A few months ago, an almighty storm blew up when it emerged that audience figures claimed by online radio stations were as inflated as an athlete on steroids.
Stations had been claiming peak audiences of 50 000 to 60 000 an hour, which would have put them on par with some of the bigger radio stations on air. But a recent report by Shaun Dewberry, an IT analyst who also dabbles in internet radio, showed the real figures were smaller. Much, much smaller. In fact, these audiences should be measured in the low hundreds. Dewberry based the figures in his report on the publicly available Shoutcast Dynamic Network Authentication System (DNAS) status webpage.
The stations’ claims were “complete fabrications. Utter nonsense. Lies, even”, wrote Dewberry. Suddenly, a serious marketing proposition had been downgraded to a sideshow, an interesting curiosity at best.
Since then, the search has been on for a more reliable method of measuring online listeners. The Digital Media Marketing Association (DMMA) is still looking, although the frontrunner seems to be the American firm Triton, which offers a recognised way of measuring listening sessions online.
2oceansvibe.com, one of the bigger online stations, is now using Triton’s method, and its marketing material explains the proposition: the station will charge per Qualified Connection, defined as any listener who stays connected for longer than a minute. So a 30-second ad, played in a show that boasts an average of 100 Qualified Connections, will cost R1 500.
One imagines their marketing people have to work pretty hard to explain all this.
Be that as it may, the audience numbers remain low, although the different metric makes comparison with FM difficult. The dangers of online radio challenging ordinary on-air radio’s dominance seem to be as remote as a comeback by Lance Armstrong. Broadband costs remain an obstacle for listeners, even though they are dropping – if FM is the competition, its reception costs nothing at all.
Digital over-the-air radio through Digital Audio Broadcasting Plus (DAB+) – the radio version of Digital Terrestrial Television – or another technology offers greater possibilities, although its introduction in South Africa is still a long way off.
But wondering about whether online radio will overtake FM is really missing the point. Despite small audiences, these stations can point to a number of advantages. For one thing, the audience measurement is very precise, much more exact than for other media.
In addition, online radio stations break the bounds of geography. I can sit at my desk in Johannesburg and switch easily from a blues station broadcasting from Chicago to an Australian talk station. Online listening can play an important role in keeping people in touch when they are far from home, and gathers together audiences from far and wide around particular interests and tastes.
Above all, online radio is not subject to licensing. Anybody can play in this space at relatively low cost, and so it offers an opportunity for experimentation. This is a world where you can listen to hard rock from voiceofrock.com, based in Cape Town and delivered from a suitably gothic website, or tune into live performances at the Assembly, a Cape Town night club, whose feed may segue mid-sentence from what appears to be an old BBC documentary on scientology to a piece of instrumental music. Or you can listen to thetaxi.com, where Soli Philander and his team present a mix of music, talk and comedy, while hip2b2radio.com directs fun, educational shows at teenagers. And this is just a small selection of what’s available in local online radio.
The history of radio is full of examples of new technological opportunities being exploited by pioneers. American academic Susan Douglas describes how FM was seen initially as worthless by established AM radio networks, leaving it to a new breed of counterculture DJs to explore the extraordinary opportunities of listening to much clearer music. The online radio space feels a bit like a new frontier of this kind.
Dewberry is among those exploring its possibilities, describing his interwebsradio.com as a hobby that might grow into something more. He says the station exposes people to indie music, of which he says there is so much “good stuff that never sees the light of day”.
“We’re having lots of fun,” he says. The station’s feed is currently produced from home and delivered via a very uninspired website. A studio is currently being built in a friend’s home which will allow DJs to present shows – at present, the offering is mostly a playlist of music, although concerts and festivals are broadcast live from time to time.
As he raised the issue of audience measurement, I ask him what size of audience he would like to see. The ambition is not huge: Dewberry says if the station achieves a peak listenership of between 100 and 200 an hour “we’ll be doing really well”.
The numbers matter less than the possibility that some truly innovative formats and approaches will arise to challenge the rigid conformity that marks much mainstream radio.
Let’s hope so. In the meantime, those looking around the area can expect to be surprised. n
Franz Krüger is adjunct professor of journalism and director of Wits Radio Academy. He has 25 years of experience as a journalist in print and broadcasting.
This story was first published in a radio supplement accompanying the April 2013 issue of The Media magazine.