I could not wait to relate this vignette to someone back home and remembered that in another time zone, in that same instant, a friend was hosting a radio show on my local Seattle station. Aware that the station had begun broadcasting live via the Internet, my African friend suggested I contact him on the Internet and relate the story to him in real time. In this moment, the layers of promise and power of the Internet became a possible reality for me. What started then as a bastard approximation of a cheap long-distance phone call became my first experience with hearing familiar music streamed from the other side of the world. To me, radio was a one-way channel of information, reachable only from a close, limited distance, from a transmitter in the immediate area of reception. My African friend noted that he had heard transmissions from my station, as well as others across the globe, many times before.
Starting and maintaining an Internet radio station holds the promise of new freedoms for individuals. Whereas traditional broadcasting bandwidths are limited by expense and licensing to a mere fistful of stations and styles, the capital needed to start an Internet broadcast is relatively and infinitesimally small. So small, it's conceivable that the number of Internet broadcasts may possibly reach into the millions, with a separate broadcasting identity for everyone who owns or has access to a computer.
More terrifying is the idea that these people will divide and multiply themselves, operating with multiple broadcast personalities, much in the same way that they do with e-mail. I recently visited an online station that had a Hydra of hosts and intentions ranging from death metal, to a seductress named Maylee whose purpose it was to provide Asian female companions for her listeners, to a comedy club in San Diego, to "real car talk for real men." These were not just individual programs, but stations within stations all vying for whatever proclivities their hapless listeners might possibly stumble into.
In the same year since I returned from Africa, and much like those flying insects, the proliferation of Internet radio has exploded, threatening to cover the cyberbroadcasting airspace with an unnavigable cloud. In response, there are a host of companies that are eating up and consolidating those smaller individuals and hybrids. In much the same way a few large corporations have swallowed up print and other broadcast media, amalgamating styles and markets, reducing them to their lowest common denominations, there are now Internet companies that are seeking to do the same. The term one company has used to describe this situation is "media aggregation."
Having foreseen the proliferation of individual broadcasting needs, live365.com boasts in excess of 35,000 stations that it "co-hosts," having acquired or built them in its five years of existence. In an effort to distance itself from the negative connotations of media aggregation, live365.com, and many companies like it, offers individuals the opportunity to "create an Internet presence without technological expertise." Rather than shutting out competing broadcasts, these companies welcome them. For a nominal startup fee of $200, plus an average monthly fee of $150 per block listenership of 25, live365.com promises any and everyone their own station. Although live365.com is one of the largest, there are a few dozen companies boasting the same promise for about the same amount of money.
Another company, RadioDestiny, has a pricing breakdown of $500 for setup and another $500 per year for a listener block of 10. RadioDestiny admits that a maximum of 10 people listening at any given time may not seem like much, but the number "can actually represent hundreds of unique listeners, as few people listen 24 hours a day." While setting themselves up as businesses that promote individuality and creativity, these companies simultaneously offer themselves up as stations. Their websites are constructed to resemble listening programs, segregating genres and cataloguing them into a manageable guide.
The end result is not the individuation of culture and information, but rather the replication of the same crap you'd encounter on your car stereo. If you were alarmed by the amount of talk that you encounter in terrestrial media, you would be mortified at the proliferation of talk on the cyberbandwidths contained in these larger companies. The genre known as "easy listening" becomes truly oxymoronic given how many home formats are now playing "all Perry Como, all the time."
In this way, what started out with great promise has frighteningly degenerated into the same mind-numbing territory as cyberspace's biggest business, pornography. What one might encounter as shocking and revelatory in the first instance--gay skinheads, or the various kinds of obtuse objects a woman can toss across a great distance from her vagina--becomes dull by the magnitude of repetition encountered in cyberspace.
Also like cyberporn, the most interesting areas to watch in Internet broadcasting will be the murky legal and moral tangles crafty renegades wreak upon the superstructure. In an effort to thwart the same vigilance visited upon its site that threatens to dismantle Napster, live365.com broadcasters are required to cybersign a promise to adhere to strict rules that govern possible copyright infringement. Taking into account the December 2000 ruling by the U.S. Copyright Office stating that "traditional radio broadcasters wishing to webcast would have to pay royalties to the Recording Industry of America," live365.com clients must "necessarily agree to the broadcasting restrictions" that prohibit the playing of whole CDs. To insure compliance, live365.com is "developing software that will automatically detect violations by a broadcaster over [its] system." For the moment, RadioDestiny is deciding to wash its hands of the whole damned deal by stating that it will not be liable for copyright violations beyond its control.
But the sheer numbers of individuals who are seeking to inundate the space waves with broadcasts may make such vigilance as what live365.com proposes impossible, even when these latest media aggregators aggressively go after broadcasters. (At the moment, a broadcaster must seek to be added to the company roster. Sheer media paranoia, to which I am surely, if momentarily, entitled, forces me to believe that there will come a day when these companies will aggressively devour pirate broadcasters into their body.) Like those African birds picking the ground for the slowest morsels, these latest media aggregates can do little but stand overhead and imagine the ones that are getting away beyond their reach.