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We live in a time when we must take a good look at the definition of radio. Why? Consider the story of a college sports fan who wanted to hear the radio broadcast of a recent football game, but wasn't near a radio. He used his cell phone to get online, navigate to the station that carried the football game broadcast, clicked on Listen Live, and heard the game. He wasn't listening to FM or AM signal propagation. He was listening to a digital audio stream, but wasn't it the same material that was heard over the air? What if the station's transmitter suddenly went out of service and all the listeners migrated to the Web to hear the broadcast? The station would still be accomplishing its objective: sell the material to the listeners.
A notable number of radio stations have been live-streaming their daily broadcasts for almost a decade. According to Radio & Records 2007 Who's Listening survey, 18.69 percent of listeners across all formats logged on to a radio station website within the last month (of having taken the survey). Considering the growth and increased use of the Internet, we can expect more listeners in the near future to look for alternative media on the Web. This new era of media delivery capabilities begs a question: What happens when someone can readily access the Internet in his or her car? Will FM or AM radios even be necessary anymore? Can radio as we know it keep up? Plus, what will new media like the Ipod and podcasting mean for radio? Wow, are we asking too many questions already? OK, then let's move on and answer a few of them.
Radio streaming 101
Making live audio available via the Internet will by nature launch radio broadcasting into a new realm of delivery. I suspect that one day in the future, FM and AM transmitters may be retired because of the growing relationship between radio and the Web. If your station is considering the Internet as an added delivery system, there are just a few basics to remember.
An Internet stream must be encoded. It's the basic step that creates the correct protocol for transferring audio over the Internet. A trusty PC with a high-speed Internet connection and a sound card will accomplish the task. Using Windows Media Encoder 9 (free, easily configurable software available for download) is a simple solution for encoding audio. Once WME 9 is installed, feed the program audio to the input of the soundcard. The output of an Optimod is a good choice because of the leveling and compression. However, encoding processed audio can be a problem. Take the program material into consideration and feed the encoder wisely. Hard limited or aggressively processed audio can perform strangely in the digital world. As far as the stream parameters, a 44.1kHz stream at 37kb/s is a safe start. A bit rate below 56kb/s accommodates folks who still use dial-up Internet service.
In addition to encoding the audio, the live streaming file is named and detailed by the encoder. Station information or a moniker like, “Classic Rock 97.7" would appear on the listener's media player. In more advanced streaming and Web design scenarios, integrating the audio stream with XML file output coding from the automation system will allow the listener's media player, or the station's website to display the current title and artist, or other album information. Consulting with a professional Web design firm will produce the best results if the station is interested in more tricky Web integration.
A quality Internet stream will attract a sizeable audience. A single encoder in most cases cannot handle multiple users or clients. Contracting with an Internet content delivery service such as Vital Stream or Akamai's Nine Systems allows radio stations to create one stream, and let a third party handle the distribution. Watch out for firewall and Internet securities within the local network or ISP. The content delivery servers need to see the originating encoder's IP address at all times. Remember that content delivery services base their costs on bandwidth usage. Thousands of listeners will accrue more costs than hundreds. Also a mono 37kb/s stream is most likely cheaper than a stereo 128kb/s stream. Budgetary limitations and the audience should be considered.
Pointing the audience to the stream is vital! On most websites, a Listen Live link of some sort is highly visible. The link automatically directs the listener's media player to the streaming file that originates from the streaming server. The station's listeners, however, will usually never notice that they're being directed elsewhere. If the encoder is correctly configured, “Classic Rock 97.7" will still be displayed.
Establishing a working relationship with the tech support crew at the content delivery service, the ISP, and Web design firm will guarantee continuous and attractive service for online listeners. As listeners become more dependant on the Internet for their media intake, radio stations will be on top of the game if the Web stream is efficiently maintained.
Streaming audio explores new territory as far as legalities are concerned. The RIAA and its offspring Sound Exchange are commissioned by the U.S. Copyright Office to collect and distribute fees as a service to artists and copyright owners. Sound Exchange keeps a close eye on radio station Internet streaming. It is imperative that stations research and know the implications of streaming audio via the Internet before embarking on this form of media.
