So far, audio streaming has its fans, but it's not the monster that ate radio
MPR stakes claim:
first interactive opera
on the Internet
Originally printed in Current, Aug. 10, 1998
Minnesota Public Radio says it expects to offer the world's first full-length, interactive opera broadcast on the Internet Sept. 27 -- "Tosca Goes Online." A Minnesota Opera production of the opera, taped in May, will be transmitted along with images of the performance, an English translation updated in real-time, and an online chat between listeners and performers.
Log on to www.mpr.org between 6 and 9 p.m. that Sunday night (Minnesota time). You'll need RealAudio software and a modem capable of at least 28.8 kbps. A Tosca trivia contest is planned, and the web site will have details on the costuming, set and stars: Elizabeth Byrne, Tonio Di Paolo and Greer Grimsley.
Originally published in Current, Sept. 14, 1998
At its usual afternoon peak, NPR Online has 250 to 300 people across the country listening simultaneously via the Internet, though demand doubled for one of President Clinton's recent regretful speeches, says webmaster Rob Holt.
That's not many ears, compared to more than 1 million who listen to public radio during the average quarter-hour.
Of course, as many as 40 public radio web sites (by NPR's estimate) also offer streaming audio, but their web audiences probably are also in the hundreds rather than thousands.
In Santa Monica, KCRWWW (as the web site is called) frequently exceeds 200 simultaneous users for its Morning Becomes Eclectic music show, and in Kent, Ohio, WKSU News Channel often serves 250 at once, sometimes turning away hundreds of users, according to webmasters.
If these relatively active sites are fair evidence, web-audio usage remains a miniature of the broadcast audience, despite significant growth and worried predictions from some broadcasters. Some 28 million computer users have now downloaded the requisite software, says RealNetworks Inc.
"What it's waiting for is bandwidth," says Richard Dean, NPR's original webmaster, who's now a Weekend Edition Sunday commentator and a professional web-site designer in San Francisco. He and other webmasters predict web audio won't really take off until consumers get faster Internet connections than the ordinary phone lines that most people use.
For now, more than 200 public radio stations maintain web sites, by NPR's estimate, but only about 40 are using RealAudio--by far the dominant format for streaming audio on the web.
When web enthusiast John Perry, g.m. of WKSU, got NPR to hold a year-long experiment in licensing national programs to stations, ending last fall, at least two of the four selected stations didn't try it out.
"There didn't seem to be a high level of system interest," says Perry. The period ended without a policy decision. "It just seemed to bog down around NPR's desire that ... if anybody wants to hear NPR, they should come to NPR."
Last week, the network took a step away from that position, announcing that stations can now stream live NPR hourly newscasts. (Newscasts previously have been released to the web only after airtime.) NPR will also add to its web site selected news of national interest from local stations, says spokesman Michael Abrahams.
Perry will be among a handful of public radio managers gathering at the NAB Radio Conference next month to scout the web scene and plan strategy, says consultant Mark Fuerst, who sees "opportunities of almost-mythic proportions" for whoever hits on the right use of the web. There will be many web flops, Fuerst predicts, but the right concept could catch on explosively.
What's coming down?
NPR Online, in the meantime, is dispensing an average of 150,000 to 200,000 audio files a week, according to M.J. Bear, director of new media services. That's about 25,000 a day, or one-quarter the number of web pages called up. Audio "is what we do best at NPR," says Bear, "so making it available is very important."
The sound dispensed by NPR and the webcasting stations tends to fall in four categories:
- Live streaming: NPR doesn't offer a continuous live stream, but some stations put most of their broadcast day on the web. They can buy Internet rights for their music from ASCAP and BMI, but they still must omit NPR and other national programming for which Internet rights are not available. During the blacked-out segments, webcasters can insert other audio. WKSU, for instance, set up a clock-activated routing switcher that puts music in the gaps.
Minnesota Public Radio, which streamed a two-hour gubernatorial primary debate last weekend, regularly puts A Prairie Home Companion on the web, and sometimes subjects Garrison Keillor to "chats" with his fans after the show.
Archives of past material: Most of NPR's newsmagazines and Talk of the Nation -- some of them back to 1995 -- can be called up from chronological archives, and the network offers a smaller archive of recent news stories, organized by topic. Half of Bear's eight-person staff keep up the editorial side.
The result is an impressive hunk of substance. NPR Online "makes perfect use of audio web technology to bring the two mediums of the web and radio together in a triumphant partnership," said Editor & Publisher Interactive magazine earlier this year.
At KCRW, just as popular as the live stream are archives of several programs carried on the station: pop-music performances by live guests of Morning Becomes Eclectic, plus works of radio artist Joe Frank, and back episodes of This American Life, says webmaster Josh Berman. After three years of streaming, KCRW offers an archive of about 1,500 hours, growing by two or three hours a day. Fifteen volunteers a week do much of the time-consuming work.
At WKSU, recordings of recent weekend folk-music blocks draw the second biggest audience after the live stream, says Chuck Poulton, systems manager. WKSU also offers nearly two years of archived state and local news.
Web-only audio: Few stations are producing original audio for the web, so far. At WKSU, Perry hopes to develop seven streams for various musical genres, Ohio legislative news and other formats. This spring, the station brought back one of its jazz deejays, Bob West, to resume producing Jazz You Like It for the web--a show not aired since WKSU dropped jazz in the early 1980s.
Some day, some of these services may become a benefit for station members. At WKSU, Perry wants to build an online community for its members, and is consulting with focus groups on plans for special offerings. NPR, too, is considering exclusive web services for station members, according to Bear.
Most webcasting files are in RealNetworks' formats, as are the streaming audio and video on 85 percent of media sites on the web, according to the company, which brought out the first successful technology for audio streaming.
"Right now, RealAudio is the best," says NPR's Rob Holt. Its sound quality has improved steadily and its latest version, G2, automatically downshifts to a lower bit rate to avoid the "rebuffering" pauses that interrupt the stream when connections are congested. But Holt adds, "If better technology comes up, everybody will go use that."
Recent versions of free RealPlayer software carry video and synchronized graphics. NPR may someday include visual underwriting credits, says M.J. Bear. WKSU already streams its logo and may add playlists, ads or web links.
Talk about reach!
Webcasters get a new kind of thrill as they transcend the usual geographic limits of radio. KCRWWW feeds the music habits of L.A. exiles living in the Sudan, Brazil and Bosnia. New Orleans' little jazz/blues station, WWOZ--helped by its presence on Broadcast.com, a major audio site--gets $500 pledges from Japan on Visa cards, says General Manager David Freedman.
"Nobody can predict what will happen," he adds, peering into the web's future, but he thinks it's realistic to imagine that WWOZ will someday have a core audience of 16,000 Internet listeners--equal to its broadcast core audience. "It's just a question of technology catching up."
To Current's home page
Earlier story: NPR tries one-year experiment with a few stations offering its programs on the web, 1996.
Related story: PBS Online expands capacity at third anniversary.
List o' links to public radio's streaming audio sites on the web -- and downloads of the latest player software.
Web page created Sept. 16, 1998
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