Adventures in Hi-Fi

Digital Kills the Radio Star

Bordello Radio. ScreamRadio, playing "Phat Polka Bleats." And this, a personal favorite: "The Sound of Loyola Dormitory, Boston College." On any given night, there are about 450 radio "stations" listed at SHOUTcast.com, a new free, streaming music site. Just four weeks old, the site— which lets PC users remake themselves into miniwatt broadcasters— has been hit with a crush of dilettante DJs. From metal to talk radio to KROQ clones, these homespun outfits are tailored to just about every taste imaginable, including the unthinkable (i.e., one called "Every 'Weird Al' Yankovic Song"). Time to lower the flag and ditch the eye patch— "pirate" radio is coming crashing into shore.

SHOUTcast is the brainchild of 20-year-old programmer Justin Frankel, who's already made one mark on the music trade online. A year and a half ago, Frankel dropped out of school to work on Winamp, a piece of software designed to play MP3 music files on his computer. (MP3s are highly compressed files that retain CD-quality sound.) Winamp quickly became a de facto standard player for MP3s— with over 1.2 million downloads a month for his site alone. Sure, there are a mess of other formats and players out there for listening to music, like the benchmark RealPlayer (real.com) or AT&T's a2b format. But Frankel's was unabashedly noncommercial and rose meteorically on the flood of interest in MP3 from college campuses and hacker outfits.

Still, the player alone just wasn't dynamic enough. "I saw Pump Up the Volume and I thought that running a pirate radio station would be cool," Frankel says. With fellow programmer Tom Pepper, he developed the SHOUTcast streaming audio system, enabling DIY DJs to broadcast their own shows. SHOUTcast functions the way a radio transmission does, sending a consistent signal along the wires. (Real.com offers a competing product to this as well.) The server software doesn't require users to haggle with their ISPs or do any complex setup to get broadcasting— and that simplicity is no doubt the engine for its success so far. (You do, however, need a high-speed connection to appreciate it. On a 28.8 modem, the signal drops out consistently.) The first test of SHOUTcast was a pirate syndication of the call-in radio show Love Line. "I got it when I was going to school, but I can't get it here [in Phoenix], and usually it's really funny," says Frankel. "So I had a friend out in L.A. stream it for me— that was SHOUTcast in its infant stages."

It still is. One night last week, there were 900 listeners for 440 possible stations— and most are clustered around a few of the more professional transmissions like Hyphenated Radio (hyphenated.net). Hyphenated is fronted by Glenn Rubenstein, a 22-year-old journalist who once cohosted a nationally syndicated radio show called On Computers. On SHOUTcast, Rubenstein serves up 10 hours of programming in an unlikely mix of Bel Biv DeVoe, Everclear, and rambling talk— what Rubenstein calls "Format X." Rubenstein runs his show off his Pentium 400 and a cable modem. Though his own computer can only handle up to 32 unique listeners at a time, fans of the show have stepped forward, offering their stations to "relay" the Hyphenated show— broadcast it on their machines. "We've had close to 60,000 listeners in the first month," he says. Rubenstein, who has been contacted by investors, now talks of securing financing and launching "the first international Net radio station."

SHOUTcast is even better than traditional radio, say the broadcasters, because they have far more insight into who listens, from where, and exactly when they stop. "You can tell exactly what songs annoy people" because the server's stats are made publicly accessible, says Robin Baskerville, a frosh broadcasting from the aforementioned Loyola dorm. Rubenstein adds, "I put on some Jim Carroll Band and 10 people just dropped off immediately." The SHOUTcast site also ranks each station in real-time based on the audience numbers— crap DJs sink fast, and you can effectively watch it happen. (And the dregs of zero-listener stations are wide and mighty.)

Of course, these pirate performances of Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, and "Weird Al" aren't exactly legal. Unlike radio stations, Internet broadcasters generally must pay licensing fees to ASCAP, BMI, and the labels (radio stations only need to worry about the first two). The only catch is that the details of the new law— called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act— are still being hashed out. Net broadcasters will have to pay, but it's not clear just how much yet, says Chris Otto, an executive producer at RealNetworks who has been involved in developing the legislation. To protect itself, SHOUTcast makes it very clear that it's not a broadcaster. "We've talked to the Recording Industry Association of America and ASCAP and they realize this is not people doing 7000 streams of music," says Rex Manz, the director of business strategies at SHOUTcast. "It's more mom-and-pop."

Actually, it's more like their undergraduate progeny. A look at the stations reveals that a sizable chunk of broadcasters come from universities. No surprise, considering the freely available bandwidth that college students have, and the audience jumping to sample new music on the cheap. "This will be a big college thing because people are [using] T1s," says Rich Moffitt, another Loyola freshman who has been a broadcaster for seven days. "It's pretty awesome."


Of Screen and Stage

Interactive theater?" someone asks. "I know what that is— people running around in front of a film, right?" Well, the running part is optional.

Usually, with "multimedia" theater, you can count on seeing striking film footage but rubber-hammer drama: for every beautiful shot, there's an actor standing on stage looking like he'd rather be doing the voice-over. And you'd rather be fast-forwarding through it all.

But the city is also rife with more enlivening fare, and slowly, computer-aided multimedia theater is gaining audiences, if not legitimacy. At places like Postmasters Gallery, HERE, and The Kitchen, you can see a soap opera starring laptops or a virtual MUD environment physically acted out. Some productions are just capitalizing on Internet hype. Others— the interesting ones— have technology on the brain (like many of us), and theater is their defense mechanism.

AbacusParts falls into the latter category. The show, which debuted last week and runs through Saturday at the Galapagos Bar in Williamsburg, is a loose and somewhat patchy commentary on the flattening effects of all our gizmos— scanners, CU-SeeMe cameras, screens, even programming itself. The effects are simple but creative. An actress stands on a chair bolted to the wall five feet off the ground and scans herself with a handheld device. The output image, horrifically bloated and disfigured, pours out on the wall behind her.

There are lots of good ideas in AbacusParts, and the directors Romy Achituv and Danielle Wilde are talented filmmakers. The show's most arresting moments are the first ones, in which the audience watches digitally manipulated footage of three tightrope walkers balancing on one another, suspended dizzyingly in the air. (Then you realize they are, in fact, lying on the ground.)

The trouble is keeping the "multi" part of the media unified enough to make it theater. Sure, it's intriguing to have a child character speak her lines in the Lingo programming language for Macromedia's Director, chanting out "If blue sprite interacts green sprite, then.. . . " But how do you separate what is a commentary on flatness from what is just plain flat?

The sneaking suspicion with AbacusParts is that, though technology is the subject, film is still the star. In last week's show, there's a moment when a woman sits in a chair and tells a story of her encounters with her mother who has Alzheimer's. She is meanwhile being filmed, and a tight close-up of her face is blasted up on the wall behind her. As a viewer, you're given a difficult decision: do you look at the actress or her giant mug on the wall? It's a choice most people will have made long before getting to the theater. If they make it there at all.

e-mail: abunn@villagevoice.com

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