Online broadcasting has become an essential tool for institutions and individuls who did not even consider it as a means of reaching out to the public before the Internet age. The electronic content and technical novelty have added new dimensions in the industry of broadcasting in general and multimedia in particular. In a time of economic slowdown and negative growth in many parts of the world, the high profile of Internet technology has somewhat dimmed its luster and an overview of current situation of online broadcasting begs solutions and projects future path of development.
It is worth mentioning a book on Internet broadcasting, "Online Broadcasting Power", written by Ben Sawyer and Dave Greely that is out recently. It is a comprehensive reference book for creating and promoting radio stations on the Internet. Readers find in this handbook an in-depth look at the technical, commercial, legal and historical aspects of Internet broadcasting, a good guidance and valuable tool for anyone with an interest in online broadcasting.
In addition, the book actually works as a summary of what has been done and is available for online broadcasting. It starts with a look at the history of radio since its invention in the early 1900s to the Internet's current impact on broadcasting. It then presents the Internet radio landscape: Players, Stations, Shows, Streaming and Remotes, for an overview of Internet radio types and a range of technologies. The rest of the book gives an up-to-date recipe for creating Internet radio stations of all technical possibilities from website building, tool choices to selection of server, hardware, audio production, on-air phone calls and other ingredients. It also includes step-by-step explanations of commercialization of content with screen shots for professionals as well as hobbyists. Many lobby groups, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, small and medium business and entrepreneurs who did not have easy and economical access to the establishment of major media outlets explored their way to the development of Internet presence for information dissemination, but they were short of such comprehensive technical guidance. A great deal of creativity and imagination were involved in searching for viable web options of online broadcasting.
For example, the United Nations Radio started to put its sound programmes on the Internet in April 1997. In September 1997, UN Radio successfully transmitted digital files of its radio programmes in English and Chinese to the recipient stations by FTP (file transportation protocol) via the Internet. The method was similar to sending an extra large email and thus cut the cost of lengthy phone-line or the expensive radio circuit transmission of programmes. Radio Netherlands was also one of the first creative users of FTP to send compressed sound files to countries in South America. While North American stations and dotcom media firms led the technical way to online broadcasting, BBC in the United Kingdom promoted its web presence as the largest online broadcaster in Europe. In Asia, Radio Televion Hong Kong started its Internet Service as early as in 1994, providing, webcast. Webcasting in the latter part of 1990s truly became a powerful and economic means for global beaming of content compared with short-wave and satellite broadcasting.
However, in the early days of Internet broadcasting simple editing software was used to compress ready-made radio programmes, news or feature, into digital files and post them on the website for "on-demand" broadcasting. The bandwidth dictated that the speed of delivery had to be 8-20KB per second for "near broadcasting" quality. In the humble beginning, there was a lack of comprehensive guide for producers of webcasting and little legal advice was offered apart from some tacit understanding that Internet was "free for all". For production tools, RealNetworks' media event promoted a beta version of RealProducer for compressing high-quality streaming content in 1999. The updated version of RealPlayer included built-in connections to major broadcasters in North America to post their radio and video programmes online. Digital editing tools have flourished and reached sophistication. Today, with the availability of MP3 and broadband, online streaming quality has much improved. Webcam and on-air phone enrich the content of online broadcasting. The number of online broadcasters has increased so fast that traditional types of broadcasters strive to compete with quality content and large-scale advertising campaign.
In the age of information overflow and commercial failure of some dotcom ventures, webcasting is now more considered as an add-on but not necessarily an alternative to the traditional channels of broadcasting. Major broadcasting channels of radio, television and satellite establishment also have content purpose-made for their websites, where programmes in sound or text is particularly pithy and concise. This is a departure from the early days of webcasting when few sound programme was specially written or made with the considerations of Internet interactivity and shorter attention span of the surfers. Today, more specialized content on the Internet somehow thrives over general news, views and interviews which are available in the press and on radio and television. As the purest form of audio via Internet, web radio is only a subset of webcasting, which includes other broadcasting formats such as video, streaming text or slide show.
To review the problems and project trend and future of online broadcasting, a look at the radio evolution of less than one hundred years reveals that broadcasting has indeed become narrowcasting. Audience are being commercially targeted, content is more focused and interest groups are carefully classified. On the one hand, the one-time mass media has become more individualized: everyone can be a broadcaster via the Internet. On the other, the so-called digital gap indicates that content via Internet on the whole reaches only 5% of the world's population, as access of Internet is commonly restricted and measured by levels of education and affordability.
As narrowcasting online is generated from and targets at specific interest groups, the content tends to be more subject-orientated and specified. Online financial, educational, music, sports and health channels fare better than small-scale all-rounder. The former attracts interest groups that actively seek information, whereas the latter largely duplicates what is available on the traditional channels of content providers but may not have the same reaching-out power.
For most part of the world, Internet technology is too expensive and not good enough. With high-speed and ever larger memory hardware, webcasting remains largely passive and only partially interactive as the bandwidth is still much constrained. Even the most powerful servers with T3 connections have its limitations. Despite cable and broadband, net congestion interrupts the flow of sound broadcasting. One look at CNN web video anywhere outside North America, the slow motion of news anchors and mismatch of their sound and lip movement provide equal amount of comical entertainment and frustration for the viewers. Globalization of information dissemination depends on technology to lead the way.
The future of the Internet lies in universal access. Technology has to meet the requirement of low-cost and high-powered micro chips, known for their popularization of hardware and standardization of interface, ubiquitous connectivity preferably wireless, high portability, peppercorn payment, ease of operation and access, and a breakdown of language barriers.
To overcome the above-mentioned problems, one presentation in MIT Media Lab's recent event "Digital Nations" points to four key developments in technological research: low-cost and less complicated computers, inexpensive radio connectivity, micro-banking for payment, and multilingual platform for emails and online communication.
In addition to the advancement of technology and popularization of computer access, education and poverty reduction in civil societies are in the interest of expansion of the Internet market as well as promotion of online broadcasting. Traditional broadcasting channels heavily rely on the print media to advertise the content and schedules, and online broadcasting also has to reach out and deliver to the audience in an imaginative way.