Cover: StreamGuys (left to
right) Jonathan Speaker, Kiriki Delany, Jed Perlmutter and Nick
story & photos by BOB DORAN
SOMEWHERE IN THE COLD WASTES OF ANTARCTICA, RESEARCHER George Matt sits at a computer in his heated living space, listening to tunes by his favorite folk blues artists. He wants to share the music he loves with others, but the fact is, there aren't many people around. His solution: He starts his own radio station, but not the old fashioned kind with an antenna -- it's an Internet station, www.ANetStation.com, to be exact, a place where people in warmer climates all over the world tune in and hear what Matt hears at home.
A Net Station is one of thousands of Internet radio stations worldwide using what is called streaming audio, taking advantage of the ever-increasing number of high speed Internet connections to turn the Web into a 21st-century broadcasting medium.
While you might not expect Humboldt County to be on the cutting edge of emerging technology, StreamGuys, a local company with offices in downtown Arcata and Sunny Brae, has grown to become the second biggest provider of audio streaming services in the world. The firm offers streaming services with dedicated servers and network services for a wide range of users, streaming live audio and video programming and archiving on-demand audio and video content for businesses and radio stations.
For the uninitiated, streaming is a data transfer method in which digital information, usually audio or video files, flows continuously from one computer to another, like a stream. The end user has a program called a player, such as RealAudio, WindowsMedia, Quicktime or WinAmp to read the stream of encoded data as it comes in, forgoing the need for downloading large files, thus allowing for uninterrupted computer access to a signal from a radio station, for example.
Streaming has become ubiquitous on the Web, with musicians and record companies streaming audio samples of recordings for sale, movie companies streaming trailers for films, political parties streaming candidates' speeches and commercials -- and a myriad of streaming radio stations, big ones and very small ones targeted at micro-niche audiences. Right now more than 450 of this new crop of broadcasters work with StreamGuys to put their signals on the Web.
The roots of StreamGuys go back to 1997, a time when Kiriki Delany [photo at right] , founder and chief technical officer of the group, was the keyboard player in an Arcata reggae band called Makageddon. Experimenting with the then-emerging technology of Internet broadcasting, Delany and Jonathan Speaker, both Humboldt State computer technology students, would bring a laptop computer to live shows at Six River Brewing in McKinleyville and other venues, and tap into the sound mixing board, running a cable to the computer, which in turn would be plugged into a telephone line feeding a live data stream of Makageddon shows or performances by other bands to a Web site: www.humboldtbuzz.com.
"Humboldt Buzz was a free Web site for the arts and music community around Humboldt County," Delany recalled. "We would sign up bands for free to put their music on the site, so if they had a CD release, you could listen to it online. But the cool stuff we did was to show up to venues where the bands were playing live," and send the music out on the Internet.
Speaker [photo below left, at left] , who serves as StreamGuys director of operations, noted, "We were involved in streaming pretty much from day one, from the time is opened up to the public. At the time you had a couple of advanced NPR [National Public Radio] stations adopting it; they were some of the first. What we were doing was saying, `Hey, we can utilize this for local bands, get their music out.' Since Humboldt County is behind this `redwood curtain,' what better way to get a global audience? That was the seed that started the process."
Rasta goes pro
At the time he and Delany were blazing musical trails on the Web, Speaker doing work in Humboldt State's Computer Information Services (CIS) department. "We started up what was called the Courseware Development Center in the CIS department. Kiriki was a student then; he took charge of the streaming aspect in distance learning."
One of Delany's side projects at school was setting up an online radio station, www.rastamusic.com, broadcasting reggae music. "Then when I finished school, I had to find myself a job," he recalled. "People who knew about [rastamusic.com] were asking me, `How do I set up an Internet station? Where do I get the services?' That's what gave me the idea. We started up a business doing that."
Delany incorporated StreamGuys in 2000, initially working with Jed Perlmutter, another Humboldt grad, who had just returned from China, where he was looking into the potential for international trade.
"We started with one client and were profitable our first month; we're still profitable," said Delany, noting that at this point the company has seven full-time employees, around a dozen part-timers, and more than 450 clients.
Arbitron, a national company that ranks radio stations and other broadcasters based on market penetration, now includes ratings for streaming providers based on Total Time Spent Listening (TTSL), the number of hours Internet listeners, called "streamies," are tuned in.
Earlier this year they ranked StreamGuys the No. 2 "content delivery network" (CDN) in the world. Granted, the No. 1 CDN, Live365, based in Foster City, outranked them by far, with 2,925,053 TTSL as opposed to the StreamGuys' 601,322 TTSL. But the silver medal isn't bad.
Perlmutter, StreamGuys vice president for business development, noted that the company deals with a wide range of clientele, "all the way from hobby broadcasters who send a stream to just 10 people simultaneously, to major radio stations like WNYC, which broadcasts to thousands of people with low quality and high quality bit rates." (See accompanying story, "What Is Streaming?", for definitions.)
