By James Careless
OTTAWA, Ontario — About 20 years ago — the exact date has faded into the mists of history — Radio World International launched the RadioNet technology column.
Dedicated to examining “radio and the internet” — and the technology used to connect the two together — RadioNet began in the earliest days of internet radio. This is when 56 kbps dialup was the way most people accessed the web, rather than broadband. As a result, the internet radio feeds (now better known as streaming media) of those early days were extremely limited in bandwidth and fidelity, as were the station choices and avenues for listener response.
Today, everything has changed. Although internet radio has yet to replace AM and FM radio broadcasts (if that ever happens), it has definitely become a mass-market broadband medium via the streams of major public/commercial radio broadcasters online, feeds from web-only stations and major music streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify.
Jacobs Media Strategies (jacobsmedia.com), a longtime RadioNet expert source, has been surveying internet radio’s audience growth since 2005 through the company’s annual Techsurvey. “At that time, less than a quarter of our entire sample used streaming radio weekly or more often,” said Fred Jacobs, JMS’ president. “In our newest survey, nearly six in 10 listen to streaming weekly or more often. Streaming has gone from an activity that only a handful of techies used to do to a mainstream activity.”
According to various historical sources, the first online webcaster was Internet Talk Radio, which was founded in 1993 by technologist Carl Malamud. (Given that the first listeners were tech-oriented, it makes sense that Internet Talk Radio featured computer expert interviews, not music.) A year later in November, WXYC(FM) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, reportedly became the first traditional broadcaster to start streaming its programming online.
Slowly but surely, both broadcaster-run and web-only stations began to emerge onto the internet. In 1996, “Virgin Radio became the first radio station in Europe to stream online 24/7, under the excellent leadership of John Ousby,” said radio “futurologist” James Cridland, another long-time RadioNet expert contributor. “I was thrilled to work for Virgin Radio later as digital media director, and to make it the world’s most listened-to internet radio station for a while.”
As in the earliest days of broadcast radio, the primary challenge for pioneering webcasters was to find ways for listeners to hear them. At first, the pioneers solved this problem by creating their own individual “media players,” which listeners had to download and install on their own computers to tune in online. The downside is that you could end up using five different players to tune into your five favorite stations, which was hardly practical.
Eventually, third-party software developers created standalone software playout platforms (for streaming broadcasters) and players (for people to tune in online to multiple stations). The most notable of these was the RealAudio Player, which was launched in April 1995 and soon became the dominant (but not only) player platform.
“It was, for a long while, a mess of proprietary systems,” recalled Cridland. “RealAudio, Windows Media Player, Quicktime and Winamp meant you had to be really dedicated to listen. The audio sounded pretty poor, too: not just because of older encoders but because many broadcasters didn’t know how to effectively make and process audio for online.”
Today, the descendants of the earliest Quicktime and Windows Media Players remain in use, as do others made by other vendors. But although the RealPlayer still exists (and is available online at www.real.com), the company has lost its dominance, Cridland said. “As RealPlayer got progressively more stuffed with advertising and as Real got greedier with their server licenses, they underwrote their demise,” he said. “It’s a shame, since they were industry leaders in this space at one point.”