Washington, 17 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A decision by a California-based radio station to stop broadcasting over the air and to distribute its signal exclusively via the Internet highlights the strengths and weaknesses of these two very different kinds of delivery systems -- as well as the tensions inherent between them.
This week, Los Angeles' KACD becomes the first radio station to take a step that many in the industry have predicted since the rise of the World Wide Web: It has ended its broadcasts on FM and begun distributing its signals on the Internet at www.worldclassrock.com. And in taking this step, one station manager acknowledges, it has entered "terra incognita" for everyone involved.
If this step works, if KACD is able to retain and then build on its existing small but loyal audience, other stations appear likely to follow in its footsteps. But if it fails -- and the obstacles to success are large given current technology -- this much vaunted leap into the future could have just the opposite effect and lead other stations to cancel or at least delay plans to do the same thing.
Before making this move, KACD had a small but loyal and upmarket listenership over the air. Its signal was extremely clear, something listeners to its adult album alternative programming highly valued. And theoretically, as a radio broadcaster, the station could reach anyone within broadcasting range.
But facing intense competition and owning an extremely valuable frequency slot which it has now been able to sell, KACD found itself in a financial bind. It had proved unable to expand its local audience and so its managers and even more important its owners decided to try to reach a larger audience and hence more advertising revenue over the Internet.
But in doing so, KACD now faces three serious problems, any one of which could prove fatal. First, the quality of sound delivery over the Internet is nowhere near as good as that over conventional radio. For news and information that may not be a problem, but for music, which is KACD's stock in trade, any deteriorating in sound could be disastrous.
Station managers say that they expect Internet technology to improve sound delivery, but as with all kinds of technological change, neither they nor the Internet companies can say exactly when that will happen. If it takes place quickly, KACD will benefit, but the station will certainly suffer if there is a long delay.
Second, anyone with a receiver can listen to over-the-air broadcasts, but only a limited number of people can listen via the Web. Each of them needs a pipeline in, and the number of such pipelines is inevitably finite. In the short term, that means that the station will count itself a success if it holds only 10 percent of its current listeners. But over the longer haul, it will have to invest in more access points.
At present, the cost of adding such pipelines is relatively high, but it is falling. And as a result, KACD and other stations watching what that station is doing are confident that they can ultimately keep up. Again, it is a race between costs and technology, and no one knows which one will prove the winner in each particular case.
And third, up to now, few people have Internet access in their cars, one of the places where traditional over-the-air radio attracts the largest audiences. That too is starting to change, but it is, as the KACD personnel acknowledge, only beginning.
But if the immediate obstacles to this shift in delivery systems are obvious and large, the potential for reaching a worldwide audience via the Internet is so great, particularly in niche markets like the one KACD and other specialized stations pursue, that ever more stations appear likely to make this move in the future.
The Internet transcends geography. Any signals delivered over it thus have the potential to link small audiences together in a way that makes broadcasting to them commercially viable. And perhaps even more important although less commercially critical, this linkage of groups across borders may contribute to the integration of the transnational communities which listen to them.
For all these reasons, KACD almost certainly will be remembered as a pioneer in a new world, whether it succeeds or by its failure simply shows others the way.