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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Radio, Internet Move to Link Up

SEATTLE -- If modern technology can turn a television into a computer, how about turning a computer into a radio?


That's the premise behind Progressive Networks, a company working hard to bring the best of a technology that was new in the 1920s to the technology of the 1990s.


It might seem like a backwards step, but in many ways the Internet and radio are the perfect fit.


Audio transmissions pare down quite nicely using compression algorithms -- sort of like taking a loaf of bread and squeezing all the air out of it to get it down to a very small, very dense chunk of dough. Everything is there but it takes up a lot less space.


Video isn't so forgiving. It takes so much more information to tell a computer what a picture looks like than what a sound wave looks like, and therefore is harder and takes longer to send video signals by computer.


But why turn on the computer when you can turn on your radio?


Well, take Walt Wurfel, a San Diego Padres baseball team fan and spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington.


"You'll never hear a Padres game played on radio out here," he lamented. "Online radio is a great example of how people can hear a play-by-play of a game on the other side of the country."


Equally important is the freedom from geography that Internet radio represents.


Instead of being bound by the signal limits of the station you want to hear, using the Internet you can log into broadcasters from Argentina to Malaysia.


Any station can use Progressive's encoder to turn its audio tapes into computer files. With the right equipment -- a free player, RealAudio software, a computer sound card, and at least a 14.4 speed modem -- users can hear it.


Many radio networks already put their programs up on the Web using RealAudio, making it possible for listeners far from home -- and the broadcast area of their local station -- to hear the shows.


This makes the kind of time switching that consumers are used to doing with television and a VCR possible for radio. Missed your favorite morning disc jockeys? Listen to them at your desk when you get to work.


No one's saying you'd want to listen to opera on your PC, since the sound quality just isn't good enough now. But the system's perfect for archived material -- the game you missed, the radio drama broadcast on your local college station, the Internet Jukebox that lets you listen to snippets of compact discs before you buy them.


Progressive Networks is the most widely used of several audio-on-demand systems available, with 4 million copies of its free player downloaded from the net.


Other systems in use include Xing Technology Corp. and Voxware Inc. None of them are compatible, so to hear a Xing file you need a Xing player, to hear a RealAudio file you need a RealAudio player.


Because the technology is less than two years old, the market hasn't yet solidified and it probably won't for awhile.


As audio online becomes more popular, the notion of hundreds of thousands of sound files being flung about the net brings up the question of bandwidth.


Two hundred words worth of news takes up about 1,150 bytes as text. Those 200 words spoken and recorded use up about 50 times that much space.


"If every Internet user had RealAudio going to their desktop eight hours a day, the net would freeze, it would just freeze" said David Coursey, editor and publisher of PC Letter in San Mateo, California.


But Progressive's Dan Williams emphasizes that when someone accesses a Web site, the biggest proportion of the information pouring across the net toward them is actually the graphics, which come through automatically.


"With a RealAudio clip, you have to turn it on and you can stop if you don't want to listen to the rest," he said.


To download the RealAudio player, go to http://www.RealAudio.com. For Xing, go to http://www.xingtech.com. Voxware can be found at www.voxware.com.