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Pulling Into the Station : L.A. Radio Broadcaster Will Beam Signal Directly to PCs

CALIFORNIA | HEARD ON THE BEAT / TECHNOLOGY

November 15, 1996|KAREN KAPLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Los Angeles radio station Star 98.7 (KYSR) is planning to pioneer a new kind of radio broadcasting that sends music not to stereo receivers but to personal computers.

This spring, the Viacom Radio unit will begin testing on a technology called Interactive Dynamic Virtual Media--or IDVMedia--that makes it possible for PCs to receive huge streams of data over the radio airwaves. Full implementation is scheduled for next fall.

There will be plenty of music, of course, but that will be just one element of a total multimedia production. While a song is playing, "listeners" can get album information, watch a slow-frame version of the music video, or look up news, weather, traffic and other information with the point and click of a mouse. Commercials will also become interactive--an important feature because the multimedia service, like traditional radio broadcasts, will be supported by advertising dollars.

"It's exactly the kind of innovation radio needs to compete in the rapidly emerging interactive future," said Ken Christensen, vice president and general manager of Star 98.7.

A typical radio station uses only about half its available bandwidth to beam the music you hear on your stereo. The rest is usually divided into two sub-channels and rented out to firms that broadcast Muzak, paging services and the like.

A 4-year-old San Francisco company called SpotMagic developed the IDVMedia technology so that radio stations could use those sub-channels to enhance their broadcasts. Listeners need only equip their computers with a $25 FM tuner and IDVMedia Tuner software, which SpotMagic will probably make available for free over the Internet.

Broadcasting is a traditionally one-way proposition. But because IDVMedia's radio transmissions contain as much data as a CD-ROM, there's enough content to accommodate an interactive experience, SpotMagic President John Armstrong said.

Armstrong said the technology will give a boost to the country's 6,000 local radio stations, which he says have been losing ground to the more dynamic Internet. It can also be used to add multimedia elements to television and satellite broadcasts, and could eventually be incorporated into interactive televisions and other kinds of hardware, he said.

Of course, just because it will be possible to watch the radio on a computer doesn't mean that listeners will want to. But a confident Armstrong reminds naysayers that the founders of MTV were told that nobody would ever watch music on television.

Money for Internet companies: Internet start-up firms are rarely short on ideas but they can't say the same about money.

After a season that found investors plowing money into the initial public offerings of companies such as Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo, which maintains a monster list of World Wide Web sites, interest in Internet content providers has cooled. Wired Ventures Inc., the San Francisco publisher of Wired magazine and its Web cousin HotWired, has twice postponed its IPO out of fear it would not raise enough cash.

Instead, companies whose technologies will make the Internet easier to use are having a much easier time attracting funding.

"The big money these days is going to the Internet-enabling technologies and not the content companies," said Gregg Amber, an attorney with Snell & Wilmer in Irvine, who has served as counsel to several young and fast-growing companies in multimedia and other fields. "Enough companies have put up Web sites that are popular but that don't make any money."

Investors are anxious to put their money behind start-ups that are finding ways to increase bandwidth so that more data can be transferred between computers, building better browsers that make it easier to navigate the Web, and improving encryption to make the Internet safe for electronic commerce.

But content providers should not despair, Amber said: "Once the enabling technologies are in place, content will again be king."

Times correspondent Karen Kaplan can be reached at Karen.Kaplan@latimes.com

Tuesday: Real Estate

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