Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 18/10/2002.
This was back when internet radio was on the brink of total destruction, and I'd decided to dabble in my own web radio station just to see how long it would last. Four and a half years on, Radio Spank - subsequently retitled Spank's Audio Lair, as you'll see below - is still going. However, internet radio is once again on the brink of total destruction, so it's quite possible the station may not be there after July 15th, 2007. You can find out more details about the problems and possible solutions at Live365 and at the SaveNetRadio Coalition. American readers are requested to contact their Representative in Congress regarding the proposed Internet Radio Equality Act H.R. 2060, because that option isn't actually available to those of us in the rest of the bloody world who are affected by it.
I love the way that the internet is so new, you can talk about the mid-nineties like it was ancient history. So I can legitimately get nostalgic about the excitement that resulted when KCTU TV in Wichita announced several years ago that it was going to stream all of its transmissions over the internet. Just think! An actual American television station, and you can see it from anywhere in the world! What could be more exciting to watch than that? Well, take your pick from paint drying, planks warping or John Major having sex. KCTU is just your standard local TV station, and because of the time difference all us UK viewers could see was how crap their daytime schedule was. It was pretty much a failure as an experiment, though there's still a link to the feed from their front page.
Anyway, it turns out we were all looking in the wrong direction: web radio, rather than television, turned out to be where it was really at. Whether it still will be by the time you read this is another matter entirely.
To be honest, up until recently I didn't have much of an interest in internet radio at all. And fans of the thousands of small college and personal stations out there will doubtless be outraged to hear that so far, pretty much all of my web radio access has been via the behemoth that is the British Broadcasting Corporation. There's occasionally the odd whine from people about the use of the television licence fee to fund the BBC's myriad digital projects, most of which are currently playing to pitifully small audiences. But they're doing it right, and showing the world how to do it in the process.
The five main national radio stations - Radio 1 for ver kids, Radio 2 for ver older greying kids, Radio 3 for the classical buffs, Radio 4 for the talk radio fans and Five Live for the sports and news junkies - have all had home pages on the web for some time. The streaming content for these stations has grown in sophistication over the years, and there's now an online player available for 1, 2, 3, 4 and Five. In each case, not only can you listen live to the current output of each station, but they also keep an archive of their most popular shows, available on demand for a week after their initial broadcast. So if you missed out on the latest ramblings from John Peel [surprisingly not dead link], Jonathan Ross or Andy Kershaw, you can listen to them whenever and wherever you like. The Beeb's local stations also do this to a lesser degree, so when I'm away from London I can still catch up with the local news courtesy of BBC London Listen Live, or find out what bollocks Danny Baker has been spouting on that day's show.
And the BBC's online portfolio continues to expand beyond merely reproducing channels you can already get on your wireless. During 2002 two new digital music stations have been launched, available via Digital Audio Broadcasting (which only ten people in the country have access to right now), digital TV, and the Internet - but not via normal analogue radio. 6Music seems a little too tightly targeted at the white thirtysomething male whenever I listen to its live stream, and being a white thirtysomething male myself doesn't make this any more palatable. 1Xtra, meanwhile, has had to contend with accusations that the BBC are targeting an urban audience who are perfectly well served by dozens of local and pirate R&B stations: but the point is surely that this is giving the music a national audience, albeit one that's limited to those people with access to it.
But it doesn't take much effort to discover that there's an entire world of internet radio out there. How you find out about it is another matter: there's just too much to get a handle on. Even a simple Google search will point you in the direction of several hundred stations, covering every taste imaginable. If you've got Windows Media Player, then you'll probably find a button on your browser pointing at Windowsmedia.com, a portal leading to a number of radio sites approved by Microsoft. And if you find that approval a bit creepy, a little more digging will reveal several more independent portal sites such as Radio JUMP!, which should give you a good insight into the diversity that's out there. It's yours for the finding.
And yours for the contributing too: because let's face it, the whole USP of the internet has always been that anyone can do this. And my own personal interest in web radio was piqued by Megchan. I've mentioned her before in my assorted articles on Japanese pop music, as she has an excellent J-Pop site with lyrics and translations of the latest hits. The thing that most impressed me about her site, though, was its link to her own web radio station. Rather than just babble on about Japanese pop music, she could let you hear her favourite songs - about twelve hours worth of them in continuous rotation.
Megchan's station was (and, technically, still is) hosted by Live 365, pioneers of internet radio for the masses since 1998. I did some investigation when I first came across them in 2001, and the idea seemed wonderful at the time. Live 365 would give you up to 100Mb of server space for absolutely nothing. You uploaded your favourite MP3s to it, and they would play them in a continuous loop for you as streaming audio. Pass on the URL for your particular stream to other people, and you've got your very own radio station, without any of the hassles of having your own server or being permanently on line. Sure, you're plagued with audio ads, banner ads and pop-ups while you're listening, but that's the price you pay for not paying a price.
It was always one of those ideas I wanted to explore further, but I didn't get around to it for a year. Until finally, in October 2002, I decided to head back to Live 365 and get involved in this internet radio mullarkey for myself. Only when I got there, I found out that I'd returned just in time for what might be its funeral.
