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This week's net reviews

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This week’s net reviews

Okay, I admit it: this MP3 stuff is pretty cool. I resisted at first (I like my CDs just fine, thank you), but after checking out some slick ”skins” (downloadable MP3 control panels that make your monitor look like an audio system you can’t afford) and listening to a few tunes, I finally gave in. One problem, though: Who’s got time to constantly comb through endless websites looking for clips of favorite songs?

Enter SHOUTcast (http://www.shoutcast.com) and icecast (icecast.linuxpower.org), the next generation of Web radio and the easiest way yet for bedroom DJs to create their own Internet radio stations. These two new systems offer smooth, high-quality MP3 streaming that provides sharp sound without the hassle of tracking down files.

Netcasting music is nothing new, of course; streaming software such as RealAudio is familiar to any webhead. But SHOUTcast (created by Nullsoft, the company responsible for the popular MP3 player Winamp) and icecast (created by three far-flung college students) are a major step forward, offering significantly clearer sound and a more solid connection (RealAudio gets disconnected with irritating frequency). It’s no surprise, then, that the ‘casts are starting to catch on, with a growing number of amateur Web DJs broadcasting a remarkable variety of music. Through links at the SHOUTcast and icecast directory pages, you can now find hundreds of ”stations” playing MP3-quality music that ranges from the latest hip-hop to the lamest ’70s rock. And the corporate world is discovering MP3 radio too: The Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label recently became the first record company with its own SHOUTcast station (http://www.grandroyal.com), which plays songs from a roster that includes Luscious Jackson and Sean Lennon.

So how do you tune in? Sure, it’s a little bit more complicated than switching on a transistor radio, but anyone familiar with RealAudio should have no problem. First of all you need a PC (Mac users are out of luck, at least for now). Next you’ll have to download Winamp, which works with both SHOUTcast and icecast and is available at either site. Then all you have to do is choose among the many stations currently listed (both sites eliminate those that stop broadcasting). SHOUTcast lets you search by genre (rap, jazz, pop, etc.), and both provide short descriptions of the music being played (”Stinkfly — 24+ hours of kick a$$ Metal/Rock/Alternative Tunez,” reads one SHOUTcast blurb), so it’s relatively easy to track down music that suits your taste (even if ”kick a$$ tunez” don’t quite do it for you). Find a station that looks good, click on it, and in seconds you’re listening to the radio. Using icecast, I was able to find a station playing some of my current favorite bands in just a couple of minutes.

Unlike regular MP3 files, there’s no obvious way to save songs for later — and illegal — use. Anyway, the real attraction of radio (to me, at least) has always been hearing great music you never knew existed, and that thrill of discovery is far more likely to happen on the wide-open Web than on your tightly formatted local FM station. Unless, of course, you actually want to hear ”…Baby One More Time” one more time.
Both sites: B+

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