Radio Free Internet

A Low-Fi Guide to Online Radio

Thanks to the minor miracle of streaming audio, I’ve probably heard more great radio online in the past 12 months than I heard through transistors in the previous 12 years.

And yes, the sound quality of Internet radio more or less sucks—especially compared to the crystal clarity of downloaded MP3 tracks. But you know what? The reception I get in Brooklyn from a small indie station like WFMU isn't appreciably sharper than what I hear over my 56K modem, dropouts and all. In fact, the static and warbles give online radio a surprisingly low-fi charm, offering the nostalgic buzz of a late-night transistor all day long.

Tapping into the revolution is easy. First, you'll need to download software, available on most Internet station sites, for cranking tunes. I prefer RealPlayer (realaudio.com)—either the free version or the fancy $30 upgrade—to QuickTime, MacAmp, Macast, and the Windows Media Player. Installation is straightforward enough, though it does require a measure of patience. When you're done, just log on to the Net and browse for beats.

illustration: Lloyd Miller

What's there to listen to? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (wmbr.mit.edu/stations/list.html) alone lists 1138 international channels, but at least half of them seem not to function at any given time. Shoutcast.com boasts 3615 stations—and there's still nothing on. So what's there to listen to? Oh, a little of this and a lot of that.

You won't find more ga-roovay office music than the lovingly blended mix of exotica, Braziliana, lounge, Indian filmi, and soundtracks streamed from luxuriamusic.com. Co-managed by Combustible Edison leader The Millionaire, this station features Byron Werner—Los Angeles artist, extreme-music freak, and coiner of "space-age bachelor-pad music"—DJing on Thursday nights from 8 to 11. * REAL-TIME AIR CHECK: "Sunny Cha Cha Cha" by Sunny Face and "Aaj Ki Raat" by Asha Bhosle.

Gogaga.com programs something called "Music for Cubicles" every morning. Artier than Luxuria, GoGaGa is also a tad more demographically prefab—it's part of MacroRadio-Dot-Net, a network of stations that target niche markets with an array of tightly focused formats. Though Luxuria lets you know only what's currently playing, GoGaGa unscrolls a constantly updated playlist, along with the inevitable links to buy the CDs on Amazon.com. * REAL-TIME AIR CHECK "Gonna Marry Me a Cowboy" by Rex Allen and "Break Dance-Electric Boogie" by the West Street Mob.

Even old-school transistor stations are taking to the Net. WFMU 91.1 FM has been the Big Kahuna of free-form whatchamacallit for decades. It could be a radio station in a Philip K. Dick novel, broadcasting the kind of media you fear The Man permits just to prove the state of modern music isn't as sorry as the consolidation of commercial radio—not to mention the latest results of the Voice's annual Pazz & Jop poll—suggests. The big news, though, is that some of WFMU's best shows—Irwin Chusid and Michelle Boulé's Incorrect Music Hour, Joe Frank's The Other Side (to whom This American Life owes a considerable debt), and Chris T.'s demented talk show, Aerial View—have been archived on wfmu.org for your immediate gratification. * REAL-TIME AIR CHECK: a friend of Joe Frank's recounting the 26 moments from his life he had consciously decided to remember, one of which involved peeing on a six-year-old girl.

Can't mention Joe Frank without raving about Phil Hendrie, the caustically brilliant Los Angeles talk-radio host whose nightly shows (heard here from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. at kfi.com) are improvised works of comic genius. Hendrie serves both as the show's host and usually, adopting an amazing array of voices, his own guests. By debating himself on some absurd positions (Are female comedians funny? Communism is neat!), he spoofs the conventions of talk radio while sucking gullible callers into the hoax as well. It's talk radio as prank phone call, and it's mind-bogglingly entertaining. Enjoy some of his greatest hits at philhendrieshow.com. * REAL-TIME AIR CHECK: Hendrie emotionally discussing his impending death as predicted by a psychic. "Just so you know I'm not a stoic," he said.

Tired of the "fluffy-haired freaks on liberal radio stations"? Who isn't? The choice is yours: You can either listen to Brian Lehrer make far too much sense on WNYC 820 AM, or you can tune in to AmericaNewsNet.com. Originating on KHNC in Johnstown, Colorado, this online voice of survivalism punctuates us-versus-them government-bashing with ads for books with titles like Naked Into the Wilderness. * REAL-TIME AIR CHECK: three guys, who sounded frighteningly like Phil Hendrie guests, griping about the high price of gas.

If you're into disabled vehicles, traffic problems, and the occasional "assault with a deadly," then Police Scanners Online (netnowonline.com/scanner/index.html) is the place to enjoy live your-tax-dollars-at-work radio vérité from the streets of New York, Washington, Dallas, and other hospitable burgs. * REAL-TIME AIR CHECK: a lot of coded gibberish laced with unmistakable lockdown fervor.

American Indian Radio on Satellite (airos.org) shouldn't sound like dispatches from abroad, yet it often does. The format of this Lincoln, Nebraska-based station ranges from rock on the rez to Hopi folkies claiming to "walk firmly on the red road" to macho Native American comedians. * REAL-TIME AIR CHECK: advice on repairing last year's fish-spearing equipment, and Joanne Shenandoah's haunting Iroquois concept album, Peacemaker's Journey.

Considering the large number of immigrants in New York, it's odd that the city has so few ethnic radio stations. On the Internet, you can hear what you'd otherwise be missing. Some of my favorite way-international channels include Toronto's cirvfm.com, which broadcasts in 12 languages, the refreshing Thai pop station Radio No Problem (intercast.loxinfo.co.th), China's Chongqing Radio (cqbs.com), and, best of all, Radio Walf (www1.telecomplus.sn/walf/radio.htm). * REAL-TIME AIR CHECK: insanely great Senegalese pop music.

Louisiana music, with its boundless diversity, plays around the clock—and the globe—on New Orleans-based station wwoz.org, a pulsating font of zydeco, blues, r&b, jazz, Cajun, rock, African, and other essential roots diversions. WWOZ is so cool it broadcasts the city's annual Jazz & Heritage festival. » REAL-TIME AIR CHECK: "Blues Get Off My Shoulder" by Bobby Parker and "I'm Gonna Unmask the Batman" by Lacy Gibson.

Though I'll be sad to see it go, who needs pirate radio when you've got the Net? The world's best dance-music station—OK, second-best, after the sophisticated multiculti mix of Paris's legendary Radio Nova (novaplanet.com)—calls itself pirate radio, but it needn't. InterFace (pirate-radio.co.uk) may be run by a couple of old pirates, but the techno, acid, drum'n'bass, and dub they stream is strictly tomorrow. They've archived recent studio sessions from Coldcut and Dimitri From Paris, complete with video, and guest DJs like Leftfield's Paul Daley and the Orb's Alex Paterson pop up on a regular basis. * REAL-TIME AIR CHECK: watching DJ Lord Kaos flip off the camera and exit the studio.

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