Finding the best of online radio

Podcasts may be the latest buzzword in online audio, but they are only the tip of the Internet audio iceberg. Thousands of broadcast radio stations simulcast some or all of their programming online. Audio programs with “streaming” capabilities, such as iTunes or RealPlayer, provide access to a world of radio programming.

This article will teach you the basics of finding and listening to radio online and will point out several resources that can help you find the best stations and programs available.

Getting Started

Online radio comes in two varieties. A number of sites, such as Live365 and Yahoo! Music, specialize in online-only stations, often with each station devoted to a single genre. Many of these stations are automated and offer little human touch in their programming. While there are certainly some stand-out stations, especially among niche genres, it can be difficult to find a station that is worth tuning in to consistently.

The second variety of online radio, the stations this article is concerned with, are the hundreds of traditional broadcast radio stations that make some or all of their programming available over the Internet via online streaming. These broadcast stations usually have larger budgets and larger music catalogs, provide local flavor, and offer a wide variety of programming.

In order to tune in to streaming audio stations, you will need an audio player with streaming support. Streaming capable players include RealPlayer, Windows Media Player, Winamp, and iTunes. Unfortunately, there are a variety of competing streaming formats (or “protocols”) and not all audio software programs support them all. When in doubt, most radio station websites provide links to programs that support their particular streaming format.

Audio streams can vary in quality depending on the station’s budget and available bandwidth. Sending higher quality audio (i.e., a higher “bitrate”) over the Internet requires more bandwidth and consequently a larger budget. For the best sound quality, verify that your audio player is set to the correct bandwidth based on your Internet connection, such as cable, DSL, or 56K modem. This is especially important if you regularly experience choppy audio or if other programs become unresponsive while tuned into an online radio stream.

One downside of streaming audio is its ephemeral nature. If you are interested in scheduling a recording of your favorite program, for listening later or transferring to your portable player, additional software may be required. For more information, see our earlier article entitled Radio Daze.

Search Tips

It can be difficult to choose a station to start listening to online. If you just want to break out of the monotony of corporate radio, consider searching for a college, community, or public radio station. Not only will you enjoy an eclectic mix of programming, you will also suffer through fewer commercial interruptions.

If you are interested in a particular show, try using your favorite search engine to check if the show has its own website. Some shows, such as the Putumayo World Music Hour and Afropop Worldwide, list stations that carry the show along with links to each station’s website.

Don’t give up your search too soon. For instance, the official website for the Dr. Demento show, which specializes in novelty music, does not list stations that carry the show. However, a dedicated fan maintains a page called Dr. Demento On The Net!, which lists online stations that carry the show along with air times.

When searching for shows dedicated to a particular genre, one search shortcut I’ve found is to use Google’s special “intitle:” or “inurl:” search operator to quickly locate radio station “schedule” pages. For example, if you are interested in finding shows dedicated to blues, you might try searching Google for intitle:schedule radio blues.

Once you do find a show that you are interested in listening to, it can be difficult to decipher when it airs in your home time zone. A site called timeanddate.com will help you find the time zone for a particular city, which you can then use to determine the relative start time where you are.

Resources

Recent versions of most audio players include some links to online radio stations. For instance, Winamp includes a directory of streaming media as part of its Media Library function. The directory primarily lists web-only stations, but some broadcast stations are also included.

For more comprehensive listings, a website called RadioTime is the closest you’ll find to a TV Guide for online radio. The RadioTime website contains a database of both broadcast and online radio stations, as well as individual program listings and schedules.

A free RadioTime Basic account grants you access to search the directory. The site also includes direct links to many online streams along with a listing of the bitrate for each stream. Additional features are available for paid subscribers to the site, such as scheduled recordings and integration with hardware radio tuners.

Another useful directory, PublicRadioFan.com, is dedicated specifically to public radio stations. The site features a database of stations along with links to online streams, often listing multiple formats for each station. The directory also catalogs individual shows and lists the stations that carry them.

Several other online radio directories cater to a more global audience. Surfmusic.de offers possibly the most comprehensive listing of worldwide stations broadcasting online, along with direct links to each station’s streams. Other directories cater to specific locales, such as Australian Radio Online and radiofeeds.co.uk.

For more in-depth information on Internet radio, pick up a copy of The Rough Guide to Internet Radio. Released in 2002, the book offers a comprehensive, though slightly dated guide to the subject, complete with recommended stations and programs for a multitude of genres.

Recommendations

With literally thousands of stations and programs to choose from, here are some specific recommendations to help get you started.

Station: KCRW
Location: Los Angeles, California
Recommended Show: Morning Becomes Eclectic airs weekdays from 9:00 AM to noon Pacific time, featuring a wide array of musical styles and regular in-studio live performances by big name artists such as Moby, Beck, and Wilco.

Station: WBUR
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Recommended Shows: Only A Game, WBUR’s one-hour syndicated sports show, airs on Saturdays at 7:00 AM and again at 6:00 PM Eastern time. The Connection, airs weekdays from 10:00 AM to noon Eastern, with interviews on a different topical subject each hour.

Station: WBEZ
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Recommended Show: This American Life airs weekly on Fridays at 7:00 PM and Saturdays at 1:00 PM Central time. Each episode features a variety of stories, both fiction and non-fiction, based around a central theme.

Station: WWOZ
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana
Recommended Show: The New Orleans Music Show airs weekdays from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM Central time, with a different DJ each day of the week, all showcasing the richness of New Orleans music.

Station: KOOP
Location: Austin, Texas
Recommended Show: It doesn’t get much more unique than The Lounge Show, which airs Saturdays from 10:00 AM to noon Central time, playing a wide variety of kitschy music from bygone days.
Note: KOOP broadcasts during daytime hours, sharing a broadcast tower with student-run KVRX

Station: WLUW
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Recommended Show: The ska radio show Everything OffBeat is clearly a labor of love for DJ Chuck Wren, also the founder of one of the few remaining U.S. labels focused on ska music. The show airs Sundays from 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM Central time.

Matt Vance ( www.minezone.org ) is a technology consultant, manager, and freelance writer living in Austin, Texas.

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