Waves in the Web

published: 
May, 1997

Radio on the Internet did not start with the immersion of RealAudio. It was there long before. To make a good judgement of what radio is in the age of digital media, the traditional concept of radio has to be overthrown completely.

 

Where in the beginning of this century the communicative possibilities of radio were diminished in favor of control over the airwaves for reasons of censorship and security, today the system of cables, airwaves and satelites that shape the internet needs first of all no strong security measures for the sake of basic services like ambulance and airplane traffic control, and secondly, censorship seems a lot less easy task to perform. Radio no longer needs to be a single stream of sound that is transmitted from a central point to its listeners. Trying to make this type of radio in the net in fact seems contradictive to the qualities the net adds to communication technologies. Considering the way a lot of people use media at present, zapping through channels and constructing a private program using different media combined often, seeking alternatives for centralized broadcasting seems apropriate. It will not replace broadcasting as it is, but create possibilities and more freedom within the making of radio and also within the making of other massmedia. Even the type of net.radio that serves as an extension of the "mother station's" transmitters reach is no longer the single soundstream classic radio produces. This too needs a different approach then cable and ether radio, as its impact is not the same as of 'normal' transmissions.

 

To understand the possibilities or maybe even the future of radio on the Internet one has to look at experiments with communication tools done in the arts, specifically music and performance art. The work done by Gerfried Stocker and Roberto Paci Dalo serve as good examples of this. Gerfried Stocker, now director of Ars Electronica, is a composer and soundsartist and has created many works in which realtime sound was made at different locations, which were connected firstly through telephonelines and later also the internet. Roberto Paci Dalo is a theater man by origin, but he has lost his heart to radio long ago. He is one of the main people behind radio Lada, together with ORF-Kunstradio the first internet art radiostation in Europe. He has worked on many projects connecting performance places with several radio stations at the same time, through telephone and internet connections. One specifically beautiful project, Publiphono, also involved the speaker system along the italian coast, that exposed unexpecting wanderers along the beach to (for them I imagine) mysterious sounds from an international radio performance. What is most important to learn from their experiments, besides the enormous variety of medialinks possible, is the fact that what is heard in one place is not necesarely the same as what is heard in another. Each end of the 'line' can add its own preferences to the project. What is heard from each computer or in every setting involved, be it a radiostation that broadcasts the event live, creating its own version of the signal or a theater/performance space where the project is processed further and a new signal might be send back, depends on the technical and creative choices made at that side of project. As Gerfried Stocker puts it: "When you work with digital sound, when you start to sample and you have all those soundpieces that can recombine in several circumstances then you very fast get this idea of a pluralistic space of possibilities. So I think it is no longer adequate to think that you have to create a definite masterpiece. As soon as we entered digital technology, we lost this position that we are in control of the result." Radio here is used as both a "distributed accoustic instrument" in an open improvisation and its more traditional set up combined. The broadcast is a polymorphous entity inside a network, and the experience of the audience or participators depends on where they are, what equipment they use and what situation they are in. So there is not one single product.

 

With the coming of RealAudio a lot of radiostations have embraced the possibility to broadcast worldwide. Although this in itself is a revolution for local broadcasters, the coming of RealAudio has put the development of a multifacetted new style of radio, that uses the qualities of the internet appropriately, in the shadow of the overwhelming presence of extended mass media old style on the net. RealAudio software is a typical design from linear thinking from old media into new. The player offers the listener little opportunity to play with the signal it recieves. The server is RealAudio's strongest feature, as its capability to split one 'stream' into many, is unparalelled still. There are experiments in many a studio however, to design a type of software that is more divers in its features, and that will allow users to toy with a signal more. Audio and computer engineers are challenged by the many unsolved questions that linger in the gap between RealAudio and the experiences produced at performances in the arts. Martin Schitter, a technician and artist that has worked with both Roberto Paci Dalo and Gerfried Stocker, has started a mailinglist that focusses on audio and Internet for this very reason. He will be exploring the technical details mostly, but the list contains artists and radiopeople as well. About RealAudio's main ability, to split a signal into many streams, he states (in email): "I think this feature is not so exiting. Its just the way we see it, because its another criterion for the price of this software // the paradoxon of countable connections in a broadcast utility." New types of software are needed, and one single standard should be avoided. I myself would allready be very happy with something like a RealAudio player, that gives the user control over a sort of mixing panel, that allows mixing, cutting and switching of realtime soundstreams and archived audio-samples in a reasonably fast way for instance. Soundquality is not the most important aspect for me.

