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Part 4

Radio-Free Richmond

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Listeners like Pat Jagoda envision "interesting and fresh" radio stations. "Something that would expose the audience to a lot of music they would have missed on their own. This could include anything. No boundaries."

As with every other segment of business, the real threat to the status quo comes from the Internet. According to studies released by Arbitron and Edison Media Research, as of July 1998, 6 percent of Americans had tuned in to Internet radio. By January 1999, "Internet listening penetration had more than doubled to 13 percent," and "one-in-five online Americans had already listened to Internet radio."

Already, thousands of Internet broadcasts are available — with a free download of Real Audio player anyone can receive stations from Santa Monica to Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Internet crushes radio's traditional idea of coverage areas and does away with wattage and interference issues to boot. Even more attractive to some: Cyberspace is one place the FCC currently has no authority or governance.

Despite the intriguing, possibly alarming trend of Internet broadcasting, AMFM's McCall doesn't see the it as much of a threat. "People said the same thing when TV first came out," he offers. "They said, 'This is radio but with a picture. Why would anyone listen to the radio anymore?' The fact remains that 50 years later 94 percent of the population still listens to the radio. Radio isn't going anywhere."

Nevertheless, McCall's new bosses see enough opportunity to create AMFMi, (the "new media" arm of AMFM, Inc.) an Internet entity charged with broadcasting their radio offerings in cyberspace. Locally, Q94 and XL102 have followed suit, employing the help of Broadcast.com, one of several companies that act as home sites and consolidators for online broadcasters.

In cyberspace, however, the danger to traditional radio is three-fold: Long-distance listeners provide little value for local advertisers. With listening options streaming in from all over the world, why would a listener in Boise or Denmark, for instance, seek out Richmond's XL102? And for that matter, why might a Richmonder choose to keep listening to the same station when thousands of others are so readily available online? On Broadcast.com, for instance, there are 27 stations under the "Rock" format option (to complicate things even further, listeners also can select from classic rock, alternative, adult contemporary, contemporary hits and adult album alternative). Conceivably, many — if not all — of those stations could be owned and formatted by the same conglomerates. In other words, WRXL Richmond is KQRC Kansas City is WIZN Burlington, Vt.

There can't be too many folks in corporate HQ who like the sound of that.

Bea Duncan, associate media director at The Martin Agency, believes the threat from the Internet is still several years away, though it's a real one all the same. "Radio is such a personal medium, it's the soundtrack to our lives," she says, adding that she too believes local programming is pathetic. The Internet, in other words, offers an opportunity for listeners to script their own "soundtracks," rather than have programming decisions dictated to them.

Though Duncan says the science of station formatting has drained the life from stations across the country, there are exceptions — exceptions that will ultimately be winners in a flooded marked once traditional boundaries begin to falter. "What will draw listeners outside the local markets will be things like personalities, exceptional programming, formats you can't get locally, and shows or concerts carried elsewhere."

Still, Duncan believes that until you can take it with you, the Internet won't have a considerable impact. But considering rapid advances in computing and technology, that day can't be too far off. "When it happens," Duncan says, "I'm there." It's hard to find anyone who disagrees.



Catherine Leitch contributed to this story.

E-mail Dave McCormack - dave@richmond.com

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