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Log on and tune in: The history of internet radio


What is internet radio?

Radio broadcasting has evolved drastically over the years.

While radio technology may have started as a simple way to transmit Morse code messages on the front lines, it’s so much more than that today. With radio, we can tune into endless opportunities for information, education, and entertainment.

Radio technology has even paved the way for countless innovations, like remote controls, microwaves, and even navigation.

Just as the way that we use radio has evolved, the options available for broadcasters have transformed too. Today, if you want to keep your finger on the pulse of the latest music trends, and catch up with your favourite DJs, you don’t just need an FM/AM signal. Instead, you can find all the radio entertainment you need online.

An internet radio station is an efficient, cost-effective alternative to the traditional broadcasting hub. While these stations have global reach thanks to the diversity of the online world, many of them also have deep connections to specific communities and locations. Depending on where you’re streaming internet radio, you can find channels that are just as intimate and engaging as the ones you’d find on your analogue or digital tuner.

Today, we’re going to explore the history of internet radio, how this technology works, and what it means to the future of broadcasting.

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What is internet radio? The basics of internet radio streaming

Internet radio is the term used to describe the streaming of radio broadcasts over the web.

Usually, listeners tune into an internet radio station via a Wi-Fi enabled app on their smartphones, a service on a computer, or a specially-designed internet radio player. Usually, listening to radio on the internet is very similar to using an FM station. Your content can’t be rewound or paused (like with a podcast), but you get the crystal clear audio quality you’d expect from pre-recorded digital audio.

Aside from offering excellent audio quality (potentially even better than DAB), internet broadcasting also delivers the benefit of exceptional diversity and choice. There are countless stations out there, all playing different music, and shows from a range of genres.

Unlike FM/AM radios that require listeners to be within a specific distance of the broadcasting station, there’s no limit to where you can access internet radio from. You may even be able to tune into shows from the other side of the world.

Internet radio streaming also works a little differently to FM/AM broadcasting when it comes to monetization and advertising. Broadcast or “terrestrial” radio is an audio-only medium. However, through apps and websites, internet radio can deliver everything from pictures to animations and video. This means that there are many different ways that companies can make money streaming internet radio.

Aside from the audio-only commercials, sponsorships, jingles, and ad-reads of traditional radio stations, an internet radio station can also generate revenue through graphic advertisements, pop-up ads and banners too. From a marketing perspective, internet radio combines all the benefits of broadcasting with the diversity of digital promotion.

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The history of internet radio: When internet broadcasting began

So, where did internet radio history begin?

The very first internet radio station was designed by Carl Malamud in 1993. A testament to the evolution of the digital world, the station was designed to take advantage of the growing trend towards online technology.

Carl’s radio station was named “Internet Talk Radio.” Instead of focusing on top 40 hits and music, the channel featured interviews with public figures in industries like technology and science. Inspired by Malamud, various other broadcasters began to experiment with the potential of internet radio streaming. In 1993, the first internet concert was broadcast by “Severe Tire Damage.” The next year, in 1994, a Rolling Stones concert became the first major musical event available online.

Mick Jagger opened the 1994 concert by giving a “special welcome” to everyone tuning in over the web. During the same year, a company called WXYC (broadcasting in North Carolina) emerged as the first radio station with traditional roots to start streaming internet radio. The WXYC group used an FM radio station connected to a digital system to begin testing broadcasts and bandwidth options. Additionally, in 1994, Atlanta’s WREK also began streaming using a custom software solution.

Eventually, leading technology companies started doing their part for the history of internet radio. Microsoft and Nullsoft released free applications that would allow users to listen to internet content on their computers. As these players became available, the number of potential listeners grew. That meant that many new internet radio stations started to pop up on the market.

During 1995, a man called Scott Bourne founded the site NetRadio.com, which became the first radio network that broadcast on the internet alone. It was also the first network to be licensed by the ASCAP group as an official online streaming service. Most of the internet broadcasting superstars you might know today followed a similar path to NetRadio.com, making Bourne a pioneer in the radio industry.

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The growth of internet radio stations

Throughout internet radio history, evolution happened quickly.

By 1996, Virgin Radio in London had become the first station in Europe to start broadcasting an entire program live on the internet. Virgin broadcasts the FM signal live on the internet 24 hours every day.

