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: Real.com 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.