Everyone's a DJ

Shoutcast and MP3 let a thousand Web radio stations bloom. There's only one problem: The law.

Published April 9, 1999 4:39PM (EDT)

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.

By September, Nullsoft had become a more formal company with five full-time employees. It's now ensconced in Sedona, Ariz. -- what Lord calls "the New Age center of the world." ("Winamp is powered by alien code," he cracks. "It's just fucking hard to find a compiler for it.") Shoutcast, in turn, was released on Jan. 1 of this year -- the streaming portion of Nullsoft's mission to build "an excellent way for existing, unsigned bands to be heard by an immense audience."

And that is, indeed, exactly what Shoutcast is doing. However, Shoutcast isn't exactly reaching "immense" audiences yet. Most of these webcasters are still truly tiny: The top servers draw, at the most, around 100 simultaneous listeners, but the average server boasts merely a handful of lonely listeners. As Woodcock puts it, "At the moment it's very much enthusiast driven, and there are occasions when we find all we have lined up for a show are six 13-year-olds."

Much like public access television or pirate radio, these Shoutcast stations offer a fascinating glimpse into the minds of international youth. If allowed to produce a channel, what kinds of things do people send out over the Web-waves? There is, it turns out, a heavy emphasis on techno and trance, hip-hop and alternative rock, plus a dose of '80s and heavy metal for good measure. But niche music fans can also find servers that feature everything from Bartók to tango to "Red Neck Radio." There are servers broadcasting out of Turkey, the Netherlands, the U.K. and Germany. On some servers, you can even hear the DJ sending live shouts-out to his listeners and responding to fan e-mails.

Shoutcast, like the MP3 format in general, has proven popular with independent musicians -- such as 18-year-old Mitchell Shier, who broadcasts the freestyle hip-hop he creates with his friends in Canada in hopes of gaining support from other online hip-hop fans. Says Shier, "We don't feel that we have anything that's professional enough to be mainstream," but he's been excited to watch their server gain a small but devoted group of listeners.

And, interestingly, there are also a large number of servers that don't play music at all. Popular servers include the "All Adam Sandler All the Time" station, which broadcasts clips of Sandler comedy skits; a server that broadcasts audio tracks from "Star Wars" movies; and a server that streams a reading of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." There's even the occasional talk show.

Then there are servers like that of Tom Higgins, a 34-year-old systems analyst, who sends out digital versions of old science-fiction radio shows from the 1950s, clips of William Gibson readings and other bizarre aural arcana on a tiny station he's tagged WSMF. Explains Higgins, "My whole idea is spoken word -- the spoken word has an innate power that so much of the media we have today lacks. I'm trying to bring back stuff that has an oral nature that allows people to use their brain and fill in the gaps with their imagination."

Although Shoutcast has, not surprisingly, initially caught on with a primarily young, male, techie crowd, it is also starting to attract the notice of bigger companies. Last month, the Beastie Boys' record label launched its own Shoutcast server, called Grand Royal Radio, which plays continuous music from Grand Royal's artists all day long. And commercial online radio companies like Green Witch are also gradually making the switch.

As Ian Rogers, the webmaster for Grand Royal, explains, "Shoutcast is a technology that's closer to Grand Royal's market than some of the alternatives -- I'd rather see their music next to some all-dance hall reggae channel than CNBC. It makes more sense; it's where the people are. It definitely does have more indie cred -- it's what people really listen to. It's way more punk rock."

Shoutcast and Icecast fans list a number of reasons why the MP3 streaming software is an improvement over other webcasting solutions. No. 1 is the cost: A license to run Real software, the market leader in streaming audio, can cost thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, while Shoutcast is totally free for noncommercial users, and a commercial license costs merely $300. Icecast, an open-source product, is totally free.

"Real Audio was adequate but we weren't happy with it," explains Brian Zisk, broadcaster of Green Witch, who has moved one of his six online radio stations to Icecast. "Real puts ads in the left side of the page and there's nothing we can do about it. The sound quality was lousy, they weren't responsive, and we couldn't have the source code to make changes."

Still there are drawbacks to the MP3 streaming technology: There is, for example, no version available for the Macintosh. And, more importantly, the number of listeners is severely constrained by the capacity of the server's Net connection; outside of the few broadband Shoutcast servers or stations that are mirrored from multiple servers, many servers start creaking at 30 or so users. The sound quality suffers as a result, and only the biggest stations have yet to top more than a few hundred simultaneous listeners.

But by far the biggest downside of Shoutcasting is its dubious legality. Thanks to the new Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and a convoluted system of music licensing based on that of terrestrial radio, webcasting now requires up to five licenses for various "rights." As Brian Zisk of Green Witch Radio groans, "Right now we are spending so much money on lawyers -- there are five agencies you've got to go through to clear," and with few legal precedents, the process is a mess.

If you want to legally Shoutcast any music produced by major record labels, you would currently need to get licenses from ASCAP and BMI -- which generally run in the hundreds of dollars each -- plus a license from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the price of which has yet to be set.

That cost seems unreasonable for a Shoutcaster who has less than 10 listeners a day. As a result, Lord explains, "Very few of our Shoutcasters are licensed, but they are so clearly self-publishers that ASCAP and BMI have not approached them and demanded licensing from them." But ASCAP, at least, is well aware of the problem, and the organization is currently scrambling to come up with a new system that offers a reasonably low license fee for personal Webcasters.

"The value that is derived from having 30 listeners a week is obviously a lot different from the value that Broadcast.com is getting. It's not one size fits all. We are trying to sort this out how it would work for the personal broadcaster," says ASCAP's senior vice president of new media, Marc Morgenstern. "We want to continue a spirit of cooperation with the Web community -- we're not coming in with a big foot, but with a philosophy that makes sense."

The RIAA is also expected to announce the cost of its license within the month. "We are working on an appropriate license for hobbyist type webcasts like Shoutcasts, and hope to have a solution within the next several weeks," says Steve Marks, senior vice president for the RIAA. The fee, he says, will likely be "modest": "We want to encourage people to get a license, not to discourage them."

Shoutcast is already working with the RIAA, and has shut down a number servers that break the rules -- such as a station that played all Metallica all the time, a no-no according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. And Shoutcasters are already supposed to have signed a license agreement with the RIAA, with good faith intentions to pay the fee when it is determined. Shoutcast also hopes to develop a streamlined solution with the various licensing organizations that might allow Shoutcasters to pick up all the required licenses with one small flat fee.

Ironically enough, it isn't even legal to broadcast the music from independent artists that is freely available on sites like MP3.com -- legal disclaimers point out that the MP3s are for personal use only, not for distribution. In response, law student Jason Lindner has started FABCA, the Free Access Broadcasters Association, which is contacting independent artists that distribute their music online and asking them to give Shoutcasters permission to use it. So far, says Lindner, nearly 100 musicians have signed release forms, and he's developing a database of independent music that's legally available.

Some Shoutcasters are concerned that personal Webcasting could eventually face similar problems with authorities that pirate radio has faced in the past. Although Shoutcasters may not have to face off with the FCC or government agencies, there is the chance that even a low cost for legal licenses could turn Shoutcasting into a cat-and-mouse chase, with illegal Shoutcasters trying to evade the eagle eye of the RIAA's lawyers.

But most Shoutcasters, for the time being, are willing to take the chance.

"Copyright and broadcasting laws are going to have to take the leap into the new millennium with the rest of us," explains Woodcock. Until then, he'll keep on Shoutcasting as DJ NatRat: "For me, Shoutcasting is about sharing the music I love with other people. "

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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