With the recent launches of Disney+ and Apple TV+ and the impending debuts of the Peacock and HBO Max video streaming services, content aggregation has been further solidified as the predominant digital media distribution model in the contemporary media industries. Content aggregation is defined as the practice of pulling media content from various sources and making it accessible at one dedicated, easy-to-find location. A now ubiquitous approach in our modern platform economy, what are content aggregation’s origins? Its history predates YouTube, iTunes, and other platforms typically referenced as being emblematic of the practice. The roots lie in the web portal of the mid-1990s, and in particular AudioNet (later Broadcast.com), a vertical portal for audio (and eventually also video) content. In the World Wide Web’s early years, portals were specialized aggregator websites bringing together diverse media and information sources into one place. As the web rapidly expanded throughout the 1990s, (over)abundance of websites and online content became a growing problem, and portals were a primary way to curate the web experience and offer users a home base from which to navigate the medium. Some portals like AOL and Yahoo! attempted to aggregate the entirety of the web into a single space, merging broad swaths of content that included news, weather, entertainment, shopping, games, social networks, and beyond. However, others like AudioNet were known as vertical portals due to their narrower focus on content from a specific market or niche.
AudioNet only operated from 1995 to 2002, yet the content aggregation model it helped pioneer has largely come to define the shape of media distribution and consumption online. Best known as Broadcast.com (the name it adopted in 1998), the Dallas-based AudioNet was a streaming radio, music, and video vertical portal, self-described as “the leading aggregator and broadcaster of streaming media programming on the web.” During the mid-late 1990s, it was among the most trafficked websites in the U.S., despite the fact the company produced almost no original content. Its business model consisted of redistributing existing audio content for online audiences. As can be seen in this Internet Archive Wayback Machine capture of the Broadcast.com site from around its peak in 1999, the site featured content from more than 400 radio stations, plus game broadcasts for 450+ college and professional sports teams (and the feeds of around 50 TV stations). It also provided coverage of a wide range of other events, including political speeches, business conferences, and concerts, plus more than 65,000 hours of on-demand content with hundreds of audiobooks and nearly 2,500 full-length music albums in its “CD Jukebox.” And all of this media content was available to audiences free of charge. Decades later, this vertical portal persists, its approach to content aggregation in many ways defining ideas about media distribution, access, and consumption in our networked culture.
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