Bring on the WiFi Radios

Even though the record industry is throttling internet radio stations in the US, it's a big world with infinite dialwidth. With WiFi growing like a rogue weed, the market ecosystem is calling forth a new breed of Linux-based portable radios. Wanna make one?

Okay, so the record industry and the feds are committing industrial genocide on US-based internet radio (with a few exceptions that include popular public radio stations like WUNC and KUOW). But there are plenty of places in the world where webcasting is still legal, and nobody's keeping you from listening. So let's stop for a moment and ponder the opportunities here.

On the one hand, the easiest way to put up an internet radio station is with Linux and other open-source tools. In fact, it says here that Bill Goldsmith of Radio Paradise is making his hacks available for anybody who wants them. For background on how cool this is, see "The Promise of Radio Paradise: An Open-Source Challenge to Commercial Radio".

The client side is another matter. One reason internet radio is still at the early adopter stage (or earlier: more like hunter-gatherer) is that computers are the only available receivers. Kerbango made a run at pioneering the internet radio receiver business a couple years back, but 3Com bought and killed them ($81 million for nothing). Penguin Radio came along around the same time and is still in business. Their radios look cool, but they aren't out yet.

Yet the advent of WiFi begs radios. Wouldn't it be cool to have a portable radio, or a car radio, that picked up web stations over WiFi or a wired DHCP connection to the Net? Hey, why not?

Here's what Bill Goldsmith said when I asked him about the prospects:

WiFi internet radio? Gotta love it! I think that the kind of ad hoc WiFi networks that are starting to pop up could be the biggest thing since Linux--a total end run around the big-money wireless initiatives. No reputable manufacturer is about to put out a product that depends on a network run for the hell of it by a bunch of hackers in their spare time--just like a few years ago no reputable company would have had anything to do with an operating system written by a bunch of hackers in their spare time. Smells like an opportunity to me.

Then I pointed him to zradio, a piece of $10 shareware that turns your Linux-based Sharp Zaurus into an internet radio receiver. He replied, "Well, that is just the coolest thing...I could easily write a web app for that screen size that would let me control the station as well as listen to it--anywhere with WiFi access. How cool is *that*?"

But what we need now is a radio--not a computer or a PDA, simply a radio. A dedicated device. Something anybody could use.

It's silly to wait for the consumer electronics cartel to make one. Their Hollywood connections probably forbid it outright, but the bigger reason is production economics. They don't make anything unless it risks selling huge numbers.

Many years ago I did a lot of work with Hitachi Semiconductor, where I often heard the expression, "10-10-10." No, it wasn't fertilizer. It stood for an unspoken policy that was common throughout the semiconductor industry: the big consumer electronics component producers wouldn't bother to ramp up production on a new microprocessor if it wasn't going to be over 10 MIPS, under 10 dollars and ready to sell at least 10 million units. That's why the Hitachi SuperH never would have been available as a GNU/Linux development target if the company hadn't sold piles of early versions to companies like Sega and Nissan.

So we have to roll our own. Hey, is it really that hard? We don't need something beautiful, just something functional. The innards could consist of a low-power board running Linux, an analog board for audio, some backplane for USB, Ethernet and PCMCIA--or only with WiFi and nothing else.

We have to think inventively here, and cheap, too. Here's Don Marti:

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to an internet radio as a Linux development project is the sheer simplicity and lack of challenge.

Put a single-board computer and some kind of networking hardware in a box with an amplifier and power supply. Put a knob on the front for power and volume and another knob to switch between stations. Let the user build a preset station list on a web site, and configure the radio to download it periodically. There's nothing here that ten thousand people couldn't do in their basements given a few spare weekends, a soldering iron and an FTP client.

But that means VC-funder companies looking for a big score won't be able to patent anything, and individuals looking for a fun hobby project would be done too soon. Who will take up the challenge of doing such an "obvious" project, but with human factors that will make people want to put it in their living rooms and bedrooms? Who will resist the temptation to clutter the radio with alphanumeric displays people don't understand and buttons they don't press? Is it time to pitch Tom DeVesto about doing a Net version of the Henry Kloss Model One?

You can forget venture capital in any case. Here's the RenguinRadio CEO Andrew Leyden:

Raising new funding for a "device" like this is impossible in this economy, even though the demand for such a thing is as hot as ever (people e-mail me every week pleading for things like this, it pains me I can't deliver it now)....It's really a shame. The elements are falling into place (broadband, home networking), but the march of the big boys is really wrecking the Net in many regards (RIAA, CARP, etc.). Our goal was a device that could deliver everything from around the world to the local guy in his basement. Now that the efforts are underway to make internet radio as stale as over-the-air radio, it does make us scratch our heads and ask should PenguinRadio even play a part in the rise of musical mediocrity?

That last question is a rhetorical one, because he's pressing ahead with development anyway. But what about the rest of us? Just because the going got tough doesn't mean the tough should stop going. It seems to me there's an opportunity here. What do the rest of you think?

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.



Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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Anonymous's picture

I don't know when this article was written, but there are already a few devices out that do just that.

There are a few big bulky ones, which I'm not going to address, because what we are looking for is a portable machine. If we are forced to use big machines, we would rather stick to the computer in the first place.

Anyway, take a look, and be amazed.

WiFi Radios UK

louisblanc's picture

If your interested have a look at what they are offering in UK.

AE WiFi Radio

Edgar's picture

Acoustic Energy's Internet Radio is now available in the U.S. and I have to say that everyone that has seen it, has kept it. Easy to use and with over 2,000 stations it sure is worth the $300 price tag. C. Crane Company Inc. is the only U.S. retailer carrying this item, at least for now.

