular worldwide.''
Without an identifiable brand that people know and care about and the deep pockets of a Clear Channel or Virgin to market it, however, it's hard to predict how long a professional-sounding Internet radio rebel might last.
During the past year, three of the most ambitious and respected live streaming stations - Fastband, Spikeradio and Soundbreak - ran out of steam. First, though, they ran out of money.
``It's about having a brand,'' offers Radio Free Virgin's Zalon. ``You can have the best music on the Net, but if people don't recognize your name or know where you are, forget it. You're not going to last forever.''
LISTENING ON THE NET
Here are the Web addresses of the Internet radio stations, shows and search engines mentioned in the accompanying article.
Comedy World Radio Network: radio.broadcast.com/radio/embedded/entertainment/comedy
Groove Radio: www.worldclassrock.com
Radio Free Virgin: www.radiofreevirgin.com
Music Spotlight: www.musicspotlight.com
Music of Your Life: www.musicofyourlife.com
iM Networks: www.imnetworks.com
Internet Radio List: www.internetradiolist.com
Web Radio: www.webradio.com
4 photos, box
(1 -- cover -- color) Ahmet Zappa of Comedy World Network
(2) Ahmet Zappa, son of the legendary Frank, is host of a radio talk show heard on regular radio and the Internet.
David Sprague/Staff Photographer
(3 -- 4) Above, Peter Marshall, left, and Chuck Southcott tape segments of the Web radio format ``Music of Your Life'' in North Hollywood. At right is Kathy Cappetta, host of a show heard on both cable radio and the Internet.
Phil McCarten/Staff Photographer
David Sprague/Staff Photographer
Box: LISTENING ON THE NET (See text)