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THE CUTTING EDGE | POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE

RealAudio Gives Rise to Online Radio Programs

July 08, 1996|DANIEL AKST

As I write these words, I'm listening to some pretty cool soukous music thanks to one of the niftier Internet applications I've come across in a long time.

It's called "TheDJ Player," and it's free for the downloading by pointing your World Wide Web browser at http://www.thedj.com/ and choosing "TheDJ Player." It only works with Windows95 right now, and it's still in beta, but those who can use it ought to try it. It worked well on my system, and it's great fun if you have unlimited Internet access.

Basically, "TheDJ Player" puts a picture of a car radio on your screen and lets you choose from 20,000 songs divided into 37 categories (punk, reggae, show tunes, classical, etc.) for commercially uninterrupted listening. The music lives on TheDJ's World Wide Web site, but except for "TheDJ Player," it's hidden from sight. If you like what you're hearing, you can click the "Buy This CD" button.

TheDJ is a clever use of RealAudio technology, but it is far from the only one. RealAudio, covered in this space before, is a way of delivering audio over the Internet without requiring users to laboriously download large audio files. Instead, just enough data comes streaming through your modem to give you the music you're hearing at the instant you're hearing it. The sound quality ranges from mediocre to decent, but as technology advances and bandwidth increases, it will in all likelihood get better.

To use RealAudio, you'll need a sound card, a fast modem, speakers and the free RealAudio Player software, which you can obtain at http://www.realaudio.com. There are versions for Windows, Macintosh and Unix. ("TheDJ Player" has a RealAudio module built in, but be careful: If you have an out-of-date RealAudio Player already on your system, "TheDJ Player" may cause it not to work by itself, in which case you'll need to download and install a new version of the RealAudio Player.)

RealAudio isn't the only "instant sound" system on the Internet; StreamWorks, for example, from Xing Technology Corp., has a competing standard (it's at http://www.xingtech.com/), and will even deliver streaming video, about which more in a later column. But for now at least, the RealAudio format heavily predominates on the Internet.

In my view, RealAudio has the power to make the Internet into a global system of radio on demand, one that will eventually let baseball fans and opera freaks, for instance, access any games or performances live, even if the event itself is happening far away and isn't on conventional TV or radio. Thus, such KCRW programming as "Which Way LA?" and Michael Silverblatt's interview with Salman Rushdie are available to listeners all over the country at http://www.kcrw.org/c/ra.html (but sound especially good in Southern California because of the site's proximity).

If you want a sense of the scope RealAudio has already achieved, head over to http://www.audionet.com, where Dallas entrepreneur and systems maven Mark Cuban runs a gigantic RealAudio site, with 57 traditional radio stations broadcasting live, tons of sporting events, talk, music and so forth. AudioNet has even begun broadcasting original programming.

Cuban says AudioNet already has a revenue stream thanks to the clever idea of charging companies and others to broadcast live events; AudioNet claims to have broadcast as many as 75 of these simultaneously. Most of the money gets plowed back into AudioNet's growing operation, which includes more than 75 RealAudio servers and 52 employees. Cuban notes that, just as regular radio can sometimes be affected by weather, Internet radio is susceptible to network outages, which is why AudioNet's servers are situated in 16 cities.

AudioNet has big plans. It is 5% owned by Host Communications, a sports marketing company that is in turn part-owned by NBC. By this means, Cuban says, AudioNet has the RealAudio rights to the entire NCAA basketball tournament, one of the more exciting series in sports. AudioNet already broadcasts some major league and minor league baseball and is working on snagging the entire major league schedule, so I can fulfill my dream of using my computer to listen to the Yankees instead of for writing deathless prose.

Already ABC News provides hourly reports in RealAudio format. You can also get National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and the audio portion of various PBS television programs as well. The easiest way to get to these sites is from the RealAudio home page.

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