|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
As radio’s future for growth gains new potential, so have the possibilities for the medium online.
That is something of a turnaround. Initially, the Web was primarily text-oriented. Audio online seemed less intuitive to Web users. Traffic for early Internet radio was not impressive. And radio Web sites overall have tended to lag behind others in content.
That seems to have changed with the growing popularity of MP3 players and other mobile delivery systems, the majority of which are audio-based.
Radio Investment Online
As with businesses of almost any sort these days, the vast majority of traditional radio stations have Web sites. According to the 2006 RTNDA/Ball State University Annual Survey of news directors, 87% of all radio stations had their own Web sites by the end of 2005.1 Independently owned stations and those with small staffs were less likely to have them.
The development of the sites is less impressive. The average number of full-time employees devoted to Web site content is a relatively meager 1.1, according to the RTNDA survey. Stations in the largest markets tended to devote more — 2.2 full-time employees versus .8 in small markets — and the smallest-market stations were more likely to have people devoted only part time to the Web product.2 News directors at small stations reported, on average, that more than three-quarters (76%) of their staffs share responsibilities between the broadcast and online content. That was true of just 17% of stations in major markets.
The cautious approach to the Web may be at least partly linked to the limited return on investment radio stations are seeing there. According to the RTNDA survey, station news directors were more than twice as likely to report their Web sites losing money than making any — 10.5% versus 4.2%.3 Another 20% reported breaking even. (Most, 65%, didn’t actually know whether their station sites were financially successful or not).
Could added investment make the sites more appealing to audiences and thereby to advertisers? Or would increased resources go unappreciated, leaving stations in worse financial shape than before? It’s something of a chicken-and-egg problem, with little resolution in an industry in transition on the question of which — online investment or online revenue — must come first.
And what of the content on these sites? The evidence suggests that radio Web sites differ widely in how much they offer and the regularity with which they update news content. Even their greatest asset — local news — is not uniformly present on the sites.
The RTNDA survey found that as of 2005 only 70% of radio Web sites provided local news, down from 77% of those surveyed the previous year.4 That was true even though in public opinion surveys, Web users continuously report turning primarily to radio Web sites for local news.5
To get a closer look at the specific features of different news Web sites, the Project conducted a detailed site study of 38 news Web sites rooted in the various media platforms, from newspapers to cable TV to Web only site. We looked at the kind of content they offer, the technology levels employed, the relationship with users and the economic structure. The overall findings across the 38 sites (as well as an interactive tool to help citizens evaluate their favorite news sites) can be found in the Digital Journalism chapter.
For the radio component of the analysis, we looked at the Web sites of NPR, as a national distributor of content to public radio stations, and WTOP, as a Washington-based local news radio station. Both are among the strongest operations in news radio and are likely to represent the high end of what the industry is offering.
Both were among the more sophisticated news sites studied and had moved to providing more online than they could in their original medium.
National Public Radio (www.npr.org)
NPR.org is becoming something of an identity unto itself, a destination offering substantially more than just radio programs moved online. The site leads with a top story usually presented as a package with multiple links and multimedia components. That is followed by a list of other top news stories, which, once accessed, are offered as both audio and text.
Below the top stories comes a mix of news content, including a list of top e-mailed stories (updated continuously), a sidebar of news topics for further reading/listening, and Associated Press headlines.
Amid all this content is a clear sense of the NPR brand—a clear emphasis of this site, and a category where it got some of its highest marks. The vast majority of stories posted on the site are researched and written by NPR’s staff, something it accentuates by offering bylines to most stories as well as links to the author’s biography. In addition to the NPR content, the site augments its stories with a limited selection from the A.P.
The other area where NPR.org excels is in allowing users to customize the NPR content to their own interests or needs. Both RSS feeds (“really simple syndication”) and podcasts are prominent features, situated in the upper left-hand column of the homepage. The RSS link takes users to a page where they can choose to receive particular categories of news feeds (e.g., opinion), specific programs (e.g., Morning Edition), topics (e.g., children’s health), or particular member-station feeds (e.g., KQED in San Francisco). All in all, there are 52 categorical RSS feeds and 19 member station feeds. Another feature extensively employed on the NPR site is podcasts. The podcast link from the homepage takes the user to an extensive directory of podcasts organized by “this week’s picks,” topic, title and by station provider. As of February of 2007, though, the site had yet to embrace the latest trend of mobile phone delivery.
NPR.org was in the mid-level range when it came to use of multimedia forms. Audio features were prominent, with some live streaming options, podcasts and other MP3 downloads. These are supplements, though, to the more common text and photo elements on the home page. And, the site did not offer video content.
Clicking further inside the site, however, reveals more of a multimedia feel. Once users click on a story headline from the main page, they are taken to the transcript of the story (or a synopsis) and are then presented with the choice to read or listen to the story. Indeed, NPR.org stands out in offering about 85% of its content simultaneously as textual narrative and audio streams or podcasts.
A big question facing all online entities is one of economics. NPR.org hosted only two advertisements on its home page, one self-promotional, the other a PBS logo. Still, it does find a way to draw in some revenue. The site charges users for some archive material: $3.95 for a single archived transcript, or $12.95 for a monthly subscription to the archive (up to 10 transcripts).
WTOP Radio (www.wtop.com)
Washington-based WTOP represents an entirely different look at radio online, one which is simultaneously local and national in scope. The homepage features an obvious lead story; an invitation to visitors to listen to WTOP radio news; weather and traffic information for the day; and a prominently featured local news section. Advertisements also have a heavy presence.
