CAMPAIGN INTERACTIVE: BEHIND THE HYPE/RADIO STATIONS ON THE WEB - How radio uses the Net to enhance the listening experience. Radio stations have begun to use the Internet to build a strong relationship with listeners, Mairi Clark says

If the ’killer app’ of digital TV is interactivity, then what will digitalisation bring to radio? There are many who believe CD-quality sound and a host of new frequencies do not a revolution make.

If the ’killer app’ of digital TV is interactivity, then what will

digitalisation bring to radio? There are many who believe CD-quality

sound and a host of new frequencies do not a revolution make.



They should look elsewhere for signs of radio’s brave new future. Until

recently, radio had limited ambitions on the Net. But over the past few

months, Britain’s leading stations have gone beyond simply airing their

programmes over the Net, and have begun to use the medium in the

preparation and the presentation of shows. As the stations wake up to

the opportunity to build relationships with listeners, radio and the

Internet could share a rosy future.



Radio 1 has already put live video on its Website with a broadcast of

Simon Mayo’s morning show, which hosted its first Internet party in July

last year. Listeners were invited to call the station if they could read

the message on a blackboard behind Mayo, a live feed of whom was put on

the site.



Jason Wilburn, Radio 1’s Website manager, believes this venture was

successful because offline listeners weren’t isolated from those

listening over the Net. ’The idea was to take listeners on to the Net

but bring them back on to the radio and vice-versa,’ he says.



On another occasion, Radio 1 benefited from the global reach



afforded it by the Net when its presenter, Mary-Ann Hobbs, was heard by

the Beastie Boys in the US. The band contacted Radio 1, said they loved

the show, and eventually came over to the UK to perform a live set.



However, Radio 1’s Website doesn’t broadcast continuous live audio,

preferring to allow users to download individual shows on their PCs.

This restriction is imposed because the station is funded by UK

licence-payers and the BBC feels British users should benefit more than

global users. ’We offer radio on demand because nobody is going to

listen to a four-hour live audio feed. We’re not trying to make the site

identical to the station because merely rehashing what you have on air

doesn’t work,’ Wilburn says.



Plans are afoot to introduce listeners’ top tens (voted for online),

city guides and live chat. Users can already win tickets for gigs on the

condition that they write a review for the site. But Wilburn is wary of

the barriers to radio on the Net, especially the cost. ’Going online to

listen to the radio is costly. A Website for a radio station has to add

extra value.’



No-one recognises this more than John Ousby, the head of new media at

Virgin Radio. ’We’re trying to see how we can use the Internet to

increase the relationship between the station and the audience. The

Internet is very good at interactivity and cutting out the middle man,’

he says.



While Radio 1 has based its Website around its reputation as a purveyor

of dance music, Virgin has harnessed the popularity of Chris Evans, its

maverick owner and breakfast show presenter. While its site broadcasts

continuous live audio, Ousby is a pioneer of archived radio feed and has

also signed Virgin up to the push-channel provider, BackWeb. The Virgin

channel has been promoted on air and subscriptions have topped 30,000

since mid-November. The station is also looking at selling records

online.



Ousby believes the link with Evans’ breakfast show is the biggest thing

for Virgin’s site, and Evans is supportive of the Website. He mentions

it frequently on air and listeners can enter competitions online. They

also send in jokes, ideas and reactions to the breakfast show over the

Net. Most famously, Evans’ quest to make his assistant, Holly Samos, the

star of an ad campaign last autumn was championed online.



Capital has also identified the need for users to get something back

from its site, which carries cinema listings and archived shows, as well

as the obligatory DJ profiles. Extracts are themed around features, such

as Steve Penk’s wind-ups, instead of shows. Stuart Ledden, marketing

executive at Capital Interactive, is a firm believer in building

relationships with listeners. ’If we concentrate on audience

participation we can build a sense of community. Enabling users to

interact with each other is on the agenda,’ he says.



While all the stations recognise the limitations of the Web,

particularly in terms of sound quality, its ability to add to the

listening experience is clear. Ousby’s vision is typical. ’Virgin is

never going to try to be everything to everyone,’ he says. ’We’ll focus

on what we do best, reinforcing brand values, excitement and

innovation.’



But he allows himself a flight of fancy: ’I’d like to see a time when

you can search for a song by word association, listen to a clip and,

once you’ve identified the song you want, purchase it online. You could

download the song on to your hard disk and press it on to a CD. A site

that did that would make the best use of the Net.’



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