Radio Finding New Paths to Your Ears

With new high-end audio formats hitting the shelves and MP3 and Napster dominating the online music news, developments in the world of radio have taken a back seat lately. But two announcements this week offer a peek at where the broadcast business might be headed.

The development of a digital-radio system designed to broadcast "CD-quality" audio to motorists across the US will take a major step this month, when the first of three Sirius Radio satellites is launched (see previous story). The Sirius 1, built by Space Systems/Loral, will be placed in an inclined elliptical orbit with high angles of elevation to the ground. The company says this type of orbit will improve reception in urban areas.

Sirius Satellite Radio says it plans to orbit another two satellites in September and October, and will begin broadcasting 50 channels of music and 50 channels of news, talk, and entertainment by the end of 2000. The service, expected to cost $9.99/month, will require a special receiver that will be available with new BMW, Ford, Jaguar, Mazda, and Volvo models.

Sirius' Terrence Sweeney feels that consumers are dissatisfied with current audio choices in vehicles, stating that "on one hand you have recorded media, which is incredibly inconvenient to use. People listen to radio in the car even with CDs because it's a hassle to take the CDs in and out of the car. The problem with radio is there's as many as 22 minutes of commercials an hour, so radio has become more of a delivery vehicle for advertising than an entertainment medium or information medium." Sirius says that its music channels will have no commercials, while the talk and entertainment channels will have an average of six minutes of commercials per hour.

While the Sirus radios will be available only for cars, last week Thomson Multimedia announced an agreement with Kerbango that paves the way for what the companies call a new category of home audio products that utilize the Internet to access streaming media files and deliver thousands of new radio channels to home listeners.

Thomson says that its first new Internet Radio product will be sold under the RCA brand in the US and will use the Kerbango Tuning Service. The AM/FM/IM (Internet Modulation) radio connects through an Ethernet connection on the tabletop product, allowing listeners to find thousands of different channels of entertainment. Thomson claims that the high-speed connection on RCA Internet Radio, initially targeted at consumers who already enjoy broadband DSL or Digital Cable Modem access, "will ensure digital-quality playback of programming." The company adds that Internet Radio also features traditional AM/FM circuitry and can be used to receive regular over-the-air broadcasts, and that a later version of IR now in development will include a dial-up modem for direct Internet access.

Thomson's Mark Redmond puts the new product in perspective, saying that "eventually, everything comes from the Internet, and since many radio broadcasters around the world are already streaming their programs over the Internet, it makes sense that consumers should be able to enjoy these programs now, away from the computer. That's why Thomson will offer the tabletop RCA Internet Radio and will soon integrate this functionality into other products. We're planning to offer Internet Radio as a feature in both the RS2539 bookshelf audio system and in the new RCA Digital Media Manager, announced last week."

At last week's MP3 Summit in California, Thomson unveiled five new products that it says will leverage the popularity of the MP3 audio format. One of these products, the Digital Media Manager, is planned as a home audio/video product utilizing a hard-disk drive with the capability of storing more than 2000 songs in the MP3 format. According to Thomson, the product connects to a consumer TV set and includes a built-in TV Electronic Program Guide, allowing it to display titles and cover art for CDs and DVDs, and permitting consumers to build playlists of favorite music selections.

"It allows a consumer to seamlessly navigate and interact with music with built-in software to make it easy to compress CD music in the MP3 format on the integrated hard-disk drive, build playlists, and sort by artist, album, or genre," says the company. The Digital Media Manager, expected to be available later this year, will play Internet Radio channels, DVDs, CDs, and MP3 files.