WTOP.com ranks in the top tier for offering customizable options. Users can subscribe to both RSS feeds and podcasts, and its RSS feeds are relatively varied (totaling 12 different feeds, all of which are different categories of news). WTOP also goes further than NPR in providing on-demand listening options: visitors can sign up for content delivery (headlines, weather, traffic and breaking news) to their mobile phones.
WTOP.com is still largely about narrative text (it makes up close to three-quarters of the content with still photos the second-most common form). Still, it did make some effort at multimedia forms (falling in the mid-level range of all sites studied) with some presence of video stories, slideshows, interactive graphics and yes, live streaming audio. Listening makes up only a small though prominent part of the Web site’s homepage with a section called “ Audio Center” that is devoted to live streaming of the WTOP radio station content.
The site puts less emphasis on its own original branded content, relying mostly on the A.P. The heavy use on wires reflects the larger reality of radio today — even in Washington, D.C., national and international news comes heavily from sources other than the station itself. And even for local stories, only some had WTOP staff bylines; most came from the A.P., along with a few contributions from the Washington Post.
Economically, WTOP seems to emphasize revenue streams from its Web site, as opposed to simply leaning on its radio station for cash-flow. It averaged close to 20 different ads on its home page, only one of which was self-promotional. Ad eyeballs, it seems, are the way users pay for use of the site. All the content is free and there no registration is necessary.
Other Radio Web Sites
To broaden our understanding of radio-based Web sites, we conducted a quick study of five other online radio offerings to compare with NPR and WTOP.
Radio site comparisons
Source: PEJ Research
The main finding in this abbreviated site comparison is that NPR and WTOP are unusually advanced in their online presence. Only two of the five other radio Web sites (WAOK in Atlanta and KTRH in Houston) offered podcasts, and none stressed their news content enough to provide an RSS service to their Web visitors. Those two sites were also the only ones to provide news in the form of video. That gave them a “medium” score on the multimedia question. Despite being fairly low-tech Web sites, all provided a live streaming connection to actual radio content from the station. Beyond that, the five sites differed quite a bit in their content.
2007: A push for digital content?
Heading into 2007, stations may also feel more drive to develop other digital components, such as Internet listening, podcasting, satellite radio, HD radio, and content delivered to cell phones and PDA devices.
The advantages of those new listening options vary, but in general they all include expanded listening choices, customizability and portability. Ray Davis, program director for WTAM in Cleveland, told Talkers magazine, a journal about talk radio, that his goal was to provide more on-demand products through the Web site so he could complement the radio station and increase revenue. The talk host Chris Core also noted the increasing number of downloads of his show. He added that “I hope my union (AFTRA) changes its Stone Age policy of not allowing commercials to be played over the Internet. We are wasting a huge potential source of money and ratings.”6
Clear Channel — the largest radio organization, still owning nearly 1,200 stations (with a fairly big selloff in the offing) — has been making a big push online. Evan Harrison, executive vice president of Clear Channel and head of the online music and radio division, told Talkers magazine that his company has equipped upward of 600 stations’ Web sites with the capacity to stream content live. He added that Clear Channel had seen a growth in online radio streaming of 50% from 2005 to 2006. Through the use of on-demand sound (podcasts) and the application of a video component to the standard audio content of radio, Harrison says that Clear Channel is really focusing on getting creative to devise new revenue streams. He also says that 14,000 of its traditional advertisers have already signed up to reach Clear Channel’s online consumers as well.7
Satellite Radio Online
Satellite radio, already an alternative to traditional radio listening, is also expanding its options by pushing its product online.
Sirius Satellite Radio offers an online service that includes Internet access to live streams of all its music stations, and a limited selection of its news, talk, sports and entertainment channels, about 15 channels. But the service does not come free. Non-subscribers must pay the standard $12.95 a month that regular subscribers pay. Regular satellite subscribers, however, automatically receive access to the online version. They can also add Internet-only subscriptions to the account for an additional $6.99 a month. Online users can also opt to pay for improved CD-quality audio.8
XM Radio also provides an Internet version of its product. Like Sirius, XM offers only a modified list of its 170 channels online, including about seven non-music channels. XM is marketing its online product as a unique alternative to its satellite line-up, by offering several online-only channels. The cost for non-subscribers to XM’s regular service is $7.99 a month. The cost to current subscribers is uncertain; the Web site informs its customers that “If you already subscribe to XM or are taking an XM trial in your new car, you may be eligible for XM Radio Online, at no additional charge.” It is unclear what the stipulations are.9
Overall, radio has been slower than other media to incorporate new listening formats into its traditional format. That could stem from a perception that online listening and podcasting are direct competitors to traditional radio listening. But such an argument hasn’t stopped newspapers, which also compete directly with their own online product, from being leaders in developing sophisticated online products.
Regardless of the reason that radio has been slower to develop online, the imperative exists, and news and program directors are beginning to realize it. Though traditional radio looks to remain a part of people’s lives for the foreseeable future, the digital era is certainly upon us. As audience numbers for broadband Internet, podcasts and satellite radio grow, people are getting more and more accustomed to the ease and choice offered by the new digital devices. To compete, traditional radio, likely through HD Radio and Internet radio, will have to offer the same portability, customizability and choice that the new audio options provide.