Internet radio is here to stay, by Michelle A. Rivera

It was almost like it was just yesterday that I walked into a Radio Shack in a now defunct mall in Lake Park, Florida, and saw my very first computer. It was a large affair, a tower PC with a big old unsightly tan monitor that sort of looked like a TV screen but uglier. I said to the guy “What’s that?” and he said, “It’s a home computer.” I looked at him doubtfully, thinking, “Whatever.” He must have read my mind because he said, and I swear I remember it like it was yesterday, “I predict that within ten years, every household in America will own one of these.” I thought that was about the silliest thing I had ever heard. It was 1982 and I am pretty sure that the computer in question was some kind of a Tandy Radio Shack creation. As a writer, I remember thinking, “Well, I know I would like to have one for writing, but I can’t figure out what other things the average home would need a computer for.”

And now, of course, I can’t imagine life without one. I’m thinking that one day kids will look at transistor radios and ask what the heck they were used for because they get their music and information from the internet and IPods. Of course they do. I’ve met people who don’t own a television set because they get everything they need from their computer. I did away with my land line because it was cheaper and easier to just use a cell phone for everything. Like that Radio Shack guy said, “I predict that within ten years when we hear the word ‘radio’ we will be thinking of online radio, not terrestrial radio.”

Terrestrial radio, of course, is radio that comes to us on the air. It travels around getting picked up by signals being transmitted from a tower somewhere to an antenna somewhere else. Satellite radio, the “next big thing” in radio, is when signals are sent to a satellite way up in the sky and then beamed back down to earth. And now, well, now there’s internet radio, signals being sent around the world via the world wide web.

I can see how internet radio has some advantages over terrestrial radio and satellite radio. For one, virtually everyone has a computer these days and I would bet that kids today get on their parents computers, and later on, their own, before they ever see their first radio. I know that my own grandchildren, ages 6, 5 and 2, have never seen a radio, but they sure know their way around a keyboard and a mouse. They haven’t even seen a radio in their parents (or my) cars because we all have satellite receivers. It seems impossible to imagine, but it’s true. There was a time when entire families would huddle around a big old radio with a scratchy signal listening to radio shows of every kind, from comedies, to dramas, to “soap operas”, so called because it was usually a soap manufacturer who sponsored those daytime shows aimed at housewives, or, excuse me, domestic engineers. This is also where they heard breaking news about the war, economics, sports, entertainment or politics. The president spoke to the masses this way. It was considered mass communication at its very best and nobody ever thought it could get any better than that.

Then came television, and the world went crazy for the moving pictures and sound that came into the big box every night all over America. You were a big shot if you had a color T.V. in those days. And nobody ever thought it could get any better than that.

But then came the computer. And with it came the ability to share ideas and plans and creativity with anyone in the whole world. We can send photos and files and sounds and movies and all kinds of materials in real time across the world. We have entire libraries right here in a small space right in our homes. Entire libraries! And shops! And medical advice! All in right here in our own home! Can it get any better than this? Can it?

Another way that internet radio is better than terrestrial or satellite radio is that is interactive in a way that other radio and even television cannot be. Sure, you can call up a radio host and speak through the phone live on the air on regular radio, but you can’t show photos or video to that host and by extension, the listeners. You can with internet radio. It’s the ultimate show and tell. And there are no worries about the quality of the sound, because internet radio does not rely on geography, weather or other relevant conditions that can bias terrestrial radio. Sure, satellite radio is also not at the whim of geography or climate, but it can’t reach you in a tunnel, under a bridge, or anywhere else there is something other than the roof of your car over your head.

When I first heard of internet radio my reaction was: Well, of course! That makes sense, of course you can get the radio on the internet. Why not?

So my conclusion is that yes indeed, internet radio is truly here to stay because really, can it ever get any better than that?

