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Studio I.T.-Europe

This month ANDY BAILEY discusses the setting up of Internet radio stations.

One of the original aims of this column was to inform about streaming media, and how to do it. It’s been a tumultuous year and not at all positive for streaming, without dwelling on the fortunes of media. Back then, research had led me to find a white paper among the Adobe archives, praising the media and technology industries, especially in the UK, for their efficient consolidation and cautious expansion learnt by being adolescent during the dot-com crash. Now in uncharted economic conditions, and a favourable wind, tackling streaming-media feels appropriate, if not urgent.

Internet Radio

Last month’s article presented an overview of the rapid progress of Internet streaming technology and presented the possibilities this technology can offer. The Internet is moving toward faster edge connections as DSL and cable options become available to a wider audience, while at the same time more efficient switches are increasing the core capacity, predictability, and quality of service. With each step forward, (and there are others) new ideas are already generating enough traffic to fill the available bandwidth. The slightly less stringent QoS requirements for audio delivery (as opposed to audio and video together) coupled with today’s Internet, mean that setting up an Internet radio station is a serious proposition for those with even the cheapest DSL or cable subscription. At the time of writing Internet audio offers the likeliest proposition for those interested in using streaming media in some form, as part of a business strategy. One year ago, Studio IT claimed that there was still plenty of time left to implement a streaming media facility. However, now is the time for pioneering, imagination, and practical application. For even the smallest professional studio, creating an Internet radio station is a justifiable proposition, and if it forms any part of your future, then now would be a good time to make a start.

Technologies are freely available to support start-ups, and as the venture becomes more important to the business, so peace of mind and consolidation can be purchased in a variety of ways, depending upon your requirements and approach.

These statements come as a result of extensive research, in both consumer and broadcaster experience. Over the next couple of months, Studio IT will concentrate on the experience of a couple of UK Internet radio stations, including one we set up and continue to run ourselves in order to experience first hand and report on any pitfalls that might be encountered. This month describes the early experience of setting up an Internet Radio facility starting with some of the decisions that had to be made.

Getting Off The Ground

In order to prolong this project, it needs to be self-financing in the long run, and the start-up as close to zero as possible. Looking through the diaries of the few established independent Internet radio-start-ups, the two most commonly expressed concerns are different sides of the same coin. The first is finding and retaining listeners, and the second is the bandwidth costs for supporting a large number of listeners, once they decide to turn up.

Our Unique Selling Point is geographical location. Living and working in Milton Keynes offered a ready-made target audience with a local cable radio station reaching less than half of the homes in the designated area and nothing else in the way of democratic voice. Searching the Internet produced a handful of local websites, and just two decent portals, both focussed on more general amenity information. For our project, this easy-to-research information formed an important part of the proposal, as it meant that in terms of the on-line presence, the area was under-serviced in the entertainment sector.

The first practical step was to register a domain name and get the website running. For this, RadioFreeMK was considered to have powerful branding opportunities and so the co.uk domain was registered. This was moved overnight to a preferred hosting company and a holding page created. Beware of putting up holding pages that say ‘under-construction’ as this can be likened to those irritating signs on the motorway informing of roadworks ahead, when the road is actually clear. This irritating phenomenon can have a devastating effect when drivers begin to assume that the signs are false and ignore them as inaccurate. In website terms, the random surfer may feel that the under-construction sign has been there for a while, and nothing is happening with the site. Also be aware that moving a website can take a couple of days. A good hosting company will help you move files to your new location in such a way that service is always available.

Another thing that will quickly stop people from returning to a site is the lack of any interactivity. Although working hard on five beautiful pages is fine for the vast majority of company websites, it was felt that getting a bulletin board working would create a platform for discussion and provide the under-represented entertainment community with a facility.

Scripting

A comprehensive list of free Internet scripts is available from various sources, such as hotscripts.com and your choice of script should rely on the exact abilities of the machine on which the site is hosted. For instance, for RadioFreeMK.co.uk, a bulletin board was chosen that required the scripting language PHP to be installed, along with the database product mySQL. These need to be installed by the hosting company, and although they are both free, the pricing structure from the ISP will vary, as processing power and support time increase. Once the host was ready, installing the chosen bulletin board scripts proved easy enough and work shifted to the provision of the streamed audio itself.

As may have been gathered from previous articles, RadioFreeMK chose Nullsoft Shoutcast as the IP-based audio streaming software, not least because its free. To recap on its workings, the architecture is a three-stage process, and a free download program, available directly from nullsoft.com, supports each stage. At its simplest Shoutcast supports the playback of many formats of audio files, including mp3. Shoutcast is a plug-in for the popular free Winamp player that converts audio files into a continuous stream of mp3 bytes, which are sent out over an IP network as a stream. Up to five output streams can be configured on the play-out machine, each pointing to a different IP address. The servers on the end of each IP address, act as the broadcast servers and can each support a number of listeners, depending upon the bandwidth and route.

The input selection now includes the soundcard as a valid input source, so a suitable stereo pair (or digital input, depending on your hardware) can be streamed directly onto the Internet. The software for each of the three stages can be installed on the same computer or each on different machines, located across an IP network such as the Internet or an internal network.

The first practical limitation when supporting multiple clients is bandwidth, since the more listeners that are enjoying the net-cast, the more of it is required. The residential ADSL service from BT as used at home, will support one connection at 128bps, or more if the encoding rate is dropped. Although this makes it unsuitable for supporting a broadcast server, it is feasible as part of a play-out system. The architecture for RadioFreeMK (RFMK), relies on a third party to supply bandwidth, given that installing a decent sized Internet connection is prohibitively expensive. There are a few options for this kind of third-party provision, such as Live365.com, arguably the principal provider for Shoutcast streams, although at the time of writing, the basic level of service was not available, leaving only tiered subscriptions to choose from. Media specific providers were present at the Streaming Media show, and pricing is structured differently, and slightly higher. Some smaller ISPs specialise in Shoutcast hosting, but be suspicious here, and make sure the deal ties in with the ISPs co-location arrangement.

The best method for our purposes was to blag freebies from people with spare bandwidth. With a bit of imagination, unused bandwidth can be found in surprising quantities. For instance, we were able to strike an agreement with an Internet Café called NetHouse, in Marylebone London, for use of some of their spare bandwidth. The agreement so far has allowed RFMK to test the quality of the stream, the internal systems used for playback, and has also provided a continuous test stream for similar testing purposes to NetHouse as well as a mutual agreement on logo placement. Technicians at the company had been playing with Shoutcast, and agreed to let RadioFreeMK provide one of the incoming MPEG streams. At first this was limited to 34 outbound streams encoded at 128kbps, which doesn’t seem an awful lot, but was later reconfigured to one hundred streams at 11kbps.

Attracting one hundred listeners to an Internet station would be quite an achievement in such a short space of time and if the project took off then bandwidth could be purchased on the back of revenue or sponsorship. Even this sized audience should be interesting to small studios. Considering that up to five other servers can be used to broadcast, it’s feasible to convince commercial organisations to host a Shoutcast server, after say six o’clock in the evening, to expand the service. Local Internet Cafes might be interested in allowing use of their bandwidth on some rental basis offset against say, logo placement. On some of the bulletin boards investigated, residential DSL connections were offering an ad-hoc, no guarantees Shoutcast relay for five bucks a month. This is an enterprising market then.

Next month we review the Shoutcast installation requirements and look at its strengths and weaknesses.

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