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The Boston Phoenix Radio Free Everywhere

All jungle all the time! Or all Chicago blues! Now playing on your computer.

By Dan Tobin

MARCH 16, 1998:  If you've ever seen Hoosiers, you'll understand what team loyalty means at Indiana University. You'll also appreciate the plight of Mark Cuban, an Indiana grad who wanted to listen to Hoosiers games even though he lived 700 miles away from Bloomington. That was about 650 miles too far to pick up the local radio signal, so Cuban needed to do something unusual. He and fellow alum Todd Wagner decided to try using the Internet.

"We really didn't know anything about the technology at the time," says Cuban. But he had a background in computers, and by using a new technology called "streaming," he and Wagner came up with a way to broadcast the Indiana radio signal over the Net. By late 1995, Mark Cuban -- and anyone else with a computer and the right software -- could listen to live Hoosiers play-by-play through the speakers in his PC.

Cuban's project didn't take long to grow well beyond those college basketball broadcasts. The broadcast center originally installed in his guest bedroom has blossomed into a 150-person company called AudioNet; Cuban is the president and Wagner is the CEO. Today AudioNet is one of the most heavily trafficked news and entertainment content sites on the Internet, hosting more than 260 radio stations (and a handful of TV stations) from around the globe, plus live coverage of events ranging from the Super Bowl to private bar mitzvahs. And it still broadcasts Hoosiers games.

In 1995, when Cuban launched AudioNet, Internet radio was just a Net-head's pipe dream. Three years later, AudioNet attracts, by one estimate, more than 325,000 listeners and viewers a day. There's no way to tell how big the total Internet radio audience is, but in 1997 more than 35 million people -- more than 10 times the total radio listening market of Greater Boston -- downloaded listening software from RealNetworks, currently the largest provider of streaming software. And numbers are expected to keep climbing.

Most Internet radio stations are traditional radio stations that broadcast simultaneously on-line (among them WFNX, the Phoenix's sister station, which has one of the ten largest online audiences nationwide). But a significant number of Internet stations -- about a quarter of the 400 total -- broadcast only on the Net. For fans of Internet radio, it's these stations that represent something genuinely new. They tend not to have commercials, for one thing. And they follow eclectic formats, targeting specific interests more carefully than the average broadcast station can afford to. To its fans, this is the biggest revolution in broadcasting since . . . well, since broadcasting itself.

"Radio was a very lively, amateur, and public system when it was first created," says Howard Rheingold, an Internet observer and author of The Virtual Community (Addison-Wesley, 1993). "But it was radically centralized by the FCC. This new technology decentralizes the power to communicate -- every desktop that's connected to the Net is potentially a broadcast station. In the long run, this is very significant politically, in the way the printing press was significant politically."

As with many breakthroughs, a technical change lies behind the cultural one. In this case, it's all about streaming. Music that streams over the Net feeds constantly into your computer while you work. Music that doesn't stream arrives in big chunks you have to spend lots of time downloading. With streaming, the only chunk is a piece of software (the most popular is RealPlayer, available from http://www.real.com, although Microsoft and other companies have also gotten into the market). And you only have to download it once.

Here's an example of how streaming is different. The official Beastie Boys Web site features the song "Sabotage" in two formats: an old-school MPEG file (which takes up a hefty 1.8 megabytes), and another file that uses streaming technology. With the first version, downloading a three-minute song takes between six and ten minutes. (That's with a 28.8 modem, the kind most people use at home. Here at the Phoenix, over a network hooked up to a fast T1 line, it takes more like 45 seconds -- still far from quick.) Try to download an album at this rate, and you might as well walk to the record store and wait in line. To listen to "Sabotage" with RealAudio, which makes use of streaming, you wait about five seconds for the first gob of information to arrive on your computer, and it's pretty much smooth listening after that.

Streaming operates much like the Web itself -- you don't put the whole Library of Congress catalogue on your computer just to poke around its Web archive. The sound file for "Sabotage" is stored on a machine somewhere else, and your computer downloads a preset amount of music, plays it back, then downloads more while you listen to the first part. Once you wait that initial five seconds, you can listen to a three-minute song -- or listen to radio all day. The technology isn't perfect, but there's almost no skipping or waiting -- unless the site is particularly busy, in which case the same interruptions that affect everything online can cause the broadcast to lag.

As with any new development, it's hard to say what the most important application of live-stream audio will turn out to be. So far, RealAudio technology has created a landscape that looks a lot like the '90s television market. Regular stations that simulcast online act like satellite TV, sending their signals around the world instead of just to the immediate geographical area. This is a particular boon for college stations and other eclectic, special-interest broadcasters with weak signals. On the Internet, there's no such thing as a weak signal, so listeners can tune in anywhere -- so long as they know where to look.

Internet-only stations, meanwhile, mirror cable TV in their ultraspecificity. Unlike network programming, which aims to attract wide viewership in a limited area, Web radio can take a narrower slice of a much bigger audience -- the way, say, the Cartoon Network does.

