Why internet radio has failed to make a big noise.

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Do you listen to the radio via the internet? Quite possibly. Radios 1, 2, 3, 4, 5Live, 6Music, Capital, Smooth - they're all there, streaming away. But, when was the last time you listened to an internet-only radio station? One that's online rather than on-air?

Two or three years ago internet radio, along with DAB (which I wrote about yesterday), was touted as the future of the industry. This wasn't altogether surprising. After all, with everyone shopping, dating and downloading, why wouldn’t they flock to the web for their radio entertainment. The complete answer is somewhat elusive, nevertheless internet radio remains a very niche outlet. In fact, in the UK, nobody has quite managed to make it popular or profitable.

I once worked for an internet radio station, so I have some insight here. It was hard-work but very enjoyable and quite exciting. However, despite all the effort, the station’s audiences were stubbornly low. Why were we attracting just a fraction of the audience we could reasonably expect had our station been available on FM? Actually, I think television offers something of an explanation.

The BBC iPlayer is widely reported to be an unqualified success and the future of TV viewing. Give it time and plasma screens will be old junk and we'll all be watching The Chase on our laptops and tablets. Well, maybe. Sure, the iPlayer enjoyed a 177% increase in users last year, but at least 90% of BBC television is still accessed via an aerial and the screen of a traditional set. 

Old habits die hard. And the same is true of radio.

No matter how many web radio stations appear – and no matter how good they are – when the average listener fancies hearing the radio, they’ll reach for … yep, a radio. And as DAB continues to disappoint, that still means trusty FM. As long as your radio is tuned in, a simple flick of a switch will give you a half-decent station with a listenable signal. There's no browsing, no buffering and no clicking – all of which apply to internet-only radio. 

Also worth considering is the environment in which an enormous slab of radio listening is done: the car. However, web radio in a vehicle is all but impossible thanks to the awful patchiness of wi-fi coverage. Which leaves the driver with one-touch FM.

Internet-only broadcasting is certainly accessible. Almost anybody can be up and running via the internet in a few minutes. Great, right? Well, only up to a point. There is now such a plethora of internet broadcasting going on, the task of filtering out the rubbish is often simply too much hassle to be worthwhile. Which repels listeners at quite a rate.

All this is in direct contrast with the rise of the podcast, because podcasts are now a firm feature of internet use. Why? Because they're very compact and convenient. They can be streamed, or consumed on any number of devices – whereas a web-only radio station is pretty demanding and unwieldy. In short, unlike radio, podcasts are designed for the web.

This situation may not be permanent, of course. Perhaps the Government will realise super-fast, national wi-fi is as essential as a water supply and every internet station will be available everywhere. Or maybe iPhones will evolve to the point where they are radios, TVs, laptops, tablets and phones simultaneously, so every broadcaster is on a level playing field.

All quite possible – but that's for the future. For now, most internet-only radio stations must reconcile themselves to playing in the third division of broadcasting.

Magnus Shaw is a writer, blogger and consultant



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