Internet radio sounds like a great idea, especially for those of us whose musical heroes don't march in the Top 40 hit parade. I love the idea of being able to log on to the Web and choose from 10,000 sites "broadcasting" niche music through my computer speakers in every conceivable genre, from Big Band jazz to island reggae.
But there are some problems. The one that hit the news last week is the fee structure. Many of these "stations" are geeky mom-and-pop operations that don't charge for their music and don't pay for it either, an arrangement the record labels are trying to rectify by imposing a royalty of fourteen-hundredths of a cent per song per listener. That may not sound like much, but it's enough to drive the small guys out of business. Last Wednesday a few hundred of them tried to draw attention to their plight by going silent for a day.
A bigger problem with Internet radio is that it often doesn't work. Even if you can find the music you want and the software you need to play it, it's a rare song that makes it to the end without pausing a few times to rebuffer the stream, whatever that means.
But an idea as good as this one is worth fighting for. So for those of you who care enough about music to put up with some fearsome technological hurdles, here's a primer on how to find your favorite tunes on the Internet and how to play them.
First, get yourself a computer with a decent sound card (built-in on all Macs and most new PCs) and a fast Internet connection. Cable or DSL is best. In a pinch you can use modems as slow as 56K or even 28.8K.
Then make sure you have a working media player. The two most popular programs, RealNetwork's RealPlayer and Microsoft's Windows Media Player, are free, but you have to keep checking their websites for updates. Apple's iTunes, also free, comes with a built-in Internet radio player (preloaded with more than 250 stations), but it's strictly for Macs.
Finally, you have to find the music. The media players usually come with selected links pre-set, but they're not always current or complete. If you are feeling adventurous--or starved for the latest Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers--head for one of the big webcast directories. My favorites: radiotower.com broadcast.com and radio-locator.com When you find the station you want, the music should launch automatically on the media player you have already loaded.
Unfortunately, things rarely run that smoothly. Even if the stations are set up properly (a big if), any number of things--from site overcrowding and peak-hour congestion to general Web flakiness--can cause the dreaded signal loss.
The U.S. Copyright Office is supposed to decide by May 21 whether to approve the new royalty rates that Internet radio broadcasters insist will push them off the Net. Some of them seem to be halfway there already.
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