Acoustic Energy's Internet Radio

Dave Kaspersin's picture

Acoustic Energy's Internet Radio is also available
at 1ST Audio USA.

Re: Bring on the WiFi Radios

Anonymous's picture

Anyone thinking of making money out of this idea should first have a look at US patent no. 6,314,094 :-(

Re: Bring on the WiFi Radios

Anonymous's picture


I'm not a Linux user but would like to contribute to the idea. I just typed 'Wi-Fi Radio' into google because I want a specfic device; Cheap.

I listen to the BBC on my computer on a daily basis. BBC Radio 4 offers a back catalogue of shows aired over the last week. I would love a device that would let me listen to this back catalogue in bed. I have a radio to 'stream' radio into my bedroom, but no way to listen to a back catalogue.

I guess I could move a computer into my room but my girl friend would not be happy about that. Now a little box that looks like a radio, now I am in heaven.

Over the next few years people are increasingly going to have Wi-fi in the home and a device like I am looking for would suit many peoples needs.

Best Wishes

Wifi Radio

Anonymous's picture

The first Wifi Radio is now available in the UK. It is slightly pricey but it will go down at some point. Made by a company called Acoustic Energy and runs on Linux. Only gripe I have is why didn't they implement a standard Digital radio tuner in it.

What about WiFicasts?

Anonymous's picture

I've read Doc's piece twice now, and enjoyed it more with each reading. I'll confess when I first saw the headline of WiFi Radios, I wasn't thinking about the physical box, but the ability of each of us to become WiFi narrowcasters.

Maybe I'm way off base here -- my techie prowess can fit in a thimble -- so let me throw out this question: Since there are millions of people now sharing MP3 files through file-sharing systems, how difficult would it be to take that a step further and devise a system for individuals to become their own WiFi DJs? That is, not the commercial patter you hear on mainstream radio, but regular folks serving up creative, cued playlists, culled from one's own collection, and streamed to the gizmos Doc is talking about building? That, to me, would be more satisfying than merely sticking a bunch of MP3 files in one's Share folder.

Are the obstacles technological, financial, or legal? I know that under the DMCA, Webcasters have to pay royalties (presumably even the individuals who've set up music Webcasts). Not sure if that would apply to WiFicasters.

After all, if you throw a block party and pump up the volume for a couple of hundred of neighbors, that's permitted. Wouldn't a digital block party for hundreds or thousands of kindred wired souls also be feasible?

jd in california

Re: Bring on the WiFi Radios

Anonymous's picture

Doc, check-out This device plus the wireless ethernet bridge from Linksys give you the features you want.

Re: Bring on the WiFi Radios

Anonymous's picture

who said the giants are sleeping? philips has a ip-boombox coming up the mc-i200 has an ethernet port, and plays mp3pro, expect an upcoming version including a wlan+bluetooth-chip, ogg-codec and a harddrive.

btw, centrally important for an operating wlan radio network is the support of multicasting / ipV6. otherwise you run into bandwidth congestion very soon..

Re: Bring on the WiFi Radios

Anonymous's picture

The biggest problem with this idea is WiFi's short range. You'd need ubiquitous public WiFi with web access for it to work, and at least around here it ain't happening.

My personal answer to this sort of thing is the SliMP3 (, connected to a LinkSys WET11 ethernet-to-WiFi adapter.

I can move that around my house freely, which is all I can reasonably expect from WiFi. If I want a bit more portability I could even rig up something with batteries, a small amplifier, and speakers, and the SliMP3+WET11 becomes a radio quite portable throughout the house.

-- rfunk

Re: Bring on the WiFi Radios

Anonymous's picture

who said the giants are sleeping?
philips has a ip-boombox coming up
the mc-i200 has an ethernet port,
and plays mp3pro,
expect an upcoming version including
a wlan+bluetooth-chip, ogg-codec
and a harddrive.

btw, centrally important for an operating
wlan radio network is the support of multicasting / ipV6. otherwise you run into bandwidth congestion very soon..

Multiple radios

Anonymous's picture

If you can combine this with more advanced baseband chips or software radios, you could have a more flexible receiver. Doc, what I think you're saying when you say Wi-Fi is "spectrum that doesn't require a specific license to use." So Wi-Fi is one protocol, but there's no reason to not support Bluetooth/IEEE 802.15.2, 802.11a, etc. Anything that doesn't require geographic spectrum license.

Re: Multiple radios

ZPO's picture

If I understand the main thrust of the article correctly, the goal is to get something that can be used by the average non-geek. Current 802.11b is something almost anyone can get at (insert name of chain electronics store here) and have a relatively high probability of success in getting it working.

There would also be a price issue. As soon as you start talking about SDR then you get into DSP, I/Q DAs, etc. The price starts climbing very quickly. Some of the more advanced baseband chipsets might be a win (ie 802.11a an 802.11b on the same device), but I'm not sure.

If I were cranking one out of the garage today I'd likely have 802.11b in the case and a PCMCIA slot (of USB port) on the back for future expansion.

Re: Bring on the WiFi Radios

ZPO's picture

Hopefully the WiFi side of the connection would be run as a mobile ad-hoc network (MANET). That way each radio would extend the wireless reach by the range of its own transceiver.

That being said the more typical infrastructure mode would work just as well. You wouldn't get the grass roots viral growth, but the application would still be as compelling. The only thing I would probably add is a small 2*20 or 2*40 LCD so you can what station you are on and get a small "what's playing" crawl on the bottom line.

Maybe its time to head over to Ebay and see what I can scrounge up! The most interesting part I've not yet found is an affordable 3-port 2.4Ghz duplexer so I can run all 3 non-overlapping channels on a single antenna.

Does anyone know of any existing open projects for an embedded web radio receiver?