Internet.com (Oct. 29, 2000)
It sounds like a radio station. It markets itself like a radio station. So is Merge933.net a radio station?
“We try to blur the line between radio station and web site,” says mid-day DJ and multi-media director Jeff K. “We are one tool listeners can use not only in their cars but at home.”
Most radio stations these days have web sites. But this Dallas FM station is one of a handful across the country that are moving toward an actual convergence of traditional radio and the web. Not only does merge933.net use a URL in its name, but it also gives the web operation the emphasis and resources that make it an integral part of the operation.
The patter of the station’s DJs is laced with references to the web site.
“If I’m about to do a break on Pearl Jam, we go out on the net and find an article about them and post it on the site,” explains K — who uses only the initial. “Then I say, ‘Hey, you can read more about them right now on merge933.net.'”
No DJ is an island
But K does not surf alone. Most of the web work is done by his alter-ego, who functions as what the station calls a “web jammer.” Every DJ at Merge933.net has one. Essentially Internet producers, web jammers sit in the same studio with the jock in front of a console of their own, constantly searching the web for new material and links that tie in with the music and chatter of the radio program. They also interact in real time with the online audience.
“They’re like your Internet concierge,” says Dan Bennett, the station’s general manager. “Whatever the audience wants — info on songs played, good places to go to dinner, what concerts are coming up — they can email and there’s a real live body to come back to them via the Internet within ten minutes.”
Ten minutes? Bennett admits many are skeptical.
“I told that to an advertiser one day and she turned around and emailed the web jammer saying, ‘You’re station sucks. You don’t play enough Britney Spears.’
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re dead.’ A few minutes later, the web jammer wrote back saying, ‘Sorry you feel that way, but here’s a couple of great Britney Spears sites you might want to check out.'”
That interaction with the listener comes at a price.
“You’ve got an extra body in the studio at all times that you have to pay for and I haven’t seen too many companies that want to do that,” says Bennett. “But down the road, we think it will pay for itself by strengthening the bond between the radio station and the listener.”
Radio you can see
Parent Susquehanna Broadcasting has been so pleased with progress toward achieving that goal that it is launching similar experiments in San Francisco and Atlanta. Other station groups are also moving in that direction.
At WRIF Detroit and its Internet twin, IRIF, the station’s shock-jocks are using the web’s cutting-edge technologies to offer, among other things, online strip shows by female visitors competing to be the station’s “web girl of the month.”
Visitors to the merge933.net web site won’t find nudity, but they are offered a fairly broad array of content, organized into four categories that reflect the station’s music mix. Along with the usual concert listings, contests and links, there are mp3 downloads, articles, interactive polls.
“Everything that comes out of the mouth of the on-air person ties back to the web,” Bennett explains.
And there’s the critical advantage Merge933.net and others like it have over the huge universe of web-only radio stations.
“Radio can do something no other media can — it can drive people to a web site by saying over and over, ‘Go to our web site,'” says Tom Taylor, editor of the M Street Daily, a radio industry newsletter. “That’s a business model a lot of people are watching closely.”
But, those involved emphasize, that is a long-term business model. For the moment, revenues on the Merge933.net site are minimal. No web-only ads are being inserted. But one area Bennett and others in the industry believe has potential is a function that allows the station to add visuals to radio ads.
TV ads on the radio
On-air programming is streamed on the site through a window that appears on the left side of the screen. As cuts are played, the CD cover and other appropriate images are shown in the window using Ispot technology provided by RadioWave, Inc., a company in which Susquehanna has become an equity partner.
More interesting from a revenue standpoint is the fact that the station can offer the same service to advertisers. Merge933.net can lay images over each ad. It’s not TV, but — the theory goes — it does draw more attention to the spot. The station is asking an additional 10 percent for the service.
“A large majority of our customers have not done it yet, but we do have people experimenting with it,” Bennett says hopefully. “We’re in the midst of trying to make sure we have the pricing correct.”
Some in the radio industry question the very concept of streaming radio, arguing that the perceived benefits do not even come close to outweighing the dangers of fragmenting the audience. Bennett doesn’t buy that.
“Every statistic we see is that the web still continues to grow in terms of usage,” he says. “What we’re looking for is not a fight with the Internet, but for how it can embrace radio.”
“Right now it is still a small percentage of people listening to radio on the Internet, but every year it grows more and more and we want to be there from the very beginning,” says program director Strong. And, he adds, sounding reminiscent of a radio evangelist: “We want to help the audience touch the station in ways they have never done before.”