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Radio The World Streaming In

Illustration by Joe and Kathy Heiner

Free, easy-to-use software turns any PC into the greatest shortwave set there ever was

by Bill McKibben

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.
Discuss this article in the Arts & Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on arts and culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"On the Air," by Adam Goodheart (June 2000)
Ray Erlenborn was one of the great sound-effects men in the great days of radio. Those days are gone, but the master still practices his craft.

"It's Radi-O!," by Richard Rubin (January 1998)
The medium that can turn anywhere into somewhere.

"Talk Radio," by Garrison Keillor (January 1998)
"John hated talk radio. Especially public-radio talk shows ... Drowsy voices dithering and blithering, obsessive academics whittling their fine points, aging bohemians with their Bambi world view, earnest schoolmarms, murmury liberals, ditzy New Agers, plodding Luddites, sad-eyed ladies of the lowland, all of them good and decent and progressive and well-read and Deeply Concerned."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "It's Just Work" (October 8, 1997)
Garrison Keillor on radio, writing, and his perpetual revolt against piety.

Web Citation: "Radio Free Cyberspace" (December 25, 1996)
Will the Internet make the world safe for democracy?

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.

What makes this programming wonderful is that it's local, made for particular people in particular places -- or, to put it the other way around, that it's not made for everyone everywhere, like TV. Radio is cheap to produce. This American Life, the weekly documentary show from WBEZ, in Chicago, that beats anything else on the public-radio schedule, costs less than $20,000 an hour to produce and transmit -- a sum that will buy just half the opening credits for any TV show. Because it is cheap, radio allows you either to make a great deal of money selling commercials -- urban licenses routinely go for tens of millions of dollars -- or, if you don't care about profit, to make whatever kind of program you want. There's no need to gather a vast audience: with some of a school's student-activities fee or a few thousand loyal, pledging listeners, you can cover the costs of a radio station. The Internet is cheap too. WarpRadio.com, for instance, will Webcast a station's signal in exchange for only two minutes of advertising time a day. For very little incremental cost any local station can suddenly reach a global audience.

Ever since Marshall McLuhan coined the term, people have taken "global village" to mean that there would one day be a single planetary culture. Indeed, that's what came about as TV spread around the world, doing its best to create a global American suburb. Even TV's "local news" looks as if it were filmed and beamed out from some central studio.

The Internet, combined with radio, offers the possibility of a different model -- many communities you can look in on from time to time. You wouldn't want to spend all your time in them: Tamil radio doesn't, in the end, have that much to do with how you live. But there is something delightful about hearing what interests local people in far-flung places. It's the difference between staying in a bed-and-breakfast and staying in a resort.

THE digital revolution has another gift to offer radio. It changes not only the way radio is transmitted but also the way it is made. Say you want to produce a small report for a radio station, the way people have always written columns for their local newspapers. In the past this was complicated. Even if you were doing a straightforward commentary, you usually had to either travel to the station (sound suffers as it comes across the phone lines) or mail in a tape. To do anything more elaborate -- lay in music in the background, piece together quotations from your neighbors -- you needed an elaborate suite of editing equipment and the almost mystical ability to cut tape with razor blades and piece it back together, removing the ums and preserving the words you wanted. Five years ago the walls of the control room in any good local public-radio station were covered with segments of tape waiting to be spliced into essays. Now in the same control room there are instead a couple of Gateways or Macs. Tape is nearly dead. My daughter and I spent several weeks last year interviewing our neighbors in the Adirondack Mountains, in New York, recording hailstorms and waterfalls, interrogating each other as we climbed high peaks. Our Sony MZ-R55 recorder, no bigger than a pack of playing cards, weighs a few ounces, and all of our summer's work fit on a dozen mini-discs (think of them as compact compact discs) that can be fed into any computer equipped with a sound card, using a two-dollar cable from Radio Shack. With software you can download for a small fee, you can edit the sound almost as easily as you can edit words in a word-processing program (try the shareware program CoolEdit 2000 or, for Macs, Sound Studio).

When you're finished, you can convert your meditation on the summer's first swim into an MP3 file and e-mail it to your local station; it will emerge sounding as crisp and clear as anything else on the radio. In the past, when high-quality equipment was expensive and the required skills arcane, there were very few prominent radio producers. Anyone who listens to All Things Considered will recognize their names: Jay Allison, David Isay, the Kitchen Sisters. But now, at least in theory, the technical obstacles have diminished enough that anyone who loves the sound of the human voice and owns a computer built in the past five years can join the ranks. Already you can hear the results on our local public-radio station: freed of cutting tape, correspondents turn out more -- and more daring -- work, and new voices crop up. Jay Allison will later this year inaugurate a new Web site, Transom.org, that invites anyone to send in an attempt at making radio; a rotating group of pros will critique the pieces, award prizes to the best ones, and send as many of them as possible on to All Things Considered and other national shows. "We're going to use the Net to cast a net," Allison says. "There are so many stories out there just waiting to be told."

Done on the cheap, TV looks terrible -- the garish, shabby amateur hour that is public-access cable in any city in the country, unwatched except by friends and family. Radio can't be done except on the cheap, and with a $150 microphone (try the Electro-Voice 635A) anyone can make it sound just fine. If you want to make it sound magnificent, you need the insight of a good writer, and a few technical tricks besides. Ira Glass, the man behind This American Life, last year produced a comic book designed for tyro producers: "Radio: An Illustrated Guide" (visit thislife.org to order copies). It covers everything from story structure to how to make people comfortable when you're sticking a mike in their faces. It ends with a note from Glass, the man who made the airwaves safe for normal voices: "Radio is boring when the people on the air just want to sound like everyone else. The people who are the most fun to listen to -- from Paul Harvey to Terry Gross -- they sound only like themselves. Everyone should try it."


Bill McKibben is the author of several books, including Long Distance: Notes on a Year of Living Strenuously (2000).

Illustration by Joe and Kathy Heiner.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; The World Streaming In - 00.07; Volume 287, No. 1; page 76-78.