Using your computer to listen to the radio may seem like a strange thing to do, until you realize that there are thousands of radio stations around the world and most of them only broadcast locally. By putting their programming online, these stations now reach a global audience.
Let's say you just moved to London from Dallas and long for some twanging country guitar. You can listen to country & western hits from 99.5 The Wolf right over the net. Best of all, Internet radio puts you in control. You can listen to what you want, when you want.
The technology that makes this all possible is called streaming audio. “Streaming” means that you don't have to download an entire audio file before the sound starts playing. Once a small amount of the file is buffered, the audio begins. So the audio file is sent to you as you listen to it — more or less in real time.
Tune It Up
To listen to Internet radio, your computer must be equipped with a sound card and speakers — or you'll need headphones. One problem that audiophiles have with streaming audio is that the sound quality is often not very good. This can be due to the source — either because of limited bandwidth or because the source is sending low quality sound. But usually, the problem is local. If you really care about sound quality, you should invest in a good set of speakers.
External Media Players
There are various way to listen to internet radio. The oldest way is to do it using an external media player.
- Windows Media Player
- Most Windows users should already have the Windows Media Player on their system. To find out, click on the Start button, go to All Programs. Now check the list. If you don't have it, you can download Windows Media Player from Microsoft for free.
- Another popular and versatile media player is Apple's iTunes for both the Mac and PC. Here's where to get a free download.
- Another useful audio/video player is RealPlayer from RealNetworks.
These media players are not cross-compatible; they can't necessarily play all of each others files. But the standard files, like MP3s, will play on everything. All of these programs allow you to open up audio streams and listen to them.
Just like with physical media players, software audio players have control panels, so you can play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind at will. Also, some online radio programs are indexed, which means you can jump right to the content you want, for instance skipping the weather report to take in the sports scores.
Most radio stations now provide their own streaming right from their websites. You just go to the website and one of the first things you will see is a little play button that allows you to listen to its live programming with a single mouse click. In addition to this, many particular shows offer the same service. And, of course, there are now many online only “radio” programs.
Automated Music Recommendation
One of the newest trends in online audio streaming is the rise of the automated music recommendation services like Pandora. These allow you to create your own radio stations. Are you a big fan of Bruce Springsteen? Enter that and then the system will play music that appeals to people who like his music. They also allow you to fine tune the radio station by adding other artists and giving a thumbs up or down to particular songs.
There are many such services, but here is a list of the better known ones:
Turn on Those Tunes
So what are you going to listen to? For radio stations in the real world, the Radio-Locator is the ultimate source. The site boasts thousands of stations worldwide that have websites. Not all of them “broadcast” over the internet, but most of them do. All you need to do is enter a city or a zip code for stations in the United States, or the country for stations worldwide.
When it comes internet-only radio stations, it can be a bit more tricky. But a good place to start is Wikipedia's List of Internet Radio Stations. That will get you going and probably keep you entertained for the rest of your life.
If you just can't live without A Prairie Home Companion and This American Life, the National Public Radio website streams them weekly (although you can go to the show websites and listen to archived episodes). Or if you are more into the international scene, there is BBC Radio, which offers talk, sports, world news, and music. Parlez-vous français? Check out Radio France. And much, much more. There has never been a more exciting time for the adventurous listener. So get out there and tune into all the things that the internet has to offer!