Technology December 2007

Radio Free Everywhere

Move over, iPod: Internet radio captures the enduring magic of the medium and makes the local global.

The iPod shows you mainly what’s already going on in your head—it’s cool, but only as cool as solipsism can ever be. I’ve got a way cooler device: a squat little box that sits on your kitchen counter or your bedside table and connects you to pretty much the entire Earth. And in so doing makes you think anew about the global and the local and what community amounts to—makes you think about connection, which is, after all, the main topic of our age. It’s a kind of home epistemology center that also happens to rock.

Or croon, or wail, or chat, or do anything else a radio can do. Because that’s all I’m talking about: a table radio, though one that, assuming you have a broadband connection and wireless network in your house, lets you tune in to almost any station anywhere that’s streaming its signal on the Net. Your computer will let you do this too (go to for a portal that will let you listen in), but there’s something about having a little box there in the kitchen—the whole thing is more elegant (think presets), and it connects you with the earliest moments of electronic entertainment. Because radio is, of course, the great survivor medium, a century old and still occupying more hours in the average American’s week than network television—and just about every other type of entertainment, too.

At the moment, radio’s most talked-about form is satellite—XM and Sirius, eager to merge their hundred-channel lists of music and talk into something profitable. But given what’s out there for free, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would bother to pay for a satellite subscription (except for the fairly crucial fact that you can get satellite radio in your car, while easy Web-streaming in transit is still some years off). Like reggae? There’s a reggae channel on XM. But if you own an Internet radio—mine is an Acoustic Energy model, produced by an English company and available from many electronics retailers for about $300—you can listen to seven different stations from Jamaica, including MegaJamz, KOOL FM, and Love 101. Personally, I enjoy the soca show from Barbados on CBC at 98.1 FM, partly because of the music, partly because of the weather report—always 80, always breezy—and partly because of the lilting voices of the DJs. “My grandmother always used to tell me, ‘Never wake up vexed,’” said the lady who does the morning shift one day last month when I was feeling, in fact, a little tense. Something in both that sentiment (the opposite of the keyed-up political hysterics on our own dial) and that last choice of word relaxed me—and almost instantly conjured up colonial history with all its complexities.

Indeed, if, like me, you’re a pathetic Anglophone, then much of the Internet listening experience is about the rise and fall of the British Empire. Except that on radio it never really fell. The BBC, supported by the annual license fee paid by every Brit who owns a TV, remains the dominant English voice, carrying a staggering quantity of programming. The best of America’s National Public Radio programs are as good as anything on the Beeb, but the sheer volume of stuff pouring out of London certainly seems to dwarf our public-radio output. And most of it’s endlessly better than the dry news and ceaseless cricket scores on the BBC’s World Service, which is all that American listeners usually hear of British radio. In fact, an Internet radio is worth the money if all you do is preset the first five buttons to the BBC flagships: Radio 2, for instance, the most-listened-to station in the British Isles, plays jazz and pop music and light comedy and the occasional organ concert. Or BBC 7, established a few years ago mostly to air the system’s endless archives; at any given moment, Doctor Who might be on the air, or episode 51 (“Life Under the Tudors”) of the 240-chapter Short History of Ireland, or old tapes of The Goon Show. It also carries hours of daily children’s radio, not to mention original stand-up comedy.

Best of all is BBC Radio 4. It’s the talk channel, but there’s not much American-style call-in-we’re-all-experts-here chatter. Instead, it’s the aural equivalent of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, with documentaries on “The Greenspan Years,” or “Boris Yeltsin: A Flawed Giant,” or “Peak Nestwatch,” a nature group that campaigns against, among other things, “serial egg collectors” who shoot birds of prey. You might hear The Food Programme chronicling the vegetarian roots of Jainism, or an actor reading Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, or another actor performing the winning story in the National Short Story contest. There’s also The Archers, believed to be the longest-running radio soap in the world, each episode of which lasts a quite reasonable 15 minutes.

Until it went off the air in May, my favorite BBC Radio 4 show was A World in Your Ear, which showcased radio from around the planet, each week on a theme. One week, for instance, it was Zimbabwe’s travails: I listened to a clip from the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, but also ones from the community radio station in Bulawayo (a station that’s been denied a license by the government, so it exists only on cassettes and CDs passed hand to hand), and from the Voice of America broadcasts into Zimbabwe (jammed by the state), and from the talk shows on Cape Town radio that have turned into a forum on Robert Mugabe’s tyranny.

Presented by

Bill McKibben is the author of 12 books. The Bill McKibben Reader, an essay collection, will be published next spring.

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