Technology continues to create rivals where rivalery was never originally conceived to exist. WiFi (and its more modern WiMax cousin) technology is one such example as it begins to change everything from entertainment and media to communications and connectivity. Although the true mark of it has yet to reach its potential, WiFi is beginning to broaden its impact and generate new interest in the music community, not only in the peer-to-peer ability to share music via devices such as Zune but moreso in the way it can redefine the radio industry.
Currently, radio is mired in its own slup attempting to redefine itself in any number of manners from programming to signal technology to ownership.
Broadcast radio is making an attempt to update its image and one of those upgrades is supposed to be the crystal clear High Definition signals. High definition broadcast radio continues to lag behind in consumer adoption. After all, HDRadio is not quite the buzz that HDTV and Hi-def video is.
The slow transition by broadcasters to the format and inability for programmers to leverage the extra bandwith is an obvious stumbling block. When you understand the breath of the migration expenses, it is not hard to understand why the status quo resisted the upgrades. Many individual stations and smaller networks are hesitant to invest in the transmitter upgrades required for an unproven system. Additionally, the cost of developing and maintaining the range of programming for all the sub-signals appears to dissuade much beyond old-fashioned simucasting or rebroadcasting of existing programming.
However, the real issue is the receiver cost and lack of quantifiable receiver distribution for the consumer. The HD receivers have low penetration in home stereo equipment and almost no support by motor vehicle and aftermarket parts manufacturers limiting consumer exposure. Manufacturers blame this on a lack of consumer demand, which is in part probably due to a lack of knowledge about the technology that goes back to a lack of the technology’s use by the broadcast industry. The catch twenty-two is if the consumer receiver does not exist there is no reason to broadcast in that format and no reason for a consumer to feel inclined to utilize such a broadcast. Furthermore, the presence of HDFM alone does not seem to justify the cost increase associated with the units to most consumers. It is a nominal upgrade in experience for a high premium.
Satellite broadcasters appear to be hitting a saturation point with their ability to recruit the masses to their unique take on programming and distribution. The primary competition to satellite thus far is terrestrial broadcast and luring the initial customer base away from what traditional broadcasting had become was not a difficult task. However, once the early adopters were on board, convincing the masses to pay for a service they essentially received for free has become an increasingly difficult task. Furthermore, other handheld personal entertainment devices continue to chip away at the share of both ears and finances available to invest in satellite radio creating increased competition that lacks the definition of terrestrial broadcast.
The usually commercial-free, uncensored and exclusive nature of the programming definitely represents a draw for subscribers. However, even with the large number of options in a subscription niches are still left largely unsatisfied and the lack of a local appeal presents a homogenized listening experience only nominally different than that of the traditional broadcasters at this point.
There is also a substantial cost argument, not only for the service but also the receivers, which even when offered as portable devices compete for a place in the pocket already occupied by the cell phone and iPod at a minimum, both of which are also monopolizing ear-time as well.
It should not go without saying, the high cost of maintaining not only the satellite network but also that of the talent and the overhead of consumer marketing and customer care makes the two choices that do exist financial disasters at present and whose future is as unclear.
For years internet radio was a bastard child in the entertainment world awkwardly tethered to computers, straining to overcome bandwith issues, firewalls and other technological roadblocks. Compared to other online media, internet radio seemed to lag behind on buzz and subsequently consumer adoption. Questions and confusion standardization of signals, royalties, regulation and usage plagued it as a distribution entity and continue to present lingering concern
Enter the WiFi revolution. The opportunity to free this long underrated music distribution system may lie in an increasing interest by the government, consumer advocacy groups and astute corporate entities (such as Starbucks) to hot spot the bulk of the nation.
No longer chained to the wall via a telephone cord or Ethernet cable, wireless networking allows this once desktop experience to become increasingly portable. As broadband and high speed networking increases in penetration the portal for streaming the signal widens allowing for less interruption, higher bitrates and a more enlightening digital listening experience. Processor speed increases as well as both browser and media player advancements allow for smaller devices to play internet based stations, thus freeing them from the confines of the computer itself.