A local station that played nothing but the Grateful Dead would probably go out of business: its fan base would be devoted, but tiny. On the Web, Deadradio plays just that, and gets 15,000 hits a week (see "Click Here To Listen."). "You're looking at smaller communities of music fans," says Mark Hardie, a senior analyst at the Cambridge-based Web research firm Forrester Research, who just finished a report on music on the Internet. "It's audiences that are defined more by genre than by geography." So instead of trying to capture 10,000 listeners within 20 miles of its transmitter, an Internet radio station can target 10,000 drum 'n' bass fans across the world. Or dub fans, or industrial fans. Indeed, NetRadio, an extensive online broadcast network, offers a separate station for each of 11 subgenres of electronica. And an extremely sophisticated site called TheDJ offers 60 channels, broken down into genres and subgenres; there are five stations playing blues alone.

Donna Halper, a Boston-area radio programming consultant, sees this specialization as intrinsic to the medium. "Since the Internet radio doesn't have the same restrictions on it that the FCC places on regular broadcasters, you can do more controversial, more cutting-edge things, if you want to," she says. "The attitude seems to be almost, 'We could really compete with people and give someone something more interesting to listen to.' "

That's not the only thing differentiating Net radio from conventional broadcasting. The Net has an intrinsically "low barrier to entry," according to Hardie. An aspiring Internet radio station doesn't need to buy broadcast equipment, or worry about FCC licensing for the station or its DJs. It needs cash and some computing power, but it can easily be run out of someone's basement. Or guest bedroom.

To a true believer like Jim Atkinson, a 25-year veteran of radio programming, Internet radio is nothing short of a rebirth of the free-form FM radio of a few decades ago. "When I got into commercial radio," he says, "stations were kind of like mom-and-pop organizations, and were interested in playing new music. But it's become corporate over the years, and now stations across the country just play the same 30 songs."

Atkinson was working at a St. Louis commercial station when he and his wife decided to launch their own station. After researching the industry, they came to a decision in 1997. "My wife and I had the choice of either buying a radio station in a medium-size market or going online, where there's a whole world of listeners starved for real alternative radio," he says. Last December they launched the Internet station 3WK. Four months later, they're drawing thousands of listeners a day, some of whom send gushing e-mails to the site. 3WK is "an absolute godsend," says one; "the best alternative underground anywhere," says another. Atkinson doesn't see how he could provide the same range of music with a normal broadcast operation. "In order to exist in a medium-size AM/FM radio market, we would have to compromise our musical programming in order to survive financially," he says. "That made the decision easy."

In a tight radio market like Boston, upstart radio ventures have an additional incentive to look to the Net: there's room. When Babson College freshmen Adam Berger and Jacob Walker decided to launch WEB last month, part of their rationale for the Internet-only station was that getting a spot on the FM dial would have been next to impossible. A frequency study confirmed what Berger already knew: "Boston is completely packed."

The resulting enterprise will guarantee them at least a footnote in the Internet history books: WEB (http://radio.babson.edu) is the first Internet-only station in Boston, as well as the first college station broadcast solely on the Web. Berger, a born entrepreneur who speaks with more assurance than any college freshman has the right to, says that Web radio has allowed far-off alumni to tune in, just as Mark Cuban did with his Hoosiers. In fact, almost 60 percent of WEB's listenership is off-campus, something that would never happen with a 20-watt FM signal out of Wellesley.

Of course, the listenership of WEB -- and all Internet radio -- is limited to those with enough cash for a relatively fast computer and an Internet connection. Still, Berger feels it's an important, growing medium, and he plans to start an Internet radio consulting firm with Walker. Based on what they learned in setting up WEB, they hope to bring other schools online.

For listeners, one advantage to Internet radio is the relative absence of commercials. What advertising there is on Internet stations usually comes in two forms: short audio ads that play before a station loads, and banner ads that run on the accompanying Web sites. Most of these companies are privately held and won't discuss revenue, but it's safe to say that the advertising doesn't provide much. "For a smaller company, you can get in and make money, but a big corporation would never make enough to support this scenario," says Atkinson.

The ad-free model isn't universal. WEB already breaks ranks, running ads between songs the way broadcast stations do. (Berger admits: "We're a commercial station disguised as a college station.") Hardie thinks this will be the trend, and that audio advertisements will soon have a much stronger presence on the Internet. "Sites driven by major players will incorporate commercials as part of a bigger package that they sell to their advertisers," he predicts.

He envisions Internet radio becoming as commercial as broadcast radio. But for now, it's hard to put a price on airtime, since there's no accepted way to evaluate listenership -- demographics and numbers on the Web don't correlate to broadcast radio or to other Web sites. The Web is still a place where people can almost ignore the economics, scraping by on a thin stream of ad revenues and pure belief in music.

