Web Radio Broadcasting and the Golden New Age of Online Audio

The 1920s through 1940s are remembered as the Golden Age of Radio. Before television, before the Internet, before DVDs and video games, families gathered around a big box in the living room to listen to gripping dramas, spine-chilling mysteries, uproarious comedies and stirring live musical performances. The box offered no pictures to its audience; it was all theatre of the mind--but what theatre it was!

With all of the entertainment choices available today--so much of it visual--a person could be forgiven for assuming that radio will never again be much more than a source of background music for our cubicles and traffic reports when we're driving in our cars.

I have a contrarian view. I think we're on the verge of a new Golden Age of Radio, or audio-tainment if you will. The main driver behind this development is web radio broadcasting.

Tonight, for instance, I was on the British Broadcasting Corporation's Web site. Not only does the BBC have a wealth of great audio programs available for free download, it also offers live streams of its various channels.

Now, I was already familiar with the BBC's world news broadcasts, first, from tuning them in years ago on a shortwave radio, then second, from hearing the programs as carried on National Public Radio here in America. But I have always wanted to hear what the BBC's native programming sounded like. Now, thanks to the Beeb's Internet radio streams, I can satisfy that curiosity.

This evening I chose to listen to BBC 4, the channel devoted to intelligent talk, in the words of the Web site. Indeed, BBC 4 provides non-stop intellectual stimulation, from interviews on religion and ethics to readings from recent books to programs on current scientific controversies. BBC 4 is also, by the way, the home of the famous Shipping Forecast, a strangely addictive report of weather and sea conditions for the waters surrounding the British Isles.

Web radio makes it possible for me to listen not only to BBC 4, but to news and entertainment from anywhere in the world. It allows me to enjoy continuous streams of the narrowest genres of music imaginable, a form of on-demand, personalized programming that does not depend for its existence on an appeal to the broad masses.

As the technology for both Internet broadcasting and playing streaming audio rapidly improves, I think we'll see more and more people going to their computers to take advantage of the rich offerings of Web radio. But also, market-driven engineers are going to figure out how to stream those offerings to people who are not tethered to a PC or laptop. That's when Web radio will really take off. Even now, you can buy a device that will broadcast Internet radio streams from your computer to your home stereo system two rooms away.

The Golden Age of Radio may be dead, but, Long live the New Golden Age of Web Radio.

Stefan Smith is a radio junkie who writes on entertainment and related subjects for the Solid Gold Info Writers Consortium. Recently, he has written an extensive review of new software that anyone can use to capture music audio streams from Internet radio broadcasts and break them up into individual mp3 song files--a legal way to download virtually free music