WFMU Home  |  Reach Us  |  Our Program Schedule  |  Hear Our Signal  |  LCD  |  Support Us
I Stream, You Stream
by Michael Pool

As I write this, I am a worldwide radio station. A few minutes ago I was on mike introducing a set of jazz. While Eric Dolphy's saxophone sings from these speakers in my bedroom, the same sound is globally available through a vast telecommunications network and it's not costing me a cent. No surprise: it's all occuring over the Internet.

Consider this: almost anyone with a 56K connection or better, and the latest version of a major free media player installed, could be hearing my jazz set right now, and the sound quality I'm offering rivals the fidelity offered by most real life radio stations currently online. Not only that, but it's all happening on an antiquated 200Mhz PC dispatching data packets through a dial-up modem! Yet, giddy as I may be over my newfound transmitting ability, I still need my phone line for more mundane activities than international broadcasting.

In less than six years, netcasting has grown from the simulcast of one college radio station to a freewheeling frontier with a skyrocketing amount of audio content. While the promise of broadband connectivity in most homes will enable high quality video and interactive virtual realities to stream across the net, as far as cyber-audio is concerned the future is already here. Even with a 56K connection it's now possible to receive or transmit very listenable audio through the Internet.

Once I went for the home hookup a couple years back, I immediately downloaded what I needed to turn my computer into a net radio. In a short time I went from having a handful of favorite stations to dozens of listening choices. Today, I have over 270 audio streams bookmarked that I can access with a click of a mouse, with just a couple more clicks I become one of them: yet again the technology boom is outpacing rules and regulations. Although the FCC recently agreed to allow limited low power broadcasting, it's now much cheaper and easier to send an audio stream around the world than it is to send out a radio signal covering the surrounding few blocks.

Few Words, Few Listeners
For many, the big advantage of listening to amateur streamers and most Internet-only radio stations is hearing music without interruption. Yet the net effect (pun intended) is that you're tuning in to background music with none of the foreground feeling of most broadcast radio. After all, who misses the ads? Conversely, you don't hear anything about the music being played. In other words, most MP3 streams sound automated. Probably because they are.

Almost all Internet-only streams aren't live the way we expect radio to be. The default method is to typically load up your software with MP3 files and just let them play. However, you don't actually need any MP3 files to stream. Shoutcast, the most popular streaming software for "bedroom broadcasting," offers a free plug-in which lets you convert any audio source (like your home stereo system) into an MP3 stream.

I've yet to find an amateur MP3 stream with a staff of live DJs, but I did find one offering live radio sound around the clock – "The Record Geek's International Radio Network." It's all the work of Tacoma, Washington native, Kurt Flansburg. The Geek is a self-confessed "30-year-old punk kid" who offers a wacky stream of old garage rock, '60s pop & soul and lots of novelty recordings. Instead of using MP3 files, all the music on his show is pressed on old-fashioned vinyl lps and 45s. He also plays lots of commercials, not the kind that make him any money, but old obscure and ridiculous ads which fit right in with his '60s musical fetish. Like a '60s DJ, the Geek talks a lot, carrying on about the music and having fun. "I think that the Record Geek might be kind of shocking when you first tune in because it does sound different than most of the other webcasting out there," says Flansburg. "I heard some of those other ones and man are they ever boring! My only goal is to try and not be boring!"

The Record Geek clearly succeeds, as he offers energetic and entertaining radio fun and a very rare exhibition of immediate humanity in the MP3 streamscape. Flansburg achieves the illusion of live radio by prerecording over 20 one hour compact disks of programming which cycle around on a CD changer plugged into his soundcard. Although if you listen regularly you'll eventually hear some repetition, but that hasn't stopped me from enjoying his refreshing analog era exploits more than once.

It isn't easy, though, to find the Record Geek show considering it's just one of over 10,000 streams listed on Live365, the most popular MP3 stream hosting site. While conventional radio stations never know exactly how many folks are tuning in, at Live365 and other hosting sites, they list the number of listeners-per-stream and the total for the site. Typically, streamers outnumber listeners by over 5:1. Usually, no one is listening at all. In other words, as I'm casually streaming to a friend across town, I may have a larger audience than the average Live365 stream. Despite the potential of ordinary folks broadcasting around the world without FCC restrictions, it's still a trick to get anyone to pay attention to your audio creativity.

Not surprisingly, the streams that actually attract listeners are the ones offering types of music popular with the MP3 swapping set. Consistently the number one stream at Live365 is an "upbeat '80s" flow of MTV hits and post-punk classics. At Shoutcast a techno-trance stream heads the pack, followed by hip-hop, ambient, metal, punk and an inordinate amount of new dance music. Yet, there are some really unique MP3 streams out there, too: like nonstop World War II propaganda and music, all old Indian pop and film music and a number of streams specializing in telephone pranks.

