Matt Greller loves the Mets.
But the New Yorker is attending law school in Washington -a long way from Shea Stadium. Or so he thought.
Last year he discovered live radio coverage of Mets baseball on the Internet. Suddenly, Mr. Greller could edit a law-review article and root for the home team at the same time.
"It's fantastic. It's just like you're listening to the radio," he says.
Internet radio is picking up speed, pulling listeners and once-skeptical traditional radio stations along with it. Though still coming of age, it is being compared to the arrival of FM radio in the 1960s.
"It's still very much maturing as a whole," but the growth "really is tremendous," says George Bundy, chairman of BRS Media Inc., an Internet radio-tracking and consulting firm in San Francisco. Everything from NPR to new age, British pop to Black Gospel is available to anyone with a sound card, speakers, and enough patience to download the free software required to listen.
More than 3,500 national, international, and Net-only stations exist on the Web, up from just 56 in April 1996, according to Mr. Bundy. An additional 100 to 120 stations launch each month on average, he says.
Traditional stations have been slow to jump into the mix, but more are doing so as they see the Net's potential to reach a worldwide audience.
"It has enough momentum and critical mass now that those who don't plunge in in the next year or two will definitely be behind the curve," says Jhan Hiber, ratings and research editor at Gavin Magazine, a radio-industry publication.
If it catches on, Internet radio could fragment radio's traditional audience, much the same way cable did network TV. But as in the past, those in the industry expect the medium to adapt, and in this case, embrace the Web."The potential synergy here is incredible," says Mr. Hiber.
Listeners are also just beginning to understand what the Internet offers.
While most Americans still tune in to radio the old-fashioned way, an Arbitron/Edison Media study released in February suggests that about 11 million people are listening weekly to Internet radio. If that were a market, it would be the third biggest behind Los Angeles and New York.
Those numbers could go up as devices that allow listeners to leave their computer become available. Companies are now debuting products ranging in price from $75 to $300 that will allow Net radio to go where only traditional signals have gone before.
Sonicbox is introducing its tuner technology that works in conjunction with a PC to home stereos and radios and a free-standing unit, and Kerbango is offering a stand-alone product that looks like a real radio and operates without a computer. In late June, another new company, Savos, plans to beam Internet audio to cellphones. Cars and other hand-held devices are expected to have access eventually, too.
Listening online offers choice to consumers at a time when consolidation of stations in the US has brought a corporate feel to what's on the 105-year-old medium. Clearing houses on the Web -like broadcaster.com, webradio.com, internetradiolist. com, spinner.com, and live-radio.net -offer lists of Net stations from around the country and the world. Listenerships can range from a few people to as many as 205,000 -the number Virginradio.com attracts.
By downloading a RealPlayer or Windows Media Player (some computers already come equipped), consumers can listen to radio stations or visit sites that act more like a "jukebox," programming selected music. Archives are also available -from NPR, for example - allowing people to tune in whenever they like. The quality of online audio can vary, however, depending on details like speed of connection and a station's bandwidth.
Many Web listeners are logging on at work, a place some traditional signals can't reach. Stations report that office buildings in New York and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico are showing up on servers.
"During the day is where we get the bulk of our listening of Web-based radio," says Scott Levy, director of the Internet division of Bonneville International Corp., which has four stations online in Washington, including WGMS (www.wgms.com), a classical station popular with Web users.
Internet listeners are being tracked on a large scale as well. As of last fall, Arbitron started publishing the ratings of about 300 of its clients. Bundy of BRS says the measurement "gave the industry some teeth - something to go with."
Easy access to global audience
Part of the growth in online audio comes from the development in the last few years of a way to turn video and sound into digital bytes -called streaming.
As a result, it takes little more than a computer to start up a station. Low barriers to entry are contributing to the fast growth of Web-only stations, says Bundy. Expenses like a transmitter and a tower are done away with, and an Federal Communications Commission license is not required when broadcasting on the Web. He says a start-up could get off the ground for a few hundred dollars a month.
"We could never have reached the people we are reaching now" with a traditional station, says Reese Fuller, cofounder of Web-only Louisianaradio.com, which features music from the state like zydeco and Cajun and has listeners around the globe.
"It's just a very good way to [put out] radio, because you can reach the world," says Gregor Markowitz, founder of all-folk Hober.com, also a Net-only station, which had 25,000 worldwide listeners in March.
Traditional stations still need to work on developing Net-specific content and advertising to be successful, says Joan FitzGerald, director of marketing and operations for Arbitron Internet. Some are moving beyond just flowing their regular on-air broadcasts onto the Web, adding Net-only offshoots programmed for a younger demographic, for example, or substituting advertising for a broader audience.
"Every single station on the planet should stream," but it doesn't do any good if it's not adapted to a worldwide audience, says Ruth Choate program director at KNSX-FM (www.93x.fm), an alternative rock station in St. Louis, which alters its ads for its Internet listeners.
Moving forward, stations and advertisers may be tempted by what Arbitron and Edison discovered about the habits of online listeners. "Streamies," as they've been dubbed, are a tech-savvy, affluent group who purchase more products online than surfers who don't listen.
According to figures released by Arbitron last week, ad agencies are already buying ads on Webcasts (video and audio) and say they plan to buy more in the future. A majority of the executives polled -81 percent -said that Webcast ads will grow significantly in the next three years.
Meanwhile, stations are getting a look at how many people are tuning in. Arbitron's latest figures from December put www.texasrebelradio.com, an alternative station on top with the most listeners (57,800), while WGMS - the classical station in Washington -is keeping people the longest on average (7 hours, 53 minutes).
Servers - a wealth of information
One drawback for some Webcasters is bandwidth. Unlike a traditional station, which can add thousands of listeners without affecting the bottom line, Web stations have to buy more space when more people come knocking. Stations often outsource the server duties to larger companies that can handle the volume.
"It's expensive to stream, especially if you have the large bandwidth we have," says Ms. Choate, of KNXS-FM, which broadcasts the traditional way and on the Web, where she estimates it could have as many as 80,000 listeners. To make ends meet, the station trades advertising in exchange for bandwidth and server costs, which would amount to more than $6,000 a month otherwise.
At Hober.com, Mr. Markowitz gets creative with his supplemental income: He sells handcrafts made by his parents on the site. Those sales paid for the station during December, he says.
One advantage to Web stations is that servers allow them to access who's tuning in. "We can see that someone from the Naval Observatory was listening for eight hours. That happened yesterday," says Mr. Fuller at Louisianaradio.com.
They also get feedback - e-mails that arrive in foreign languages and from listeners with technical questions.
Fuller says he regularly hears from a man in Japan who has a zydeco band. "It's so incredible to us that this guy actually listens to us," he says.
Many Hober.com listeners write from work. One woman talks about banjo music keeping her colleagues out of her cubicle. The site is also popular among Wall-Street types in Canada and the US. Writes one listener: "Loud and clear on the Trading floor of Etrade Securities. You help me keep my sanity."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society