How it works: internet radio
Broadcasts now reach far beyond the airwaves
December 27, 2007
By Ian Harvey
If the pundits were right, radio would be long dead by now.
Television was supposed to be the harbinger of death when it arrived in living rooms back in the late 1940s. But radio survives, and some would argue prospers today despite the obvious impact of television and, more recently, the internet.
And it's on the internet where radio is reinventing itself again, reaching out beyond the limitation of signal strength and geography. It's finding global audiences eager for eclectic and niche programming that is often an antithesis to canned commercial radio with its rigid format and cloned menu.
Some spicy Miami salsa? Roots reggae? Estonian politics? A homesick Newfoundlander working away in the oilsands seeking a sound byte of home from CBC St. John's? It's only a click away.
In fact, there are more than 10,000 internet radio stations streaming today. Most are free and some are completely commercial-free ‹ though you'll be reminded a couple of times an hour to make a donation, as in the case of Radio Paradise, an eclectic mix of music run from northern California by the husband and wife team of Bill and Rebecca Goldsmith.
"A lot of people in internet radio are refugees from commercial radio who see this as an alternative and feel passionate about the music," said Bill Goldsmith. "The commercial radio industry has operated as an arm of the record industry for the last 10 years, inflicting a lowest common denominator style of programming which is fine for 80 to 90 per cent of the
audience but poisonous to the other 10 per cent. That's not what I got into radio for and why I left."
And that's the lure of internet radio: programming and personalities that in most cases are unique and the antithesis of commercial, formatted radio. You just never know what you're going to hear.
In many ways, internet radio is a return to the roots of the medium, said David Marsden, a 40-year veteran of the airwaves who was a legend in the 1970s at CHUM-FM in Toronto before founding alternative station CFNY-FM in Brampton, Ontario.
"The DJ had the freedom to play music, introduce artists," said Marsden, who was involved in the startup of Iceberg Radio, the premier Canadian web broadcaster with more than 100 channels, in the late 1990s and still programs on it while also hosting his own eclectic show on 94.6 FM The Rock in Oshawa, Ont.
"I still do that and the reaction you get from people is amazing, especially young people who have never really heard radio."
Some broadcasters, like the CBC, simultaneously stream their live-to-air programming over the web. Other stations are entirely internet-based. For listeners, it's a way to circumvent the geographical limitations of a radio signal.
Internet radio broadcasting, also called webcasting, was one of the early successes of the net, streaming music in MP3 format over broadband connections to PCs. But as cool as it sounds to listen to unique music or talk shows from around the world, the shine wears off pretty quickly when you're stuck in front of a computer monitor or at least within earshot of the speakers.
And that's where media adaptors come in. Simply described, they're small devices that connect your home stereo system to the internet and your PC and cost between $150 and $300. There are also versions that are self-contained radios in the traditional sense, with built-in speakers and a wireless connection to your home's wireless WiFi network or wired router, tapping
directly into your broadband connection (no computer needed).
Popular models include the Roku Lab Soundbridge (rokulabs.com), the HomePad macsense.com) and other products from computer peripheral makers like Netgear, SMC, Logitech and DLink. Self-contained internet radios vary in size and design by maker, but share some common attributes such as an LCD screen with one or two lines of text so you can set them up using a remote control.
Once installed, it's a matter of taste and preference. The players connect via Windows Media Connect, iTunes, Real Player or Rhapsody. For internet radio, you have the option of using a preinstalled station list or making up a personal list of stations that intrigue you. Usually this is
done on your PC through your web browser. Each manufacturer has different setups, but essentially it involves entering a specific IP address just like you would enter a website URL on your browser in order to access the internet radio hardware over your network. Instead of www.cbc.ca, however, you would enter a series of numbers such as "192.168.0.100" and that would bring you to the device's configuration page on your network.
From there, you enter the web addresses of internet radio stations in a similar way to how you program the presets on a car audio system. There are a number of websites that list the addresses for internet radio stations.
A handy feature of internet radios is that most allow you to access collections of digital music stored on your home computer over your home network.
Slow growth, uncertain future
Still, while the hardware is getting better all the time, not everyone has rushed to internet radio and audiences remain relatively small compared to those of traditional broadcast stations.
As a result, the internet radio industry generally generates little in the way of profit as yet. Although internet radio has been around for more than a decade, the medium is still nascent and fragile and many fear the current battle over royalty fees in Canada and the United States will kill off the concept before it establishes strong roots.
On the one side is the record industry, which fears being caught again in a downloading squeeze that has savaged its profit margins; on the other are the pioneers of the technology who say they want a chance to grow their industry on a level playing field with traditional analogue and the more recent addition of satellite radio.
"They [the record industry] still think of streaming as downloading, which of course it isn't," said Marsden. "But it is the future and hopefully the record industry isn't going to kill it."
(Harold Sellers via ODXA)