Run Streaming

A look at the unReal world of open-source netcasting.

Last night I sat on the roof while wearing my winter headphones (the warm and beautiful Sony MDR-CD780s) and tuning down a long list of faraway radio signals. I started with KFJC, KPIG, RadioParadise and SmoothJazz, which are headquartered in California, where I live. Then I went to WUNC out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina and WCPE from nearby Raleigh. Then I moved across the waters to Radio FG from Paris, URGent (“De Gentse Studentenradio”), Beiruit Nights and a bunch of other stuff from who knows where: Radio Free Klezmer, Radiostorm Hip-Hop/R&B, BassDrive, Chemlab, Cyberspace Sonata, KI EuroDance and other stuff from Digitally Imported Radio, Factory188 and FlareSOUND. Plus I found lots more that I didn't bother copying down but most of which you can find in Google's directory.

My radio was a laptop tuned into the home Wi-Fi signal, which was routed to the Net over a 2+Mb cable link (yes, it's not symmetrical, but no, it doesn't suck). Most of the stations listed were broadcasting crystalline 128kb or better streams. Admittedly, my setup is a little exotic but only by proximity to a leading edge that's sure to pass quickly. DVDs were once exotic, but last week I bought a player from Go.Video at Costco for $79.95. In two years DVD burners will cost the same.

For an old ham radio operator and broadcast band DXer like me, the reality of the matter was a mind-bender. These signals weren't rarities bouncing off the skies and seas, full of static and hetrodyne whistles, audible only over an expensive radio that required the hands of a safecracker to tune. They came out of a pipe-like house current.

Most of these stations were clearly the products of resourceful young people, routing around the rusting hulk of terrestrial broadcasting, which remains almost entirely captive to the record industry (commercial radio) or the public institutions that hold their licenses (public radio). It's Napster all over again, at least in the sense that it's file sharing. But there's a significant difference in how the files move. This time we're not crossloading from one person's hard drive to another, nor are we downloading, although some players do permit you to rip streams to files. We're broadcasting, with the Net serving as both medium and backchannel. I'll put it a different way: we're taking over the business.

If you're an ordinary broadcaster, it's frightening. If you're a smart broadcaster, it's a runaway freight train and it would be wise to hop aboard.

Right now that train is hard to see because there isn't a transmitter supplier pounding on your door, nor a government regulator with thick books full of stuff you need to care about. There's just a bunch of freelance hackers and a few companies hip enough to leverage their good work.

Then there's the prevailing mindset, which equates MP3 with WinAmp, the most popular Windows MP3 client. This is why many of the stations I listed above identify their required client as “WinAmp” and their format as “Shoutcast”.

Even Shoutcast describes its streams as “WinAmp based”, though the company makes Linux-based servers, and there are plenty of other players that handle MP3 streams.

There's another anomaly. Even though public radio stations (NPR and PRI) were among the first to use the Web, very few have taken advantage of the low cost of transmitting MP3 streams and the high variety of available free clients. The only reliable stream I've found is this one from WUNC. Most other public stations (that bother to stream at all) use RealAudio. One broadcast engineer told me the main reason is that Real's codecs are better than MP3 at the slower bit rates used by most stations. But that's a minor consideration. Most stations don't yet know there's another way. They're not out here in the unReal world where the listeners are rolling their own.

It's easy to dismiss Real as a dead horse on this issue, since the company has been highly user-hostile since it went into business. They spent years burying access to their free client, obsoleting their clients, promoting and cross-promoting all kinds of stuff users didn't care about and making lousy clients for non-Windows platforms.

But somebody inside the company recently told me the Force is stronger there than one might think. He writes, “we could have had a really good Linux player years ago. We had an absolutely brilliant developer working on it, but he quit after exceeding his pain threshold. Those of us who work here have players that work better than anything we have released. This place has Linux at its core despite having a WinTel face.” He also says there are signs internally that the company is turning in a positive direction.

So here's a fantasy: open-sources its codecs, embraces MP3 and then leapfrogs everybody with a big one—embracing Ogg Vorbis, which lacks MP3 intellectual property legacy. And then it helps shepherd its partners in the entertainment business from where they are now to the New Reality.

If they don't, the blood on the tracks will be their own. The train has left the station.

Doc Searls ( is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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Re: Run Streaming

kenmo's picture

Doc, I am a Linux using sysadmin and avid net radio enthusiast.

I am an active member of the Radio Paradise community (not to mention financial supporter : ).

I am sure you must have heard at least distant rumblings of the coming levy by the US Copyright office of "webcasting fees so high that they would force Radio Paradise & many other Internet radio stations to cease operation."

For info:

Don't let the RIAA jam this one through!

real? Run Streaming

Anonymous's picture

being a linux user .96 ham radio..I have spent alot of personal time growing

with it.I don,t know if I understand the subject matter but seems to be about real.I have real on my suse73 and if I am wrong, kick me but are they asking for a monthly fee now??.real asks me to upgrade each time I use.I am loving linux because I still use alot systems apps that worked from day one and may very well for a long time.What real needs,is to be needed,not shoved

into or faces like Microsquash.


Anonymous's picture

What about mpeg4? Apple is making the jump. RealNetworks hasn't made any comments that I've seen.

MPEG4 seems to be the standard for the future. I'm not sure of the licensing details.

I hope it scales reasonably well. But in about 2-4 years high speed cell phone/cable/DSL/satellite access will *begin* to replace dialup with *minimum* stationary downstream transfer speeds of around 384kbps.

