Im lucky enough to live in Boston, where several great college radio stations make it possible for me to listen to a wide variety of eclectic music that will never be on a Clear Channel playlist. But I have lived in other places where my choices were the commercial "alternative" rock station, playing the same Strokes song every hour on the hour, or a commercial jazz station whose idea of jazz was pretty much limited to Diana Krall and Kenny G.
Of course, for a while, the Internet changed all of this. The ease of streaming audio and the low barrier to entry turned anyone who wanted to be one into a radio station and made it possible for people to find and listen to anything they wanted to.
It was nice while it lasted, but Webcasting became one of the first targets of the music industries quest to defend their business model and quash all alternative methods of distribution. After all, given time, Webcasting could have become pervasive enough to make it possible for some future band to become big without selling their souls to the record companies.
The first threat, CARP, aimed painful royalty payments at Webcasters (although not at regular radio stations), and drove out a majority of Webcasters in its first wave. Now, those that managed to hold on by their fingernails are facing a new threat in shaky but legally dangerous patent claims from Acacia Media Technologies. If these claims hold up, we may end up with Internet radio that mirrors the airwaves, with only Clear Channel-like giants able to stay in business.
However, there may be hope.
For the last few months Ive been playing around with an open source application called PeerCast.
The application leverages the same SHOUTcast/ICEcast technology that lets anyone stream audio from their system. However, it includes two important additions.
PeerCast uses the same underlying peer-to-peer technology used by Gnutella, making it possible to distribute bandwidth costs across the peer-to-peer network rather then serving each connection from your single system.
More importantly, however, Peercast adds a layer of anonymity. When one is listening to a stream through Peercast, it could be coming from any peer on the network, making it impossible to determine where the actual stream is originating from.
This is, of course, crucial, making it possible to stream audio without fear of the RIAA or Acacia knocking on your door looking to shut you down. Obviously, if youre not in it solely for the love of music, this model can also make it hard to make any money off your stream, although Im sure some enterprising person will come up with a way.
I found it very easy to deliver a stream through Peercast. I used Winamp with the Oddcast DSP plug-in, which let me take any playlist and serve it as a Shoutcast or Icecast stream. I could then configure that stream through my Peercast client and offer it as a station. Peercast can deliver audio streams as MP3 or in the open Ogg Vorbis format.
The Peercast client, which runs on Linux and Windows, is required in order to stream content or to find Peercast channels. However, it is possible to set-up a central Peercast client system that is accessible through a web browser and drive channels to any system on the same network.
Probably the biggest drawback right now for Peercast is its lack of channels. At any given time there are probably no more than thirty channels running on the network.
Of course the solution to that is simply to have more people using the system. In time maybe Peercast and similar programs such as Streamer can take Internet radio out of the hands of patent lawyers and music companies and put it back in the hands of the people.
Is there a future for Internet radio? Let me know at email@example.com.