How many radio stations can you pick up at home? Ten? Twenty? If you've got an Internet connection, the answer is more like 3,000. Simon Trask explains.
Fascinating how terminology can change meaning over time. Take the term 'wireless', for instance. Once upon a time, a 'wireless' was a valve-based device that picked up radio waves and translated them into sound. My grandpa built his own wireless sets, my mum listened to Uncle Mac's Children's Hour as a young girl, and still recalls with a thrill hearing the presenter addressing her by name live on air and revealing where her birthday presents were hidden in the house -- interactivity, 1920s-style.
Of course, 'wireless' was subsequently replaced by 'radio' in common lingo and became an outmoded term. But now it's back with a whole new meaning and significance, with the 'wireless Internet' and net-connected 'wireless devices' being widely touted as the Next Big Thing. Meanwhile, on-line radio has arrived, with traditional radio stations taking to the fibre and copper wires of the Internet in fast-growing numbers. Internet-only 'radio stations' have sprung up as well. Although there's not a radio wave in sight, the term 'radio' has carried over into the on-line medium in that typical way we have of conceptualising a new medium (and new media) in terms of the familiar. Then again, new terminology is always springing up too. For instance, 'webcasting' has entered the vernacular as a catch-all term for streaming audio and/or video over the (world wide) web.
The Radio Explosion
It's not just a few radio stations that have taken to the Internet. BRS Media, a US company that provides webcasting and web site hosting services to the radio industry, has been tracking the development of on-line radio since April 1996. At the end of last year, according to the company's figures, there were 8866 radio stations with a presence on the web, of which 2934 were actually webcasting -- and of the latter, a modest 8.2 percent were Internet-only stations. Radio stations in the US and Canada make up 80 percent of those with a web presence, but when it comes to webcasting radio stations the split between North America and the rest of the world is around 50/50. According to BRS Media president George T. Bundy: "The fastest-growing segment of webcasting continues to be radio and radio stations streaming audio on the net. And the healthiest growth continues to come from both international and Internet-only broadcasters."
When BRS Media began tracking radio webcasters, there were just 56; in September 1997 there were 1652, and by the following September there were 2615. A fuller breakdown of the latest figures is available at www.brsradio.com/iradio/analysis.html. The site is also a good starting point for checking out Internet radio, via the many stations hosted on-line by BRS Media.
The stats for on-line radio listening also make for interesting reading. Media Metrix (www.mediametrix.com) and Arbitron New Media (www.arbitron.com) have both started measuring on-line audience figures for streaming media. Arbitron's first audio webcast ratings (for October 1999) covered four companies representing 240 radio stations with on-line feeds: ABC Radio Networks, Broadcastmusic.com, Lamusic, and Magnitude Network. Among the many interesting figures is the statistic that 900,000 listeners tuned in across all four companies' webcasts during the month, listening for a total of 1.3 million hours. Perhaps predictably, an adult alternative station has the largest number of unique listeners (83,900), while a smooth jazz station kept people listening the longest (averaging eight hours 26 minutes over the month). Meanwhile, according to Media Metrix, 20 million home and nine million work web users used streaming media (audio and video) during last year.
A couple of good on-line radio listings resources are RadioSpy (www.radiospy.com) and the Internet Radio List: The On-line Radio Station and Web Broadcast Resource (www.internetradiolist.com). Also available is a weekly mailing list, the Internet Radio List Newsletter -- to sign up, go to www.e-newsletters.internet.com, look for Internet Radio List under Internet Lists Channel and tick the check box. We're not just talking mainstream rock and pop stations either: recent editions have included 3WK Undergroundradio (playing undiscovered bands) from the US, ChileRadio.cl (various styles) from Chile, of course, Digitalone (including hip-hop and electronica) from Australia, and Estrogen Overdose Female Singer/Songwriter Radio (self-explanatory!) in the US.
So How Does Net Radio Work?
To listen to streaming audio you need one or more programs (freely available or inexpensive) to cover the several streaming formats used, namely RealNetworks' RealMedia (www.real.com), Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (www.microsoft.com/windowsmedia), Apple's QuickTime (www.apple.com/quicktime) and MP3 (there is a growing number of MP3 programs that support streaming as well as downloadable MP3 -- www.mp3.com/software is a good starting point). Some on-line radio sites have their own dedicated players built around one or more of these formats. RealNetworks claim upwards of 95 million unique users of their RealPlayer software, which comes both in free and fee-payable (Plus) versions, and their latest software release, RealPlayer 7, attracted more than 10 million
Many people will be put off Internet radio by doubts about the quality of on-line audio streams, and the reliability and cost of connections. My experience has ranged from full machine crash on connection through to uninterrupted listening for more than an hour. Even with buffering, network and server-side congestion can conspire to break up the stream, but it's not an inevitability, and things will only improve. As for quality, a 28.8kbps or greater dial-up connection will give you somewhere between medium wave and FM. The move to broad-band net connections will significantly improve signal quality, and unmetered Internet access (on dial-up and broad-band) will remove a significant barrier to extended on-line listening, namely the cost of the phone call. The US has long had unmetered net access, of course, but now it's arriving in the UK. Telewest has already introduced Surfunlimited -- unmetered dial-up Internet access via its own ISP for a tenner a month. BT will soon be introducing its own version, BT Surftime, to the whole country, though the planned £35/month cost will hopefully come down. BT will also be starting to roll out ADSL broad-band access before the Summer, offering a 512kbps download rate for around £35/month (plus any ISP fee). Looks like UK surfers are in for some big changes this year!