A podcast is a syndicated MP3 file available for download and playback on portable media players or computers. In 2006, Arbitron reported that 11 percent of listeners (nearly 27 million) have downloaded podcasts, more than 50 percent of teens own portable media players and the largest demographic downloading podcasts are the 34-45 age group. Essentially, podcasting is a medium that radio should use as an alternative service to its listeners.
Podcasts are not necessarily limited to the Apple Ipod. Recorded media, in show-like form available online, is a webcast or podcast. Some are professionally produced, and others are audible diary entries of college students (audio blogging). While podcasting may at first seem irrelevant to radio, enter the term on-demand radio, unofficially termed by Dan Portnoy. Portnoy is the host of The Drop, a podcast that has seen its share of radio airtime, highlighting independent musicians. Portnoy indicates that podcasting allows the audience to ask for media, as opposed to it being given. Suppose a listener missed his or her favorite morning show. If the show were podcast, it could be downloaded and listened to anytime.
To understand how podcasting works, two questions must be answered. How do audio files get on the Internet, and how do listeners find them? When the MP3 file is ready for Web syndication, it must be stored on a Web server. Then, an XML (Extensible Markup Language) file must be created (and preferably stored on the same server) giving all the detailed information necessary for services such as Itunes to syndicate and list the podcasts for listeners. The XML file should contain important keywords that will direct listeners to the podcast. If a listener is searching Itunes for podcasts containing “Charlotte music,” and enters those keywords into a search engine, a Charlotte station using “Charlotte” and “music” in the XML file stands a good chance of appearing in that listener's search. XML files are complicated text-heavy files, but are also necessary and unavoidable. Templates are available online to show how they're made. One example is shown at left.
Apple's Itunes, the popular and free source for syndicating podcasts, provides step-by-step instructions on importing the XML file efficiently, so all the station podcasts are correctly displayed for download. By using elements such as XML files, RSS feeds, and online services like Feedburner, listeners can subscribe to station podcasts and be notified when new podcasts are available. Feedburner is one of many feed management providers that constantly monitor servers for new material, and then notifies subscribers (listeners) via their search aggregators. Linking with a feed management provider will point listeners more quickly to the podcast when it is launched. To see and hear a podcast that uses Itunes, in conjunction with a home website, and most everything mentioned above, visit www.thedroponline.com or click on the podcast link at RadioMagOnline.com.
In addition to feed management and XML files, meta data such as ID3 tagging is a must when introducing new media to the Web. Itunes and other free downloadable software can be used to add title, artist, date, album and copyright information to MP3 files. This is crucial when listeners download podcasts. Otherwise, the file has no name or pertinent listed information.
Online audio streaming, and especially podcasting add new elements and a great deal of bizarre lingo to our field. Radio will always be radio, but new delivery avenues must be explored and implemented. Doing some online research about these topics is a great way to delve into the details. The chances of your library readily having books on XML file generation and ID3 tagging are slim, so get on the Web and figure out how to use it!
<title>Radio Magazine Podcast</title>
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<itunes:subtitle>The Radio Technology Leader </itunes:subtitle>
<itunes:summary>Radio magazine is written by radio industry professionals for radio industry professionals. Radio magazine delivers in-depth technical expertise with the most-respected editorial content. Radio magazine covers the technology of radio broadcasting for engineers and managers at radio stations, networks and recording studios. </itunes:summary>
<copyright>© 2008 Radio Magazine</copyright>
<title>Podcast Episode Title</title>
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<itunes:summary>Listen to interviews with experts in the radio industry as they discuss articles and topics from the latest issue of Radio magazine. This podcast provides a discussion on the impact Reginald Fessenden had on radio history, as well as an interview with Lynn Cheney, former president of Comrex.</itunes:summary>
<itunes:subtitle>This Radio magazine podcast provides a discussion on the impact Reginald Fessenden had on radio history, as well as an interview with Lynn Cheney, former president of Comrex.</itunes:subtitle>
<itunes:keywords>radio, magazine, other key words for the specific episode</itunes:keywords>
Akamai (Nine Systems)
Stream the World
Windows Media Encoder
Wygal is the programmer, engineer and Web designer for WRVL in Lynchburg, VA.
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