Internet Radio 101


By Heather Green Tired of listening to the same old playlist on your iPod? Want background music at work that's more in tune with your tastes than the local radio station? Hankering to listen to talk shows on your own time? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then it's time to try radio, Internet-style.

Internet radio comes in all different types and flavors (see BW, 3/14/05, "The New Radio Revolution"). Currently, all the excitement online is focused on "podcasting," the audio technology that lets anyone become a deejay or a talk-show host.

But that's not your only Internet radio option. If you're looking for something that's less quirky, yet still an alternative to the standard formats of traditional radio, Internet-only radio stations from new-media giants such as MSN (MSFT), AOL (TWX), and Yahoo! (YHOO), and lesser-known upstarts such as Soma and AccuRadio, offer polished Internet music channels.

BECOME A PRO. The Internet also makes local radio global. Want to listen to the BBC, but reside in Brooklyn? Want to find a Cox (CXR) radio station from the Midwest, but live in New England? Want to check out the cutting-edge programming of KCRW, a Santa Monica (Calif.) public-radio station that has been on the forefront of Internet radio, but you're in Miami? The Internet provides those options.

With this cornucopia of options, you can pick the Internet radio experience that's right for you, whether it's in the car, at the office, or at home.

Let's start with podcasting. It's just the latest evolution of digital radio (see BW Online, 3/3/05, "Radio Days for Everyman"). New software allows anyone to create radio shows and distribute them automatically over the Web to a PC, where they can be downloaded onto an MP3 player such as the Apple (AAPL) iPod. This simple-to-use technology means someone without access to a radio tower can broadcast a show featuring everything from the latest in digital gadgets to not-so-latest Grateful Dead tunes.

EASY AS PIE. For the most part, regular folks are doing these shows, although a handful of traditional stations, primarily National Public Radio affiliates, have joined the podcasting world. So you can find podcasts of a variety of talk and news shows from stations including WNYC, KCRW, and WGBH.

The quality of most of the 3,500 podcasts now available is all over the map. And because they're based on individual interests, they can dip into arcane topics or music that perhaps only people with similar tastes will appreciate. But that's their beauty -- they don't have to adhere to mainstream tastes.

Listening to a podcast is simple because it's just a small audio file. It can be downloaded from the site of the person who produced it onto your computer as you would any other audio file. Then, you either listen to it using any standard media player on your PC, or download it to an MP3 player. Most podcasts are produced by bloggers, so to find a podcast, in most cases simply look for an entry on a blog that says, "Here's my podcast," with a link to click to start the download.

SIMPLE LOCATORS. You can also subscribe to podcasts and have them automatically sent to your computer. To do so, you download software, called an aggregator, onto your computer. The most popular podcast aggregators now are www.ipodder.org and iPodderX. To subscribe, look for a button labeled "podcast" or "XML" on the site. Click on that and then copy the URL into your aggregator.

As the name implies, aggregators put all the podcasts you subscribe to in one place. These services also provide more information about podcasting on their sites, as well as directories.

Such directories are springing up across the Internet, making the task of finding a podcast much easier than it was just a few months ago. Podcast Alley is a popular directory with a clearinghouse of information about podcasts. It lists the top-10 podcasts, based on the votes of people who visit the site. Other directories are at Allpodcasts and audio.weblogs.com a site that boasts of listing "the freshest podcasts," pulled together by blogger Dave Winer, one of podcasting's creators.

RADIO ME! Podcasting is just one Internet radio option. There are plenty of Internet-only radio services. Free, independent stations such as SomaFM and WOXY broadcast over the Internet and are supported by contributions or ads. Simply visit their Web sites to listen to their shows.

Big Internet radio services, such as Live365, Yahoo, and MSN create their own music channels and cull thousands of online radio stations into one big network. You subscribe to these services -- typically, they have a free version with ads or a paid offering costing as much as $4.95 a month. In general, the paid offering is commercial-free and offers higher quality and more stations.

The beauty of either of these Internet radio networks is the variety of music channels they provide. You can choose from broad or niche music channels. In one afternoon, you can skip from a channel that plays top-40 rock hits to martini-lounge jazz to movie soundtracks. With many services, a listener can also skip through songs. And at MSN Radio, you can even download -- for around 99 cents apiece -- many of the songs.

Radio devotees can even customize their own station, based on individual tastes. When you sign in to Yahoo Music, for example, you can go to a section called "Customize My Station." Then choose from a variety of genres, such as rock or country, and artists, such as The Smiths or Coldplay, and rate them using stars to indicate how much you like them. Then Yahoo creates a playlist that it sends out automatically, based on your tastes. It goes beyond your exact song list and finds similar music you may also like.

POINT-AND-PLAY. Typically, these types of services are best for people who like to listen to specific genres of music or want more control over the kinds of music they hear. These services work best on PCs, although wireless operators such as Sprint and Cingular are starting to offer them on high-speed wireless networks.

But if you're not into customizing your radio stations, plowing through quirky podcasts, or hopping around from genre to genre, never fear. More and more traditional radio stations are available online. Granted, NPR and the BBC have been the most innovative, but stations from some traditional radio giants such as Cox Radio are available, too. They provide live streaming straight from their sites. You listen to them using the popular media players, such as RealMedia or Microsoft's Media Player.

The more innovative traditional radio stations offer other goodies as well, though. KCRW, the eclectic public radio station in Santa Monica and a 10-year veteran of Internet radio, offers plenty to listen to. It provides popular programs on demand, including the Sounds Eclectic music show, a hit among the cyber-hipster set in big cities like San Francisco and New York. And besides the live stream of what's playing on-air, it offers two others -- one that combines other music programming and a third that collects news from NPR, the BBC, and Voice of America.

Internet radio is thriving. And the choices are only going to become more varied and appealing. The really hard thing about Internet radio: deciding what to listen to. Green is Internet editor for BusinessWeek in New York


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