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Audio

Almost retro? It's radio for MP3 players

Start-up offers subscriptions to broadcast and Net radio shows to play on portable devices.

A start-up is bringing radio to portable MP3 players, betting that digital audio fans will want a diet beyond their own music collections.

AudioFeast announced on Wednesday that it is creating a subscription service that offers downloadable radio shows for portable players--the first of its kind, the company said. It hopes to attract customers who are looking to fill their commute time with something other than songs downloaded from the Internet or ripped from a CD, executives said.

Right now, the company is offering a smattering of broadcast talk shows, including programs from National Public Radio and the BBC, available only on the company's Web site. But that initial line-up will be followed by hundreds of Internet music radio stations when the company introduces its full service for portable players in October.

Analysts said AudioFeast may have appeal for consumers who are used to listening to the radio and don't want to give up the experience, or who want a constantly rotating music library without having to choose it themselves.

"What they're offering is something that's new and novel in terms of expanding the possibilities of the user experience with portable MP3 players," IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian said. "(With radio) you can add a more serendipitous experience on portables than what you can get with just your own music collection."

The service stops short of being what the big record labels fear--a kind of TiVo for music that can record and archive songs on the radio and store them in a listeners' ever-growing music collection. But it does start to straddle the line between Internet radio services and portable devices that has been all but unbridgeable so far.

"We really saw an opportunity to reignite the whole radio experience for consumers," said Tom Carhart, AudioFeast's chief executive officer. "We take that experience, and allow you with a button click to put that on a portable device."

Licensing concerns have largely helped keep Webcasts from being easily recorded for playback later on MP3 players, although software that records online audio streams is widely available.

Webcasters pay higher royalties for the use of music than do over-the-air broadcasters and face strict rules on how they can use music online. They can't let listeners choose specific songs or allow recording, for example.

AudioFeast is attempting to abide by those rules on portable players. It wraps its radio shows in copy-protection technology that will allow listeners to skip songs or pause play, but not to repeat what has already been heard.

To add those features, a small piece of software needs to be installed on the MP3 player. AudioFeast's technology already supports a handful of digital audio devices from Creative Technology, iRiver and others, and the company said more players will be added over time.

In part because the AudioFeast service is based on Microsoft's Windows Media technology, consumers who own an Apple Computer iPod won't initially be able to use it. Executives said they would make a slimmed-down version of the service for the iPod, which would include parts of the talk radio shows, instead of the full music selection.

The company, based in Mountain View, Calif., said a year's subscription to the talk show programming will cost $49.95. Pricing for the music service has not yet been determined.