postheadericon Tech Talk: Radio...worth another look?

When you think of radio, what sounds do you hear, and what does the radio look like in your mind's eye? I asked several people this week, and the results were intriguing.

The responses were all very different: Wolfman Jack on a transistor radio, Heavy Metal on FM stations over a home stereo, Am talk-radio in the car, pop songs on a Chinese Zune knock-off... but there was one common thread amidst all the responses surveyed: they were all rooted generationally in the technology at the time of your discovery of radio.

For example, someone my age would recant hearing CCR banging out ballads on one of dozens of rock stations - on a really nice Pioneer receiver (tube type), with giant JBL speakers in wooden cabinets. A Gen X'er would recall when Sony went wild and sold a bright yellow cassette Walkman with an FM Tuner. My mom remembers listening to FDR's Fireside Chats while huddled with neighbors around what would now be a vintage RCA radio box. Radio is a technology that ticks off a calendar date in the chronology of our lives, no matter where on the globe you first tuned in.

But lately I've upgraded from not listening to radio at all (for almost two decades) to listening everyday to Internet Radio. I passed over Satellite Radio and all of that subscription nonsense. I fuzzed off traditional FM when I moved to Nepal, refusing to suffer through Bollywood numbers posing as jingles. But now I'm really onto Internet Radio. I can't get enough. It's free and live, condensed or podcasted, and even playing at 2x. It's not the content that brought me back home, but this new way of delivery – over Wi-Fi and playing on all my computer-related devices.

Playlists that update themselves with all new episodes of Garrison Keillor, and all kinds of other great shows: 60 Minutes, Art Bell, and Fresh Air from NPR. Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers in Car Talk, live NFL Football games, and of course all the "serious" news from the homeland on Fox and MSNBC. This new-fangled internet radio has Facebook Likes and all that social stuff, plus I can listen to the radio on any device that I happen to have handy: phone, laptop, iPod, whatever. There's an app for that!

The app I like best is called Stitcher, and it's available (free) for the iPhone, iPod, and all Android devices. It's radio heaven in the cloud. It's a website where you can set up your own stations, choosing from whatever radio programming you desire, and then stream to whatever speakers you have in front and/or behind you. It's amazingly simple once set up... you just press Play or Pause. Pre-recorded programming plays commercial-free and resumes where you left off. The search box let's you find more programming in case your favorites begin to bore. And the world is your radio oyster with Google under the covers.

Internet Radio also plays well in this Internet backwater set up for us by NTC, World Link & Broadlink. Internet Radio is stutter free here, unlike trying to watch a YouTube video. You can get radio streamed even if your bandwidth is only 256kbps, and that means that your phone can now double as an international portable radio even on the most fragile of data plans. However, playing Internet Radio from a webpage is fraught with problems, so getting an app like Stitcher is the preferred way to handle your radio feeds.

But when I asked folks older than good bottle of scotch if they had tried anything like Stitcher or Pandora (another Internet Radio app), the answer was always "No" along with a blank stare. "What are you talking about; radios have dials, no?"

Apparently no more, the dials have been replaced by icons on haptic, retina, LCD and touch screens. Built-in equalizers with Bluetooth earbuds, volume that rises if you just tell your phone to "Play louder," and automatic muting whenever a call comes in are almost standard features today.  The radio of "my day" ran on D batteries and had a telescoping antenna that was invariably snapped off and lost.  The radio of today has an invisible antenna built into the outer edge of the glass smartphone case, and uses batteries that you never see.

Yet the same winds of change that may have temporarily reinvented radio are blowing in another direction. Recently, Pandora stopped streaming to anyone with an IP address outside of the USA. They say it's due to "licensing constraints" – read, "the moneygrubbers hate being unable to capitalize on your listening." After all, radio has always depended on sponsors and the ability to sell you useless products while you listen.

But for now, try Stitcher, and see if you can get your favorite station online and in your pocket


Who the heck is he?

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Kathmandu, Nepal
I'm retired, and I walk my dog... a lot.

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