For busy listeners:
download and run
Originally published in Current, Aug. 25, 1997
By Steve Behrens
Two companies that want to put "audio-on-demand" in the shirt pockets of listeners have signed up major public radio programs as initial offerings.
Audio Highway, based in Cupertino, Calif., announced this month that it will offer NPR's Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered for downloading into a tiny digital player.
Audible Inc., of Wayne, N.J., meanwhile said it has signed up Car Talk, Marketplace, Fresh Air, Garrison Keillor monologues and other public radio offerings for its similarly tiny player.
These offerings supplement programming from the Associated Press, Berlitz, Harper Audio, Newsweek On Air and Time-Warner Audio Books on the Audio Highway roster and audio from Harvard Business Review, Penguin Audiobooks and other books-on-tape publishers on Audible's list.
Since September, Rick Lewis, formerly g.m. of public radio stations WOI in Ames, Iowa, and KLON in Long Beach, Calif., has been working as Audible's programming director, signing up audio providers. He's going beyond public radio to buy rights from audio publishers like Ken Meyers, a Virginia producer whose Mars Hill Audio cassettes "would belong among the best of public radio if it were broadcast."
NPR has talked with both companies, as well as many other high-tech ventures, but signed only a nonexclusive deal with Audio Highway at this point, said M.J. Bear, the network's manager of new media. Each day's NPR programs won't be available through the service until they have aired in the Pacific time zone.
"It's a new field for everyone, so we're curious to see how NPR programming will do in an on-demand environment," she said.
She'll begin to see that within a few weeks. Audio Highway, which unveiled its service in January, began downloading audio from its web site this month and plans to have players in stores in late September. Audible, which was featured as a "cool company" in the July issue of Fortune, launches its service in October.
How the systems work
Both Audio Highway and Audible will offer software that automatically downloads selected audio from the companies' web sites into the listener's computer. The listener can then quickly transfer the programs into the solid-state memory of the pocket-size digital player. And go for a run, or catch a train, or whatever.
Between jaunts, the player sits in a "docking station" that connects it to the computer. In the case of Audible's player, the docking station also recharges the battery. Audio Highway's player runs on small, standard batteries.
The players, which will sell for about $200, will make the sound portable, but aren't strictly necessary. Users who wish to play-back the audio on their computers can do so without buying a player.
The selling point, according to Audio Highway, is that this little box will help people use their commuting time more productively, help them absorb more information during their busy days, and tap the Internet for them without requiring them to sit in front of a computer. Compared to radio, "personalized audio" gives listeners a wider array of material and more control over when they hear it.
David Othmer, station manager at WHYY-FM/TV, who dealt with Audible on the rights for Terry Gross's Fresh Air, says the Audible player is "actually quite neat," with good sound.
"I cannot predict whether it will have a positive or negative or no effect on listenership," Othmer said, addressing the perennial issue of programs that "bypass" the local broadcast station.
But he tends not to be worried. "I'm a great fan of the theory that awareness of public radio is so low that anything that increases awareness, even if it appears duplicative, is going to help public radio."
Different economic models
What most distinguishes the two startup ventures, besides programming, is that Audio Highway is planning to support its service through audio advertising, while Audible will sell audio by the program.
But that distinction is blunted in the vicinity of NPR programs. Audio Highway won't place advertising adjacent to the NPR programming, President Nathan Schulhof told Current.
Otherwise, Audio Highway users will have to play through three minutes of commercials (six 30-second spots) for every 50 minutes of programming. Or they can choose "pay-as-you-go" service at $3 per hour, according to Schulhof.
"We think the ads are pretty neat," he says. The spots will be helpful rather than annoying, Schulhof hopes, because users can select advertising they want to hear or have it picked for them, based on their responses to a questionnaire about their interests, plus computer tracking of the audio material they choose. "1984 has come and gone," he comments. "I think the fear of that is in one's own mind. The reality isn't that scary."
Audible takes the listen-and-pay approach. Users will have fees charged to their accounts.
There are also differences in the players' features. Audio Highway's 12-megabyte memory holds an hour of audio (though that can be expanded at the cost of sound quality), and Audible's holds more than two hours.
Audio Highway's files apparently are less compressed. An hour of audio downloads in 47 minutes, while Audible claims to do the same in 10 minutes with a 28.8 modem.
The Audio Highway player can record digital files as well as play them back. And the Audible player has a built-in low-power FM transmitter that allows the user to play-back through a car radio.
The firm is also hedging its bet on the player by planning ways for users to listen on other portable devices. Interfaces will be available next year for cellular phones, pagers and other gizmos.
Audio Highway was co-founded and is headed by Schulhof, who earlier founded TestDrive Corp., a distributor of "try-before-you-buy" software.
Audible Inc. was founded and is headed by President Donald Katz, a journalist and author of the bestselling history of Sears, Roebuck & Co., The Big Store. He put together the idea for the company while researching a high-tech book, and started the company rather than finishing the book. Chairman is venture capitalist Timothy Mott, co-founded and chairman of Macromedia, the developer of Shockwave graphics technology, and co-founder of Electronic Arts, a major entertainment software publisher.
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Outside link: Audible Inc.'s web site.Web page created Aug. 24, 1997
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