By the late 1990s, the potential of internet radio had already attracted a considerable amount of attention from potential marketing teams and investors. Companies were keen to see how they could expand their reach by getting involved with internet broadcasting, just as they had invested in FM/AM channels before. In 1998, the IPO offering of the company Broadcast.com set a record for the largest price jump in the United States.

Initially, the offering price for Broadcast.com started at $18 and leaped to $68 on the first day of trading. What made the success of the internet radio stock offering so exciting, was the fact that Broadcasting.com was losing money when it went on the market. In 1999, Yahoo! Purchased the brand for $5.7 billion.

As technology continued to evolve, the potential of the internet radio station grew. Streaming audio over HTTP made internet radio streaming a possibility to various networks. Additionally, in the year 2000, companies began to find ways that they could make their bandwidth use more economical. The result was more efficient and effective radio.

The rise of new file formats also meant that companies could begin experimenting with compressing their sound files and delivering quality without using too much data. This meant that it also became easier for people listening to radio on the internet to access the streams they loved on their smartphones and tablets. It became easier to implement radio into various parts of your daily life – just like the traditional radio station.

How does internet radio work?

Internet broadcasting has been around since the 1990s.

However, most people are still asking, “How does internet radio work?”

It’s easy to see why there’s a lot of confusion around internet broadcasting. The technology we use to deliver and tune into streams today is much more efficient than it once was. However, the premise of streaming internet radio remains the same.

Since the beginning of internet radio history, the broadcasting medium has always focused on delivering audio programming via digital means from one computer to another. Rather than providing content via traditional radio waves, internet radio packages content into files that can be delivered in real-time to smartphones, applications, and computers.

Before manufacturers discovered how to deliver internet radio streaming, the only way to access content online was to tune into simulcast of existing FM stations. Users could also download an entire file before listening to it – but this harmed the real-time, live nature of traditional radio stations.

When internet streaming technology arrived in 1995, it became possible to encode and transmit data across the digital airwaves in real-time. Today’s internet radios stations typically transmit programs through compatible audio formats like MP3, OGG, WMA, RA, and AAC Plus.

While traditional radio stations were limited by the strength of their transmission technology and the broadcasting options available, internet radio has no such limitations. You can listen to any radio station in the world, as long as you have an online connection.

To set up an internet radio broadcast, you’ll need:

  • A wired ethernet connection, mobile data, or a Wi-Fi connection.
  • A streaming application or the website that you want to stream from.
  • Stable internet throughout the entire broadcast (if you lose connection, you lose the radio).
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The benefits of streaming internet radio

The internet offers versatility and efficiency, unlike any other technology we’ve known. For broadcasting purposes, it’s an excellent way to ensure that radio stations can connect with customers all around the world.

One of the most valuable things about internet radio is the freedom of choice it gives us. We didn’t have the World Wide Web for long before people started asking whether the online world would be a perfect accompaniment to radio. Although there were only a handful of internet radio stations, to begin with, as the popularity of the medium grew, the number of available channels developed too.

There are thousands of stations out there today, each offering a different style of music and entertainment. You can even use internet radio streaming to learn about cultures that you might never come face-to-face with in person.

Another significant benefit of internet broadcasting is that it’s available to listeners wherever there’s an internet connection. There are very few geographical boundaries to worry about. Alternatively, with terrestrial radio stations, you need to be relatively close to the station in question to get the right quality of audio.

Aside from offering more consistent broadcasting in a range of different environments, radio on the internet can also come with better sound quality too. One major problem with terrestrial or “traditional” radio is that it’s subject to various environmental factors and issues with interference. You can suddenly lose your radio signal in poor weather, or when you’re driving outside of a city. Even DAB radio signals aren’t perfect, although they can sometimes provide better quality than you’d get from AM/FM.

On the other hand, internet radio stations are far more consistent in the quality that they deliver. Even if you just have a mobile internet connection, you should be able to access excellent sound quality – closer to CD quality than anything else on the market. What’s more, because the technology requirements required for listening to an internet radio station have remained largely unchanged since the late 1990s, it’s easy for anyone to get connected. As long as you have a device that’s capable of connecting to the internet, you should be able to use internet radio.

