Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online

10.17. I keep hearing that there's a radio station on the Internet. What is Internet Talk Radio?

From the depths of cyberspace, a new medium has emerged. Internet Talk Radio (ITR) is a new information service that is blurring the line between the online world and traditional media.

ITR distributes weekly "radio shows" via the Internet's anonymous FTP service. Each show--a half hour or an hour long--can be downloaded to a workstation or home computer and played using audio playback software. Unlike a myriad of other Internet newsletters and journals, Internet Talk Radio is the only one that actually speaks. And unlike the stations on your FM dial, you won't hear most of ITR's programs live. You can hear the prerecorded shows any time you like.

Each show is composed of several .au format sounds that can be played on a Sun or NeXT workstation, among other machines. Personal computer users can also listen in, but (depending on the computer) you may need to convert the .au sounds into a format more familiar to your hardware.

Note: All this talk comes at a price, however. A typical hour-long radio show consumes a whopping 30 megabytes of disk space. Despite its relatively slow sampling rate of 8KhZ (that's 8 kilobytes per second of sound), ITR is a memory hog.

Carl Malamud, the founder of ITR, explained how he got into the business. "The idea for ITR came from my frustration with the trade press. I knew they weren't providing the information I wanted and was looking for an alternative." He notes that the trade press focuses on marketing and reviews, leaving a gap for a general-interest, technically-oriented publication for Internet users. "I couldn't start a magazine because it takes money to print and distribute a magazine," he said. Malamud turned to the Internet as a general-purpose distribution method. "I looked at the trends in multimedia support on the Internet, at the number of users with more and more bandwidth and bigger disk drives, and decided to give `radio' a try," he said.

Some Net users have criticized the talk radio concept as a grandiose waste of network bandwidth, given the fact that the same information in text format could fit into only a few kilobytes. "The reason you get audio information from a $3,000 (or $30,000) computer," Malamud said, "is because ultimately this gives you a very new medium. We're not trying to replace radio, just as the trucks didn't replace the railroads and the telephone didn't replace the telegraph. There are things we can do that you can't do on a radio, like go interactive or add WAIS databases to support a program, or use general-purpose languages like PERL to make an audio-on-demand server...." It is the versatility of ITR that is its selling point.

ITR is free for the listening. To pay the rent, each program carries sponsors, and a minute of each program is given to acknowledge the supporting vendors. The blurbs aren't quite commercials; they resemble public TV's post-show sponsor messages. ("Brought to you by a grant from Frobnitz Corporation and viewers like you!")

For the most part, ITR consists of interviews. Whether they're talking with the "Geek of the Week" (a featured member of the technical community) or focusing on "the new American reality" during the "Tech Nation" show, it all boils down to people conversing with each other. As the name says, Internet Talk Radio parallels its mainstream counterpart. Except that ITR is a lot more nerdy.

"Geek of the Week" is a weekly interview with prominent members of the technical community. The show focuses on "sophisticated discussions of issues facing the Internet, networking, and computing," Malamud said, calling it "the intelligent alternative to today's trade press." Tech Nation is a weekly radio show that focuses on "the new American reality"--that the U.S. has become the "tech" nation. The premise is that this new reality is causing introspection: "Americans are looking at who they are and where they are going," according to Malamud.

There is also ITR's sister service, called Internet Town Hall, which includes audio recordings of speeches. In the first week they released speeches by the Dalai Lama, Bob Dole, Hershel Shanks on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the hearings by Congressman Markey on encryption and privacy.

Internet Town Hall programs are good to pick and choose from. Unlike ITR, Town Hall doesn't necessarily focus on computers and technology. One program consisted of Secretary Bruce Babbit presenting President Clinton's environmental program to the National Press Club. This sort of archival sound information could prove useful for those of us who don't want to watch C-SPAN all day. If you find that you need information from a speech given last month, Town Hall might be the forum in which to find it.

The programs sound good, considering that the medium is in its infancy. After a snazzy musical introduction, Malamud announces (in his best DJ voice), "This is Internet Talk Radio, flame of the Internet." Sound quality isn't wonderful, but has been improving as the creators get the hang of the medium. Malamud said the sound quality is improving "as we learn how to use our equipment and adapt it to the realities of this rather strange publishing platform."

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