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News and Features: Online exclusives

Boston’s online radio frontier

The Globe’s RadioBDC seeks alt rock enthusiasts; Boston Herald Radio targets news junkies

BY: Alyssa Martino


Boston's two daily newspapers look at news very differently, so it’s no surprise that they are experimenting with online radio very differently.

Boston Herald Radio, which launched this week, is a talk radio station that features mostly conservative hosts discussing news and politics. RadioBDC, the online streaming station of the Boston Globe and Boston.com, will celebrate its one-year anniversary next week. The station, which hired several former WFNX staffers when that station shut down, features alternative music and targets a younger audience.

Though divergent in genre, the Globe and Herald stations are efforts by the newspapers to bolster the shrinking revenues from their news businesses by extending their brands on to new platforms. Radio on the Internet is a new, uncertain frontier, but some analysts think it’s a bet that, with patience, could eventually pay off.

“I think we’re going through a change where the Internet is eventually going to dominate all life,” said Michael Harrison, the editor and publisher of Longmeadow-based Talkers magazine, which covers talk radio. “Things take time, but we’re in a transitional period. All Internet audio will be available in cars sooner or later. Great radio stations are not built in a day.”

Internet radio stations represent a growing trend as listeners seek access to radio outside their cars and mobile devices make the web more accessible. Companies like Pandora, which launched in 2000, dominate the online radio scene, but few web stations have taken the local approach of RadioBDC and Boston Herald Radio. According to the Pew Research Center, an estimated 89 million Americans were listening to online radio per month in 2011. That number included people who were listening to online versions of regular over-the-air AM/FM stations as well as Internet-only stations, with the Internet-only listeners outnumbering the AM/FM listeners by a 57-40 ratio.

The Herald and Globe stations stream through a web browser or apps that can be downloaded from iTunes. I visited the Herald’s website and clicked “Radio” to stream the station directly to my computer. The station’s website features a live video feed of their studio, as well as tweets from the show’s hosts to boost interactivity with listeners. The website of RadioBDC (with the BDC standing for Boston Dot Com) can be reached via Boston.com and includes band videos, a place to vote for your favorite songs, upcoming concert picks, tweets, event photos, and social media links.

According to a RadioBDC factsheet, the station averages 100,000 connections per month, with a connection defined as anyone who connects to the station for more than 1 minute. The average time spent listening to RadioBDC is just over 60 minutes, the factsheet noted. The Herald did not return phone calls seeking information about its radio station.

Boston Herald Radio currently streams live from 6 am-6 pm on weekdays, focusing on news, politics, and sports. The hosts include Herald op-ed columnist Michael Graham and political reporter Hillary Chabot. Well-known Herald columnist Howie Carr, host of a popular WKRO talk show, is not in the station’s line-up.

Monday’s inaugural broadcast of “Morning Meeting,” hosted by Chabot, featured an interview with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino as well as a mini Boston mayoral debate between Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley and Rep. Martin Walsh. Reporters periodically burst into the Herald studio to break news stories on air, which seemed an old-fashioned approach but worked well. One Herald reporter didn’t show up on time Tuesday (something about her dishwasher overflowing?), but Chabot filled the air time until the reporter was able to call in.

Graham, a former talk-show host on regular radio, may be the station’s biggest on-air personality. During Monday’s show, while talking about the Whitey Bulger trial and the sale of the Globe to Red Sox owner John Henry, Graham encouraged listeners to call in or tweet at him about what Obama has done right during his presidency, demonstrating that interactivity is crucial for online radio platforms.

John Carroll, assistant professor of mass communications at Boston University, said the Herald and Globe radio target audiences are different. “Talk radio does appeal to an older audience, and older audiences tend to be less comfortable with technology,” Carroll said. “Talk radio tends to be listened to in automobiles—not exclusively, but largely. The numbers [of listeners] you can get through the Internet is going to be much lower among that age demographic.”

Carroll also wondered whether Boston Herald Radio’s conservative slant will garner appeal. “There’s plenty of people listening to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Glen Beck,” he said. “The question is: Can the Herald capture that audience?”

Harrison believes the marriage between a newspaper and talk radio station is “one that’s made in heaven. Radio can use the resources of a newspaper-sized organization. Newspapers can use the megaphone and platform of a talk radio station to give a different dimension to their information and editorial brand.” He added that talk radio and newspapers target the same type of audience.

RadioBDC is less talk and more music. “Nowadays there’s a big void in the radio landscape for the alternative [genre],” said RadioBDC Program Director Paul Driscoll. The station mainly targets 18-34 year olds, playing indie bands such as Death Cab for Cutie and Arcade Fire, both of whom have achieved moderate success in a landscape of rap music and pop tunes. DJs also mix in plenty of up and coming or under-the-radar bands—ones you’ll want to remember and download. Fortunately, the staff runs a live playlist twitter feed @RadioBDCMusic.

“We don’t live in the past,” Driscoll said, explaining that the station is manned by music buffs who attend local concerts and regularly seek out new bands. “Most of the music you hear is going to be current within the last 7-10 years,” said Driscoll, adding that older songs are often added to the playlist during the “Lunch At Your Desk” show from 12-1 pm.

Despite its emphasis on music, RadioBDC programming also weaves in breaking news or sports stories, calling on Globe or Boston.com editors and reporters to weigh in. The station plays all day long, but features live programming from the former WFNX staffers primarily between 7 am and 10pm on weekdays and a few hours on weekends.

“There’s really nothing else like it,” said Driscoll. “Our presence in the community is up there with other [AM and FM] radio stations.” RadioBDC conducts live studio shows—a rarity in this day and age, according to Driscoll—and has a big street presence, running events and contests. “Being a part of Boston.com is why this works,” Driscoll said.

“Connections” and web traffic may extend the Herald and Globe brands, but they won’t necessarily make the parent companies any money. Carroll says monetizing the streaming radio model will be tough. He believes content brought to you by a sponsor is a more viable revenue model than traditional radio commercials or even banner ads on either station’s website. Right now, convention radio commercials are the prominent form of advertising on both RadioBDC and Boston Herald Radio.

When asked if RadioBDC felt any competition with the new Boston Herald Radio, Driscoll said, “I look at it this way: if we’re both successful, it’s going to show that this format for delivering radio works.”
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