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Illness leads to BlogTalkRadio
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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Alan Levy's father was dying of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

To keep family members apprised of his condition, Levy started a blog.

The Web-based diary allowed family members from across the country to read about Maurice Levy's day-to-day progress. Alan Levy would type up a paragraph or two, family members would post comments in response and his father could read them on a flat-screen TV in his hospital room.

It was a good way to keep the lines of communication open.

Maurice Levy passed away in May, but before he died, he and his son talked about a business idea that sprang from Alan Levy's blogging experience.

Why not, Alan Levy reasoned, give bloggers (or anyone) a chance to "broadcast" live? Instead of typing their entries, why not let them host a live talk show, a la talk radio, where they can speak and have live callers during their show?

In August, BlogTalkRadio was born.

BlogTalkRadio

Founder: Alan Levy

Location: Woodcliff Lake

Employees: About five

Motto: "It's easier to listen than read; it's easier to talk than type."

On a recent morning, Levy, who had never blogged before starting the one for his father, sat down in his Woodcliff Lake home office to explain how the business works and how it's going so far.

In essence, BlogTalkRadio is a way to host live talk shows with telephone callers. The shows can be heard by anyone with an Internet connection, making BlogTalkRadio an attractive venue for aspiring talk radio hosts.

"There's no limit to who can communicate," Levy likes to say.

The shows can be archived and listened to later. And unlike podcasts, which require some digital recording gear, an individual uses a phone to host a show over BlogTalkRadio.

Levy, a former accountant and successful telecommunications executive, realized that bloggers did not have the ability to communicate directly with their audience. (Levy co-founded Paramus-based Destia Communications, which went public in 1999, had $350 million in revenues and was later sold to Viatel in a deal valued in excess of $1 billion.)

"There was no live element to a blog," said Levy, who believed that "bloggers should have an opportunity to interact with their audience in a live, real-time manner."

Together with his partner, Bob Charish, Levy and a group of engineers and designers worked to build the Web site and piece together the technology needed to make the system work. And his expertise in the telecommunications industry helped.

"We understand what it takes to build networks," said Levy. "There's no doubt our telecommunications background was vital to understanding the phone calls [aspect of the service]."

The Web site went live in August and in four months -- with no advertising -- they had 2,000 hosts signed up.

Levy estimates those hosts hold about 50 live shows a day (including his own), and the site has attracted a wide variety of hosts, including everyone from experts on Bigfoot sightings to several live shows that were hosted by the pubic affairs office of the Los Angeles Fire Department.

The public relations firm Fleishman-Hilliard plans to use BlogTalkRadio to host a show for its client, tax giant H&R Block.

Comics use it to try out new material and authors to promote books. Even some senior citizens have signed up to host shows on their areas of expertise. Bloggers can add a button on their blog site that links to BlogTalkRadio. And the service is free to hosts and listeners -- the only requirement is an Internet connection.

Levy sells ads on the main Web site and hopes to sell audio ads that will be played during a live show, with revenue shared between BlogTalkRadio and the host. He is already receiving some revenues from private companies that are using the technology to host live call-in shows internally.

Levy isn't a 1990s-style Web executive. He's 47 and married with three children (including a daughter Rachel who used the technology for an innovative school project). On his side, he has the capital to invest in a new venture and the enthusiasm for a project whose idea came about initially because of a basic need to communicate.

Levy and his co-workers have plans to update and enhance the fledgling service, but it's anyone's guess whether this venture will ultimately succeed in turning a profit.

One thing is certain, BlogTalkRadio has grown rapidly in the first few months of its existence. Seven months ago, there were zero hits on Google when you typed in BlogTalkRadio. Today there are more than 187,000.

This week, Levy traveled to London at the request of the British Council and the World Economic Forum to address a group of young world leaders on how BlogTalkRadio can be used in a so-called social media environment.

As Levy writes in his own blog, "It's heady stuff."

He's still coping with the loss of his father, but never would have explored the world of blogging without his father's unfortunate illness.

"This whole thing came about because of him."

E-mail: mckay@northjersey.com


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