By Stephen Baker
The Good Like TiVo for radio, it records favorite shows
The Bad Reception can be iffy, and program slows the computer
The Bottom Line Improvements are needed before it's ready for mainstream listeners
A sleek white fin rises from the clutter on my desk. Salsa music pours out of the computer speakers. Only five minutes after unpacking Griffin Technology's RadioSHARK -- a TiVo-like service for radio -- it's up and running. Great start.
RadioSHARK, which retails for $69.95, promises just the type of time-shifting service that radio-lovers have been clamoring for. It captures radio signals the old-fashioned way, through that fin-like antenna, and its software puts a radio tuner right on the computer screen, whether it's a PC or Macintosh. It records programming on a hard drive and even dumps it into iPod and MP3 music players. In this, RadioSHARK mimics podcasting. That's the current rage in audio, in which listeners download programming from the Internet and listen to it on the go.
What's not to like? Unfortunately, a few things. The biggest problem is that RadioSHARK relies on over-the-air signals for its feed. This means that reception is only as good as it is on a normal transistor radio. On our 43rd floor office in Manhattan, the FM signal is strong, AM picks up nothing. No Yankee broadcasts for me.
BARE-BONED. Here's what's especially maddening. While RadioSHARK runs on a computer hitched to a high-speed Internet connection, it doesn't pick up Internet radio. So instead of having access to the wide world of radio, you're limited to your neighborhood. In wide swaths of the world, as any long-haul driver can attest, the pickings are slim. And country-music lovers here in New York City are flat out of luck.
Other shortcomings: For users accustomed to TiVo-like software, RadioSHARK is bare-boned. Ideally, it would offer a menu of radio offerings so that listeners could check what they wanted and even subscribe to favorite shows. Instead, users must figure out the local schedule and pick the programming to be recorded by time and station. And I had the clear feeling while listening to RadioSHARK that the software, which constantly records and stores audio, slowed up my PC.
RadioSHARK, with its sleek design, is clearly built first and foremost as a Mac accessory. That's Griffin's specialty. And I'm betting it works best for Apple (AAPL) pure plays: listeners who hook it up to a Mac, dump the files in iTunes, and carry them off in their iPods. But as a Windows user with an iPod, I ran into complications. The programming was automatically formatted for Windows Media Player, and it would have taken some work on my part to rejigger it for iTunes. So much for listening to All Things Considered on the bus.
WHENEVER AND WHEREVER. Enough griping. Despite shortcomings, RadioSHARK does a lot of things right. The setup is a snap. You load the software and plug the fin into a USB port. The controls on the radio panel are clear and intuitive. It seeks out stations, and you simply click to bookmark favorites.
The TiVo-like features are what make it special. If the telephone rings at a crucial point in a game, you just hit the pause button, and the broadcast waits for you. If you return to your computer and hear the final bars of a favorite song, you can click back a few minutes and listen to the whole thing, even if it's not a show you've chosen to record. By default, RadioSHARK'S software stores a half-hour of programming. For podcasting, you need first to record the shows. The software places them into Windows Media Player or iTunes. And next time you sync the MP3 player, it picks up the programming.
RadioSHARK is onto something. Listeners clearly want their radio programming on demand, whenever and wherever. But as podcasting grows, more and more downloadable radio is popping up every day on Web pages and blogs. The upshot: Listeners are going to get much of what RadioSHARK offers without buying the antenna and the software. Downloadable radio is here, and RadioSHARK is swimming in a tad late.
Baker is a BusinessWeek senior writer in New York