As I write this, I'm listening to the radio, which isn't all that unusual, except that these aren't broadcasts I could get in the car: a Cincinnati Reds baseball game, a New York City jazz station, a commercial-free R&B broadcast out of San Francisco, and the world's narrowest "narrowcast" - an eclectic bit of rock programming so narrow that I'm literally the only person listening.
This is "radio" mostly in a metaphorical sense. It's really my computer, of course, reaching through a Web browser and a bunch of other, competing software products to download Internet audio files that in some cases are also actual radio broadcasts but in many cases are not.
Dialing in to the Net through a 56 kilobit-per-second modem, as I am, this seems like a ridiculous waste - or at least misallocation - of resources.
I'm using a $3,000 machine, tying up a phone line and seriously compromising my computing power for an experience that in sound quality, simplicity and dependability can't compare, truthfully, with the $9 Emerson clock radio an arm's length away.
And yet Web radio is one of the hottest ideas going in the ever-hot world of Internet startups and acquisitions: In the past few months, America Online and Yahoo! each have purchased fast-growing Web music sites, rock-music trendsetters like Rolling Stone and MTV have gotten into the business, and technological improvements - from Microsoft's newest browser and Real Networks' newest player to the latest MP3 enhancements - are closing the quality and accessibility gaps.
The combination of developments is not only changing how computers (and radios) are used, but offering a glimpse of a future when audience demographics are sliced ultra-thin - to the person - and everybody has the potential to be a radio broadcaster as well as listener.
"Although online radio has a long way to go before it matures as a consumer experience, the race is already on," says Lucas Graves, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. "It's not still in its infancy; it's just beyond its infancy. We've passed the first stage, which was last year when very few people knew about the possibility of listening to music online. Now more people are aware they can listen. It's still not always a good experience, but the market is there and growing."
Sampling the incredible number of Web radio offerings already available, you can imagine the attraction. Broadcast.com, an industry leader, says there are more than 1,700 radio stations available online. So if you just moved to Seattle from, say, Lexington, Neb., it's a treat - and relatively easy - to check back on things at home by tuning in to "Farm Radio" KRVN-AM. Or, if you want to check out Radio Mitre from Buenos Aries, that's only a click away, too.
Whatever your taste, there's a real or virtual Web radio program to meet it. One program on Shoutcast plays nothing but the soundtrack from the new "Star Wars" movie. Another, devoted exclusively to the routines of a certain comedian, might be promoted on a real radio station (if such a format were possible anywhere but the Internet) as "All Adam Sandler All the Time."
The truth is that, sitting in my home office and dependent on a regular phone line, I'm not really Web radio's target audience just yet.
Even with the fastest-available conventional modem and a Pentium 266 IBM Thinkpad laptop, I just don't have enough computing power - or, more accurately, enough bandwidth - to make listening online enjoyable.
It took just a few clicks to find that Reds-Mets baseball game, for example - from Broadcast.com to the Major League Baseball site to a list of available games to a link that automatically opened RealPlayer G2 and joined the Cincinnati radio broadcast in progress. The sound quality was about the same as from an AM radio. Mets catcher Mike Piazza was coming to bat in the sixth inning with the score tied 2-2.
But as often happens when listening over a phone line, the transmission stopped for "buffering" during "net congestion," a chance for the streaming audio transmission to squeeze through the small pipe of a 56K modem. Often the buffering lasts just a second or two. That's annoying enough, but occasionally, depending on net traffic, the backups can stretch to 10 minutes or more.
Piazza's ground ball must have gotten away from Reds third baseman Aaron Boone, because by the time RealPlayer was through buffering he was scoring the go-ahead run on a base hit by another player, two batters later.
With a so-called broadband connection - through a cable modem, a DSL phone line or a T-1 network connection - such hiccups aren't a problem. In fact, the sound quality and dependability of Web radio at higher speeds is superb, comparable to a compact disc. Not surprisingly, therefore, that small but growing segment of computer users - an estimated 5.4 percent of online households use a broadband connection, according to Jupiter Communications - make up the vast majority of Web radio listeners and account for almost all of the broadcasters' marketing efforts.
"Eighty percent of our traffic is coming from the workplace," says Scott Epstein, senior vice president for marketing at Spinner.com, the Burlingame, Calif.-based site that claims to be "the Internet's largest music service."
Given that statistic, Epstein says, Spinner has programmed its catalog of 150,000 songs in categories that roughly resemble radio formats - rock, oldies, jazz and blues, classical and urban and dance are among the top-level offerings - but without interruptions by chatty disc jockeys, "traffic and weather together" or even commercials. That would be disruptive in a workplace, Epstein says.
Real radio stations seem to know that such programming is what people want - try listening for 10 minutes without hearing somebody boast "more rock, less talk" - but Spinner, acquired last month by America Online as part of a $400 million deal, is actually doing it.
Another site, GoGaGa, also seems to know that workplace listeners are the prime target; one of its channels is called "Music for Cubicles."
Other Webcasters are taking the customization idea even further. At ImagineRadio, recently acquired by MTV, the listeners essentially act as their own DJs. Using an optional customization feature, a listener can rate a list of artists in various categories, effectively telling the programmers how often they want to hear them.
Shoutcast takes the concept to its ultimate conclusion. Users are invited to become their own programmers and broadcasters, using MP3 music-compression software to upload their own favorite sound files for anyone else to listen to. The results are fascinating, with such narrowcast ideas as the Adam Sandler "station" residing next to small but more serious efforts such as "Reed Radio," a music program linked to its own advertising-supported Web site maintained by a pair of brothers, Ed and James Reed.
