Suffering cabin fever? Need an escape? The Internet radio can fling open the doors.
Whisper a few call letters into a smart speaker, summon a smartphone app, or tap a few computer keys to be whisked far, far away from your locked-down existence, transported across the country or half-way around the world, with nary a ticket to buy or passport to show. You won’t even need to put on a mask.
Wanna hang on a hot Brazilian beach with a nouveau Girl from Ipanema? The internet radio station Paul in Rio can take you there. California Dreaming of a ride up Laurel Canyon with local legends singing in your ears? Dial into SomaFM’s Left Coast 70s. For those who had planned a London entertainment getaway before all hell broke loose, BBC 4 radio dramas can still shine a light on West End acting talents. And BBC Radio 6 is great for pulling out punchy rock club concerts from its archives. More into the Paris café scene? An atmospheric soundtrack of cool-school and Django-ing gypsy jazz is just a tap (and snifter of cognac) away on the city’s sublime TSF Jazz and FIPS autour du Jazz outlets.
Even the most esoteric of musical (and informational) tastes—from Bollywood to Schlager—are served by the dozens on internet radio: Digital audio services you call upon any web-connected speaker, computer, or smartphone. Better still, most of these stations are free of commercials, thanks to government and listener funding, college backing, or private endowment by the creator.
The Great American Songbook station, based in the Netherlands, is a perfect example. Station fan Peter Skiera, general manager of internet radio maker Como Audio, touts this station as “a labor of love by a retired broadcaster [Rene Dussen] with a basement full of records and a small recording studio. To these ears, the station’s content rivals that of pay-radio SiriusXM’s Siriusly Sinatra channel, but as with all internet radio streams, both live and on-demand, the price of admission to The Great American Songbook is free.
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If you know a station’s call letters or name, it’s a snap to haul in a specific internet radio station on a computer or smart device—just type it in or speak to a smart speaker like an Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple HomePod.
For deep-sea fishing in the great unknown, though, it pays to go through a radio station aggregator: An online database of curated links to radio stations searchable by location, genre, popularity, and—sometimes—stream quality.
First among many, and first in my heart, is TuneIn Radio, the 800-pound gorilla of internet radio station aggregators. TuneIn Radio comes pre-installed or is loadable on more than 200 connected devices, including smart speakers from the likes of Sonos and Bose, smart TVs, streaming media players (e.g., Roku and Amazon Fire TV), smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles (Xbox and PlayStation), and personal computers.
With a global database of more than 100,000 stations in 197 countries and 22 languages, plus 5.7 million podcasts and on-demand show offerings, TuneIn comes closest to world radio completeness (and domination). Senior director of marketing Ana Guillen tells me it is now attracting 75 million listeners a month and has witnessed an especially strong 53-percent uptick in news content listenership as the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated.
The most notable gap in TuneIn’s channel library are the 853 commercial stations in 153 U.S. markets owned by iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel Communications). To access those, you need to tap into the iHeartRadio app and portal, likewise accessible for free on internet radios, smartphones, tablets, computers, and similar connected devices. Aiming to become a one-stop destination (and sell more advertising), iHeartRadio also serves up mass appeal playlists and personalized music stations (a la Pandora); has distribution deals with commercial radio chains in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; and also links listeners to some non-aligned stations. But the service doesn’t have nearly the global reach or stylistic diversity of TuneIn or other hard-striving streaming radio promoters.
Veteran internet radio aggregator VTuner does have a database that rivals TuneIn. About 30 staffers toil in the Philippines to keep its inventory of station formats, URLs, and streaming codecs up to date. Literally hundreds of world stations presenting in a particular category are accessible with a single tap on VTuner’s barebones, but functional website. I also appreciate that this app lets a user search through its inventory by the sonic quality of signal (more on that momentarily). The VTuner platform powers several lines of smart speakers and A/V receivers, though in recent years it has lost significant market share to Airable, a rival based in Germany.
Want to be led by the hand to “the most popular” local stations in a music, information or sports radio category? The on-screen guide for MediaU (also based in Germany) offers user-friendly graphics and a sophisticated batch of Euro-centric picks. What’s #1 on their Country station roundup? Prague-based Country Radio, featuring Czech-language singing cowboys. Hearing is believing.
I’ve also had good luck fishing in the waters of Radio.net. And I found some interesting, net-only stations on Internet-radio.com, although the entries on its “Featured” list suggest paid-for positioning. The top picks there are Classic Rock Florida HD, Smooth Jazz Florida, and Modern Jukebox Radio.
Radio.Garden is the most playful and eccentric aggregator of all. This highly engaging, super-fast search tool can be easily planted on a smartphone or tablet via an iOS or Android app. (But the site was characterized as “not secure” and needing third-party software intercession before I could load it on my iMac.) Open this thing up on a screen and you’re presented an animated map of the world. Tap a location dot and up pops selected picks from the immediate area and nation.
Now tap Search and the gardener provides immediate access to radio outlets by country, city or call letters, plus bouquets of “Our Favorite Stations,” playfully categorized as Independent Stations, Energetic Rhythms (electronic, dance), Time Travel (content from decades gone by), Weird Frequencies (like Theatre Organ Radio and Birdsong Radio), and Ends of the Earth (self-explanatory). As I write, I’m listening to a very trippy electronica outlet from Bristol, UK: Noods Radio. The eerie, otherworldly strains make me feel like I’m living in a very strange movie.
To my mind, true internet radio stations are independent, curated, and free; they’re not corporate, computerized, and costly. You might not hear a DJ’s voice or even see a meta-data screen tag identifying the artists and tracks on a station like KCRW-Eclectic24. (That’s where song-identifying services like Shazam come in handy.) And hours or even days of programming might be scheduled in advance on the studio’s servers.
But the quirkiness of the selections, the themes laid out in the segues indicate the presence of a human being, not an algorithm, making the aesthetic calls and structuring the playlist. And when necessary, the shows can be turned on a dime. A recent, hour-long afternoon “sweep” of rustic folk classics like Sam Stone and Illegal Smile playing on Eclectic24 was all the announcement I needed to know that John Prine had just died, and that someone at the station was mourning and paying tribute.