Thursday, May 20, 2010

Media: The Early Days of Streaming

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A friend wrote to me recently raving about a WiFi radio. The concept of a WiFi radio is pretty simple--being able to tune into any radio station in the world that has an Internet stream, instead of being limited to local stations. All one needs is the WiFi radio and either a wireless or a wired Ethernet connection to the Internet, and one can tune in anything from KGO in San Francisco to ABC Newsradio in Australia to RPR-1 in Germany, and everything in between.

Personally, I don't find the concept of a WiFi radio that interesting, since I already have a computer and can tune in any of these stations on the computer, and then use a low-power FM transmitter to broadcast it to any radio in my residence. I've been doing that for more than a decade, and I don't see how a WiFi radio improves over that arrangement. In fact, it would actually be a step backward, as the radio sits in only one location and the FM transmitter goes to every room.

It wasn't that long ago that we had no such options. I remember when I was the head teaching assistant of an Analytical Chemistry lab at university that had an evening section. Some of the experiments were rather tedious, so sometimes the evening section leader and I would let students stick around and continue an experiment, and we'd work on our own homework. The lab did not have a radio, but it did have a computer. So, one night approaching midnight, I decided to try to find some music.

Google didn't exist yet, so I went to Yahoo for radio station listings (in fact, I think Yahoo may have still been at, a few buildings away on campus). There weren't a lot of music options--the most popular station with students in that era, for example, Alice@97.3, was not on-line, but eventually I found something that the handful of remaining students could stand.

It was WZYP, a hit music station out of Huntsville, Alabama. 104.3 on the FM dial there, it had a Real Audio stream on the Internet that enabled us to hear it in California. The music was enough to keep us awake, and the overnight disc jockey (DJ), whose name has disappeared from my memory, kept us entertained with his southern accent alone.

The moment that would etch itself into my memory came when the morning DJ came on the air (er, the Internet) and announced "It's 5 AM in Huntsville--Good morning!" Being two times zones over, it was 3 AM in Palo Alto. That was significant, however, since only a minority of students actually went to bed before midnight--according to the unofficial "Pacific Stanford Time," the day actually started at 3 AM. WZYP was telling us we were in all-nighter territory.

It wasn't long before the students wrapped up their experiments and went home, and the teaching staff followed. I don't think I've listened to WZYP since the night labs, as more familiar stations eventually came on-line. Yet, by being one of the first music stations available on-line, WZYP earned a place in my life story, and I doubt I'll ever forget it.

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