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.

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