On Shoutcast, the bandwidth problem works both ways. In other words, the number of people you can "broadcast" to is limited by the speed of your Internet connection, just as a listener's experience is.
In that, with my 56K connection, I may have been the perfect audience for a Shoutcast server listed under the "rock/alternative" heading: A notation said the server's maximum number of listeners was . . . one.
I tuned in. Godsmack's "Voodoo" and "Whatever," The Offspring's "Walla Walla," Metallica's "Whiskey in the Jar" and TLC's "No Scrubs" were among the righteous jams to come streaming through my MP3 player.
And who was the programmer? It turned out to be Craig Staffin, a personable 14-year-old computer and music enthusiast from West Bend, Wis., who works part-time as a disc jockey for local parties and dances when he's not attending the ninth grade.
"I've been a Shoutcast DJ for about three months now," Staffin said in an e-mail interview. "I have always loved music and computers so I thought this was a perfect marriage of the two."
The world's smallest radio station had found the world's smallest radio audience. Another Internet success story.
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The hypemasters of Internet radio say anybody with a computer, a sound card and a 14.4 kilobit-per-second or faster modem can listen to music or other audio programming on the Web. Don't believe them, unless by "listen" you mean hearing two-second snippets of sound separated by "buffering" breaks that can be many minutes long.
As a more realistic (but still frustrating) minimum, you should have a Pentium-class computer with a 16-bit sound card, 16MB of RAM, 4MB of available hard-disk space and an Internet connection with a 28.8K modem. At that speed you'll be able to hear, in fits and starts, stereo broadcasts at quality varying from that of AM radio to a good, clear FM radio signal.
For the best sound quality and most enjoyable listening experience, try a direct network connection such as a T-1 line, or a cable modem or DSL telephone connection.
You'll also need to download some software to play the audio files. The leading formats are RealPlayer and Windows Media Player, but some broadcast sites have their own players and now MP3 music-compression software can be used to play streaming audio as well.
With a good network connection, any of the technologies work fine, but because different sites favor different formats, a devoted Web radio listener will end up downloading all of them. They're all free.
-- The market leader is RealNetworks' RealPlayer. The latest version, the RealPlayer G2, is available at http://www.real.com.
-- Microsoft's new Internet Explorer 5.0 includes an upgraded Windows Media Player and a handy new radio toolbar as part of the browser. Oddly, though, given that the radio upgrade is one of IE's big enhancements, the toolbar isn't readily apparent. Go to the View menu, then select Toolbars and then Radio to find it. IE can be downloaded at http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/download/windows.htm.
-- Spinner.com plays its music on its own nifty Spinner player, which allows users to easily change programs or display information about an artist. It also displays advertising. It's available at http://www.spinner.com.
-- Rolling Stone Radio also uses its own "tuner," a plug-in companion for RealPlayer G2. To get it, go to http://www.rollingstoneradio.com.
-- There are many versions of MP3 software to play music. A popular, lean and free one is Nullsoft's Winamp, available at http://www.winamp.com.
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Once you've downloaded the necessary software, the choices for listening to radio or radiolike broadcasts on the Internet are enormous. Here are a few of the best places to get started.
-- The radio toolbar on Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5.0 includes a built-in guide to radio stations online. In addition to instant buttons for NPR, CNN, MSNBC and others, the guide lets you browse for stations by format or geographical location; the browser remembers your favorites. All the stations play through Microsoft's Windows Media Player. If you don't have IE 5.0 or aren't using the radio toolbar, you can find the guide at http://windowsmedia.microsoft.com/radio/radio.asp.
-- RealPlayer likewise comes with pre-selected favorites (formatted to use RealPlayer) and its own program guide. The RealGuide highlights upcoming live events - an ABCNews online interview with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was a recent selection - and nicely categorizes its offerings, which number in the thousands. See http://realguide.real.com/.
-- For a comprehensive guide to online radio, as well as a CD jukebox and audio books, try Broadcast.com, at http://www.broadcast.com/.
-- The opening page at the Live Radio on the Internet site is a picture of a radio with the words, "Who needs it?" Inside is a great guide to broadcasts by actual radio stations from the entire world, http://www.live-radio.net/.
-- Spinner.com isn't a guide to real-world radio broadcasts but a Web-only programmer of music on 120 channels. The sound quality is excellent. See http://www.spinner.com.
-- ImagineRadio is similar, except that in addition to choosing among pre-programmed channels, you can "build your own station" by selecting your favorite genres and artists and then getting precisely the music you want. See http://www.imagineradio.com/.
-- The NetRadio Network is another programmed music site with 120 channels to select from. Its smart innovation: an easy way to purchase the music you're listening to online. See http://www.netradio.com/
-- Excellent, eclectic programming sets apart MacroRadio.Net, which includes GoGaGa, a wonderfully unpredictable mix of many genres, and the Twangbox Radio Network for "classic country, bluegrass, rockabilly and y'alternative music," among other equally cool headings. See http://www.macroradio.net.
-- Shoutcast uses MP3 technology, rather than RealPlayer or Windows Media Player, to stream its files. But the big attraction is that listeners are invited to become programmers, as well, by uploading their own music onto a Shoutcast server. The mix is dynamic and fun. See http://www.shoutcast.com/.