YOUR taste for serendipity will be tested over the next few years. Radio turns out to mate easily with digital technology, opening up whole new worlds. Just this morning, for instance, I've listened to a (terrible) band called Salmonella Dub on station bFM from Auckland, New Zealand; a weather forecast for Alberta; the top forty from São Paulo; jazz from Newark. But you can also use the technology to narrow your world and make sure you'll never hear anything disconcerting again -- a use that might endanger public, college, and community radio stations, all that good stuff at the left end of the dial. What you look for will depend on the value you place on the local, the particular, the immediate -- on the funky in all its forms.
The only tool you need is a copy of RealPlayer or Windows Media Player, software that more than 100 million people already use (and that is free in its basic versions; the upgrades that RealPlayer encourages you to buy don't seem to add much to the free version). Once you've got one of these programs, you can listen to any audio on the Web -- sound, unlike video, requires only limited bandwidth. Hundreds of "Internet only" radio stations have sprung up, including gogaga.com, WWW.com, and NetRadio.com, which boasts 120 "channels" subdivided into remarkably narrow segments. Classical fans can baroque around the clock or concentrate on chant; rock fans can decide between "Fab 60s" and "Pre Fab 60s." You listen through the speakers on your desktop computer -- this is music for cubicles. And by year's end it will be music for cars. Sirius Satellite Radio will soon be standard in many Fords, using satellites to "stream" channels playing nothing but New Age, opera, blues, country, alternative. For a monthly fee you'll be able to push the button preset for opera and hear endless arias, uninterrupted by commercials.
The sound quality will be unimpeachable -- no fading in and out as you crest hills. In fact, you may very well stop listening to classical music on your local public-radio station, which means that you won't be tuned in at fundraising time, which means the station might go out of business. The thought has certainly occurred to National Public Radio, which has agreed to provide programming for two nationwide NPR channels over Sirius Satellite Radio but has refused to license the two biggest ones, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, for fear of losing too many listeners.
All reggae all the time exacts another cost: although it's efficient to listen to the kind of music or talk you already know you like and nothing else, it's also a little dull, or at least parochial. That is to say, one of the glories of public radio, as of any neighborhood, is its inefficiency -- the fact that because it offers all sorts of things to all sorts of people, it obliges you to expose yourself to the tastes of the people around you. Maybe you'll hear something about the local schools, or the local nursing home; maybe you'll hear zouk music before opera comes on. Commercial AM and FM have already achieved near-total homogenization. A distributor in Texas or California, say, sends prepackaged oldies or conservative bluster or "adult contemporary" out across thousands of stations -- satellite radio with commercials. With regular broadcast radio there weren't enough opera fans in Boston or Louisville to support an all-opera station, so Pavarotti fans sometimes had to suffer through Joshua Redman. Now they won't unless they want to.
DIGITAL radio can widen your world as well as narrow it. To imagine how far, you perhaps need to have hovered over a shortwave set in your childhood, trying to coax in the distant signals of Radio Luxembourg, intrigued by the idea that there were other, perhaps more interesting, places you could conjure up out of the ether. There's no more waiting for nightfall, worrying about sunspots, stringing antennas out the window -- all of a sudden the computer has turned into the greatest shortwave set there ever was. Visit a site called comfm.fr and you can choose from 3,619 stations (by the time you try it, the number will doubtless have topped 4,000). About two thousand of these broadcast from the United States, but you can also hear Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Tanzanian broadcasts. Radio Mostar and Radio Slon stream in live from Bosnia. Click on RSI in Singapore and you can choose live programming in English, Tamil, Malay, Mandarin, or Japanese. Click on All India Radio and music from Bollywood surges through your speakers. What you hear is local radio, not the propaganda broadcasts that governments send out over shortwave.
Aurally, anyone can now live in, say, Boston, which has a dozen college stations, three of them great: WMBR, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (check out Sunday evening's R&B Jukebox); WERS, at Emerson College (Gyroscope offers three hours of world music every weekday afternoon); and WHRB, at Harvard, locally famous for the exam-period "orgies" it broadcasts twice a year (last winter every note Bach wrote, continuously for ten days). If your local public-radio station plays nothing but classical music, you can now tune in KCRW, the NPR outlet in Santa Monica, which offers Morning Becomes Eclectic -- perhaps the most gorgeously idiosyncratic music program in the country (Beck, Cassandra Wilson, Jacques Brel, back to back) -- and also lots of original radio drama, not to mention satire from Harry Shearer.