By Rob Pegoraro
Friday, May 29, 2009; 7:29 AM
It took a long drive over a holiday weekend -- a setting that should have played to all of radio's traditional strengths-- to show how much trouble commercial FM stations may have in store.
The soundtrack for the trip along Interstates 66 and 81 to the Shenandoah Valley town of Woodstock, Va., came not from FM, an XM or Sirius satellite broadcast or such recorded alternatives as CD or iPod.
Instead, our musical selection came from an Internet-connected smartphone that streamed Web radio to the nearest speakers through a cheap tape-deck adapter.
And it cost nothing extra on top of the phone's regular service plan.
For people at a desk, Web radio has long offered a terrific upgrade over the playlist-choked monotony of most FM stations. But a few things had to happen before people could order up Web radio to go.
First, wireless carriers had to offer data services fast enough for a digital stream of music -- then relax the absurd restrictions they first imposed on this access, which in some cases explicitly banned Web radio. Then phone developers had to make it easy for users to tune in, either through browsers on phones or programs provided through such simple software catalogues as Apple's App Store.
All those developments only came together over the last 12 months: At one popular site, Pandora (http://pandora.com), the share of listeners tuning in on a mobile device has gone from 1 percent a year ago to 23 percent. Because this change hasn't been heralded by a splashy product launch, many phone users may not realize how easily they can liberate Web radio from their computers.
I've spent much of the past two weeks trying out two of the best-known options in this category, Oakland-based Pandora and San Diego-based Slacker (http://slacker.com).
Both run through their own extra software, easily installed on iPhones and newer BlackBerrys. They also allow a choice between free versions with ads (Pandora's consisted of silent banners, while Slacker inserted the occasional, brief audible ad between songs) and premium, ad-free options ($36 a year for Pandora, $47.88 a year for Slacker).
These two services, however, differ in how you define your stations. In Pandora, you pick a song or artist you like, and then the service cues up songs that fit, as determined by its music database. You can tap thumbs-up, thumbs-down or "skip" buttons (the last only works 12 times a day in the free version) to refine its selections.
Slacker can also cook up a station based on a favorite song or band, or you can just pick one of 128 preset stations, then customize it by approving, disapproving or skipping songs. It will also show the artist of the next song in its queue, but not its title.
In practice, Slacker was more enjoyable to listen to, and not just because Pandora could only do mono sound on a Verizon Wireless Blackberry I used for much of this test. Slacker, with 2 million or so songs in its catalogue compared with Pandora's 600,000, offered more variety -- a good thing behind the wheel, where I had to ignore these customization options to focus on the road.
That experience also often left me guessing about what I'd just heard: These services (like the comparable interactive Web-radio services iMeem and FlyCast, which I also auditioned) don't include a human or electronic DJ to call out the names of songs.
This problem is something that Web stations will have to fix if more people tune in from places that demand hands-free listening.
Mobile listeners also risk paying a price for tuning in too often. Most Web stations employ extremely efficient compressed music formats; if you listened to Pandora on a phone for about six hours a day, you'd still only eat up half of the 5-gigabyte monthly quota set by most wireless carriers.
But when you can listen to interesting music anywhere, and when you already use a smartphone for other online tasks, you could theoretically hit that quota some day.
Webcasters also need to settle a long-running argument over the royalties they pay to performers of the music they play. For years, the organization charged with managing these payments, a recording-industry-backed nonprofit called SoundExchange, has demanded steep rates that Webcasters have said would bankrupt them.
But the two sides now seem to be nearing a compromise, and once-despondent Web radio operators now sound optimistic. Bill Goldsmith, who runs the popular station Radio Paradise (http://radioparadise.com), wrote in an e-mail that he doesn't expect to have to pay more than 10 to 12 percent of his site's revenue, which he called "high . . . but not impossible."
Land-based broadcasters, meanwhile, may one day wish they had those problems. Commercial FM as we've known it can't match the variety and creativity of Internet radio. Local stations' best hope may be to focus on what Internet radio can't do well, but which they themselves have largely neglected -- catering to the interests and tastes of their neighbors. If FM outlets can do that, they don't have to get left off the dial. If they can't, they won't be missed.