One niche the StreamGuys have developed is in public radio stations like WNYC in New York. "We also stream the NPR stations in Seattle, Philadelphia, Vermont, New Hampshire -- we have a strong base there," said Speaker.
KHSU Development Director Charles Horn is familiar with streaming -- the staff at the Humboldt State NPR affiliate has been talking about it for years -- but he wasn't aware of the local firm, StreamGuys, until he met Speaker.
"It turns out they provide streaming services for some of the top tier NPR stations out there," said Horn. "When we found that out, and added in the fact that they're local, we were sold."
According to Station Manager Elizabeth Hans McCrone, StreamGuys will initially provide KHSU with a 32 kilobytes per second (kbps) SHOUTCast MP3 stream serving 100 peak users. "We wanted something that would be flexible for all platforms, for Mac users, not just Windows," she said, explaining the choice of the SHOUTCast format.
There was some small resistance to moving into streaming from KHSU DJs who worried about the impact of some of the rules involved, in particular changes in recordkeeping and a prohibition on playing multiple successive tracks from one CD, based on copyright laws.
The concerns were outweighed by demand for streaming from listeners, some of them Humboldt alumni out of the area, but also from local listeners. Horn noted that, due to the line-of-sight nature of radio broadcasting, there are parts of the HSU campus that cannot receive an adequate signal to tune into the station from its Kneeland broadcast tower.
"This is a long time coming," said Hans McCrone. "It probably should have happened long ago; now that it's happening, we're excited about it." (KHSU's streaming will begin after the conclusion of the Olympics.)
[KHSU website: www.khsu.org]
Radio Humboldt and HUMBOLDT 101
Nick Harris, 21, a computer information systems student at HSU, became part of the expanding StreamGuys tech staff in the spring. His pet project is something he calls Radio Humboldt (www.radiohumboldt.com). Speaker described it as "getting back to our roots," providing services to the local music scene similar to what was happening years ago with Humboldt Buzz.
"It's a radio station for local music," Harris explained, "like a Yellow Pages where local bands can sign up and upload songs, post pictures and contact information for a directory.
"It will also include a couple of streams of local music -- streaming is the base of what we do at StreamGuys. We're gathering content from various bands to run 24-hour-a-day music feeds. Right now we have a sort of punk, underground, hip-hop stream; we'll add more, maybe a reggae stream and a rock stream."
The process is pretty simple: Harris takes CDs by local bands, chooses a few tracks and turns them into smaller compressed files called MP3s, which are stored on his home computer. The MP3s are then run through WinAmp, a program that encodes them into a broadcast signal. That signal is sent from Harris' Arcata apartment via the Internet to a server, a bank of computers in Chicago, where StreamGuys lease space.
"The server in Chicago has a much better network connection than my computer could ever have," Harris continued. Right now as many as 50 users can tune into Radio Humboldt at one time; that number can be doubled or even increased as much as a hundredfold when and if it seems necessary.
Arcata native Ken Conlin, a partner in Eureka-based North Coast Advertising Agency, operates a hobby station he calls Humboldt 101, with music content that is the polar opposite of Radio Humboldt's youth-oriented local underground mix.
Conlin said he decided to get into the streaming radio game after searching in vain for a professional sounding station on the Net featuring the music he likes.
"I used to do radio locally," he noted, explaining that he worked as a radio program director and music director locally for about 15 years. "The format I'm doing on Humboldt 101 was one I did in the mid-'80s on KCRE out of Crescent City. I call it `bright, easy listening.'"
Since he already had a large collection of music in the format, tunes by the likes of Ray Conniff, Percy Faith and Bert Kaempfert mixed with soft rock, he found that getting on the air online was pretty easy. He signed up with streaming giant Live365 in May, paying them $18 a month for a set amount of storage on their server.
"You could go professional on there, but I wouldn't want to do that, it's just a hobby. It's a social thing for me. I do a live show most Tuesdays. I have their broadcasting software; I hook a microphone up and I can control what I play from my hard drive and talk in between songs."
The program also shows how many people are tuned in. One Tuesday he had 85 listeners. "The other night I started doing it and it became three listeners. Then it became zero, so I stopped talking to myself," he concluded with a laugh.
The momentary lack of ears may have been a time zone problem. Conlin's live broadcasts run from 7 to 9 p.m. He receives a regular accounting of "geo stats" from Live365 showing that his listeners are not just in the United States -- a number of fans in the Netherlands, Japan, Chile, Brazil and Israel enjoy his music.
More pins on the map
Another local StreamGuys client is Internews, the Arcata-based nonprofit with an international reach, whose stated goal is "fostering independent media in emerging democracies." (See Journal cover story "Arcata's Best Kept Secret," Sept. 11, 2003.)
"They have radio broadcasting as part of a global outreach," said Speaker, who recently sold Internews founder David Hoffman on the idea of working with the StreamGuys. "As of a couple of weeks ago, we're pulling a feed out of the capital of Armenia. By partnering with Internews we're looking forward to expanding our reach, and enabling their broadcasters to reach ex-pats living in the Western world."
