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Branson tunes in

Radio Free Virgin launches online stations

Virgin Group founder and chairman Richard Branson has made a multimillion-dollar investment to relaunch Radio Free Virgin next month. The Internet radio venture is the opening salvo of the mogul’s plan to invest almost $250 million in online activities.

Cornerstone of the plan is the development of a downloadable digital radio tuner that will give Netizens CD quality sound, multichannel programming, interactive features on musicians and the ability to purchase music online at the same time a song is being played.

Zack Zalon, 32, has been tapped general manager of the Radio Free Virgin effort, which is based in L.A. He was formerly the manager of Doug Weston’s Troubadour, founder of Web design house Factory Network, and most recently veepee online and executive producer of FarmClub.com.

“Radio Free Virgin goes far beyond challenging Internet radio as well as being a true alternative to terrestrial radio,” Zalon said. “Consumer satisfaction with FM and AM radio has been dropping every year. People are tired of hearing the same songs over and over.”

Special features

Zalon said there are two features that set Radio Free Virgin apart from the multitude of digital music sites out there. First, the company has developed a proprietary digital music player that is “self-healing” — it will automatically download software updates and patches to the device when a user is online.

Secondly, Zalon said Radio Free Virgin has employed a diverse group of music experts to program the 50 channels that will be available to Netizens.

“We believe with an expert’s opinion we will be able to attract a lot of visitors,” he said. “There may not be a lot of people in Los Angeles who are interested in something like the Delta blues, but if you look at it globally it’s a huge number.”

Inklings of what Branson plans to do with Radio Free Virgin started leaking out last month with word that Virgin Entertainment Group spun off Virgin Audio Holdings as a separate company.

Cater to whole world

Glen Ward, CEO of Virgin Entertainment Group in North America and a board member of Virgin Audio, said he wants to cater to music lovers worldwide with the new player.

“Virgin has always championed cutting edge innovations to enhance the music experience,” Ward said. “Radio Free Virgin fulfills that promise, and I am delighted to have recruited Zack since he is uniquely qualified to spearhead that effort.”

A beta version of the Radio Free Virgin player is now available online and has been downloaded about 500,000 times, Zalon said. The entire Virgin Group family, including V2 Records and the Virgin Megastores, will be used in marketing Radio Free Virgin.

“We are interested in creating a product that is without question the best one available,” he said. “We don’t want to be an also-ran.”

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