When the body of serial-murder suspect Andrew Cunanan was discovered on a houseboat in Miami Beach last month, reporters for radio station WINZ in south Florida raced to the scene and delivered up-to-the-minute coverage.
But local listeners weren't the only ones to hear the drama: Hundreds of other long-distance eavesdroppers monitored WINZ reports via their home computers in Illinois, Idaho, New York, and California.
Similarly, thousands of PC users tuned into San Diego radio station KSDO's coverage of the Heaven's Gate suicides. And hundreds of listeners across the United States monitored WCBS reports on the rescue of passengers in a corporate helicopter that plunged into New York City's East River in April.
Spot radio news on the Web has turned out to be a powerful audience driver - and the strongest signal yet that the marriage between America's oldest and newest electronic media, radio and the Internet, is shaping up as a lasting and potentially lucrative partnership.
About 350 radio stations now simulcast their signals on the Internet. More than 4,000 maintain Web sites to promote on-air personalities, sports coverage, and archived programs.
One of Web radio's biggest fans is Adam Clayton Powell III, director of technology and programs at The Freedom Forum. From his office in Arlington, Va., Mr. Powell listens to "Radio Beethoven" as he works on his desktop computer. On a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, he plugged his laptop into a hotel phone jack and dialed into ABC radio's Web site. "In three minutes, I got caught up on every major national news story breaking in the US," Mr. Powell says.
Listening to radio long-distance is made possible by Web-casters like AudioNet, the Internet's largest broadcast network. Click on AudioNet, and one can sample jazz from New Orleans, alternative rock from Seattle, and gospel from Atlanta. From a 30,000 square-foot warehouse in Dallas's bohemian Deep Ellum neighborhood, AudioNet relays signals of 183 radio stations. News, sports, talk shows, and weather forecasts are streamlined through 300 computer servers in 53 American cities.
Already a $13 billion-a-year industry, terrestrial radio stands to reap even greater profits by selling news, sports, entertainment, and talk shows in cyberspace. "Radio on the Web will change the future of broadcasting," says Peggy Miles, president of Intervox Communications, a Web-casting consulting firm. "The only question is whether radio broadcasters can put together their Internet marketing strategies faster than other Internet broadcasters," she says.
Ben Davis, interactive editor at MSNBC, says, "Radio stations could even make more money over the Internet than over the airwaves because there's no missing the target. When you put radio on the Web, you hit your audience like a bull's-eye."
It's a concept AudioNet founder and president Mark Cuban is banking on. Mr. Cuban says AudioNet's stations draw about 150,000 listeners daily, a majority of whom are white-collar office workers.
So far, however, Cuban says his bread and butter hasn't been coming from radio programming but from AudioNet's own simulcasts of the Super Bowl, hockey's Stanley Cup playoffs, and product rollouts from corporate customers like Microsoft, Intel, Ford, and General Motors. WebTrack, an online research service, recently named AudioNet the 17th largest receiver of advertising on the Net.
Like news, music programming is a powerful audience draw. One of its adherents is Commerce Undersecretary Larry Irving. Mr. Irving, who once worked as a club DJ, says Web radio can function as a music magazine, record store, fan club, and listening stations all in one. "You can find out what the Foo Fighters are doing or buy Prince's latest album."
To do so, one needs a computer, software like RealAudio, speakers, and a sound card. Someday soon, Ms. Miles says, Web browsers will come equipped with Web-broadcasting capabilities. When that happens, listening to news and music on the Internet will be as easy as, say, turning on your radio.