Shaun Dailey might be described as a talk-radio veteran, but when he heard John Kerry on the other end of his show's call-in line a few weeks ago, any listener could tell that he was slightly taken aback. "Oh...Senator Kerry, welcome to the program!..."
Their conversation took up a little more than eight minutes of Dailey's hour-long show, and focused on Kerry's support for Barack Obama's presidential bid in advance of the Nevada caucuses. It would have felt like any talk-radio broadcast-if not for the fact that it wasn't technically radio.
Dailey's program airs on BlogTalkRadio.com, an enterprise that, in 18 months, has become the dominant player in the latest media trend, one that allows anyone with a Web connection to host a talk show on any topic at any time of day. It is the newest form of new media; the audio version of the internet blog.
"Everybody in our world-when I'm talking about our world I'm talking about over-the-air broadcasting and our media universe-is obviously watching this phenomenon closely and adapting as we go along," says Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.
Aspiring broadcasters log on and select the length, time slot, genre, and topic of their show. BlogTalk provides the internet broadcast capability and a telephone system that allows hosts to take live callers, all for free.
It sounds like the kind of service that would draw U.F.O. watchers and religious prophesiers-and it does. But internet talk radio is also rapidly getting attention from prominent hosts, guests, and broadcasting companies-especially in the wake of the blog phenomenon, which mainstream media outlets were slow to accept.
Two months ago, Arianna Huffington hosted a one-time BlogTalk program on which she interviewed Brad Pitt about the continuing struggle to repair New Orleans. Presidential contenders, including Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani, have been guests on news and political programs such as Dailey's BlogTalkRadio Today and Ed Morrissey's Heading Right Radio with Ed Morrissey. Not too long ago, Yoko Ono appeared on a BlogTalk show to plug-well, nothing in particular.
With its 40,000-plus shows, BlogTalk can bring in more than two million listeners each month, according to the company. In December, the site enjoyed about 80,000 listeners a day. That makes it a gnat compared to, say, National Public Radio, whose listenership over the last year has remained steady at 26 million. But BlogTalk is one of a half-dozen startups hoping to dominate the online talk space, and it has been growing fast.
"I think that [BlogTalk] represents something that's far greater than itself," says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, a leading talk-radio-industry trade publication. "There's a whole bunch of new Web-based entities that I predict will be the media stations of the future."
Among BlogTalk's competitors are Skypecast.com, which is an offshoot of the internet telephone service Skype; Waxxi.us, which was launched in May 2006 and advertises its service as "interactive podcasts"; and TalkShoe.com. The competition isn't quite direct. According to Waxxi founder and C.E.O. Tracy Sheridan, the company's broadcasts usually include about 100 or 200 "listeners," all of whom can participate in the conversation, which makes Waxxi more like an online conference call than an online radio show. The idea behind Skypecast is similar. That company describes itself in its promotional materials as "a live voice discussion about any specific topic hosted by one person that can include up to 100 other people participating from anywhere in the world."
And TalkShoe, arguably BlogTalk's closest competition, describes itself as a combination conference service and radio network. "We built our system so that up to 250 people can simultaneously be on a live show," says Mark Juliano, senior vice president and co-founder of TalkShoe, which has been around since 2006 and has some 5,000 listeners a month. "It's basically a combination of broadcast, a conference call, and a chat room."
The online amateur-radio niche is still sparsely populated, and as yet, largely undefined. BlogTalk is one of the few companies that currently offers a medium explicitly designed to emulate traditional radio, and this may be part of the key to the company's relative success.
Not surprisingly, Alan Levy, BlogTalk's founder and C.E.O., believes companies like these will eventually come to replace traditional radio altogether. "To me, the reason why NPR or CBS Radio News is big is because right now, the only way to listen to the radio...is terrestrial," he says. "When there are other alternatives...you're going to see these audiences vanish; they'll migrate to places that they want."
Levy's hype aside, some in traditional radio admit that services like his will likely start coming into the mainstream very soon. "It all comes down to the show," said Walter Sabo, C.E.O. of Sabo Media, a consulting firm that counts a number of radio networks, including Sirius Satellite Radio (and Parade magazine, which is owned by Cond� Nast's parent company) among its clients. "People listen to shows that they like and if the show is good, it doesn't matter what the source is. The medium itself is meaningless."
Steve Jones, vice president of ABC News Radio, said that while the rise of amateur broadcasters presents a challenge for traditional radio, it's also an opportunity for growth. "I think that you will find terrestrial radio programmers and executives are going to be very interested in anyone who demonstrates an ability to communicate using spoken word," Jones said. "I don't think that they feel it's a threat at all; I think what they would attempt to do would be to co-opt that opportunity or that individual."
Fans of the new medium say it provides benefits that terrestrial radio does not. Dailey, who hosts his BlogTalk show from Las Vegas, has a 13-year background in local radio there. He turned to online amateur broadcasting in part because it offered him the opportunity to conduct a show without corporate fetters.
"I don't have a program director breathing down my neck telling me how I should do my show," he says. He added that the traditional radio model is "stifling the creativeness of the hosts and the producers."
Still, challenges face internet talk radio. Portability is one; at the moment, listeners can only get broadcasts at their computers or on their iPods, but not in their cars. BlogTalk is trying to address that by partnering with a company called Reciva Limited, which manufactures radiolike receiver devices that allow users to access internet radio broadcasts without a computer-the question is whether people will buy it.
Profitability is another. Ideally, BlogTalk makes money from advertisements that run online and during the shows, but the company is currently operating at a loss. It hopes to get into the black with the help of a new ad-revenue-sharing plan, in which hosts and the company will split advertising sponsorship dollars 35 percent to 65 percent, respectively, as well as with the help of a number of partnership deals it is negotiating. Levy wouldn't reveal details of its finances, though it's clear that much of the company's funding comes from Levy himself.
And, as with blogs, one of the advantages of these open services is also a potential weakness-they offer anyone at all a potentially far-reaching voice, and some listeners don't want to sift through all the options to find quality programming.
Wharton of the N.A.B. said that he thinks traditional on-air media and the new citizen broadcasters will be able to coexist, though. "I don't think it's necessarily a zero-sum game in the sense that if somebody's listening to, or logging on to, BlogTalkRadio, they're just simply ignoring over-the-air broadcast," he says.
"One of the things we have to always be careful about is making...broad predictions because [many of those past predictions have] sort of not panned out," says Sree Sreenivasan, a media professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, who has hosted his own shows on BlogTalk, and before that on Skypecast. "You know, radio was supposed to be dead decades ago when TV came along."
Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.
For reprints and licensing questions, click here.