The biggest issue with streaming internet radio is that it isn’t always free.

If you have a Wi-Fi or broadband connection, then you can listen to radio for as long as you want – as long as you don’t go over your bandwidth limits. On the other hand, if you’re on the move, then you’ll need to access mobile data, which costs money.

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How to listen to internet radio

An internet radio station is a world apart from an AM/FM, or even a DAB station.

However, like all forms of radio entertainment, manufacturers have made sure that it’s as easy to listen to internet radio streaming as possible. As mentioned above, internet radio works on any device with an online connection. To keep your radio access as cheap as possible, it’s often a good idea to stick to broadcasting over a broadband or home Wi-Fi connection. It’s also possible to connect your radio directly to the internet in your home using an ethernet cable.

Some of the most recent digital radio sets have Wi-Fi connections that allow them to stream audio from the internet. Although these devices are a little pricier than a standard AM/FM or DAB receiver, they do provide more flexibility. For instance, the Roberts iStream 2 and the Pure Evoke F3 radio set link with both internet streaming and broadcasting services like Spotify.

Depending on your preferences, you don’t necessarily need to own a conventional radio just to listen to internet radio streaming. There are countless ways to access online content via a web browser or an app on your smartphone. The Windows Media Player and VLC are both suitable for streaming online radio, and these tools give you the option to bookmark the channels that you like best.

How to listen to internet radio:

  • Find the URL of the internet radio stream you want to listen to. This should be easy enough to track down if you know how to use Google. The broadcasting URLs of most online stations will end in something like .pls or .m3u rather than .com.
  • Download the stream onto your media playing app or listen to it directly from the webpage. You can also add the URL to your bookmarks list for later use.
  • Find out whether your favourite internet radio station has its own app. This way, you can keep track of the latest shows on your phone without having to constantly go back to the desktop site.

The most important thing to remember about internet broadcasting is that everything you do online uses a specific amount of data. Unless you have access to unlimited data on your smartphone and at home, then the amount you stream online will eat up your monthly allowance.

The amount of data each internet station uses can differ, usually according to the length and quality of the radio stream. However, if you plan on listening to the radio on your smartphone, you’ll need to make sure that you’re connected to Wi-Fi. Otherwise you’ll burn through your mobile allowance very quickly.

The fact that it’s challenging to take internet radio out into the world with a mobile connection is one of the reasons why internet radio hasn’t overtaken broadcasting via FM and DAB channels yet. Unless you download your radio broadcasts before you go anywhere, it’s very difficult to access internet radio on-the-move.

The continued rise of radio on the internet

For many people, radio is a reliable source of information and entertainment wherever they are.

Whether you’re at work, at home, or travelling, you can access the radio to keep your mind busy. Unfortunately, internet radio loses some of this flexibility by forcing you to pay for the connectivity you use when you’re away from a static connection. As such, it’s difficult to see a future where internet radio takes over from DAB and FM broadcasting entirely.

However, that doesn’t mean that the internet radio station isn’t becoming more popular.

In the home environment, the growing demand for smart speakers like Amazon Echo, which don’t have their own antenna for FM and AM services are also shaping the move towards digital streaming for many radio brands.

However, despite all the benefits and potential of internet radio, the chances are that the future won’t be defined by radio on the internet alone. Even if the UK decides to switch away from analogue channels like FM/AM radio, there will still be DAB radio to contend with. Currently, only 20.8% of people listen to internet radio, according to Triton Digital Data.

Is internet radio streaming the future?

According to many marketing and media experts, the internet radio station will be a big part of the entertainment landscape going forward. Countless people are now using their phones and other devices to stream content, and many modern radio sets come with Wi-Fi connections built-in.

The freedom that comes with internet radio as a method of listening to music from anywhere with an internet connection also makes it very appealing. However, there will be challenges to overcome, like the limited portability of internet radio streaming for people on the move.

The chances are that internet radio will be a crucial component for the future of broadcasting, but it won’t be our only option. DAB will share the spotlight with internet-based channels going forward. Additionally, for a while, there’s a good chance that FM will stick around in certain parts of the world too.

How often do you listen to radio on the internet? Join the conversation with us today!

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