Thursday, July 14, 2005

Nobody Does Web Radio Better Than BBC

Nobody Does Web Radio Better Than BBC Live streams of music, news, entertainment -- plusarchives -- are so good they can lure you to areas youmight never have thought about.The first Internet radio station broadcast was inDecember 1993. The subject: a speech by Larry King atthe National Press Club in Washington. The number ofpeople who tuned in: nine.King gets a bigger audience than that when he hasbreakfast at Nate 'n Al's.Now there are 3,834 broadcast radio stations in 151countries that stream online, according to a tallycompiled by in London, not to mentionthe thousands of personal Internet channels thatemanate from bedrooms and basements around the world.These stations include the highly official — ChinaRadio International ( — and thehighly obsessive — the all-"Ave Maria" channel( that plays the song 24/7,performed by the likes of Cecilia Bartoli, JoseCarreras, Barry Manilow and Jewell.But no one does Internet radio better than the grandedame of broadcast radio itself: the BritishBroadcasting Corp.At the BBC radio site, ,you'll find live broadcasts of the network's hallowedWorld Service — in 43 languages — that debuted in 1932and set the standard for international radio.But the Internet has also brought the rest of BBCradio — designed for domestic consumption — to a farwider audience. It is some of the most vibrant,entertaining radio in the world.The domestic service consists of 10 English-language,live channel streams with programming on business,current affairs, drama, comedy, science, religion anda variety of music genres, including pop, classical,hip-hop, jazz, country-western and world music.It's also a site that many people apparently turn tofor breaking news. Shortly after the London publictransit bombings Thursday morning, I tried to accessthe BBC's all-news Five Alive channel online, but itwas so overloaded with people seeking its live localcoverage that I couldn't get to it for nearly twohours. Under normal circumstances, however, the service is sogood that it can lure you into areas you never thoughtyou'd find engaging.Take hip-hop, for example. Even if you're one of thosepeople who thought you'd never like the genre (my handis raised), it would be hard to find the mixes byannouncer Ras Kwame on the Radio 1 channel as anythingless than enthralling. Conversely, any open-eared listener to "DiscoveringMusic" — probably the best show explaining classicalmusic since Leonard Bernstein's "Young People'sConcerts" half a century ago — would find it hard todismiss dead-composer music as no longer vibrant.In addition to the live streams, hundreds of archivedprograms are just a click away. And in the last fewweeks, the BBC has begun making a few of the showsavailable via podcasting. BBC executives decline to release figures on how manyforeigners are tuning in to these domestic channels,which went online in 1999. But given that aboutone-third of the visitors to the radio website arefrom outside Britain, there's no doubt they areglobally popular.Maybe too popular. Enjoy it while you can; they mightbe taking it back.Sending BBC's domestic programs around the world forfree amounts to subsidizing foreign consumption of aservice that British citizens have to pay for, and BBCmanagement is considering ending it.The domestic service, including the online streams, issubsidized out of the annual license fee charged toevery household in Britain that has a television set.The fee, which also supports a variety of othernoncommercial BBC radio and television operations,comes to about $230 per household. The fact that we outsiders get the service withouthaving to pay a fee probably would not be an issue ifthis was standard broadcast radio, which costs thesame to distribute no matter how many people arelistening.But the more people listen to online radio, the morebandwidth the broadcaster has to purchase."It's a complex situation," said Simon Nelson,controller of the BBC's radio and music interactiveservices."I'm proud that we deliver a service that is valuedall over the world. But I have to make sure we are notusing the public license fee to subsidize freeinternational services. We need to find the rightbalance."Nelson said no decision has been made on thepossibility of restricting the online domestic servicein some way — possibly to listeners who have Internetaddresses inside Britain. The message is that it's probably not going todisappear right away. But just in case, go for it now.You'll need access to a broadband connection. Thechannels stream at the fairly bountiful rate of 44kilobits per second. That information stream is fatenough to provide quite adequate stereo quality, butit's too rich in digital content for dial-upconnections to comfortably handle.(The World Service, meant for an internationalaudience and subsidized by a separate government fund,streams at a 16-kbps rate that accommodates listenerswith dial-up connections.)At the BBC radio home page, a list of music andspoken-word categories can be found on the right.Clicking on one leads to archived shows — mostbroadcasts on the domestic service are held in thearchive for a week and some for far longer.Access to the live broadcasts are in the center of thepage. Here are some highlights: • Radios 1, 2 and 6 are pop/rock stations withvarious degrees of edginess.• The 1Xtra channel is billed as "new black music,"encompassing hip-hop, R&B, garage, dancehall and otherstyles.• Radio 3 is the killer classical service, withnearly 150 of the aforementioned "Discovering Music"shows — each of which typically examines one piece ofmusic to explore its themes, history and importance.• Radios 4 and 7 are the spoken-word channels, withbusiness news, drama, comedy (Radio 4 streamsadaptations of the late Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker'sGuide to the Galaxy") and children's shows.There are also general news and sports channels, butthe news — unlike on the World Service, which providesan international perspective — is weighted to localcoverage, and the sports coverage is of limitedinterest unless you are into professional soccer andcricket.I hope it doesn't all go away. When I was a kidgrowing up in a small town, there was a retiredneighbor who had on her screened-in porch an oldshortwave radio in a cabinet the size of a washingmachine. I would sit there for hours, slowly twistingthe frequency knob to work my way across the dial,looking for stations.That was a long time ago, but I still get a bit of akick out of listening to live radio that isoriginating from the other side of the world. The factthat the stations are of such high quality addsimmeasurably to the experience.I hope it stays around for generations to come.Ten channels from the BBC's domestic service areavailable at . In additionto the live broadcasts, many of the programs arearchived for at least a week for listening later.Here's a guide to the channels and a sample of theirofferings:Channel: Radio 1Genre: Top 40, dance, hip-hop, live concertsCurrent programs: "Radio 1's Chart Show," "OneMusicWith Ras Kwame," "Dance Anthems"Channel: 1XtraGenre: "New black music," including hip-hop,dancehall, garage, R&B; documentariesCurrent programs: "Destination Africa," "Mixlab,""Dancehall Splurt," "Sounds of Soca"Channel: Radio 2Genre: Album pop/rock, oldies, jazz, folk, musicals,gospelCurrent programs: "Lulu," "Elaine Paige," "Beverley'sGospel Nights," "Masters of Rock"Channel: Radio 3Genre: Classical, jazz, world musicCurrent programs: "Discovering Music," "Composer ofthe Week," "Early Music Show," "Jazz Legends"Channel: Radio 4Genre: Current affairs, arts, business, science,history, religion, philosophyCurrent programs: "Adventures in Science," "A GoodRead," "Poetry Please," "Year in the Arab/IsraeliCrisis"Channel: Radio 5 LiveGenre: News, business, sports, call-in showsCurrent programs: "Morning Reports," "Wake Up toMoney," "Sport on Five," "The Rumor Mill"Channel: Radio 5 Live Sports ExtraGenre: Live sportsCurrent programs: Live coverage of sports eventsChannel: Radio 6Genre: Archived studio sessions, documentaries, albumpop/rockCurrent programs: "Dream Ticket," "Tom Robinson'sEvening Sequence"Channel: Radio 7Genre: Drama, comedy, children's programsCurrent programs: "Anna Karenina," "Big Toe RadioShow," "Comedy Monologues"Channel: Asian NetworkGenre: News, music, discussion, soap operasCurrent programs: "Devotional Music," "Silver Street,""Film Cafe," "Weekend Punjabi Show"By David Colker (Via