Milly Jenkins reports.
"How y'all doin' out there?" says Jim, with a Texan drawl. He plays the next request: a slow country song with a mournful singer crooning that "there ain't a whole lot goin' on tonight in this one-horse town".
It is 7pm in Texas and 1am here and although London is not what you would call a one-horse town, you momentarily feel like it could be. Then you remember that you are at home, in front of your PC, that the song you are listening to has been requested by e-mail, from someone in Japan, and that when Jim says "y'all" he doesn't just mean the local cowboys.
From Rio de Janeiro to Rotterdam, there are now hundreds of radio stations like this one on the Internet, piping out news, music, sport and talk 24 hours a day, to global audiences. The World Wide Web has always been knee-deep in metaphors about cyber-travel and slogans like Microsoft's "where do you want to go today?". But until now there has been little on the Internet that actually transports you to another place.
To the sore-eyed user, Web sites, however exotic their origin, all look much the same after a while. But listening to a radio station in a far- away place, skipping from one time zone to another, feels like real travel. Picking up snippets of music and conversation, even the traffic reports and ads, you start to build mental pictures of places never visited, far more evocative than the edited and often sterile pictures of TV.
One of the pioneers of this radio revolution has been RealNetworks (until recently Progressive Networks), the developers of RealAudio software. The RealAudio player is an essential plug-in for anyone wanting to listen to audio on the Net and can be downloaded, for free, from the RealAudio site. The latest version, RealPlayer 5.0, has just been released and has both audio and video capabilities. RealNetworks, which recently signed a major licensing deal with Microsoft, says that anyone using a 28.8 modem can get stereo sound.
In reality, the quality of sound varies drastically and is often more AM than FM. Speech-based radio tends to be better than music. Faster modems, it is claimed, will bring CD-quality sound, although sceptics say that until there is more bandwidth this is unlikely.
But even if the quality is not what we are used to, it is a sacrifice worth making for the novelty of listening to stations anywhere in the world. A good point of departure is the World Radio Tuner on Virgin Net's Web site which will take you everywhere - from Radio Centro in Mexico to Sikhnet Radio in India.
Timecast is another useful site, with daily and weekly schedules and a "live now" page, telling you what's on now and for how much longer. AudioNet, a company that puts hundreds of stations online, also has a home page with links, as does RealAudio. The World Radio Network lists dozens of public service broadcasters, from The Voice of Russia to the Caribbean News Agency. All similarly sober in tone, they provide serious news from a local perspective.
America's National Public Radio (NPR) is another Internet stalwart, streaming live news and its most popular shows, like the Morning Edition and All Things Considered, archived so that they can be heard on demand. And if you want to catch up on the news from Lake Wobegon, Minnesota Public Radio netcast's Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion every Saturday night and keeps past programmes in a convenient archive.
Virgin, Kiss 100, Capital and Classic FM are just some of the British stations now online. But until local phone rates get cheaper or disappear altogether, it is hard to imagine thousands of people tuning in on their PCs, when they can get the same thing for free on their radios. But Virgin says people in Britain are listening - they are getting at least 50,000 online listeners a week, 65 per cent of whom are UK residents. Those listening from abroad are mostly ex-pats or foreign fans of the Virgin label.
"The site is about more than just listening," says Virgin's John Ousby. "It gives listeners something different, a behind the scenes feel." Internet- only competitions and interactivity are key. "Radio is a very personal thing," says Ousby. "People like to feel involved."
For Virgin, it is also a handy way of extending its brand name, paving the way for online record sales. Once the record industry has overcome copyright and licensing hurdles, radio sites will be the perfect place for marketing CDs. Virgin knows exactly what kind of music its audiences will be interested in buying.
The BBC is also joining in this frenzy of radio activity. Radio 5 Live has just started to stream its weekday output, and last weekend netcasted the England vs Italy World Cup qualifier. But there are no plans for any of the networks to be online 24 hours a day. Glyn Jones, of the Beeb's Digital Audio Broadcasting department, says they are waiting to see how the Internet evolves: "Given that most households have five or six radios, we have to think carefully about the value of being on the Internet
But Milwaukee listeners can listen to the BBC World Service broadcasts, via any local stations on the Internet that rebroadcast their programmes or use its news service. The Spanish and German Services can be heard live, while the Cantonese Service and some educational programmes have on-demand audio. The Cantonese Service went live for the Hong Kong handover, as did the English Service for the funeral of the Princess of Wales. There are now plans for the English Service to go online on a permanent basis. Given the shadow hanging over the future of the World Service, could the Internet be its saving grace, becoming its main medium? Not likely, says the BBC. The Internet is great for reaching new audiences, but old ones would be lost if they only broadcast online. And anyway, whatever medium or wavelength they go out on, it still costs the same to make their programmes.
In America, where local calls are free, Internet radio has taken off in a big way. AudioNet says that 250,000 listeners are coming through their site every day and radio stations report that listening habits are changing as a result, with many more people tuning in from their PCs at work. AudioNet also says that although some people are listening to far- away stations, maybe in towns and cities they grew up in, a large percentage is using the Internet to hear local services.
But there is also a huge market for specialist, Internet-only radio services, targeted at business people, sports addicts and news junkies. A quick glance at the AudioNet or Timecast pages reveals dozens of specialist sites - radio sites, for example, with rolling financial news, bringing you the latest from Wall Street, interspersed with classical music or traditional jazz. Other channels broadcast live from the AGMs of major corporations. There are even specialist comedy, personal finance, health and cooking programmes and technology discussions.
But the biggest niche of all is sport, with Internet-only services offering non-stop coverage and debate of even the most obscure sporting events. The truly fanatic American sports fan can hear commentary on games that would never get coverage elsewhere - sites, for example, that netcast coverage of every game of the current baseball play-offs. For British sports fans there is not yet much on offer, although it seems to be on its way: Chelsea Football Club, which has its own radio station, has just started netcasting commentary of all at home matches.
Internet radio may eventually make broadcasters of us all. The basic RealAudio equipment needed for streaming audio online, the RealServer, is now available for free, under the new Microsoft-RealNetworks deal. It is not hard to imagine a new Do-It-Yourself radio culture developing, with teenagers doing bedroom broadcasts and wannabe DJs setting up their own "pirate" stations.
It could be a nightmare - boring people droning on about boring things. But on the other hand, this new age of citizens radio could also produce brilliant new ideas and ways of doing radio that the established broadcasters have never thought of. The cynics who said the Internet was nothing more than CB Radio for the Nineties, it turns out, may have been right all along.
Virgin World Tuner
World Radio Network
via the Virgin World Tuner
BBC Radio 5 Live
Chelsea Football Club http://chelseafc.co.uk