The History of Internet Radio, by Michelle A. Rivera

Internet radio goes by several monikers: web radio, streaming radio, net radio or e-radio. Whatever you call it, it is a means of broadcasting information by use of the internet as opposed to signals sent out via satellites or transmitter towers. This means of broadcasting is called webcasting. It differs from regular radio in that it provides streaming media (photos, audio, video) by making use of the world wide web. In this unique way, internet radio hosts are able to get the information to the end user. The end user has no control over what is being presented, other than by setting preferences. In other words, the end user, the person listening, cannot dictate to the internet radio host what material to broadcast any more than a radio listener can. Consequently, internet radio is not truly an “on-demand” service. It differs from a podcast in that the material is not being downloaded for later use, it’s being broadcast in real time. One of the benefits of internet radio is that it can be saved as a file to be listened to or even downloaded later. If you want to re-listen to a radio program, you’d have to make a cassette recording of it. So in this way, internet radio has an advantage over terrestrial radio.

Some traditional radio stations run internet radio as an added service to their listeners, so that they can listen either online or in their cars or on their home receiver. True internet radio, however, like W4CY radio, is truly internet radio because it only exists online and not as an “add on” to regular radio. W4CY provides stellar radio programming because all of the resources are spent developing programming that is compatible with it’s internet listeners. Without that diffusion of resources, W4CY is able to focus entirely on its target audience, the internet listener.

Internet radio was launched in 1993 by Carl Malamud, a well known technological genius and author of eight books having to do with the internet and technology. His internet radio program was about the internet and featured guest speakers who talked about…..the internet. It wasn’t truly a radio show as we know them today. They were more like podcasts, meaning that they were made, uploaded, and available as downloadable files. A year after the development of software that enabled internet hosts to relay music over the internet in real time, the Rolling Stones became the very first rock band to hold a concert that was broadcast in cyberspace as it was happening. The technology was referred to as The M Bone. During the opening act, Mick Jagger commented on the phenomenon, acknowledging those listeners by saying “I wanna say a special welcome to everyone that’s, uh, climbed into the Internet tonight and, uh, has got into the M-bone. And I hope it doesn’t all collapse.” The concert could be experienced, listened to and watched, from the comfort of your own living room. No commercial interruptions, no ‘contact high’ from fellow concert goers, no screaming fans bumping into you. Just you and your front-row seat to the music. A truly “free concert.” We’ve come a long way from Woodstock, Baby!

In the meantime, Malamud was still working on the technology to bring real time broadcasting to the internet and succeeded when a feed went live from the House and Senate floors. Soon after, an FM station based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, became the first radio station to broadcast in cyberspace in addition to its regular broadcast. Many, many others followed suit utilizing a variety of internet radio software programs that were in development at the time. As more and more software became available, more stations went on the internet offering everything from music to talk to comedy and everything in between. There was something for everyone. A company called Broadcast.com was spearheading the efforts to get internet radio on the public radar and in 1998 the initial public stock offering set a world record at that time for the largest jump in stock offerings in the United States. By the year 2003, internet radio was a $59 million dollar a year business having attracted the likes of Yahoo, AOL, Shoutcast and many others. Three years later, that figure jumped to $500 million dollars being paid by advertisers wanting to jump on the internet radio bandwagon.

A survey conducted in 2007 found that 19% of consumers aged 12 and over listened to internet radio, meaning 57 million people were listening to internet radio programs. There were more people listening to internet radio than satellite, high-def, terrestrial, podcast or cell-phone based radio programs combined. Subsequent surveys continue to show an rise in the percentage of people listening to internet radio.

The ascension of internet radio has not been without its growing pains, however. There have been squabbles over everything from the lack of FCC regulations to lawsuits involving royalties and fees paid to artists and publishers. In 1998 Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA required that performance royalties and publishing fees were to be paid by satellite and internet radio. Internet radio owners cried foul because traditional radio stations only had to pay publishing royalties and no performance fees. Some critics said that these fees would put internet radio out of business because they were so large that only big companies like AOL and Yahoo could afford to pay them. But even those media giants balked at the prices. Others threatened to move their enterprises out of country so that United States laws, and especially the DMCA, would not apply. A long legal battle ensued but the outcome was that the royalties and publishing fees would boil down to a flat rate that was more palatable to most than a per-song or per-listener fee.