I keep doing this sort of thing: I only really discovered Napster in the month before the courts closed it down. And it's a similar deal with internet radio - although strictly speaking, it shouldn't be. As you can imagine, the main problems are to do with record companies (as represented by the Recording Industry Association of America) demanding royalties for their music. There's an obvious case to be made when you apply that to the swapping of files using Napster, Morpheus and the like, as there's a risk that people will use that as an alternative to buying the music (though I'd maintain it's only a risk). Web radio, by its very nature, is empheral and streaming: nobody gets to keep the files permanently, and if anything it can only help the promotion of sales.
However, that's not how the record companies see it. So earlier this year, the US Senate passed a ruling defining royalty payments that were to be made by webcasters. The rate they decided on was 0.07 cents per listener per song, backdated to 1998. (Compare this with the equivalent performance royalty paid by terrestrial radio broadcasters, which is, um, zero.) Obviously, this is the sort of thing that could bankrupt any broadcaster that's been doing this for a while, not to mention the hellish amount of record-keeping that such a royalty would require.
For Live 365's users, the holiday was over. People like Megchan now had to pay an administration fee of $11 a month, a figure decided on by Live 365 as an interim figure while they work out what the hell's happening - it could, of course, end up being much more. Many people refused to pay this: so if you try to access Megchan's J-Pop Radio [dead link], or the intriguing sounding Chimp Spankin' Radio [dead link], you'll be told that these stations can only be accessed by Premium Members - that is, listeners who are prepared to pay five bucks a month for the privilege, so that the royalty payment gets covered either way. Obviously several station owners have decided to pay up, and a list of Live 365's free stations shows there's still a fair bit of diversity out there. But not as much as there used to be.
At the time of writing, the shit had officially just hit the fan for internet radio. Following the outcry by small webcasters over the extortionate charges being levied, a new bill was drawn up: The Small Webcasters Amendment Act, also known to its friends as HR5469. Its passage through Congress was somewhat rushed, due to the requirement to get it approved by the Senate before Sunday October 20th, 2002 - the date when the first set of retroactive royalty payments were due. As it stood, the Bill wasn't that much of an improvement for a lot of people, setting an alternative royalty rate based on a percentage of revenues or expenses (with a flat royalty for non-profit making stations). It at least meant that the retroactive royalty payment was no longer so much of an issue for many small webcasters: but ironically, the smallest ones - the paupers who could only afford to broadcast via Live 365 - were considered to be part of one of the biggest webcasters, and so HR5469 didn't apply to them. In any case, this is all academic now, as HR5469 failed to make it onto the Senate floor in time and is therefore dead. As of October 20th, the royalty invoices will start going out, and many stations will probably choose to go off the air rather than pay.
Even at this late stage, campaigning is still fierce. Kurt Hanson runs a heftily detailed site, SaveNetRadio.org, with a huge archive of news and facts, plus details of people to complain to. He also has a newsletter called RAIN (Radio And Internet Newsletter) with daily updates. However, there have been complaints that he was too gung-ho for HR5469, without considering the consequences for smaller webcasters - The Register has been pretty good in its coverage of the ensuing rift in the webcasting community. Inevitably, there's an online petition [dead link], and a campaign fund you can contribute to. Other solutions are being considered: after all, everything I've discussed here is related to American law, and the possibilities of moving webcasting operations to other countries have barely been investigated. But right now, it looks like internet radio as we know it may be on its last legs.
Which makes this the perfect time to announce the launch of Radio Spank*.
Here's a scenario that will be terribly familiar to those of you who know me personally. It's around ten thirty in the evening, and we've been in a pub for several hours. Without warning, I waddle drunkenly over to the jukebox and stuff five quid in it. Within five minutes, the pub is full of people yelling "who put that shite on", while I sit there drinking my beer and chuckling to myself. Now: how would you like access to that experience twenty-four hours a day, over the internet? Because now, you can.
Radio Spank, as you've doubtless worked out by now, is my own little contribution to Live 365 in what could be its dying days. And unlike some of the stations mentioned above, I'm prepared to pay the eleven bucks a month to allow you all to have free access to it. (But if the fee goes up dramatically as a result of the current unpleasantness, expect a hurried postscript to appear on here announcing the station's closure.) I've slapped about five and a half hours of my current favourite tunes onto it, set to play in shuffle mode so that none of us will know what's coming up next. And I'm hoping to add and remove songs from the database on a regular basis: so if you get bored with the sixty or so that are on there now, rest assured at least some of them will have changed in a couple of weeks.
So give Radio Spank a go, but don't forget to support the other web broadcasters out there as well. If you're American and you have some sort of input into the political process, find out if there's anything you can do to change the current situation via your representatives - after all, this is affecting the whole world's access to a source of communication outside of the major media players. For my part, I'll do what I can to ensure that the beat goes on. Being a monkey, and all.
Yes, of course I have links. See above, before I'm tempted to post the one for Radio Spank again.
* P.S. November 2003: one year on from the original article, my Live 365 station is still burbling away to anyone who'll listen. However, it's subsequently come to light that there's another internet radio station out there called Spank Radio, which was in existence for a couple of years before I started dabbling in these waters. The two stations don't have any connection, other than a shared love of the grooviest of music. So in deference to a polite request from them, I've changed my station's name to Spank's Audio Lair. I can't be arsed changing every old occurrence of Radio Spank on this site - for one thing, I still like the Clash reference in the title of this page - but you get the idea. It's Spank's Audio Lair now. Visit it.