Monday, August 15, 2005

Is Radio Dead?

A lot of folks in the podcasting community suggest the death of radio is imminent. Among them is Steve Gillmor in his recent podcast "Broadband on the Run". Must be an allusion to McCartney's Band on the Run. WKRP tombstone (courtesy

Certainly there is an emergent model for podsafe music. Information wants to be free. But I believe that (Steve's co-host) Doc Searls is right, namely that the traditional model for music distribution is not dead and there will be some level of co-existence for a long time. And I think Gillmor is wrong to play Hey Jude in the background of his podcast (unless perhaps he's engaged in review and commentary). And in the same vein, Adam Curry is wrong to play mash-ups as if they were podsafe. Neither is 'fair use', and neither escapes current copyright restrictions, since I and others are being invited to download the programmes.

Moreover, I think that Gillmor's programme suffers from the 'fog of war' he seems to be declaring on copyright owners and publishers. Namely, the programme falls short of clarifying why radio is in the throes of transformation, what drives this transformation, and how radio is being transformed.

Internet radio is nothing more or less than the delivery of radio programmes via TCP/IP. That delivery can be either live or on-demand. I listen to Virgin Music via Shoutcast live on my Treo phone and that's Internet radio. I listen to downloaded BBC programmes via iPodder or iTunes and that's Internet radio. I listen to BBC live via my Windows Media player (incidentally bypassing their custom HTML player) and that's Internet radio.

In copyright terms, what's different about how I listen is not the Internet versus free-to-air delivery, or the live versus on-demand aspect. It's the packetized streaming versus download aspect. Once 'radio' content is downloaded, any notion of being able to collect royalties on the basis of number of 'listeners' is lost. With this loss of control, copyright owners are naturally reticent to release music for download. And in many cases, they have confused packetized streaming with genuine downloads.

That describes why music copyright holders resist download services, and why most streaming services have only been permitted to offer talk radio and not music programmes. But with the advent of podcasting, a new force is unleashed, and that is the ability of the podcatchers to aggregate listeners in sufficient quantity that some musicians will prefer to go direct in order to build a following. Thus they release music outside the traditional distribution system, ie- podsafe music.

Podcasting creates a commons for the exchange of music between producers and listeners. But it is not a marketplace because there is no economic model - yet.

In the early days of open source software, it was said that open source had no economic model, but that is no longer true. Today, open source integrators charge customers for maintenance and support. In my view, podsafe is going to evolve in a similar manner to open source and other commons-based activities. Podsafe distribution will become the new 'airplay' and while not generating cash directly, will stimulate revenue for artists via subscription services, licensed compilation downloads and even CD sales. Adam Curry can fairly be described as a radio DJ for podsafe music.

Radio is not dead, it is being reborn in a new distribution environment. And this distribution environment is vastly richer than the staid traditional one, with tremendous potential for personal, educational and even corporate broadcasting.