Since Guglielmo Marconi invented radios in 1895, antennas have been used to grab sound out of the air. Although this technology has served us well for more than a century, it has never been able to overcome geographical limitations. Except for a few super stations, such as Cincinnati's WLW (700 AM), commercial radio transmissions are heard only within a few dozen miles from the site of origin. These regional broadcasts limit the programming available in any area to the tastes and marketing strategies of that area's station owners.
But just as the Internet has brought more stores, more news and more porn into homes, so too has it brought more radio stations. Comprised of two groups, Internet-only radio stations and traditional radio stations also broadcasting over the Internet, Web radio conquers all geographical limits and allows listeners to select from the offerings of thousands of stations.
Internet radio content flows through the Web in the same manner as text and pictures. Digitized radio signals are compressed by removing the bits and bytes associated with inaudible sounds. These extraneous sounds include frequencies outside the range audible to humans and sounds drowned out by other, louder sounds, such as a whimpering note from a flute drowned out by a booming bass drum.
After compression, the remaining, smaller signal then zips through the Internet to the computer of the waiting listener, where it is reassembled into music or talk and piped through the PC's sound system. This constant flow of sound is known as streaming audio. The quality of the sound transmitted in this manner depends greatly on the quality of the signal sent from the Web radio station, the bandwidth through which the signal flows and, to a lesser extent, the quality of the sound card and speakers in the receiving computer.
Even at its best, the sound quality of Internet radio is not on par with a high-fidelity stereo system, but can easily stand toe-to-toe with lesser stereos and with radios. The two most significant determinants of sound fidelity, the quality of the originating signal and the bandwidth through which it flows, are closely related. Data jets smoothly and rapidly through the high-bandwidth cables that make up the Internet, but slows dramatically when it reaches the antiquated telephone wires connecting most surfers to the Internet.
So their signal can flow through these narrow pipelines, Web radio broadcasters must compress the signal to a degree that adversely affects its quality. These high-compression levels result in the removal of not only inaudible sounds but also a small portion of the audible signal.
To accommodate all listeners, many Internet radio stations broadcast two signals, a highly compressed signal for dial-up modems and a less compressed, high-quality signal for listeners with cable or DSL connections. The combination of this less compressed signal and a steady, fast connection, which allows the music to flow to the computer smoothly and uninterrupted, results in high-quality sound for users who hook into the Internet through these broadband services.
Once connected to the Web, locating stations is nearly as easy as spinning the tuning dial on a radio. Finding the Internet broadcast of a specific station can be done by entering into a search engine the city in which the station is located and the station's call letters or catchphrase. Keying the city and the words "radio station" will also turn up a station's Web site, although this method will produce a longer, more expansive list of results that the user must then scan for the desired site.
Those looking for numerous stations that play a particular format -- Rock, Country, Classical, talk, etc. -- can enter that format and "radio station," "Internet radio," or similar words into a search engine. The engine will return applicable station sites and radio-station directories, Web sites that contain links to many station Web sites.
Some radio station Web sites do not offer streaming-audio broadcasts, and an additional step is necessary to filter these out. Many search engines allow users to request that only Web pages with specific types of content be included in the results. In Hotbot, for example, clicking on Advanced Search from www.hotbot.com, and selecting "Win Media" and "Real Audio/Video" in the "Pages Must Include" section, limits the results to those including these two popular streaming-audio formats.
But regardless of how narrowly searchers define the parameters, search engines often return irrelevant Web sites through which the user must then scroll to find relevant pages. Radio-station directories, on the other hand, contain nothing but Web radio sites. Individuals and groups maintain these lists with varying levels of diligence. Some do not quickly cull nonfunctioning links from their lists, but having a guide to thousands of Internet radio stations is well worth this slight inconvenience.
Amidst the crowd of Internet radio directories, several stand out as especially comprehensive, well-maintained and easy to use. One of these is the incredibly popular Radio-Locator, created and maintained by WMBR-FM, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's campus radio station. Located at www.wmbr.mit.edu/stations/ list.html, the site boasts links to 10,300 radio station Web sites, more than 2,500 of which broadcast streaming audio over the Internet. Recently revamped, the site allows users to sort stations by location, broadcasting frequency and programming format.
Based in England and located on the Web at www.live-radio.net, Live Radio on the Internet boasts "the largest directory available of working links to radio stations broadcasting live on the Internet." The Web site is also meticulously maintained, with very few bad links. Stations are organized geographically, first by continent, then by country; and there is a special category for Internet-only radio stations. This site's finest feature, one that all directories should offer, is its "Live Feed" capability. Buttons next to each listed station allow users to quickly access station broadcasts directly from the list, without visiting the station Web sites and hunting for the right link to access streaming audio.
No matter how you find them, nearly all of the radio stations broadcasting on the Internet use either Real Player or Windows Media Player streaming technology. Some even broadcast in both formats. Consequently, to listen to the radio on the Web, you must download and install software that will decode and play these formats on your computer.
The most popular of these, Real Player, is available at www.real.com, a Web site so littered with advertisements hawking the "premium" version of Real Player that the uninitiated may assume that no free version is offered. The free version is, however, available and is not only adequate for radio listening, but will also try to do much more than that. Real Player is infamous for stealthily taking over computers, automatically setting itself as the default player for nearly every music and movie format.
Downloading only the bare-bones "Basic Minimum" version and not accepting any offers to have Real Player take over the playing of formats other than its own will counteract these tactics. Entering a fake e-mail address and eschewing any offers to receive "important news" and product offers will prevent a deluge of promotional e-mail from cluttering your inbox.
Windows Media Player, available for download at www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia, is both unobtrusive and more stable than Real Player, which often encounters problems when launching from a station's Web site and, once launched, frequently drops the connection. More importantly, although Real Player has improved significantly in recent months, Media Player's sound quality is, to my ears, the better of the two.
Due to its ubiquity, however, Real Player is essential for those wishing to explore Internet radio.
Another form of Web radio broadcasts uses MP3 music. This technology is not only ideal for shrinking, storing and trading music, as the popularity of song-swapping site Napster has shown, but is also conducive to streaming audio.
MP3 broadcasts are usually generated by individual hobbyists, each acting as the program manager of his own station, resulting in a wide variety of content. In addition to familiar genres such as Pop, Rock and Country, recent offerings on www.shoutcast.com, the most popular directory for MP3 streaming broadcasts, included club music from Ireland, Tango, oldies from every decade back to the 1920s, Japanese Pop, French Jazz, a Led Zeppelin-only format and even a station dedicated to music and information concerning the Cleveland Browns. Because it offers such variety to an audience once held captive by traditional stations, the popularity of Web radio is growing rapidly. Next month's column will examine the response of one Cincinnati radio station to the challenges Internet radio presents traditional broadcasters.
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