It is possible to simply take an on-air radio station feed and transmit it live over the Internet, though there are all sorts of technical and cost issues governing how many people can listen to that feed on-line at the same time. It's also possible to archive radio shows as files on an Internet server so that people can listen to them at any time -- on-demand radio. Fortunately, the very global reach of the Internet throws up a wonderful diversity of stations and music, much greater than you'll find on your FM dial. The very number of radio stations on-line has given rise to a new category of software: the Internet radio tuner program. Check out the MacTuner Global Media Receiver (www.mactuner.com) and the HiWire net radio tuner (www.hiwire.com), which promises 'free Internet radio for all earthlings'!
Internet radio gives you the opportunity to listen to radio stations in another part of your country whose airwave signals don't reach you -- a favourite of mine is Birmingham-based Kool FM (www.kool-fm.co.uk). But Internet radio isn't simply about webcasting traditional radio stations on-line -- this hardly makes good use of the special features of the Internet. Spinner.com (www.spinner.com) pioneered the 'genre channel' approach, whereby on-line listeners can 'tune into' channels that play only music from a particular musical genre -- though in fairness DMX and Music Choice were providing 24/7 satellite-based delivery of genre music channels long before Spinner came along.
Another web site built around this sort of approach is netRadio.com, which offers 120 specialised music and news channels based around 16 genres, including blues, Christian/gospel, kids, news and info, new age, and rap/hip hop. Continuing the 'expanded definition of radio' theme, there's Digitalnoise (www.digitalnoise.com), which webcasts DJ mixes live out of clubs in New York, with the emphasis on drum & bass, techno and trance sets; and if you can't be on-line during NY night-time then you can listen to archived mixes at any time.
Other developments include labels and acts setting up their own 'radio stations' on-line -- witness Radio Windham Hill (www.windham.com), which uses Java applets to play selected tracks from the label's New Age music catalogue while you're at the site, and can even follow you as you browse (don't say I didn't warn you). Meanwhile, US Christian rock/pop band Jars of Clay have started up their own on-line radio station on Radio SonicNet (www.sonicnet.com) with the intention of playing the music that inspires them. And in a deal with punk rock label Epitaph, Internet music site WiredPlanet (www.wiredplanet.com) recently launched Radio Epitaph, an on-line radio station dedicated to the label's catalogue. WiredPlanet is an interesting example of how on-line radio can move away from the traditional linear format of radio. Listeners, who must download the special WiredPlanet player in order to listen to any of the channels on the site, can control how often each track is played, get information about the artists, and even create their own personal 'radio stations' by compiling playlists of favourite tracks. In an example of what's going to be a growing synergy between streaming audio and downloadable music sales, listeners can also purchase any streaming track from Emusic.com (www.emusic.com) as a downloadable MP3 file.
The personal radio station, providing the ability to stream your own choice of tracks on-line, is a growing trend. Check out Scour.net's myCaster radio software (www.mycaster.com) as an example, along with Shoutcast (www.shoutcast.com) which pioneered personal webcasting. Another interesting related development is Myplay.com (www.myplay.com), which allows users to upload music tracks into their own personal 250Mb web 'locker', for additional or backup storage, subsequent downloading to any location, and sharing with other Myplay members via streaming. Note the heavy-duty 'house rules' (www.myplay.com/corp/houserules.html) before you get involved, though, particularly if you're thinking about uploading your own music (artist beware). The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) Broadcast Rules are also worth investigation (www.myplay.com/mp/help/help.jsp?share_rules). Myplay is a US company operating to US regulations.
Conversely, some companies are working to bring Internet radio off the Internet and back into the world of radio waves. Check out Vocquette (www.voquette.com), who aim to bring streaming Internet audio to portable players (Diamond Multimedia's Rio 300 and 500) in a play-anywhere form, and have already brought it to Minidisc players through a deal with Sharp. The imBand Tuner from SonicBox (www.sonicbox.com) is another intriguing development, a combination of PC software, plug-in short-range FM transmitter, and remote control unit. The software (shown above) works over a broad-band connection only, and connects to a special web site providing access to hundreds of web-based radio stations. The remote tuner lets you select stations, and the streaming signal is then sent by the PC transmitter via an unused FM frequency to any standard FM radio in the house. Sonicbox are also licensing their technology to PC peripheral and consumer electronics manufacturers, so it could become an integral part of future hi-fi setups.
I feel like Graham Norton: we're at the end of the show and there's just not enough time to talk about... the delightfully-named Kerbango (www.kerbango.com), who have developed a traditional radio that also contains an embedded RealNetworks G2 streaming audio player, a virtual LCD-based net radio tuner, plus integral dial-up and broad-band net connections. Or the intriguing Y2MP3 Community Jukebox Server (www.y2mp3.com), which can broadcast MP3 music tracks over near-range FM radios and office audio systems, and also hook up to any other net-connected Y2MP3 servers and exchange tracks on-line. Or Radio Free Cash (www.radiofreecash.com/home.asp?ref=&code=), which plans to pay people to listen to on-line radio and embedded audio adverts. Now there's a novel way to earn money...