Don't ditch the tranny yet

You can now listen to the radio on your PC. But don't expect the BBC. By Andrew North
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You are on holiday, soaking up the rays beside the pool. Life is dandy. Except that you've realised you are missing The Archers on the radio.

Then you remember you brought your laptop with you. It has a built-in modem, there's a copy of Netscape Navigator loaded and a RealAudio Player program. All you have to do is to plug your modem into a phone line and you can hear Simon's latest outrage crackling through your computer speaker.

Or at least you could if The Archers was available on the World Wide Web. More than 100 radio outlets around the world are pumping out news and sports, business, music and comedy shows via the Internet. Unfortunately, the only British station with a cybertransmitter is Virgin (see accompanying story, right). Most "netcasters" are North American, which is why the standard fare of Net radio is traffic reports from Chicago and Christian broadcasts from the Bible Belt.

The pioneer of this new age of "netcasting" is RealAudio. The software, developed by Seattle-based Progressive Networks, allows anyone with a basic computer and a link to the Web to listen and even broadcast sounds in real time.

If you wanted sound from the Net, you used to download a sizeable file from a remote server and play it back. Now the sound file stays on the remote server. When you click on a RealAudio sound link, the Player launches automatically and assembles the data coming through your modem into sound.

Nobody claims that netcasting will unseat conventional radio. Quite apart from the low sound quality, hooking up to the Net every time you want The Archers is just too much hassle. And the signal does have a tendency to break up when the Web is busy. But as it improves in content and quality, Net radio could be a solution for people living in poor reception areas who want to listen to foreign radio services. Moreover, it will allow stations to broadcast to groups that they have previously ignored because of transmission costs.

Long term, RealAudio and similar systems could open up broadcasting to all-comers. You don't need a licence to broadcast on the Net; the "Encoder" software and access to a RealAudio server connected to the Web are enough. You can either buy one - a basic server package is pounds 1,500 - or rent space on one.

There are two alternatives to RealAudio: Internet Wave from VocalTec, the Net phone pioneers, and Xing Corporation's StreamWorks. They are much less greedy in their use of bandwidth than RealAudio and the sound quality is better. But Progressive Networks has managed to grab the lead by being first on the scene and relatively few netcasters are using IWave or StreamWorks. For now, there is really only one place to sample cyber-radio - the RealAudio homepage. It is linked to hundreds of other netcasting sites. If you don't have the Player software, you will need to visit the site anyway. Progressive Networks gives it away free.

ABC radio and the two US public radio networks - NPR and PBS - have permanent buttons on the RealAudio homepage. It felt strange listening to ABC's report on the IRA Docklands bomb through my computer speaker. Don't expect in-depth global coverage from this site, or from NPR. These are American news stations, so the outside world has to do something very big before they take notice. But their services will appeal to Americans living abroad who want to stay in touch with events back home - which makes one hope BBC World Service becomes available this way.

PBS offers a wider range of programmes on its site. One of the best is The Jim Lehrer Newshour, with reports and interviews covering foreign and US issues. You can also hear highlights from the recent BBC/PBS documentary on the Gulf War.

Having had my fill of US news, I used the RealAudio Guide to see what else was available and found an eclectic mix of netcasters. There were "Voices from the 1995 Beijing UN Women's Conference", a compilation of AC/DC and Meatloaf tracks and the Action Christian Church. It also directed me to Andrew Neil's weekly BBC TV talk show. You can follow the show live via Net Relay Chat.

Clicking on RealAudio's "Specials" took me to a fascinating recording of the 1937 Hindenburg Airship disaster. The crackly sound added to the drama of Herbert Morrison's commentary. RealAudio also hosts live sports and talk shows. Find out what's coming up by clicking on the "Live" button.

Once you've got a taste of cyber-radio from the RealAudio site, try the World Radio Network. This is a British-based service broadcasting the output of more than 20 stations, most of them European. Among the best radio stations on WRN are RTE Dublin, Radio France International, Radio Canada International and Vatican Radio. Tuning in to the latter, I heard the Pope calling on the world's Catholics to prepare themselves for a new evangelical mission. If you are a Korean working abroad and have access to the Net, you could catch up with the news from home via KBS Radio Korea. WRN also produces two round-the-clock live feeds, WRN1 (English language) and WRN2 (variable language), using Xing's StreamWorks software.

But where is Auntie Beeb, the world's foremost radio broadcaster? To be fair, its technology programmes have put some RealAudio material on Web pages. And Chris Westcott, head of Net activities at the World Service, says: "We hope to be broadcasting something on the Net this year." But he will not say what, so it could be a while before Archers fans hear Eddie getting stuck in the cyberslurry.

Tuning into Net radio

RealAudio

http://www.realaudio.com

StreamWorks software

http://www.xingtech.com/streams/index.html

Internet Wave software

http://www.vocaltec.com/homep.htm

BBC

Details on BBC programmes and services - no audio yet

http://www.bbcnc.org.uk

http://www.bbc.co.uk

The Andrew Neil Show on BBC TV

http://www.bbc.co.uk/andrewneil/

World Radio Network

http://www.wrn.org/pav_real.html

http://www.wrn.org/welcome.html

http://town.hall.org/Archives/radio/Mirrors/WRN/

PBS America

http://www.pbs.org/

Gulf War stories, from recent BBC/PBS documentary

http://www.realaudio.com/rafiles/pbs/

Hindenburg Disaster

http://www.realaudio.com/rafiles/ryy/hndnburg.ram

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

http://www.radio.cbc.ca/radio/programs/

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