Entertainment Section

Cool Pick Hotel

Unreal Audio

Cool Pick Hotel Written by Amanda Cohen

A radio talk show host in Madison, Wisconsin, recently remarked that for all the innovations in audio transmission over the World Wide Web, most direct online audio sounds like radio broadcasts from 1927.

He didn't say specifically where he heard these heavy-interference broadcasts, but he did refer to the "Real Bad Audio" quality. Granted, there may have been a sour grapes factor considering that his program is not carried anywhere online.

Online radio is still a few years away from perfection, but it's still an amazing use of the Net's capabilities to expand the audience of radio stations normally limited to their wireless broadcast radius. Listeners who can't find their favorite shows locally can often find them on the net. For example, The Doctor Demento Show is a comedy music program syndicated to a sadly diminishing number of radio stations, but fans with net access can listen every week if they don't mind a little static, a few drop-outs and occasional moments where a bit of sound echoes like a stuck CD. It's a little annoying during a talk show and it makes every song sound like a dance mix.

Until the technology exists to enable the net to carry live audio with the quality of current cable radio products, the Internet will continue to carry radio feeds with fuzzy, skippy digital problems, much like the fuzzy, skippy analog problems of radio in 1927. It might be encouraging to recall that at that point in history, commercial radio broadcasting was only seven years old, and the World Wide Web as we know it today isn't even that mature.

Perhaps we all need a refresher course on radio history.

Old time radio, or as it's called among its aficionados, OTR, is celebrated in sounds and pictures on the home page of The Bellingham Antique Radio Museum. Its page is neat and orderly, and rather than subjecting you to sound without warning as some over-developed pages do, the top page invites you to listen to recordings if you have RealAudio, or to download the application if you choose.

The first sound clip is a 26-second modern recording made to sound antique, partly through a voice characterization that emulates the announcers of the '40s, but mostly by using a slow digital recording speed, such as 8 or 11 kHz instead of 22 or 44 to ensure a fuzz reminiscent of early AM radio picked up over a long distance.

The second sound clip on the Bellingham home page is labeled as old-time radio broadcasts that you can hear while you click through the site. When I popped in, I heard a very current broadcast -- live, in fact -- from Yesterday USA Live including a discussion about the benefits Shockwave vs. RealAudio. The talk was followed by the Star-Spangled Banner, and then an introduction to what I'd been looking for in the first place, old time radio. Well, actually it was Ronnie Milsap hosting a program from his home studio in Nashville. The recorded program included two episodes of Gun Smoke sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes. I'm not sure, but I think the guy who did the voice of Chester, Marshal Matt Dillon's little sidekick, ended up being the voice of Ernie the Keebler Elf.

Bellingham also has a collection of short bites of radio history, with clips ranging from Benny Goodman's Swing School to Tom Corbet, Space Cadet.

If the mere sound of history isn't enough, the museum site includes photos from it's own collection of just about every kind of radio since Westinghouse's Aeriola Jr. from 1920, the first year that radios were commercially available. There's also a page of blueprints for building crystal sets

The Bellingham site used to include text on radio's historical figures, but it seems they lifted entire segments of text from the Encyclopedia Britannica without permission, so they are now in the process of rebuilding their history page.

For a complete background on the wireless medium, check out 100 Years of Radio. Created by historians in Italy, the site leans heavily toward the earliest days of radio, when Guglielmo Marconi endeavored to manipulate radio waves for the unthinkable purpose of long-distance communication.

How does it all relate to the Web? In his collection of "Background Briefing" articles, writer Neil Weiner presents a comprehensive comparison between the early years of the Internet to Stories from Early Radio, concluding that many people continue to overlook or ignore the potential of the net as a business tool, just as many overlooked the same potential in the gadgetry of early radio.

Now that you've located yourself in the historical timeline of radio and the web, it's time to hear where the two technologies merge. The first thing to do is to choose your application and plug it in. Most developers of continuous audio feed receivers make free downloads available so users can get hooked on the most basic products. The theory is that users will buy deluxe upgrades once they start to hear what's out there. So far, my little 16-bit RealAudio Player version 3.0 from Progressive Networks has served me well for sound surfing, though I may soon upgrade to their RealPlayer software for video. I've also gotten some mileage out of the animation and audio capabilities of Shockwave Essentials from Macromedia, but the range of products doesn't end there.

Web designers venturing into sites and sounds can download the line of StreamWorks products from Xing, including a transmitter, server and player.

The TrueSpeech Player from the DSP Group is built into Windows 95 and NT, but the rest of us can download it for almost any other platform. While you're there, you can pick up other compatible audio editing and transmitting software.

Each company's home page eagerly offers links to collections of audio samples and streams using its software. RealAudio has been the standard for most commercial radio stations, so the list of RealAudio sites appears to be huge and growing, though some of the links already outdated. Listed in categories of music and talk genres, RealAudio sites let you listen to rock and roll from Cagliari, Italy, as easily as from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Marconi would have been astounded.

StreamWorks 2.0 has an equally impressive list of users listed alphabetically, and most of them are dedicated webcasting sites rather than radio stations. Many are strictly promotional, such as Capitol Records' site of clips promoting rock guitar virtuoso Eric Johnson. One fascinating site that uses StreamWorks audio and video is The JASON Project, a series of highlights from underwater videos shot around the world from a specially-designed submarine.

It's easy enough to accept web broadcasting as a way to enjoy background music while online, but the possibilities are always expanding. News radio stations on the web can provide immediate coverage of local events with national impact. Before this service was available online, such immediate connection to distant stations was only available through radio networks. Network stations occasionally carry the signal of an affiliate if the news is big enough, but the Internet makes every city as local as the one you're in.

So, while the traffic report in Tiajuana might not sound interesting at the moment, consider it a small step toward the day when all local news is global and everyone has an extra hard drive just to hold all the applications required to receive all that audio.

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