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Internet Radio: Something for Everyone

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
September 3, 2012 Deadline
October 2012 Issue

Internet Radio: Something for Everyone

Radio has changed dramatically since I first wrote about Internet radio five years ago. Way back in 2007, you needed a computer with a broadband Internet connection to listen to streaming audio. Today, I listen to live BBC broadcasts on my iPhone while taking walks.

You can stream audio from the Internet through car radios, televisions, stereo systems, and even an “Internet-ready” refrigerator is sold with a streaming audio app. Most Blu-ray players and high-end home audio receivers include Internet radio features, often via the Pandora streaming audio service.

Streaming audio has been available on the Internet since the mid-1990s. RealNetworks launched in 1995, with the RealPlayer featuring a few dozen audio streams. Despite pioneering streaming audio and video-on-demand services, RealNetworks was unable to establish itself as the leading Internet radio provider. I can’t recall the last time I used the RealPlayer: it was unstable and had a tendency to “stutter” like a scratched record.

There isn’t a single Internet radio application that does everything. I have five streaming audio apps on my iPhone, and I use each of them frequently. I also have the major streaming services bookmarked in my Web browser.

I listen to Internet radio because I want to discover music and shows that are new to me. Often, this is music from the 1950s and 60s, and not the pop tunes heard on “Golden Oldies” stations. When I listen to “Martini Lounge” (AOL Radio), I find myself adding to my music wish list.

Listening only to my iPod, I would hear the same songs every few days. Listening to local radio, I hear the same songs every few hours. Little wonder new musicians have a difficult time being discovered: radio is over-programmed.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a fascination with radio. The history of radio reflects the changes throughout our culture and economy. Live performances were replaced by recordings. While the production values increased, the energy of audiences was lost. During the 1960s and 70s, disc jockeys would cart boxes of records into the studio. Each DJ had a personality, not only as a host but also in the music he or she selected. Things have changed.

If you listen to broadcast radio while driving across the continent, you could easily forget where you are. The majority of radio stations rely on pre-packaged brands, satellite feeds, and rigid playlists. Syndicated shows dominate the talk stations, reducing even “news-talk” formats to a bland uniformity.

The independent Internet radio stations resemble radio of the past. They are eclectic, with streams from college radio stations and low-power community radio among the best sources for new and unusual music. These stations take requests and talk about the music. You could use Pandora or Spotify to create a custom stream, but it wouldn’t be the same.

When I listen to an Internet radio station, I know how many other people are listening. There might be only 500 other people listening to Pink Martini’s “Brazil” on a stream. It feels like we’re sharing something because it is a small community.

While I generally use Internet radio to discover music, there are times when I use Internet streams to maintain connections to the Central Valley. I’ve listened to Valley morning radio shows while eating lunch in Orlando. I’ve listened to Bulldog sports while in Minnesota, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. No matter where I am, hearing news from home reminds me of friends and family.

Give Internet radio a try, if you haven’t. There is something for everyone among the audio streams.


The best streaming audio websites and applications:

Pandora (http://www.pandora.com)

Though founded in 2000, Pandora didn’t have a full-featured website and audio player until 2005. Today, it is the leader in personalized music streaming. Pandora has evolved into a service that rivals satellite radio. Car stereos, home receivers, and even some Blu-ray players can stream Pandora content. Pandora seems best if you want current music or past hits. If you want to listen to audio dramas or talk radio, I suggest a different audio player.

Spotify (http://www.spotify.com)

Spotify integrates streaming audio with social networking, something Apple had hoped to accomplish with its “Ping” network. As you listen to music, Spotify will share your playlist with Facebook and Twitter status updates. Personally, I don’t feel compelled to share what I’m listening to with the world.

TuneIn (http://tunein.com)

TuneIn streams more than 50,000 global broadcast and Internet radio stations. Financially supported by Google Ventures and other big-name Silicone Valley investors, TuneIn offers more variety than any other streaming service. You can subscribe to podcasts or listen to archived broadcasts with TuneIn. It is my preferred streaming app on the iPhone.

SHOUTcast (http://www.shoutcast.com)

SHOUTcast was my favorite streaming application on the iPhone, before I discovered TuneIn could access BBC broadcasts. I still prefer SHOUTcast for some stations, especially a few indie stations that don’t seem to be available via other media players. Though owned by AOL, the AOL radio service uses another audio player. Thankfully, AOL has let SHOUTcast remain independent and quirky.

Slacker.com (http://www.slacker.com) and AOL Radio (http://aolradio.slacker.com)

It isn’t as well known as other websites or audio players, but Slacker has one of the best applications for audio streams for iOS and Android devices. The “Martini Lounge” station is one of my favorite Internet streams. For sport fans, Slacker seems to have an abundance of streams, including several ESPN stations.

iHeartRadio (http://www.iheart.com)

Clear Channel Broadcasting, owner of more than 800 local radio stations, wasn’t about to let satellite radio and Internet startups dominate this new business model. Clear Channel launched iHeartRadio in 2008 and now promotes the iHeart brand with major concerts and events nationally. The iHeartRadio app is one of the most popular iPhone and Android applications.  

iTunes Radio (http://www.apple.com/itunes/)

It isn’t the best application for streaming audio, but many people are still more comfortable with iTunes than trying other audio players. I rarely use iTunes for audio streams because it is difficult to navigate. Apple needs to improve the station directory features.

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