Without getting too far ahead of the technological advancements, the proliferation of WiFi can potentially render HDFM and Satellite obsolete. First, the cost of webcasting is significantly less than that of either HDFM or Satellite broadcasting for the broadcaster. Eventually, the lower operating cost and ability to manipulate programming without the constraints of broadcast width will be a bigger draw for music distributors than that of their current technologies.
Second, the consumer can more easily utilize the broadcast. There are no expensive specialty receivers necessary to receive the signal, as most every device these days is built with some degree of WiFi connectivity, from computers to cars to cell phones. The proliferation of WiFi is so much greater than that of both HDFM and Satellite combine in the average users life the appeal cannot be understated in the long run, despite the lack of adoption to all the capabilities at present.
Finally, there is an infinite amount of diversity in the programming and segments satisfied potentially beyond any niche listeners wildest imagination. The breath of the available programming dwarfs even the combination of both broadcast and satellite combine. The downside is the consumer’s ability to locate the programming on the vast sea of websites available to them. Creating traction for most stations continues to be difficult as they linger in obscurity due to a lack of brand awareness
To assume terrestrial broadcast radio, despite the homogenization of commercial programming, is dead is a mis-statement. Yes, large conglomerate broadcasting is suffering financially due to a lack of advertising dollars as advertisers continue to reallocate funds to other mediums. Yes, listeners are increasingly frustrated with the genericism of the programming and one-dimensional nature of on-air personalities and turning to other mediums for entertainment. Yes, there is a bad taste due to generations of payola and a perception of stations being faceless evil business entities rather than local-centric purveyors of cool. Yes, it will always have a few avid users due to it being free to the consumer and the FAA’s use of the signals as a backup self-location system for aircraft. (If you doubt this, there is a significant segment of the population that still use antennas to watch broadcast television despite having or in replacement of either cable or satellite signals.)
However, broadcast radio networks can benefit greatly from the WiFi revolution in reinventing themselves more effectively. Traditional radio networks can leverage their existing online properties to accomplish both the breadth of HDFM as well as a
Competition on the Horizon
Be it traditional terrestrial networks leveraging their existing web properties better or the banding together of existing online entities creating networks for themselves or large online conglomerates taking on that role, there are ample opportunities to provide wireless pre-programmed music experiences for consumers.
Already destinations such as Yahoo! and AOL acknowledge this with their existing offerings and continued participation in both marketing the format and defending broadcasts rights in royalty and usage cases. Blooming entities such as Pandora provide a unique take on programming and social networks like Live365 allow would-be and professionals alike to generate programming.
The biggest liability to this format may be the special interest groups and how the government responds to their requests for increased royalty payments, changes in royalty status for not-for-profit webcasters and the future of wireless broadband access.
The recent litigation between several webcasting groups and the likes of the RIAA and DRC punctuates the growth of the format. If there was not potential for money to be made from the increasing listenership there would be no need to assess a change in royalty collection. Depending on how the courts tend to view the major webcasting entities versus the not-for-profit (NFP) enterprises on the web, it could potentially change the face of web-based music as currently experienced. If NFPs are charged the same rates as their for-profit counterparts the increased fees would eventually drive these passion-based music sites out of business. If NFPs are treated more like their non-commercial traditional broadcasters and given a reprieve from these requested royalty changes internet-based music should continue to strive based on niche-based programming in a very artistic manner and not driven by corporate profit.
Similarly, the outcome of the upcoming FCC auction of broadcast frequencies previously utilized by traditional television broadcasts could play an enormous role in how internet radio interacts with consumers. If the requests by major web properties to require open-access broadband rather than the more traditional controlled wireless frequencies used by mobile carriers the proliferation of usage might blossom under a more free condition if a number of security and platform issues could first be resolved.
Finally, how broadcasters are treated in terms of taxation and their voice of representation in these matters on Capitol Hill will play out their next moves. If they are able to leverage themselves similar to other passion-based internet ideals such as blogs and community networking site users, they could control their own destiny. Only time will tell how they will be able to mobilize their unique abilities in the political shifts of the upcoming election.