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Intersection of Life and Faith

Net Results: Online Radio

  • Mark Geil Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2007 9 Sep
  • COMMENTS
Net Results: Online Radio

In last week's Part One of this series, we looked at the phenomenon that rocked the music industry: Napster and illegal downloads, and today's music portability in an iPod world. Today, in Part Two, we examine the growth and volatile future of Internet radio.

Related:

• Part 1: Portable Sounds
• Part 2: Online Radio
• Part 3: Death of the CD?

An old Billy Joel song, recorded in 1976, reminisced about the days when "you never heard the words of your favorite song through a three-inch speaker."

I used to listen to my CDs through massive floor speakers in woodgrain cabinets with 12-inch woofers. They've been replaced by tiny surround-sound speakers now, but another interesting thing has happened. I probably hear just as much music through my iPod earbuds and my computer speakers as I do on my home stereo system. A day at work is often accompanied by hours of uninterrupted music, not from a set of CDs, and not from a local radio station, but from the unique hybrid of Internet radio.

The digital music that was born with the CD, and grew into illegal and then legal downloads, also means streaming audio. Streaming audio means radio stations are not limited to the geographical reach of a broadcast tower. Most over-the-air stations have a "Listen Online" option, allowing listeners to find a musical genre that's not locally available or stay connected with hometown happenings.

'Closer to Home'

While stationed in Iraq, Major Lowell McKinster used a satellite Internet connection to find the online broadcast of his hometown station, 104.7 The Fish Atlanta. "Being on the other side of the earth, I felt closer to home and it kept me going on those tough days when not so good things happen," recalls McKinster. "My experience in Iraq was very positive and having the ability to listen to my favorite radio station made it even better."

Hundreds of Internet-only stations exist as well, like live365.com and last.fm, and several Christian music stations address very specific niches, such as Spanish worship music or Christian rock classics from the '70s and '80s.

Bill Hardekopf, general manager of AllWorship.com, which streams to over 230 countries, uses an interesting example to underscore the power of Internet radio. "[Imagine] a station that plays only Christian harp music. A terrestrial station which plays only Christian harp music would never survive—there are simply not enough numbers in a local market to sustain a station. But if you put that station on the Internet, there are enough people in the world that like Christian harp music to keep that station afloat. That is why our Christian worship music station has found such a wide audience throughout the world."

He also notes the reach of Internet radio to markets not served by terrestrial Christian radio, and his station's listeners underscore the value. A listener from Saudi Arabia wrote to say, "In an environment where churches do not exist and Christians are desperate to get the Word and fellowship, you are manna from heaven."

More Than Just a Delivery Tool

Musically, the Internet is more than just a tool to deliver digital music. The Internet has as its backbone a massive storehouse of computing power, and that power has been largely untapped. While some sites make recommendations based on past purchases, newer efforts seek creative ways to turn listeners on to new music.

An exceptional example is the Music Genome Project, an effort by musicians and techies to "capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level." The project seeks to define a song's "gene code" by identifying its musical attributes: melody, rhythm, lyrical influences, instrumentation, vocal harmony, and much more.

The result is a fascinating website, Pandora.com, which allows you to create virtual radio stations based on artists you like. Enter a favorite artist, say, Nichole Nordeman. The site plays her songs, along with others featuring attributes like "mild rhythmic syncopation" and "acoustic rhythm piano." You can chime in when each song plays, telling the system if you like the tune or not, add a few more of your favorite artists and their musical "genes," and get a truly personalized streaming playlist.

The results can be surprising; for grins, I crossed Nordeman with Relient K and got an eclectic cavalcade including Natalie Grant, Brandon Heath, and Fall Out Boy! You'll certainly encounter artists you've never heard of, which may be a problem if you're intentionally avoiding certain subjects or lyrical content in secular music. The future will likely hold more creative uses of all that computational muscle to bring us music we already like and more that we didn't know we would enjoy so much.

The Podcasting Effect

Music is promoted, discussed, and played via another modern format: the podcast. Podcasting allows users to subscribe to a website and receive new "episodes" as they are posted. Most podcasts are spoken word audio on a particular theme, some created and self-published by everyday individuals, and others professionally produced. Some, such as Phil Keaggy's, even include regular samplings of original music. Most all are available for free, and are easily downloaded onto iPods and mp3 players.

Many podcasts have grown to utilize video as well. Dave Wagner, director of operations for Newsboys.com, notes how the band began to utilize video. "Over the last three years, we made an effort to travel throughout the world more to perform, and one of the things we did was hire on a full time photographer to capture the various trips," Wagner said. They ended up hiring a full-time video editor, and when Paul Colman joined the band in early 2006, he became the host of the band's video podcasts as they "began a serious effort to share the band's travels with their fan base." Almost 300,000 fans watched those podcasts in the first three months of this year.

The Passion movement started an iTunes podcast in advance of Passion '07 to communicate details and promote spiritual preparation. The technique was remarkably successful, with tens of thousands of listeners, and an "iTunes bundle" of songs and preaching from the conference reached the top ten of all iTunes downloads (not just the Christian chart). Though the conference is long gone, the podcast was recently revived to build awareness of a set of free downloads available in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy.

Endless Possibilities

The recent torrent of technological change suggests that the future of music on the Internet may be quite different than what we see today.

Kevin Peterson, Christian Editor for Radio and Records, has noticed some emerging trends. "[The Internet] certainly has the potential to become a significant factor as it gets easier to listen to Internet radio. You can already listen to it at home, at work and on some cell phones, and I keep hearing industry people talking about the day when you'll be able to listen to the Internet in your car. When that day comes and it's easily accessible to the general public, that will definitely be significant. All of a sudden, if a market doesn't have a terrestrial Christian music station, an Internet station could sign on without a transmitter and a tower and cover the whole market and more. The possibilities are endless."

The future of streaming music online has been thrown into disarray by proposed drastic increases in royalty rates for Internet-only stations. With retroactive fees scheduled to go into effect, then temporarily rescinded, then scheduled again, webcasters have had a tumultuous summer, and even implemented a "Day of Silence" on June 26, when Internet radio feeds broadcast dead air in protest of the potential show-stopping fees.

The debate has even reached Congress, and a compromise seems to have been reached. A rate cap that should keep smaller webcasters in business may soon be realized, and the fee collectors have stated that they would not immediately shut down sites that do not pay on time.

Next week: Part Three, which will address a question on the minds of many in the music industry: "Does all of this mean the death of the CD?"

© Mark Geil, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.