One expense Internet radio does have to contend with is royalties; like commercial stations, Internet stations pay about seven cents to the music licensing companies ASCAP and BMI each time they play a song. The two companies are still investigating how to monitor Web radio play accurately without infringing on users' right to privacy.

The Web-radio waters may be uncharted, but this isn't the first time radio has piggybacked on another technology. Years ago, the Los Angeles-based KGSR attracted national attention by billing itself as "pirate radio" -- via telephone. The station set up an 800 number that allowed anyone in America to dial in and listen over the phone for free. It worked like a dream, except for one thing: nobody wanted to listen to the radio through a handset. The only phone-in listeners were industry types keeping abreast of potential competition.

In some ways, Internet radio isn't much of an improvement over the KGSR experiment. It still ties up a phone line, and the sound quality isn't much better than what you'd get from an old transistor radio. A more modern problem is that it requires a chunk of memory -- about five megs, even more for stereo sound. And the listening apparatus is anything but portable.

Some of these problems will work themselves out. Faster connection speeds, for example, will allow for better audio signals -- as will higher bandwidth on the Net overall. Modems that run through cable wires, already available through MediaOne in parts of Cambridge, won't tie up phone lines, and will increase speed exponentially. And a portable player already exists: the 3.5-ounce MobilePlayer from Audible, a small company with enormous corporate backing. It stores up to two hours of music or talk from Audible's Web site (http://www.audible.com). Wired magazine, cheerleading for the new technology, described it as an "Internet Walkman," and called it "as addictive as nicotine." At the moment, it's a $200 puff of nicotine. But no doubt we'll see new products that do it better, faster, and cheaper.

And that's when the Internet will replace the FM band, right? Well, maybe not.

"I seriously doubt it's the future of radio," Hardie says. "At least for the foreseeable future, audiences will never match up one to one." Hardie doesn't believe Internet radio will replace FM so much as it will be considered a close cousin. "I think what it will ultimately do is complement broadcast radio and create a layer of radio-style entertainment for specific audiences," he says.

In Hardie's vision, commercial radio will supplement its broadcasts with Web-only features, just as CNN's Web site now offers coverage beyond what the network telecasts over cable. He predicts that stations will eventually offer genre-specific streamed stations on the Web -- for example, all-jungle or all-ska versions of the regular station.

Cuban thinks the future of Internet radio (and its fledgling counterpart, Internet TV) will be a mixed bag of large commercial ventures and tiny broadcasts that almost resemble community-access programming. "People will be able to broadcast their kids' softball games so Grandma can hear," he says. "You'll tell your friends, 'Hey, go watch it on my Web page.' But it's not going to have 50,000 people watching it."

He also expects Internet radio to pick up steam as part of a larger Net-driven cultural revolution. "You're going to go to that PC to check your e-mail every day. While you're there, hey, why not listen to something cool?" For Cuban, Internet radio is already part of daily life. "At home I just turn on the radio and I fall asleep to the station I always listen to," he says. "On the road I fall asleep listening to it on my laptop. It sounds silly, but hey, why not?"

Click here to listen

As with most of the Internet, the trick to Web radio is figuring out where to look. Here are some of the most interesting Net-only sites:

3WK -- Indie rock, underground artists, plus alternate tracks from mainstream albums.

NetRadio -- More than 150 stations here overall, including a great blues station, 11 channels of electronica, plus everything from Christian hits to news broadcasts.

TheDJ -- Probably the most sophisticated and ambitious Internet radio site. You'll need either lots of memory or their special player to use it properly, but once you've got it running, 60 genre-specific music channels are at your fingertips. The name of each song flashes onscreen as it plays, giving you an opportunity to rate it, buy it, or ignore it.

wRAP -- Of all the hip-hop stations on the Net, this is the only one that steers clear of Puffy and his admirers. More hardcore and Strong Island, dabbling in the old school.

iMusic -- Four stations that don't exactly play radio; they generate a mix that loads song by song. There's iMusic Radio1 (modern rock), Club iMusic Radio (electronica), Indie Radio, and Radio Retro ('80s and early '90s modern rock).

And since the entire Internet seems to cater to the obsessive, it follows that bands with psychotically devoted followings get represented online. There's the much-publicized Deadradio and the next generation, StashRadio, which serves up neo-Dead jams from Phish. And for Santa fanatics, it can always be December 25 with XMAS 101 FM.

Not every audio site is a radio station. Here are a handful that use the same software to let you choose what you listen to.

AudioNet Jukebox -- Like an online version of an in-store listening station, this site lets you download albums and play them on your computer as if they were CDs. Never mind that the CD itself is in Dallas.

MetroRadio -- Choose among full-length albums and singles, as well as bootlegs and vintage TV commercials.

iRFU -- Construct your own mix from an enormous catalogue of songs from the '80s and '90s.

LiveConcerts -- A fantastic archive of shows in small clubs, plus a huge selection of in-studio performances and interviews at Los Angeles-based KCRW. For live shows mostly in New York, try SonicNet.

Dan Tobin can be reached at dtobin@phx.com.

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