"This isn't something we've been involved with before," said Annette Makino, Internews' vice-president for communications. "Our work is supporting independent media in countries overseas -- we train journalists, help them produce news, advise them on media law. It's not geared to the U.S. market -- the focus is on local media. What's of interest to someone in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, is not necessarily of interest to someone from Idaho -- unless they happen to be Armenian."
She sees streaming as a side benefit to Internews' usual mission. "If the programming is already there, and if there's a cheap and easy way to get it on the Internet, and accessible to the diaspora communities, it's a plus for both sides: for the producers who want to get their news out and the listeners who want to be in touch with what's going on back home."
Perlmutter sees the new relationship with Internews as part of the StreamGuys' ever-expanding mission. "One thing we're striving for is improving the dissemination of information. We can pull a broadcast from anywhere in the world and relay it to European and Western consumers, or anyone who has a computer. You have 150,000 Armenians in California. By pulling this source stream out of Armenia, they're able to listen to their home country news directly from the source. That's the power we provide."
And, he noted, the Armenian feed is by no means the company's first foray into global communications. "For example," he said, pointing to the world map behind him, "Abner Brooks, over here in the Caribbean Islands, can broadcast his music to Caribbean ex-pats living up in Toronto, who are getting a little homesick. We have a broadcaster, Voice of Taiwan, broadcasting out of Taipei. I was able to watch their presidential inauguration over the Internet, that's not something you'd find on cable television."
Perlmutter continued, "There are a couple of hundred thousand Albanians in New York City. One of our clients, Radiodashuria.com, broadcasts from there. It's significant from a national or cultural perspective. People who don't have the money to control a mass broadcasting [outlet] can get their message out."
To say Delany is optimistic about the future of streaming is an understatement. "As more people get broadband access the audience will grow, and there will be even more independent broadcasters, and less [power in the hands of] huge media broadcasters. New businesses will form that were not viable before."
Perlmutter echoes his sentiments. "You have a mixture of entertainment, news, facts -- information delivery. Again we're talking about the power of unfiltered information direct from the source. It's all about choice, about freedom of information."
KHUM's streaming glory days
The local FM station KHUM was quick to adopt streaming, taking their radio signal online not long after they began broadcasting in 1996. "It was a new thing. We were one of the first stations doing it," said Cliff Berkowitz, KHUM's program director.
"At first we were only streaming a maximum of like 60 streams, so it wasn't that much, but shortly after that we were contacted by a company called BroadcastAmerica.com. They said they would stream for us in exchange for a few [advertising] spots. The upside was they had unlimited streams, and at a very high quality. They put a T-1 line into our studio [the highest speed broadband connection available] connecting us to Portland, Me., then broadcast our station all over the world on the Net."
The BroadcastAmerica.com Web site offered similar streams from stations all across the country; KHUM became one of the most popular. By 1998 the station boasted as many as 10,000 listeners at once and was ranked near the top of all streaming stations.
Berkowitz attributes the success to the station's eclectic "radio without the rules" format. "It was perfect for the Internet because most people couldn't get anything like it where they were locally. We had e-mails from every corner of the world. We even got one from some guy working at a weather station in Antarctica." (No, he doesn't know whether it was George Matt, the researcher who started his own Internet station.)
Sadly, the glory days did not last. "Once the dot-com bubble burst, BroadcastAmerica went bankrupt," said Berkowitz. "The party was over with that, and we went back to 60 streams, which were maxed out most of the time. The quality wasn't as good, but at least we had a presence."
The next change came from on high: new copyright regulations from Washington. "The RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) was pushing Congress really hard for some kind of regulation. They saw Internet streaming as stealing, basically the same as downloading songs with Napster [the notorious file-swapping program] -- which is ridiculous; it's just listening to music.
"The RIAA has had a longstanding agreement with radio where we pay them no fees. It's in the best interest of the industry for us to be playing music over the air because it helps sell records."
Though radio stations still do not pay fees to the RIAA, streamers were not so lucky. Legislation was passed setting a royalty rate: $.0007 per song per listener, with the added provision that it would be retroactive to 1998 for any commercial station wanting to continue streaming.
"Since we were so successful back [at the peak], it would have cost us thousands of dollars. It was a no-brainer: either shut it down or pay up big. We said, `Bye.'" KHUM's ride on the Web ended in July 2002.
"We have commercial broadcasters and non-commercial broadcasters -- they both pay licensing fees," noted StreamGuys founder Kiriki Delany. "If you're broadcasting music, licensing is something you have to work out."
"When Internet broadcasting was a pioneer technology, the province of technicians, there was no need for regulation," said Delany's partner, Jed Perlmutter. "But now that it has come into its own with more and more people listening, it has become regulated. That's just the way it is."
-- BOB DORAN
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.