The history of audio online

By Ellie Buchdahl

In the early days of www , Radio Computing Services of the 1980s were pioneering the very digital technology that would be central to internet radio. By the time the net caught on in the 1990s, all was ready. The first internet raido was set up in 1993 by Carl Malamud – Internet Talk Radio – based on audio files.

A year later, in 1994, Mick Jagger stepped up onstage. “I wanna say a special welcome to everyone that’s, uh, climbed into the Internet tonight and, uh, has got into the M-bone. And I hope it doesn’t all collapse.”

He thus opened the Rolling Stones’ “first major cyberspace multicast concert” in November 1994. Nearly a century after Henri Marconi gave us his wireless sensation, internet radio came to our computers.

In the same month WXYC and WREK, student radio stations run by the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill in North Carolina and the Georgia Institute of Technology, USA, became the first radio stations to go online on the very same day.

These still required software specifically designed by the universities. However, internet users did not have to wait long for the big computer companies to provide a bit of programming for listening online. In 1995 RealAudio was set up by Progressive Networks, closely followed by Nullsoft and Microsoft versions. Now people could set up their own online radio stations…

Europe had to wait until 1996 before Virgin Radio first broadcast 24-hour radio – the same programmes as its FM system on the radio.

In 1998, a row broke out in the US after Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which demanded that internet broadcasters had to pay performance royalties alongside the publishing royalties that normal radio stations pay. Internet radio was up in arms – while larger corporations could afford these costs, it was the smaller net broadcasters who suffered. Eventually an organisation called SoundExchange was set up to represent smaller broadcasters, and in 2007 they managed to negotiate price caps for smaller broadcasters.

Into the new millennium and increasing bandwidths and high-speed broadband has made streaming much faster and more effective.

Back in the world of downloading, technology was adapting to broaden possibilities. Serial port microphones (a row of mics built into the computer) super-speedy broadband allowed the launch of sites like Napster in 1999. Music could be downloaded much more quickly and easily, and what was more, the site avoided subscription fees.

In 2000 PC and MP3 manufacturers really started to join in, building on the “old” CD-player to create remote storage devices. The dot com crash hit earlier models like the eGo player and the iGoMediaManager.

Yet gradually the techno-wizards began to combine different technology, such as RSS feeds with MP3 files, until in software developer Dave Winer combined RSS feeds with online files. In 2001, the first iPods hit the market, and in October 2003, Winer held a conference to show how he could move MP3 files from radio to iTunes and then onto a remote device. By September 2004 the big manufacturers had caught on, with Apple launching podcast software.

And they were off. In the years that followed up to the present, we have seen the first podcast awards, a Podcast Expo, and an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. Now many radio stations, newspapers, events and organisations offer podcasts. You can download iPod walking tours, and even ‘podnography’ –essentially downloadable phone sex.

When Marconi gave the world the first radio over a hundered years ago, could he ever have imagined that his invention would take such turns? The past twenty years have shown just how much scope there is for audio online. Let’s see what the future will hold – tomorrow…


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