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Internet

Imagine tries Net radio

The publishing company launches its first foray into broadcasting with a 20-station Internet radio network, Imagine Radio.

    Publishing company Imagine Media made its first foray into broadcasting today with Internet-based Imagine Radio.

    The venture involves a network of more than 20 original radio "stations," each delivering content free to users via a "tuner" that uses RealNetworks' RealPlayer 5.0 streaming technology.

    The network offers four stations with talk-show programming, 16 genre-based music stations, and live news coverage from the Associated Press. All its programming is advertising-supported.

    As ambitious as these plans are, however, it remains to be seen whether Imagine's business model will work.

    "When companies take their traditional business models--i.e., advertising models--and apply them to digital media, I don't think that's the most effective or most efficient model," said Greg Tapper, an analyst at Giga Information Group. "I'm not saying it won't work, but it's unproven."

    Net radio faces technical obstacles as well. One complaint users have had about all multimedia broadcasts is that slow connections make the experience less than smooth and not nearly as satisfying as what they are accustomed to with stereos and television sets.

    Moreover, Imagine already has competition in the relatively nascent market from AudioNet, TheDJ.com, National Public Radio, and NetRadio Network.

    Brad Porteus, managing director of Imagine Radio, says he is less worried about competition and more concerned about widespread adoption of Net radio overall.

    "Internet radio is in a nascent state. We need the whole industry to do well," Porteus said. "A lot of our success is going to depend on public behavior, and right now the public behavior is not there."

    Porteus is confident that this will change, however--and when it does, he said he is concerned about the influx of established radio programming aggregators onto the Net.

    "My real concern is the Westwood Ones of the world--those who have aggregated large quantities of high-quality radio programming and are always looking for good outlets for it. They ultimately will discover the Internet," he said. Imagine is creating all the content for the network, except for the AP news feeds.

    Tim Bajarin, president of consultancy Creative Strategies Research International, thinks the move is significant.

    "[Imagine is] one of the first to create content that is for a world, instead of local, audience," he said in an email message. "Second, they are trailblazing this new Internet medium by using it to expand the concept of how radio is defined."

    For example, he said, "In our local audience, a 24-hour reggae station would not go over. But, if it is aimed at a worldwide audience, a station like this could find a signficant audience and develop what I think is the first radio medium for one-to-one audio."

    Imagine is attempting to sell Net radio to three audiences online, Porteus said: the readers of its Web sites, CD-ROMs, and print magazines (which include PC Gamer, Mac Addict, Boot, and others); people connected to the Net at work; and the "younger audience" of college and college-bound students. The most desirable trait in a listener is a "persistent Net connection," Porteus noted.

    Imagine's strategy is to offer an array of options. For example, listeners can use Net radio the way they use their car radios--as background noise--or they can interact.

    The tuner, which is browser-independent, allows users to set their six favorite stations on "buttons," so they can switch between them easily. It also has a video display, where a talk show or song information is shown alternatively with ads.

    There is also a rating function, so users can give each song a "0" to "10" score, which will determine how often they hear particular songs.

    "Radio is intrinsically a passive experience," Porteus said. "It's something people do while they are doing something else. We designed Imagine Radio so that people can interact if they want to, or they can just leave it on while they check email or surf the Web, or whatever they do on their computers."

    The business model for Imagine Radio involves advertising both within the radio programming itself and in banner ads displayed on the tuner. Porteus said the network will be able to time the banner ads so that they appear at the same time as the audio ads are played, if the advertisers so wish.

    Porteus said Imagine Radio's programming is encoded in two formats: one, a 16 kbps narrow band, is designed for 28.8-kbps modems and "sounds a bit like AM radio"; the other is 40 kbps, a stereo feed for faster connections.

    In terms of programming, the talk stations are as follows: Imagine Talk, which offers a variety of programs from celebrity interviews to book reviews, women in technology, and gaming; Mac Addiction, which covers Apple and Mac topics only; BootCast, which features PC talk by the editors of Boot magazine; and Imagine Game Talk.

    Music programming runs the gamut from country to hip-hop, hard rock, jazz, folk, alternative, and stations dedicated to specific bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead.