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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.

In the ensuing four years, RealAudio was renamed RealPlayer (when it added still-crude streaming video capacity), and the sound quality was bolstered to near-CD clarity over fast Internet connections, such as T1 lines and cable modems. ç Computers with standard telephone modems can pick up RealPlayer stations in FM-quality stereo. This May, RealNetworks rolled out its latest creation, a program called RealJukebox, which plays streaming audio as well as mp3 files and standard CDs.

RealNetworks aimed, from the start, at the corporate stratosphere. It recruited big-name broadcasters (ABC, NPR, Fox) to jump online, and before any of its competitors were out of the box, RealAudio was the default for radio stations, TV networks and live Net events.

Shoutcast, on the other hand, aims at the kid who wants to share his CD collection with all of his buddies from Santa Monica to Singapore.

"That’s absolutely what we’re about. We’re about empowering great numbers of people," says Nullsoft’s Rob Lord. "We’re about ground-up self-publishing. We’re not about trying to partner with ABC News, or broadcasting investment information to Wall Street insiders. We look at things from the bottom up."

"One of the reasons Shoutcast was so inviting to me from the get-go is that it really is a lot closer to the users. It’s totally niche-market based," says Ian Rogers, who joined Nullsoft only recently. Before that, as a consultant for Grand Royal, the Beastie Boys’ label, he set up the Shoutcast station on the L.A.-based GrandRoyal.com Web site. The station streams music by the Beasties and other bands on the label.

Grand Royal’s Shoutcast stream is relayed by another L.A. Web company, the Ultimate Band List. The UBL, in turn, is a part of Artistdirect, begun and run by Lollapalooza co-founder Marc Geiger. His site offers the ultimate in niche marketing: a collection of online channels, each devoted to a single band.

Geiger’s operation is the antithesis of the clandestine kids at KLA. Occupying two floors of an Encino office building along a thoroughly mini-malled strip of Ventura Boulevard, Artistdirect employs upward of 90 people and is running out of room for them in a hurry. The reason for the company’s rapid growth: Geiger’s belief in the power of the niche.

"When cable came in, the networks said, ‘Why are people going to watch an all-sports or all-news network?’ They missed it. Now even cable’s missing the next level down of niche-ification," says Geiger, who used to work for American Recordings, the first major label to go online. "The niches get finer and finer. We always thought the artist was the brand."

Geiger has found a way to turn the Net’s propensity for narrowcasting into a swelling corporation. Other online broadcasters niche-market on pure instinct, by a simple technique long banished from the conventional radio business. They call it "playing stuff you like." Want to tune in trip-hop 24-7? It’s out there. Relentless ’70s metal? That’s a click away as well. It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s an online radio station for every musical palate. The Shoutcast Directory (http://yp.shoutcast. com) lists all Shoutcast servers operational at any given time. Last time I checked the Top 10 list (ranked by number of listeners at that moment), it sported an all-trance/techno station in the No. 1 slot, followed by a gospel broadcast, an "’80s pop" station and one guy who plays nothing but tunes by his fave band, Phish.

The mainstream broadcast industry is not impressed.

"For niche audiences, I suppose the Internet holds great appeal. The fact is, I think most people are satisfied with what they hear on their local radio stations," says Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. "Your paper’s readers, many of them are probably into alternative music, which would appeal to them. But these are folks who are a certain age, who will eventually graduate to a different type of format at some time in their life. Maybe they won’t. But most of them do."

Nonetheless, any skepticism that ç Internet radio, and Shoutcast in particular, is a big part of music broadcasting’s future was put to bed June 1 by America Online. The behemoth service provider acquired tiny Nullsoft, along with Internet music broadcaster Spinner.com, for the tidy price of $400 million worth of AOL’s robust stock shares and options. Another Seal of Approval for Netcasting: Dallas-based Broadcast.com, the largest aggregator of online radio stations, was bought out by Yahoo! earlier this year for a staggering $4 billion.

In fact, conventional broadcasters are dipping their toes into Internet radio by the hundreds. A visit to the Broadcast.com site (http://www.broadcast.com) reveals dozens of stations in every mainstream music category, as well as news and sports, live concerts and events. Most of them use RealPlayer streams, or Windows Media Player.

Broadcast.com is extensive, but not all-inclusive. In Los Angeles, for example, KIIS-FM streams its broadcast without Broadcast.com’s help (http://www. kiisfm.com). The Santa Monica–based National Public Radio station KCRW streams programming largely separate from its over-the-air broadcast (http://www.kcrw. org/online), though it does include lots of Morning Becomes Eclectic reruns.

Even Wharton concedes that "There are so many opportunities in this new field, you would be crazy not to be exploring that if you’re a broadcaster."

Conventional broadcasters, however, have done little with their online editions except mirror their over-the-air signals.

"Their first instinct is to repurpose their content," says Geiger. "The old radio industry has not leveraged this new opportunity yet. Spinner.com, Shoutcast, Broadcast.com — how many of them were owned by broadcasting companies? Zero!"

There is plenty of activity, but there’s a catch: No one is making any money yet. Even Broadcast.com still shows red on the balance sheet. So why are radio stations rushing onto the Internet?

"In terms of immediate revenue, I’m at a loss to come up with the answer to that," puzzles Wharton. "I think it’s more understanding the technology, being ahead of the curve. Not feeling like you’re out of the loop."

Even the legal obstacles that face the growing market for mp3 and other forms of music download ease up when the signal is streamed. Because streaming audio cannot be saved to a hard drive (at least not very easily), it is much more difficult to pirate.

"Any new way of offering people an opportunity to enjoy music is a positive thing, and Webcasting would certainly fit within that," says Steven Marks, senior vice president and director of business affairs for the Recording Industry Association of America.

The RIAA is the trade organization that no one ever heard of before it made headlines with its crusade to crush mp3. Yet when it comes to streaming audio, even the streaming mp3 audio that Shoutcast offers, the RIAA is downright laid-back. The association is currently negotiating with the recently formed Digital Music Association — which represents Spinner.com and other online broadcasters — to come up with licensing fees for Internet radio. Included in the final package, Marks says, will be a "hobbyist’s license" available for a "nominal fee" that will allow bedroom Shoutcasters to continue their avocation without maxing their credit cards on artist-royalty payments.

Even the RIAA realizes, apparently, that the Internet, as corporate as it has become, is still a medium that begins and ends with one person with a mouse and a monitor, searching for connections to a larger world.

"That’s why as a music fan I’ve always liked the Net," says Nullsoft’s Ian Rogers. "It brings you closer to people with similar interests who might not be next door to your house — but they’re out there, and you get to share with them. It’s tremendous."

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