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Pirate Radio On The Internet

Exploration By Simon Price
Published August 1996

Despite promises that the Internet will soon alter the way we make, promote, and sell our music forever, it would seem the revolution is yet to happen. Or is it? Simon Price explains how the technology required to broadcast your demo anywhere in the world is almost within reach...

We've all heard about the Internet being the future of multimedia, and the new environment for the music and entertainment industries. So far, though, the Internet's version of multimedia — the World Wide Web — has been predominantly silent. True, we've been able to download audio files and play them back, but after you've tried it once or twice, you realise that the time it takes can be impractical — phone costs being a significant consideration for most people. As for the digital revolution transforming the music industry, it is true that record companies have been among the first to embrace the Net advertising boom, but the actual business of listening to and purchasing music is fairly unchanged. However, technology that allows you listen to audio live from the Internet is promising to be the next big step in the development of global communications.

Sound And Vision

Even if you are using a slow (14.4 kilobits/sec) modem connection, you can now receive live audio 'streams' from all over the world. This puts 'real‑time' sound capability into the hands of practically all Internet users, providing some powerful opportunities. Imagine setting up the computer in your home studio as a live stream server. You would have the ability to transmit your music performances across the world, like the Future Sound of London have been doing (see interview in SOS August 1994). In other words, you can have pirate radio with a limitless transmission range, and without the police beating down your door. If you have a web site, instant‑access sound adds a new dimension. Already, incorporating speech into web presentations has become a popular choice. If you have a web site promoting a band, you can add recordings of your music, with the potential for people all over the world to hear it.

Originally, the only way to add audio to a web page was to offer downloadable files. The result was that you had to wait as the file downloaded (taking much longer than the length of the clip), and then play it back from your hard disk. This is a departure from most people's expectations of multimedia. With a CD‑ROM, for example, you click the mouse button, and almost immediately hear the sound sample or see the video. Similar results can now be achieved by using live stream technology alongside the web.


Live streaming gets really exciting when it is used in conjunction with so‑called 'multicasting' technology. This is the name given to the process of sending the same stream to multiple destinations over the Internet, thus introducing the Internet into the broadcasting arena. This development hasn't gone unnoticed by the traditional players (ie. TV, radio, cable and satellite companies), and over the last two years dozens of 'Internet radio' projects have sprung up. In America, NBC are broadcasting on‑line via Xing Technology Corporation's StreamWorks software, while NPR and ABC are the most high‑profile exponents of Progressive Networks' RealAudio (see the 'Format Wars' box elsewhere in this article for more on both these pieces of software). The biggest project is WRN (World Radio Network) which has two 24‑hour live Internet feeds, relaying radio programming from satellite, cable and radio sources in 25 countries. WRN claim that by sourcing news from different continents and cultures, the listener is presented with varied, propaganda‑free reporting.

Perhaps of more interest is the number of smaller, independent Internet radio stations. Individuals and small companies have always been able to compete on more even ground with corporations when it comes to WWW publishing. In terms of Internet radio, small projects such as i‑Rock (music radio using VocalTec's I‑Wave software — again, see the 'Format Wars' box) can rival the big cable companies. The relative lack of expense involved in Internet broadcasting means that for sheer variety of programming, large‑scale media cannot compete. Theoretically, anyone with enough spare time and determination could set up and transmit from home. The analogy with pirate radio is a good one: people broadcasting what they want to hear. The difference is that you can transmit to anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the software, bandwidth and technical knowledge required for multicasting aren't going to be common among individual users for a while yet. However, you only have to look at the proliferation of MIDI over the last 10 years to see that musicians can be willing to learn, use and pay for new technology.

The independent broadcasters are mostly run as a hobby, so there are no advertisers to pander to. Recently, HardRadio — a StreamWorks‑based netcaster — suggested a small monthly fee to stay commercial‑free. The feedback from the relevant mailing list circles was one of overwhelming disapproval — it appeared that subtle sponsorship was the preferred choice if funds were needed. One participant in the debate said "Put something unique and interesting on your feed and I may listen to it, but I wouldn't pay for it if Jesus Christ himself were delivering a speech."

The Future

So, are radio and TV companies on the brink of becoming obsolete? Definitely not for a long time yet. Despite the media coverage, the Internet is still in its infancy; the infrastructure is too weak to support the transfer of large amounts of continuous data. The large, established media companies will be continuing with cable and the airwaves for now, because of their superior quality. The big changes will happen when the Internet's bandwidth problems are overcome (see the 'Limitations' box). The technology is waiting — it's the physical connections that need to be developed. The answer probably lies in collaborating with cable companies, who are already offering the sort of services promised by Internet live streaming.

