How I Rediscovered Internet Radio

1,369 words.

Welp it’s happened. Now that Blaugust is over, there’s nothing to write about anymore. :)

I stumbled upon an episode of Spotify - Landmark on YouTube and sat down to watch the whole thing. It reminded me of two things: Tears For Fears is one of my favorite 80s bands, and a band from which I’ve never bought any of their music. Songs From The Big Chair is peak “huge 80s sound” which I miss from an audio engineering perspective, and I have a great appreciation for the simplicity and precision of the production in that album. There’s very little more than 4 instruments playing at any given time yet it still somehow sounds like a massive production.

It also reminded me of a show called VH1 Storytellers that I used to watch a lot in the 90s. I assumed it had been long dead, but it turns out they’ve been making shows for decades. I don’t even know how to watch VH1 anymore, to be honest.

That led me to look for Tears For Fears music online. Boy did that suck.

I hate trying to find music online. I wanted to listen to Shout with my best headphones, a pair of Sony MDR-7506s which I use for studio monitoring. (I have owned a pair since the early 90s, this is my second pair because I wore the first ones out, and the ear cups on these are wearing out now too.) The official YouTube video for Shout has a horrible hiss in the background that is very offputting and easy to hear in good headphones. Not to mention the ad that plays beforehand. I tried to find it on Amazon Music on my phone, but I think it’s locked behind the subscription. It plays beautifully for about a minute, without any hiss, encoded at a high bitrate, then it cuts off.

I just installed Spotify on my phone. I had to recover my account details. I was able to search for and play Songs From The Big Chair for free, but not in the right order, and it’s clearly an inferior sound quality. It sounds like an MP3 encoded at 128K, which, when you listen to it with good Sony headphones, sounds like a distorted mush of noise. At least there wasn’t any background hiss on Shout, and I can turn off the phone screen while listening. (Glares at YouTube.)

Casual music discovery right now seems worse than it’s ever been in history. There was a time when you simply turned on a radio and heard new music all the time. I suppose one could technically still do that, but good luck finding a device that will receive FM radio signals. Even if you could find one, there’s about 30 minutes of commercials for every hour of programming, which did not used to happen.

Well, as you can see, there’s definitely nothing to talk about now that Blaugust is over.

After I wrote that, I thought about the “old days,” which were actually the “new days” when compared to the real old days of the 80s and 90s. I’m referring of course to the early-to-mid 2000s, the days when MP3s took over the world. There was a thing called “Internet Radio” back then, which I accessed using WinAmp. You picked a “station” from a big list and streamed the music from that station into WinAmp and listened to it. From that, “Shoutcasting” was born, that thing where radio announcers would do live color commentary on “eSports” games, back before it was called eSports and nobody made any money. Somewhere around here I have an MP3 of a Shoutcast of a Return to Castle Wolfenstein “eSports” match I played in the early 2000s. I also have the “demo” recording of that match somewhere. I’ve always wanted to make a video mixing the two together, but I’m not sure it’s technologically possible to do so anymore.

Anyway, back then, of course, it was highly controversial to stream what seemed at the time to be perfect quality digital audio, and legal battles ensued. (Rightfully so, in my opinion, considering anyone could easily just record perfect digital copies of all the latest, greatest music streamed through WinAmp for free.) Regardless of that, it was a great way to discover new music. Just tune into an Internet Radio station and hear a non-stop list of new music every day, just like an FM radio station, except very few commericals and far superior sound quality. It was a great time. Then I changed computers a few times, moved a few times, got involved with other stuff, and forgot about the whole thing. I have a tendency to “forget” to listen to music unless I make conscious effort to do so. Which is weird, because it’s one of my favorite things. I think it’s because I like to sit down and really listen to music, not just have it on in the background, and it’s hard to find time to do that.

Anyway I just assumed that Internet Radio had been sued out of existence. I thought Spotify and Pandora and Amazon Music replaced it completely, and those services were the compromise that the music industry worked out. Filled with ads, subscriptions required to get anything resembling a proper music experience out of it, etc. I posed an idle question on Twitter about it.

It turns out that not only is Internet Radio not dead, it’s bigger than ever, and it’s exactly the same as I remember it. @Stargrace told me about this site called, funnily enough, which happens to have an enormous list of streaming radio stations.

You don’t need an MP3 player like WinAmp anymore though. You just click on station links in your web browser. You click a link, and music just pours out of your speakers, just like turning on an FM radio.

Now I know why everyone always says “terrestrial radio” instead of just “radio.”

I’m not entirely sure how this is legal, to be honest. Although part of it might be that I have yet to find a station that plays music I recognize as something I could go to a store and buy. [Update: Okay that’s not true.] I sure haven’t found anything playing selections from Songs From The Big Chair. I only recognized one “commercial” song which was Zombie by The Cranberries, which I heard on the “Radio K (KUOM): Real College Radio” station out of Minneapolis. The other reason it might be legal is many of these stations are affiliated with a terrestrial radio station, through which they can purchase all the necessary licenses.

I looked for a way to play these stations on my phone, and downloaded a Shoutcast app. It’s riddled with ads, of course, and the UI is complete garbage, but it works. I can plug my Sony headphones into my phone and stream 320Kbps stations at a quality approaching CD quality, while I’m lying here in bed tapping away on my Apple wireless keyboard into the iPad EverNote app.

It’s cool, is what I’m saying. A little more work, but way better than Spotify or Amazon Music or whatever the heck the latest cloud music service is that’s just a flimsy pretense for ramming the most expensively-marketed pop bands of the day down your throat.

P. S. To Bhagpuss, this is exactly the kind of post for which I wish I could just reach into my media library and grab an image I’ve already uploaded for the thumbnail. It’s just a narrative stream that doesn’t require any illustrations, but a thumbnail image is mandatory before publication regardless. So I had to get out my camera and take a picture of a web browser and import it into the blog just to give my post a thumbnail so millennials might click on it on Twitter, which was a massive pain. :)

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