Why your streaming strategy is all wrong

I’m still uncomfortable with yesterday’s evident research finding that online radio listening (however that was defined) has barely budged in the past two years.

I suspect there’s a serious “definition” problem that has yet to be clarified.

But it leads to a larger question, namely: What kind of thing makes the most sense to stream?

If you’re like most broadcasters, “we should be streaming” has reached the status of a cliche. A stock answer to the evergreen question: “What should we be doing on our website?”

As I have often (and quite unoriginally) noted, “the medium is the message,” and when you change the medium you change the message because, in part, you change what consumers can do and expect to do with that medium.

Take, for example, the world of TV as it adapts to the online world.

TV is chunked in programs just as radio is (In talk radio, a program is literally a show. In music radio, a “program” is really a “song.”)

In most if not every case, the distribution model for TV programming online is by-the-chunk. Browse over to NBC.com and you “watch videos,” you don’t stream the network feed in real time.

And that’s true of every network and local affiliate website I can find.

None streams the feed in real-time.

Contrary to what most radio stations are aiming to do.

Indeed, one of the most buzzed about TV sites is hulu.com. All chunks, all the time.

Presumably, these networks are doing things this way because viewers want their programming “by the chunk” or, as the saying goes, “on demand.”

Indeed, this is also the way iTunes and Podcasts and P2P networks work – “on demand.” In fact, you could argue that what an iPod does is convert an “on demand” menu into a custom stream (and iTunes HD tagging works the opposite way – turning a stream of chunks into an “on demand” menu – which is why it will never take off – just as similar technology in satellite radio has produced little more than yawns).

In fact, ever since the demise of so-called “push technology,” the primary utility of the Internet has been to satisfy whatever demands you’re in the market for right now.

If the increase in appetite for online audio – like online video – is for the “chunks”, not the “streams,” (as the new Edison/Arbitron research suggests) then what is the role of streaming in an audio entertainment world?

Well, for one, the role of streaming is to provide passive entertainment for an audience which abhors fuss and work. But most of this audience, it turns out, is satisfied by the traditional old radio. The rest can turn to a variety of online streaming sites in addition to your radio station to have these needs met, often with the added bonus of customizing the streams or “teaching” the streams their preferences so the stream becomes utterly unique to you.

A “smart stream” is one that can be easily taught. A “dumb stream” is what’s on your station’s website now, most likely. Dumb streams will in the long run probably be niches.

But “smart” or “dumb,” even the best customization is no replacement for choosing the chunks you want, when you want them.

Another role for audio streaming is to provide an event in real time. A live stream of the Superbowl, for example. Or a big music concert event. But such events are few and far between.

The question is this: What’s so special that I should get it on YOUR time rather than on MINE? That’s the essential difference in appetite between “streams” and “chunks.”

Now you might say, but wait, eventually most audio entertainment will be mediated via the Internet, and maybe it will. But just as the analog route to grocery shopping beats the digital route, so may the analog route to passive music entertainment beat its digital counterpart.

In other words, radio is better when it’s on the radio. Not online.

And “online radio” (whatever that will come to mean) is better when it’s not a linear stream of the same damn thing folks can hear on the 800 million radios already at home, at work, and in their cars.

So what are the consequences of this argument if, indeed, it holds water?

That the appetite for “online radio” as we currently think of it is not likely to increase dramatically.

But the appetite for audio entertainment online will continue to skyrocket.

Perhaps broadcasters who view their primary challenge as streaming their content are missing the boat altogether.

Instead, maybe they should be creating captivating “chunks” and indexing them to attract as wide an audience as possible, one chunk at a time.




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