Yet, while there are many more listening choices on the Internet than there are on your radio dial, the most creative radio format of all is almost impossible to find. Surprisingly, the tradition of freeform radio hasn't captured the imagination of most bedroom broadcasters.

One person, however, who is trying out freeform is Erika Sherman. After years as a program director and general manager of WCBN (a Michigan college station with a long history of freeform programming), Sherman took her anarchical musical library and experience to the Internet. Through compressing songs from her sizable collection of CDs she's gathered together nearly three gigabytes of music on her hard drive; a cross-genre collection of over 5,000 MP3 files. Using her computer like a giant CD jukebox, her stream is a random shuffle through a diverse roster of rock, soul, jazz, folk, hip-hop and reggae cuts. For now, Sherman concedes it's more of a vanity stream, but a few friends do listen in, and so does Sherman herself. "I've found that being able to listen to my own MP3 collection everywhere I go is invaluable," she says.

The Expansion of Compression
The ability to listen to the Internet was kicked off in 1996 with the proliferation of multimedia computers and Progressive Networks' (now Real Networks) creation of "RealAudio," which quickly became the standard for compressing and transmitting audio over the net. While the rapid domination of compact discs made digital sound commonplace, CD audio data was far too cumbersome to stream. Just to download one song could easily take hours. Real found a way to compress the data so drastically that real-time audio streaming could occur on most home computers. Their technology remains the most popular method for radio stations to put their signal out on the net. A year later another form of digital compression began to gain wide favor and to fulfill the promise of quality Internet audio - MP3.

Although this method of shrinking sound data had been around since '92, it took another five years before a college dropout named Justin Frankel came up with the Winamp player, the first commercially available software to support MP3 sound. Compared to Real's technology, MP3 is a much more exacting method of shrinking sound data without sacrificing fidelity. By removing audio nuances most human ears won't miss, MP3 compression reduces the size of digital sound by more than 90% with very little loss of quality. In other words, ten hours or more of MP3 music can fit on one CD.

Of course, MP3 encoding is better known for its role in the ongoing battle between the recording industry and a growing number of "scofflaw" music pirates swapping songs through services like Napster. All sorts of free contemporary and popular music are now ripe for downloading and endless duplication in the form of hi-fi MP3 files easily ripped from compact discs. In fact it was also a piratic inspiration that led to the creation of software that brought MP3 streaming to the masses. "I thought it would be cool to run a pirate radio station like in (the movie) Pump Up the Volume," said Winamp inventor Frankel of how he came up with the idea for the Shoutcast plug-in, a program that transforms the Winamp player into a powerful net transmitter. Winamp was still only $10 last year when Frankel sold it and Shoutcast to America Online, who are experts in profitably giving away software. However, using Shoutcast remained a strictly microcasting operation until free bandwidth became available too.

The downside of media streaming, however, is inefficiency. Unlike a radio or TV tower sending one signal accessible by all, Internet media sources have to send out a separate stream to each listener. Soon they say, multicasting technology will enable many listeners to simultaneously access one stream, but for now the Internet remains a unicast environment. However, as Shoutcast and other MP3 streaming tools have grown in popularity, the restrictive limits of MP3 netcasting have been resolved by sites offering free netcasting bandwidth. In July 1999, Live365 (which I use) began offering free data plumbing that will repeat your stream as many as 365 times to separate computers. They also pay off the ASCAP folks. But it's not a public service; their plan is to make a profit indirectly from the listeners themselves.

Earlier this year the Arbitron ratings people released statistics indicating that "streamies" (the nickname for Internet listeners) are generally better educated, make more money and are more likely to make online purchases. Surf for streams at Live365 and enjoy a banner ad on each page, access a stream and a small window pops up adorned with another ad and there are also plenty of links to buy stuff from While that's to be expected, I was disappointed when Live365 recently made changes to their site, including forcing users to accept cookies which track their listening habits.

Streaming FM
As capability and speed of new computers increase almost monthly, and the Internet itself rapidly sprawls out with more multimedia complexity every day, for most net connected folks the link between the two continually becomes more outdated and inadequate. The truth is over 90% of Internet users are still mired in dial-up data transfer rates, surprisingly over half of those are still hooked up at 33.6K or less. Although it's become pretty cheap to move up to a 56K modem, upgrading into broadband remains cost prohibitive for most and impossible for others. Yet considering that widespread broadband connectivity is a high priority for e-commerce and tech profits, you can be sure it's going to become cheaper and more available soon.

