MotorFM is determined to transform radio in Germany, and it thinks it has the tools to do it: MP3 downloads and songs streamed directly to mobile phones.
The first step has seen MotorFM, launched Feb. 1, abandon on-air commercials in favor of generating revenue from MP3 downloads and targeted sponsoring of its programming. The next step will be streaming audio directly to 3G cell phones and letting listeners pay for downloads by SMS text message.
MotorFM grew out of the Motor record label, which introduced Germany to Eminem, and introduced the world to the Teutonic heavy-metal mongers Rammstein.
Focusing on hip alternative rock and electronic music, the station was founded by three former music executives who profess a real love and knowledge of music: Tim Renner and Markus Kuehn both worked in senior positions at Universal Music, and Mona Rübenstein founded MTV Germany.
“We left because Universal and MTV don’t support any good music anymore. They’re boring,” said Kuehn, who was marketing manager of Universal’s German division.
“In the short term, we don’t think that the downloads will be able to finance the station – maybe in two or three years – but that’s why we have sponsors,” said Kuehn. “However, there are some interesting technological developments coming on stream. Listeners will be able to get downloads of music direct to their cell phones or get an audio stream on the phone at the touch of a button.”
The number of songs currently offered is small – dwarfed by iTunes and Napster – but MotorFM aims to continually add to its library. “At present a small amount of the music we play is available for download, primarily independent and unsigned artists, but we want to make the majority of our music available to the listener,” said Renner.
Media analyst Tim Crook at the University of London said MotorFM’s proposal is “an interesting and alternative way to fund radio broadcasting – the internet streaming could fund the analog music output, but this is only feasible if the music with an anticipated demand is only available on a pay-to-listen basis.”
Ultimately the station will become an advertisement in its own right: If listeners hear a song they want to buy, they simply send an SMS text message from their phone and the song will be downloaded, either to an account on the MotorFM website or to the cell phone itself.
“Mobile Broadcast Network is just audio down the phone,” said WRN’s Jeff Cohen, “not like 3G, which allows for audio and video to be streamed as data directly to the handset.” Cohen remains skeptical about cell phones and the internet replacing traditional radio. “There’s no indication that the media landscape is going to change vastly – predictions in the past have been wrong. Specifically DAB digital radio has failed in Germany, and reports say it’s being closed down,” said Cohen.
To grab the audience’s attention, MotorFM plans to do more than drop advertisements and stream music to cell phones. The station aims to distance itself from traditional radio formats common in Germany: DJ chatter will be mercilessly cut back, and the cult of personality that surrounds on-air presenters will be discouraged.
“Currently in Germany, radio stations attempt to educate the listeners to memorize show times,” Rübenstein explained. “We’re not going to be like that. There will be no cheery breakfast show – just good music in the morning plus essential info on the music. We want to be more flexible, with mini shows ranging from 5 minutes to 15 minutes. Within 20 to 30 minutes of tuning in, a listener will understand what we stand for.”
Despite the founders’ enthusiasm, MotorFM will not have an easy time establishing itself. The European radio market is massively saturated with ordinary AM and FM radio, digital terrestrial radio, internet radio, and cable and satellite television.
The founders think the solution lies in being different. “It’s true that we live in a saturated media landscape, but there’s no innovation. We’re like a little star on the horizon,” Rübenstein said. “We’re targeting an urban audience who live fragmented and unpredictable lives, so we want to establish in their heads and ears that they can have the music they like, whenever they like.”
But MotorFM’s success is far from guaranteed. At present their MP3 offerings are free of digital rights management restrictions – which will not be popular with major record companies when it comes to making their material available for downloading.
“DRM is about the record companies. We’re about the music and being independent. If we are forced to use some form of DRM in the future, that’s a matter for then, but for now we’re happy without it,” said Rübenstein. “We want to introduce people to a DRM-free world, and we can do this because we’re self-financed with no venture capital.”