Go with the flow

Welcome to the wonderful world of streaming radio

MP3 players rock, but they still require you to acquire music (by buying, ripping or stealing it) and transfer it to the device. And when you carry your own music collection around, there usually aren’t many surprises.

Another option for musical serendipity is Internet radio. It’s streaming media that plays as you receive it, as opposed to stored media (like when you rip a CD and keep it on your hard drive), negating the need to devote your hard-drive space to music. It’s like your trusty AM/FM and satellite radio, but with thousands of choices and no antennas.

You can’t be as portable with streaming radio, but there are lots of advantages. First, off, it’s an extremely user-friendly medium. The easiest way to get started already exists on your computer: Windows Media Player came with your Windows machine, and iTunes (www.itunes.com), pre-installed on your Mac, is also available for Windows. Each comes pre-loaded with hundreds of radio stations, but that’s only a start.

The primo advantage of Internet radio is that you can access a nearly infinite selection of music. Windows Media Player and iTunes already have their pre-loaded selections of stations organized into categories like ‘50s, oldies, alternative, punk and others. Windows Media actually makes it a little easier than iTunes does to search for other radio stations. You can use keywords or even search for radio stations by Zip codes.

What’s more surprising is the availability of international radio stations. Punk may be punk, but there’s something a little tastier about hearing a samizdat rant in Russian before the next track. French lounge music actually sounds better when it’s introduced in French. It’s almost like ham radio for the 21st century, without the giant tower antenna in the back yard.

There are other resources than those provided by Windows and iTunes for finding the tens of thousands of Internet radio stations available. Two Internet radio aggregators worth checking out are Live365 (www.live365.com) and ShoutCast (www.shoutcast.com). These services basically help broadcasters by re-broadcasting their streams to accommodate larger listening audiences. They also handle the licensing fees that are required for anyone engaged in public broadcasting.

Live365 has a stronger commercial patina and actually interrupts its broadcasts with commercial announcements. This helps offset the fees associated with licenses and network bandwidth, but depending on the size of the audience the station attracts, it can also generate revenues for the broadcaster. Live365 claims to re-broadcast upward of 5,000 personal stations (small, less commercial) and another 5,000 commercial stations. These commercials are pretty annoying, but if you pay up for gold membership (starting at $5.95 per month or less if you pay in advance), you can avoid them entirely.

ShoutCast is the purists’ option. It enables anyone to broadcast and leaves the legal technicalities up to the individual. No inserted ads of any kind. Hobbyists aren’t likely to attract much industry attention, but commercial outfits or those attracting real audiences should definitely pay up the fees to avoid the hassle of being sued.

ShoutCast also makes its audience statistics available right on the homepage, or under a separate link for extremely detailed breakdowns. (As I write this, ShoutCast lists 11,229 servers broadcasting to an audience of 243,299 listeners.)

The individual broadcasters are ranked based on listenership, and at this writing Club 977: The ‘80s Channel and Club 977: The Hitz Channel are No. 1 and 2 respectively, boasting between 8,000 and 9,000 total listeners apiece. Both stations are broadcast from Minnesota by some guy named Jeff.

Move down the list though, and you can find less general and more hyper-specific categories. For example, at No. 271 is Anime Academy Radio, with 176 total listeners, playing “the best and newest Anime/Japanese/World music for you.”

While the federal government continues to discourage micro-broadcasting over FM frequencies, Internet broadcasting is the next best thing.

And it’s surprisingly easy. Download a music player like Winamp (www.winamp.com), install a ShoutCast plug-in (follow the links on www.shoutcast.com), then play your music either randomly or through a play list. Anyone who can access your computer can listen in on your stream. The ShoutCast plug-in allows you to broadcast up to one of these rebroadcasters (like ShoutCast or Live365) for those lucky enough to attract an audience too big for your average DSL line. And cheap hardware exists for those who want to broadcast their voice; talk Internet radio is that easy.

The most popular online radio stations have their own Web sites. Finding them is a matter of either searching through the directories on the Internet radio aggregators or visiting a station’s homepage and clicking directly on the listening links. Some outfits broadcast more than one radio station.

For instance, one of the earliest and most popular Internet broadcasters, SOMA.FM (www.soma.fm), has seven different channels. The most popular is Groove Salad, tagged as “A tasty plate of ambient beats and grooves.” SOMA’s other stations include Beat Blender (deep-house and downtempo chill), indie pop rocks (yes, indie pop), and others. A favorite of mine: cliqhop idm, ("Blips’n’beeps backed mostly w/beats. Intelligent Dance Music.").

But even SOMA.FM’s Web site seems primitive compared to one of my favorite Internet radio stations, Radio Paradise (www.radioparadise.com). Radio Paradise, based in Butte county, is a single channel specializing in “eclectic online rock radio” that has truly integrated its audience’s needs into one multifaceted enterprise. The current song playing (and the most recent others) are listed right at the top of the homepage, and each song entry is a link that takes you to a discussion page where listeners can rate and comment on the selection.

Between the rants and raves, many audience members reveal deep musical knowledge, and their posts can lead to the discovery of new music. Not everyone can agree on what constitutes a good eclectic song, and the comments can get surprisingly spirited. (I’d have to agree that as much as I like the occasional Jethro Tull song, I’m not sold on its place in an “eclectic” song list.)

The Radio Paradise operators also work hard to program their selections in arcs, so that there’s often a theme (for example, rock songs with a Latin flare, or songs about water, or songs with folk instrumentation) running for some period of time. If you donate money to RP and become a member, you can even upload songs for the station to consider for its program rotation.

My favorite Web site feature is one that I recommended to Radio Paradise directly. It only took RP a couple of weeks to add it to the Web site. For each song entry, you can click on a link that loads the artist and song title into a Google link with “lyrics” added to the end of the search. The search results page will take you to any one of the many lyrics databases maintained online. Now I’m paying attention to lyrics a lot more than I had been, and being able to bring up the full lyrics to a song broadens my appreciation for music I never gave much thought to in the past.

Another popular broadcast online is Digitally Imported (www.digitallyimported.com). Specializing in international dance music (more rave, less disco), the service has a huge selection of channels. They’re broken down into selections like trance, vocal trance, hard dance, progressive, goa-psy, etc. There are also special programs and guest DJs. At the time of this writing, Digitally Imported’s various channels had 38,020 listeners.

Just about any genre of music can be found online, even genres most of us never knew existed. Visit ShoutCast or Live365, and start clicking around. You’ll find a plethora of rock, folk, jazz, classical, ethnic, world, news, BBC and other stations. If your friends can’t introduce you to new music fast enough, there are no excuses anymore: it’s all online.