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Sonic Surfers 

Web radio: Freedom of choice is just a keystroke away

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
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Due to a quirk of administrative shortsightedness, UCLA has never been a big player in the college radio scene. The marquee entry in the University of California system doesn’t have a radio station at all — at least not one that casts its signal through the ether. Because no one ever thought to drop the bucks and reserve a frequency near the top of your FM dial, campus station KLA has rarely been heard outside Westwood. Its signal gets piped through cables into dorm rooms over the school’s internal television network. For students who dream of becoming bellicose DJs, short-tempered talk-show hosts or goofy morning-traffic guys, UCLA has never been the place to matriculate.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their enforced obscurity, a group of students at the makeshift station decided to go worldwide. There was, they realized, only one means to accomplish that end: broadcast on the Internet.

The Internet. The one true global community. It’s every low-budget broadcaster’s dream. Without benefit of a transmitter, your signal spans the planet. Wolfman Jack, screaming across America from his pirate station in Mexico, had nothing on Internet radio.

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Netcasting offers significant advantages over the airwaves. Local stations are transformed into global broadcasting powerhouses. Listeners, as a result, enjoy a choice of stations exponentially greater than that on any conventional radio dial. The Internet is the poor man’s satellite dish. And anyone can run an online station — it’s inexpensive and uncomplicated. That means listeners can tune out the tastes of mainstream-minded commercial program directors and tune in to like-minded site operators spinning their own esoteric CD collections.

Yet as conventional radio stations rush to send their feeds over the Net, new online broadcasters, with no connections to old media, are preparing to leave their transmitter-bound antecedents in the digital dust. San ç Francisco’s Spinner.com Networks, Minneapolis-based NetRadio and the giant of them all, Broadcast.com out of Dallas, are already established as megastations, pumping round-the-clock original programming through the Net. Spinner.com, for example, owns a library of 175,000 CDs and counting, which it uses to program 120 "channels."

Even KLA has found liberation from the bonds of UCLA’s cable system. According to Webmaster Lev Lvovsky, each student at the station kicked in $20 to $30 until they had the scratch for a $750 computer, good enough to operate the unsanctioned online broadcast. They diverted the station’s audio feed from the campus cables into their new machine, and Lvovsky set up a KLA Web site (http://www.klaradio.com) on his own PC in his off-campus apartment. Visitors to the site are linked to the bare-bones "server," which uses a simple $10 piece of software called Shoutcast.

In January, the scrappy Arizona software company known as Nullsoft unleashed Shoutcast upon the world. Nullsoft had already gained Net fame as the inventor of Winamp, the program used to play music in the wildly popular format called mp3. Shoutcast is a "plug-in" to Winamp that lets the program play near-CD-quality mp3 songs off the Internet with no download time, radio-style.

To listen to Shoutcast stations, all anyone needs is the Shoutcast plug-in to Winamp. Nascent broadcasters need another program, the Shoutcast Server, which, so far, comes free from Nullsoft. Using the Shoutcast Server, anyone with an Internet connection, even a slow modem, and a modest modicum of know-how can become not only a DJ, but program director and station owner as well. All from the privacy of one’s basement or boudoir.

Or somewhere else, as with KLA, which has now joined the thousands of radio broadcasters, professional and otherwise, already online.

"Starting with the Shoutcast thing is when people actually started listening," says Lvovsky. "We have 3,000 people a week, from maybe one to 3,000. Quite a big increase, needless to say."

At the heart of every great technology is . . . another technology. Internet radio depends on "streaming audio" software, which allows digitized sound to travel in a continuous stream through the Internet and straight out of your computer’s speakers, with no download wait. While Shoutcast is an upstart, the most widely used software is RealPlayer, produced by Seattle’s RealNetworks, a company founded by several former Microsoft executives who cashed in their stock options to strike out on their own. (Their former employer has since positioned itself as RealNetworks’ number-one competitor, with Windows Media Player.)

RealPlayer debuted as RealAudio in April 1995, at one of the Internet World trade shows where young companies show off their new products, each hoping to become the Net’s new killer app. Its sound, at the time, was described rather generously as "AM quality." Yeah — if you listen to AM radio while driving 75 mph with the car windows open. Underwater. Still, hearing old editions of All Things Considered wafting out of a PC’s tinny speakers elicited astonished cries of "Cool!" from the convention throng.

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