Instant global radio, or Web radio, is the latest manifestation of the Internet’s multimedia successor, the World Wide Web. Improved technology and content are turning Web radio into a mass medium. (Hickman 30) The Web radio concept is mainly underlined by the concept of Webcasting, or broadcasting station content over the Internet. Online users who visit the Web pages of Webcasting stations can find archived and live audio covering news, business, sports, and many different types of music. (Thomas 38) Although the most prominent reason for the increase in Web radio activity is advancement in related technology, there are multiple other reasons.
The key has been the development of software that allows a digital recording stored on a computer to be transmitted over the Internet and played instantly and continuously as it is received by the listener’s computer. (Your Very Own 516) This technique is known as streaming, and was pioneered by RealNetworks. In the streaming process, the digitized clips are sent over the Internet as a stream of compressed data packets. (O’Malley 64) Free audio-player software that works with Web browsers then decompresses and assembles these packets at the user’s computer and automatically plays them back as they are received.Streaming systems typically use a buffering system that stores an extra few seconds worth of data to prevent Internet “hiccups” from disrupting the steady flow of audio – not unlike the shock-protection systems on portable compact disc players. (O’Malley 64)
As reported in 1995, listening to broadcasts on your computer is akin to dialing in a tinny transistor radio on the fringes of reception area – even with hotshot multimedia speakers. (Silverthorne A1) Advancements have made it so Web-based audio now offers near-CD quality, even over a modem of average speed. (Hickman 30) The broadcast quality depends largely on the amount of traffic on the Internet. (Your Very Own 516) Sites will have varying degrees of quality, and the only way to ensure pure transmission is a fast connection from a fast site.
On September 5, 1995, the first broadcast of a Major League Baseball game was made over the Internet on ESPN’s Web site. The next week, ABC Radio Net became the first organization to provide live Internet newscasts, with coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. (Silverthorne A1) These early firsts by big-name network stations sparked the initial interest in Web radio, and the networks have been the biggest contributors towards the widening spectrum of quality content, as well as setting professional standards for content. In Spring of 1998, ABC Radio Network signed a deal with Real Networks to broadcast all 27 of ABC’s radio stations on the Web. (Hickman 30) Despite network advancement, the sheer number of Internet-only Webcasters has helped to ensure better content, wider variety, and more Web radio usage. (Thomas 39) Where before there were difficulties with waveband congestion, access to unlimited space for Webcasters has become available through the Internet to virtually anyone, and positions even small alternative stations with potential to thrive alongside mainstream powerhouses. (Internet Radio 1)
The biggest fans of Web radio include people who have moved away from an area and like to tune in an Internet site to check the news or sports from their previous home town. Web radio also is popular with people who have exotic musical tastes and want to sample sounds that aren’t available from traditional broadcasters in their area. In addition, some people like to listen to commentary, or comedy programs playing in the background as they surf other sites. (Thomas 41)
Web radio, unlike the old sort, is interactive. Screens can supplement radio sound with song titles, liner notes and banner advertisements. Listeners can chat to each other, rate songs or click on a banner ad to buy a disc of the music they’ve just heard – all while listening to the radio. (Internet Radio 1) Many music Webcasters get payment for generating these types of music sales. Audio ads as normally run by traditional commercial stations can take up ten to fifteen minutes per hour. Audio ads on the Web usually take up a mere three minutes. This lost advertising is made up in the visual portion of the Website, and the broadcast itself suffers from little ads, leaving more room for programming. Despite the low costs and efficient advertising techniques, Web stations are still having to struggle to make money. (Internet Radio 1)
Other problems surround Web radio. Webcasting stations now may face copyright difficulties. Music licensing is a complicated issue because composers, artists, record companies, and music publishers all have different rights. (Thomas 41) Many questions surrounding Web user rights are not clear either. Because of this uncertainty, it is difficult to tell if Web users can legally save audio files and play them back later, or if news from wire services such as Reuters and the Associated Press can be rebroadcast.
Web radio cannot survive in its present form. (Your Very Own 1) For true success in the future both the technology and the financial footings of Web radio will have to become more sound. Until then, users will experience the diversity and imagination of the programming, as well as the frustration of downloading it.
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