The new business of free radio

Andrew Leyden has some killer ideas about radio. Literally. For example, he correctly identifies the iPhone as a radio, and says it will kill off XM and Sirius:

I've downloaded all of the Internet radio applications from the iPhone application store. I have the version one iPhone which works on Edge, but pretty much any stream under 32k will come in just fine at that speed. Still, even with reduced speeds, the offerings are extensive.

I drove to the store listening to Virgin Radio out of London. I heard ads for ‘insurance cover’ for your auto from AA of England (maybe I should buy as I almost hit someone). I switched over to, the best Electronica station out of New York to hear the content you won't hear on American radio stations. I then flipped to AOL’s radio plug-in and heard 1010WINS traffic (sorry for those in the Holland tunnel stuck in traffic right now).

I predicted this long ago (yes, I own the domain name ‘’). But with iPhone’s ease of use, mass marketing power, and legion of adoring fans, I foresee the demise of the big satellite radio companies in just a few years.

Andrew isn't just another blogger here. He's the father of and He's been making Linux-based Internet radios for years (I have one of them), and has been both leading and following this embryonic industry for many years.

I'd go a step farther than Andrew does in this post, however, and say that the Internet is going to eat most of terrestrial radio transmission as well. And that iPhones are just the incisors at the front of the Net's giant maw.

The rest of radio will be masticated by large quantities of other mobile devices, including Linux-based ones running radio applications for Android, OpenMoko or whatever other open platforms the makers choose to use.

Radio as a practice won't go away. Nor will the industry. But the need for transmitters to occupy large quantities of real estate, and to suck large quantities of power off the grid, will be substantially reduced.

What we need to make that happen is radio tuners for all these mobile devices. They must be as easy to use as old radios with dials. This is why the iPhone is the inaugural choice as a tuner platform. But it's neither the only nor the final choice, any more than the first Sony transistor radios or Walkmans were the final forms of their device breeds.

One thing more. We shouldn't accept that "free" (as in beer) by itself is a "business model", or that listeners want only to pay nothing for music or any other form of "content". If that were true, we wouldn't have public broadcasting, which is largely funded by listener and viewer payments for the goods received.

Nor should we accept the Copyright Royalty Board's insistence that Internet Radio has no "willing buyer" or "willing seller". We simply haven't provided the easy means for anybody to contribute what they want (in whatever size sums they feel like paying, over whatever periods). There is a potential business model that opens up when it's easy for the buyer to be in charge of his or her side of the commercial relationship.

Equipping the demand side of markets is part of the original promise of the Web. It's why we wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto almost ten years ago, as a rant against the belief that the Web was all about the sell side.

We need to liberate the buyer, and radio is a good place to start because the goods are free to begin with — yet have a value that exceeds zero. We need to put the listener in charge of his or her end of the business process.

This is new. And it's what we're working on at ProjectVRM. This isn't a business yet, any more than Linux is a business. But, like Linux was in the first place, it's a potentially enormous platform for business. One that can support many different (and open) building materials.

Of course, we need developers. We have some already. But we need more. (Alas, the only code I know is Morse, and I'm too old to start learning now.) If you're interested, check out the ProjectVRM wiki, or let's talk about it below.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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wifi radio and the cloud

Jonathan Marks's picture

I would argue that the iPod Touch is also a great wifi radio - even before the apps. In Europe there are two rival companies, and frontier silicon making wifi radio models that are now appearing in a whole range of wifi desktop radios. The best ones are the ones with accurate links. Neither company understands the wisdom of the crowds as yet, which is why their listings have problems keeping up. But, in general, the wifi radios are brilliant. Helps me discover there is still some great radio out there - even if it is no longer in the country you live in ;-)

What's a great radio now?

Doc Searls's picture

The Touch is a fine radio if you're tuning in a browser and your only connection is wi-fi. But real radios should be at least somewhat easy to use. I submit that almost none of today's phones or MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices), including the Touch, qualify.

i say "almost" because the iPhone qualifies. In Can The New iPhone Revolutionize Radio?, Larry Magid uses the iPhone as a radio, tuning stations over the Net, which he accesses via the cell phone system.

I'll say more in my next post.

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal

with services like

Pit Schultz's picture

with services like and CBS is offering alternatives to XM/Sirius which are web based. today a successful webcaster like has a worldwide audience of concurent listeners which is as small as mid town FM radio station. there will be no golden age of streaming without a large scale transition from unicasting to multicasting on the lower network layers. a growing demand of ubiquitous streaming bandwidth leads to a battle of infrastructure which restricts premium usage. pandora for example is only available in the US. companies like Comcast and AT&T do not understand the culture of p2p, packet switching and peering agreements. cloud computing and content delivery networks set up large proprietary zones just like clear channel and cable providers did. they will likely try to create a new scarcity of the means of distribution acting as gatekeepers of commerce. if the end to end architecture of the internet should persist in an age of streaming media, somebody has to pay the bandwith bill (including the royality fees).