However, when a majority of us are broadband ready, will amateur MP3 streaming continue to be as free and easy as it is right now? Some of us are old enough to remember what happened to FM radio. Despite the fact that FM offered much better fidelity and the possibility of broadcasting in stereo, much of the FM band languished for years, as mere stepchild frequencies simulcasting their dominant AM partners. Then, in 1965, the FCC stepped in and set simulcasting limits which forced these FM outlets to come up with some original programming. At the same time rock albums were being released with long and unusual songs which didn't fit in with the hit single AM sound. For a while, AM continued to make the money, while FM became a haven for experimentation and underground rock causing freeform radio formats to sprout up on the dial. It was a heady time of diverse music and creative programming, but it didn't last long. Just as AM DJs lost their say in the music they played a decade or so earlier, once FM became the dominant broadcast band, commercial stations put much tighter reins on content, too, and the art of freewheeling programming was gradually constricted to a much small number of noncommercial stations.

Then, through the '80s, many college stations went to classical or jazz programming (with or without NPR and either underwriting or commercials), or they concentrated on a type of alternative top 40 based on charts in publications like College Media Journal. Most innovative programming had already left the FM dial when the 1996 Telecommunications Act furthered the homogenization of commercial radio by allowing huge media conglomerates to grab up most of the dial. That's when audio streaming came into the picture.

So, in a parallel to what happened three decades ago, RealAudio is an AM-like, popular low-fi medium dominated by broadcast radio on the net, while remaining an expensive proprietary format to netcast to more than a few people. Conversely though, like FM in the '60s, MP3 streaming offers superior fidelity along with a wide variety of diverse and innovative programming. Although the FCC got the ball rolling, the FM band didn't take off until manufacturers began including it on most radios. Just as listeners then became spoiled by the sonic glory of FM, once broadband MP3 streaming becomes widely available few will likely put up with squawky low-bandwidth music.

The question is when high-fidelity sound becomes the norm on the net can amateur streaming remain as free and easy is at it today? Or will MP3 broadcasting suffer the same fate as the FM band and become a field overpowered by profit-focused professional programming? What could be more powerful than having accurate numbers of listeners in real time, as well as succinct information regarding the types of music and products that might interest each individual listener?

Either way, the technology is out of the bag and unlike the limitations of the radio band, the net can potentially host a seemingly infinite number of audio streams. No doubt amateur noncommercial Internet radio is here to stay, but how long will companies like Live365 continue to offer free bandwidth and support which makes it possible to freely broadcast rather than narrowcast? Also. how long will users be able to tune in to bedroom broadcasters without paying for it? And will listeners have to just accept even greater threats to their privacy?

Everyone seems to agree that bandwidth will get cheaper, but like electricity, it's never going to be free. In these highly speculative and competitive web days a lot of content and facilities are being given away to gain market share. While it's hard to imagine Live365 is making much money, a majority of the streams they host are low bandwidth, and none of them come close to attracting the maximum 365 possible listeners. While I've seen as many as 200 or so folks listening to their top stream, a vast majority have no listeners at all. However, if amateur broadband MP3 streaming catches on it would be a much more expensive proposition to host that kind of traffic. When multicast streaming comes to pass, will it be free too? Or will it be a proprietary and expensive system for professionals?

Choosing Choices
At this point, I'm not streaming, I'm listening. Or at least trying to listen. I'm 250 deep into the "various" category and have only found one intriguing stream I haven't heard before. I've joined three others in tuning in to "Acetates Radio," a stream of obscure and unreleased music by The Beatles. It's not mind-blowing programming, but I'd never find it on the broadcast band. Besides, I've just heard Yoko scream and John and Paul argue, which is fun for a few minutes. But I'm picky, or at least eccentric. I'm sure others would have stopped looking earlier and been happy with a serving of techno, or new age, or that all-Carpenters stream I just noticed.

While I'm really enjoying the fact that my computer has greatly expanded my listening choices, the anonymous jukebox sound of most MP3 streams keeps me going back to traditional radio. All in all, the potential of amateur streaming is more exciting to me than the current situation. As a listener, the possibilities keep me surfing around for inspired programmers like Flansburg and Sherman. While as a prospective full-time netcaster I'm fantasizing about what kind of radio station I might like to be when I grow up, I'm also a little apprehensive about the impending passage into broadband puberty that'll make it all possible. I imagine that having lightning fast hi-fi Internet around the house could be even more of a diversion than the 56K access I have now. Then again, I'm sure I'll wonder how I ever lived without it.

When I do become "hooked-up" I don't think I'll be able to resist sending some kind of sound out onto the net around the clock. Why not? I've got enough to music and noise here to share. That's how Erika Sherman feels about her thousands of MP3 files rotating around in cyberspace. She says she plans to stream "Indefinitely... as long as I have bandwidth. And I can't imagine not having bandwidth."

Links featured in this article:
The Record Geek
Erika Sherman
Real Networks
CNET's MP3 Resources

WFMU Home  |  Reach Us  |  Our Program Schedule  |  Hear Our Signal  |  LCD  |  Support Us
Search this site

© 2001 WFMU. All rights reserved.