 

Besides from all this, a very sensitive question arrises with radio on the net, which is: What to do with those screens? I have talked to many media-artists, radio- and televisionpeople about this, trying to get a grip on what future radio would 'look' like. The most specific quality of radio or audio in general is of course its 'omnipresence', compared to tv or video, which is locked in a box in the corner. Now with radio on the net, it has a shiny prison as well. Felipe Rodriguez, director of the dutch internetprovider xs4all, sees a great future for net.radio, but he thinks of listeners in places with good net.connections mostly, like offices. Allready there are many people listening to net.radio in this way, through a leased line or isdn connection. Connected to the speakersystem in the rooms, radio is its old self again, no trouble with screens here. Robert Adrian, mediaartist from Vienna, thinks the screen will add new qualities to radio, like every new extension does. What these qualities are still needs to be seen, as the medium is so new. Gerfried Stocker made the suggestion to just leave the screen black, or not use it at all. Roberto Paci Dalo said: "If you deal with the internet, if you deal with a computer with sound, you can't escape from a reflection about the image as well. Thats why it is a radio that contains the tv format. And it shows that radio can be bigger then tv, or/and more flexible. If you work with CUseeme in a radioproject that is online, thats interesting. People tend to think: The biggest thing is image and then you get the sound in the image and the text. In this case firstly there is the sound and inside the sound you get all the other things. That is one of the aspects of the filosofy of radio Lada". Straight from the heart of a radio art lover, his words reflect the experience of the difference in sensual perception of sound and image. Just the simple reversion of a thought can cause an altered output. Thinking from the principles of spacial, elusive sound with its specific qualities the addition of image produces something else then what happens with sound on television usually. The dominance of the eye in media and the way this influenced our sensual perception of the world, which might stem from the fact that sound recording devices were invented many centuries after the making of the cave paintings in Lascaux and the invention of print in Gutenberg, would almost make us neglect the subtleties inside our 'network' of senses. Television has the audible output of a half deaf engineer, whereas cinema for instance is exceptional in its good soundquality, due to the possibilities for creating sound environments in movie palaces, no doubt.

 

The screen of the computer can be used for more then just the usual tv/radioguide pages. Two very different examples of this screen usage are from a computer music festival in Germany and a new media radioshow on the Berlin air, called Radio Convex tv. "The Darksite" as the website of the musicfestival is called , offers a black screen with a burning candle in the middle. A few words point out some basic information. Once entering the site, the black screen shows several glowing stars, each opening a different soundfile on clicking. The info writes how the dark screen was chosen to give all the attention to the sound, without visual distraction. The people from Convex TV have a radioshow on the student universityradio that has been given some of good old 'Voice of America's' airtime. The program is highly experimental, and uses the internet during its broadcasts once a month for producing live texts and images. There is no sound here yet, on the internet that is. Listeners of the program through the ether, can take a seat in front of their computer and join in the live text event on their screens. People outside of the transmitter radius can do this also, having a very different radio experience indeed.

 

What will happen when moving images are added though? Will radio become television on the internet? The definitions of both need re-examining. Both Roberto Paci Dalo as Gerfried Stocker spoke of the different working conditions in television and radio. The structure and hierarchy at a tv station are more rigid and less inclined to experimentation, compared to the more relaxed and free atmosfere at a radiostation. This has many reasons, and these differences are certainly not always present. There are exeptions, but they are few. The traditional difference between the sound and the visual artist, where the first often works in groups and the second alone in his studio could have left traces in the working styles of both audio and video artists. Roberto Paci Dalo mentioned this, when he spoke of his love for radio. He also spoke of the huge difference in budget that radio and television have to work with. The high costs of the equipment needed to produce a reasonable quality television show probably cause both a more strict working regime and, together with the impact of television as opium for the people, leads people working in the television broadcast industry too often to overestimate their own importance. This goes at the expense of experimentation and cooperation. Now television and radio both are moving onto the internet, both will change because of it. Radio will have a stronger presence and television will loose some of its importance, in the sense of the old mediaprofiles. The difference between the two will often be hardly distinguishable though. Robert Adrian: "Radio is becoming part of what I've called a megamedium, a medium of recording and transmission that combines all these media. We are talking about a communications technology in which the communications element in the recordings changes the notions of space and the recording also changes the notion of time. We are moving into an era in which we have completely different notions of time and space developed around basically the telephone and recording machinery, but fundamentally the telephone."

