Why limit yourself to broadcast radio when the internet can bring thousands of stations from around the world to your door? Alex Kidman outlines what you need to tune in.

Ever been driven mad by the inane chatter and insanely repetitive advertisements of drivetime radio? Ever wondered what radio is like in Ghana, or whether there actually is a station that plays only Bluegrass Gospel 24/7? It’s actually surprisingly easy to answer those two questions – and before long you’ll be rocking out to Ghana’s Akasanoma Kumasi FM, or enlightening passersby with Gospel Grass Radio, depending on what takes your fancy.

What is internet radio, anyway?

Audio signals are relatively simple things to compress, and once compressed, they’re relatively simple to transmit across the internet. Unsurprisingly, then, audio was the first true multimedia application for the internet. The first internet ‘radio-style’ broadcasts date back to 1993 in Austin, Texas. It grew out of the Bulletin Board System scene, and at the time the kinds of broadband that we take for granted today were just a pipe dream for the average consumer. These days, with higher-speed connections, the quality of audio can be surprisingly good – certainly at least as good as traditional radio, and in the case of higher-bandwidth streams, potentially even better.

Technically speaking, those sending out internet radio aren’t really broadcasting – because it’s not through the normal broadcast wireless mediums that traditional radio and TV use. At the same time, it’s not really narrowcasting when you consider the scope of the potential audience. The term ‘webcasting’ is used instead. This can also be used for other online multimedia efforts, such as video and podcasts.

Just as publishing on the web allows for the targeting of niche audiences, so too internet radio allows for niche interests to be served.

How niche is niche? Well, if you take iTunes as an example, just within the ‘Eclectic’ category, you’ve got your choice of 125 different eclectic radio streams. It’s not all Uzbekistani pipe organ recitals, however, as most of the major players in traditional radio offer internet streams. In the case of some organisations, such as the BBC, there’s even the facility to listen to previous broadcasts over the internet if you miss a favourite scheduled program. The challenge with these networks then becomes one of scale; how do you choose a station when there are thousands?