25 Years of Internet Radio: Part 1

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So I began to hang out in the Mbone's main voice chat channel, which was accessed by a tool known as Van's Audio Tool (VAT). One particularly busy day, I had a bunch of new Sun Microsystmes hardware on my desk and was busy rewiring things so I could configure everything properly. While I was doing this, I was listening to some great jazz by the Chick Corea Acoustic Band through one of the Sun CD-ROM drives.

Accidentally I plugged the output of the CD-ROM music feed straight into the VAT's main talk channel. You have to realize that many prominent geeks of the time were listening to this channel. There might have been around 100 people in this channel, which was awesome for the technology of the day. The music ran for almost two minutes until I caught it.

Fearing the worst verbal flame war ever, I quickly unplugged the music, broke into the channel with voice, and apologized profusely for disturbing the peace. So Dr. Steve Deering (who was with Xerox PARC at the time) responds by saying "If you play music like that, you can disturb us any time you want". 

While I was being relieved that I hadn't started the first verbal flame war, Van Jacobsen (who never said ANYTHING else as long as I can remember) says "What was that music?" I have a natural DJ voice. So I quickly said "That was the Chick Corea Acoustic Band here on radio K-JPL from the CD..." etc. After the laughter subsided, I created a channel called "Radio Free Vat" and started DJing the music I was playing (while working) through it.  

That's how it all started. I think we all realized at the same time that there were other uses for this technology. 

I kept broadcasting for some time, even producing a show I called "Ecclecticity" (because I play a wide variety of genres) at home and broadcasting it on a schedule. JPL eventually shut this down because the legality of it was in question, and of course I didn't want to get them (or me) in trouble. But in 1994 I left JPL, went out on my own to do internet consulting, got a T1 run to my house, got on the Mbone, and started broadcasting live music. I had maybe 10 listeners at peak, and most of these were from Japan. All of this was under the show "Radio Free VAT." 

Of course (and as usual) I was waaay too early for this to be a "thing." For a while, I hit Shoutcast/Icecast with my show, but due to various factors, I stopped publicly streaming around 1999. I do still stream these days, but it's a private stream and my own personal software system. I really don't have the time, finances, or inclination to do the legal work and acquire the bandwidth that it takes to publicly stream again. Maybe someday.

So there you have it: Dave Hayes was DJing a live stream on the Mbone in 1991 or 1992, and his 100 or so listeners were all the founding fathers of the internet. Now although this live streaming was multicast only to the Mbone edges, since—if you had a lot of technical knowledge and resources—you could connect to the Mbone over 'the internet,' and since this was a programmed audio stream, I would actually declare Dave Hayes as "The Original internet Radio DJ" and give Carl Malamud the crown of "The Original Podcaster" (and it was Malamud who without a doubt popularised the 'science' and took internet radio to the masses). I am sure we are splitting hairs here, and both they, and all the engineers who had brought all that capability to the internet deserved a huge round of applause for starting the phenomenon of internet radio! I am on working on getting Dave Hayes to do a live set on my own weekly internet radio show (www.thethursdaynightshow.com) and will be sure to let you know if I manage to twist his arm!

Gavin Starks: Virgin Radio

Now while I could at this point turn my article into a deep forensic technical history from that early 1990s period, there is simply so much to cover on the topic of internet radio in just the past two years alone that we would run out of printer ink before we get back two and a half decades. So let me focus on some highlights, and perhaps in future articles we can go a little deeper into the nuances.

Virgin Radio was the first commercial radio station to get online in 1995. I used to work with Gavin Starks, who was one of the very earliest pioneers in streaming in Europe, having started out by streaming Radio Astronomy data from the Jodrell Bank Observatory radio telescope using RTSP in the preceding years. He went on to help Virgin go live using his desktop PC for the first year!

I asked Starks about that first setup at Virgin.

It was a Tuesday on day one of my first commercial job (Virgin Net, 1995). My new boss asked if I could, amongst five other things, set up Virgin Radio to stream online … by Friday. 

At that time RealAudio was Progressive Networks.By Friday, I had the server running on my 'desktop' (a Silicon Graphics Indy) and the encoder set up on my other desktop (a PC). I asked if there was a budget for equipment and they asked what the minimum I needed was. "Just a radio," I said. So, with permission to go to Dixons, I bought a £30 FM radio, tuned it in to Virgin Radio, plugged the headphone jack into my desktop PC, and streamed it out onto the web.  

I went over to the CEO and got him the link to listen. After a few seconds of realisation he said, "You mean this is one the web now? You mean anyone can listen to it anywhere in the world if they have this link?" People gathered around, asking "Really? How are you doing this?" 

I described … and to prove the point I went to my desk and returned the radio to KissFM. After 20 seconds of latency, the stream magically returned too. Jaws dropped. 

Looking back, I can see how profound a shift this was in the concept of "broadcast";" how minds were blown; how regulators and rights associations struggled with the concepts. For me, it was "just what we did on the internet." 

After a month of testing, and moving the server to a Sun Microsystems server at our co-lo, we went live to the world [1996]. As far as I know Virgin Radio was the first national radio station in Europe to start streaming. It rapidly became the most popular radio station on the internet, for at least two years following, with hundreds of thousands of listeners a month. How do I know? I ran the server, checked the logs, and reported back to John Ousby at Virgin Radio. I don't think anyone at the ISP could actually monitor bandwidth at the time, otherwise I'm sure they'd have throttled it: I know we were using at least 20% of all the available bandwidth for the ISP. No one seemed to notice.

What few realised was for that initial period (which was longer than you might imagine) the encoder still ran off my desktop PC in our office, attached to the same £30 consumer radio plugged into the headphone socket. If my desktop PC crashed, then Virgin Radio went offline until we rebooted it. At one point I was at a Streaming Media conference in London and the RealNetworks folks at a booth were trying to listen in. I had to call back to the office and get a colleague to reboot it. 

We went on [in 1996] to trial putting clips from the Chris Evans Breakfast Show online on-demand (now known as podcasting), added more streaming formats (Windows Media, QuickTime), and upgraded the whole thing to a proper studio-grade encoder. Interestingly, every time we added a new encoding format we simply increased the audience size (the format wars were stupid then, as they are now—easy access is everything). From there we went on to add live streaming video from the studios, kicking off with Oasis.

Prior to this I'd done a Master of Music at Glasgow University, where the music dept had just bought (1992-1993) a truck load of NeXT machines and an asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) line, so we'd been experimenting with real-time network playback across studios and campus and between Glasgow and Edinburgh.  

Starks has a great history of his own at go2sm.com/dgen. I'm very chuffed to have been an encoding engineer for a few of those events!

Preview of Part 2: Keeping it Real

When I set out to write this article, I thought it would be a brief piece exploring the 25 years of internet radio. I didn't really even expect to find enough material to produce a full-length feature. And then I got lengthy responses from so many people, all with fantastic opinions, viewpoints, anecdotes, and insights. What stands out is the passion that internet radio evokes, which sometimes gets lost in the magazine's understandable focus on video. The article became too unwieldy for a single issue, and so Part 2 will appear in the Winter issue. 

In Part 2, we'll take a deep dive into the advent of RealAudio, which for many of us was the point where we realised that streaming multimedia over the internet was something that was both straightforward to deliver and could reach large consumer audiences. We'll catch up with RealNetworks' founder Rob Glaser and learn the backstory. We'll also hear more about how the technology has evolved and is in use today from a variety of vendors and operators. Finally, we'll meet several industry observers who focus on online audio, and invite them to gaze into their crystal balls to hint at what might be around the corner or even far out 25 years in the future. Stay tuned!

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