 

Indeed soundarchives give radio a historical depth it never had before. Apart from this soundfiles on the internet can be used and selected by anyone to serve whatever purpose sound in the net and outside can be used for. Links on homepages is its most common use. If your provider does not have a RealAudio server, you can find other places to put up your sound for free, and link to it. You could also use the sound for further experimentation, like how Radio Lada put up soundbites to be used during the live net.cast last februari from V2 in Rotterdam, which was produced by a very interesting group of radio and internet workers from former-Yugoslavia, Austria, The Netherlands and Germany. One thing that came forward here was the previously impossible idea to network several smaller, maybe even illegal local stations, all over the globe.

 

A radiostation that calls itself a radio but denies being one, is Radio Internationale Stadt. This project of Internationale Stadt in Berlin offers the possibility to ftp soundfiles from anywhere onto their RealAudio server. It does not want to call itself a radiostation however because: "It's not a matter of radio, its a matter of internet community. We don't run a radiostation. What the users in the internet bring us, we can broadcast. We provide the infrastructure to bring audio information to the net. It is not up to us to make audio content; it is up to the users, people that are interested into doing this. We are able to support them", says Thomas Kaulman, sysop and initiator of the project. The website is a fast growing soundarchive, that hosts E-lab from Riga, Latvia for example, whose audio experimenting on the net were received with great 'enthusiasm' by Latvian authorities.

 

The new possibilities offered by the internet for radio are various and they are enormous, and this cannot be said often enough. Radio finally could regain some of its freedom, that is if the next generation Internet protocols (IPv6) stricter network-bandwidth-regulation and cost calculation will leave enough space to move. Starting a radio station on the internet is not as hard as starting one on the ether yet, though attempts are being made to invent ways of control, often by simply keeping all internet access in the hands of one national internet provider, usually the state telecom company. Sending a single stream out into the whole world can change the entire political situation of a country and with that of everybody. Again, the situation of Radio B92 serves as an example of how effective simply sending one stream of live audio can be. Authorities in other countries, such as Latvia, now try to regulate the growth of net.radiostations by ordering new net.radiostations to aply for a legal broadcast status when more then 20 streams of audio will be used. Such a status will never be given. This is censorship, and why is there no outrage over it?

 

To get to a conclusion of this short exploration of net.radio, I have to mention the lack of good information about the Internet in mass media. The hype seems to be mostly over, here in the Netherlands at least, but it is being replaced by the image of the Internet as the place where all the bad things happen. If it is not Sodom and Gomorrah, it is at least a place where only weirdoes, intelectuals, techies and businesses trying to find the newest way to advertise can have any satisfaction. It is not just lack of will from the mass media to give more accurate information, a problem seems to also be that, eventhough there is a lot of attention for the body and presence by some internet artists and critics, there is hardly any helping hand from the 'new' media workers towards the 'old' media. For the internet and net.radio to develop well, it is necesary that the knowledge about the internet is spreaded more even. The way it is now, restrictions and censorship will be applied without much protest. My plee could be coming from a too optimist mind though, as I received the following quote from Reni Hofmueller, audio artist working for Radio Helsinki in Graz. The legend says the quote is from one of the technicians that helped build the first telephone network: "It will no longer be necesary to have war - because now we can use the system of transmission to ask how something was meant."

 

Radio, like other media, should be combined, deconstructed and reconstructed. Radio and other media should not just have extensions into the net, but the net should also have extensions to the outside. In the case of radio this means that audiostreams should be used much more creatively, connecting them to ether and cable stations, legal or illegal, playing the sound in public places, allowing the audio to be played with, using connections to television and whatever you can think of. As long as there are no connections of the net to the outside, it will stay unknown, possibly enemy territory, which will be regulated along straight lines of existing radio broadcasts. Although radio, as we have known it always, will never cease to exist, people working within radio environments, contentwise and technically, should be aware of the possibilities a more flexible way of working, in which every situation needs a different approach, can offer to their broadcasts. The experimentation of media artists should be examined and translated to net.casts of a much greater variety.