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MP3 Radio



 Shoutcast and MP3 let a thousand Web radio stations bloom

 Janelle Brown

Remember pirate radio -- those illegal, quirky broadcasts that sprouted in the early 1990s? They're now practically extinct, thanks to the diligence of the authorities. Their spirit hasn't vanished, though -- it's been reincarnated, and driven to even more obscure heights, via a 3-month-old webcasting technology that turns individual computer desktops into online radio stations.

Thanks to Shoutcast, you can now tune into online stations featuring "All Jerky Boys All the Time," or "t00ns for linuxchiks" -- or even a gospel folk station that, with "the Power of God's Word," soberly tries to convert listeners away from the more pagan stations blaring mind-splitting trance.

Created by Nullsoft, the fledgling software company that created the popular Winamp MP3 player, Shoutcast is an MP3-based software technology that, in the name of egalitarian DJ-ing, allows anyone to start up a radio station that delivers their tunes to the masses via streaming Internet audio -- for free. (With streaming, listeners don't have to wait for the whole file to download before they begin listening.)

"We like to invent software that we believe people do creative things with," explains Robert Lord, director of online strategy for Nullsoft. "Shoutcast has opened up the possibility of self-publishing for webcasting. Anyone with a few MP3s or CDs and microphone can now be a radio station."

In other words, Shoutcast is a power-to-the-people online descendant of pirate radio -- an easy and affordable alternative to corporate webcasting technologies. And for the moment, it's a total free-for-all. On any given night on the Shoutcast Web site, you can find around 450 eager Shoutcasters happily producing personal radio stations crowned with names like "FEELTHY MONKEY *Fantastica!" or "Red Dogs' K-9 Radio." Although the growing Shoutcasting community is still struggling with questions of legality and licensing, many are describing it as the first time that broadcasting has truly been available to the public.

"It has put another powerful media tool within the reach of anybody with a PC and modem. Information distribution systems are becoming more and more decentralized, out of the hands of few and into the hands of many," postulates Nathan Woodcock, a British system administrator who moonlights on the weekends as DJ NatRat of LANpartyFM, playing drum 'n' bass tunes for an audience of 50 or so regulars. "In the future, it could completely revolutionize broadcasting."

Shoutcast is based on a plug-in and server software that allows you to webcast from your desktop. To set up your own personal online radio station, all you need is a Winamp player, Shoutcast server software and the Shoutcast plug-in for Winamp (all of which are available free for download) and access to a Windows or Unix server (not to mention enough technical know-how to set up the configurations). To broadcast your music, simply drag the songs you want to play -- MP3s, music from CDs, WAV files, even live voice-overs -- into the "playlist" of your Winamp player; the Shoutcast plug-in will automatically stream your music to your server and out to the world at large.

Shoutcast can broadcast even over a slow modem. The number of listeners is limited only by your bandwidth; a popular Shoutcast station can also be mirrored by friendly servers, thereby multiplying the number of available listeners. To listen in, you simply need a Winamp player and a list of Shoutcast server addresses -- which are readily available on Shoutcast's Web site.

(There's also new open-source MP3 streaming software for Unix and Linux called Icecast, which is compatible with Shoutcast. Although currently less popular than Shoutcast, Icecast is being touted by its developers as a potential open standard for free MP3 streaming.)

Shoutcast is the second product to emerge from Nullsoft, a company that until last September was merely a project conceived by 20-year-old programmer and college dropout Justin Frankel. Winamp, now over a year old, was a piece of shareware for Windows, written by Frankel, which plays MP3 and other sound file formats. Although there are a number of MP3 players in the market, Winamp quickly grew to be the most popular, with 14 million users. Following input from Winamp users, Frankel also invented "skins" -- customizable interfaces that allow users to design the appearance of their own Winamp players -- and that helped win the hearts of MP3 lovers.

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