Despite the boundaries set by bandwidth, the Internet has some advantages over other media. The nature of the network is such that it is indiscriminate about your physical location. A RealAudio stream can be accessed globally. Also, because the receiving device (your computer) is programmable, broadcasters using the Web can include much more than just audio, offering the potential for truly interactive radio (and later, TV). Interactivity is an area just waiting for innovation, and it is likely that the line between broadcaster and audience will become highly blurred in some applications.

As far as the music industry is concerned, the future is intimately tied in with the Internet. The record business is about selling data (music), and the Internet is going to be the world's primary infrastructure for moving the commodity of binary bits around. It's possible that we will change all our ideas about buying music. When live streaming becomes as cheap and common as standard WWW publishing, we may start 'renting' music; it may become more economical to listen to music live from the Internet for a few pence at a time than to buy a 'stored' version, ie. on CD or your hard drive. It is the consumer, though, that will determine what the future holds for music purchasing. The idea of buying physical copies of a recording appeals to most people. Nevertheless, the near future will probably bring a wider choice of ways to buy music — you can already download CD‑quality music from companies like the UK‑based Cerberus Digital Jukebox.

Ultimately, the implication of live streaming — as with many applications of the Internet — is an increase in the capability of individuals to 'get involved'. Over the past decade, the music industry has seen technology make it possible to affordably create professional‑quality music at home. Live streaming technology is the beginning of the next step, which is the ability of individuals to broadcast that material globally.

Format Wars

The three software products freeing people from having to download Internet‑based audio before playback are RealAudio (from Progressive Networks), I‑Wave (VocalTec) and StreamWorks (Xing). To use any of these products, you download and install 'player' software, which translates incoming data streams into digital audio.

As is so often the way in the music and computer industries, technological advancement has resulted in a format war. RealAudio was the first dedicated audio streamer, aiming at the modem user market. VocalTec's I‑Wave, or Internet Wave, evolved from the same company's widely acclaimed Internet Phone software. I‑Phone offers real‑time speech transfer, and has stirred up phone companies worldwide with its promise of international calls at local rates. The battle between the two systems still hangs in the balance. Progressive Networks have the head start, with a huge user base, but decided to price their server software at several thousand dollars. I‑Wave is generally considered a superior product, and server software is free. This means that anyone with a web site can transmit live audio using I‑Wave. The third option, Xing's StreamWorks, is a much more versatile product, designed with faster connections in mind, and with a focus on video broadcasting.

Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Bandwidth: Limitations

At the moment, audio on the Internet is a compromise. Current limitations of the technology, and the explosion in volume of traffic, mean that the bandwidth is being spread thinly. Assuming that the transfer rate is being limited to the speed of your modem (and unless you do your surfing in the early morning, while Stateside net users are asleep, even that can be considered generous) it will probably be 14,400 bits per second. Uncompressed, CD‑quality stereo audio, on the other hand, weighs in at over 1.4 million bits per second. So the choices are either: download before listening and maintain quality, or play back live and use heavy data compression. Alternatively, you could lease a couple of ISDN lines, but unless you happen to live in Germany — where line rental is maddeningly cheap — the cost is prohibitive.

So far, the choice has been quality over speed, but software like RealAudio has managed to produce workable 'speed first, quality last' compromises. Ultimately, though, compression equals distortion, and for modem users, the audio received is of limited fidelity. Determining audio quality is something of a black art at the moment. Nothing, it seems, can convince the companies concerned to release details of their compression systems in anything other than vague terms. Progressive Networks say that 14.4kbaud modem users can expect "AM Radio quality", while VocalTec is claiming "Mono FM quality". More objective measurements prove elusive. In fact, one well‑meaning email response assured me that StreamWorks provides "so‑so" quality! To be fair, the situation is a little more complicated than it seems. Firstly, any distortion is going to be determined as much by network traffic, lost data and the user's soundcard as by the original compression. Secondly, flat figures like frequency response and dynamic range might be misleading, as it is likely that the compression algorithms will favour some areas of the audio spectrum over others. Subjectively, the bottom line is that if you're a modem user, you can get good results for speech, but poor quality for music.

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