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She found her voice, audience in online radio
October 13, 2008
By Denise Perreault - PBN Staff Writer

Patricia Raskin always has been a pioneer. People laughed at her in 1982 when, as a teacher and guidance counselor living in Rockport, Mass., she began a public affairs show on what was then a new medium, cable television, to help viewers solve problems in their everyday lives.

In October 2002, after working as a newspaper columnist, producing documentaries for public television and spending about five years as the host of a successful radio talk show she established, Raskin took another leap. Then living in North Carolina, she was "one of the first," she said, to hook up with an online radio outfit few people had heard of, VoiceAmerica. "I knew that the power of the Internet would only grow," she said.

Today, no one is laughing at her.

Raskin produces and hosts her own radio talk show "Positive Living," doing three separate live, call-in shows from her Newport home every week, 12 each month, interviewing such celebrities as author Gail Sheehy, actress Jane Seymour and psychic medium James Van Praagh. Her shows are carried live on WPRO radio, both AM and FM, as well as via three online radio outlets: www.630wpro.com, www.voicemerica.com and www.talkzone.com.

Once again, Raskin has managed to be on the cusp of yet-another major development in communication, online radio. Some industry experts predict that, in the not-too-distant future, radios as standalone devices will become obsolete because everyone will listen to the news, music and talk shows on the computer and its portable accessories, like iPods.

The weekly online radio audience is at an all-time high with an estimated 32 million listeners nationwide, according to "The Infinite Dial 2008: Radio's Digital Platforms," a June 2008 report prepared from telephone surveys by Arbitron Inc., the well-known ratings agency, and Edison Media Research. "An uptick in 2008 has resulted in the highest total weekly audience for online radio since Arbitron and Edison began tracking this measure in 2000," the report states.

Other highlights of the report:

• More than one in five Americans has listened to online radio in the last month, 21 percent of the population over 12 years old, for a total of approximately 54 million listeners mont•ly.

n The weekly online audience skews slightly male and adult, with 52 percent male and 60 percent between the ages of 25 and 54 years •ld.

n More than one in seven 25- to 54-year-olds listened to online radio in the last week, 15 percent of all Americ•ns.

n Online radio listeners are more likely to be employed full time than the average. Some 57 percent of weekly listeners work full time, compared to 43 percent of respondents 12 years and ol•er.

n Most online radio listeners, 53 percent, have also watched video online in the past month.

Online radio offers global immediacy, listening on-demand, and advertising targeted to specific regions, the three key reasons why its future compared to traditional terrestrial radio looks so promising, according to Jeffrey Spenard, a Rhode Island native who co-founded VoiceAmerica in late 2000.

Spenard lived in North Providence and Smithfield before leaving the state years ago. He is now stationed in Phoenix, Ariz., as president of VoiceAmerica and World Talk Radio, another online network. The two networks have 5-million unique listeners every month, he said, with 210 shows. Although he believes terrestrial radio will "always be there," Spenard predicted that, by the year 2010, "Internet radio will have the highest listenership of anybody."

With 18,000 servers, his networks immediately transmit online radio shows across the globe, he noted. Those same shows are archived online for years, so a listener can hear any show he or she wants at any time 24 hours a day, perhaps downloading them to iPods. And thirdly, Spenard said, the online format allows a commercial about air-conditioning to run in the winter on the West Coast, for example, while East Coast listeners hear an ad for snow shovels in the same time slot.

"What the Internet platform offers is the opportunity to keep pace with the way busy people live their lives, at 70 miles per hour. It's accessible to people on the go," said Holland Cooke, a media consultant based on Block Island and a WPRO disc jockey decades ago. "It gives people what they need, when they want it."

Like Spenard, Cooke believes there always will be terrestrial radio because "we're already accustomed to it," he said, "and it's free in exchange for us absorbing some commercials." That's a conclusion that Arbitron and Edison Media also reached in their recent report, which says that contrary to popular belief, people who listen to digital radio platforms, including satellite and podcasts, do not spend less time listening to AM/FM radio. "Despite the growth in alternatives … the time spent listening to AM/FM radio by users of digital radio platforms has not changed versus a year ago," the report said. Some 94 percent of Americans use AM/FM radio, "making it the most widely utilized audio platform."

For Raskin, working online is basically the same as broadcasting over traditional airwaves, except she has the opportunity to explore "more esoteric subjects" online, she said.

Although her message about the importance of living and thinking positively is always the same, Raskin explained that she might, for instance, opt for online to explore a "very religious topic" if broadcasting where that religion is in the minority, or for a show on sexuality in a conservative place like North Carolina. The online platforms offer her the variety of "different venues" for different topics, she said. "Online, I have a very targeted audience, which is very good for advertisers," she said. "I'm not for everybody. I'm targeted, I'm niched."

And that is exactly where she should be, according to Cooke.

Asked how an online radio talk host can best earn a living, he replied, "by being narrow, by being as niche and boutique as you can, that's how you make money. So a specialist is going to have the easiest time" finding a market.

For instance, a talk show host offering tips on physical fitness would have a tough time because dozens of Web sites are devoted to healthy living, he suggested. But, if the same host offers fitness tips for asthmatics, an exceptionally interested online audience may be relatively small but receptive and loyal, drawing perhaps advertising revenue from pharmaceutical companies specializing in asthma medications. It's the advertising revenue and sponsorship of specific shows that generally provide the funds to pay "the talent" such as talk show hosts, Spenard confirmed.

Cooke has nothing but praise for online radio, which he called a "wonderful trend" because it is a "democratization" of the medium. "The do-it-yourself nature of the Internet has leveled the playing field," he said. Previously, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would issue licenses for a certain number of radio stations in one area and listening to the radio was a "very passive experience" where "we talk and you listen." Online radio allows more practitioners to broadcast – or "narrowcast," Cooke says – and, without FCC regulations, is "utterly free range and pure First Amendmet."

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