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WFMU on the “catch 22” of Internet streaming

WFMU FMJohn Bergmayer of Public Knowledge has a great interview with Ken Freedman, station manager of WFMU-FM in Jersey City, New Jersey. WFMU is a trailblazing radio station which was in the forefront of both the free form and eras. The dialogue is a terrific read, because it encapsulates all the dilemmas facing Internet radio right now.

“The way the Internet is built right now, there’s a catch 22, which is that the more people who use it [online streaming radio], the less well it works,” Freedman says. “And that’s just not the case with FM, or broadcast television, or cable. But, the Internet doesn’t have to be like that, but I don’t see much realistic hope for changing that.”

The economics on broadband streaming are “just terrible,” Freedman adds, “which is very frustrating to me because that’s where all the market is going. And at this point now, my radio station WFMU has twice as many people listening online as we do over FM, whereas it was only two years ago that we had finally crossed that barrier, where we had more people listening on the Internet than we had listening over FM. Now, two years later it’s twice as many.”

Bergmayer asks Freedman about WFMU’s online costs versus FM broadcasting.

“Oh, there’s no comparison,” Freedman explains. “It’s so much more expensive to pay for bandwidth than, you know… The costs of operating an FM transmitter are minute compared to everything we spend for streaming, and we buy bandwidth in bulk. Now, we just buy huge, huge contracts of bandwidth. So, we’re only paying, I don’t know, we’re paying $5 or $10 a meg of throughput because we buy so much of it.”

And the interview continues:

John: Well then, since we’re talking about broadcast versus FM, I do have a few questions on what you think the future of broadcasting is in the Internet environment. I mean, I know a lot of tech geeks. A lot of my friends just essentially see broadcasting as a totally obsolete technology. And in fact, the other day I sort of slagged off FM as being a sort of outdated technology in one of my blog posts, and got heat from some of my friends who work in community radio and similar projects. So, I was wondering if you just had any general thoughts. I mean, do people still want to listen to broadcast?

Ken: Old people do. Young people don’t. I think it is an obsolete technology, but it’s hard to make predictions as to what’s going to happen since the future of media, nobody’s ever been able to really accurately predict it. When television came out, everybody predicted the end of radio and that didn’t happen. Radio just kind of reinvented itself. And when FM took off, people predicted the end of AM, and AM ended up reinventing itself as a talk format.

So, it’s hard to predict, but I do see FM and AM and the radio model in general as being incredibly archaic and out of date now. It’s hard to imagine how it’s going to reinvent itself. The experience that I can get listening to a radio station on an iPhone or an Android with all the interactive features, it’s not just a return to transistor radio. It’s way beyond that.

Read the rest of the discussion here.

I should add that I too gave Bergmayer a little grief for his comments on FM in one of my Ars Technica posts, but I agree that there’s just no comparison between FM and the range of interactive options I get on my Droid X. And that’s why the technological moment we are in is so simultaneously wonderful and frustrating.

Any comments from Radio Survivor readers about how we get out of this bind and onto the next phase? Is there some sustainable way to merge the affordability of FM with the versatility of broadband? Has that already been done?

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