Tuned to the web’s wavelength
Internet radio formats rarely match the sound quality of conventional receiving sets. But richness of content is already being greatly enhanced as radio stations test ways to exploit the strengths of the online option.
|RTE [Ireland]||CBC [Canada]|
|National Public Radio [US]||Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty|
The first time I came across what we now call new media was 10 years ago, when my editor asked me to investigate a dinner party tip-off that we would soon be able to import videos down our phone lines. This sounded deeply implausible – as afar as I knew, telephones were for talking and that was it – but it set me off on a path that led, I suppose, to this column.
The strange thing is that video-on-demand was nowhere near available in 1992; and it isn’t much closer now. Nevertheless, the idea of getting rid of schedules and being able to watch television programmes whenever you want is an attractive one. Almost, to me, as attractive as being able to listen to radio on demand.
I belong to that small subset of humanity that prefers radio, and particularly speech radio, to television. In the UK Radio 4 is essential for some of us – and baffling to the rest – which is why I was delighted to hear a trailer for “The Archers on demand”. I can now listen to the past seven days’ episodes of this venerable radio soap on the BBC’s site (www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/archers). And I do, occasionally – though I have to say I am not convinced by the quality of internet radio.
One of the mysteries of online audio and video is the choice of formats – the main ones are Real Networks, Windows Media and Quicktime. Real is the most common, and the one used by Radio 4. The good news is that, unlike video, you do not need a fast connection to get the best; the bad news is that the best quality is rarely as good as that on a conventional set. I splashed out $30 on an upgraded version of Real Player – the video was much better, but the sound was still tinny. More confusing yet, the quality seems to vary from the tolerable to the appalling.
New worlds to explore
So I will not (yet) choose to listen to radio over the internet if I can pick up a signal on my transistor. But what if I can’t? This is where online radio is attractive – just as I used to scan though scratchy shortwave to find Radio Tirana when I was young, now I can find a wealth of programmes of all sorts by fiddling around on the web. Real Networks’ own site is a good place to start.
It is always a sign of a technology that has yet to find its place when there is lots of experimentation. The fact that there are at least three formats is one such sign. Another is the plethora of ways radio stations are using the medium.
Live feeds (listen to what’s on now) are pretty standard. Examples are at Ireland’s RTE and Canada’s CBC. The real differences come first in the way archives are treated and, second, in the integration of audio and other material. Three sites I found that are doing interesting things are the BBC, National Public Radio in the US and the European-based but US-owned Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Some archives carry only the most recent programmes. The BBC’s Archers site covers only the past week – I want the past 51 years! RFE/RL has a big “broadcast on demand” database – but the volume here comes from the spread of languages (23, including Kazakh and Turkmen) rather than history.
Depth and searchability
For real depth, NPR is unbeatable. Every edition of the Morning Edition since the beginning of 1996 is carried in full (though the sound quality of the earlier shows is poor). This is already handy for anyone studying recent US history; as the archive grows, it will surely become a standard tool for academics, students and journalists. For the casual visitor, meanwhile, NPR also carries archives of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, chopped up into bite-sized chunks.
The Today programme (www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today) does not have the depth of the Morning Edition archive. It appears to go back to October 2000, though “due to a technical glitch” only pieces from July 2001 will play. But it does have a search engine – tucked away behind the Listen button – which means you can find pieces containing particular words. The engine is strangely unsophisticated. You can only put in a word and/or a specific date: if it allowed date ranges and combinations of words, it would be powerful indeed.
When it comes to integrating content, the BBC is streets ahead, though again there is little standardisation. Alastair Cooke’s Letter from America is available as text and, in some cases, audio. The Archers has a well-populated forum, while Today uses the site as an effective add-on to the broadcast. As well as lively message boards, it polls listeners regularly; this week, they can choose “the wild flower that represents the character of their county”.
Today also plugs its website vigorously on air, though its home page has been looking very strange recently. The Rushmore-like images of the main presenters have been defaced by the computer equivalent of spray paint. Sue McGregor, who has just retired, has been scribbled out, and the words “discontinued 28.02.02” written underneath. Either cruel or post-modern, I can’t decide which. I doubt this digital graffiti will still be there by the time you read this; but I thought I should put it on record.
First published on 09 March, 2002