Don't Touch That URL ; as Web Sites Morph into Radio Stations, the Internet Births a New Medium

Article excerpt

Matt Greller loves the Mets.

But the New Yorker is attending law school in Washington -a long way from Shea Stadium. Or so he thought.

Last year he discovered live radio coverage of Mets baseball on the Internet. Suddenly, Mr. Greller could edit a law-review article and root for the home team at the same time.

"It's fantastic. It's just like you're listening to the radio," he says.

Internet radio is picking up speed, pulling listeners and once- skeptical traditional radio stations along with it. Though still coming of age, it is being compared to the arrival of FM radio in the 1960s.

"It's still very much maturing as a whole," but the growth "really is tremendous," says George Bundy, chairman of BRS Media Inc., an Internet radio-tracking and consulting firm in San Francisco. Everything from NPR to new age, British pop to Black Gospel is available to anyone with a sound card, speakers, and enough patience to download the free software required to listen.

More than 3,500 national, international, and Net-only stations exist on the Web, up from just 56 in April 1996, according to Mr. Bundy. An additional 100 to 120 stations launch each month on average, he says.

Traditional stations have been slow to jump into the mix, but more are doing so as they see the Net's potential to reach a worldwide audience.

"It has enough momentum and critical mass now that those who don't plunge in in the next year or two will definitely be behind the curve," says Jhan Hiber, ratings and research editor at Gavin Magazine, a radio-industry publication.

If it catches on, Internet radio could fragment radio's traditional audience, much the same way cable did network TV. But as in the past, those in the industry expect the medium to adapt, and in this case, embrace the Web."The potential synergy here is incredible," says Mr. Hiber.

Listeners are also just beginning to understand what the Internet offers.

While most Americans still tune in to radio the old-fashioned way, an Arbitron/Edison Media study released in February suggests that about 11 million people are listening weekly to Internet radio. If that were a market, it would be the third biggest behind Los Angeles and New York.

Those numbers could go up as devices that allow listeners to leave their computer become available. Companies are now debuting products ranging in price from $75 to $300 that will allow Net radio to go where only traditional signals have gone before.

Sonicbox is introducing its tuner technology that works in conjunction with a PC to home stereos and radios and a free- standing unit, and Kerbango is offering a stand-alone product that looks like a real radio and operates without a computer. In late June, another new company, Savos, plans to beam Internet audio to cellphones. Cars and other hand-held devices are expected to have access eventually, too.

Listening online offers choice to consumers at a time when consolidation of stations in the US has brought a corporate feel to what's on the 105-year-old medium. Clearing houses on the Web -like broadcaster.com, webradio.com, internetradiolist. com, spinner.com, and live-radio.net -offer lists of Net stations from around the country and the world. Listenerships can range from a few people to as many as 205,000 -the number Virginradio.com attracts.

By downloading a RealPlayer or Windows Media Player (some computers already come equipped), consumers can listen to radio stations or visit sites that act more like a "jukebox," programming selected music. Archives are also available -from NPR, for example - allowing people to tune in whenever they like. The quality of online audio can vary, however, depending on details like speed of connection and a station's bandwidth.

Many Web listeners are logging on at work, a place some traditional signals can't reach. …