A Brief History of Internet Radio

Internet radio started out in the early 1990s as a hobbyist’s plaything, first cousin to “ham” shortwave radio. Then the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 imposed a burdensome royalty payment structure on any web-station with more than a couple hundred listeners. That buried a bunch of those basement startups. Today, only the stronger survive.

While late to the party, almost every local broadcast station on earth (commercial and non) now has a simulcasting online stream. A great equalizer, internet radio turns a low-power community station loose on the world with almost the same weight as a 50,000-watt big-city blaster. (While it has broadcast with as little as 580 watts—and is now up to 13K directional—the Martha’s Vineyard adult alternative station WMVY has consistently placed among the Top 20 most listened-to internet stations, worldwide. Not too shabby.)

Internet radio simulcasts are also a lifeline to listeners in dense urban locations, where broadcast FM signals are fraught with multipath distortion. In my hood, the online versions of favorite locals like non-commercial alternative WXPN and jazz/classical WRTI sound as pristine as a CD, while the FM broadcasts sputter on my speakers like a worn vinyl record.

The ability to import distant signals has also proven a welcome development for displaced citizens—especially relocated sports fans who still want to follow their favorite teams with a distant web tune-in. Ditto with displaced foreigners who crave to hear their native tongue.

I happily connect with government-supported, ad-free stations in locations like Britain, Germany, and Denmark, because those outlets’ format choices are often far more liberated than you’d typically find on public stations in the U.S. Yeah, Afro-pop, Reggae, Prog-rock, R&B, and Hip-Hop are in the public interest, too!

Pandora, Spotify et al are not internet radio

Some folks lump on-demand music services like Pandora and Spotify in their “best of internet radio” roundups. Yes, those services stream on the internet and are accessible on the same computers, phones, set-top boxes, and smart speakers. But to ex-radio broadcasters like Como Audio’s Skiera and myself (being a former programmer/presenter of FM free-form shows on WMMR and WYSP in Philadelphia), it’s anathema to slot a “music genome”-powered Pandora or an on-demand library like Spotify in the internet radio category. While those services do offer New Music Playlists and radio-format-like caches of music labeled “Alternative,” “Dance/Electronic,” “R&B,” “Soul/Funk,” and so on, services like those are can be more accurately described as online jukeboxes.

Satellite radio broadcaster SiriusXM’s channel lineup is likewise available in the U.S. (and expanded) on many streaming home devices, computers, and smartphones through an internet radio-styled portal. But even without the core car play, they aren’t giving it away. Depending on lineup size and bonus features, the 200-to-300 channel “at home” package will set you back $8 to $13 a month.