The Things I Do Today, Part 3: Listening to the World, by Paul Edwards

In some ways this segment is the hardest to write because of all the change that has happened and because so many words are used loosely these days. There is also the problem that there are now myriad devices that allow us to access Internet radio. There are several different approaches to how one acquires stations. What began as very much an amateur exercise has now mushroomed. Virtually every broadcast station in this country and huge numbers around the world now are available on the Internet. And then there are special stations designed for people who are blind and operated by people who are blind. And then there is my lack of knowledge. There are others who can provide much more technical explanations of what’s involved. Luckily for us, these explanations are not nearly as important to plain ordinary listeners like us as they used to be.
 
I was an early adopter of Internet radio. This was partly because I have been an inveterate radio freak from the time I was a child. I was a huge shortwave listener all through my childhood and spent many nights prowling the AM band for distant stations. I lived outside the United States from the age of seven ‘til I was 32, which meant that I had to use shortwave and distant AM just to keep in touch with American sports, which has always been a passion. My experience also taught me there was much to love with radio from Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and other broadcasts in English from Switzerland, Germany, Moscow and the Netherlands. There are lots of readers of the Forum who were just like me. Radio was our substitute for newspapers that we couldn’t get or read, and it was our way of connecting with a world that was big and a little scary.
 
I was also an early adopter because, after some investigation, I found out that Internet radio was a way for ACB to build for itself a new place in the world. If one had a good computer, it only took $500 or $600 to become a full-fledged, card-carrying Internet radio broadcaster. I did that for several years and hope to do it again if I ever get my computer resurrected from the dead!
 
Listening to early Internet radio was a little like listening to shortwave radio. At the start, bandwidth at home was low and sometimes bandwidth from the broadcasters was low too! Essentially, this meant that you sometimes spent as much time listening to silence as you did to content. Either your machine or the broadcaster’s was having trouble. It was also hard to know what was out there. There were lists but, since stations came and went with alarming frequency, you never quite knew if a favorite would disappear. And then there was the fact that people changed the identification your computer needed to find their station. As time went on, home bandwidth got better and computers became more powerful. That allowed listening to be far more enjoyable, and also allowed stations to increase their sampling rate so that stereo and higher quality signals became the order of the day.
 
So, here’s my first attempt to explain Internet radio at its simplest. Every entity that is “broadcasting” puts its signals out onto the Internet using a series of numbers to tell other computers where the stream can be found. We don’t need to know much about these numbers, thankfully. As the Internet evolved, folks decided it would be good to allow those of us who were trying to access stations to save a tiny file that contained that number which we could name with the name of the station or something. As time wore on, there came to be three file extensions that were widely used. These were PLS, ASX and M3U. So, it was suddenly possible for us to save our favorites so we could get to them easily. It also became possible for kind and wonderful people to begin to create web sites that allow people to look at what’s out there and either listen directly or save the associated file to their own computer.
 
One of these was created by a blind guy who was also an Internet radio broadcaster. His name is Bill Sparks, and his site is http://www.billsparks.org/.  Another web site that is useful and accessible is called Mike’s Radio World. I don’t know who Mike is, but his web site address is http://www.mikesradioworld.com/. Both these sites have several thousand radio stations from around the world, and I think both would agree they don’t have nearly all the stations that are out there.
 
I am getting old now and the years blend into one another. So, I am not going to try to provide a history of Internet radio, though it would be fun to read one. What I will say is that the approach I have described is becoming outmoded. Some of the early devices like the Book Port Plus and HIMS notetakers allowed one to access Internet radio using individual stations that you could add to the folder on your device that stored radio stations. More recently, higher level approaches have come to predominate. The second generation Victor Reader Stream, the iPhone and the new HIMS Blaze EZ and ET all use files where all the stations stored are aggregated into a single file, or that is what appears to be happening.
 
The last five years have seen a huge change in Internet radio. Devices like Apple TV, specialized Internet radio receivers and smartphones have revolutionized the availability of a rather arcane medium to the general public. Software like iTunes and AOL and others have also made Internet radio available. Programs for blind people like SAMNet have done the same. In addition, even though the principle is the same, a number of entities that call themselves “radio” really are something quite different. Entities like Pandora, Amazon Prime and, most recently, Apple Music allow you to name an artist, and their software will pick music by that artist and others who play music that is similar that they think you will like. I have heard these entities referred to as music aggregators. That name is fine with me as long as it’s clear that they aren’t what I am talking about when I refer to Internet radio.
 
One article is not enough to do what I want to do with this subject. The next article will deal with the iPhone. I want to talk about three apps. The last Internet radio article will talk about what stations I listen to and will provide some tips on searching.