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25 Years of Internet Radio, Part 2
Back when online video was the size of a postage stamp, audio companies were changing the way the world heard radio. Here are reminiscences from RealNetworks and other pioneers.
Learn more about the companies mentioned in this article in the Sourcebook:
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Interestingly, unlike video, the adoption of HLS [HTTP Live Streaming] in the audio space has not been rapid. Primarily this has been down [due] to a lack of support for the protocol, with popular servers such as Icecast and SHOUTcast already delivering audio streams over HTTP. There was a time in which HLS adoption was attempted via video technology such as Wowza Media Server, but significant recurring cost, a lack of broadcast audio workflows/reporting, and undesirable performance when combined with audio monetization technologies saw a vast majority of broadcasters jump back toward HTTP ICY [the protocol used by SHOUTcast].

More recently though, the implementation of HLS has started to pick up the pace thanks to audio monetization technology companies such as Adswizz offering a multitude of commercial tools for the implementation and management of digital audio advertising, Adswizz has invested significant time and money into building an audio streaming server that meets the demands of the market both commercially and technically.

Over the last few years, audio monetization has become an essential revenue stream for audio content publishers who adopted the technology early. It is a significant step change in the way in which audio content creators sell their content and audiences to sponsors and advertisers. Where listeners were once locked into consuming ads from the FM simulcast, publishers are now able to target those listeners individually. Goodbye clutch replacement center adverts, hello adverts tailored to your location and lifestyle.

As with any new broadcast technology, only the biggest publishers with enormous scale and investment capability reap the initial rewards. The launch of aggregation services such as DAX [Digital Audio Xchange] has gone a long way to helping the small to medium broadcasters gain an understanding of the opportunities and associated monetary returns. It is by far the biggest change in mindset in the radio industry since streaming audio began, and it’s not surprising to see even some of the most seasoned commercial radio pros stumped at the new ways to monetize their offering. It is no longer about recording an ad with a local sponsor and adding it to your playout system.

While the market has evolved exponentially over the last decade, in my opinion, we are only just getting started. Smart speaker adoption in developed territories is the same as the iPhone many moons ago, subsequently changing the listening habits of audiences. The connected car is without doubt going to be the next biggest industry change over the coming decade. While I still expect the cars of the future to contain digital radio receivers, I firmly believe audio streaming will become the default option for listening on the move as smartphones, speakers, cars, and networks all blend into a harmonic ocean of personalized data.

To make this impact though, there are still some serious hurdles to overcome. Audio ad-insertion technology is incredibly resource-hungry; bizarrely, it’s worse than many server side video streaming monetization tech. I’d like to see improvements in the synchronicity of audio streaming technology. As it stands, by the time monetization workflows have taken place, live broadcasts are approximately 30–45 seconds out of sync with traditional broadcast mediums such as FM and DAB [digital audio broadcasting]. A significant part of radio’s history has been the wonder of synchronous listening experiences over entire towns, cities, and countries. If we are truly to get to a state in which audio streaming supersedes traditional broadcast in every way, audio streaming must be capable of near live, near synchronous across every device on any network. Audio data rates are minimal in comparison to almost any other media on the internet in the modern age, and with web technologies such as websockets and pusher, it must be possible.

From a publisher perspective, more client-side standardization needs to take place. As it stands, there are too many publishers leaning on their web dev companies to manage audio player technology. In my experience across 10-plus international markets, this almost always leads to audio players that are designed for on-demand listening being used in live environments or relying on the HTML5 audio playback in mobile browsers. Neither approach brings market cohesion (mostly confusion! Where is the damn play button!?), and ultimately, it locks these publishers out of monetization capabilities. There is a reason FM car radios follow the same tuning principles and only have 6 buttons.

Services such as Radioplayer and TuneIn have gone a long way to ensuring that there is a pathway for audio publishers to distribute content in an environment that supports features such as ‘now playing’ information and interactive advertising (shake your phone for coupons!), and I’d like to see further adoption of this globally.

Radio Survivor: Paul Riismandel

I also reached out to Paul Riismandel, cofounder and operations director of Radio Survivor and podcast evangelist for Midroll Media. He’s also a former columnist for Streaming Media, so his name will be familiar to many of you. Here are his reminiscences about the history of internet radio, as well as a few predictions for the future, both lightly edited:

Great events in history of internet radio? For me, Live365’s birth and demise bookends the boom. In the ‘barely regulated’ era of music licensing leading up to the introduction of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the late ’90s, Live365 provided a neat ‘roll-up’ of the technology and included a subscription model to include royalty payments. However, when the Webcaster Settlement Act lapsed [in 2015], that really hurt them. They had been a great way for all levels of folks to play and try internet radio out. They were the first real roll-up in the space—not unlike YouTube Live has been for video.

