Video may have killed the radio star, but the Internet is giving new life to the airwaves. As traditional broadcasting becomes increasingly dominated by mass-market conglomerate stations, cyberspace has become a goldmine for independent radio. Alongside the allure of shopping in your underwear, stay-at-home stock trading and oodles of pornography, the Internet is facilitating a new revolution in broadcasting.
Listeners across the globe are falling for the ease and unbridled freedom of online radio, from international media giants to college stations to political upstarts. Unlike "terrestrial" stations, which are hindered by geography, signal strength and a constricted bandwidth, online broadcast -- via "streaming audio" -- is a relatively uncharted domain. Thanks to the World Wide Web, online broadcasters can reach anyone with a computer and a decent connection. But even as it exhibits massive growth, Web-streaming is being threatened.
In Vermont, where transmitting a signal over mountainous terrain can prove impossible, online radio is particularly attractive. College stations such as the University of Vermont's WRUV and Middlebury's WRMC stream their broadcasts over the Internet, enabling listeners as far away as New Zealand and Africa to tune in. Joining the college stations in cyberspace is Montpelier-based Onion River Radio -- the state's first online-only radio station.
Founded two years ago by veteran radio personality Frank Schliemann, Onion River (www. onionriverradio.com) presents an intriguing mix of classic and modern rock, along with tunes by local musicians. A given day of programming might contain everything from contemporary hits by artists like Dave Matthews Band and Beck to oldies by the Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Dire Straits. Because of online radio's less structured formatting, advertisements and station identification spots are brief and focused -- a far cry from the intrusive ad blocks that clog traditional broadcasts.
Streaming audio isn't really all that different from tuning in a dial -- albeit digitally. You simply access a Web page that offers audio and "listen in." Unlike other audio technology, such as MP3s, Streaming Audio doesn't actually download anything to your computer. Instead of copying a file, you are hearing an existing, ongoing program, as with traditional radio. All a prospective streamer needs for hardware is a computer, speakers and one of a variety of players such as Winamp, Realplayer or Windows Media Player -- all available for free download online.
As with the Internet itself, there have been no regulations governing the use of streaming audio. While this free-for-all situation has made it easy for independent, low-budget stations, pirate Webcasters and religious and political groups to take advantage of the technology, it has also raised questions about the legality of transmitting copyrighted files. Many musicians and publishing companies fear that Internet radio, like MP3s, hurts artists by allowing royalty-free broadcasting. Most Webcasters disagree, saying the international publicity they offer can greatly increase an artist's popularity.
Under pressure from the Recording Industry Association of America, Congress recently passed legislation forcing Internet broadcasters to pay royalties and adhere to a specific set of standards. Though it remains to be seen what effect these rules will have on independent broadcasters, it's assumed that the annual cost will be between $500 and $1000. WRUV, WRMC and Onion River Radio all have agreed to follow these guidelines. But the cost could put an end to smaller stations' Internet broadcasts.
Despite the controversy surrounding it, online radio continues to grow. The jury is still out on whether the Internet will really be radio's final frontier. But lots of folks, including Schliemann, are betting on the Web's convenience and relative freedom to make it a passageway to a new era of radio broadcasting.