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Internet Saved the Radio Star

Rino Breebaart

Listeners hungry for quality radio are tuning in to Internet stations, which offer more choice than free-to-air radio, and for the time being, anyway, more independence.

I love Internet radio. It lets me access music from the furthest beacons and studios on the planet. It lets me tune into what I want, when and where I want, and it's the closest thing to free music there is. Anything that transcends borders so cheaply has got to be good.

Proper commercial radio, the kind you twist the dial on and fiddle for reception, is currently in a saturated commercial quagmire. The free-to-air radio in Ireland is broadly terrible unless you're looking for talkback and news-heavy broadcasting. Then it's excellent. But if you're looking for music, well, forget it. There are a few independent stations that are only as good and variable as their DJs. There's a techno and a classical station, and the remaining radio options are aggravating and typically FM in musical quality; that is crass and tokenly top ten. Indeed, they are the kind of stations George Carlin used to parody so well. You know the Carlin feeling when you're cranking that dial and everything sounds uniformly annoying, as if you're the fifth caller at five past the hour with our fifth drivetime hit in a row on W555 raaaawk! It's only a matter of time before the ClearChannel effect, with one or two large corporate entities owning and determining the music played on most radio stations, crosses to these shores. Then the last remaining differences between real musical experiences and clapped-out greatest hits will blend into a seamless stream of friendly lobotomy rock. Now commercial free five hours a day.

Listeners hungry for quality, I think, are starting to move online. The Net is where it's happening, music-wise, with its greater access and downloadability. But before this starts to sound like promotional guff in favour of Internet technologies, let me say that commercial machinations are always close at hand on the Internet, just like they are on the airwaves. What seems like free streaming is never quite that. But it's still less fettered by hard economics, still offering more choice than free-to-air radio, more independence.

At this stage, the actual sound quality in relation to connection speed gears netradio to a future where everyone who wants to listen must have broadband access. I can only listen at work because we have a nice fat cable � if I had to dial up to tune in at home, I'd think twice about it. Those perpetual interruptive jumps in the buffering would have me screaming. Some of the lo-bandwidth 28k stations probably can't afford the fat cables, either, and are limited to the tinny mono sound of heavy compression. These stations are typified by the washy, stringy sound, as though the music is filtered through a data storm and then broadcast through a child's string telephone. Notice, for example, how bad applause or crowds sound. This lo-fi quirk will become part of the charm of netradio as soon as it can be avoided.

But yet notice how similar it feels to AM radio, to serious old-school mono like Spector and co. OK, that's a slight misrepresentation, but it still feels like that tuned-in communication, that all-music, all-heart connection to phantom DJs like in the '50s and '60s. And because you don't always know what's coming there's more chance of being surprised by what you hear. I'm starting to think that unpredictability in music is good in itself, a quality to savour. Because then there's a good chance of finding music that isn't necessarily marketed or massively promoted, the kind of independent stuff that isn't pre-approved and packaged by promotional drives.

Internet radio is also the best way to tap into the counter-culture, indy-culture or sub-cultural mindset of another country. Whatever the real people like you and me prefer to listen to. For example, in one brief day's surfing I bounced from small-label "rawk" in Boston to bluegrass in the South, then from a clinic-like Swiss jazz station, to some real tongue-twisting and excellent alternative taste in Denmark. From crazy commercial pop in Prague to the carefree graveyard shift on Australian "yoof" network radio, plays hard rock one minute and hard techno the next. All in all, I was listening comfortably for days on end without that commercial-exhausted sensation in my brains. Ah! No ring-ins, no fifth callers, no flim-flam.

Admittedly, it can be hard to differentiate the promotional-commercial netradio stations from the genuine independents (wherever you choose to draw that line since so many commercial stations broadcast online) � but I did pick up on a stack of new acts to investigate: Blonde Redhead, the guitar wizardry of Kaki King and the West Coast cool of Nicolai Dunger, to name a few. With few ads in between.

Significantly, netradio represents easy marketing for musicians; it's a cheap medium for anyone with a computer and a song to share. Even the hairiest metal band can exploit netradio for its devoted fan base of girlfriends (and let me say that I've come across more metal radio than I've got hair on my head to bang around). And on the commercial flipside, netradio represents easy and powerful marketing which the big providers like Yahoo! can massage into feel good, choice-oriented musical streaming with untold commercial connectivity.

Take Yahoo's Launchcast: pick some bands and genres and the player will play "grow" similar musical choices, which you rate or skip. Much like the Amazon recommendation service, Launchcast creeps in on what you think you like, determines your taste, and suggests more in the hope of connecting to potential purchases. The current range of musical choices seems a bit limited, but I'm assuming Yahoo will expand its repertoire and rights to acts as time goes by. The selling point is that it's specialised radio, tailored to your taste and moods and marketing potential � though stripped of all the swears and cussing. However, UK Yahoo leaves in a lot of swears, and also leaves out the commercials featured on the American site (there's en explicit lyrics preference which defaults to No Thank You). Ads and prompts for related products and services (ring tones, like-minded members) sneak into your player, should you be tempted to connect.

It's great to explore music I haven't heard but want, or music (like jazz) I can't be arsed paying for on commercial download sites � and importantly, netradio still has that element of unpredictability. There's always the chance of picking up on something that'll have you wanting to ring up the station and say "What, hey?"

There's a lot of stuff about copyright and broadcast rights, which I'm skirting past, here. How many dues are paid to the estates of jazz musicians, for example, which have probably been sold out many times over? On the purely musical end of the experience, I never think about the bulk-broadcast deals and rights packages that are traded between record companies, though there's probably a tell-all book in that department, waiting to see the light of day.

Ultimately it's the technology, the medium of seeming-infinite musical access and variety, that is so beguiling about Internet radio. As (wonderful) as the technology of today is, imagine the day when you can pick up netradio thru WiFi accessories, or when you can tune your car to Radio Reykjavik to impress your date, or discreetly have your mobile tune in anywhere, anytime. There will always be many large providers with their many commercial needs � but there'll also be enough non-commercial stations to choose from, enough of a drive to keep access affordable and open to the unpredictable waves new of talent.

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