As with every new Next Big Thing, internet radio will continue to grow in popularity and consequence upon our culture. With little to no FCC regulations, the future of internet radio is fairly bright. Americans have spoken time and again and have made their feelings about regulations and censorship clear. They want no part of it. Internet radio may well be the HBO and SHOWTIME of the airwaves with better programming and enhanced creativity in every byte.

Cyber vs. Sirius, by Michelle A. Rivera

When it comes down to which is better, internet radio vs. terrestrial radio vs. satellite radio, it all depends on whom you ask! We’ve all got our favorites, and I know I was pretty happy when I learned that All Things Considered and Car Talk (both on National Public Radio) were available somewhere other than my car radio and whenever I wanted to hear them. That’s something you can’t get from regular or even satellite radio.

It turns out there are really quite a few other benefits to internet radio. For example, it can be heard and followed all over the world, and with great “reception.” No worries about scratchy sounds or dead air. If you are in Germany and you want to hear an internet radio program in China, or Tennessee, or around the corner, you simply type in the URL and you’re connected. You can communicate with the host in real time, sending e-mails, photos, videos and entire files. This is a great thing for Americans living outside the country because they are expatriates or are serving in the military or for those who cannot find exactly what they want in terms of specialized music, talk or comedy on a regular radio show. If you want to share your favorite W4CY radio show with your friends in California or Australia, you simply give them the URL and they’re there! How cool is that?

You can also “pause” a radio show when you need to. If you usually listen to Pet Talk Café on W4CY on Monday nights and you missed it you can always go back and listen to it whenever you need to. And, you can pause the show to go take a phone call or bake some brownies or whatever. You can’t do that with radio unless you invest in some ancillary Tivo-like equipment which isn’t, presently, available. Getting programs this way is a sort of on-demand service without the premium prices. If you’re a fan of “Mondays with M & M Chick Chatter”, you can always listen to it the next morning if Monday’s at 10:00 PM is not the best time for you. Fair warning though, a martini will enhance your Chick Chatter experience greatly but we don’t recommend them for breakfast.  You become an archive subscriber in order to hear your favorite shows over and over again.

Because terrestrial radio depends on sponsors, it is only effective within certain markets. In other words, if the sponsor is, say, a local law firm in Knoxville, Tennessee, they would have no reason to pay for advertising during a radio program that broadcasts outside the area where they are practicing and seeking clients. But with internet radio, the sponsors can be local or long-distance. You can learn about non-profit childrens’ groups in Bangkok or Yorkie Poo rescue shelters in Buffalo. You get to learn about the locals where the internet radio is being broadcast from, but you can also hear of global goods and services as well.

Terrestrial radio also is subject to all kinds of licensing restrictions which usually confines the broadcaster to a specific state or region. Internet radio has no such restrictions. There are no FCC regulations either, so radio hosts can say or do pretty much anything they like, as long as it’s not illegal for other reasons, like maybe, I don’t know, webcasting a “sporting event’ from a ranch in Nevada.

Internet radio is interactive in a way that other radio broadcasting can never be. Sure, you can call a radio show and be on the air, but can you send pictures or video or emails to not just the host but whomever else is listening and participating at the time? That is a big advantage when showing off your latest hunk boyfriend during Chick Chatter or sharing your new puppy, Mr. Fluffernutter with the world during Pet Health Café.

As with everything else, the future of internet radio vs. AM/FM or even satellite radio comes down to economics. It costs much less to stream over the internet than it does for regular radio. No need for those huge antennas, no transmitters, no specially-equipped studios, no NASA spaceships needed. It’s pretty simple, really.

And maybe you can’t carry your laptop with you on your morning run, but you can always download your favorite program to your iPod or MP3 player for later on down the road. And yes, I’m pretty sure that there’s an app for that.