The Early Days of Station Streaming

By Sean Ross

I can make no claims to being a digital native, but I did figure out this morning that I’ve been streaming broadcast radio for more than half of my adult life. It was almost exactly twenty years ago, early June 1997, that streaming became the primary way that I listened to the radio.

At that point, streaming had finally burgeoned past a handful of early experiments (going back to late 1994). The previous year, I’d gone to a friend’s place and he’d proudly shown me that he could stream Capital FM London. It sputtered. It buffered. It was listenable for about one song. (This one.)

I can’t remember why it took me another six months, but when I did start streaming Capital FM for myself, they became my P1 radio station within days, wresting me away from WHTZ (Z100) New York. And since Z100 was pretty terrific in summer 1997—during the full flower of CHR’s comeback, and its own—that took some doing.

I often joke that streaming allowed me to get married. When I met my wife in October 1997, she never had to know that my idea of fun used to be going on radio road trips; she may have figured it out though, because when we did drive somewhere with the radio playing, she had to get used to talking during the music, not the jock break, the opposite of what most people would have done. But to my friend who used to have to tape the BBC Radio 1 countdown for me in the early ‘90s, shhhh!

Streaming didn’t eliminate the need for the radio road trip, or “listen lines” (hearing a station over the phone on the private number given to consultants and group heads) right away. For the first few years, the stations that were available were the novelties, not the rule. Streaming was only starting to reach ubiquity in the early ‘00s when AFTRA royalty issues forced some stations offline again for several more years.

So at that point, one listened to what was available—not to a fantasy dial of all of one’s favorites. There were usually a few stations playing contemporary music from any given country, and not always from the obvious markets. The other choices for the U.K. were Key 103 Manchester, which quickly became a favorite, and Broadlands 102 (now Heart FM Norwich). The best choice for Sweden was Hit FM Malmo (now Mix Megapol). Some were as focused as American CHRs, but the European model of broad-based Hot ACs with lots of odd oldies was still prevalent at the time (and hasn’t entirely disappeared today).

The same randomness applied to who was available in North America. CKZZ (Z95.3) Vancouver was the first station that gave me my long-desired regular access to Canadian radio, and a monster CHR at that time. I don’t remember as much about who was available from the U.S., but I did end up listening to KBCQ Roswell, N.M., because it was there. The domestic station that I remember streaming most, a year later, was Country KPLX Dallas, when it became The Wolf, effectively becoming my New York Country station, since none could be received at my Billboard desk in Times Square.

Just because a station was streaming, you couldn’t count on actually hearing it. The player might not launch. The stream might not launch. The stream would appear to launch, but only silence was heard. Streaming should have been a conversation piece with co-workers, but usually the buffering was so bad I had to turn stations down when colleagues came in the office. One co-worker remembers me gesturing to the player, as if to a toddler, and saying “c’mon . . .  buffer for daddy!”

Five years before the advent of iTunes, the problems were worse if you were on a Mac. Stations tended to design their streaming player for Windows first. (It was often the Windows Media Player on which they were streaming.) The Mac version was done last, and sometimes would get done right before a station upgraded its Windows player, rendering the Mac version unusable within weeks or days of its launch. I remember somebody in charge of station streaming explaining to me, also as if to a toddler, that nobody was on Macs, as I tried in vain to explain that my entire industry already was.

Being able to stream the world made me seem particularly prescient about music. Not every European hit would surface here, but you only needed one “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia for the early warning system to make you look smart. I learned to tune into NRJ Berlin’s afternoon countdown (at 9 a.m. my time) after “Mambo No. 5” by Lou Bega was pushed out of No. 1 by “Blue” by Eiffel 65, thus giving me two great tips for my American A&R friends in a row.

The challenge, of course, was trying to figure out what those songs were, especially those not in English, in the days before most players listed title and artist. In the pre-Shazam era, trying to identify a song still meant a call to a busy station request line, or to a crotchety station receptionist who immediately wanted to shunt you off to a busy station request line. I finally figured out a song I heard on Rix FM years later by humming it for a Swedish consultant in the lobby of the NAB Radio Show.

I can disclose this level of geekery now because streaming radio (broadcast or online only) has become a mass-appeal activity, despite roadblocks old and new.The first few years of streaming were beset by multiple problems, but not by those stopset substitution challenges that arose in the mid-‘00s, issues that many American stations have yet to fully work through more than a decade later. That doesn’t mean that streaming was a better experience back then. For years, it was strictly for the determined. But it doesn’t mean that stations can stop striving now.

The Early Days of Station Streaming