What’s the frequency?

Welcome to the wonderful world of streaming radio

The Internet may have finally perfected radio. Net radio is diverse, user-friendly and may even be commercial-free.

The Internet may have finally perfected radio. Net radio is diverse, user-friendly and may even be commercial-free.

Illustration By Michele Brown

MP3 players, such as iPods, rock, but they still require you to buy, rip or steal music and transfer it to the device. And when you carry your own music collection around, there aren’t many surprises.

One option for musical serendipity is Internet radio. It’s streaming media that plays as you receive it. It’s like your trusty AM/FM and satellite radio but with thousands of choices and no antennas.

Streaming radio is not as portable as an MP3 player, but there are lots of advantages. First, it’s extremely user-friendly. The software you need to get started already exists on your computer: Windows Media Player came with your Windows machine, and iTunes (www.itunes.com) came pre-installed on your Mac. ITunes is also available for Windows. Each comes pre-loaded with hundreds of radio stations, but that’s only the beginning.

The main advantage of Internet radio is that you can access a nearly infinite selection of music. Windows Media Player and iTunes have their selections of stations organized into categories like ‘50s, oldies, alternative, punk and others. Windows Media has a better radio-station search function than iTunes. 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 in between tracks. French lounge music sounds better when introduced in French.

There are resources other than those provided by Windows and iTunes for finding the tens of thousands of Internet radio stations. Two Internet radio aggregators worth checking out are Live365 (www.live365.com) and Shoutcast (www.shoutcast.com). These services help broadcasters by re-broadcasting their streams in order to reach larger audiences.

Live365 has a stronger commercial patina and interrupts its broadcasts with commercial announcements. This helps offset the fees associated with licenses and network bandwidth, and depending on the size of the audience the station attracts, it can also generate revenues for the broadcaster. Live365 claims to re-broadcast upwards of 5,000 personal stations and another 5,000 commercial stations. The commercials are pretty annoying, but if you pay up for gold membership (starting at $5.95 a month, 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 amateurs attracting real audiences should definitely check the site for licensing-fee requirements to avoid the potential hassle of being sued.

Illustration By Michele Brown

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

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 playlist. Anyone who can access your computer can listen in on your stream. And cheap hardware exists for those who want to broadcast their voice; Internet talk 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, SOMA.FM (www.soma.fm), one of the earliest and most popular Internet broadcasters, 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. Another favorite is cliqhop idm ("Blips’n’beeps backed mostly w/beats. Intelligent Dance Music").

But even SOMA.FM’s Web site seems primitive compared to Radio Paradise (www.radioparadise.com). Radio Paradise, a single channel specializing in “eclectic online rock radio,” 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 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 always agree on what constitutes a good eclectic song, and the comments can get surprisingly spirited. (For example, does Jethro Tull belong in an “eclectic” song list?)

The Radio Paradise operators also work hard to program their selections in arcs, so there’s often a theme—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 Radio Paradise feature is one I personally recommended. For each song entry, there’s 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. I pay a lot more attention to lyrics now, which broadens my appreciation for music I never gave much thought to in the past.)

Just about any genre of music can be found online, even genres most fans never knew existed. Visit ShoutCast or Live365, and start clicking around. There’s a plethora of rock, folk, jazz, classical, ethnic, world, news, BBC and other types of stations.

If your friends aren’t introducing you to new music fast enough, there are no excuses anymore: It’s all online.