I'm looking to get my first GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) cell phone any day now and it is suppose to do 56kbps-114kbps. Service is already available but the Nokia 8390 GPRS phone isn't in stores yet. They call this service 2.5G, 3G is 144kbps-2mbps.

Once this is widespread and "unlimited bandwidth" is available I would expect broadcasters to begin to cash in. Maybe competing with satellite radio.

Backbones continue to increase capacity, routers don't break nearly as often as they use to. Broadband future looks good.



Anonymous's picture

Re: MPEG4?

Anonymous's picture

The MPEG4 audio licensing situation is terrible. Apple is previewing *not* jumping. Check out the recent slashdot article. while the quality of the codecs and compression may be better, unless they can work out the licensing issues, it will never replace the current standards for the purposes of the independent developer or underground broadcaster.

Napster all over again...lawsuits all over again

Anonymous's picture

What prevents Shoutcast from becoming the next

Napster, ultimately castrated, either by

acquisition or litigation, and turned into a

diluted subscription service?

I hope for the best but I anticipate the worst...

Re: Napster all over again...lawsuits all over again

Anonymous's picture

They'll move on to something else.

This has happened before, and it'll probably happen

again until the suits join the 21st century and realize

broadcasting as we know it is dead as the

telegraph :).

(Flame away, "disk jockeys', radio station execs, etc.) ;)

when Napster was around, there were many different

Napster like alternatives for the Linux community,

ranging from clones of Napster itself (knapster,

gnapster) to gnutella and a related plethora of

clients there (Limewire, etc.) and most recently,

Audio Galaxy. I tried Limewire for a while; it was

OK, but very difficult to pull down anything and

it could be a very big bandwidth hog, even on

a DSL line.

Now, Audiogalaxy is crippled - try looking for

any popular band out there and over half the

songs are blocked out. I guess the execs

found out. Some places ( for instance)

skirt the issue entirely, by offering really obscure

renditions (think Beethoven's 3rd symphony

performed by an obscure orchestra in Kuala

Lumpur, for instance).

Live365 seems to be very popular, and there's

nearly everything there, but of course you can't

save the content yoruself. I suppose that might be

one of the reasons the execs haven't gone

against them yet.

Re: Napster all over again...lawsuits all over again

Anonymous's picture

Two things:

1) They should move to streaming .ogg format (maybe this is supported already)2) Only broadcast music from unsigned artists and independant labels.Doing that, they should be able to avoid litigation.

Re: Napster all over again...lawsuits all over again

Anonymous's picture

"2) Only broadcast music from unsigned artists and independant labels." - that's like saying napster/kazaa users should only download music they own, we all know it won't happen.

Open Source Streaming Platform

Anonymous's picture

Plese check text

Open Source Streaming Platform

on my blog

Re: Open Source Streaming Platform

Doc's picture

Woops. I believe you meant this. I get 404s on your working examples, but it looks real good.

Re: Open Source Streaming Platform

Doc's picture

Is this what you're talking about?

Looks interesting. How's it going so far?

Re: Run Streaming

Anonymous's picture

As an ex-Real employee, I can confirm the comments above about Linux being used internally. I'm not sure what he's talking about as far as "we could have had a really good Linux player" goes -- from what I can tell the Linux player is functionally identical to the Windows version. (You'll note the Real-based HP Digital Entertainment center runs Linux, for instance. I worked on the team that did the server-side work for that.)

What I can't see is what incentive there is for Real to go open-source or embrace Ogg Vorbis. Real's whole business model is based around getting content locked into the closed RealAudio and RealVideo formats -- that's what keeps them alive. If they opened their codecs, what would we need them for?

Anyway, we don't need Real to open-source their codecs; we just need Icecast 2.0. :) Eventually the radio stations will come around.

Re: Run Streaming

Anonymous's picture

I can't speak for how well the windows version works, but the realplayer, when used on a station broadcasting at 96kb, will require 95% of my pentium 266. xmms needs 5% at 128kb. Was the realplayer compiled without -O? What could it possibly be doing?

Re: Run Streaming

Anonymous's picture

I agree with this statement. IceCase is so much nicer then ShoutCast. Don't ask me why, I just know that it sounds a heck of alot better and stands more sturdy on my player. I mean, if I listen to a shoutcast server at my class, I get "skippy" stations. If I listen to IceCast, I get awesome cd quality at low bandwidths. IceCast @ 31.2K-64K provide extremely good quality on the web as compared with RealAudio and ShoutCast at the same compression levels.

Re: Run Streaming

dmarti's picture

Doc, even if you use Ogg Vorbis, write your own songs, and can put together a studio and a server out of junk, bandwidth costs will eat you alive as soon as you get popular.

The missing piece is either (1) write a good p2p streaming system that spreads the bandwidth demand among all listeners or (2)get all ISPs to turn on multicast or provide IPv6 service.

Re: Run Streaming

ged's picture

dmarti said:

"[...] write a good p2p streaming system that spreads the bandwidth demand among all listeners [...]"

You mean like PeerCast?

Re: Run Streaming

Doc's picture

Radio Paradise seems to be scaling, with increased voluntary payments covering increased bandwidth demand. Bill Goldsmith says they're actually making a little bit of money.

We're also not talking about a huge amount of demand, realistically, right now, given this line copied from the RP site: "Currently, 778 listeners are enjoying Radio Paradise - 2.7% of the total Shoutcast listenership of 29278."

I'd like to create a personal listening fund that distributes itself with my listening. Maybe some kind of XML/Jabber hack would do the job.