In the coming age of the dominance of Internet radio, the most important question may be: Will you take your music with or without a DJ? If the intensity of the exchange on a recent Internet radio panel at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is any indication, the question is very much open for debate.
More on this intriguing conundrum in a minute. First, a few words about the different flavors of digital audio available via the Internet or by satellite.
Internet radio is hot. Basically, it allows you to listen to radio stations anywhere in the world that have an Internet site. For instance, I regularly "tune in" to the CBC-Radio Internet feed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I grew up. This type of "nostalgia" listening is one of the most popular uses of Internet radio.
But music fans are increasingly seeking out new sounds from around the world. Thanks to sites like launch.com, listen.com, or kerbango.com, audiophiles can not only find radio stations around the globe that suit their tastes, but also download MP3 files. These sites also offer their own "stations," with channels of specific kinds of music.
Kerbango has created one of the first real Internet radios. Built by 3Com, Kerbango works like any other radio - except that you can listen to global music, talk, news, etc. The radio, which will sell for $299, does need a high-speed connection to the Internet, but the sound quality is good, and you can also connect your own speakers.
Most of the younger members on the Internet radio panel thought computer-driven personalization is the key - music tastes are not decided by a DJ, but by you and other users of the music service you choose. For instance, when you register at the sites, you create a user profile. That profile may be matched against other users with the same tastes.
When user A tries a new song, likes it, and rates it high, the computer may "push" that song to all other users with similar profiles. Thus, while you select the categories you like, you also get a chance to hear new songs that you would have missed otherwise. Another option is to join one of the sites' chat rooms, where members share their favorite new tunes.
Older members of the panel reacted with disdain to this idea, believing instead that, as one panelist put it, "DJs have made more music stars than personalization." In this view, DJs remain an integral part of the music selection process.
Personally, I side with the younger panel members, because the DJ-driven version will always be captive to some corporate master who really makes the calls - think AOL-Time Warner, for instance.
The biggest challenge for companies that use personalization, however, will be overcoming the privacy concerns of members, who may be reluctant to divulge so much information about their personal tastes because of concern about how that can (and will) be used.
Ultimately, both models will have advocates. Some people will want the choice of satellite radio with someone to make the nitty-gritty listening choices for them, while others will prefer to do most of the virtual legwork themselves. In the end, radio will be transformed in ways that wouldn't have seemed possible 10 years ago. And that will make us all audio winners.
Tom Regan is the associate editor of csmonitor.com, the electronic edition of The Christian Science Monitor. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society