Next to mind is the introduction of SHOUTcast—with Winamp anyone could create a station in a very simple way. Even today there are 90k + streaming on SHOUTcast. Sadly, the rules changed when Radionomy took them over, and it seems a bit of an unloved tombstone today, but it is still undeniably very active. SHOUTcast was great for ultra niche [content] flying under the radar.

A great example of a broadcaster really spotting the advantage of internet radio was WFMU—a New Jersey community radio station. It was an early adopter and embraced things whole-hog: They started around 1995/96 and very quickly offered archives (which are all still there at wmfu.org). [General manager] Ken Freedman understood that, because they are small (1200W in the most crowded radio space in the world), many listeners couldn’t tune in well on FM—so internet radio provided reach they couldn’t otherwise make.

At that time many stations were reticent to embrace the internet, fearing a change of ‘who they were,’ and concerned that, by streaming, there was a risk things may be worse—not least because of unknown costs/royalty rates.

In fact, the concern was so great that WFMU formed the Free Music Archive (freemusicarchive.org) so if they were to become hemmed in by the copyright regime, they would have their own archive of royalty-free music, and it would be suitably curated.

Note that radio in the U.S. is not responsible for performance royalty, only for songwriting royalties, and today with internet radio, you are responsible for payments and royalty licensing with SoundExchange.

When the Webcasters Act fell away, it made it harder to be a hobby broadcaster. This means that now community/college stations need to qualify (as not-for-profits) and those that do get lower rates. But these are commercial barriers to entry for fledgling private stations. Other countries are being somewhat more flexible and encouraging for such entities.

WHERE ARE WE TODAY?

From a non-commercial point of view, internet radio has become a necessity, [because it] allows building, maintaining, and serving an audience. Many folks now don’t own true radio receivers; if they’re not in a car, then the only way to listen was internet radio. So digital is now part of the fabric.

In the UK, digital listening is now over 50.9 percent, and there is talk that the UK may follow Norway in a review of FM spectrum licensing; small broadcasters are concerned.

Internet radio has been a boon supporting low power (100W) U.S. FM broadcasting among independent/church/community stations—radio reach is thus very low—so for these guys, internet presence is critical. The radio transmission is really a demonstration that the station is permanent and is more strongly symbolic than functional, helping to communicate what they are up to. It makes it ‘real’ for partners, audience, and sponsors even if the radio mast is secondary to the internet fiber for end-user reach.

WHAT IS COMING NEXT?

For streaming music, despite the hype, it is all pretty much venture-funded and so far unprofitable. I find that curious, if not troubling. However, it is interesting that Spotify and Pandora, Tidal, etc., are all actually part of the music industry, where terrestrial radio was not part of the music industry. This meant traditional radio culturally is accepted as a promotional service for music. Now, with the large online audio services being deeply in bed with the music industry, church and state have merged, and it feels that it might make things more fragile.

Of course, it is very possible that Spotify will make it—it has huge resources —but it all looks like a big change to the structure of the industry, and that makes it hard to predict where it is going in the long run.

Podcasting is cheaper than music licensing. Apple Podcasts are actually just syndicated—not even the distribution is paid by Apple—and so podcasting looks a lot like radio used to; it even includes news, talk, etc.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a linear component happens. Apple [Music]’s Beats One doesn’t seem to be a runaway success, but what if Spotify buys iHeart Radio or TuneIn?

Finally, sports commentary makes a strong case for live internet radio. The premium version of TuneIn gives access to most leagues, so that is also worth watching. Perhaps it is a bellwether for something larger around the corner.

What will that something be? It’s hard to say at this point. But since its early emergence on the Mbone, internet radio has come a long, long way, and it has changed consumer listening habits irrevocably. The freedom for niche content to find an audience through internet radio underpins its success, giving it the energy that used to be confined to the “pirate” radio of old, and it remains a hotbed of innovation, both in terms of technology and, more importantly, in terms of content, giving an outlet to voices that would go unheard if the technology weren’t there.

But will the communal spirit of internet radio eventually be consigned to the dustbin of history, overtaken by an increasingly isolating on-demand alternatives?

Internet radio fans love the real-time gathering around the virtual campfire, including the audience interactions in chat rooms and in social media that surround a live DJ “on the air.” These synchronous interactions are hugely valuable, and while a few of those I interviewed question the value of this in a world where consumers can either just tune in to traditional radio or select their own online playlists from Spotify, Pandora, and the like, real internet radio—programmed on-the-fly by a living, breathing DJ—shows no sign of going away completely.

So here’s to the next 25 years! Stay tuned—Streaming Media is going to keep closer tabs on the sector and will keep you up-to-date with the latest developments.

[This article appears in the October 2018 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "25 Years of Internet Radio, Part 2."]

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